We were into the business end of the 2019/20 UEFA Champions League group stages and the final matchday of Group G saw Lyon hosting RB Leipzig. While Leipzig was already qualified for the next round and only needed a draw in this game to top the group, Lyon had a daunting task ahead of them to qualify for the knockout stage. A defeat would have surely knocked them out of the competition while a win also did not guarantee the qualification. In addition, Les Gones also required Benfica’s favor to beat Zenit Saints Petersburg in the other Group G game.
Lyon has had a terrible start to the season as they sit seventh in Ligue 1, having won only seven out of the first 17 games. Leipzig, on the other end, has been flying in Bundesliga under their new manager Julian Nagelsmann. After scoring the highest amount of goals in the league so far, the German side is only a point and a position away from topping the table.
In spite of such a contrasting form, the two sides battled an even contest to earn a deserved draw. Memphis Depay’s dramatic second-half equalizer and Benfica’s win saw Rudi Garcia’s side miraculously qualify for the Round of 32.
In this tactical analysis, we will do an analysis of how the German side was set up for this game. Besides, we will also see how Garcia improvised his tactics along the game to rescue a crucial point after trailing at the halfway mark.
Although Rudi Garcia generally set’s his Lyon team in a 4-1-4-1 system, the French manager chose the alternate choice of 4-2-3-1 formation for this game. It was not a surprise that the first-choice goalkeeper Anthony Lopes started between the sticks. While Jason Denayer and Joachim Andersen formed the center-back pairing, Kenny Tete and Rafael retained their places at the full-back positions in the absence of Youssouf Koné and Léo Dubois respectively. Lucas Tousart, who replaced Maxence Caqueret, formed the two-pivot defensive midfield line alongside Thiago Mendes. Bertrand Traoré was replaced by Martin Terrier in the three-man attacking midfield line on the right side along with Houssem Aouar on the left. With 24 goals and two assists between them so far in the season, the attacking duo of Depay and Moussa Dembélé completed the lineup with the former playing as a number 10.
Nagelsmann, on the other end, set his Leipzig side in his favored 4-4-2 formation on paper that switches to 4-2-2-2. While the usual choice of Péter Gulácsi was seen on the goal, Nordi Mukiele and Marcelo Saracchi formed the full-back pairing alongside the center-backs Dayot Upamecano and Lukas Klostermann. This was the usual back-five that the German coach has preferred in the UCL. Konrad Laimer was rested and replaced with Amadou Haidara. The Mali international formed the two-man pairing with Diego Demme ahead of the defensive line. Christopher Nkunku was another change for Marcel Sabitzer and he was positioned alongside Emil Forsberg on the wings. While Nkunku attacked mostly from the right-flank, Forsberg occupied more central positions between the lines. The attack line consisted of Yussuf Poulsen, who was the preferred choice over Patrik Schick in the UCL, and Timo Werner, who was in red-hot form, scoring 11 goals and providing six assists in the last seven starts.
Lyon pressing structure and attacking setup – exposing wide channels
Lyon was set up in a 4-2-3-1 system on paper that transitioned into a 2-4-4 during possession as the full-backs pushed into the midfield line. The modus operandi of Lyon’s attack was to find the runners in the wide channels beyond the high defensive line of Leipzig. The two wide-attackers would position themselves in the wide channels while Dembélé would position himself in between the two Leipzig center-backs, as shown in the following figure.
The compact horizontal shape of the away side allowed Terrier and Aouar to remain in the outside space so that they could run into the wide channels when they receive the ball. The plan was to use their excellent ball carrying ability to pose a threat to the opposition’s goal.
Depay had a flexible role in the system that allowed him to improvise his positioning based on a situation. In the above figure, he has positioned himself in the number 10 position behind the attacking trio since Lyon was looking to build up using short/ medium passes. Such a position will allow the Dutchman to drop deeper to provide a passing option for his side.
