Manchester City struggled again in their second Champions League match against Olympique Lyonnais on Tuesday, battling their way to a 2 - 2 draw on the road. The Blues got a result this time around after falling to the French side by a one goal margin back on September 19, still their only loss of the season. A win here would have clinched the top of the group and provided an opportunity for much needed squad rotation in a congested December schedule. Unfortunately, now City require at least 1 point from the final match day against Hoffenheim to secure this position, as any tiebreaker with Lyon (3 points back) would go in their favor on head-to-head points.
Lyon proved once again that they are a terrible matchup for Pep Guardiola’s team, and they were the better side in this match to be honest. Unpacking why they present such problems for perhaps the Champions League favorite is a really interesting conversation. Keep in mind, this is a team having a strong season in Ligue 1, yet are still 15 points behind leaders Paris St. Germain. Furthermore, they have drawn every other Champions League match, even allowing Hoffenheim to come back from a two-goal deficit while down a man for the majority of the second half. They’re a very good team, but far from the juggernaut they have appeared to be against City.
Obviously, the results tend to fail to describe the game accurately, but City have comfortably handled superior teams and have now been worked by Lyon, twice.
The positive assessment for this would focus on the circumstances. The first match was played early in the season, and you could argue the Blues were still recovering from an offseason where many players featured in the World Cup. If you recall, the primary narrative after that match was how bad Fernandinho looked (luckily this is not the case now). On Tuesday, it’d be easy to point out the injury struggles City has currently as a major factor.
And doing so may not be so far-fetched.
Pep Guardiola was without Kevin De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, and Ilkay Gundogan in this one, forcing him to pigeon hole Raheem Sterling into a central midfield position. This required a lot of role-shifting defensively. David Silva has been the most advanced midfielder all season, therefore has had the least defensive responsibility, often utilized to press the opponent backline upfield. With him having to drop deeper and Sterling now defending centrally, the strength of the midfield was weakened. Guardiola tried to counteract this by bringing left back Oleksandr Zinchenko into a double pivot with Fernandinho frequently. As a result, City’s buildup often occurred in a 3-2-2-3 formation that was unable to stretch Lyon’s defense horizontally.
Bringing Zinchenko inside didn’t do enough to stabilize the midfield, so Pep brought in Fabian Delph at the expense of Leroy Sane in the 71st minute. He was used in an unusual box-to-box role for him. But the defense aptitude he brought to the game contributed to City’s best play of the night in those final twenty minutes. Despite the improvement, this may have been the first time in a long time that the Blues have lost the midfield battle. And on top of the midfield injuries, Gabriel Jesus also picked up a knock in training and was unavailable. This left Pep with no options on his bench, aside from Phil Foden, to bring on fresh attackers late in the match.
Another component of Lyon’s success over these two matches comes down to their roster complexion and style of play. They simply have a great collection of athletic players necessary to break down Manchester City while implementing a really effective quick passing mentality that is vital to breaking down the counter press and bypassing defenders. Manager Bruno Génésio actually changed his formation recently, going to a three-man backline, though the talent and style was clear with both formations.
In a three-man backline, the wingbacks are perhaps the most important position given the amount of ground they need to cover. Rafael and Ferland Mendy were up to the task, showing an ability to be exactly where they needed to be. In attack, they got well upfield and maintained their width to support front three. Alternatively, they never seemed to get caught out on City counters, recovering with pace and falling into a five-man backline in their defensive third. This backline was protected by defensive midfielders Tanguy Ndombele and Houssem Aouar, who were fundamental on both sides of the ball. They snuffed out attacks in the middle third and allowed their defenders to maintain position within their line. Simultaneously, Ndombele and Aouar were able to carry the ball out into transition and distribute to the front three effectively. It’s no accident at all that Ndombele is in consideration to be Fernandinho’s long term replacement, the guy can play.
That front three of Nabil Fekir, Memphis Depay, and Maxwel Cornet were a handful in their own right. City’s fluidity is a massive benefit in unlocking attacking creativity, but it can leave pockets for counters to develop in. The Lyon attacking force are similar to City in their interchanging and positional flexibility. Their comfort in this avenue created chances because these three players were free to identify holes anywhere in the City backline and exploit them. They did a great job of identifying when a Blues’ defender who step up, shift into that space, and use that as a staging area for the counter. Having three players with the pace and technical skill to do this, anywhere horizontally across the field was perhaps Lyon’s biggest strength Tuesday.
This is the second time now City has been unable to contain Cornet. He was a difference maker in the first matchup and continued that trend with two more goals. The Ivorian came close to a third when he volleyed a Depay cross off the woodwork. Not to mention, he could’ve had an assist on a low cross to Depay as well, but the Dutchman whiffed on what should have been a clean finish. It’s honestly hard to believe that these two games against City are the only two he has started all season! I would never pretend to know more than these managers, but maybe Génésio should be giving him some more run?
Lyon seem to have a lot of parallels to that Monaco team that knocked City out of the Champions League two years ago. It’s not a perfect comparison but both teams are clearly overlooked and underrated because they play in France. The skill was there in both squads to compete on the highest level and now we are seeing a lot of those Monaco players on world class teams, our very Bernardo Silva and Benjamin Mendy included. You can certainly expect the same thing to happen to this Lyon team, with players like Fekir and Ndombele already rumored for big moves.
I realize this is my second consecutive review of a Manchester City match that focused on the negative, as I had some concerns after the West Ham game as well. But the Blues were not all bad against Lyon, it was just a very uncharacteristic game for them. Both goals unexpectedly came from set pieces while Lyon had the better of the chances during open play. City did create some decent opportunities, particularly in transition when Mahrez got a few shots off in dangerous areas. They also grew with the game, playing more lateral switches later on, which shifted the defense more efficiently when passing through the middle wasn’t working. Overall, I’m okay with City struggling here. The players should know how to handle adversity because it will certainly happen again, and in higher stakes situations. Players will return from injury and Pep will get back in the lab to figure out what to do against a team like Lyon. They can’t all be easy, but Manchester City will recover from this.