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Eric Devin provides a detailed tactical analysis of the Ligue 1 game that finished Lyon 1-1 Marseille.
Olympique Lyonnais (4-3-3): Lopes; Jallet, Yanga-Mbiwa, Umtiti, Morel; Darder (Tolisso 67′), Gonalons, Grenier (Kalulu 67′); Ghezzal (Cornet 85′), Lacazette, Valbuena
Olympique de Marseille (4-3-2-1): Mandanda; Djadjedje, Nkoulou, Rolando, Manquillo; Romao, Isla; Sarr (Silva 73′), Cabella (Anguissa 85′), Nkoudou (De Ceglie 90′); Batshuayi
Billed in France as the “Olimpico” a meeting between Ligue 1’s best-supported team and its most successful over the last fifteen years would normally be a top-of-the-table clash.
However, Sunday’s encounter between Marseille and Lyon was anything but. At the start of play, (and at the end of it) both teams were firmly ensconced in undistinguished seasons that, through a combination of injury and flawed transfer policies, had seen them fail to reach the heights that saw each spend long stretches of last season in first place. Both had already changed managers since the start of the campaign, and failed to impress either domestically or in Europe, even if Marseille had advanced from a weak group in the Europa League. The clubs had already clashed once in the league, in late September, in a match that was marred by considerable crowd trouble but nevertheless saw hosts Marseille battle back to a 1-all draw despite playing the second half with only ten men after Romain Alessandrini’s sending-off.
On the whole, the crowd in Lyon did behave better than their southern counterparts on the night, though the evening wasn’t without incident, as Steve Mandanda spent a not inconsiderable amount of time kicking bits of balled-up paper from his goal early in the second half. An encounter between these two sides will never be without some form of incident, yet each showed on the evening that despite their middling campaigns to date, there may yet be hope to once again finish in the European places, even if some readjustment is needed to do so.
Both teams were much changed from their encounter four months hence; Marseille operated in the same 4-2-3-1, but due to injuries (Alessandrini, Lassana Diarra, Benjamin Mendy, Abdelaziz Barrada) and lack of form, (Karim Rekik, Lucas Silva) manager Michel offered up a rather different approach. Playing away from home, and robbed of the dynamic Diarra in central midfield, the Spaniard picked Alaixys Romao and Mauricio Isla as his central partnership, and both sat very deep, protecting the central defenders without offering much, if anything going forward. In the wide areas, rather than the offensively-minded likes of Barrada and Alessandrini, Georges-Kevin Nkoudou and Bouna Sarr were employed. Not the most skilful players, both are willing runners and were integral to frustrating the tricky wide players of Lyon.
Lyon also offered a different look; rather than the diamond 4-4-2 which had become the club’s hallmark, Bruno Genesio, who had replaced Hubert Fournier in late December, served up a 4-3-3 that gave more opportunities to Rachid Ghezzal and Clement Grenier, neither one of whom were involved in the first match. With Ghezzal and Valbuena fizzing about on the flanks and Grenier and his fellow central midfielder Sergi Darder playing balls over the top, the intent was clear, especially given the attacking proclivities of the fullbacks, Jeremy Morel and Christophe Jallet. The result didn’t exactly go to plan for the hosts, but much of that could be chalked up to a man of the match performance from Steve Mandanda in the Marseille goal. A less than ideal result, to be certain, but hopefully Genesio will have learned something from seeing the potential limits to his tinkering.
Turning first to Marseille’s central midfield, where the absence of Lassana Diarra was keenly felt on the evening, the team resolved to be negative and frustrate Lyon by crowding the area around the penalty box. Whereas the France international is more than adept with the ball at his feet and is fond of making surging runs forward from midfield, his ability to be effective in attack is somewhat ameliorated if a more conventional defensively-minded midfielder isn’t played alongside him. Too often, Diarra’s involvement in an attack sees Marseille get caught on the counter, and with Lucas Silva, the feted Real Madrid loanee, unable to provide that sort of stability, Michel has had to re-think his approach.
