The long-awaited UEFA Champions League is finally back. To enhance the enthusiasm, the competition started with a game of one of the most unpredictable and competitive groups, group G. Therefore in this group, every point is vital and every home advantage must be capitalised.
Lyon had an incredible beginning in Ligue 1, scoring nine goals in two games. Consequently, the French side looked like they were unstoppable. However, since then Sylvinho’s side has won just two points from three matches.
On the other hand, Zenit made a quite solid but not so spectacular start of the season. Indeed, they gathered 20 points out of 27, winning their last two games before initiating their UCL campaign.
Lyon made some minor modifications on their favourite scheme for this season (4-1-4-1). They played in a 4-2-3-1 with one of the two centre midfielders occupying a more defensive role. The usual starters Andersen and Aouar watched the match from the bench, giving place to Marcelo and Reine-Adélaïde.
The French side’s backline stayed almost the same but with Marcelo instead of Andersen. In the middle, Tousart was more a defensive midfielder while Mendes and Reine-Adélaïde took care of the team’s midfield onslaughts.
Depay and Traoré took care of the wings of the home team attack. Additionally, Dembélé played in the middle of the front trident, with the help of Reine-Adélaïde who played more as an attacking midfielder.
As far as Zenit’s scheme is considered, they tried to surprise their opponents by utilising a new tactic. In order to be stronger defensive-wise, Sergei Semak assembled his team in a 3-5-2. With this in mind, Semak made some changes to the usual lineup.
Ozdoev, Sutormin and Smolnikov gave their place to Osorio, Karavaev and the ‘veteran’ Zhirkov. The back three was formed by the experienced Rakitskiy and Ivanovic plus the loaned centre-back, Yordan Osorio.
Zenit’s midfield was composed by Douglas who usually plays as the left-back, along with Barrios and Driussi. On the wings, Semak chose the defensively familiarised Zhirkov and Karavaev to do the job.
Offensively speaking, Dzyuba and Azmoun teamed up as usual and searched for opportunities to hurt the French side.
Lyon’s inefficient attacks
To begin with, both teams tried quick attacks in different ways, both for different reasons. As a consequence, there were a lot of changes in the ball’s possession. Both teams had similar average possession duration throughout the game. According to Wyscout, Lyon’s average possession duration was 16 seconds while Zenit’s was 15 seconds.
Lyon tried, firstly, to take advantage of their front three’s speed by launching several long balls to the back of Zenit’s defensive line. This example is represented in the image below. The Russians’ backline is not that fast, yet they blocked almost every one of Lyon’s efforts. Even though Lyon had success in 60% of their long passes, they did not create many chances of goal through this kind of play.
Secondly, Lyon tried to pass the ball more, but Zenit perfectly closed the middle of the pitch. This event forced the French team to play through the wings, falling on the Russian’s ‘trap’.
Lyon’s team had no patience in their build-up. Also, the home team were not able to play through the middle, as seen in the image below. They shifted the ball a few times from one side to the other and tried crosses, long-range shots and dribbles. This resulted in few opportunities for the French side.
To clarify, let’s take a look at Lyon’s crosses in the image below. Silvinho’s side made almost all of their attacks through the wings. As a consequence of Zenit’s blockage in the middle, they tried to score through different types of crosses. Unsurprisingly, this did not work. With three high centre-backs, Lyon’s crosses were a waste of time. Lyon tried 20 crosses with a success rate of 15% and even the successful ones were not so dangerous.
Similarly, Lyon’s shots were not so efficient with Lunev making almost no difficult save. The French side tried 19 shots, including the penalty, and only eight of them were on target. From the nine outside of the box shots, they managed to hit the goal four times. From the 10 inside the box shots, only four were on goal, including the penalty. The image below demonstrates exactly that.
Following this inefficiency, Lyon’s players began to try their luck with individual plays. Let’s take a look at the dribbling statistics from this season of Depay, Adélaïde and Traoré.
This season, the three players averaged 6.92, 8.53 and 8.82 dribbles per game, respectively. On this match, the numbers were a bit higher. Depay tried 11 dribbles and completed seven. Adélaïde tried 11 dribbles and completed eight. While on the other hand, Traoré tried 12 and completed only two dribbles. Even though Depay’s and Adélaïde’s success rate is impressive, they did not manage to do much harm to the opponent.
