In a new feature for Twelve, James Nalton reports from the press box on Manchester City 1-2 Lyon.
For modern Manchester City, defeats are a rarity. When looking at the bigger picture, and the club’s history, that they are even competing in the Champions League is something. That they expect to win every game they play is something else. This is how far they have come in a short space of time but even though they rarely lose, defeat to Olympique Lyonnais means they have now lost their last four in this competition.
It was December of last year that Pep Guardiola’s side tasted defeat for the first time in the 2017/18 season, when they lost to wily European campaigners Shakhtar Donetsk. Their manager used the loss to spur his side on for the rest of the season, and though this latest disappointment has come earlier in the campaign, Guardiola will hope it has a similar effect.
Guardiola was serving a touchline ban as a result of being sent to the stands for complaining to the referee during his side’s defeat to Liverpool in the quarter-finals last season. Mikel Arteta took control, and it appeared that he’d been given a chance to take full responsibility, taking pre and post-match press conferences as well as leading the team from the touchline.
This was seen as a protest from Guardiola against his ban, as he could have fulfilled the media duties himself, but for a man who is as much about the development of his coaches as he is his players he probably saw it as a chance to give Arteta some invaluable experience.
An experience it was, though it was not necessarily a good one.
Opponents Lyon were excellent on the night. The Ligue 1 side were a rare example of a team who turn up to the Etihad with a plan of attack, while also taking care not to expose their back line too much.
Their defence contained former Manchester City youth player Jason Denayer, who played well alongside experienced Brazilian centre back Marcelo, but it was the Lyon midfield which provided a platform for everything they did in attack, and a shield for the defence.
The pairing of Pape Cheikh and Tanguy Ndombele in the centre, and the use of Maxwel Cornet and Houssem Aouar as wide midfielders allowed them to press high up the pitch while also maintaining a solid centre.
Manchester City were occasionally able to bypass this press with some impressive passing from the back, and looked dangerous when they did so, but it wasn’t an easy task. However, both Lyon goals came from forcing the home side into making errors.
“We decided to play as high as possible and to get very close to them,” said Lyon’s manager, Bruno Génésio. “They like to build from the back so we tried to get close to them with two lines of four players in midfield. We wanted Cornet to play deep and then push really high, and he was ideal for that position. We were well disciplined tactically and defensively, but by the same token we wanted to play our game as well.”
And play their game they did. Ndombele was outstanding, playing some pinpoint through balls to the likes of Cornet and Memphis Depay, while also providing a solid, dynamic presence in defence.
Nabil Fekir showed the flashes of brilliance which have made has made him hot property in the transfer market, scoring an excellent goal from outside the box while also contributing to the press from the front.
Cornet was vital to the system, as his manager said, using his natural attacking threat and pace to pose a threat on the counter-attack, but also using the same attributes to close players down quickly.
His actions are shown on the graphic below, and there are a number on the defensive side of the game. Toggle the “only important actions” button to see his full contribution on and off the ball.
The biggest change to the dynamic of this game occurred when Leroy Sané replaced İlkay Gündoğan just before the hour mark. This affected the game in two ways.
- It meant Manchester City were more of a threat on the flanks. Sané stayed in an attacking position closer to the touchline, forcing Cornet to think more about his defensive duties supporting Rafael than he had previously. It also saw Sterling take up a position on the right and cause similar problems for Aouar, as he was now a traditional winger on the right, rather than one cutting in from the left onto his stronger right foot.
- It gave Manchester City more of a presence in the middle. Gündoğan is a great player tactically and technically, but he was being overrun by Ndombele and Cheikh. Bernardo Silva has an intelligent strength about him which Guardiola alluded to after their recent win against Fulham, and the Portuguese had been dropping into central areas anyway, from his starting position on the right wing.
The play was stretched, and it was Sané’s pull-back to Silva which led to the Manchester City goal. But it wasn’t enough and Lyon held on, switching to a 4-5-1 formation without the ball as Fekir dropped in to help the midfield.
What Went Wrong?
It’s unusual for Manchester City to appear unprepared for their opponents. This is a wild accusation when aimed at a coach as meticulous as Guardiola when it comes to opposition analysis, but his side were overrun in midfield by younger more vigorous opponents, especially during transitions.
Manchester City were still neat and tidy in possession, as would be expected. Only one player in their starting XI had a pass success below 85 percent (David Silva) and seven of the starters completed more than 90 percent of their passes. But problems arose in the one time out of fifty they gave the ball away.
In that moment Lyon were ready, and watching the game one couldn’t help but think that City could have done with a midfielder like the impressive Ndombele in their own ranks. Of course, they already have Kevin De Bruyne to provide this kind of all-action display in the middle of the park, but he’s on the sidelines for a much longer period than his manager.
“The players were very aware of Lyon’s strengths and weakness, and they were prepared,” said Arteta after the game.
When asked whether Guardiola’s absence affected the result, he replied: “I have no idea. It’s something hypothetical, the reality is that he wasn’t here and we lost the game.”
Arteta will learn from this experience, and Guardiola will make sure the entire club does, too. We will have to wait until the end of November to see how Manchester City approach their game at the Parc Olympique Lyonnais in Lyon, but it will be interesting to see the changes they make, and whether Lyon’s young stars can cope with them.