Despite being marred by crowd trouble and a fair bit of controversy surrounding several key refereeing decisions, Sunday’s scoreless draw between Olympique de Marseille and Olympique Lyonnais may be even more important for what it can tell us about each squad’s approach. Billed as one of a pair of massive matches on the weekend, the other being Paris Saint-Germain’s visit to Bordeaux, the stakes were raised considerably when Les Girondins managed to scrape a 3-2 win in a match similarly marred by poor refereeing. A win by the home side would move them ahead of PSG, only one point behind their rivals, while a victory for Les Gones would see them seven clear of Marseille with just nine matches to play. Coupled with Lyon’s vastly superior goal difference, a loss would see Marseille all but eliminated from the title race. Thus, the stakes were high, and, buoyed by a record crowd at the Stade Velodrome, we were treated to a deliciously feisty encounter.
Marseille 0-0 Lyon
Marseille : 30. Mandanda // 20. Romao – 24. Fanni – 15. Morel // 25. Imbula – 26. Djedje – 17. Payet – 23. Mendy // 14. Thauvin – 9 Gignac. – 10. Ayew.
Lyon: 1. Lopes // 13. Jallet – 22. Rose – 23. Umtiti – 3. Bedimo // 12. Ferri – 21. Gonalons – 24. Tolisso – 11. Ghezzal // 18. Fekir – 10. Lacazette.
Marseille’s formation works well
Marseille manager Marcelo Bielsa, lacking stalwart center back Nicolas N’Koulou, opted to start with three at the back, a change from his preferred 4-2-3-1. Having been a formation that has met with middling success so far, the idea seemed confusing at the outset. However, as the match unfolded, his reasons for doing so became quite clear. With a back line of Jeremy Morel, Rod Fanni and Alaixys Romao, he lacked a true center back, but with three quicker players spread across the center of the pitch, and defensive midfielder Giannelli Imbula tracking Lyon’s no. 10, the threat of AlexandreLacazette and Nabil Fekir would thus be limited. Marseille were happy to cede the wide areas to the front two, as this meant they wouldn’t be able to link with each other in front of goal. This would also allow for a “spare” defender (often Fanni on this occasion) who could drop even deeper, either tracking the no. 10 past Imbula or acting as cover should one of Morel or Romao be beaten by their man.
Beyond effectively limiting Lyon’s two most dangerous players, the 3-3-3-1 would also largely free the wingbacks, Benjamin Mendy and Brice Dja’Djedje (normally used as full backs in a 4-2-3-1) of much of their defensive responsibility. Able to get forward with less of a need to track back, this would allow them to facilitate the attack and also pin back their Lyon counterparts. The pair were further aided in this pursuit by the two wingers, Andre Ayew and Florian Thauvin often tucking inside, taking their full-backs with them and making Lyon very narrow. Ayew in particular was quite successful in this regard, especially as he poses more of an aerial threat than Thauvin, necessitating tighter marking from Christophe Jallet, Lyon’s right back.
The strategy worked to a tee, and while Mendy’s crossing was often lacking, even when afforded space to move inside, Jallet had very little joy going forward as a result of having to mind the youngster. On a handful of occasions, when he dispossessed or beat Ayew to the ball centrally, he was able to break forward with the ball at his feet. However, with Tolisso and Ferri attempting to double the full backs, and therefore unable to break ahead of the ball, his passing options were limited, especially with the front three all man-marked.
While Florian Thauvin was less successful on the opposite flank, attempting to take on Henri Bedimo by dribbling at him, rather than drawing him away from the sideline, and freeing space for Djadjedje, the overall effect suited Marseille just fine. Their task was, however, made quite a bit easier by the presence of Rachid Ghezzal in the no 10 role for Lyon. While Yoann Gourcuff is much more of a static player than Ghezzal, his ability to take positions parallel to the edge of the penalty area and create opportunities for players running past him is superb, and allows Fekir and Lacazette to be played in off the wing. With the two strikers used to operating in wide areas and creating opportunities by latching onto balls slipped by slower center backs, the verticality and poor passing of Ghezzal (33% accuracy) severely limited their effectiveness, resulting in just one shot between the two.
