Lyon have not won any of their last four matches in Ligue 1. After their 1-1 draw at Lorient on Sunday, L’Équipe led with the headline “missing in action” and it is hard to disagree with that sentiment. Martin Terrier and Bertrand Traoré left the club this summer, and Karl Toko Ekambi, Jeff Reine-Adélaïde and Maxence Caqueret were all unavailable for the trip to Lorient through injury, but they were up against one of the league’s poorest defences and should have done much better.
With the Coupe de la Ligue scrapped and Lyon facing no European commitments, they were hoping to focus on the league this season. They were expecting to ride the wave of unity they displayed in the Champions League and finish in the top three, but that has not been the case so far. They have not won in four matches and Léo Dubois’s late equaliser was their first goal from open play since Memphis Depay scored against Dijon in late August, a span totalling nearly 400 minutes. For a team with the third-best attack in the league last season (only PSG and Monaco scored more goals), something has gone seriously wrong. Given the promising starts made by Rennes and Montpellier, Lyon face an uphill challenge to put things right.
So, who is to blame? Manager Rudi Garcia was quick to hold up his hands after the match. “We were lacking in the first half because I didn’t field the right team or use the right system,” he said. “With more attacking players, we were much better.” While it’s refreshing to hear a manager offer such a bold mea culpa, was he too quick to rush to judgment? His decision to adopt a new 3-4-3 formation rankled as it meant that Memphis Depay was dropped and Houssem Aouar was played as a nominal left winger, with Rayan Cherki on the right.
Aouar and Cherki are both better suited to playing in central areas and they were poor out wide, failing to establish a creative rhythm and often ceding possession cheaply. Neither Jean Lucas nor Bruno Guimarães is suited to bringing the ball out of midfield to link with Moussa Dembélé, so the former Celtic striker (who is yet to score this season) cut an isolated figure. Unable to combine with another forward who could make runs off him and create more space, Dembélé was easily outnumbered by the Lorient defenders.
The absentees clearly would have helped. Toko Ekambi would have used his pace on the flank to open up more space for Dembélé, and Caqueret or Reine-Adélaïde would have offered more creativity in midfield, but one obvious question towers over this match: why did Garcia not start Depay? To be fair to the manager, the Dutchman did not offer much more than Cherki or Aouar when he did come on for the second half, doing nothing to dispel the idea that he has a frosty relationship with Dembélé. This may explain why Garcia eschewed a 3-5-2. But his overly cautious tactics did not bring the best from his players. And, when it comes to his two top scorers, should he not be able to build a bridge between them on the pitch?
And what about the players themselves? “There’s not enough hunger in their play,” said Garcia in his post-match comments, which were delivered amid persistent rumours linking Depay and Aouar with departures. “It’s not normal to think that the transfer window can influence the motivation of players, but when I see certain behaviour, I wonder,” added the manager. Garcia is right to wonder, but only to an extent. As a manager it is his job to ensure his players are focused on the task at hand and organised in a cohesive system. Despite his brilliant man-management against a succession of richer clubs in the Champions League, he appears unable to do the same in Ligue 1. He is currently going the way of his predecessor, Sylvinho.
A word should also be offered for Lorient, who finally seem to be taking Christophe Pelissier’s organisational principles on board, even if their 5-4-1 (which became even more cautious once Enzo Le Fée was forced off) was a paragon of negativity. They have enough pace from players such as the scorer Yoane Wissa to stretch teams on the counter and, after a rough few weeks, this composed performance has taken them back on the right track. Still, Lyon’s disappointment is of their own making. Despite what Juninho may engineer in the transfer window, the club legend may soon find himself forced into changing managers again. Having sacked one coach at the start of last season, sacking another one early this season would be an indictment of the club’s present and future.
Ligue 1 results
Ligue 1 results
Bordeaux 0-0 Nice
Angers 3-2 Brest
Dijon 2-2 Montpellier
Monaco 3-2 Strasbourg
Nîmes 1-1 Lens
Lorient 1-1 Lyon
Reims 0-2 PSG
St Etienne 0-3 Rennes
Marseille 1-1 Metz
Lille 2-0 Nantes
• Monaco showed plenty of determination in their 3-2 win over Strasbourg at the Stade Louis II on Sunday. It was a good response after their gutting defeat at Rennes last weekend and it took them into the European places. Wissam Ben Yedder scored two and the young team seem to be taking Niko Kovac’s principles to heart quite well, but the manager has to sort out his team’s ongoing discipline issues. Both Axel Disasi and Aurélien Tchouameni were sent off against Strasbourg, leaving Monaco to cling to a one-goal lead for nearly half an hour. This is a common problem. Monaco picked up 10 red cards in last season’s truncated campaign. If Monaco are to reach the top three, the players will need to show more control.
• Rennes continued their impressive run by thrashing previously unbeaten Saint-Étienne at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, with Eduardo Camavinga again dictating things. Now two points clear at the top and one of only two unbeaten sides, Julien Stéphan’s team seems to be picking up steam. They are imperious at the back while playing with even more freedom going forward. Playing in the Champions League will test the depth of the squad but, for now, the way they are combining youth and experience to produce a hugely entertaining style of football makes them a fantastic advertisement for the league.
• Finally, a word for Ignatius Ganago. The Cameroonian youngster struggled to make an impact at Nice last season, but has now scored four goals in as many matches for Lens. He is thriving in Franck Haise’s high-pressing 3-4-1-2 formation, where he plays alongside the physical Florian Sotoca rather than being misused in a wide role. His €6m transfer now looks like a snip. Lens are sitting comfortably in the European positions, and their thoroughly modern combination of pressing and physicality makes them a team to watch this season.