Can a result be a shock without being a surprise? Just days after slotting four goals past perennial European powerhouse Wolfsburg on the Germans’ own field, Lyon were unexpectedly held to a 1-1 draw by FC Fleury 91–D1 Féminine’s sixth-place club. And yet it somehow felt like this was always coming.
For a team as overwhelmingly dominant as Lyon, with its roster full of superstars, a tie is always going to feel sort of like a loss. So before we break down the draw, let’s spare a moment for some sanity.
This was the quintessential trap game. Lyon were coming off an emotional, taxing victory on the road against maybe their toughest opponent on the continent. They had just four days to return to France and gear up for a league game against a weaker opponent on a poor field, with the international break just on the other side. Failure to focus on this game isn’t an excuse, of course, but it also isn’t an original story.
And, in the end, the result changes very little in terms of the outlook for OL’s season. Before this past weekend, Lyon held a 2-point advantage over PSG. A tie or win in the April 13 home game against PSG would effectively secure the title; a loss would take Lyon’s destiny out of their hands. After this weekend’s games, Lyon and PSG are even on points, but Lyon holds a considerable advantage in terms of goal-differential, the tie breaker for the title. A tie or a win in the April 13 home against PSG will effectively secure the title; a loss will take Lyon’s destiny out of their hands. OL are in virtually the same position as they were before the draw.
If you really want to find reason to worry, you’d point to the Dijon match scheduled for April 23. It’s a mid-week away match nestled between the two Champions League semifinal fixtures against Chelsea, and there’s no room for error. But Dijon are a 9th-place team that haven’t managed any kind of result against a team ranked higher than 7th. With all due respect to Dijon, if Lyon can’t pick up the victory there, they’ll be in no position to complain about missing out on the title.
Naturally, this is where the critics point out that we could make a similar argument about Fleury, who have just five wins on the season–four of which are against teams ranked 9th in the league or below. To Fleury’s credit, they have proven to be a tough team on their own field: PSG escaped with a 1-0 win, but Montpellier lost and Paris FC were held to a draw.
Still, to get a sense of just how improbable this result was, you have to go back to 2016 to find the last D1F game in which Lyon dropped points to a team other than PSG (Montpellier, 1-1 draw). For a similar result against an opponent other than PSG or Montpellier, you have to turn the clocks all the way back to 2011 (Juivsy, also a 1-1 draw).
So what makes us say it felt like this was always coming? Well, even if the sky isn’t falling just yet, there have been warning signs on the horizon for Lyon for some time and they all came to a head in Sunday’s game. Here’s our take on how Lyon wound up stumped by Fleury–and what the team needs to fix to avoid another upset.
1. Scoring Woes
Remember the days of comically one-sided victories for Lyon? It’s not your imagination–they’ve been lacking this year. Scoring has been down for OL across all competitions.
In D1F, Lyon are on pace to score 89 goals this year; last year they put up 104. In the Champions League, Lyon scored 33 goals in its first six games; this year they’ve scored 26. And in last year’s Coupe de France, Lyon scored 56 goals in 6 total games, while this year they currently sit at 13 goals in 4 games.
Again, we spare a moment for sanity. Some of the disparities can be explained by quality of opponent. In the Coupe de France, for example, Lyon got to put up crooked numbers last year against lower-division opponents like Racing Bensançon (20-0), Yzeure Allier (10-0), Toulouse (11-0), and Arras (11-0). Rodez (6-0), Soyaux (5-0), and PSG (1-0) are obviously a higher caliber of opponent.
But in D1F the competition this year is largely identical to the competition last year, and there’s been a drop off. Last year, Lyon scored at least 5 goals in 13 of 22 games (nearly 60%). This year, they’ve scored at least 5 goals in 8 of 19 games (42%). Objectively good numbers? Yes. The shock and awe Lyon fans are used to? Not at all.
The threat of trouble from Lyon’s season-long drop-off in scoring has been inching closer. Even if you set aside a frustrating match against PSG where Lyon arguably should have been awarded additional goals, les Fenottes barely escaped with a 1-0 victory against Lille in February, when a standout performance by Sarah Bouhaddi (and the crossbar) made sure Dzsenifer Marozsan’s early goal was enough to earn a win. More troublingly, Grenoble, a mid-table second division team came within moments of holding Lyon off the score sheet entirely in the Coupe de France semifinals in March. It took an Ada Hegerberg header four minutes into second-half stoppage time to break the 0-0 deadlock.
Teams like Lille and Grenoble have managed to limit Lyon with tight, low defensive blocs. Lyon haven’t responded with enough creativity to break through, often resorting to hopeful crosses in from the wings that end up intercepted by the defense. And when an OL player does find herself with the ball in the box, too often an extra dribble or an extra pass ends the chance without a shot on net. There’s also been no shortage of wastefulness, with too many shots either rolling harmlessly at the keeper or missing the target entirely.
How concerned should we be going forward? Well, the Lyon-PSG match on April 13 looks to be decisive in the title race, and the last seven matches between the teams have been decided by one goal or less. And, in the Champions League, Chelsea coach Emma Hayes has already hinted that she’s open to parking the bus against Lyon, conceding that they wouldn’t attempt to beat OL “in a pretty way.”
We’ve been waiting all season to see Lyon at the height of their offensive firepower. Now would be a pretty good time to find that scoring touch.
2. Defensive Missteps
Lyon allowed two goals to Wolfsburg in the second leg of the Champions League quarterfinal showdown on March 27. That was the first time since September 2017 that OL conceded more than a single goal in a game–a 548-day period.
