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How are Lyon Looking Under Sylvinho?

When writing my massive preview for the season, Lyon were a team I spoke about. For years they have looked able to compete with Paris, but inconsistency has always been their problem. They were able to create plenty of chances through Depay, Fekir, Aouar and Ndombele, but struggled to convert those chances. Moussa Dembele’s arrival did bring that clinical edge to the side but had minor injury problems throughout the season.

A lot has changed at Lyon over the summer, with Bruno Genesio being the most significant change. The Frenchman struggled at times to find a place for all of that attacking talent, which meant the likes of Traore and Cornet struggled for consistent game time. Genesio never seemed like the guy to take that group of players to the next level. He did oversee his side pull off some magnificent performances, with a 2-1 win over PSG and beating Premier League champions Manchester City at the Etihad.
The Lyon hierarchy could have appointed a more experienced coach but opted to take a massive risk in selecting Sylvinho. The former Arsenal defender has had little experience in management, with his most recent job being assistant manager to Tite for the Brazil national team. No one knew what this Lyon side would look like with Sylvinho at the helm. Would they continue to be the free-flowing attacking side of the past, or sacrifice that entertainment for a more pragmatic approach? This will be the focus today, to see what Sylvinho has changed during his early days as the new Lyon manager. I cannot stress this enough, but these views are not final. These are just my first impression on what Sylvinho has implemented thus far, so all opinions are not final.

Before looking at their first game of the new Ligue 1 season, let’s review their summer window. Their sales, rather than their purchases, attracted all the attention. Les Gones sold some of their prizes assets in Tanguay Ndombele, Ferland Mendy and Nabil Fekir for a combined £115 million, a considerable profit on players purchased for less than £10 million. All three players added a lot to the side. Ndombele was an all-action midfielder who added strength, energy, composure and a large amount of ball progression in midfield. He was what every club wants from their midfielders, and he arguably left the most significant void in the team. Ferland Mendy was another excellent talent. The former La Havre defender was another perfect example of excelling in your position. Mendy was not only solid defensively, but was arguably one of the best dribblers in Ligue 1, from a defensive position. Nabil Fekir, while not gaining a similar profit as their other sales, was a massive player for Lyon. The club captain was arguably one of the best attackers in Europe back in 2017. However, due to injury problems, struggled last season and didn’t have the same impact as seen in previous years. Fekir had that element of unpredictability about him that made him such a threat. A fantastic dribbler and chance creator, it made him one of the most complete attackers in Europe.

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Lyon’s arrivals were one of plenty of discussions, starting with the midfield, which saw Thiago Mendes arrive from Lille for £18 million. Ndombele is a tough player to replace with a tiny group of playing possessing a similar skillset to the now Tottenham midfielder. It was a sensible move to pick up Mendes. While he didn’t have the same fantastic ball progression as Ndombele, he did add better defensive numbers and still possessed similar creativity.

With Ferland Mendy’s departure, it meant left-back was one of the most critical positions in terms of recruitment. His replacement was Youssouf Kone, another player signed from Lille. While not offering nearly the same attacking output as Mendy, he did provide some outstanding defensive work, putting in over 5 tackles and interceptions for Lille last season. It’s another move that seemed realistic for Lyon. Finding a full-back with equal qualities to Mendy is insanely difficult. Taking a punt on a relatively young full-back and hoping those low attacking numbers improve in a better side is a risk worth taking for £8 million.

Last but not least, let’s talk about their best signing of the window, Danish defender Joachim Andersen. He is the first signing at centre-back that I would consider promising after Marcelo and Morel are finally being phased out of the team. Andersen was an in-demand player throughout the summer, with Arsenal, rumoured to be heavily interested. Moving to Lyon makes a lot of sense. The loss of Ndombele cannot be understated, and bringing in a ball-playing centre back to add that extra bit of ball progression is vital. Anderson is a gifted passer who is very comfortable on the ball. The Danish defender completed 15 dribbles last season, the 4th highest out of centre backs in Serie A. What he can add in position is impossible to argue. Andersen isn’t great defensively. However, for £21 million and still being only 23, he has time to improve.

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The combination of Lyon’s sales and arrivals made me wonder how they were going to set up throughout the season. While seemingly putting faith in the talent currently at the club is understandable, there is a vast amount of pressure on some of these players to step up. Cornet and Traore have always looked great when given chances, but can they be relied on throughout the season? It begged the question if Lyon were being a bit too confident in terms of assessing their own talent. There is now more pressure on Aouar to continue with his excellent ball progression and improve now Ndombele has departed. The issue with this group of players is some of the players they are putting faith in. I like Dembele a lot, but his history of injuries is still concerning, even if he has been a monster to play against whenever he has stepped foot on the pitch. The full-backs also worry me. Full-back pairings have usually worked with one taking an attacking role, and the other taking a more reserved part. Last season, it was Mendy who excelled in attack, and Dubois who blossomed on the defensive side, but now I have my doubts. Kone and Dubois have never shown the ability to play in that attacking role, leaving the team with even more pressure on the wide players to create and carry the ball.

If going off their 3-0 win over Monaco, there are plenty of elements to be excited about. Defensively, Lyon remained on the front foot, consistently using Aouar and Mendes to press the opposition during buildup play. Depay and Traore would drop deeper to change the formation to a more solid 4-1-4-1. While both are consistent tactics used by many coaches across the continent, it worked well. It could be down to Monaco continuing their poor performances into the new season, but Sylvinho’s side does deserve some praise here. Lyon used Mendes and Aouar to press the opposition defenders and force the ball into the wide areas, with Les Gones having a numerical advantage in those areas. It also got the best out of their full-backs. As we’ve covered, Dubois and Kone are not the most attack-minded defenders but are fantastic defensively. Forcing Monaco to attack down that side made them easier to nullify. The 2017 Ligue 1 winners only managed a single shot on target, showing how much they struggled to break Lyon down. The early signs of Lyon improvements defensively are bright, but it’ll be interesting to see how they fare against some of the sides in the Champions League. The different attacking teams could be challenging to contain.

While the defensive improvements give reasons for optimism, it’s in the attack, and primarily buildup play, where I have early reservations. During the first game of the season, Lyon attempted to transition the ball through their centre-backs recycling the ball, waiting for a chance quickly switching the ball towards the wide players. They use their excellent dribbling to attack the opposition. This makes a lot of sense. Andersen and Denayer are some of the best distributors of the ball in France, so building the ball up using their strengths is advantageous. The problem at the moment is the lack of ball progression through the middle. It’s the biggest hole that Ndombele has left the club. Aouar is a fantastic dribbler and seemingly the only midfielder who can. It puts a lot of pressure on him to drop deep if the wide options weren’t available. This might be different from Adelaide’s arrival from Angers, but at the moment they have looked dependant on Aouar to carry the ball. The other issue that became apparent at times during their first game of the season was their poor shot locations. This is likely due to the red card given to Cesc Fabregas, which forced Monaco to sit much deeper. Their 6-0 win over Angers did show a much better attacking side, but Lyon did massively overperform during their first 2 games of the season. At the moment, this isn’t too much of a problem. It is still in the extremely early stages of Sylvinho’s reign.

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I do imagine a lot of those early problems will be resolved as the season continues. This side seems built to be more accustomed to tougher opponents, and the emphasis on playing out from the back and a smaller squad could be a sign of harmony among the players. There was a reason why Lyon were one of my teams to watch. A new manager, the apparent significance of the fringe players and a better defence make them a team that all must keep an eye on this season.

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