Lyon currently sits third in Ligue 1, just one point ahead of Saint-Étienne. That point could be the bare minimum to stay ahead of the local rivals as Lyon is behind in goal difference. The culprit: Lyon has the tenth-worst defense in Ligue 1. Paradoxically, Anthony Lopes is nominated to win the UNFP Best Goalkeeper award, and he would be a deserving winner.
Anthony Lopes is coming up against goalkeepers with impressive numbers in the UNFP award; Alphonse Areola and Benjamin Lecomte have kept 10 clean sheets each – the former in just 20 matches – while Mike Maignan and Edouard Mendy went 13 matches without conceding.
As for Lopes… he has kept just 7 clean sheets in 32 matches. That gives the Portuguese goalkeeper the worst percentage of clean sheets among Ligue 1 goalkeepers that participated in at least half of this season’s matches.
|11||Bordeaux, Guingamp, Toulouse||9|
|14||Lyon, Nantes, Strasbourg, Caen, Nîmes, Monaco||8|
Overall, Lyon has gone just 8 Ligue 1 matches in 35 without conceding – the other clean sheet coming with Mathieu Gorgelin between the posts. Only Dijon – 19th in Ligue 1 – has kept fewer clean sheets. In the process, Lyon has conceded 45 goals. At this stage, that figure makes the Rhône team the tenth-worst defense in Ligue 1.
Nevertheless, Anthony Lopes still edged out honorable mentions like Gianluigi Buffon and Walter Benítez; the latter single-handedly kept 15 clean sheets all season. Furthermore, the lingering feeling among many supporters and observers is that this time, it is Lopes who deserves to win the award. Although at face value, these statistics talk about Lopes, but beneath the surface, they chastise Lyon’s defense.
Oh Leader, My Leader
When QSI bought Paris Saint-Germain, one of their first signings was Thiago Silva, and when a consortium acquired Nice, they bought Dante. Even if largely unsuccessful, when Marseille changed hands, the recruitments of Adil Rami and Duje Caleta-Car too signaled intent.
In all cases, the signings completed an experienced central spine from attack to defense. The intention was to retain those defenders as a foundation – leaders around which the clubs could construct a defense. At Lyon, such a leader has been sorely missing since Cris left the club.
There is a lot to be said about the long list of management failures in defense, but it suffices to say that they do not begin this season. The club attempted to buy or form leaders but repeatedly failed. Samuel Umtiti was never going to spend an entire career at Lyon and older players did not live up to expectations.
Sooner or later, Jérémy Morel, Nicolas N’koulou and Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa failed or did not have the necessary presence for long-term stability. As for Claudio Caçapa, the defensive coach seems to have contributed little; beyond rejuvenating Yanga-Mbiwa for a short six-month period, his contributions come off as superficial.
The situation worsened this season. Lyon turned down €25M for 31-year-old Marcelo – Lyon’s leader in defense last season. The intentions were pure, but Lyon will have regretted not selling Marcelo. The Brazilian suffered a season-long sophomore slump, with mistakes multiplying faster than Lyon’s Twitter communiqués.
To make matters worse, after promises of World Cup signings, Lyon failed to convince Benfica to sell Rúben Dias. Instead, the club settled for then-unconfirmed defender Jason Denayer to cold reactions from supporters. Thankfully, Denayer picked up Marcelo’s slack and became an instant fan favorite, but since then there has been no respite for either defender.
N’koulou was gone for good, Morel spent most of the season rotating between the bench and the reserves, and Yanga-Mbiwa continued to morph into a fossil. Experiments with Oumar Solet were few and far between, and the few times that the more experienced Fernando Marçal played as a center back, it was out of necessity in formations with three defenders at the back.
As a result, Denayer played an incredible 3,970 out of 4,320 possible minutes in all competitions; Marcelo played 3,780 minutes of 4,500 minutes. Only Lopes has played more minutes than them. When there is so little competition and rotation, perhaps the sight of Marcelo ambling his way against Barcelona should come as no surprise.
