Olympique Lyonnais – the Tactical Debrief



Harvey Kelly adds a tactical aspect to Lyon’s travails this season.


Remi Garde’s Lyon has used a variety of formations this season, utilising 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2, and as a one-off against PSG in December a 3-5-2, but the main work-horse is their 4-1-4-1.

The back four (in blue) is shielded by the ‘anchor’ Maxime Gonalons (in red), with four midfielders (in white) and one forward (in yellow). The wide midfielders often defend deep like this (level with Gonalons) to protect the flanks if the opposition plays with a lot of width.

Garde likes to play forwards, Jimmy Briand, Alexandre Lacazette, Lisandro Lopez, in the wide positions to make a 4-3-3 when attacking or sometimes to press the opponent when the ball is in enemy territory.



Parker (green) left alone

Against Tottenham in the first-leg of their Europa League knockout tie, Lyon were extremely aggressive with their pressing – and also intelligent in targetting the opposition. Jan Vertonghen’s distribution is superior to that of William Gallas, so Gomis was tasked with pressing Vertonghen, ‘steering’ the ball to Gallas; similarly  in central midfield, Moussa Dembele was targetted almost to the point of being man-marked, and the ball ‘directed’ to Scott Parker. In the image you can see the player matchups and Parker being left alone – the centre-forward, Gomis (marked with grey) is discouraging the ball to the central defenders.  Parker was harried after he received the ball, but with Tottenham’s fullbacks pushed up very high, he was often forced to dump the ball on the centre-backs, who were being pressed intelligently by the hard-working Gomis.  In the return leg in Lyon, the home side’s strategy (even though trailing 1-2) was to sit back a lot more, inviting pressure and trying to hit Tottenham on the counterattack, Gomis again was detailed to pay attention to Vertonghen.


Lyon block Montpellier’s options

Let’s contrast this with the game from last weekend against Montpellier who, like Tottenham, play 4-2-3-1. In this game Garde had a different scheme. The centre-forward (Lisandro) took one of the opposition midfielders, and Steed Malbranque moved up and took the other. There was very little pressing of the centre-backs – the priority was to try to stop the ball being played through the double-pivot of Montpellier’s central midfielders. Lyon ‘guided’ the ball back to central defence, and matched up across the pitch to eliminate passing options for the central midfielders in their 4-2-3-1.

After some horrendous individual defensive errors in numerous games, Garde has started trying to protect his back four in recent weeks with unabashedly defensive tactics, even when playing at home, and looking to hit teams on the break like he did against Tottenham. He’s also experimented with a 4-4-2 (against Sochaux and Reims) and a 4-2-3-1 (against Toulouse), where in defensive positions the wide men pull back to form a 4-4-1-1 when out of possession.


Two banks of four against Toulouse

If the ball was lost further up the pitch then OL tried to play a narrow 4-2-3-1 with the wide-midfielders coming inside, before falling back to a defensive 4-4-1-1 as above. Less concerned about the flanks against Toulouse, Garde wanted to stop the ball being played through the centre and protect his fragile central defence.  This game also saw Yoann Gourcuff coming back into the team, after a series of niggling injuries, playing in the number 10 position behind Lisandro, with Grenier alongside Gonalons as a double-pivot. The thinking must have been that Grenier’s range of passing would help OL counter-attack, but it resulted in a very uninspired and workmanlike performance. The following week at Montpellier, the pack was re-shuffled and Gourcuff was stationed on the left of a five-man midfield as Garde reverted to the 4-1-4-1, with Grenier and Malbranque inside and Gonalons as the ‘holder’.


The ball Gourcuff should play

Gourcuff’s touch and decision-making have never been poorer, nor has he been more lacking in confidence, and being played in a variety of positions can’t be helping him. So it was odd he was tasked with occupying the left-midfield/wing berth, although given licence to drift to the centre the pitch against Montpellier. In this attack, Gourcuff has moved in from the left and across to a central area, both Lisandro and Briand (pink) are in good positions on the edge of the penalty box, and Grenier and Malbranque (yellow) are supporting from midfield.