Heat maps of Ghezzal (top) and Gourcuff (bottom)
Lyon miss Gourcuff
As ineffective as Ghezzal was, Hubert Fournier was right to have removed him before halftime, replacing him with the young Cameroonian international Clinton N’Jie. His introduction would see Lacazette move to the right and Fekir drop into the playmaker role. A wonderful foil for Lacazette earlier in the season, N’Jie has failed to find much of a rhythm in the season’s second half, looking sluggish after his return from the Africa Cup of Nations. While he did chip in with important goals against PSG and Lorient, both matches ending in 1-1 draws, he sometimes suffers from a lack of focus and poor decision-making. Against Marseille, that was unfortunately the case. With Baptiste Aloe, a central defender by trade, having replaced Djadjedje mid-way through the second half, the opportunity presented itself for Henri Bedimo to get forward more, with less for the left back to worry about in front of him.
Lyon’s set-up in the second half
However, as enterprising as his runs and dribbles were, he was unable to link consistently with N’Jie, whose passing, while effective, was devoid of much imagination. This failure to connect with Bedimo, who can be quite dangerous going forward was the biggest issue, but there were also a few lazy crosses and at least one selfish shot from distance. While, on the whole, N’Jie was an improvement on Ghezzal, he still was largely a passenger and nowhere near the catalyst that Gourcuff often is.When Lacazette was removed late in the second half for Mohamed Yattara, who turned in a bright cameo, providing a lovely pass to Tolisso and stinging Steve Mandanda’spalms with a strong shot, one had to wonder whether a front three of Fekir-Lacazette-Yattara should have been employed from the off.
Stopping Lyon playing
Going back to Marseille’s approach to limiting Ligue 1’s best attack, Andre Ayew should, in addition to his movement centrally, also be lauded for having worked well with Dimitri Payet in the pressing phase of Marseille’s game. So much of Lyon’s defensive effectiveness this season has been down to the renewed Maxime Gonalons. Efficient and tidy in the pass, with a strong disciplinary record, the improved form of Les Gones’ captain has been key to his side’s success this season. On the night, however, he was barely granted time on the ball, as Ayew and particularly Payet pressed him as he tried to play out from the back. Payet, normally a creative force centrally, was instead consistently dropping deeper to harry Lyon’s midfield. With no outlets going forward, his options as limited as Jallet’s had been centrally, often Gonalons’ only choice was to pass back to the central defenders, who would then try to pick out their attacking teammates with long balls. As adept a defender as Samuel Umtiti is, and for all the promise that Lindsay Rose shows, they are hardly the players that one would want driving the attack, and this approach proved equally ineffective.
Gonalons being closed down (Left) and Umtiti about to hit a long pass (Right)
Reacting to the press, Lyon did try to play a higher line to allow more space for Tolisso and Ferri to get forward, and this worked better in the second half. Ferri in particular looked to get at Marseille with the ball at his feet, and his trickery saw Mendy booked, resulting in a more cautious approach from the Marseille full-back after having been booked. However, Mendy’s pace and the energy of Ayew proved Ferri’s undoing, and despite a bright spell midway through the second half, his influence soon waned, and Steed Malbranque replaced him on 77 minutes. Tolisso for his part was generally less occupied defensively, and did attempt to get involved in attack, popping up in the box on several occasions to force saves from Mandanda. But as energetic as Tolisso can be, he generally lacks the creative intelligence and general awareness to be the difference in a match, and Sunday was no exception.
All told, Marseille were probably the better team, capitalizing on Fournier’s failed experiment with Ghezzal to take to the opportunity to harass their opponents at every opportunity. With Andre-Pierre Gignac having hit the post and Lucas Ocampos claiming to have scored deep into the second half, l’OM were at times unlucky, to be sure. That being said, the foolish red card on the part of Jeremy Morel and the booking of Imbula for grabbing Rose aren’t the kinds of things that teams with championship aspirations can afford to do. Sure, it was a match that had its audience on tenterhooks, but as they say, cooler heads will prevail, and Marseille let their frustration at not succeeding despite having bossed Lyon tactically show, nearly giving the match away after having gone a man down. Even with this lack of discipline, though, l’OM should be proud of their performance, if not the result. While their title hopes may not be totally dead, they will now have to contend with a new rival for the top three in hard-charging Monaco, who visit the Velodrome in early May. If Marseille can combine the same kind of tactical discipline demonstrated against Lyon with a headier approach to the tackle and sharper finishing, an important victory can be theirs, likely cementing their place in the Champions’ League. Only time will tell if Bielsa’s charges will have learned anything from Sunday, but one can be certain that the answer, affirmative or otherwise, will be riveting.
Written by Eric Devin
Eric Devin is an Oregon-based football writer. He writes about Ligue 1 for Get French Football News and Outside of the Boot.
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