On Monday, new sporting director Juninho Pernambucano opened the door for another transfer – a necessary postscript to a busy and expensive transfer window. Who is Lyon’s Mister X? If you know, maybe let Juninho in on the secret, because he remains on the look-out for the perfect complement to Sylvinho’s squad.
Lyon has had a busy Summer transfer window, both in terms of arrivals and departures. Lyon splashed €24M on Sampdoria’s Danish center-back Joachim Andersen and €22M more on Lille’s Thiago Mendes. For good measure, the two transfers were backed up by Ciprian Tătăruşanu, Youssouf Koné and Jean Lucas.
The transfers, soon after the window opened, signalled Lyon’s intent to fix last season’s problems. That goal has been resolved expertly, at least on paper. Tătăruşanu, who could be a starting goalkeeper in any mid-table Ligue 1 team, signed for free. The Romanian goalkeeper replaces the blundering Mathieu Gorgelin as a backup goalkeeper (but do not tell him that).
Just in front of him, Andersen bolsters a porous defense that left a podium-finishing team fuming with only the eighth best defense in Ligue 1. In midfield, Mendes represents an experienced addition to an area that is starved for experience. His Brazilian compatriot, Jean Lucas, will integrate squad rotation and, at the very least, boost squad depth in midfield, which lacks the kind of competition that brings the best out of players.
In contrast, Lyon has had few players leave so far, but they were all key components in Bruno Genesio‘s schema. Ex-captain Nabil Fekir and Ferland Mendy both joined Spanish teams in Real Betis and Real Madrid respectively, and Tanguy Ndombele crossed the channel to join Tottenham Hotspur in a record transfer.
Whereas Lyon’s nimble moves fixed last season’s problems, the club has not been as proactive in filling the voids left by the departures. Fekir, Ndombele and Mendy were arguably last season’s best players in each third of the pitch. Three spots have thus been vacated when in all likelihood, not all will be filled by the time the transfer window closes.
When Jean-Michel Aulas, Juninho, Sylvinho and Florian Maurice met earlier this week to decide Lyon’s next move, they had to start from scratch and choose not a player, but a profile.
A Quavering Line of Defense
The signature of Andersen might have signaled intent from Lyon, but it did not solve all of Lyon’s defensive woes. You could talk of the drubbing against Liverpool and Bournemouth, or the ever-present risk of Jason Denayer suffering from a second-season dip in form, like many of his predecessors.
Even setting these issues aside, squad depth remains questionable in defense. The most obvious backups to the Andersen-Denayer duo are the graceless Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa and the declining Marcelo. Sylvinho is open to using Kenny Tete in a more central position on the pitch, even though his predilection is playing wider, but it is more likely that Oumar Solet will be favored over the Dutch fullback.
It would certainly make sense for a third signing in center-back, even if Lyon will not want to stifle Solet whose performances in the EURO U19 campaign with France landed him a spot in the tournament’s best eleven. Although the hypothesis of another center-back remains valid, the center of defense is not the only part that needs strengthening.
Lyon did bring in Koné from Lille, but the left-back position remains with a Mendy-shaped gaping hole. Koné himself is an unconfirmed talent, though very promising, but more worrying is the depth in the position. Doubts persist about Fernando Marçal‘s fitness amid small, albeit persistent injury worries. When he is present, he has struggled to replicate his performances from his time at Guingamp.
Behind Marçal is Théo Ndicka Matam, whose most prominent trait is the explosivity in his offensive runs, which would likely remain unexpressed in Sylvinho’s cautious system. The last alternatives are to integrate the inexperienced Melvin Bard or deploy Rafael as a left-back, which has brought limited success in the past.
Signing another fullback is not only a question of squad depth. Whereas Lyon’s signings in the department in the past have focused on modern fullbacks, Sylvinho has drastically changed course. Whereas Genesio – and, in reality, most of the footballing world – is moving towards giving fullbacks offensive roles, Sylvinho is resolved on making them defenders first, attackers second.
|Kenny Tete||RB, CB|
|Théo Ndicka Matam||LB|
The style clashes with Maurice’s fullback signings. Marçal, Rafael and Dubois were all players that excelled going forward, perhaps more than they did defensively. To ease Sylvinho’s transition, Lyon could seek to bring in another fullback, ideally one who is polyvalent enough to play both wide and in the middle of defense. However, for that to happen, there will need to be more movement, and not only to avoid accumulating players.
Earlier in the transfer window, Lyon confirmed their interest in Filipe Luís, who has since joined Flamengo, and Inter’s Dalbert. Apart from the latter’s prohibitive price-tag, the signings of Jean Lucas and Thiago Mendes snapped up the last extra-communitary spots. Signing Dalbert would require that either Marcelo – who has already turned down offers and seems adamant on staying – or Marçal are sold. Easier said than done.
The Midfield Kindergarten
Sylvinho lost no time to decide on a formation – the 4-3-3 is set to make a comeback in the Rhône. There is just one slight problem. Lyon does not quite have enough players for it. The problem was made apparent in Juninho’s maiden press conference. His veiled criticism of Lucas Tousart gave wind to rumors that the sentinel could be leaving Lyon.
