Tactical Analysis: Stubborn Sarri can learn so much from Lyon’s Man City approach

Each week, our friends over at totalfootballanalysis.com preview our Fixture in Focus from a tactical perspective. Today, TFA’s Lead Analyst Lee Scott takes inspiration from Lyon and explains how Chelsea would do well to replicate the French side’s system to stop City in their tracks.

This coming weekend sees Manchester City travel to London to face Chelsea in the Premier League. A couple of weeks ago this would have been a truly intriguing encounter but recent weeks have seen the Blues suffer defeat to Spurs and Wolves in the league, as well as dropping points against Everton.

These results have not been catastrophic for Chelsea in terms of league position as they still sit in fourth place, but they have seen a gap develop between themselves and Liverpool in second. Liverpool are now eight points clear, and there is an even larger gap to leaders Manchester City, who are ten points clear of fourth place.

With that said, there is still a sense of intrigue around this game with Chelsea coach Maurizio Sarri having enjoyed a modicum of success against City and Pep Guardiola last season in the Champions League when his Napoli side came up against them in the group stages. There is no doubt that Sarri will have come away from those matches with a more detailed picture of the system that Guardiola favours and this will have been further built upon during his time in England so far.

With City still enjoying near dominance domestically, Sarri and his coaching staff will be able to turn to the recent Champions League match between Lyon and City in order to formulate a game plan that will account for the defensive strength and attacking intent of Guardiola’s side. Lyon came out of the match with a highly credible 2-2 draw but in truth, they had the better of City for large portions of the game.

It is worth looking back on that match to identify the key factors that enabled the French outfit to unbalance City and to consider whether Chelsea will be able to do the same when the two sides face each other on Saturday evening.

Lyon

That Lyon were so effective as a unit against Manchester City in their Champions League group is no mean feat, but they utilised two key concepts, both in the defensive phase;

Man to man marking in the defensive phase

High pressing with a three-man forward line

Let us start with the first point. Lyon coach Bruno Genesio is not thought to be amongst the most tactically variable coaches in world football, so the decision to switch from their more standard 4-2-3-1 to a 3-4-3 came as something of a surprise.

When Lyon were in their defensive phase we saw both wing-backs drop back to form a line of five across the back. This back line essentially covered the width of the field in such a way that City found themselves unable to create passing angles and lanes through the defensive line, in the way that they do so often regardless of their opponents.

With the wing-backs dropping into the defensive line they were able to mark the two wide forwards for City. This left the three Lyon central defenders against lone striker Sergio Aguero. Normally having 3v1 in this area would cause your opponent to enjoy numerical superiority elsewhere but City play their central midfielders in such a high line that it allowed Lyon to man mark, and allow their two remaining central midfielders to overload and press Fernandinho, who played as the deeper controlling midfielder.

While City were still able to dominate possession they were doing so in areas that did not hurt Lyon and they found it harder to force a pass through the last line into the penalty area.

The second point is related to the first, given that it specifically relates to the defensive phase of the game. Normally logic dictates that you build your tactical system from back to front and when you have a back three that becomes a back five out of possession you will use three or four midfielders and then two or one forwards, depending on the shape of the midfield. In this match, Lyon retained three forwards on a high line with two central midfielders expected to prevent comfortable possession from Fernandinho.

The three forwards were all mobile and willing to run and press in order to intercept the ball high up the field and attack quickly in transition. Throughout the match City struggled to retain comfortable possession from the back line, which is usually a strength of Guardiola’s system and Lyon were smart to take it away.

Chelsea

It is easy to look back on the match plan utilised by Lyon after the fact to identify whether their tactical concepts were successful against City or not. What lessons, though, can Chelsea take and apply to their own plan for this match, given the players that Maurizio Sarri will have at his disposal?

Let’s look specifically at the two points identified from the Lyon vs Manchester City match to identify whether these will also apply for Chelsea.

First of all, the back line. A back three is not the unknown for this Chelsea side and under Antonio Conte they used a similar 3-4-3 structure that proved so successful for Lyon. They have the quality in depth in the defensive line for Chelsea to be able to adopt this system and with Marcos Alonso and Cesar Azpilicueta, they have the players to perform the wing-back/full-back roles admirably. The issue, though, comes with the fact that Sarri is firmly wedded to the 4-3-3 system that he used at Napoli and now at Chelsea.

If Chelsea were to adopt the 5-2-3 defensive shape then there would be no space for Jorginho at the base of the midfield. Given that Sarri considers the Italy international to be integral to the style of play that he is looking to adopt at Chelsea, it is highly unlikely that they would come into a match of this magnitude without Jorginho anchoring the midfield.

Well, if Chelsea cannot adopt the same structure in the defensive line then at least they still utilise the same three-man attack, right? Not exactly.

Lyon used three players in Memphis Depay, Nabil Fekir, and Maxwel Cornet in their front line. All three are quick, versatile players who are able to interchange position with one another in order to press the opposition quickly when they are out of possession. Chelsea, on the other hand, are likely to start against City with Eden Hazard and Willian as wide forwards and one of Alvaro Morata or Olivier Giroud as the central striker. Hazard is capable of pressing high but Willian has regressed massively in a defensive sense this season and in attack neither Giroud nor Morata have the versatility to press effectively across the front line.

Instead, we will continue to see the defensive pressing instigated and maintained by N’Golo Kante from the midfield line with the three forwards acting as blocks that prevent the opposition from creating and utilising passing lanes to access the central areas of the field.

Conclusion

Whilst there are lessons to be taken by Sarri from Lyon’s approach against Man City it is unlikely that he will take the concepts used by the French outfit and adopt them whole into his own tactical approach for this upcoming match.

Sarri is a coach that is proactive in his approach, trusting in his own tactical identity to bring success to his club, That is not to say that he is tactically inflexible, as he used a four-diamond-two system with Empoli prior to being offered the Napoli job, but now his favoured 4-3-3 is very much in place.


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