Light at the End of the Tunnel for Hubert Fournier and Lyon

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A traumatic week for Lyon was rounded off with a convincing win over struggling Toulouse. Reports of player bust-ups and strong words in press conferences were all set aside last weekend as OL moved within touching distance of Angers and Caen in the podium places, even if they’re a long way off challenging PSG at the top.

Lyon’s top scorer this season remains the injured Nabil Fekir, but they found themselves back amongst the goals against Toulouse, and there were maiden strikes in a Lyon shirt for Sergi Darder and Mathieu Valbuena.

The former Marseille playmaker is starting to look at home in this Lyon side, and he is coming into form playing at the tip of Hubert Fournier’s diamond system, in behind Alexandre Lacazette and Claudio Beauvue.

Conventional 1990s Premier League wisdom would tell you that when you play two strikers up front, they need to stick close together. When they do so, not only are they both closer to the goal – where they can do the most damage – but they also give the opposing centre backs the most trouble.

In such a formation, with four players in central midfield positions and two strikers up front, the width needs to come from the full backs. On Friday night, full-backs Christophe Jallet and Jeremy Morel got forward as often as they could, but they didn’t need to bomb forward with careless abandon.

That’s because Hubert Fournier’s centre forwards do the opposite of what you’d expect from two centre forwards when Lyon counter: they drift wide. And this allows them to do two things. One is to confuse the centre backs who are supposed to be marking them, They can’t go wide with them, but they have no one to mark in the centre.

The confusion of the centre backs allows Valbuena to really come into his own. With the strikers out wide, he sits deeper than the strikers usually would and operates as a false nine. And the formation changes from a 4-4-2 to a sort of temporary 4-3-3.

But drifting wide also allows Lacazette and Beauvue, who are two strong, athletic and pacey forwards, to attack the central areas from wide positions. That way they won’t get caught underneath the ball when it comes in, so they won’t have to attack it from a standing jump, and they’ll also be able to mop up anything that comes into either back-post area.

What makes matters even more confusing for the opposition, however, is the movement of Valbuena. He’s given a free role to roam around and find space where he can. But his movement dictates the movement of the rest of the team.

When he drifts wide to find space, the strikers stay central, hoping for a slower build-up. Here they get passes to feet with their backs to goal and they can make runs in behind the defence off one-twos and quick-fire triangles. When he stays in the middle, the full-backs provide the width, and the strikers are given licence to drift into wide areas too.

Fournier’s team is set up to confuse defences. Their seamless transitions between 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 and back again make the strikers difficult to mark. This, coupled with the quick interplay from the attacking players, was the basis of their great form last season.

But form is exactly what’s missing this time; not tactics or personnel, even in the absence of Fekir, their top scorer and a big creative threat. Even though the French international has been out injured since early September, Lyon have managed an average of almost 15 shots per game this season, 55% of which have come from inside the 18-yard box. Clearly finishing, rather than creating, is the problem. And Beauvue and Lacazette, despite last season’s form, aren’t providing it.

At Lyon, the form might be temporary, but the confidence that Fournier has in his players and his system looks to be permanent. It might not be enough to keep them in the Champions League, and it might not be enough to push PSG as hard as they did last season, but Lyon played well against Toulouse. Surely it’s only a matter of time before the strikers start putting the ball in the net?

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