Lyon tactics

AS Saint-Étienne – Olympique Lyonnais: Saint-Étienne Snatch Victory As Lyon Disappoints Again (1-0)

Le Classique (PSG versus Marseille) may be more known, but le Derby Rhône-Alpes – played between Olympique Lyonnais and Saint-Étienne – is perhaps France’s fiercest rivalry. On Sunday night, the two adversaries met at Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, with ASSE escaping as 1-0 winners – thanks to a 90th minute header from striker Robert Beric. 

Match report and tactical analysis by K.T. Stockwell

Saint-Étienne entered the weekend languishing in last place in Ligue 1. France’s historic leader in league titles lost their manager Jean-Louis Gasset to retirement over the summer and his assistant Ghislain Printant was selected to take over. Printant summoned only two wins from eight matches and was relieved of his duties earlier this week. Leaving new manager, veteran Claude Puel, only three days to prepare for Saint-Étienne’s biggest game of the year.

Under Gasset, ASSE fought their way to fourth in the table and earned a place in the Europa League. Their success was largely predicated on sound defensive structure and timely scoring from both Wahbi Khazri and Rémy Cabella. This season, with Cabella having been shipped off to Russia and Khazri struggling to find the net, ASSE have floundered. 

With little time to prepare it is no wonder that on Sunday night, Puel elected to go with a 3-4-1-2 formation – common under both Printant and Gasset. At the back the squad was buoyed by the return of William Saliba, who was joined by Loïc Perrin and Timothée Kolodziejczak to form the back-three. As wing-backs Puel selected Denis Bouanga and Miguel Trauco, while Yann M’Vila and Zaydou Youssouf shielded the defense in midfield. Ryad Boudebouz played attacking midfielder, behind a surprising front line, made up of Loïs Diony and debutant Charles Abi.

Meanwhile, after a blistering start, which saw Lyon outscore their opponents 9-0 in their first two matches, the club has completely stalled out, with zero wins from their last six matches.  The pressure has mounted on manager Sylvinho, whose tactics have been called into question in recent weeks. 

As has become tradition in Lyon, the club watched a number of their top players depart during the summer transfer window. Nevertheless, the new sporting director and club legend, Juninho, restocked the cupboard with talented players such as Jeff Reine-Adélaïde, Thiago Mendes, Joachim Andersen, Jean Lucas and Youssouf Koné. The acquisitions resulted in Lyon’s largest ever transfer outlay and the expenditure has come with expectations that, thus far, Sylvinho has failed to meet.  

The Brazilian manager has experimented with a number of formations to start the season, but on Saturday night he stuck with the 3-4-1-2 that served Lyon so well in their mid-week Champions League victory over RB Leipzig. The starting eleven stayed the same with only one switch, as Léo Dubois shifted to left wing-back, as Rafael was preferred on the right. Houssem Aouar retained his spot as the attacking midfielder, supporting the striker duo of Memphis Depay and Martin Terrier. 

A tactical stalemate

Fear can be a powerful motivator and that certainly seemed to be the case for both clubs in the first half. Both managers seemed content to let their teams sit deep, as their two sides struggled to generate anything offensively. The lack of forward thrust was in large part due to the fact that both Saint-Étienne and Lyon maintained what were effectively back-fives. The crowded backlines meant both sides lacked height on the flanks, as the wing-backs remained deep in order to protect against any potential transitions. 

A lack of height in the wide areas resulted in Lyon doing little during their long spells of possession early on. ASSE happily employed 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. that shifted fluidly between a 5-3-2 and 5-2-3 formation, allowing the home side to put pressure on Lyon’s three-man backline, which acted as the visitors’ primary collective in buildup. If Lyon ever did manage to build play more expediently, they were slowed by an intense back-press brought by the forwards, Diony and Abi.

ASSE’s defensive shape frustrated Lyon’s scattered buildup.

Conversely, Saint-Étienneshowed early signs of wanting to expose Lyon on the counterattack, but were thwarted by their guest’s willingness to sit back, as well as Lyon’s general disinterest in showing any sort of coordinated press. This was compounded by the fact that offensive midfielder Boudebouz was unable to find any space high up the pitch in central areas. As a consequence, ASSE defaulted to trying to spring the front two with ineffectual long balls. 

For both clubs, the lack of support from wide areas also made it very difficult for the forwards and attacking midfielders to get involved in the game. When they did receive the ball, they were quickly swarmed by defenders and had few options available to which to pass. The overall result was a first half that produced a solitary shot on target, no big chances created and a paltry fifty total passes in the final third. The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal.

A more adventurous second half 

Understanding Lyon’s lack of attacking intent, Puel immediately pushed his wing-backs higher up the pitch in the second half. Results quickly followed, as ASSE enjoyed greater possession and started to dominate Lyon territorial, as the guests remained wedded to their back five. 

Given greater license to get forward, Bouanga started to see much more of the ball on ASSE’s right flank. This attracted Boudebouz who began drifting toward the right, 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. with greater regularity. The two were able to play a number of successful combinations, which resulted in ASSE’s first two threatening attempts on goal. Nonetheless, the match remained cagey, as the packed Lyon defense made it difficult for ASSE to generate any sustained pressure. 

Bouanga’s more advanced role.

At the same time, Lyon remained toothless on the offensive front, prompting Sylvinho to bring on Moussa Dembélé for Terrier in the 59th minute. However, Lyon’s buildup remained largely unsuccessful, with Aouar and Memphis choosing to drop deeper, and push wider, in order to try and receive the ball. Unfortunately, by holding these positions, large gaps began to appear for Lyon throughout the pitch and inevitably, the ball was either turned over, or played back to the defensive line. Positional flaws like these have been common at Lyon for a couple of seasons now.  

Frustrated, center-back Andersen started launching the ball long to striker Dembélé, who was managing to find a bit of space on the flanks, thanks to ASSE’smore adventurous wing-backs. Regrettably, Saint-Étienne were still comfortable matching the isolated Lyonnais forward with their back three. . 

The match settled back into a largely defensive rhythm and it looked as though one of France’s foremost fixtures was set for a very underwhelming finish. However, in the 90th minute, Boudebouz found himself with the ball in what had quickly become a familiar pocket of space on the right flank, and promptly swung a perfectly weighted cross into the box, which was eagerly met by the head of substitute Robert Beric and guided into the back of the net. 

One goal was all ASSE needed, as Lyon failed to score in injury time and the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard celebrated their side’s first home win of the season, as well asmoving above Lyon in the Ligue 1 table. 


For ASSE and Puel, the win gives the squad something to build on, as they look to turn around their campaign and try and get back into European places. The club will hope that a dramatic win over their biggest rival will give the squad a boost, as Puel looks to try and draw more from key players such as, Khazri, Boudebouz and M’Vila. 

In Lyon, the loss could mean the end of Sylvinho’s tenure with the club. The Brazilian has struggled to adjust to the rigours of the professional game and in so doing has vastly underperformed with one of France’s most talented ladened squads. 

Lyon have lacked dynamism up front and in midfield all season. Through nine matches, they still do not seem to have a sense of their best formation or starting eleven. This is a major crossroad for one of France’s largest and most prestigious clubs. Already eleven points back of Paris Saint-Germain for first place, Lyon have given up on any chance at the title. Perhaps even more worrisome is the fact that Lyon are still seven points adrift of third, meaning the club may soon have to part ways with the notion of Champions League football.  

By time of publication, Sylvinho had already been sacked as Lyon manager. 

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