Coming into Champions League competition, Lyonnais supporters were excited about a draw that saw them placed in a group with Benfica, RB Leipzig and Zenit St. Petersburg. However, last night, in what many would have considered their easiest fixture – a home date against Zenit – a number of tactical miscues from Sylvinho resulted in the French side earning just a single point.
Sylvinho’s Miscues Cost Lyon Against Zenit
A Tactical Mess
Five matches into the domestic campaign, Lyon’s style of play has yet to take shape. For the moment, Sylvinho seems sure of only two things: he wants his side to line up in a 4-3-3 formation and he would like his fullbacks to defend first. The overlapping runs and shifts into midfield, in order to help with build-up, that have helped define football in recent years, seem to be far from the Brazilian manager’s mind. On Tuesday night in Lyon, this philosophy was demonstrated for all of Europe, as both of Lyon’s fullbacks, Leo Dubois and Youssef Ikone, spent much of the match hovering around the halfway line.
Facing a Zenit side that dropped into a defensive shape of 5-4-1, Sylvinho elected to provide width by asking his two wingers to hug the touchline. Dutifully, Memphis Depay and Bertrand Traore stapled themselves to the flanks, but without the cover of fullbacks, found themselves isolated. Without anyone to combine with, the two were only capable of mazy runs towards the box.
In midfield the confusion continued, as Thiago Mendes, Lucas Tousart and Jeff Reine-Adelaide stayed close to their centreback teammates, seemingly terrified of venturing too deep into the final third. As a consequence, striker Moussa Dembele was left stranded in a sea of Zenit defenders.
The results were predictable, with Lyon failing to penetrate the Zenit backline. The lone successful foray was a clever dribbled run from Memphis, which forced a foul inside the Zenit box. The converted penalty earned Lyon the draw, but the overall lack of chances was palpable.
Lyon enjoyed 59% possession on the evening and directed 20 shots towards the goal. Despite dominating possession, the shots Lyon manufactured were aimless, illustrated by a paltry 0.84 (+1 penalty) xG (expected goals). Conversely, Zenit managed only 12 shots, but were more clinical, registering a 1.18 xG.
Moreover, Sylvinho’s inability to adapt tactically mid-game meant that Lyon was never able to put Zenit under any real pressure in the attacking third. It took Sylvinho until the 75th minute to make his first substitution, a like-for-like swap of Traore and Maxwell Cornet. The decision to leave a capable operator such as Houssem Aouar on the bench when the match was calling out for dynamism in midfield ended up being costly. The 21-year-old French youth international could have been the key to picking the lock that was the Zenit defence. Instead, he stewed on the bench with the rest of the Lyonnais replacements, with Sylvinho electing to pass on the option of a third and final substitution.
The question marks over Sylvinho’s tactical acumen have been swirling around the club domestically as well. A hot start in the league, which saw Lyon outscore their opponents 9-0 in its first two matches was quickly erased by three disappointing results. A loss to Montpellier was followed by two embarrassing draws with Bordeaux and Amiens, dropping Lyon down to eighth in the table and four points back of first-place Paris Saint-Germain.
Widely considered as a foil to PSG, Lyon has failed to live up to its end of the bargain and clubs with significantly less spending power have caught out the French giants. Sylvinho’s tactical approach worked early in the campaign, as Ligue 1 managers were largely unfamiliar with the rookie skipper’s philosophy. However, it now appears as though he’s been found out and the level of competition has caught up with him.
Domestically, things will not get any easier for Sylvinho, as there is an expectation that Lyon will control possession against their less-moneyed Ligue 1 opponents. Thus far Sylvinho has struggled with the riddle that is breaking down a low defensive block and is staunch in his belief that the fullbacks should remain a peripheral part of the offence.
Unfortunately, coming up on the weekend, Lyon have a banner fixture against PSG and an embarrassing result at home against the reigning champions will likely heap added pressure onto the Brazilian.
Meanwhile, in European competition, Sylvinho may actually find slight reprieve. The club’s next two matches are away at RB Leipzig and Benfica and there will be less of an expectation for Lyon to control play and dominate possession. Working on the counter-attack will lend itself well to Lyon, as the squad is replete with pacey, technical wingers, confident ball-playing midfielders, and in Dembele, a clinical finisher.
Nonetheless, if anything this will only paper over what are larger structural issues, and while the season is still young, continually losing ground to competent opponents only makes the job more difficult down the line. Therefore, if the Lyonnais management is unable to find quick answers to their poor form, the club may find itself out of two competitions before the New Year.