But it wasn’t so much the fact of allowing multiple goals that was troubling as much as it was the manner. Pernille Harder’s two goals were virtually identical. Here’s the first:
And here’s the second, just three minutes later:
..and again 🙄 https://t.co/I4qShDACzY—
Zach (@zac13_) March 27, 2019
Two crosses in from the left side, two blown defensive coverages. On the first goal, both Wendie Renard and Selma Bacha are too slow to react to Pernille Harder’s run. On the second, Bacha runs with Harder, but doesn’t get body position.
Flash forward four days. Fleury recovers the ball, Daphne Corboz makes a run, Selma Bacha is late to react, and Corboz puts the ball in the back of the net. The same brand of lapsed coverage, all over again.
Selma Bacha is 18 years old and an enormous talent. She’s going to be very good for a very long time. But there are gaps in her defensive positioning and teams have taken advantage this season. It’s plays like these that keep Corinne Diacre from calling the promising teenager up to the French national team. And it’s plays like these that could prove costly as Lyon pursues the treble.
That’s not to place all the responsibility on Bacha. There have been defensive lapses to go around. Renard didn’t exactly cover herself in glory on Harder’s brace in the Wolfsburg game, and those two crosses came in from the side that’s usually locked down by all-world right back Lucy Bronze. Kadeisha Buchanan was burned by Viviane Asseyi for a goal against in the match versus Bordeaux (also burned on the same play? Bacha again). And neither Amel Majri nor Carolin Simon have looked up to their usual level since returning from recent injuries. For as often as Sarah Bouhaddi has been criticized for lack of concentration in games in which Lyon dominates possession, it seems that its the defenders who have suffered from that flaw recently.
How concerned should we be going forward? There will be no room for similar errors against PSG (seven straight games decided by one goal or less!), Chelsea, and (if all goes well) Barcelona or Bayern as the season draws to a close. It’s time for Reynald Pedros and his staff to buckle down on defense, clean up the coverage problems, and put OL back on the path to clean sheets.
3. Diminished Depth
Way back in our season preview, we warned that if Lyon were to miss out on a 13th straight D1F title, diminished depth could be the culprit. That threat looks increasingly ominous.
What do the nail-biter games against Fleury, Lille, and Grenoble have in common? None of them featured Lyon’s best XI. For example, check out the mix in defensive starting lineups:
To the extent Lyon needs to rely on its defenders to help break down their opponents’ defensive blocs, the failure to assemble the first-choice squad might explain some of the struggles.
But we’re talking about trouble scoring, which means all eyes are on Lyon’s attackers and there’s questions to ask there too. The trio of Delphine Cascarino, Ada Hegerberg, and Sole Jaimes failed to manage much in either the draw against Fleury or the narrow win over Lille. And recall that in the near-nightmare against Grenoble, Eugénie Le Sommer joined Cascarino and Hegerberg up front for less than a half hour before she was subbed off due to injury. (This is your periodic reminder that Le Sommer doesn’t get nearly enough credit for how critically important she is to Lyon’s success).
These games have illustrated that the gap between Lyon’s first choice XI and its bench has grown. It used to be that Lyon could field any eleven players and run away with the match. Not so now.
The midfield provides a tidy example. Last year, Lyon’s best midfield consisted of Dzsenifer Marozsan, Amandine Henry, and Saki Kumagai–three national team captains, three players widely considered among the best in the world at the spot. But the bench was nearly equally daunting, with Camille Abily, Kheira Hamraoui, and Morgan Brian–all national team bubble players or better–waiting in the wings. Maro, Henry, and Kumagai are back this year and Jess Fishlock has been an immense success since arriving on loan (note that Fishlock did not start any of the games against Fleury, Lille, or Grenoble – another illustration of how important a contributor she has become). But particularly with Izzy Christiansen now absent due to injury, Coach Pedros has far less ability to rotate his midfield and give the gang a rest.
How concerned should we be going forward? First, if you’re a fan of France or Germany, you can’t be wild about the wear and tear on Henry and Maro leading up to the World Cup.
But if you’re a Lyon fan, it’s worth some concern not just for this season, but for the team’s outlook long-term. This may be the new normal. Gone are the days when Lyon was the only place to go for big wages and trophy contention. Major contenders have arisen, particularly from overseas.
Barcelona has emerged as a big money player. They lured Kheira Hamraoui away from Lyon with a 170,000 euro salary (18th best worldwide, per France Football) and a promise of increased playing time. Rumors persist that Amel Majri may look to join her this summer.
The English FA WSL looks ready to step up as well. The arms race between Arsenal, Chelsea, and Manchester City for the English title and two coveted Champions League positions will incentivize big spending. Manchester United’s addition to the top-division ranks next season will only add more pressure and more money. And with Barclays stepping up as a big-money title sponsor for the league, English clubs will have fewer excuses for getting outbid.
All of which means that players are less likely to come sit on Lyon’s bench when they could see more playing time and equivalent salaries elsewhere. Lyon’s recruits may trend more towards the model of Sole Jaimes–unknown and unproven. Keeping in mind the significant challenges for Jaimes with adapting to Lyon’s game, integrating with a tight group, and overcoming a massive language barrier, she hasn’t show much in her two months with the squad to suggest that she can be a difference-maker in Lyon’s push to the finish line. There’s a big difference between adding Alex Morgan in the winter transfer window and adding Sole Jaimes.
That’s the challenge ahead of Jean-Michel Aulas & Co. How does Lyon maintain its dominance as the rest of the world gains ground? Perhaps the days of unbeaten seasons will soon be in the past, and the race for the title won’t be a two-game affair. Perhaps there are more Fleurys in OL’s future.
But for now, a virtual final with PSG beckons. Clear your schedule for April 13 at 20h45 local time (2:45 pm ET/11:45 am PT). It should be another nail-biter.
Photos via Dominique Mallen (@dommal38)