Olympique Lyonnais: Genesio’s Achilles Heel

Lopes Morel OL v Atalanta

Leads and Olympique Lyonnais don’t seem to sit well together these days. Playing at home against Dijon, Bruno Génésio’s troops couldn’t cut the mustard and ended up sharing the points in a 3-3 draw. Les Gones surrendered the lead not just once but twice against the visitors.

Former OL left back Jérémy Berthod zeroed in on the problem. “Sometimes you have to know when to hunker down a bit,” he observed. “When we score, it seems to me we relax a bit and stop defending as a unit.” It’s a pretty damning assessment.

The stalemate is the latest in Lyon’s less than distinguished record of throwing away points from winning positions, having been pegged back by Bordeaux and Apollon Limassol and Atalanta in Ligue 1 and the Europa League respectively. With only two clean sheets in nine matches so far, they will feature if you are looking for both teams to score tips.

Lyon’s defensive frailties have become an all too familiar failing under Bruno Génésio which is especially concerning given that the club overhauled the backline over the summer. OL have recruited Ferland Mendy, Fernando Marçal, Marcelo Guedes and Kenny Tete whilst letting go of Christophe Jallet, Nicolas Nkoulou and most contentiously of all Emanuel Mammana. Lyon may be in a season of transition but bad habits do seem hard to shake.

It is a flaw that cost OL a total of 22 points last season – far too many if the club is to aspire for Champions League qualification let alone a title challenge. It’s no disgrace being pegged back by PSG, Nice and to a certain degree Bordeaux but it is alarming how regularly Lyon lost points despite being ahead.

Points dropped from winning positions (Ligue 1 2016/17)
Opponents Result Points dropped
Dijon (a) 4-2 Loss 3
Bordeaux (h) 3-1 Loss 3
Guingamp (h) 3-1 Loss 3
Guingamp (a) 2-1 Loss 3
PSG (a) 2-1 Loss 3
Stade Rennais (a) 1-1 Draw 2
Lorient (h) 1-4 Loss 3
Nice (h) 3-3 Draw 2
Total points dropped = 22

With the likes of Nicolas Nkoulou, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, Mouctar Diakhaby and Emanuel Mammana failing to impress in Génésio’s eyes, the Lyon head coach decided to alter his defensive outlook. His solution was to inject experience in the central defensive areas, entrusting Jérémy Morel and Marcelo Guedes, signed from Besiktas, with the responsibility of marshalling the back four. He also chose to implement a 4-2-3-1 formation in order to make his team more difficult to break down.

The thinking behind this more pragmatic approach is sound as it addressed pressing issues in a club that has seen a number of important players depart. The formation itself suited the skill set the squad possesses and in theory allows for a greater balance between attack and defence.

The start of the season was promising enough with an emphatic 4-0 win away to Strasbourg and there was a common theme that the players and coaching staff was keen to point out: the defensive performance.

“The way all the players worked defensively was the greatest satisfaction. We didn’t really do that last season,” remarked assistant coach Gérald Baticle.

“We managed four without conceding, so that’s good,” said captain Nabil Fekir.

“Everyone put in a shift,” Anthony Lopes observed.

The defence was clearly identified as a weak point and though the campaign started off well midfielder Lucas Tousart warned “we still need to perfect a few things.”

Since the win against Strasbourg OL’s only other clean sheet has come against Nantes, 12 goals have been conceded thus far in eight games and five points have already been dropped from winning positions. “Plus ça change,” as the saying begins.

There have been signs of progress if the defeat away to PSG is anything to go by.  Tactically Génésio seemed to have the better of his counterpart and the team was disciplined whilst looking dangerous on the counter. Had the referee given decisions OL’s way and Ndombele’s piledriver been a few inches lower the result could have been markedly different.

Despite the setback, the display at the Parc des Princes showed a level of concentration and solidity that has been the exception rather than the rule under Génésio, so the obvious question is “why?”

Could it be the case that Génésio is incapable or is not willing to coach the defensive aspects of the game? It’s a very harsh accusation to make but the numbers don’t make for good reading.

Last season Les Gones gave away 48 goals with only Guingamp and Nantes conceding more amongst the top 10. According to WhoScored.com 28 goals were given up from open play, two on the counter, 12 against set pieces, five from the spot and one own goal.  Strangely enough Monaco conceded more from set pieces (14) but were far tighter in open play (14).

Thus far this season Anthony Lopes currently has made the fourth highest number of saves and according to Squawka, Lyon have made the 7th most defensive actions in the league. With respect to Lopes it’s clear how important he has been for his side even without the benefit of statistics.

Perhaps most concerning of all is that Génésio’s team have already let in four goals from set pieces. The vulnerability from dead ball situations suggests a lack of effective organisation with Dijon’s third goal a perfect illustration of OL’s deficiencies.

Lyon’s open style of play should in theory leave them vulnerable on the counter but the stats this season and last don’t seem to bear that out. Instead it suggests an inability to close down space correctly or press effectively. Again stats can only reveal so much but in terms of patterns there seems to be a certain preference to stand off opponents rather than commit to the tackle. If the positioning and shape is sound then it’s perfectly valid to look for the opposition to make a mistake and pinch the ball but for one reason or another OL can’t seem to execute that particular strategy with complete confidence.

Relying on the experience of Jérémy Morel and Marcelo may have its merits too but the trade off is that neither are the quickest of defenders necessitating that OL defend relatively deep when possession is conceded. There’s nothing wrong with having a low block but it requires the players to be defensively well drilled, a quality that Les Gones lack.

Whether by accident or design Lyon’s approach appears to be to rely on their opponents in making the first mistake before regaining possession. Now is that on the instruction of defensive coach Claudio Caçapa or Génésio? Whatever the answer it does not reflect well on the OL head coach because he is either delegating too much to Caçapa or is not able to communicate his defensive ideas adequately.

Speaking of communication the inability of Génésio to integrate the highly rated Emanuel Mammana into the starting 11 is another issue that requires investigation. Last season Lyon only managed to keep 13 clean sheets in the league and five of those came when the Argentine played a full 90 minutes. The central defender was sold to Zenit Saint Petersburg for €16million much to the dismay OL supporters a number of whom took to Twitter to challenge club owner Jean-Michel Aulas about the decision.

It’ll come as little comfort to Lyon fans that Mammana looks to have cemented a starting place in the heart of the Zenit defence, playing eight times and keeping clean sheets in his last six matches. No doubt playing alongside a number of his countrymen has helped the central defender settle but surely that can’t be cited as the only reason for his renaissance.

Sometimes certain working relationships do not work out and that was the case with Génésio and Mammana. That said, given how the Argentine has taken to his new surroundings in the Russian Premier League one has to wonder how Roberto Mancini has been able to successfully coax performances out of Mammana in comparison with Génésio.

Following the result against Dijon, French football pundit Pierre Ménès said on Canal Football Club that Lyon should look for a replacement for Génésio, stating that club may need a more elite coach to work with this group of players.  Ménès went on to say that, despite Génésio’s failings, the criticism that the latter has received on social media is unjustified.

The barbs that Génésio has been receiving online may be over the top but the point Ménès makes about OL needing a better quality of coach is stinging. Génésio’s inability to address the defensive needs of his team will ultimately lead to his dismissal even taking into consideration the support he enjoys from Jean-Michel Aulas.

Génésio can justifiably claim that this season is one of transition for Olympique Lyonnais given the turnover of players this summer and the continuing, if slow, remodelling of the sporting infrastructure. However, defensive fragility has been a hallmark of his tenure and unless he rectifies that problem he may be referred to as ‘former Lyon head coach’ sooner rather than later.

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