In Juninho’s eyes, the ball-winner did not have the right profile to play in front of the defense, connecting that same defense with the midfield ahead. His performance against Monaco will have instilled some doubts, but Sylvinho could still favour a midfielder who is more confident with the ball at his feet. Case in point: Thiago Mendes had to assume that role during the pre-season.
Mendes’ role as a sentinel is not the one he was accustomed to at Lille, nor the position where he expresses himself best; against Monaco, the midfielder delivered two assists side-by-side with Houssem Aouar. For a sentinel who is more technical than Tousart, Lyon could look to someone like Roma’s Steven Nzonzi, who has already been linked with Lyon, Atalanta’s Marten de Roon, or even Marseille’s Luiz Gustavo.
|Pape Cheikh Diop||22|
The other alternative is to move Mendes further back and use him as a sentinel. The vacated spot next to Aouar would then be replaced by a player who shares Ndombele’s profile – a marauding box-to-box midfielder that can pick up the ball in defense and initiate attacks. It is the absence of such a profile that was arguably the team’s most apparent flaw during the pre-season, aside from the ever-present defensive lacunae.
A focus on defense often found the club lacking for solutions up front – an offensive line that was outnumbered against unfazed defenses, whether Servette’s or Liverpool’s. Of the midfielders currently at the club, few seem able to assume the box-to-box role apart from Mendes or Jean Lucas, who still seems short of requirements both defensively and offensively.
To this end, the club could opt to bring in a player like Blaise Matuidi, who would likely not be retained by Juventus if the right offer arrives. More likely would be the arrival of Angers’ Jeff Reine-Adélaïde, with rumors that Lyon are moving in for the player.
The Problem of the Individual
In the past, Lyon has been accused of relying on raw, individual talent to win matches. That is not necessarily a negative notion, for when the collective fails, individualism can compensate. For some time now, it has been one of Lyon’s trademarks; a list of individuals with the ability – and penchant – for expressing their flair and hopefully turn a match around.
Chief among them was Fekir, who is now sporting green in Spain. Fekir’s absence was felt during the pre-season and goes a long way in explaining the team’s sterility. It is therefore surprising that Lyon’s attack is the only zone that has not been strengthened, beyond the signing of the precocious Boubacar Fofana.
Perhaps it is due to this absence that reports in Italy have been linking AC Milan’s Suso with a move to Lyon for some time. That interest has since been confirmed by Jean-Michel Aulas even though, at face value, such a transfer would seem discordant in the context of the current squad.
With rumors of Everton’s interest in Bertrand Traoré failing to materialize and Maxwel Cornet‘s future is still up in the air, Suso would be Lyon’s third right-winger. A move for Suso could push one of the two towards the exit door. However, it is not impossible that Lyon makes the unorthodox decision to move for Suso to replace Fekir, rather than Cornet and Traoré.
The idea to play Suso in the middle is not revolutionary in and of itself. Last season, AC Milan’s then-coach Gennaro Gattuso played Suso predominantly on the wing. At times, however, the emblematic Italian moved Suso into a more central role, which he had known sporadically earlier in his career. During this pre-season, new coach Marco Giamapolo took the cue and continued experimenting with playing Suso down the middle of the park.
|Memphis Depay||LW, CF, ST|
|Martin Terrier||LW, RW, ST|
Signing Suso as a numerical replacement for Fekir would largely depend on Sylvinho’s affinity to the 4-3-3, which seems negotiable, going off the Brazilian’s press conference last week. In the absence of a third experienced midfielder, Sylvinho could opt for a 4-2-3-1 with Thiago Mendes and Aouar playing as a double-pivot and Suso behind the sole striker. Nevertheless, although on paper, the first-eleven in this 4-2-3-1 would be alluring, it is unlikely to materialize.
The formation plays neither to Aouar’s nor Thiago Mendes’ strengths; Aouar lies too close to the defense to be in the heart of attacks, and to permit him to go forward, Mendes would likely have to remain in a deep position. Furthermore, Suso’s transition to a central attacking midfielder is only an experimental option at best. Relying on its success could be too big a gamble on a player with high wages who AC Milan values at around €35M.
The arrival of Juninho and Sylvinho in Lyon has been marked with risks. The duo’s presence is intrinsically a risk in light of their inexperience. As is the money that Lyon has uncharacteristically splashed. Crucially, so is Sylvinho’s seeming rejection of modern footballing maxims for fullbacks.
Lyon’s needs for the upcoming season changes depending on who you ask. If reports are to believed, Florian Maurice’s disposition remains young and promising French talents. On the other hand, Sylvinho prefers a more experienced player – another leader on the pitch.
Lyon’s umpteenth risk of the revolution is deciding which side to take. Not giving Sylvinho all the tools that he needs to realize his vision might be Juninho’s biggest risk in his new role. What profile to tie all the loose ends together?
The squad information in this article was obtained from transfermarkt.com.