How Olympique Lyonnais shocked the world, completed their biggest ever European win, and stand two games away from eternity…
Well…did not see this one coming, now did we?
Olympique Lyonnais 3, Manchester City 1. It has been several days, and I still cannot believe that scoreline every time I see it.
Les Gones are, somehow, through to the semifinal of the Champions League. A historic win, brought about by brilliant individual performances and solid management, helped them get here, and they have become one of the biggest positive stories in the football world in a year where we desperately could use a feel-good underdog story.
I wanted to write this because the prevailing narrative surrounding the match in many of places is “Lyon won because Man City got it wrong” or “the biggest story is Pep’s bad tactics”. Peter Drury even said after the match, while viewing the Lyon players celebrating, that “Bayern will be licking their chops”. Yes, Pep did get it massively wrong tactically, and that will not help the narrative that he overthinks big European matches. Yes, Lyon rode their luck a bit, mainly with Raheem Sterling missing an open goal, but there is not a team that has ever won a European Cup without riding their luck. I am here to give Lyon credit, because, in many ways, they got their game plan spot on. This is possibly OL’s biggest ever win as a club in their 70-year existence, and easily the biggest win since owner and club president Jean-Michel Aulas purchased the club in 1987, so let us actually talk about the story of the match.
Firstly, I have to start with a statement that, earlier this season, I would never thought I would have had to make: Rudi Garcia deserves a lot of credit. The much maligned (and often rightly so) OL manager had his game plan and tactics set from the beginning, and unlike his much-criticized counterpart, he got his plan spot on. Garcia planned from the beginning to set the team up defensively, using the quality in midfield and pace in the wide areas to hit City on the counter when they were committed forward. There was light pressure on City when they had the ball in their defensive third, but for the most part, he made sure the team was very organized and compact in midfield and in defense. Central to his game plan were the selection of Maxwel Cornet as the left wing back and Karl Toko-Ekambi and Memphis Depay as the two forwards. Through those three players, and to a lesser extent right wingback Léo Dubois, Lyon had their out ball, an outlet to relieve pressure on the defense and attack space vacated by City. It was through Cornet and Toko-Ekambi’s pace, as well as Depay’s shiftiness on the ball, that Lyon got many of their attacks, and eventually their first goal. City’s weakest part of their team is their defense, and Garcia knew he could make them uncomfortable by countering with pace and directness when their fullbacks were caught up the pitch, creating tough situations for their center backs. This was reflected in the performance, as both Eric García and the often fantastic Aymeric Laporte had very poor matches. He stuck with the same midfield three that got him to this point, and while Bruno Guimarães did not show the same quality he had before the season hiatus, he still joined a midfield three of him, Maxence Caqueret, and Houssem Aouar that were incredibly difficult to get past and all had the ability to make a key pass to release one of the three aforementioned attackers. OL fans have finally gotten to see the Bruno-Aouar-Caqueret midfield they wanted since Bruno’s arrival in January, though it is a shame that Aouar’s impending departure might mean this midfield trio will be short-lived. On top of a correct game plan, Garcia got his substitutions spot on as well. When needed, he brought on Thiago Mendes and Kenny Tete to reinforce a tiring defense and midfield, and the Moussa Dembélé sub obviously worked since he scored twice. Dembélé presented a different forward option from Depay; his ability to get into dangerous areas and ghost in behind defenses allowed him to score the two crucial goals that sent OL through. In every moment and at every turn, Garcia got his plan spot on.
Redemption is seemingly a theme of this Champions League run for Lyon, as Garcia is not the only target of fan ire that is performing under the pressure of the brightest lights. It was only months ago that Lyon players got into a scuffle with the club’s ultras over a banner telling center back Marcelo to leave the club. Now, Marcelo has been one of Lyon’s best players. He came up with massive tackles and big blocks when needed, and his ability to get into the heads of his opponents made him incredibly effective against City. He was a brick wall, back at the level of his best with Besiktas and Lyon a few years ago. Fernando Marçal was also fantastic, fitting into the role of a third center back very well. His aggressive interceptions helped break up attacks, and he fit in well with the defensive unit. Maxwel Cornet was one of the main heroes from the City match, scoring the first goal of the game. Cornet seemingly turns on another gear when he sees the blue City shirt, scoring four of Lyon’s seven ever goals against the Citizens. He worked tirelessly down the left hand side, being in the right place at the right time at every turn, including being there for his first goal. He put in maximum effort defensively as well, meaning he really covered the entirety of that left side in an exhausting performance. His pace caused City problems, and he was often there to catch Kyle Walker out of position. Many questioned the permanent acquisition of Karl Toko-Ekambi, and I still do not think it was the right decision to sign him and sell Martin Terrier and Amine Gouiri, but it was his pace on the counter that helped cause so many issues for the City defense. Many of the maligned OL players are now some of their best performers, another insane turnaround that not many saw coming.
The redemption stories in this team are great, but the story of Olympique Lyonnais is always the young players that come through their academy. It is so ingrained into the culture of the club that it is in their nickname, with Les Gones literally translating to “the kids”. This trend has continued, with Houssem Aouar and Maxence Caqueret shining on the biggest stage for OL. Avid readers of this blog already know about Max, who announced himself to the world in Lyon’s match against Juventus. He was at his best again against City, with his energy and fearlessness helping him defensively, while his passing ability helped Lyon relieve pressure on their defense. Aouar is a much sought-after asset, with City being among the several clubs wanting to secure his signature. He demonstrated exactly why against the Citizens, being arguably the best player on the pitch in the biggest match he has played for his boyhood club. His remarkable confidence and ability on the ball, fearlessness in the tackle, and incredible fighting desire translated into a fantastic performance. He also demonstrated his incredible passing range, playing the inch-perfect ball to set up Dembélé’s first goal. His dribbling ability led to him winning several crucial fouls that helped relieve pressure on the defense. While he is not the most physical player, his intelligence and positional awareness allowed him to recover the ball several times. He was brilliant, demonstrating that his mind was not at all turned by any transfer speculation. If this was one of his final matches for OL, it will be one remembered for years to come. If he were to leave this transfer window, he leaves as a hero, regardless of whether Lyon go on to win the competition.
Which brings us to our final point, what happens now? Surely this is the end of their Cinderella story, right? Bayern Munich will destroy them in the semifinal, right? Well, maybe. Bayern are obviously the favorites in the semifinal, and their 8-2 demolition of Barcelona has cemented them as arguably the best attacking team remaining in the competition, but they are not infallible. Yes, their attack will cause Lyon’s defense issues, but their high defensive line can be exploited. Lyon’s more direct, counter-attacking style will likely do a better job of getting at that defense and exposing the high line than Barcelona did and, likely, better than City could. If Lyon are able to execute their game plan at the level they did against City, and if they are able to get the same level of excellent individual performances that they had against City, there is a chance they could cause Bayern quite a few issues. They also fit into the classic “nothing left to lose” stereotype. OL are quite literally playing with house money at this point, they have nothing to fear and nothing left to lose. There is no weight of expectation upon them, and those teams are often the most dangerous. I am not saying Lyon will win, I do still think Bayern will win the match, but there is a chance. I would not immediately dismiss OL’s chances.
After writing this article, I am still in disbelief that this match actually happened. This was a historic result for an institutional club in French football, a result in a tournament that has been an overall success for French football as a whole, and OL deserve the credit and celebration for this result. They have been one of the biggest feel-good stories in football this year, and if they were to go on and win the Champions League, it would be one of the biggest, if not the biggest, story in the history of the competition. They are going into the semifinal as massive underdogs, but…
…the one thing that we know about football is that you never truly know what is going to happen.
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