The above figure, which was taken a few minutes after the first image, shows Depay in a relatively advanced position. The Dutchman, in this case, has joined the attacking line and he is making a run behind a Leipzig central defender as Andersen looks to make a long ball behind the Leipzig backline. The former Manchester United player was also occasionally seen dropping into his own half for passing support and assisting ball progression.
Off the ball, Garcia had instructed his players to press Leipzig high up the pitch whenever possible to prevent the German side to build their play from the back. The pressing system utilized seems to be more man-oriented rather than space-oriented, as shown in the following figure.
As you can see in the figure, Terrier and Dembélé were marking the two Leipzig central-defenders. Moreover, Lyon has pushed their midfielders into the attacking third to create numerical equality. The man-to-man marking forces Leipzig to go long in this case.
In situations where the home side could not press like above, they had a pressing trigger to force Leipzig wide during the buildup. Once the German side went wide, Garcia’s team would start pressing aggressively and make lateral movements towards the ball to create overloads to win possession. This pressing structure is shown in the figures below.
In the figure above, Upamecano received the ball from the goalkeeper without any pressure from Lyon. As soon he opens up the line of play by passing to his center-back partner (Klostermann), Lyon’s pressing trigger is initiated. The ball-sided wide player (Terrier, in this case) immediately starts his run to press the man in possession to force him to pass the ball to his full-back (Saracchi).
Once Saracchi receives possession, Terrier quickly changes direction and starts pressing the Uruguayan, as shown in the figure above. Not only that, but the remaining Lyon players also start making lateral movements towards the ball to create overloads on the flank and cut the short passing options. It eventually leads to possession turnover for Lyon and the home side can then start a counter-attack.
Overall, Lyon’s pressing was aggressive which is highlighted from the fact that they allowed Leipzig to make only nine passes before making a defensive action (PPDA).
Leipzig’s typical attacking setup – Vertical ball progression and third man run
Leipzig was set up in a 4-4-2 system on paper which transitioned to a 2-5-3 in possession as the full-backs pushed into the midfield line. An attacking midfielder would also drop deep to create numerical superiority during the buildup phase. The front three would constantly look to make runs behind the high defensive line of Lyon. An instance of their buildup is shown in the following figure.
As you can see, the full-backs are responsible for providing the width while the extra attacking midfielder that dropped deep created a seven versus six in their own half. The attacking line saw a similar setup to Lyon’s attacking line where two of the attackers would position themselves in a flat line to expose the outer space in the wide channels while the center-forward (Poulson) would stay central.
Leipzig created attacks in their typical fashion which involved fluid attacking movements along with rotations and constant vertical ball progressions along the thirds to create third-man runs all over the pitch. One of the instances is shown in the following figure.
One of the highlights of Leipzig’s buildup play was to quickly look for vertical balls that bypass the attacking and midfield lines of Lyon rather than switching the ball laterally for a patient buildup. As you can see in the figure, Upamecano quickly looks for Forsberg after receiving the ball from his goalkeeper. Forsberg’s movement of dropping deep highlights the fluid rotation that we mentioned above. In the first image, it was Werner who had dropped deep in their own half while Forsberg positioned himself in the attacking line. This time, it was the other way around.
The Sweden international, who is facing his own goal, would look for a one-touch lay off back to Upamecano who will then look for a one-touch vertical ball in the wide channel for Nkunku. Eventually, the French youngster would make a run on the right flank and provide a low cross inside the box for Poulson and Werner.
Leipzig’s central dominance caused problems for Lyon in the first half
One of the major tactical principles of Nagelsmann’s Leipzig is to maintain central overloads on and off the ball. We have already mentioned that the away side formed a 2-5-3 structure with the ball. The midfield line of five helped the Bundesliga side to not only rotate possession effectively but also to effectively counter-press to regain possession quickly after losing it.
Having said that, it was their tactic of creating central overloads off the ball that was most effective, especially in the first half, which helped them not only to create deadly counter-attacks but also to capitalize on Lyon’s mistakes. Moreover, the players always stayed close to the play which also allowed them to win loose balls and second balls in the middle/ attacking third.
