Ligue 1 has been home to some fascinating attacking units over the past few years. Set aside the death star known as PSG and there's still the Marseille team from 2014–15 that produced 2.0 goal per game, an average that was only bettered within the big five leagues by 5 teams that season. And, of course, there was the 2016–17 Monaco side that scored 107 league goals, one of the great one season outliers in recent memory.
Last season Lyon piled up 87 goals and a 2.29 goals per game rate, a rate bettered by only six teams. It’s no surprise that a team featuring Nabil Fekir, Memphis Depay, and Bertrand Traore would be able to put up a fair number of goals. Each of these players are extremely talented in their own ways, and their combined speed turned lots of broken sequences into shooting opportunities. They made Lyon a team with a good blend of shot volume, locations. That. combined with some blessing from the variance gods allowed them to lay waste to most opponent in their way.
While it was highly unlikely that Lyon would rise to the same heights as last season, this was a really fun team that had healthy numbers in attack even if you strip out the variance that they benefited from. The fact that they brought back the majority of their core talent along with the same manager should’ve meant that business would go on as usual, but so far this season things haven't been quite that smooth. Lyon are on pace for around 63 goals, which would be a pretty solid goal total but not quite as awe inspiring as last season. The team has also change tactically; through their first few games this season they've doubled down on shot volume at the expense of shot locations. That's an interesting quirk given that football over the past few years has generally become smarter with teams looking to take better, higher percentage shots.
It gets even more stark when looking at their distribution of shots from last season versus this season in open play. Lyon shot a lot last season, but their shot locations on average were good enough to more than tilt the numbers in their favor. What’s gone on this season is that the balance between shot volume and locations has been off as they’ve settled for a lot of bad shots, with over 60% of their shots having an expected goal output of 0.05 or less.
Even with their attacking success last season, there’s always been a feeling that Lyon win more with their massive amounts of talent rather than a detailed approach in possession, that they’re a younger and more athletic version of Arsenal during Arsene Wenger’s later years right down to having similar structural problems. It’s not the worst thing in the world to be a team with loads of attacking talent that freelances. Over the course of a season you’ll still be able to cobble something worthwhile offensively by having ample firepower, but it can leave you susceptible to weird stretches like what Lyon have gone through so far this year.
A major theme with Lyon when building attacks is that there always seems to be noticeable gaps that exist during buildup. In general, Lyon have a hard time gaining access to the middle as and they settle for circulating the ball across their back line to a fullback. This gets amplified when only one midfielder comes back to receive the ball, which makes it easier for the opposition to defend by having a lone forward up top positioning himself to block passing lanes. This sequence against Caen is an example of the problems that Lyon has with presenting passing options for the man on the ball. Multiple times the player who receives the pass has no option to pass it in between the line and has to pass it either horizontally or backwards. With no forward options, Caen's defense sniffs that play out and forces a throw in.
Those noticeable gaps occur higher up the pitch as well. When Lyon try to create overloads and triangles on the pitch, they don't do it particularly well. Their attempts at trying to distort the opposition can sometimes even lead to numerical disadvantages leaving them facing four defends with only three attackers trying to play through or something to that effect. The players will be stationed in something of a circle when they have possession of the ball, with no one being in the middle to help connect play. Lyon’s tendency to have their front line be on the shoulders of the opposition back line and try to find openings amplifies the problem and creates a disconnect between the man on the ball and the players making runs in behind the defense.
Another issue with Lyon is that they'll often have odd player alignments. When the ball is near the flanks, they'll have multiple players occupying the same space which doesn't really do much to confuse the opposition. In particular, at least once or twice times a game, a Lyon player will end up with the ball and two of his teammates are positioned in a straight line. Without the proper spacing needed, it's hard to build successful attacks as passing options become limited as attackers get in the way of each other.
Lacking proper structure, Lyon will often try to switch up the play to get one of their wide players isolated against a defender. This isn’t the worst backup plan. Having someone like Traore sizing up most fullbacks in Ligue 1 is something you don’t mind trying. Lyon have been able to spring him free on the right wing for advantageous scenarios and create something worthwhile. His production so far this season has been noteworthy despite the structural problems of the team around him. It's actually a credit to the talent base that Lyon have built up over the past few years that even with some noticeable deficiencies in their gameplan, they've still got enough to produce offensively.
What's impressive about Lyon is that they have a really good blend of athleticism and passing skills across numerous positions, which makes it possible to freelance and create eye pleasing goals. Their performance against Marseille over the weekend was illustrative of just how overpowering their collective talent level can be. Sometimes the spacing being all messed up just doesn't matter.
All of this paints a picture of a team that has to work harder than it perhaps should to generate good looks, which can make it a bit annoying for some considering that Lyon have a ludicrous amount of talent to work with. Through their ability to manufacture star talents from their famous academy along with smart player acquisition, Lyon have created a squad that can hold its own with a lot of clubs in Europe. It’s just that when they have to play as a possession side against an opponent that’s willing to suck up pressure, the lack of a gameplan can be exposed. For all the good things that can be said about Bruno Genesio as a coach, including his willingness to put faith in the young talents coming through the academy, Lyon having problems during possession has not been a new criticism that people have levied against him.
In the grand scheme of things Lyon should largely be fine, at least within Ligue 1. Despite the surprising starts that teams like Lille and Montpellier have had this season, Lyon are probably not in much danger of missing out on qualifying for the Champions League. It should also be acknowledge that we're dealing with a small sample size, a small enough total to where volatility in the numbers is a real thing. But these issues that Lyon are dealing with aren't new and have been bubbling under the surface for quite awhile now. Maybe it won't matter and by the latter stages of the season Lyon's league numbers will bounce back to a healthier place place of their own accord. But this is a team could truly be something special if they were able to fix some of the structural problems they have in place, but as more times passes and the same problems remain, it becomes more reasonable to wonder if Genesio is the man to do it.