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If Lyon harbor any hopes of progressing from Group H after their 1-0 defeat to Sevilla on Tuesday evening, they will at least be grateful of having kept the score down, so to have half a chance of reversing the result in early December. Despite Lyon having hit the woodwork twice, Sevilla were firmly in control, especially in the second half. Manager Jorge Sampaoli made two initial decisions that, while they perhaps took a while to settle in, were key to the hosts bossing the game.
Sevilla FC (4-4-2) 1. Sergio Rico; 3. Mariano, 21. Nicolas Pareja, 24. Gabriel Mercado (Timothée Kolodziejczak), 18. Sergio Escudero; 20. Vitolo, 15. Steven N’Zonzi, 22. Franco Vazquez (Vicente Iborra 59′), 10. Samir Nasri; 9. Luciano Vietto, 12. Wissam Ben Yedder (Pablo Sarabia 82′)
Olympique Lyonnais (5-3-2) 1. Anthony Lopes; 23. Jordy Gaspar (Rachid Ghezzal 79′), 2. Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa (Mathieu Valbuena 70′), 3. Nicolas N’Koulou, 15. Jeremy Morel, 31. Maciej Rybus; 8. Corentin Tolisso, 21. Maxime Gonalons, 14. Sergi Darder; 18. Nabil Fekir (Aldo Kalulu 70′), 27. Maxwell Cornet
The first was to play a midfield that privileged the attack. Lyon were playing a formation necessitated by injury (and one to which they are still adjusting), and Sampaoli resolved to give all but his center backs and Steven N’Zonzi a great deal of freedom. With overlapping fullbacks and Samir Nasri in a free role, that allowed Sevilla’s attacking players to make life difficult for the two weak points in Lyon’s defense, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa and Jordy Gaspar, without sacrificing defensive solidity. As an aside, it could perhaps be argued that Sevilla missing Adil Rami and Dani Carrico was a blessing in disguise, as it allowed the more mobile pairing of Mercado and Pareja to use their pace to deal with the speedy pairing of Fekir and Cornet. But digressions aside, how did Sevilla accomplish this?
The above images come moments before Ben Yedder had the ball in the net after 18 minutes. In the first, we see the buildup play, as Sevilla had seen Gaspar (yellow box) caught high up the pitch, the youngster still negotiating his role in a new system. The scene is set having evolved from a run Vitolo had made to come onto a long ball from Escudero. He is chased down by Yanga-Mbiwa, and then plays the ball back to Escudero, which is where the second image leaves us.
Escudero has the ball at his feet, while Vitolo seeks to make a run on the flank (yellow arrow). With Gaspar (JG, next to the official) caught out, he tries to cover for Yanga-Mbiwa by covering the run of Vietto. N’Koulou, meanwhile, tries to track Vazquez, leaving the undersized Morel (white circle) caught between Ben Yedder and Nasri centrally. Granted, the former Marseille man isn’t giving up much physically to either player, despite his own stature, but he can’t be expected to defend two players at once. Gonalons (MG) should perhaps have done more to recognize this shift, but by allowing Nasri to drift in a free role, Sevilla give the opportunity to key on Yanga-Mbiwa, who has been very suspect this season, as well as a 19 year-old making his full debut in a hostile atmosphere.
Nasri seems to have really embraced the running required by this role, and despite being a tad selfish in terms of his shooting at times, he was unequivocally one of his team’s standout performers. He was, perhaps, only eclipsed by Steven N’Zonzi in this regard, as Sevilla were also able to get forward in a more balanced formation, effectively playing in a diamond. With Vazquez on the left on midfield and Nasri (nominally) on the right, space was created for Mariano and Escudero to make the pitch as wide as possible. As previously mentioned, Parejo and Mercado could cope with Fekir and Cornet, leaving N’Zonzi (center of image) to press Tolisso or Darder when they sought to join the attack. His physicality and energy, coupled with his lack of two-way responsibilities, made him a hugely effective screen for the two center backs.
Granted, had Lyon recognized this tactic more quickly, perhaps a tactical shift could have been more readily employed to afford Tolisso and Darder more space. A midfield diamond with Tolisso behind Fekir and Cornet might have been effective, with Jordan Ferri introduced for Maciej Rybus, perhaps. As it was, the two’s attacking effectiveness was severely limited by their defensive responsibilities, rarely able to venture forward together to provide Fekir and Cornet with any meaningful support.
Having scored, though, Sampaoli recognized that system was perhaps a bit over-reliant on N’Zonzi, and Vicente Iborra was brought on, to partner the hulking Frenchman in front of the back four. Although a 4-3-3 in practice, with one of Vitolo (as in the image above) or Nasri cutting inside it essentially functioned as a 4-2-3-1, with the attacking three having even greater freedom from operating in fixed areas of the pitch. Mariano (in yellow oval) and Escudero were given even more licence to roam with two defensive midfielders able to provide cover to the centre backs, joining in the attack at will as Sevilla were able to control the tempo of the match much more effectively. Thus, was nominally a defensive change, replacing the attacking midfielder Vazquez with Iborra, gave the hosts even more freedom as they sought to press their advantage.
As impressive as Sevilla were, though, Lyon weren’t without their moments. Had Rafael been fit to give their formation more balance, perhaps their own overload would have borne better results. In the above images, we see the dribbles completed by Cornet, Fekir and Rybus. Given the Pole’s experience and work-rate, it only made sense for the visitors to focus their attacks on the left side of the pitch, not wanting to expose Gaspar should he be dispossessed. However, in this, Lyon were missing a trick.
As mentioned earlier, the absences of Rami and Carrico might be seen as a blessing in disguise, and here is the prime example. Normally, Mercado is a deputy to Mariano at right back, but his size and defensive aptitude also make him a decent center back when necessary. Had the slow-footed Carrico or Rami been available, the Argentine likely would’ve remained on the bench, but here, his pace and ability in the tackle allowed Sevilla to cope with Lyon’s overload, limiting the effectiveness of Fekir and Cornet.
Fekir in particular has been better cutting in from the right, and this also limited the ability of the team to involve Tolisso, who has been arguably the team’s most effective attacking player this season. Lyon should have seen this and sought to stretch play horizontally through the pace of their attacking partnership, Cornet in particular but again, the worry of leaving Gaspar caught out remained a valid concern. Had Lyon had Rafael and/or Alexandre Lacazette fit, this match surely would have a different cast to it, but one could presumably say the same for Sevilla, who might have also started Benoit Tremoulinas in place of the superb Escudero.
In conclusion, the underlying theme is a lack of reaction from Genesio. He failed to cope not only with Sevilla’s fluid attack, but also to recognize his team’s limitations going forward. The later introductions of Aldo Kalulu, Mathieu Valbuena and Rachid Ghezzal, though nominally positive, were not applied with any tactical shift or seeming clear instructions. Cornet, lacking a focal point beside him, became even more isolated, resorting to running for running’s sake. Pushing Tolisso further forward might have likewise borne fruit, but Genesio kept the youngster in midfield, recognizing his value in supporting Gaspar and Yanga-Mbiwa.
Although initially at a disadvantage through their lengthy injury list, Lyon’s failure to adapt may have cost them any real chance at a point and with it, entry into the knockout rounds. The likes of Lacazette and Rafael should return to face Juventus at the end of the month, but the Bianconeri will offer a much sterner test, particularly in defense. Genesio is still a fairly novice manager and shouldn’t be raked over the coals too much, particularly as this was his first European match away from home, but if he continues to be unable to recognize an opponents’ setup and combat it, this could be a Champions’ League campaign every bit as short as his predecessor’s.