The Champions League moved into the knockout rounds with some intriguing ties, none more so than Lyon versus Juventus. The French side were underdogs against this Juventus outfit who won Serie A last season and boasted a line-up of stars including Cristiano Ronaldo.
Juventus cruised through their group dropping just two points. Meanwhile, Lyon came through a group of RB Leipzig, Benfica and Zenit St Petersburg with two wins, two draws and two defeats. This tactical analysis will examine how Lyon set up to beat Juventus.
The Lyon goal came while Matthijs de Ligt was off the field for treatment on a cut with Lucas Tousart getting the goal. But it were Juventus who dominated the possession and the tie.
Juventus created a few half chances, had a goal ruled out for a definite offside and had a few soft penalty claims, but ultimately they failed to score for just the second time in 36 games under Maurizio Sarri.
Lyon’s flexible 3-5-2
Rudi Garcia trialled the same tactics only once, on the weekend before this Champions League tie, in a game against Metz in Ligue 1. It was a switch from their more usual 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 that they’ve used for the majority of the season.
While the 3-5-2 is recorded on paper, the flexibility of the 3-5-2 system in general, meant that during the analysis the structure of 3-5-2 was rarely seen during the game.
Lyon out of possession
In this system, the space for the opposition is usually in the wide areas, whether in front of or behind the wing-backs. So to deny the space in this area, you operate with effectively a back four out of possession. You could see this in just the first minute of the game. Juventus enjoyed 64% of possession which meant that Lyon spent the majority of the game without the ball and adopting this effective 4-4-2.
As the ball is on the Juve right, the left wing-back (Maxwel Cornet) presses the ball, while the right wing-back (Leo Dubois) tucks into a more traditional right-back position, creating a simple back four with the left centre-back occupying the traditional left-back spot.
As the ball switches side, the opposite becomes true, as Dubois presses the ball and Cornet tucks in.
Stifling the space
Lyon suffocated the space that Juventus wanted to create, with the desire to get their prime attacking players – Paulo Dybala and Ronaldo – into key attacking areas. At half time there was a video of Ronaldo and Dybala lamenting their teammates for the lack of service. While they were, in part correct, Lyon did a fantastic job of keeping compact and their distancing was superb as they played as a complete unit.
Lyon’s front two also allowed them to implement a plan on Miralem Pjanić and stop him dictating the pace of the game. You can see Moussa Dembéle and Karl Toko Ekambi just yards apart ensuring there is no option to play into Pjanić, something that happened over and over again. This meant that Juventus had to find a way to move the ball without using Pjanic as much as they’d like – something Sarri has been vocal about and done with Jorginho at Napoli and Chelsea.
Juventus slow in possession
As we mentioned earlier, the space offered to the opposition in a 3-5-2 system is in front, or behind the wing-backs, but when the wing-backs are effectively shuffling across and into the 4-4-2 structure this becomes more difficult. However, if you can move the ball quickly from one side to the other, it gives them less time to reposition and regain their shape.
This was something that frustrated Ronaldo and Dybala, and it didn’t help their service.
While Juventus were in possession the play was too slow to exploit the space. The ball comes out to De Ligt, who has the option to spread the ball quickly to Sandro at left-back. He has the most space on the pitch, but instead, he goes short to Leonardo Bonucci who then goes to Sandro.
That gives the Lyon block time to shuffle across the pitch and regain their positions 20 yards further across the pitch. Keeping tight distances still and not being pulled around – which again denies space for Juventus. It forces Sandro to ‘start again’ pushing the ball back to Bonucci.
Lyon were happy to let Danilo and Sandro have the ball, content that they couldn’t hurt them from the positions they have the ball in the images in this thread. Instead preferring to keep gaps tight and stop balls into Ronaldo and Dybala.
Lack of service
Juventus struggled to break the Lyon side down throughout the game, mustering just a couple of half-chances throughout the 90 minutes and the previously mentioned lack of service frustrated Juve’s creators.
When they did create some space, Juventus failed to take advantage of the rare occasion in transition where Lyon were pulled out of their compact structure.
Dybala drops short for a throw-in and whips the ball out first time to Danilo at right-back. The quick movement of the ball gives Danilo time and space to move in to. For the first time, Lyon look out of space and ragged, evidenced in the gaps between the Lyon players.
Danilo does the right thing, he pushes up the field moving the ball into the Lyon half, Rodrigo Bentancur finds a nice bit of space in the Lyon half (blue triangle), owing to the lack of Lyon shape created by the quick switch of play.
The following phase of play is another frustration of Ronaldo and Dybala. You can see Juan Cuadrado on the right-wing pointing for the ball in behind the left wing-back, through the gap that the pressing centre back is leaving (he has to step in because centre-mid is ahead of the ball). Instead, Bentancur goes back to the right-back and Lyon manage to regain their shape.
So what could Juventus have done differently? The answers are effectively above, but to pull the weeds out of it; Juventus needed to be quicker in possession and move the ball quicker to create space by pulling Lyon out of shape. The ‘moving parts’ of the 3-5-2 system works well when you have time to reposition – but if you can shift the ball quickly, you reduce the time they have to keep their structure.
There is also a case for playing a ‘proper’ left-winger to try and push the Lyon full-back back further. Rather, Ronaldo drifted inside to pick up more central positions which didn’t occupy the right wing-back as much as someone else may have. That would’ve meant Ronaldo down the middle, and playing a winger whose role would be to be brave, stay high and wide so that the right wing-back Dubois can’t just press the ball without considering what’s behind him.
If we ever see the second leg of this tie, it will be interesting to see if either side make any adjustments to their system. For Lyon, it would appear unlikely, but maybe Juventus do something different.