With the domestic season drawing to a close, Olympique Lyonnais went into this match knowing that a victory would secure them Champions League football through qualifiers next season. However, with only three wins in their previous seven games, Lyon knew that they could not be complacent against 18th placed SM Caen in Ligue 1.
The away side were embroiled in a relegation play-off battle with AS Monaco and SC Amiens, meaning that an unlikely victory at the Groupama Stadium would take them to a safe 17th place.
Lyon manager, Bruno Genesio made only a solitary change to the side that won convincingly at the Orange Velodrome with the introduction of Moussa Dembele for Nabil Fekir. This change saw Memphis Depay deployed in an attacking midfield role, one which he had only played four times this season before this match.
Meanwhile, Fabien Mercadal made two changes to his Caen side that claimed a vital victory against Stade Reims. In came Younn Zahary and Enzo Crivelli for Herman Moussaki and Malik Tchokounte respectively.
Tactical analysis: Lyon’s attacking threat
Those who have watched Lyon in recent seasons can attest to their threat on the counter, as depicted in the above image. Soon after Lyon wins the ball in a counter-press, Caen were victims to such threat.
The likes of Cornet, Terrier, and Depay all made incisive runs beyond or either side of Caen’s exposed back line, creating a 4 v 4 situation. The speed and dynamism of Lyon’s attacking runners proved to be too much for Caen to handle.
A common feature of Depay’s stellar performance in this match was the vast space the Dutchman repeatedly found between Caen’s midfield and defensive lines. While customarily playing either as a centre forward or left winger this season, Depay fulfilled his role as an attacking midfielder in this game very well.
Depay was involved in virtually every dangerous Lyon attack, either carrying the ball forward on the counter or receiving the ball on the half-turn in space to feed his attackers.
Stemming from Depay’s astute midfield positioning, the Dutchman spread the play to Cornet. Another notable characteristic of Lyon’s attack is their wingers taking up very wide positions and cutting inside onto their stronger feet to shoot or lay the ball off to an auxiliary midfielder.
Cornet chose the latter option as his width provoked both Fajr and Imorou to close him down, giving Aouar space on the edge of the box. Also, the presence of Lyon’s fullbacks in attack (Dubois in the above image) meant that Caen’s wingers (Ninga) were forced to stay tight and track the overlap.
Lyon’s midfield mastery
The astute midfield partnership of Houssem Aouar and Tanguy Ndombele meant that Lyon were very comfortable in possession of the ball. Both players provided horizontal passes with relative ease to stretch Caen’s defensive shape and expose gaps for their attacking players to take advantage of. The double-pivot of Aouar and Ndombele also possess an exceptional range of passing and dribbling abilities. These are essential skills needed to break defensive and midfield lines either in build-up or on the counter.
Tanguy Ndombele is one of the most press-resistant midfielders in Europe, combining his supreme dribbling ability with his vision and athleticism to bypass opposition players with consummate ease. However, when granted space and options as the French midfielder has in the above image, Ndombele needed no invitation to glide forward and find the perfect pass to his attackers.
Caen’s pressing strategy:
Caen were aware that their chances in this game would be few and far between. So, they endeavoured to fashion their chances by pressing Lyon’s defence which opted to play the ball out of danger.
Caen did this by closing down passing lanes to Lyon’s defenders and midfielders. As the image above shows, Guilbert (circled) pressed Jeremy Morel from an angle which inhibited a pass to Mendy and Crivelli (circled) cut off the option to Marcelo. Meanwhile, Khaoui (circled) marked Ndombele closely in the knowledge that he was Morel’s most favourable passing option out of danger.
In the end, Morel’s misjudged pass fell to Khaoui who played in Fajr and his top corner-bound effort was expertly tipped over by Anthony Lopes.
Caen’s carelessness in midfield
While it is well-known that Lyon are always going to be dangerous on the counter-attack, Caen prepared poorly for this eventuality. When the away side lost the ball, the double pivot of Fajr and Deminguet (circled) were rarely positioned to provide their back line with enough defensive cover. This meant Caen were vulnerable to Lyon’s counters time and time again.
Despite this, the above image suggests that Caen’s defenders were not entirely hopeless in thwarting Lyon’s counter as they picked up decent positions.
However, just seconds later, Caen’s once organised back line lost all its discipline in attempting to obstruct Dembele’s strong run, leaving Martin Terrier completely free and Cornet and Depay with space to penetrate beyond the defence.
The main issue with Caen’s defensive strategy is that it was heavily influenced by ball-watching. This was exemplified in Caen’s left back, Imorou, focusing solely on Dembele in possession as opposed to the onrushing Cornet running in behind him.
While Caen’s defence were at sixes and sevens, this alarming defending stemmed from the lack of defensive cover from Caen’s midfield. With such talented runners on the ball at their disposal, Lyon often had their way with Caen’s back line and the away side’s midfield were lethargic in support of their defensive counterparts.
In the end, Lyon’s supreme blend of midfielders with an eye for a killer pass and pacey and penetrative attackers was enough to secure an emphatic margin of victory for the home side.
On the other hand, Caen’s fate in the relegation play-offs was all but sealed, barring a final day loss for Amiens and a six-goal defeat of Monaco. Their utter lack of focus and cover in transition was their Achilles heel as Lyon’s players were much better on the day.
Having only made five appearances as an attacking midfielder this season, the former Manchester United attacker, Depay has contributed to five goals and two assists. This is his most fruitful return in any position he’s played in this campaign – and – should Lyon lose Nabil Fekir in this summer’s transfer window, Bruno Genesio would likely be eyeing Depay as a suitable replacement for the Frenchman.
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