The ball to be played is a one-touch pass into space for Briand, but instead, Gourcuff tried to flick the ball behind to Lisandro. He failed to get any contact on the ball (in fact it looked like a dummy on first viewing), Briand threw his arms up in exasperation, and the ball was rolling out for a throw-in. Chasing it down, Grenier picked it up, took one touch to control, and then sent in a beautiful cross for Lisandro (being sloppily semi-marked by Hilton) to score the game’s opening goal with a header at the near post. The contrast between Gourcuff’s needlessly elaborate poor play and Grenier’s beautifully simple approach couldn’t have been clearer.

An Aside on Gonalons

Probably the key player for Lyon – and it’s hard to imagine them without him – a youth product and now team captain at 23 years old, Maxime Gonalons is in the Sergio Busquets mould of modern ‘holders’. Not an aggressive all-action midfielder, his game is based on positioning, reading of the play, and short accurate passing.

It’s rare to see Lyon man-mark, and intriguingly in the return leg against Tottenham, Garde chose to target not Gareth Bale, but Lewis Holtby. Worried by Holtby’s playmaking talents, rather than Bale’s dribbling and extraordinary shooting, Gonalons was to stick to his man like glue.

When Spurs started rotating their three attacking midfielders, with Bale coming central and Holtby moving to the left (occasionally Aaron Lennon would pop up in the centre too), Gonalons played his natural game and closed Bale down, but didn’t man-mark him as he had Holtby; when Bale returned to the flank and Holtby came central once more, Gonalons picked up where he’d left off and returned to marking Holtby.

No case left for the defence

Lyon fans might want to stop here. The individual errors leading to losses over the last three months is quite simply staggering.

If we return to the close of the transfer-window at the end of January, Garde’s favoured defence was Umtiti-Lovren-Bisevac-Reveillere, which was the back four when OL travelled to Corsica to play AC Ajaccio. A lovely cross from Rachid Ghezzal for Lacazette to volley gave Lyon a 1-0 lead, and at this time Lyon were top of the table with PSG and were being spoken of as genuine contenders for the championship. Four minutes after Lacazette’s opener, Lyon collectively hit an undeniable and very apparent self-destruct button.


Lovren doesn’t jump, Mutu doesn’t need to

Attempting to clear the ball upfield, and with all the time in the world, Milan Bisevac managed to lose possession in this position by prodding the ball at Filipe Saad, who found Chakhir Belghazouani to score the equaliser.

Then, 8 minutes later, his defensive partner(-in-crime), Dejan Lovren, didn’t even jump when a cross came in from the left wing, merely watching the ball sail over him and land on Adrian Mutu’s forehead. Mutu seemed genuinely surprised by the cross reaching him, but reacted well to head in. Ajaccio 2-1 Lyon. Not content, in the 90th minute Lovren brought down Dennis Oliech in the penalty box, earning his third red card of the season and a penalty for Ajaccio, which Mutu converted, 1-3.


Bisevac is rounded

Against Lille the following week Samuel Umtiti moved to centre-back for Lovren, and Mouhamadou Dabo came in at left-back. Bisevac tried to hold a high line with Umtiti while there was no pressure on the man with the ball, and a runner going outside the Serbian defender, as Lille hit Lyon on a counter-attack – he earned a red card and gave away a penalty for a deliberate handball as the attack reached the OL penalty area.

Worse performances were to follow, but before then, there was the Europa League and a trip to London. The games against Tottenham obviously focused the minds of Garde’s men: there was a 4-0 win over Bordeaux in between those two Tottenham games, where Lyon didn’t have to get anywhere near the level of performance they did against Spurs to dispatch les Girondins with ease.

Shortly after the tie with Tottenham, Lyon played out a 0-0 draw against Olympique Marseille where neither side were willing to risk going for the win, although OM looked the more likely to edge it of the two.

And then those individual errors that started to appear at the start of 2013 became more and more frequent.

Commit the sort of errors listed here against Tottenham, and Bale, Holtby, Adebayor and co would have run up a cricket score. In those two games the team was focused, well-drilled, and they were almost through to the next round to face Internazionale after taking the scalp of one of England’s finest. Perhaps that was on their mind as they travelled to Corsica again, this time to play Ajaccio’s neighbours from the north of the island, Bastia.