Romao has been central to that change, figuring in every match save one of Marseille’s current unbeaten streak. A seeming certainty to be sold in the summer, the Togolese international had looked woefully off the pace in the club’s first two matches of the season, losses to Reims and Caen. He was subsequently excluded from several matchday squads, his place alongside Diarra given to Silva. However, the young Brazilian’s poor passing skills and lack of physical presence have seen him relegated to the bench, and Romao has provided the sort of tough-tackling counterpart to Diarra that was sorely lacking.
Alongside him, Mauricio Isla would have seemed an odd choice at the season’s outset. A right back by trade, the Chilean is spending the season on loan as a makeweight in the summer sale of Mario Lemina. Like Romao, he started his spell in France out of favor, as Brice Djadjedje and Javier Manquillo were firm favorites ahead of him, despite his impressive spells at Juventus and Udinese. While the Ivorian and the Spaniard both featured on the evening, Michel’s seemingly unconventional use of the Chilean in central midfield has been, like the play of Romao, at the heart of the team’s recent upturn in form. Romao, at 32, was never the most mobile player, and age has done little to help him in that regard. However, with the leather-lunged Isla alongside him, the two formed an effective shield in front of Marseille’s back four, even if neither were able to add much to the attack. While the two had a poor evening going forward, and Isla failed to track the run of Corentin Tolisso for Lyon’s equalizer, on the evening, Michel’s destructive midfield generally did their job in denying the opposition the time they sought on the ball.
If central midfield was constructed as an area of defensive focus, Michel adopted a similar approach in the wide areas of the pitch. While Georges-Kevin Nkoudou has showed himself to be an at times electrifying talent on the left wing, his poor first touch and decision making belie his twenty years, despite his considerable first team experience at Nantes. Not initially thought to be a key player for l’OM this season, the departure of Florian Thauvin and the ineffectiveness of Barrada have increased the youngster’s playing time, and for what he lacks in finesse going forward, he more than makes up for in his defensive work-rate.
Under manager Michel Der Zakarian, Nantes were in dire straits as they sought to maintain their top-flight status despite limited means and a lengthy transfer ban. Any players who hoped to feature regularly had to buy in completely to his defensively-oriented schemes, which demanded an almost superhuman amount of running, especially from the wide players in midfield, as much of the offense went through the full backs, necessitating near-constant tracking back from the wingers. Nkoudou prospered in that system, and at Marseille, despite an increased focus on his attacking abilities that has seen him score nine times across all competitions, he has retained a strong level of defensive contribution. Sarr, for his part, is an even more recent arrival to the starting eleven, having been brought in during the summer as an ostensible squad player after being a rare bright spot for last year’s dismal Metz. However, as the above images show, Sarr has been all too eager to make his mark on matches defensively, leaving the attacking component to the likes of Djadjedje rushing past him or to Cabella in the center of the park.
The above image shows Marseille defending late in the first half, a near-perfect illustration of the challenges faced by Lyon as a result of Michel’s setting the team up to defend. As Lacazette (yellow circle) seeks to link with Rachid Ghezzal, who is cutting inside, Javier Manquillo comes across to break up play, following the direction of the arrow. On the flank, however, where the Atletico loanee would normally be, Nkoudou is alert not only to the movement of the ball, but also to the potential threat caused by Christophe Jallet (off screen). On the opposite side of the pitch, Djadjedje tightly marks Mathieu Valbuena, while Sarr guards against a switch of play to Jeremy Morel.
Centrally, Cabella and Isla harry Lacazette, allowing Romao to recover his position, leaving Rolando and Nkoulou to track a potential run by Sergi Darder. In all, every single one of Marseille’s outfield players save Michy Batshuayi are actively defending the edge of the area, leaving little opportunity for the little through balls and one-touch football that Lyon are keen to play in attack. While this approach did end up ceding the hosts more possession in wide areas, something that could be dangerous with Ghezzal and Valbuena both fond of cutting inside, neither Jallet nor Morel are exceptional at delivering crosses and with Lacazette standing just 5′ 9″, nor is there either an ideal target.