As shown in the figure above, Leipzig overloaded the center during a Lyon buildup. Such an overload has completely blocked any passing lanes in the center. Consequently, it forces the home side to go wide, and this where Leipzig would trap Garcia’s men in possession. The German side would quickly make lateral movements towards the ball maintaining short distances to overload the wide areas to regain possession. The shorter distances between Leipzig players make room for carrying out a swift counter-attack.
The figure above shows the three versus two overloads created by the away side six seconds after the first image. Aouar has no passing option available due to which Nagelsmann’s men are able to win back possession in the wide area and hurt the home side with a quick transition from the middle third.
As mentioned above, Leipzig’s central overloads without possession also hurt Lyon for their mistakes and help them away side to win loose/ second balls in the attacking third.
Observe how Leipzig players have formed a cage of six versus four in the center. Denayer opted to carry the ball into the middle third in this instance. A bad first touch allowed Demme and Forsberg to intercept in a dangerous area. The loose ball was received by Poulson who could then find Werner making a run beyond the high defensive line of Lyon, as shown in the following figure.
Unfortunately, Werner missed the one versus one chance but such kind of positioning from Leipzig leaves no room for error.
Lyon’s attacking intent lead to a resurgence in the second half
After trailing 2-0 in the first half, Garcia realized that his side was going out of the competition regardless of the other result of the group and there was nothing more to lose. Hence, he amplified the attacking shape of his side and instructed more players to go forward during the buildup, as shown in the following figure.
As you can see, both the full-backs have pushed into the attacking line that consequently allowed both the wide-midfielders to tuck inside. This shift from a three or four-man forward line from the early stages of the game to a five-man attacking line not only provided Lyon with more options going forward but also limited Leipzig’s attack since they had to now put an extra man behind.
The result was evident from the fact that while the home side had just one shot attempted in the first 37 minutes of the game, they created six in the next 15 minutes of the game after the switch.
Garcia’s side started to have more men in the attacking wide channels to create better combination play. This also provided much-needed support to Aouar and Terrier, who could now rely on their ball-carrying ability to dictate the final third.
Having said that, it was not only the positions that were tweaked by Garcia. In the first half, Lyon used a more direct approach to put the ball into wide areas which allowed Leipzig full-backs to hold their line. The French manager made a slight alteration to this approach. Instead of a direct ball from deeper areas, Lyon would look for an immediate pass to the ball-sided wide-player (full-back or wide-midfielder), who would drop into the middle third. This would draw the ball-sided full-back of Leipzig out of his line creating space behind him, which would then be exposed by the nearest Lyon attacker, as shown in the following figure.
Tete has dropped deep to receive a pass from Denayer thereby drawing Saracchi out of his right-back position. Terrier is seen to be making a quick run into space in the wide channel. The same pattern was also observed on the other side of the field as well.
Moreover, by committing more men in the attacking third allowed the home side to win more duels and loose balls that made them to quickly switch the ball into the wider areas before the German side can make a horizontal movement. This is in fact, how Lyon scored their first goal. Terrier won a tackle in the left half-space and the loose ball was retrieved by Tousart who quickly put in a diagonal ball from the center into the right half-space where Aouar was unmarked. The youngster put in a brilliant finish from just inside the box after a slight cut-back.
In conclusion, it was a game of two different halves between the teams who were evenly matched in terms of the quality of the players at their disposal. While Leipzig’s tactics to dominate the central areas of the pitch allowed them to overpower the home side during the first half, Garcia’s attacking intent along with his tactics to expose the wide channels allowed his men to get grip on the second half. Leipzig created 85% of the attacks from the center while Lyon created 65% of attacks from the flanks.
Two defensive mistakes from Lyon cost them penalties in the first half which saw the home side at the cusp of elimination. However, a brilliant finish from Aouar and the equalizer from Depay completed Lyon’s comeback.