Back Threes and Notebooks: How Lyon and Manchester City sought the win
“They are so fast upfront. They attack incredible fast to the channel and we are not so quick central defenders, and didn’t want to leave them two and two. Even for the build up we were more solid in….to make the three against two in that position, maybe can help us you know to do it better. This is the reason why.”
This was Pep Guardiola’s response when he was asked about his three at the back system by The Athletic’s Adam Crafton in the post match press conference.
Head down, thinking, perhaps overthinking. Guardiola looked like a man who had the weight of the world on his shoulders. Eager to finish the press conference while still responding to all of the questions presented. His face said it all. Devastated.
Guardiola’s back three was part of the problem but not the whole problem. The problem was not finding an effective offensive solution while in the back three system.
But what about Lyon ? The well respected team that Guardiola lauded in the post match press conference. He knew they were quick and wanted to attack the channels, and that’s exactly what they did from the start of the game.
Lyon’s approach in the first half was attacking the channels by using direct balls towards Karl Toko Ekambi. It could be seen from early on in the game when Marcelo played a long ball behind Fernandinho into the Cameroonian’s path.
The ball was slightly long and Ekambi had to recirculate, eventually resulting in City’s first discomfort when Kyle Walker chested the ball down for Ederson. Not threatening, but it gave a glimpse of what Lyon were trying to do.
Fernando Marcal as well was searching for Ekambi using the same ball. Here, Ekambi is making a run into the space between Eric Garcia and Fernandinho
Marcal’s ball could have been better. A more direct straight one towards the goal would have helped Ekambi providing his superiority in terms of pace. The slightly curved pass put Garcia nearer to goal and Ekambi on the outside. Again, non threatening.
It was as if Ekambi was just waiting for this ball to be accurate for one time. Again, he is ready to pounce in the space between Garcia and Fernandinho. Anticipating Memphis Depay’s pass. The Dutchman’s was a poor one.
By now there seemed to be a trend in Ekambi’s runs. He was just let down every time.
That was until the 23rd minute. This time Marcal perfected it, playing the ball behind Manchester City’s school-boy defensive line.
The stars have aligned for Ekambi whose runs were finally rewarded. Attacking a different space but with the same intent, the ball fell eventually to Maxwel Cornet who opened the scoring for Lyon.
A surprise advantage for the French side, but a deserved one. Guardiola’s post match comments fluctuated between being bad for fifteen minutes, twenty minutes and half an hour. In reality it was more than that.
Apart from Sterling’s rare chances from the left side, City attacked as if they were at a funeral. On the other hand, Lyon’s defence was aggressive, committed and smart. It’s happening again isn’t it ? Another quarter final for City. That checkpoint in the video game that you have been stuck at for months and you are still trying to figure it out.
Despite that, City improved late in the first half when they switched Kevin De Bruyne to the left side and brought Sterling to the right side. It made sense as only the left side was operating because Fernandinho and Walkers aren’t great ball progressors, and De Bruyne’s isn’t a player who will provide constant verticality. So neither the ball nor the man was reaching the end of the pitch.
Putting De Bruyne on the left with better ball progressors in Laporte and Joao Cancelo helped the Belgian, keeping him high up the pitch. On the other side the verticality came from Sterling. The improvements were clear and Sterling had a chance at the end of the first half to equalize.
By the second half Guardiola felt he had to change and eleven minutes in he switched to 4–2–3–1, bringing on Riyad Mahrez for the booked Fernandinho. The change was key, as in the number 10 position De Bruyne manged to position himself excellently behind Lyon’s midfield trio.
Popping up untracked by the midfield and at sometimes forcing Lyon’s defenders out of their positions.
De Bruyne had the type of freedom he craves. The one he didn’t find the first half.
Receiving comfortably he had time to see his options. A curled ball for Sterling behind Marcal and Marcelo would have presented a great opportunity to equalize. It was too heavy for Sterling though.
