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Eric Devin provides an in-depth tactical analysis of the Ligue 1 game that finished PSG 5-1 Lyon.
Paris Saint-Germain (4-3-3): 16. Trapp; 19. Serge Aurier, 2. Thiago Silva, 32. David Luiz, 17. Maxwell; 25. Adrien Rabiot, 8. Thiago Motta, 14. Blaise Matuidi; 11. Angel Di Maria, 10. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, 9. Edinson Cavani
Olympique Lyonnais (4-3-3): 1. Lopes; 20. Rafael, 2. Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, 15. Jeremy Morel, 3. Henri Bedimo; 12. Jordan Ferri, 21. Maxime Gonalons, 8. Corentin Tolisso; 27. Maxwell Cornet, 9. Claudio Beauvue, 7. Clement Grenier
When Ligue 1 announced its fixture list prior to the start of the current season, it was all too easy to focus on Paris Saint-Germain hosting Olympique Lyonnais as the marquee matchup of the campaign’s first half. After all, Lyon had run PSG hard for the title in the previous season, only just slipping out of contention over the last ten matches.
A return to the group stages of the Champions’ League had boosted the Rhone Valley club and for the first time in several seasons, they were aggressive in the off-season, adding a number of players with European experience. The likes of Jeremy Morel, Mathieu Valbuena, Rafael and Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa had all played in the Champions League, and in Sergei Darder and Claudio Beauvue, an exciting young midfielder and a veteran striker, proven in the league would also add necessary depth to a team contending on two fronts. For fans of the club, there was finally a renewed sense of optimism after several lean years in which the team were forced to continually off-load their best players, and this trip to the home of the champions was seen as an opportunity for Lyon to stake their claim as a genuine contender.
Fast-forward four months, and Lyon are bottom of the form table in the league, with a solitary point from the five matches ending with Sunday’s 5-1 loss to the champions. While injuries certainly played their part in the match, as the likes of Christophe Jallet, Samuel Umtiti and Mathieu Valbuena likely would’ve made a difference in the score, is how Lyon got things wrong down only to Sunday’s result, or is something larger at play? Hubert Fournier did quite well last season to continue to adapt Remi Garde’s diamond 4-4-2, replacing the long-term absentee Gueida Fofana with Corentin Tolisso and Steed Malbranque and Bafetimbi Gomis with Clinton N’Jie and Jordan Ferri. In the process, the former Reims manager showed himself an able tactician and a smart judge of young talent. Now, with the club beginning to flounder in the league and eliminated from a mediocre Champions’ League group, things have gone horribly awry. What, if any, lessons can be taken from Sunday’s match for Lyon?
To start with, a consideration of the shape employed by Lyon is necessary. For the second match running, Fournier deployed a 4-3-3, as he had in the midweek trip to Valencia. However, with Lacazette unavailable, Beauvue was drafted in to lead the line. The former Guingamp man actually had a decent match, and his physical battles with David Luiz arguably should’ve resulted in the floppy-haired Brazilian’s dismissal. On the flanks, Maxwell Cornet retained his starting place on the right, a sound decision given that the teenager’s ability with the ball at his feet had been instrumental in unsettling the normally attack-minded Jose Gaya at the Mestalla.
On the left, however, is where things began to look uneven for Lyon. Clement Grenier has been capped several times for France, and was inspirational three seasons ago in propelling Lyon to a third-place finish. However, at the time, he was operating at the tip of the diamond in a 4-4-2, not being played on the left. More importantly, rather than being asked to do a minimum of work defensively against the likes of the callow Santi Mina and Danilo, Grenier would be pitted against Angel Di Maria, one of Ligue 1’s most dangerous players and a tireless runner. Behind the Argentine, of course, lurked Serge Aurier, the young right back whose return to fitness has been one of the driving forces behind PSG’s improvement this season.