Now, given Marseille’s history, it is probably difficult to sell such dour football to a demanding fanbase. The inclusion of Diarra would necessarily change things as well, and against lesser opposition than Lyon, more positivity would be warranted. That said, however, after Marseille’s misadventures in defending last year under Marcelo Bielsa, a renewed emphasis on defending as a team is starting to serve them well. With one of Isla or Romao lining up alongside Diarra, there is more bite in midfield, and while limited on the evening as far as their attacking contributions were concerned, there is enough spark and opportunism between Cabella and Batshuayi to score an adequate amount of goals. Add in the attacking fullback pairing of Djadjedje and Benjamin Mendy, when fully fit, and in what seemed to be a concession to players’ availability has become a viable strategy going forward. With a tough test in the Europa League looming, and yet another round of the Coupe de France as well, Marseille will do well to balance their obligations, but the bottom line is that rather than the flash and attack-mindedness of the likes of Barrada and Alessandrini, the motor of Sarr and Nkoudou will serve the team better in terms of its balance.
While a hard-fought point on the road in the face of a diminished squad will have disappointed few fans of Marseille, Lyon partisans may have more cause for worry. In playing Rachid Ghezzal and Mathieu Valbuena as the wide forwards in a 4-3-3, Bruno Genesio’s intent was clear. Both would be able to cut inside or run to the touch line, peeling off each other and Lacazette as they sought to recreate some of the effectiveness of the one-touch football which had been Lyon’s hallmark under Fournier. There is no complaint to be had with the way either played in this regard, as both (though particularly Valbuena) were only denied a goal by some fine saves from Steve Mandanda.
In this example, showing how the two could link play, Valbuena turns inside to sweep around Ghezzal, having just received the ball from Morel. He plays the ball centrally to Ghezzal, who then has the option of returning the ball to Valbuena as he runs into the flat, in the direction of the white arrow. He can also, as he did in the instance, find Lacazette running off his man, freeing the striker to get the ball in stride and shoot from close range. In this instance, Lacazette’s touch eluded him, but the intent of the strategy is clear, as it is meant to privilege a player who led the league in goals in the previous season and remains, despite his inconsistencies, the club’s leading scorer in the current campaign. While Lacazette had a mediocre evening on the whole, it is easy to see how this method of attack would play to the strengths of a set of forwards who are quick, diminutive, and willing passers of the ball.
However, where the weakness of this system lies in the inherent limits of its numbers. In the image, central midfielders Clement Grenier and Sergi Darder appear to the left of the screen, in the white ovals. Neither appears to be involved in the play, and for much of the evening, that was borne out. While Darder did make a few marauding runs into the box, Grenier was basically a nonentity, the pair generally preferring to attempt to facilitate the attack by playing balls over the top.
Grenier and Darder are particularly adept at this, as the former demonstrated three seasons ago in spurring Lyon to a surprising third-placed finish. However, at the time, he was operating as an attack-minded midfielder, either centrally or on the left, and with the likes of Bafetimbi Gomis to aim at, this strategy was easier to execute. Hampered by injuries for most of the past two years, while undoubtedly a talented player, to deploy Grenier in this role seems almost cruel. There is yet time for him to find his place in the team, perhaps in a different formation, but as one of three central midfielders, not only are his talents wasted, he becomes a liability.
Marseille hardly threw players forward with abandon, but even so, the defensive contributions of Grenier and, to a lesser extent, Darder, were often found wanting. The above graphic shows the ten tackles the pair attempted in their 67 minutes on the pitch. The red Xs represent a missed tackle, while the blue ones indicate a free kick conceded. A green X, of which there is only one, shows a successful tackle. In this manner, then, despite their best efforts, Darder and Grenier did Lyon’s defense no favors, as Valbuena and Ghezzal were of little help, tasked with operating so far up the pitch as to be of little use.
In the above example, Grenier attempts to tackle Sarr, and poorly at that. The knock-on effect here is that Sarr, having beaten Grenier, has the easy option of passing to Cabella, who, already being goal-side of Gonalons, can either try to pick out Batshuayi himself or play a one-two with the former Metz man, allowing him to deliver a cross for the striker. Now, granted, Sarr and N’Koudou are from impressive when it comes to delivering crosses, but against opposition with more creatively gifted wide players, there is a considerable amount of risk being taken here, as Montpellier showed earlier this season how this type of play on the flanks can leave Lyon’s defense exposed. With Morel and Jallet playing responsibly, Lyon were rarely caught out by the ineptitude of their two midfielders, but surely the tough-tackling Jordan Ferri and Corentin Tolisso would’ve been better options in terms of providing some solidity to the side.