The break past Gourcuff (blue) and the OL defence

OL haven’t enjoyed the best of times at Bastia, losing 17 of their last 26 games there, but Garde couldn’t have imagined what would occur this time.  At the end of the first half OL had a free kick which Gourcuff floats into the box – all the Bastia players are defending, and they have a three-man wall.

After some head-tennis on the edge of the Bastia penalty area, a long clearance gives Bastia a two-versus-one break on goal whilst in their own half as both Lyon defenders and Gourcuff stand by as two of the Bastia wall head upfield. Bastia 1-0 Lyon.

To say this is amateurish is to be unkind to amateur football. Olympique Lyonnais want to play in the Champions League next year remember, and more was to follow: early in the second half, with Bastia counter-attacking at speed, Lovren didn’t even hold up the play. The Lyon centre-back half-flicked a leg in the direction of Whabi Khazri as the striker ran past him before laying the ball for Anthony Modeste to finish. One of the more straightforward goals Bastia have scored all year.


Khazri to Modeste and it’s Bastia 2-1 Lyon

That made it Bastia 2-1. The third goal was a repeat of the second, but with added comedy: the ball is played into Bastia’s right-channel for Claudio Beauvue, and as Lovren goes to check the threat he manages to fall over. Beauville brings the ball into the penalty box, pulls it back for Florian Thauvin, Bastia 3-1 Lyon.

Then, with OL trailing by two goals, the right full-back Dabo tries to dribble his way out of trouble in a dangerous position: Khazri steals it from him, one pass through to Modeste later and it’s Bastia 4-1 Lyon.

With defending like that it’s obvious that Remi Garde needed to change something. Anthony Reveillere was still injured, so for the game against Sochaux-Montbeliard, the full-backs remained Umtiti and Dabo, but he replaced Bisevac with Bakary Kone. The Burkina Faso international isn’t the most composed of defenders, but he’s quick and determined, so the back four was (from left-to-right) Umtiti-Lovren-Kone-Dabo.

This is where Garde perhaps panicked. Lyon are losing games to big errors, so he decides to switch to a 4-4-2 with Clement Grenier as a left-midfielder and pair Lisandro and Gomis up front, although both strikers prefer to play as a lone forward, and after three years at the club together they still look uncomfortable in a 4-4-2.

The game was as one would expect with one team shorn of confidence, the other looking not to concede, and both sides lining up in a 4-4-2: the teams cancelled each other out. Sochaux defended deep and tried to soak up pressure, whereas Lyon played a high line, with lots of pressing, but to no avail as the respective midfield battles were tied – the closest Lyon got to opening Sochaux up was when Umtiti pushed up, with Grenier coming inside, looking to outnumber Sochaux.


Sio, and Umtiti belatedly trying to mark him

And, of course, Lyon gave away two bad goals. The first was terrible marking at a corner: Giovanni Sio ran past a sleeping Umtiti to head in.

With the score at 1-1 (Lyon scored through a penalty) and chasing a winner at the close of the game, Umtiti attempted a cross which struck the first defender allowing Sochaux to clear downfield. In a moment of madness, the covering defender Lovren managed to lose the ball to Sio, who took the ball downfield before playing it to Cedric Bakambu. Lyon 1-2 Sochaux.

Next up were Reims, who have averaged three shots on target per game this season. Garde persisted with the unimpressive 4-4-2, dropped Lovren and recalled Bisevac to partner Kone in central defence, but this did nothing to stem the tide.  Early on, from a goal kick, Umtiti headed the ball straight to Reims midfielder Antoine Devaux who played it first time for Christopher Glombard, and Vercoutre did well to save.

Umtiti, playing at left-back, also managed to appear unexpectedly in central midfield for no good reason, with Reims immediately playing the ball into the area he’d just vacated for the right-winger Diego who hit the post with a powerful shot. When it arrived, the Reims goal came from a familiar source, Lyon losing possession with Umtiti high up the pitch, the ball was played down OL’s left, and Bisevac wrestling Diego to the ground with his arm wrapped around the winger’s neck as they entered the penalty area near the byline: red card (again), penalty (again), Reims 1-0 Lyon.

And then they travelled to face the defending champions Montpellier, which ended with Garde saying how lucky Lyon had been, and with MHSC coach Rene Girard storming down the tunnel in disgust before the final whistle blew.