Given how Joao Cancelo had tormented the left side of Lyon’s midfield in midweek, the choice was a poor one, although with Valbuena a miss, the decision likely came down to Fournier trying to impart some level of creative play into the squad. Rachid Ghezzal has played in similar roles in the past, albeit to varying levels of success, but even if his eye for a pass is not on the level of Grenier’s, he is not only recently returned from an extended injury layoff and has shown himself to be a fairly willing worker when it comes to his defensive duties in the past. While hindsight is of course 20/20, especially given the way that Di Maria played, rather than focus on an individual battle, it is better to take a look at this match as a microcosm of how Lyon’s defense, one of the league’s best through the season’s first few months, has badly fallen away.
In the above image, Lyon are shown early in the match without the ball, an illustration of how their 4-3-3 became a 4-5-1 in attack. While a formation designed to compress space in midfield and hit teams on the counter, the way that Lyon operated on the evening played right into PSG’s hands. In the illustration, Beauvue is in the center circle, while Thiago Silva is in possession just outside it. Lyon’s three central midfielders are very compact, (red line) while Grenier (red arrow) sits very close to Tolisso, having tucked in to compress the space in midfield. Cornet, on the opposite side, sits deeper, as Matuidi presents more of a threat to run at the defense with the ball at his feet than does Adrien Rabiot.
Already, at this early point in the match, Lyon are opening themselves up in two ways, which Paris Saint-Germain were all too eager to exploit. The first is Grenier’s positioning. By tucking so far inside, he is nominally marking Di Maria, his presence in a central area forcing the Argentine wide, a move which would have the knock-on effect of clogging a potential run by Aurier. However, in the illustration, Di Maria is already goal side of Grenier, and Aurier is hugging the touchline, leaving him with only Henri Bedimo to beat were play to be switched to the flank. Here, Grenier is essentially merely occupying space rather than adding to any defensive solidity, and while Aurier’s goal did come from a set piece, he was nevertheless a constant threat in terms of getting forward into the box, not only aiding the PSG attack but forcing Bedimo to adopt a more defensive approach.
The second, and more problematic issue on show here is how Lyon are setting themselves up to be undone by a ball played over the top. Thiago Silva and David Luiz love to be physical presences in defense and at set pieces, throwing themselves about and being general nuisances. However, where they rarely are given their due is in their range of passing, and against Lyon, both were in fine form, as the above graphic shows a schematic of their’s and Di Maria’s completed long passes. The range and vision of the duo allows PSG to easily spread play, negating a crowded midfield. Indeed, the midfield three for PSG were barely involved, but it mattered little, as the ball moved so quickly from defense to attack.
In the previous illustration, Silva had the ball at his feet, ready to launch a long ball towards Ibrahimovic, who, while offside at the time, has the experience necessary to craft his movement in such a way that he could be an eager recipient of the center backs’ raking passes. Likewise Cavani, who is being minded by Rafael (not in the frame) in that example. In this example, in the build-up to Paris Saint-Germain’s opener, Silva has the ball just into his own half, and no Lyon player is within ten meters of him. Anticipating a ball over the top, Rabiot, Cavani and Ibrahimovic have all started their runs (white arrows). Jordan Ferri (red circle) is alert to the danger, but the defenders have left huge gaps between each other, even as Rafael has tucked inside. From here, it is all too easy for the captain to pick a pass to any one of the three, and from there, Yanga-Mibwa’s skewed clearance fell to Ibrahimovic for a goal.
What is so frustrating, however, is that rather than pressing Silva and Luiz, Beauvue is content to sit off the two, not even bothering to apply token pressure, giving these two potentially sublime passers all the time they could want to move the ball up the pitch. But the striker is far from the only one to shoulder the blame, as here, minutes before the goal, Cornet (white circle) is giving Maxwell (red circle) a similar amount of space, allowing PSG to essentially have possession in Lyon’s half without much bother. Indeed, while 5-1 is obviously a heavy defeat, Lyon should thank Anthony Lopes, whose quickness to come off his line and make himself big prevented the French champions from adding to their tally. Montpellier had employed similar tactics via the ball-playing center back/defensive midfielder William Remy when the two sides in the league met a fortnight ago, and the result, a 4-2 loss for Lyon was the first sign of this weakness against long balls. That Fournier refused to have learnt anything from that match must surely be a source of fantastic frustration for Lyon fans, but the club’s struggles weren’t only limited to being undone in this way.
