FC Barcelona – Olympique Lyonnais: Lyon’s Mirrored Setup Backfires To Devastating Effect (5-1)

Bruno Génésio’s Lyon went for an ambitious man-for-man approach in the second leg of their tie with FC Barcelona. Because of Lyon’s poor execution of the matching system and the clear division in individual quality, Barcelona were able to comfortably wipe aside the French underdogs.

Tactical analysis and match report by Peter M.

Barça boss Ernesto Valverde made just three changes to the side that beat Rayo Vallecano 3-1 at the weekend, although it might have been four, had it not been for a knock Ousmane Dembélé picked up in that clash. Elsewhere in the starting eleven, Ivan Rakitić returned in place of Arturo Vidal whilst Sergi Roberto and Clément Lenglet were brought into the defense.

Génésio made lots of changes to his team. A change of system – now a 3-4-1-2 as opposed to a 4-3-3 – and the return of Lyon’s star names meant that only the likes of Moussa Dembélé, Lucas Tousart, Ferland Mendy, Jason Denayer, Marcelo and Anthony Lopes kept their places from the eleven that only managed a 2-2 draw away to RC Strasbourg on Saturday.

Early problems for Lyon

Both in and out of possession, Lyon set themselves up in their 3-4-1-2 formation. A brave decision by Génésio, who chose to hammer and tong with Barça. From the start, there were some problems with this approach, however.

In possession, their plan backfired mostly because they had done the hard work for the opposition already. Because Lyon went man-for-man, Barça were already neatly in position to press man-for-man. Unlike Barça, Lyon simply did not have the intelligence nor the experience of playing under these conditions to be able to play their way out of such situations. As a result, lots of their build-up play resulted in turnovers within their own half, and at best, in hopeful long balls into the attackers.

Out of possession, it was more about Lyon’s poor execution of the strategy than about the strategy itself. Because Lyon’s center-backs were not always fully committed to being tight to Barça’s attackers all the way into midfield – which is indeed quite a scary task if you think about it – it left Messi, Suarez and Coutinho them free to receive and turn.

This was best showcased in an early attack from Barcelona. Center-back Gerard Piqué, when roaming out from deep, was given a clear route across into Arthur. In part thanks to Sergio Busquets dropping deep to create a back-three, which drew in Lyon’s forward Nabil Fekir, it was more down to Messi’s movements into the center that formed a magnet-like response from the surrounding Lyon central midfielders. Tousart, who was tasked with marking Arthur, hesitated positionally when Messi entered the frame, meaning the route into the Brazilian midfielder was now open.

Messi creating conundrum in midfield, thus opening route into Arthur.

In the next phase, Tousart once again shifted too deep of his marker, allowing Arthur to receive in the middle. Then, in another common occurrence, the midfielder played directly into the feet of a Barça forward – this time Messi. If you are giving away passing routes into Messi that easily, it is not going to be an easy game for you at Camp Nou.

From this attack in particular, Messi rode the challenge across before sliding through Coutinho’s out-to-in run but Coutinho’s attempted square ball across to Suárez was lacking. Only ninety seconds later however, the rest of Lyon’s problems would be badly exposed as well. The one criminal act you must not commit when playing a high line is give time and space to your opponents. This is just what Lyon did.

Arthur, with more time on the ball, spread it out to Alba. Then came the repeatedly exposed aspect of Lyon’s defensive set-up – exploiting the space in front. It was even more of an issue in this deeper block. With the midfield pairing Tanguy Ndombele and Lucas Tousart completely overrun and lacking any support from the frontline, Messi and Suárez would freely drop into pockets of spaces within the midfield. This time, Suárez received in the space and played a clever give-and-go with Coutinho to spin in behind, which resulted in a well-denied Messi attempt.

General setups when Lyon sat deeper as a unit.

The wave of threatening attacks continued as Messi, in the thirteenth minute, was played in behind by a Busquets ball over the top, thanks to the lack of pressure he was faced with. Lopes crucially parried it away.

Two minutes later, Messi was located in the same space after Alba cut in. Suárez, who was now free out wide having rotated there in support of Alba, combined with Messi as he drew a challenge from Denayer that resulted in a penalty. And so Messi stepped up to the spot, and so Messi scored, Panenka-style.