In the fourteen minutes between City’s equalizer and the switch to 4–2–3–1 De Bruyne’s positioning was flawless. The problem was that City’s defence and midfield rarely played the risky pass.
Here, it’s a risky pass that Laporte could play. At 1–0 it’s a bigger risk. But that’s why Laporte plays at City, for this type of pass that he didn’t make. A quick combination with Cancelo to De Bruyne was a slower option but effective. That didn’t happen as well.
At times it was ironic. A right footed pass from Laporte here takes out five Lyon players and puts De Bruyne in the optimum position. Laporte played the ball to Garcia.
De Bruyne was furious with Laporte who to be fair acknowledged that it was the wrong pass and raised his hand in apology. This wasn’t even a risky pass.
The one time that type of pass was played it took out six Lyon players. Garcia finally found De Bruyne behind Lyon’s midfield.
De Bruyne let the ball run in-front of him, then checked inside into space. He decided to take it on his own and his shot was blocked by Jason Denayer. The chance wasn’t threatening but it gave an idea of how City can equalize.
The equalizer wasn’t directly from a ball into De Bruyne behind Lyon’s midfield. But his presence in that space allowed him to score. Here he isn’t even behind the Lyon midfield.
Yet seconds after, he was in prime position to score. His positioning behind Lyon’s midfield finally paid off.
It’s like a two sided story film. We now move to the French side. Rudi Garcia immediately switched to 4–3–3 after conceding. A move showing his intent in trying to win the game. Cornet still dropped to support Marcal who was now effectively the left back, but the former’s offensive duties increased as he was now the left winger.
“But the way they play is you know regain the ball and try to make, to make…to make…” Guardiola stuttered out of tiredness. “Attack your back and especially when they have time with Marcelo make a switch of play. Right, left, right, left and that’s what happened.”
The change to 4–3–3 provided Lyon with another lane to attack against City. Cornet now on the left side was ready for switches in behind the City defence.
In this chance he fell, claiming a penalty but just like Ekambi’s early runs in the first half, it was an indication to what’s coming.
Cornet’s mindset switched. He was now the left winger dropping to help, not the left wing back. From a City corner he could be seen here trying to stop the cross.
Once Anthony Lopes collected the ball and was starting the counter attack, Cornet was the furthest player forward trying to attack the wide space. Houssem Aouar — who was arguably the game’s best performer — played an inch perfect ball for Cornet behind Cancelo. It hit his head and the ball wasn’t controlled, falling easily for Ederson to sweep.
Left, right. Right, left. Switches towards the far side wingers kept occurring, trying to utilize Lyon’s pace upfront.
Only Walker stopped Kenny Tete’s ball into Cornet. Had Walker been a split second late, that would have probably been the second for Lyon. The risk Rudi Garcia took was that with opening the game up his defence was also vulnerable. From this Walker interception City had their best chance to take the lead, but Jesus missed it.
Right after Jesus’ miss, all hell broke loose for City. Their faces were that of disbelief. The look on it gave you the impression that psychologically City were out of the game. Lyon had scored the second.
Cornet was far back defending, but the constant theme was still there. Wide players attacking from City’s blind spots and the ball played across the pitch for them. Moussa Dembele was on the end of the pass this time, scoring past Ederson to give Lyon a chance to reach the Champions League semi-finals for the second time in their history.
The curse. The checkpoint. The psychological disadvantage. City had one final hope and Sterling missed it, just like he did against Burnley. Exactly from the same position.
To make things worse, Lyon pounced. Attacking three lanes again. This time it was Aouar on the left.
You probably know the rest. It was game over.
Just like a mathematical equation that contains numerous variables, football isn’t binary. A small change can change the total outcome.
Did the back three affect Manchester City offensively during the first fifty six minutes ? Sure it did. A better approach whether in a back three or not could have improved them going forward and regained the time wasted. Yet that wasn’t the only thing that happened in the game.
Lyon’s clear attacking plans and clinical finishing proved effective in the end.
Perhaps Rudi Garcia wasn’t just scribbling for the sake of it in that notebook.