Angel Di Maria started as a nominally right-sided player in the match, but as his heat map shows, as he did during his time at Real Madrid, he had no issue popping up wherever he fancied. In addition to giving the marauding Aurier more space on the left, this also served to add to the defensive responsibilities of Cornet. Here, he takes a ball from Motta as Ibrahimovic has dropped deep and Matuidi has moved inside. In this position, with Cornet clearly struggling to react, Di Maria can either play a ball over the top for Matuidi or play a through ball for Cavani. Failing that, he could use his pace to turn and run at the youngster, using Cavani as an option to potentially play a one-two. In the moment, he did play a long ball, but a poor first touch and a skewed finish from the Uruguayan prevented PSG from increasing their lead, but nevertheless presented another example of how easily Lyon could be got at.
Lyon did seem like a threat on a handful of occasions, as the Champions did drift in and out of the match after scoring their second, their sharpness somewhat dulled through much of the match’s middle passages. In this image, Lyon did look a real threat on the counter, but note how it has come to be. Rather than ceding possession in the wide areas, Tolisso (with ball) has drifted wide to take the ball, allowing Grenier (red circle) to take a more central role. While not exactly the club’s preferred 4-4-2, moments like these did at least allow the front three to operate in their accustomed manner, although there were far and few between and did have the potential drawback of leaving midfield more open. Beauvue and Tolisso did manage to get off a few shots in this manner, but the general quality of build-up play wasn’t enough to generate much danger.
While I had mentioned that PSG did seem to drift in and out of the match through its middle stages, most of the blame for that should go to the full-backs and the front three. The midfield, while failing to be as involved as directly as they can be going forward, were fanatic in the pressing phase of their game, something which was the fulcrum upon which the attack could be built. In the above illustration, it is Serge Aurier in the lowest circle who is closing down the ball, but Motta and Rabiot (top two circles) are doing their best to limit the options for Bedimo as he tries to pass forward. Prior to the season, the pair, for various reasons, were disgruntled and rumoured to be on their way out, but with the injuries to Marco Verratti and Javier Pastore, the pair have been instrumental in limiting what opponents can develop in the midfield. With Matuidi likewise putting in his usual energetic display, PSG have ceded very little in central areas this season, the continued development of Rabiot and the arrival of Benjamin Stambouli allowing a bit more rotation without sacrificing defensive solidity, as was sometimes the case with Yohan Cabaye last season.
While Lyon can take hope in the imminent returns of Valbuena, Jallet, Umtiti and Lacazette, unless they can be more proactive in pressing high up the pitch, teams will continue to undo them. Obviously, it is not every week that the club will come against players with the range of passing of the likes of Silva and Luiz, but there are plenty of decent players with the ball at their feet in Ligue 1, who, when given time, can make life difficult for Fournier’s charges. Playing a 4-3-3 would seem to only exacerbate this problem, as the central striker would be given an additional workload and the wide players still seem unfamiliar with how to operate, particularly when tracking back.
Thus, if Lyon, with something approaching a full squad, can revert to the diamond 4-4-2, with Lacazette and the energetic Cornet ahead of one of Grenier or Valbuena, the team can revert to the more defensively sound outfit that was on display nearer the beginning of the campaign. Adding Samuel Umtiti back into a central defense which has under-performed without him will also help matters, as Yanga-Mbiwa’s poor clearance was just another in a string of recent errors for the former Roma man. While Lyon are in sixth place, they are still just five points off of second, and rebuilding the club from the back, with a fundamentalist approach, should be high on Fournier’s to-do list, should he retain his job. This loss and their Champions League exit certainly will sting, but the tools are plainly there for Lyon to recover their position in the league. Now, it is down to a combination of the manager and players to develop a coherent and unified defensive mindset which will be the building block for success.
Written by Eric Devin