A Lost Season On The Banks Of Le Rhône
The feeling of optimism permeated Olympique Lyonnais as the club prepared to embark on the 2019/20 season. Juninho’s return as sporting director, his handpicked managerial appointment, as well as record spending in the transfer market had supporters eager to watch their club venture into a new era. Eight months later, those sentiments have been long forgotten. Lyon sit in seventh position – nine points away from European places – Juninho’s triumphant return dampened, his handpicked replacement sacked. What went wrong?
Written by K.T. Stockwell.
On 28 May 2019 Lyon officially introduced Juninho as the club’s new sporting director. It is difficult to understate the elevated status the Brazilian enjoys in Lyon – his name synonymous with the club’s most successful years. The good faith he engendered coupled with his knowledge of the inner workings of the club made him the perfect candidate to begin the transfer of power over day-to-day footballing activities away from chairman Jean-Michel Aulas.
Nonetheless, the appointment was still a risk. Entering the job, the 45-year-old had no previous experience as a sporting director and was immediately tasked with navigating a complicated transfer window. The market would see Lyon part with key players Tanguy Ndombélé, Nabil Fékir and Ferland Mendy, in the process bringing in Thiago Mendes, Joachim Andersen, Youssouf Koné, Jeff Reine-Adélaïde and Jean Lucas. The bevy of activity would see Lyon set a club record in spending.
Despite the extravagant outlay it would be Juninho’s appointment of fellow Brazilian Sylvinho as the club’s manager that would prove to be his most significant acquisition – and the season-defining misstep.
A risky appointment
Much like the new sporting director, Sylvinho was a risky choice. The former Barcelona fullback had never before served as head coach. His most recent spell came as a technical coach for the Brazilian national team, previous to which he acted in a similar role for Internazionale. Regardless, he was greeted warmly by the Lyonnais faithful, who welcomed any alternative to his predecessor, Bruno Génésio.
Early results were promising under Sylvinho, as Lyon won their first two matches – including a 6-0 thrashing of Angers. However, the underlying performances in these fixtures were less appetizing and predicted the extreme dip in form that would come to define Sylvinho’s tenure.
No tactical aspect better exemplified the lack of modernity in Sylvinho’s system than his insistence on playing a flat back four with stagnant fullbacks.
His first choice fullbacks, Léo Dubois and Koné, were generally placed only slightly ahead of the center-back pairing of Jason Denayer and Andersen. The manager explained this was to guard against potential counterattacks in the hope of ensuring a more solid defensive base. By-and-large this bore out, as Lyon were one of Ligue 1’s best defensive sides during his reign.
Unfortunately, going forward it was extremely limiting. As the formation lacked width it was comfortable to defend against. Teams simply began packing midfield – cutting the passing lanes off in the center of the pitch – confident Lyon would be unable to find gaps on the flanks.
Lyon’s buildup against Angers lacking width and support for Dembélé along the front line.
In order to stretch the field horizontally Lyon often had their wingers take up positions along the touchline. However, this was rarely coupled with the fullbacks holding inverted positions. The knock-on effects were that the midfield could not afford to join the frontline, as Lyon would lack numbers in buildup. This all led to Dembélé, the striker, being extremely isolated.
The system also made pressing more difficult. Without active fullbacks and the defensive midfielder being used as a strict shield, it became nearly impossible for Sylvinho’s side to collect the numbers necessary in the attacking third to put meaningful pressure on the ball. Ultimately, the success Lyon had was usually the result of impressive individual actions and not contemplated team moves.
Lyon’s passmap against Angers demonstrates Dembélé’s isolation, as well as Lyon’s lack of incisiveness through the middle.
These factors saw Lyon enjoy very limited possession in the final third, The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. as u-shaped pass maps and low expected goals counts The amount of goals a team is expected to score based on the quality of the shots they take. quickly became the norm.
Under Sylvinho, Lyon ranked in the bottom half of the league in non-penalty expected goals (NPxG) – a shocking reality for a club replete with attacking talent.
Sylvinho’s rudimentary tactics were found out quickly by more savvy Ligue 1 managers and as a result, Lyon completely collapsed. After his home debut, the Brazilian failed to win another match as Lyon manager – the club went seven domestic fixtures without a victory and fell as far as fourteenth in the table. The catastrophic run of form left Juninho no choice but to sack his countryman and in the process, relinquish a portion of control back to Aulas.
Garcia, injuries and inconsistency
Lyon’s new manager was to be Rudi Garcia. The Frenchman’s history in the league – which has included spells at Lyon rivals Marseille and Saint-Étienne – coloured his arrival. His appointment was met with frustration by club supporters, who went so far as to boo the 55-year-old at his first home match.
The Frenchman has improved results, but the team is still nowhere near what was needed in order to re-establish the side at the top of the table. Garcia’s tactics have at times appeared dated and he’s struggled to establish a playing identity – rotating between several different formations and personnel changes, yet to land on something suitable.
That said, he has not been dealt a stellar hand; both Memphis Depay and Jeff Reine-Adélaïde suffered season ending injuries before the winter break, and both Dubois and Koné have missed significant minutes due to injuries. What is more, the club ultras have refused to accept him and in the process sparked a war with Aulas – the club even threatening legal action on those deriding Garcia through social media.
