One of the most interesting ties in French football this past weekend was the match between Olympique Lyon and FC Nantes. Taking a break from league action to face off in the Coupe de France, both sides were vying for a place in the last 16 of the competition. With Nantes having defeated Lyon back in September and only three points separating the two teams in Ligue 1, the match promised to be an exciting encounter.
The game started at a frantic pace with Lyon scoring two goals through 16-year-old Rayan Cherki inside 10 minutes. Nantes responded soon after via Renaud Emond before Lyon doubled their advantage once again in the 37th minute to take a 3-1 lead into halftime. Moussa Dembélé then added a fourth goal for Lyon in the 69th minute to seemingly put the game to bed. Nantes, however, would not go down easily, and two goals in the last eight minutes of the match saw Lyon earn a nervy 4-3 win.
To begin the match, Rudi Garcia organized Lyon in a 4-4-2 formation. In defence, Garcia opted for experience in choosing Maxwel Cornet, Jason Denayer, Joachim Andersen, and Kenny Tete, who have combined for 64 appearances this season across all competitions. Ahead of the backline were Jean Lucas and Lucas Tousart in central midfield, with Martin Terrier occupying the left flank and Bertrand Traoréthe right. Top-scorer Moussa Dembélé led the forward line accompanied by teenage phenom Rayan Cherki.
Nantes also began the match in a 4-4-2. In defence, Christian Gourcuff selected Andrei Girotto and Thomas Basila as his centre back partnership, while Charles Traoré was positioned at left-back and the attack-minded Dennis Appiah at right-back. From left to right in midfield, Gourcuff went with Moses Simon, Abdoulaye Touré, Mehdi Abeid, and Ludovic Blas. Finally, leading the attack were Renaud Emond and Imran Louza.
Nantes’ First Half Tactics
To begin the match, Nantes sought to press high in their 4-4-2 shape. As demonstrated below, they aimed to protect the centre of the pitch and funnel the ball into the wide areas where they could suffocate the play.
Unfortunately for Nantes, barely a minute into the match Lyon scored the opening goal when a mis-hit from Moussa Dembélé fell kindly into the path of Rayan Cherki. Disaster then struck again for Nantes when a slip by Charles Traoré gifted Cherki his second goal of the match. In response to the two-goal deficit, rather than making any adjustments defensively, Nantes decided to reconfigure their attacking organization to gain a foothold in the match. Specifically, Nantes switched to building out of the back with three players. The idea in this switch was that it would give Nantes a 3v2 against Lyon’s two forwards on the first line of their build-up instead of a 2v2. To create the back three, Nantes pushed their right-back high onto Lyon’s last line. As they did this, they also brought their right winger inside and had either their right-winger or one of their forwards drift into central midfield to create a 3v2 vs Lyon’s two centre mids as shown below.
This organization is ultimately how Nantes scored their first goal. As illustrated below, Simon checked back to receive from his left-wing position and brought his marker with him. Upon receiving, he passed back to Traore in support who found Louza between the lines. Louza then turned and released Simon who would ultimately drive to the end line and deliver for Emond to head in.
After Nantes began building with three, Lyon soon copied them to have more success in the first phase of their build-up. Rather than pushing their right-back high, however, Lyon opted to advance their left-back and invert their left winger to create a 3v2 centrally as seen below.
This organization allowed Lyon to slow down Nantes’ press and ultimately win the possession battle 58% to 42%. But even though they dominated possession, Lyon struggled to break down Nantes’ defensive block for two reasons. The first was because of the positioning of the wide player and the player who positioned himself in the half-space on the ball-side of the field. Too many times, Lyon’s wide player and the player who arrived in the half-space were lined up on the same horizontal line as shown below.
This allowed the Nantes right-back to essentially monitor both options. What Lyon needed to do instead was stagger the positioning of these two players. If, for example, they pushed their wide player higher on the next line near the blue circle in the image above, this would force the Nantes right-back into a difficult situation. He could either sit deeper to mark the Lyon wide player and therefore give Lyon a free player between the lines or, he could press the player between the lines and therefore leave the backline exposed. Either way, Lyon could have created a massive advantage for themselves on the flanks.
