Tue, May

Breaking down Olympique Lyonnais

Match Analysis
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This year’s Europa League will see Rangers facing Olympique Lyonnais this Thursday for the first fixture. Matthias T., from Lyon counterpart independent website Café du Commerce, brings you a detailed presentation of the French side.

Fourth of Ligue 1’s last season, Lyon automatically qualified for the next Europa League group stage, which they joined as the first seed ahead of Napoli thanks to recent good European results such as a Champions League semi-final post-Covid. The “Gones” remain thus favorite to reach the round of 16.

History of Olympique Lyonnais

You might remember Olympique Lyonnais’ heyday. Back in the 2000s, they topped Ligue 1’s leaderboard seven years in a row, a record that still stands today in spite of Paris Saint-Germain’s massive domination in the past decade. It is in fact during this period that Rangers and Gones had their first and only encounter – each earned a 0-3 away win in the 2007-2008 Champions League group stage.

This era was the result of historic owner and president Jean-Michel Aulas’s brilliant entrepreneurship and investments, culminating in the signing of Brazilian striker Sonny Anderson from Barcelona in 1999. This transfer did not only bring a tremendous player to Lyon; it represented the more aggressive and ambitious stance OL would now show on the market. Three years later, Anderson helped Lyon win their first Ligue 1 title, wearing the armband in the legendary last day fixture against Lens, during which both teams fought for the championship.

This new transfer policy had also brought, in 2001, a promising midfielder from Vasco de Gama: Juninho Pernambucano. It is easy to measure how an absolute legend “Juni” is for Lyon. With him on board, OL won seven titles. Without him? None.

His vision, his passing and, more famously, his free-kicks, carried the club for eight years. He saw – really good – players, coaches, partners in midfield come and go, but he always earned Lyon the title in the end. Alongside with legendary French goalkeeper Grégory Coupet, he remained the pillar whose departure would remarkably damage the club.

Afterwards, poor management by Claude Puel – whom you may know from Southampton and Leicester – and unfortunate signings made it difficult for Lyon to keep up the hegemony on the French championship. Bordeaux, Marseille, Lille and Montpellier would serve as temporary champions before the Qatari takeover on PSG.

This past decade saw Lyon being less ambitious – giving up against PSG’s nearly infinite budget – and more cautious about finances. Aulas made the choice to move into a brand-new, 60-thousand seat stadium, whose commercial area would consolidate the club’s revenues in order to be less dependent on TV rights deals and sport hazards. Though it continued – except last year – qualifying for European competition, the club has only been into title contention once in more than a decade.

Genuine chances, incomplete changes

In 2019, with desire to regain ambition and shake things up, Juninho was appointed back in Lyon, this time as a sporting director. However, the first choice he made proved to be a poor one – his protegee Sylvinho (former Arsenal and Barcelona player) who was brought in as head coach miserably failed and was sacked three months into the season – that weakened Juninho’s position in the balance of power among the club’s executives.

Thus, Olympique Lyonnais’s next coach was chosen under unfavourable circumstances that basically led to appoint a tactically worse-than-average and a personality-wise despised coach: Rudi Garcia. Though his side reached the semi-final of the Champions League Lisbon tournament and managed last season to be in contention for the Ligue 1 title in front of Lille and Paris, it eventually lost everything in the final stages and could not even qualify for the Champions League (which requires a top-3 finish in France).

This brings us to the current season. The end of Rudi Garcia’s spell meant that Juninho could give a second try to reshape his Olympique Lyonnais. This time, he wanted the smoothest process possible and appointed a new manager who would come with his own staff, unlike Sylvinho. Enters Peter Bosz.

The Dutch manager, who led Ajax to a Europa League final back in 2017, appears to be an aesthete of the game. As a Guardiola follower, he definitely is into attractive and ambitious football, something that tremendously lacked to Rudi Garcia’s and Bruno Genesio’s lineups. Moreover, he is bringing in Lyon a new sense of tactical discipline that is unfortunately too rare with French managers coming from the national curriculum.

Though this journey might take time, it definitely is compelling. Overall, Lyon fans share this excitement and we might even go as far as to say that a certain sense of a long-term optimism is in the air.

Tactics and lineup

As an aesthete, Bosz prones ball retention, direct and on the ground passing game and gegenpressing to retrieve the ball in just a few seconds. So this is what you have to expect while watching Olympique Lyonnais this season. And this is what Rangers should be prepared for.

Olympique Lyonnais Peter Bosz edition tends to shape in a 4-3-3, with one of the midfielders being so free that it often creates a 4-2-3-1. Full-backs are encouraged to be very attacking, while centre-backs and defensive midfielders are instructed to take initiatives, cutting lines with vertical passes sometimes not without risk. Finally, though Bosz did not really get the type of players he wanted, wingers are supposed to cut inside and play as inside forwards around a false nine striker – whom, by the way, you may already be acquainted to, since his name is Moussa Dembélé.

However, Rangers vs. OL will only be Bosz’s sixth official match. And obviously, things are not perfect yet. Aside from the previous two victories with a more and more encouraging playstyle, Lyon started its campaign with two draws and a heavy defeat, while many mistakes are still far from going unnoticed.

Playing against this young (both for the average age of the squad and as a project) Lyon side, you might want to fight for ball possession – provided you have technically gifted enough players to avoid gegenpressing – or you may choose to operate in transitions. Peter Bosz’s men are actually quite vulnerable in this sector, as adaptation to these new practices takes time. It is indeed not rare to see a full-back being out of position as he was helping an attack, making the defensive line chaotic.

Expected lineup: Lopes – Emerson, Denayer, Diomande, Dubois – Caqueret, Guimarães* – Toko Ekambi, Aouar, Paquetá* – Dembélé

*Doubts have been cast about them being able to cross the Channel, as they were in Brazil, a red-listed country, less than a week ago. Should they be prevented from playing (but latest news suggests they will available), they would be replaced by Mendes and Shaqiri.

Key player

This one might be a bit open to interpretations and the debate might also need to see how the summer 2021 transfers play out. However, judging from last season, it is pretty clear that Lucas Paquetá is Olympique Lyonnais’ key player. Recruited at the very end of the last transfer window as a good opportunity, he quickly proved to be essential to the team. His first touch, his vision, his passing and his dribbling combined with his dynamism really makes him the most important piece of this Lyon side. Paquetá was key to last season fantastic run before winter. Expect a difficult game if he is in good shape.

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