Although Marcelo usually takes the heat, he and Denayer perform similarly to each other in terms of statistics; they make 1.5 and 1.1 successful tackles per match respectively. Moreover, Marcelo makes more than twice as many interceptions per match as Denayer – 2 against 0.8. A more practical look at Marcelo’s performances does reveal deeper flaws – a slow defender with a frustrating attitude. However, it would be unfair to pin the blame of this season’s shortcomings on the individual flaws of Marcelo, Denayer, or any other defender.
Attack is the Best Defense… Sometimes
Football can be a simple game of out-scoring your opponent. Perhaps with last season’s attacking form, Lyon would not have to fight for the podium, but that spark is gone. Instead, Genesio has been trying to overcompensate, in the process magnifying Lyon’s defensive flaws.
In lack of notable offensive animation, Genesio has turned to playing the numbers, pushing forward and trying to force movement in the last third by sheer force. To keep the pressure on the opposition’s defense, Lyon regularly exhibit a very high defensive line when attacking.
Lyon’s backline against Bordeaux was only slightly deeper than the midfield. The high defensive line served to open up options for the midfield when they could not find a way through Bordeaux’s defense. Marcelo and Denayer could rotate the ball around, switching sides and creating the traditional Lyon U-shape.
In comparison, Lyon’s usual defensive line is similar to Lille’s against Nîmes – a match that the former dominated to win 5-0. In contrast, Saint-Étienne’s narrower 2-0 victory over Toulouse saw Jean-Louis Gasset’s outfit sitting much deeper.
Another characteristic of Lyon’s play is the offensive contributions of fullbacks. Léo Dubois, Ferland Mendy and Marçal were all brought in because they represented modern fullbacks – capable defenders with enough pace and stamina to go forward and participate in attacks.
In fact, in the 2016/17 season Marçal provided 7 assists, becoming the defender with the most assists in Ligue 1… tied with Dubois. That same season, a 21-year-old Mendy excelled in Ligue 2 with 5 assists – the highest of any defender. Marçal and Mendy joined next season, while Dubois joined a year later.
The intent was clear – Genesio wanted his fullbacks to be versatile enough to be simultaneously defenders and attackers. The heatmaps of Kenny Tete, Dubois and Mendy against Bordeaux look like the those of wide midfielders. This season, the few exceptions to the trend came when Lyon took a defensive stance – as they did in the home leg against Barcelona – or when fullbacks needed to mark an opposition player closely – Mendy’s instructions last weekend to restrain Lille’s Nicolas Pépé.
When this strategy of pushing defenders forward works, it works great – right now, Dubois’ cross to find Moussa Dembélé‘s head in the dying minutes of the Rhône derby is keeping Lyon ahead of Saint-Étienne in Ligue 1. Conversely, when it does not work and the team loses possession in midfield, it places the defense under immense strain.
At best, players need to scramble to close down spaces and get back to their positions. At worst, it exposes the high line and opens the team up to dangerous counter-attacks – to fatal effect against Barcelona, Nantes, Bordeaux and countless other teams.
When the defense falls apart, the reason matters little. Whether an opposition opportunity comes from a defensive mistake or from a defense that is too preoccupied with attack, the last line of defense comes back to Anthony Lopes.
Just like that, in spite of regularly dominating possession, Lyon – and ultimately, Lopes – face 12.5 shots per match. Paris-Saint Germain, who lead the clean sheets table, face two fewer shots on average. The goalkeepers of Lille, Reims, Saint-Étienne and other contenders for the podium too are far less troubled.
At that point, it becomes a numbers game again – the more shots you face, the more goals you can expect to concede. Behind the team’s poor defensive record is a barrage of shots that no other podium contender faces. Lopes’ low clean sheet numbers conceal high figures of saves, rivalled only by Lecomte and Mendy among those nominated for the title of best goalkeeper in Ligue 1.
At a time when Lyon is struggling to impress up front, attack may no longer be the best defense. Not even the defenders are enough when they are tasked with participating in attack. For Lyon, Anthony Lopes has to be the best defense, and for that, the UNFP award may well become his.
This article was compiled with data from the 2018/2019 season up until the 35th Ligue 1 matchday. The information comes from three sources: transfermarkt.com for information about clean sheets and minutes played; WhoScored.com for player and team performance statistics and the heatmaps; and ligue1.com for historical data about assists.