Overall the French team exaggerated on these kinds of play. Instead of trying more combinations through the middle, Lyon tried to breach Zenit’s defence with individual plays.
Zenit’s solid defence
Before starting to mention Zenit’s defensive positioning, let’s mention the Russian side’s defensive commitment. Without any exception, Zenit’s players gave all they had throughout the 90 minutes. Therefore, they were able to stop almost every single attempt against their goal. If it was not for the Ozdoev penalty, perhaps they would have exited the Parc Olympique Lyonnais with three points.
Zenit’s positioning changed while they were defending. The 3-5-2 seemed more like a 5-3-2 while they were defending. The wingers Zhirkov and Karavaev, who are accustomed to defensive positions, would align with the centre-backs, as demonstrated in the image below.
As can be seen above, Semak’s side closed very well the middle of the pitch. Helping the backline, the midfield men plus Azmoun (Driussi after Azmoun’s injury) would make a diamond shape “shield” just in front of Zenit’s area. When the French side tried to play through the middle, they usually had to do a back or lateral pass.
This positioning had two outcomes: Firstly, Lyon’s excessive crosses and wing play, which was what Zenit wanted; and secondly, it resulted in Dembele’s out of the spotlight exhibition. As seen in the image below, Dembele is in the middle of many Zenit players and when he received the ball he was “muffled”.
Although Zenit adopted a more defensive structure this does not mean that they parked the bus. In some periods of the game, the Russian side pressured Lyon higher on the pitch. In the last fifteen minutes, Semak changed the structure to a 4-4-1-1. Obviously after that, Zenit defended with all their players except for Dzyuba.
Zenit’s harmless attacks
Unlike their superb defensive performance, Zenit were a little simple in their offensive work. Semak’s side tried to surprise the opponent by doing energetic attacks and combinations between their players.
Firstly, Zenit tried to surprise the home team by launching long balls to the front when they recovered possession. Even though Zenit made 40 long passes with a success rate of 60%, they did not produce any opportunity with this. Dzyuba and Azmoun would win aerial duels or hold the ball, but they were a bit lonely at the front. When the rest of the team arrived, they had already lost the ball. The image below shows us exactly that.
After the first half-hour, Zenit tried a different approach. Semak’s side continued doing quick transitions to the attack but with short combinations between their players. This resulted in more approaches to the area, more shots and crosses.
Even though this was a good idea, Zenit were not that dangerous throughout the game. Nevertheless, this resulted in Azmoun’s goal, however, in many other tries it ended with Zenit losing possession with many missed passes.
Similarly to Lyon, Zenit’s shots were not that threatening, as shown in the graphic below. The Russian side tried 11 shots with only three being on target. Semak’s side attempted seven outside of the box shots and only one hit the goal. Inside the box, Zenit was more efficient with two shots on goal (including Azmoun’s goal) in four attempts.
In contrast to Lyon’s excessive and ineffective crosses, Zenit were slightly more dangerous- Semak’s side crossed the ball 20 times with a success rate of 30%. Zenit’s crosses were harder for the goalkeeper and some of them led to threatening opportunities. With strikers like Azmoun and especially the ‘giant’ Dzyuba, this was an expected approach. The following images represent exactly what was mentioned above.
In summary, as was demonstrated in the analysis above, this was a game with almost no history. The game gets marked by Zenit’s pragmatic defensive positioning and Lyon’s ineffectiveness. The two sides battled throughout the 90 minutes but the points were shared.
The outcome was better for the Russian side, who got a precious point away against one of the contenders to win the group.
Silvinho’s team, similarly to his coach, were unable to create solutions for Zenit’s positioning. Indeed, Silvinho should have made changes in the team earlier in the game. Therefore, the French side now needs to recover these lost points in a future away game.
Regarding the future, Lyon are still contenders to pass to the next phase. Nonetheless, the underdog Zenit proved to be a revelation. If the Russian side continues to prepare their games so effectively they will gather more away points, and in fact, they can complicate group G maths even more.
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