A dim beacon of light
A consistent theme running through the Génésio and Sylvinho reigns was Lyon’s struggles to break down a medium block. A medium block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half. In European action, the club has found success playing in transition, as there is less pressure to dominate possession. The opposite of which is true domestically. Year-over-year, Lyon rank near the top of Ligue 1 in terms of average possession; a by-product of opponents guarding against their obvious offensive talents.
Garcia has faced the same obstacle for much of his tenure, but for a brief period following the winter break he seemed to have landed on a useful formation. The former Roma manager adopted a 4-3-3- shape – using Mendes, Houssem Aouar and youngster Maxence Caqueret in the midfield.
The system worked near flawlessly against Bordeaux and for the first time all year, Lyon exhibited the balance and dynamism expected of them. At the heart of the setup was the relationship between Caqueret and Aouar. The former brought a new level of ball maintenance to the right side and possessed the ability to work in a double pivot 4-2-3-1 is one of the most frequently occurring formations in football. The two most defensive midfielders are called a ‘double pivot’. with Mendes, as well as venture forward and work in between the lines. In turn this flexibility allowed Aouar to focus his attention further up the field – occupying the left halfspace If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have the freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. and central positions underneath Dembélé.
Caqueret’s movement worked fluidly with Traoré on the right, who tends to drop in the space between the lines and halfspace, as well as Mendes, who now had a reliable outlet and buildup partner. Furthermore, Caqueret hit forward passes and could press effectively.
Lyon’s buildup against Bordeaux’s solid 4-4-2 medium-block.
The match against Bordeaux was one of Lyon’s most fulsome performances of the season and should have acted as a foundation on which they could build a promising system. Instead, as had become commonplace under Garcia, he pivoted away from the setup after Caqueret experienced a brief dip in form.
This time Garcia’s move was to switch to a 3-5-2 formation, which swapped Caqueret for Lucas Tousart and integrated new arrival, Bruno Guimarães. The system was first tried domestically against Metz; a match Lyon won two-nil, but with a subpar performance – once again struggling to pierce their opponents defensive structure.
Fortunately for Garcia, the system worked tremendously in the following fixture: a Champions League home tie against Juventus. The Italians were poor on the evening, but Lyon’s work-rate and defensive structure were marvelous and Tousart was responsible and effective in the defensive third.
The system itself is geared toward a 5-3-2 medium-to-low block, as the back five stretched across the pitch to limit the wide play of opponents. Regrettably, Garcia misunderstood European success as something that could be replicated domestically – where the attacking impetus is on Lyon.
Back in Ligue 1 the system was ruthlessly exposed by Christophe Galtier and Lille in Lyon’s final Ligue 1 fixture before the coronavirus imposed break. Defensively, Lille uncovered Lyon’s lack of balance in midfield where the decision to substitute Caqueret for Tousart had dreadful effects – the latter rarely getting a useful touch on the ball and struggling with his positioning during buildup. The result was familiar, as Garcia’s side struggled to progress through the middle of the park – failing to break down Lille’s 4-4-2 medium block. Offensively Lille simply stacked midfield and out-manned Lyon in central areas with their 4-2-2-2 formation.
Lyon’s buildup in a 3-5-2 formation against Lille. Garcia’s side unable to progress centrally.
In the 2019/20 season Lyon have been largely defined by an absence of tactical identity. The over-reliance on individual quality has been stymied by the better drilled and well-defined sides that now occupy the top of the Ligue 1 table. Thomas Tuchel’s PSG, Julien Stéphan’s Rennes, Galtier’s Lille and André Villas-Boas’ Marseille all have a distinct style of play. This is vital in helping to explain why Garcia and Lyon have lost every league match against the top four this season.
It remains uncertain how the remainder of the 2019/20 campaign will play out and whether or not it will finish. Nevertheless, moving forward it is unlikely Garcia will be asked to return next season; the Frenchman signed a two-year contract with the club, but given Aulas’ exacting standards it would be surprising if Lyon retained him for another year.
If the season is to be completed, Lyon would face quite the uphill battle to get back into Europe next season. No Champions or Europa League football would put a significant dent in the team’s finances and in order to supplement, Lyon may be forced to sell more players than normal during the off-season. And yet, a terrific academy ensures that the cupboards are still full of promising young talents capable of supplying the club with enough firepower to compete.
However, if this disappointing season has taught the club anything, it will be that they need to commit to a tactical philosophy; one that can help guide both player recruitment and on field decision-making. Sylvinho was perhaps meant to fill that role, but his inexperience proved problematic. Consequently, the club went to an old hand in Garcia, who under pressure to collect points, has been tactically unreliable.
A dependable production line of talent is worthless unless you are able to harness it effectively. Therefore, it will be up to Juninho to search out a manager with a committed philosophy and capable of working in a strenuous environment to lead the club into the future. It will not be easy, but if Lyon hope to make the jump from sporadic Champions League entrants to a consistent European player it is essential.