Olympique Lyonnais are the side Manchester City will face in the Quarter Finals of the UEFA Champions League in Lisbon on Saturday night, and perhaps somewhat unexpectedly.
Many people believed that the Italian monopoly of Juventus would overpower the French side and wipe the 1-0 deficit from the first leg, yet Lyon are still here, causing Juve’s exit and Maurizio Sarri’s dismissal.
On a superficial basis, maybe Lyon’s qualification seems somewhat undeserved. The xG perspective certainly aligns with this point of view; Lyon’s 1.4xG over the two legs paled in comparison to the 2.9xG of Juve.
Of course, they also qualified directly due to a more than questionable penalty call; gifting them the away goal in the form of a Memphis Depay panenka.
With all these factors, it’s easy to conclude that Lyon are misfits at this stage of the tournament - not fit to be on the guest list for the illustrious club that is the Quarter Finals of football’s premier club competition.
But, to this notion, I disagree.
Having watched Rudi Garcia’s side, particularly in the tie against Juventus, I’ve noticed that from a tactical perspective, they have some very interesting details. Not to mention they have some real quality in personnel.
The general shape
Firstly, lets look at the general shape they deploy.
Throughout Champions League matches, Lyon have gone to their three at the back formation, flipping between variants of 3-4-3 or 3-5-2.
Personally, for this fixture against Manchester City, I presume that Lyon will go for the 3-5-2; allowing them to involve Houssem Aouar for creativity whilst not pushing Caqueret or Guimaraes.
This is how they lined up against Juventus:
Now, what really interests me about Lyon is the way that they defend.
They set up with three at the back of course, but the flexibility with this is the fact that they can seamlessly switch between three and five at the back - all it takes is the wing backs going deeper.
Now the five or the three central midfielders just in front of them makes for a tough group to break down. This grouping can easily become compact, and narrow, and could potentially force Manchester City into those dreaded crossing sprees.
Something else that makes the five at the back useful for defending is the pendulum effect that it can create.
In the photo below, you can see how the ball side wing back moves up to press, because the ball is on his side of the pitch, and how the opposite wing back tucks in.
With this methodology in defending the wide areas, it could be tough for Manchester City to find joy on the flanks. The five at the back system is a weird one to work around, perhaps illustrated in how City have struggled against Wolves in recent seasons with their five at the back.
Defending key players
One interesting aspect of Rudi Garcia’s gameplan against Juventus was to deliberately set about adjusting his teams shape to defend against Ronaldo.
This chart shows the average positions of the Lyon players throughout game, and one of the most significant elements of this is that the right sided players are so much deeper than the left.
And, Cristiano Ronaldo just so happens to be playing on that right hand side.
Now, could we see something like this happen to Kevin De Bruyne? Will the shape of Lyon’s team be adjusted to counteract the creativity that he provides? Perhaps they’d rather take their chances with Sterling or Jesus trying to score against them as opposed to De Bruyne providing for them.
Targeting the weak spots.
One especially significant area of the Manchester City and Lyon game is the way that the French side targeted Juan Cuadrado in the French side's previous match.
Cuadrado, originally a high flying winger, has had something of a renaissance, being rebirthed as a right back to address the urgent need for width in Sarri’s 4-3-1-2.
Seeing that he wasn’t a natural right back, Rudi Garcia directed all of his attacks down Cuadrado’s flank. Garcia knew that going at Alex Sandro, an established left back of world class quality, would be less likely to yield great results, than going at Cuadrado; a right winger masquerading as a right back.
And this shows in the data!
Look here, at how many more passes Lyon made into that left side of the pitch; their intent was to attack down the left and they acted on it.
Rudi Garcia could potentially have a couple of targets to focus on in the tie against City.
Firstly, there's Cancelo. Now, I'm a big fan of Cancelo, and I love him for being a fairly steady option so far at left back, but he isn't a natural left back, and maybe defending on this side of the pitch doesn't come so natural to him.
Of course, there was the Real Madrid goal we conceded where Rodrygo skinned Cancelo to assist Benzema. Perhaps this is an indication of Cancelo's defensive instincts being less accurate on this side.
The grass isn't always greener on the other side!
Or if Benjamin Mendy plays, they could target him. Despite the Frenchman finding some momentum toward the end of the season, he still doesn't seem to be completely confident.
False 9 Foden?
A really surprising aspect of Pep Guardiola's plan against Real Madrid was the deployment of our very own Phil Foden.
When seeing the team sheet last week, I naively viewed it from a conventional perspective, forgetting who our manager is, and assumed that it would be Foden out wide with Jesus through the middle.
However, Foden was the false nine, dropping in from the striker position to open up space for the wingers and to ultimately connect midfield to attack.
Now, I feel that this could be a role we see again from Foden. The way Lyon set up means not only can they match us in midfield, but also at back, with the three central defenders able to go man for man for our three forwards.
IF Foden is used in this way, then his presence as the auxiliary midfielder could help free up Kevin De Bruyne.
Take this purely hypothetical, purely x's and o's perspective of the two systems aligning with each other. Walker tends to invert like a number six, whilst Cancelo goes high and wide with Sterling tucking in a little bit.
Now, in this schema, Kevin De Bruyne has occupied a wide space. This is where we often find him, and I do believe that the wingback/centre back channel could be a good place for him to find joy.
There is an area where the wingback and centre back are unsure of who should pick the player up and who should cover, and this could provide City with the means to wreak havoc.
One other interesting element of Manchester City's play with a Foden false nine would be how Lyon defended Juventus when their forwards dropped deep.
The conundrum that the false nine places upon defenders is the debate of whether to stay or track the nine; stay, and leave the player free in a numerical situation that hurts your side, or track the nine and leave space behind you?
Lyon opted to track, which actually led to them winning the penalty for that priceless away goal.
IF Lyon do commit to this approach against Manchester City on Saturday night, then it would leave a ton of space for us to attack into. This is often quite a hard thing to come by, as teams do tend to play deep and not give up a lot of room in behind the lines.
All in all, I do feel Lyon pose a threat. In a two-legged affair then maybe I would feel a bit more confident, since the quality of the team tends to show through more over 180 minutes. In a one-leg fixture, you really never know.
However, this is is an amazing opportunity for us. We've wanted this trophy for a while, and will seldom get a better chance to do so! Lyon are a great side and I respect them but let's hope we get the job done.
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