For the first time in a decade, Barcelona faced off against Lyon in the Champions League knockout stage. Barcelona came into the game seeking to avenge last year’s disappointing ending to their European campaign while the resilient Lyon were looking for a positive result to take to the Camp Nou for the 2nd leg.
In the end, Lyon got the result that they had hoped for as they drew 0-0 with Barcelona in a scrappy game. For both Barca and Lyon, it was a tightly contested tactical duel that featured missed chances and questionable decision-making plays.
For Barcelona, manager Ernesto Valverde set up in the usual 4-3-3 formation with Sergi Roberto inserted as a surprise addition to the midfield. Valverde’s decision to elect for Sergi Roberto over Arturo Vidal in the midfield was a questionable choice but likely justified due to the plan to keep a tight midfield line as Vidal does have the tendency to leave his line and push higher up the pitch. But as usual, Barca did not particularly employ the 4-3-3 setup throughout the game with Messi’s freedom to move inside and Dembele’s tendency to drop deep into the half-space.
Lyon orchestrated in a 4-2-3-1 setup with former Celtic forward Moussa Dembele operating as the lone striker up front. Manager Bruno Genesio employed a 4-4-2 formation when defending that also switched to a 4-4-1-1 at times, which was crucial for their overall play as they had possession for 37% of the time for the entirety of the contest.
Lyon engaged in two different 4-4-2 setups with one coming when Barca controlled possession in their own half and the other for when Barca had the ball in Lyon’s half.
As shown here, Lyon maintained their defensive structure but high pressed Barca from looking to pressure Pique and Lenglet to cutting down passing lanes in hopes of jumpstarting a counterattack.
This was primarily successful for Lyon much throughout the game as Barca were not comfortable in building out from the back and their trio of forwards were not able to receive the ball in space. High pressing is evidently a tactic in Barca’s repertoire but Lyon’s scheme was not as aggressive as they did not want to scramble their lines since Barca can effortlessly take advantage of the open space.
When Lyon defended in their own half, which they spent much of the game doing so, they kept the same 4-4-1-1/4-4-2 setup but resisted from pressing. As shown here, Lyon kept a tight and narrow defensive line while their four in the midfield shifted across the pitch.
Lyon often alternated between a 4-4-1-1 defensive setup and a 4-4-2 one depending on if Moussa Dembele would drop deep alongside Memphis Depay. This was primarily a zonal defending gameplan from Lyon as they did not constantly press Barca but rather look to win back the ball off a soft press or from interceptions. Thus, Lyon’s back four remained intact as they rarely moved out of line unless they anticipated an occurrence such as a through ball into the box or a potential dribble coming from the wing. Instead, Lyon’s zonal marking relied on their midfield to win back the ball or pressure Barca. Tanguy Ndombele and Houssem Aouar were given the heavy responsibility of playing like a central defensive midfielder throughout the game, which they excelled in at the frustration of Barca’s midfield trio.
To Ernesto Valverde and Barcelona, this defensive setup from Lyon was nothing new. In fact, they faced a strikingly similar approach earlier this month in their 2-2 draw home result against Valencia. In their home fixture against Valencia, manager Marcelino also operated a 4-4-2 defensive system with an emphasis on strikers Kevin Gameiro and Rodrigo leading any counterattacks. Valencia kept a narrow defensive setup that overloaded to where the ball carrier controlled possession and they were conservative in their pressing.
But the one notable similarity from their 2-2 result against Valencia and for much of their 0-0 result against Lyon was that Valverde did not take advantage of one significant area, which was the open space on the flanks.
At times throughout the first half, Barca were stubborn in their attack as they kept attempting to build from inside rather than stretch Lyon’s defensive setup with passes out to the flanks to either Jordi Alba or Nelson Semedo, two players who have thrived in opening up play from out wide.
As exemplified here, Messi delivers a pass out wide to Dembele but misses Alba who is making a threatening off-ball run behind into open space.
In their couple of instances in the first half where they did attempt to stretch Lyon’s defense, Barca created their best goal-scoring chances. Minutes later from the previous sequence, Messi connects with Alba on the overlap run and within seconds, he receives a relay pass into the box for an excellent goal-scoring opportunity.
But instead of continuing to open up play from out wide to challenge Lyon’s narrow defense, much of the opening first half for Barca featured the team maintaining possession in the attacking third but struggling to breakdown their backline. Since Lyon defended deep, Barca often settled for shots from outside of the box as the team also lacked promising off-ball movement.
While their attack was lethargic, Barca’s defense was superb as they countered Lyon’s setup and prevented them from creating serious goal-scoring opportunities. Valverde’s 4-4-2 defensive setup with the implementation of a high press allowed Barca to constantly cut down passing lanes and prevent through balls from reaching to Moussa Dembele up front. Since Lyon’s forwards did not drop deep to support or hold up play, Barca were able to trap their midfield and easily win back the ball.
As shown here, Barca are able to quickly converge to cut down the space on the flank which allowed for Rakitic to read the play and immediately clear away an attempted pass.
Heading into the 2nd half, Lyon pressed off from attacking and maintaining possession as they solely relied on keeping Barca away from the box. Even in counterattacks, Lyon quickly tracked back downfield to converge into their 4-4-2 defensive setup.
For Barca, it was more of the same early on as Barca’s lack of off-ball movement and constant attacking third breakdowns prevented them from stringing together threatening shots on goal. But as was the theme of the 1st half, Lyon’s defensive and midfield lines continued to frustrate Barca.
It was only when Lyon did not keep their defensive line that Barca were able to capitalize and create chances.
As shown here, Messi is dribbling up to the box on the counter as it then brings Marcelo off of his line, which opens a passing lane for Suarez. But ultimately, Suarez did not get a shot on goal and also missed an open Messi to his left.
For Barca, their attack began to show some life when Phillipe Coutinho entered the game for Ousmane Dembele. Coutinho’s link up play with Alba stretched Lyon’s backline and started to unsettle their defensive organization. As alluded to before, this tactic was something that Valverde needed to address in the 1st half but Coutinho took it upon himself to actively push the ball out wide to Alba.
This is exemplified here as Coutinho controls possession on the left and waits to pass the ball off to Alba who is making an off-ball run. The link-up play is halted as although Coutinho moves into the box anticipating a relay pass, Suarez intervenes to get a shot off.
Later, Coutinho moves inside on a counterattack in order to leave open space for Alba out wide, who would go on to almost create a goal-scoring chance for Suarez.
Even though Barca spent much of the last quarter of the game in the attacking third, they still were unable to break through for a goal. Lyon are undoubtedly pleased with the scoreless draw but for Barca, it is a game filled with what ifs.
From a defensive standpoint, Barca were near flawless but in the attack, it was a completely different story. Without promising off-ball movement or constant involvement from the fullbacks out wide, Barca were unable to penetrate into the box and break through Lyon’s defensive line.
For Valverde, the team’s inability to get the fullbacks consistently more involved in the attack and the decision to keep Suarez for the entirety of the game ultimately hurt the team. One solution could have been to take off Suarez shortly after the start of the second half and instead employ a false nine Messi that features Coutinho on the left and Dembele out on the right. This would allow Messi to continue to freely roam inside while Coutinho links up with Jordi -- as they successfully did in the 2nd half -- while Dembele is able to push Semedo into more attacking areas on the right.
But for now, Barca have to live with the result and now focus on their upcoming grueling schedule before they face Lyon once again in the return leg next month.