Little to be said for Lyon in attack

Lyon were disappointingly unthreatening on the other end. Despite highly positioned forwards and lots of attacking flair within the team, the occasion appeared to get the better of them. After twenty minutes, on their first clear attack, Ndombele managed to wriggle free in midfield. As he looked to do so frequently, Ndombele tried to play directly into the two strikers ahead of him. Moussa Dembélé, the receiver this time, located Memphis Depay in behind, who had come back from an offside position. The Dutch international cut it back as Ndombele saw his shot in a decent area blocked.

This was one of very fey chances for Lyon. The general problem for them was that they tried to go directly through the center all too often. Rarely ever did they attempt to play from Mendy into Depay on the left. And on the other side, right back Dubois was completely isolated, with no support from Moussa Dembélé.

The Barça onslaught continues

The home side were truly unrelenting in terms of their attacks. I was chance after chance for the home side, and all of those chances were because of the previously highlighted defensive issues. First there was Coutinho’s diagonal run to get in behind; another effort well-stopped by Lopes. Then there was Suárez’s effort inside the box following Messi picking it up in midfield once again.

Finally, in the thirty-first minute, Barça got their reward and doubled the lead. Arthur, with time on the ball again, twice fed it into the feet of the forwards. Once to Messi and then into Suárez, who showed off his individual superiority with a brilliant touch-and-go, opening up the option to square it across to Coutinho for a tap-in.

Lyon work their way back into the game out of seemingly nothing

Following one fairly dangerous counterattack that was poorly wasted, the away side appeared to regain some confidence. This was massively boosted by the goal that so closely followed this attack.

From a short corner, a ball whipped towards the back-post and was headed back across. Busquets’ clearance away from danger was limp and so there was room enough for Tousart to coolly chest it down and place it in the corner. 2-1, and we had ourself a game again, as Lyon needed only one goal to progress, even after they had survived a flurry of Barcelona chances.

The improvements in Lyon’s performance as a team were astonishing after his goal. They were pressing aggressively and well as a unit. Barça could not catch their breath. Lyon even managed to manufacture another opportunity when Mendy’s storming run from deep got him to the byline. His cutback found Depay but his scuffed, volleyed effort was of no danger to Marc-André ter Stegen’s goal. Shows how much games can sometimes be changed by a single goal.

Génésio’s forced attacking change hands Barça the victory

When Mendy was forced off through injury, Génésio’s hand was forced. For his final substitution, he made the bold decision to put on Maxwel Cornet and switch to a 4-2-3-1 shape. Unfortunately, what the coach could not have foreseen was Barcelona doubling their lead for the second time, a mere thirty seconds after his substitution.

As Marcelo played it into substitute Bertrand Traoré’s feet, the winger looked to lay it off for Tousart, but Rakitić was first to it. Instantly, the three-versus-three became a two-versus-three and Lyon were on the racks. Messi received the ball immediately and just teased the Lyon defense before ignoring the options either side of him, dummying his shot, jinxing onto his right and just about managing to squeeze it past substitute goalkeeper Mathieu Gorgelin. 3-1, and as sudden as Lyon flamed up, their fire was extinguished. In the last ten minutes, Barcelona would go on to wrap up the tie in style with Piqué and Ousmane Dembélé both scoring goals on the counterattack.


Lyon had it coming based on their first leg performance and issues in midfield were only heightened by this change of system from Génésio. This match serves as a another question mark next to his name, as his naive tactics did not trouble Barcelona much, bar a short spell in the second half. For now, Lyon will just have to focus on catching up with second-placed Lille OSC and hunting down Coupe de France glory.

With both of their Spanish rivals out of the Champions League now and the league title all but confirmed once again, Barça are surely among the cast of favorites to reclaim the famous silver cup. Will they add another edition of the most coveted prize in modern European football to their cabinet? Stay tuned.

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Peter (20), lives just outside of London. He’s been writing about tactics and such for over a year now, contributing to a couple of sites during that time. His main club is Arsenal but he’s also followed Real Betis quite heavily since Quique Setién took over last year. This form of writing has become a great passion of his and, although he’s unsure of what his end aim is, he’s enjoying being given new opportunities to continue doing so. [ View all posts ]


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