Eric Devin writes a detailed tactical analysis about the UEFA Champions League match that ended Olympique Lyon 0-1 Juventus.
The Parc OL welcomed its first European giant on Tuesday evening, with Italian champions Juventus paying a visit. Lyon had three points from two played beforehand, and thanks to Juan Cuadrado’s sublime goal and Gianluigi Buffon rolling back the years, nothing had changed at match’s end. In between, though, we were treated to a thrilling encounter that saw some wonderful pressure from Juventus, as Lyon bent, but didn’t break in the match’s early stages, before giving way to a generally open encounter.
Olympique Lyonnais (3-5-2): Anthony Lopes; Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa (Rachid Ghezzal 82′), Nicolas N’Koulou, Mouctar Diakhaby; Rafael, Sergi Darder (Jordan Ferri 64′), Maxime Gonalons, Corentin Tolisso, Jérémy Morel; Nabil Fekir, Alexandre Lacazette (Maxwel Cornet 72′)
Juventus (3-5-2): Gianluigi Buffon; Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci, Patrice Evra; Dani Alves (Mehdi Benatia 84′), Sami Khedira (Stefano Sturaro 74′), Mario Lemina, Miralem Pjanic, Alex Sandro; Gonzalo Higuaín, Paulo Dybala (Juan Cuadrado 69′)
Four key elements guided the match and made the outcome decisive (beyond the brilliance of Buffon, of course.) First, Juventus pressed very high up the pitch to start, with the intent of pinning back the two wing backs, Rafael and Morel. Morel is an able defender, but at 32, he isn’t the dynamic force that Maciej Rybus is, and Lyon were holding on for dear life in the match’s opening stages. The catch here is that Lyon were, due to the mobility and work ethic of Fekir and Lacazette, fairly easily able to absorb this pressure.
What was at the crux of this was not only good organization but also a willingness to move laterally. Note here how Tolisso and Lacazette (bottom of first two yellow lines) have shifted centrally, away from their nominal position on the left. This not only serves to narrow the passing angles for Higuaín, who is in possession (center of red triangle) but also serves to not leave any of Lyon’s center backs exposed to a potential one-on-one with either Paulo Dybala or one of Juventus’ wingbacks. Gonalons and his fellow midfielders had a much easier time of things in this manner, even if it did leave Lyon’s two center forwards isolated.
Perhaps Allegri should have given a bit more thought to his team selection in this regard, then. Pjanic, Khedira and Lemina are all suitable enough players, but none of them is the type of dynamic creative presence that the team enjoyed. Pjanic can be effective going forward, but generally relies more on a range of passing to affect a match, whereas Khedira and Lemina are decidedly more defensive midfielders, even if Khedira did frequently pop up in more advanced positions. None of them, though, have the sort of directness that can turn a match. Juan Cuadrado’s entrance into the match changed that, but this match likely would have been much more comfortable throughout had the Colombian been included from the off.
That said, Lyon did limit themselves in a somewhat similar fashion, which brings us to our second point. Both Fekir and Lacazette are fairly quick players, ideal outlets for long balls that could quickly fashion a counterattack. However, the team’s best passer in this regard, Gonalons, was too often tasked with tackling and challenging for the ball. Last season, Samuel Umtiti was an effective outlet, able to both go forward with the ball at his feet or play a long ball forward. In this match, however, with Gonalons otherwise occupied and none of the three central defenders able to play long balls, that task too often fell to Lopes.
The Portuguese has been one of Ligue 1’s best goalkeepers since his arrival into the first team, but as the above graphic shows, distribution is not his strong suit. Lyon were unable to sustain possession, as Fekir and Lacazette, despite having the better of pace against Juventus’ back three, were double teamed and unable to keep the ball. In general, Lyon can build play from the back, the defenders playing the ball to Gonalons, who starts the counterattack through his range of passing, but on this occasion, the defenders’ confidence (and pressure from Alves and Sandro) too often forced them back to Lopes, nullifying Lyon’s ability to relieve pressure on themselves after winning the ball.
At the other end of the pitch, though, it was much the opposite. Fekir and Lacazette are decent workers defensively, but in this match, they were focussed on denying play to Juventus’ wingbacks or Pjanic. This is all well and good, but it unfortunately neglects the player whose range of passing is among the best in the world at his position, Leonardo Bonucci.
In the above image, we see the sum of Bonucci’s passing in the match. Here, we have the third point illustrated as boldly as possible. The sum position of the starting point of those passes is just behind the center circle, which means the nominal central defender acted more as an auxiliary midfielder than an orthodox center back. Given the lack of pace of Higuain, though, his passing wasn’t going to be balls over the top, but rather putting Lyon back on their heels by spreading play to the wingbacks. Indeed, most of the red arrows point directly forward, meaning that his success rate on balls over the top was fairly limited. But, look more closely at the direction of the green arrows, almost all of which show play being spread to the wings. With Lyon playing a back five, as we saw in the first illustration, above, Morel and Rafael sat very deep, meaning that Bonucci was able to find Alves and Sandro in space.
How effective was this for the visitors? Well, as the above passing grid shows, the pair had a field day, each with a handful of successful crosses. A dozen crosses may not seem like much, but the image from the match shows why they were so effective. Most crosses are delivered as a result of beating a fullback, and are attempted quickly, with pace rather than precision the ideal. However, the image from the match shows that wasn’t necessarily the case for Juventus.
Here, Alves is receiving a pass fairly deep into Lyon’s half, from Higuaín, who then turns to make a run goal-ward, indicated by the white arrow. Lacazette is moving to put pressure on the former Barcelona man, as is Morel (yellow arrow). However, neither is able to close him down in time, as he whips in an inch-perfect cross (anticipated by red line) to Higuaín, whose bullet header forced a fine save from Lopes. Whether it was the burly striker, Dybala or Khedira (note the German peeling away, with Diakhaby giving chase), even with three center backs, with so much time on the ball, even a limited number of crosses could be devastating.
The final point upon which the match turned tactically was the match played by Patrice Evra. The former France international was a surprise starter in the absence of Giorgio Chiellini; an orthodox attack-minded left back, Evra’s deployment in a back three seemed questionable, especially with Mehdi Benatia available. However, his cautious yet physical approach to dealing with Rafael meant the Brazilian was limited in his impact. As Morel was of little use going forward on the opposite flank, Lyon’s ability to attack in wide areas was all but eliminated.
The above image shows the heat maps of Barzagli and Evra; they are nearly identical and show that the Frenchman, despite his attacking proclivities, can also play with restraint when needed. What doesn’t show in the heat maps, however, is his effectiveness at set pieces, which was where, especially with Lyon having three center backs available, Chiellini would potentially be missed the most. Evra led Juventus in headed clearances, despite standing just 5′ 8″, and while Lyon were a threat from set pieces, what joy they did have was far from Evra’s fault.
The two teams will meet again in a week’s time, and while Juventus will certainly expect three points, Lyon showed that they have enough quality to trouble the Bianconeri. The return of Rybus will give the team more balance, and with Lacazette closer to full fitness, Lyon will preserve some hope of a result. Juventus for their part will welcome a replacement for the suspended Lemina; if it proves to be Hernanes, Lyon will face a different team, with a more dynamic midfield. Three points are imperative for the French side to progress, but Juventus will also be after the win so as not to fall behind Sevilla.
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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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