Five days before Olympique Lyonnais beat Juventus in the first leg of their Round of 16 Champions League tie way back in February, Rudi Garcia hinted at a change in shape by starting three at the back in a 2-0 win over Metz.
Using tracking data to identify the precise formation, it was essentially a 3-4-1-2, at least for the first half, and it worked. Lyon led 1-0 at half-time, and the 1.81-0.15 expected goals advantage supported it as a deserved lead. It was assumed the move was in preparation for Juventus, but while Garcia stuck to a back three against Maurizio Sarri, the first-year Lyon manager altered the formation slightly along with the starting XI.
Lyon still played with two up top against Juventus, which certainly wasn’t a given for them this season across Ligue 1 and the Champions League.
For some tracking-based background, OL’s most common shape this season across both competitions was more of a 4-1-4-1:
Their next most common shape was a slight variation of this with their attacking central midfielders adjusting so the role on the right became slightly more advanced and the role on the left became withdrawn.
When they did play with two forwards, it was a 4-2-2-2 and their third most common shape of the combined domestic and European season:
Against Juve, Garcia shifted from the 3-4-1-2 he went with against Metz by removing attacking midfielder Martin Terrier from the starting XI, replacing him with Houssem Aouar, and moving Bruno Guimarães into more of a holding midfield role.
It was shown as a fairly basic 3-4-3 in pre-match media, but the tracking data shows us it varied somewhere between that, a 3-5-2 and a 5-3-2, and we’ve got to remember Lyon led for most of the match, so there’s probably a defensive tilt to this look:
Each number visualised above is representative of an entire tracking-based role, not just one player. This allows us to more accurately classify formation over an entire match and account for players overlapping or changing sides. Using those roles rather than traditional player-specific XY position, below is what Lyon looked like in the goalless half hour leading to Lucas Tousart’s 31st-minute goal. Their wide players were unsurprisingly farther advanced:
Bit of a digression here with the next image, but it’s important to look beyond average XY position to assess shape in cases like this because Lyon were playing with a front two that weren’t opposed to changing sides. If we only use each individual’s XY rather than classifying a player into a role every tenth of a second with tracking, it looks like Karl Toko Ekambi and Moussa Dembélé were holding hands all night:
Going back to the role-based formation, there were predictable variations to this when attacking or defending, and a shift toward more of a 5-3-2 after they took the lead:
Whatever you want to call it, it’s not a clean 3-5-2, 5-3-2 or 3-4-3. Aouar (most frequently in the 6 role above), regardless of game state, is consistently in a more advanced position than Tousart (in the 5 role above). That’s not surprising. The 22-year-old is a forward-thinking player. Aouar’s role is 19 metres from the deepest defender:
While Tousart is 16:
One might think this would be an area for Juve to find space between the left side of Lyon’s midfield and defence, but it might be the opposite. Bruno Guimarães (in the 4 role above) seems to be aware of this, and he may be favouring the left side of the formation as a result.
This could be significant in and out of possession. Regardless of whether Lyon are attacking or defending, the combination of Aouar’s slightly more advanced role and Guimarães’ positioning left-centre positioning as a result is opening up space in the defence.
Let’s first look at it in the offensive context. When Lyon have the ball in the attacking half, Aouar at the 6 role is probably more of a left forward than a midfielder, while the left-centre back role is notably higher than the right, and the same goes for attacking-minded Maxwel Cornet in the 0 role wide left:
The 1, 0 and 6 roles are even more advanced when Lyon progress into sustained threat in the attacking third:
What could this mean? Well, it gives Juve’s offensive players, some of the most dangerous attackers in Europe, quite a bit of space to launch a potential counter:
Juve don’t counter all that much. Their 3.4 counters per match rank below the combined Serie A and Champions League average (4.3), but they generate a shot on half and score a third of a goal per match off possessions involving counter attacks, which is higher than the competitions’ joint average (0.2).
Let’s now look at this in the defensive context. Below, Juventus are in possession in the selected area of the pitch with Lyon’s players pictured. The backline is equally spaced with Lyon centre back Marcelo (role number 2) nine metres from his right-centre back and his left-centre back. And those players are both eight metres from what in this context are now wing backs rather than wide midfielders.
There’s nine metres between Guimarães’ holding midfield position and the left back:
But there’s 13 between holding mid and the right:
Below, as Juve move entirely into the attacking half, the space for a through ball is evident with Cristiano Ronaldo (the player most often in the 8 role) isolated against the right back, whereas there’s little room for much other than a ball over the top on the other side:
And that space remains as we add further context of a specific playing style as Juve move into sustained threat and push the Lyon backline farther toward their own penalty area. This is something we could see a lot of if Lyon are able to retain their lead for a while Friday:
If we take another look, though, this might not be because Guimarães is out of position or being forced out of position by Aouar. It might simply be because Juve are opening this space up for Ronaldo purposefully by having the centre forward (most frequently Paulo Dybala in the 9 role) and the wide right threat (most frequently Cuadrado in the 7) favour the right. So this could just as well be analysis of Juve’s attack for Lyon as it is analysis of Lyon’s defence for Juventus.
Juve, meanwhile, most often played a fairly traditional 4-3-3 across Serie A and the Champions League this season:
How did they look against Lyon? Well, a bit lopsided. Asymmetrical to say the least, particularly in the 70 minutes Cuadrado was on the pitch and it looked like they had an additional limb growing from their right side:
Note the back four keeps traditional shape, as do the three midfield roles. Cuadrado and that 7 role as a whole throws things off (he spent over 50 minutes in that role), while Dybala and the 9 role drifts his way.
So, Juventus look like they were either playing wide right consistently and trying to get the ball into the box from there with Ronaldo’s 8 role on the end of it, or trying to isolate him in possession situations. Recall the contextualised shapes we saw above when Juve were in possession and sustaining threat. This shape remained true with the 7 role stretching wide and the 9 following, so it’s probably more than just a matter of that wide attacking threat trying to swing balls into the box to an aerially adept striker. It seems they’re also trying to free him up when Lyon have men closing passing lanes behind the ball.
There are some key personnel issues that could change things for both attacks. If Dybala misses the match, Juventus’ front three may change approach. Memphis Depay has returned for Lyon after an extended absence, so it’ll be interesting to see how that impacts Aouar.
For that, we should be able to gain a bit of insight by looking at the Coupe de la Ligue final against Paris Saint-Germain. Memphis was back for this match, which PSG won in penalties after a scoreless 120 minutes. Memphis played with Dembélé up top, while Maxence Caqueret replaced Tousart in the starting XI. It looked a bit more uniform across the entire match:
But, similarly to when attacking against Juventus in February, that became imbalanced with those attacking-minded players on the left against PSG as well:
Lyon have made it and held two of the best teams in Europe scoreless.
We don’t yet know if Garcia or Sarri will throw a wrench in this by changing formations. But we do know we’ll at least now be able to properly assess whichever shapes they show us.
Shape analysis completed with Edge Analysis.
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