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City Fall Flat in Champions League Opener Against Lyon

Pep Guardiola was forced to watch from the stands as his team put on their worst performance of the season.

Manchester City v Olympique Lyonnais - UEFA Champions League Group F Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Manchester City lost their Champions League opener at the Etihad Wednesday night 2 - 1 to French side Olympique Lyonnais. Over the past year or so, in the immediate aftermath of City losses/draws, we’ve gotten into a habit of saying that the Blues were the better team and sometimes football is unlucky, and so on. You know the narrative.

Well, that’s not the narrative today, Lyon were simply the better team in this match. It feels weird even saying that but it’s the truth. It’s easy to look at the stats, see that City dominated possession (70%) and had twice as many shots on goal (8 to 4), and make the assumption that City were in fact, unlucky. These numbers are deceptive, and don’t give credit to the amazing job Lyon did in Manchester. Their manager, Bruno Genesio, had a solid gameplan that allowed his team to thwart City’s buildup while simultaneously taking advantage of their mistakes.

All this being said, I don’t think any of us should be hitting the panic button after this game. They’re were obviously many concerns that came up against Lyon but a cold shower like this may jolt this team out of the haziness they were playing with on Wednesday.

Pep Guardiola was forced to sit in the stands and hand the reins to Mikel Arteta in this one due his sending off from the last season’s Champions League second leg against Liverpool. Guardiola was obviously still instrumental in the strategic planning in the days leading up to the match but was unable to communicate with his staff during the match. It’s hard to say if his absence was a major factor in this loss, but we can be sure the starting 11 he undoubtedly chose struggled mightily.

Manchester City v Olympique Lyonnais - UEFA Champions League Group F Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

City set up in a 4-3-3 with Gabriel Jesus as the preferred striker option and Bernardo Silva on the right wing, with Raheem Sterling filling out the front line. The midfield was comprised of David Silva, Ilkay Gundogan, and Fernandinho while the backline featured Fabian Delph, Aymeric Laporte, John Stones, and Kyle Walker from left to right.

From the opening minute, something just seemed off with the Blues. It was hard to tell exactly what it was, but as a collective, the connectivity and rhythm wasn’t there. City were making unnecessary, lazy fouls that are uncharacteristic and couldn’t sustain any prolonged spells of comfortable possession. Lyon was pressing forward with the dangerous attacking combination of Memphis Depay and Fabil Nekir, along with a intelligently aggressive midfield that read where the front two were diverting the passing lanes. City amped up their one-touch passing to compensate for this. In brief moments, it worked to perfection and they were able to bypass layers of Lyon’s defense with ease. Unfortunately, this one-touch passing mentality tended to put the player receiving the ball in dangerous situations and often delved into nonchalance, and City paid for it.

Both of the goals City gave up can be traced back to errors in midfield by Fernandinho. The opener, scored by Maxwel Cornet, originated due to a quick back and forth in possession. Lyon turned the ball over around the halfway line, where Raheem Sterling and David Silva played a one-two to get control before moving it back to Fernandinho. The Brazilian attempted to move it to Gundogan off to his right on his first touch, but his aim was a few feet behind his teammate’s position. Nabil Fekir was in position to pick up the loose ball and played a combination with midfielder Houssem Aouar to free him down the left wing with space. Fekir was able to get a cross into the box out the reach of Depay, who was being marked by Laporte, and fell right into the path of Fabian Delph near the back post.

And Delph missed the ball. He just missed it.

Cornet was right behind him to tee up the shot and place it past Ederson into the side netting. Individual errors like this can sink the greatest of teams even on their best day. Remember what happened last season to City’s FA Cup loss to Wigan Athletic, when Kyle Walker decided to not play that back pass and just let it run. That one decision ended up costing City the goal that ultimately knocked them out of the competition. Granted, these guys aren’t robots and a physical or mental lapse like these are bound to happen at times, you just have to hope that you’re lucky enough to survive it unscathed. Unfortunately for City, that wasn’t the case on this goal and it was due a combination of physical lapses by Fernandinho and Delph.

The second goal was similar in its origin. Aymeric Laporte carried the ball upfield and tried to move the ball to Fernandinho, approaching from the center of the pitch. Nabil Fekir was casually tracking Fernandinho though, enough so that Laporte probably should not have tried to pass him the ball. But City’s defensive midfielder did receive the ball and was immediately hassled by Lyon’s captain. Fernandinho was slow to make his decision and lost possession. Depay played it right back to Fekir, who was able to run at an exposed backline. He was given too much space by a retreating John Stones and a recovering Laporte, and he fired into the bottom corner for the 2-0 lead.

The mistakes that led to these goals were far from the entirety of Lyon’s chances in this match, but they are a microcosm of how this game played out. They’re were several occasions when the French side looked bound for goal, including a Cornet goal called back for offside (just barely) and a Depay shot that hit the woodwork.

On the attack, City’s domination in possession was not met with a bevy of scoring chances. The shape they took on offense just didn’t seem to stretch the Lyon defense at all. The right side of the attack really struggled in this game and was quite predictable. Bernardo Silva is not one to make vertical runs behind the defense so with him as the right winger, City needs someone else to make runs down that flank. Gundogan, who generally leans to the right side as well, would be the logical answer, but he failed to do so against Lyon and I can only recall him making a run like this once. Next option would be right back Kyle Walker, but he was held back in some hybrid three-man backline with Fabian Delph pinched into the defensive midfield. Not having someone to stretch the defense or pull players out of the midfield really stunted Bernardo’s ability to make an impact in this game. Subsequently, this allowed Lyon to shift focus to the more dynamic side of City’s attack that featured David Silva and Raheem Sterling.

The Blues’ center forward, whether it be Gabriel Jesus or Sergio Aguero (second half substitute), seemed to spend too much time in the midfield throughout this match. Pep’s system is based in his forwards dropping in for linkup play obviously, but it was a constant occurrence that derived from its primary purpose, which is to pull a defender with them into the midfield to create space. Instead, the strikers would just linger in the midfield waiting for the ball to get to them. This allowed the backline to totally discount the possibility of a ball being played over the top and made it easier for them to get compact.

City’s attack immediately looked better when Leroy Sane got onto the field. His ability to break down defenders and create something out of nothing really breathed life into what was a lifeless offense. On City’s lone goal, he made two Lyon defenders look like chumps before picking out Bernardo on a great cutback pass for the finish. Sane has the play, this team is better with him out there without question.

Manchester City v Olympique Lyonnais - UEFA Champions League Group F Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

I give Lyon all the credit in the world for how they played but for City, this was an incredibly disappointing match. However, I’m not any less optimistic about our season based on this one performance. There are clearly things that need to be fixed after this, but I don’t see the paths to those solutions as impossible.

If you’re still reading this and are also in the group of people who didn’t get a chance to actually watch this game because of these new televising rights, here are a few takeaways you can take moving forward.

  • Rest Fernandinho. Please, for the love of God, please rest that man as much as possible.
  • Gundogan’s best role is as a cog in a well-oiled attack. Ultimately, he’s more of a role player than a game-changer. Not to say he’s not a very good footballer, but in his performances tend to play up or down to the quality of the players around him.
  • If Bernardo is going to be on the right wing, City has got to unleash Walker on attack to maximize his effectiveness.
  • This is kind of is related to the Bernardo point, but if Kyle Walker might get shifted into a back three at any point, the attack should also shift into a two-striker set. So personnel choices should be made to accommodate this, it would take two of Aguero, Jesus, or Sterling.

Alright, I’m going to go forget that game ever happened if possible and look forward to Hoffenheim.