The second reason Lyon struggled to break Nantes’ defensive block was that Dembélé and Cherki were not always properly positioned in the build-up. For instance, when the outside players from Lyon’s back three had the ball and were penetrating into the attack, Dembélé and Cherki were at times both floating centrally. Thus, Lyon’s two forwards were not an option for the player on the ball nor were they offering any true threat in behind. Moreover, when the ball was on his side of the field, Jean Lucas, when there was no threat in behind, would often make the run himself from his central midfield position as shown below.
The problem with this was that there was no one in position (as indicated by the big, blue circle above) to provide support or counter press should Lyon either connect a forward pass or squander possession.
Nantes’ Backline Issues
Although they were able to climb back into the game by tweaking their attacking structure, Nantes were ultimately undone by the organization of their backline. Many times throughout the game, the Nantes back four struggled with spacing, sliding as a unit, and reading cues for when to step and drop. This was clearly displayed in Lyon’s third goal. In this instance, Nantes had seemingly done a great job of pressing high and forcing the play wide where they pressed with numbers. The one issue was that Traoré at left-back did not slide with the backline and was nearly 30 meters away from Basila as shown below.
Unfortunately for Nantes, Cherki was able to receive the ball centrally and spin away from the press with time and space to get his head up. As this happened, Terrier, who had interchanged position with Cherki, noticed the ocean of space created by Traoré’s positioning. Terrier bolted into the space, Cherki spotted him and slotted a ball in behind, and Traoré could do nothing but watch Terrier give Lyon a 3-1 lead going into halftime.
To begin the second half, Nantes adjusted their press to more of a 4-3-3 orientation. Instead of maintaining the integrity of their 4-4-2 shape against Lyon’s adjusted three-man build-up as they had done in the first half, Nantes decided to push their left winger higher as shown below.
This eliminated Lyon’s one-man advantage in the initial phase of the build-up and disrupted their passing out of the back. Nonetheless, the struggles of Nantes’ backline could not be overcome, and they conceded a host of chances, including a penalty that was fortunately saved by Alban Lafont. One particular area of difficulty for Nantes’ back four in the second half was the ability to read cues for stepping and dropping their line. This was highlighted in Lyon’s fourth goal. On this occasion, Lyon broke free in midfield and began to run directly at the back four. As this happened, Dembélé made a run in behind to split the centre backs. Although Dembélé began his run in between the centre backs where he could be easily seen, Girotto did not anticipate Dembélé’s movement and was, therefore, a step behind. Consequently, Lyon made a simple through pass to the onrushing Dembele who easily outpaced Girotto and put Lyon three goals ahead.
With the score at 4-1 and only 20 minutes to go, it appeared Dembélé had effectively dispatched of Nantes. Both sides began using all their substitutions to protect key players and grant experience to youngsters, and it seemed Nantes had accepted that defeat was imminent. Everything changed, however, with eight minutes to go when a hopeful ball in behind was badly underestimated by Joachim Andersen. The pass skipped by Andersen who lazily lunged at the ball rather than moving his feet and clearing the danger, and Moses Simon was able to gather and lay the ball back for Imran Louza who calmly finished to reduce Lyon’s lead to two.
Louza’s goal inspired belief in Nantes, and they began to play with new-found energy. They attacked Lyon with more confidence and directness, and they were able to add to their tally four minutes later again at Andersen’s expense. This time, substitute Anthony Limbombe noticed that Andersen was not nearly tight enough to Moses Simon who was making a run into the far side of the penalty area. Therefore, Limbombe delivered a tantalising cross to the back post that left Andersen reeling and Simon all alone to nod Nantes within one goal of Lyon.
Nantes continued to push and apply pressure on the Lyon backline by playing more direct in the final third and serving more crosses. They earned themselves a few last-minute corner kicks and should have equalised through chances like the one shown below, but ultimately Lyon were able to hold on for the win.
Although Nantes showed great spirit to fight their way back, in the end, Lyon were deserved winners. Their individual quality and tactical nous were simply too much for Nantes whose backline woes were a constant feature of the match. As a result, Lyon advances to play Nice in the round of 16 and will be hoping to continue their quest for silverware in France’s most prestigious knockout competition.