Lyon’s Defensive Steel against Barcelona Hints at Development for Youthful Side
Watching youthful football is bliss. From Under-20 to Under-17 tournaments, the attacking verve, the high-energy football that borders a bit on naivety and less… what do you call it, shithousery, show makes young sides a delight to watch. Then it almost gets better when you watch youthful sides play in the big leagues, a young squad in a first-team league is never not exciting.
That’s the category Lyon have been into of late, a youthful side with promise for the future, a youthful team with constant attacking gallantry. Lyon’s squad, with an average age of around of 24, play the kind of attacking football that doesn’t quite say reckless abandon, but hints at a happy-go-lucky attitude. And almost inevitably, Les Gones’ youthful side look naïve at the back. Concession is a must for this young team, their lack of real nous and know-how will show.
This cost them in the Europa League last season, their inexperience at game management and inability to really keep cool heads doing for them as they were sent tumbling out of Europe’s secondary competition. It’s that same youthful naivety that almost shot them in the foot in this season’s Champions League; three 2-2 draws at home, two of those in games in which they led, while in one of them they threw away a two-goal lead against ten men, leading to 11 goals conceded in the group stage, but Bruno Genesio’s side managed to just about find their way into the last 16.
So, enter the second round tie with Barcelona. A tie against a team with a blessed attacking line-up, not to mention Lionel Messi, and a side with record of having failed to score in only three of their last 16 European games, a young Lyon outfit, with their prospective rabbit in the headlights game, will definitely pick the ball from their net a few times, in both legs.
Lyon started the game with their usual effrontery, there were no signs that the French team planned to cower and play it safe; by the tenth minute mark, Barcelona goalie Marc-Andre ter Stegen had denied Houssem Aouar and Martin Terrier, the latter of which was an outstanding save. By the end of the first half, only some wrong decision-making in the final third prevented them from finding the net – albeit the same could be said for Barcelona.
By the second half, there were always going to be suspicions and signs of Lyon tiring, the youthful side had given the first half, but they would find it nigh-on to keep things up for 90 minutes, and a Barcelona goal would be a matter of time. But it didn’t work that way; If Lyon had been saving up their show of defensive steel, they used it to good effect here. Marcelo and Jason Denayer were solid at the centre of the defence, while full-backs Leo Dubois and Ferland Mendy were something akin to revelations, Dubois even adding bits of shithousery to go with it all.
This defensive display looked worlds apart from the usual Lyon defensive brochure, the side that shipped in 11 in the previous round. When the body started to tire here, Lyon’s players’ minds didn’t quite with it. There were lazy and tired passes and tackles at some point, but almost never when Barcelona came at them. And that should merit Genesio some credit. The manager has never been the most popular figure in Lyon since his arrival midway through 2015/16, but this is another sign of him knitting parts of his young side to form a much more solid unit, particularly with skipper and talisman Nabil Fekir unavailable. The stats may have shown Barcelona having 25 shots, but only one from Luis Suarez midway through the second half was a real clear cut opportunity.
Not that it all went smoothly with Les Gones on the night. Genesio’s decision to play without a defensive midfielder, until he introduced Lucas Tousart for the final third of the game, meant they were quite a hole for Barcelona to exploit on the edge of the box. But expecting things to go without reefs or hiccups for this side is like expecting a day without news. This was without doubt a positive, even with Lyon not scoring, this was a sign that the young team is actually up to something, whatever happens in the return leg at the Nou Camp.