The arrival of Tolisso, one of Lyon’s standout performers last year and a capable scorer from midfield in place of Darder, was accompanied not by his fellow academy product Ferri but by that of Aldo Kalulu, a raw, if energetic striker. Rather than drop Ghezzal into midfield alongside Tolisso, however, Lyon elected to play a standard 4-4-2, as the above image shows. Tolisso partnered Gonalons in central midfield, Ghezzal and Valbuena would play even wider and Kalulu would play off of Lacazette. While Genesio should be lauded for making such a bravely attacking change, especially, as the other image shows, Tolisso’s proclivity for making runs into the box basically allowed Lyon an extra attacker, and the substitute would’ve likely had a brace against a lesser goalkeeper.
However, with so many men committed forward, Lyon were also easily caught on the counter after Tolisso’s introduction. With Batshuayi having hit the post in the first half, he came close again in the second, as Marseille, playing forward after dispossessing Lyon, were easily able to create a 3-on-2 situation. Here, as Cabella runs with the ball at his feet, Batshuayi and Nkoudou race along with him, giving the former Montpellier man a wealth of options. While Marseille ultimately failed to capitalize on these situations, with so many teams in Ligue 1 set up to play on the counter, to shift to an unfamiliar formation so readily is just too risky of a move. Tolisso’s forays in attack make sense as part of a 4-3-3 or as part of Fournier’s diamond, because he and Ferri are able to attack at will as the other is able to aid Gonalons and the center backs without leaving too much opportunity for the opposition to attack. However, on the evening as part of a midfield two, Genesio’s changes were the ultimate in nerve-wracking; even if Tolisso did provide the equalizer as well as several fine chances, it would’ve been just as easy to see Lyon go down a second goal in the process.
Even with these missteps, Lyon can still take heart in some phases of their play, particularly defensively. While it was successful only twice in catching Marseille offside, Lyon played a very high line throughout the evening. Granted, with Marseille sitting so deep defensively, this strategy wasn’t exactly risky, but, the goal notwithstanding, it will have boosted a wobbly defense’s confidence to have limited Marseille’s chances.
While Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa has had his fair share of detractors, in this match and in the club’s previous, against Saint-Etienne, he seems to be growing in confidence as Lyon settle on a regular back four, with Jallet and Morel the fullbacks alongside the former Roma player and Samuel Umtiti. With the academy graduate the more cultured of the two center backs, considerably better at playing with the ball at his feet and in his long passing, Yanga-Mbiwa provides more physicality and energy, and the two, along with the fullback pairing, the virtues of compactness.
With little to fear from Sarr or Nkoudou in terms of crossing, Lyon played very compactly in defense, with Morel and Jallet, as befits their experience, tucking in to almost become auxiliary center backs. With the physically robust Batshuayi l’OM’s primary goal-scoring threat, there was a bit of necessity to this approach, but save for being caught out on the goal due to some slack marking, Marseille’s chances were far and few between, no mean feat, even with Diarra absent on the night. As defensive solidity had been the bedrock of Lyon’s rise to second in the table earlier this season, to play another solid match against a potent opponent by executing a given play will give the team’s oft-beleaguered defense that much more confidence.
Thus, despite not being the result that supporters of either side would’ve hoped, both teams can draw positives from the match. Marseille will have a better understanding of defending from the front as a path to success. Lyon will curse their luck in being unable to get more in attack against Mandanda, but can take solace in an improving defense after the horror displays against the likes of Nice, Montpellier and Paris Saint-Germain two months ago. For both, there is still much work to do if they wish to return to European football, to say nothing of the Champions’ League. However, with the right frame of mind and continued tactical evolution, there is ample talent present for the two rivals to succeed.
Written by Eric Devin