Two defenders, looking along the line, play Mounier onside

Lyon’s individual and collective defensive failings were again present; despite being able to look along the line to maintain the offside, both Dabo at left-back and Umtiti at centre-back play Mounier onside who was unlucky to see his chipped shot go just over.

Defending a break, Bakary Kone dives in as the ball is played out to Souleymane Camara, the striker skipping past the challenge to deliver a low cross for Cabella, who saw his shot blocked by Dabo.

There were other errors, too many to list, although El Kaoutari’s completely free header from a corner should probably be mentioned as he was in so much space, 8 yards from goal, that it was unclear who was supposed to be marking him. The defender should have scored instead of heading straight at Remy Vercoutre, and Lyon escaped again.

Bear in mind that this isn’t an exhaustive list of OL’s defensive errors over the last few months, merely the ones that spring to mind after watching a lot of Lyon – I dread to think what would become of Lyon’s defence if they didn’t have Gonalons sitting in front and protecting it.

Umtiti is an outstanding prospect, and will almost certainly develop into a tremendous player; Bisevac came to Lyon from PSG only once Thiago Silva was signed; Lovren is a highly-talented 23 year-old Croatian international and reputedly a target for AC Milan, Internazionale, and Liverpool amongst others; Bakary Kone was part of the Burkino Faso side that won the African Cup of Nations by defending. These are not bad players by any stretch of the imagination, but they are playing badly.

As the 2012-2013 season got underway, Lyon sold Hugo Lloris – his deputy, Vercoutre, has become the number one at Lyon, and over the course of the season has looked like what he is: a back-up. That isn’t to be harsh on Vercoutre, he’s a solid pro and a decent keeper, but he’s been guilty of poor form, and this season he’s clearly not filled the hole left by Lloris’ departure. His kicking has been poor (against Toulouse he managed to turn goal kicks into 30 yard passes to opposing forwards), and this is adding more pressure on to a young defence that is struggling for confidence and form.

Remi Garde and the coaching staff need to take take some responsibility for the defence not being able to defend reliably for 90 minutes. There is something fundamentally wrong at a club that commits a vast number of errors over the course of not yet half a season – and yet plays Tottenham over two legs within that same season and look extremely impressive defensively.

Of course, the larger proportion of the blame is with Jean-Michel Aulas. Perhaps no other manager in Europe is in the position of Garde – Champions League football is demanded by the owner, while asset-stripping the club of its senior players. Looking at Lyon over the last three months, the question shouldn’t be, ‘how did Lyon lose ground on PSG’, but rather ‘how on earth are they as high as third’?

Garde has made some mistakes with the side, understandable as he is still trying to find a long-term formula, but some of his statements to the press aren’t helping; before the home game against Toulouse he was calling on his players to remember that good performances this season should earn them a good contract for next season with a different club. It’s hard to imagine, say Pep Guardiola, using that motivational tool. Garde is a smart, knowledgeable, and likeable man, and right now it’s impossible to judge his time at Lyon: he needs a season in charge of a club that isn’t selling its players or hawking them across Europe to various suitors. A team built around the talents of Gonalons, Grenier, Lacazette, Ghezzal, and Gueida Fofana could be a real force in French and European football for years to come.

Grenier alone on the edge of Montpellier’s area

Grenier alone on the edge of Montpellier’s area

So, how on earth did Lyon manage to defeat a strong Montpellier at Stade de la Mosson? With a lot of fortune with their defending, and a healthy dose of individual brilliance from Clement Grenier.  All teams put at least one player on the edge of the penalty box when defending corners, it enables the defending side to launch counter-attacks, regain possession, or close down any opposing players the ball may fall to. Earlier, Bryan Dabo was fulfilling this role for MHSC.

In stoppage-time and the game level at 1-1, the corner came in from Gourcuff, the ball is cleared and falls for Grenier, all alone. He rifles a superb half-volley, totally unsaveable, making it Montpellier 1-2 Lyon with the last kick of the game.

But where was Dabo for Montpellier? He’d been substituted in the 85th minute and his replacement either forgot or didn’t know his defensive duties at the set-piece.

It’s about time Garde had a little luck to call his own.


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