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A masterclass in defence: How Bompastor crafted Lyon's 8th Champions League title
Sonia Bompastor got her tactics spot on against holders Barcelona but it was her defensive tactics that most impressed.
The lingering question of the season was how to stop Barcelona’s on-field dominance? The answer was seen ephemerally with Real Madrid producing what seemed like the closest answer with an aggressive, pressing game that dismissed entry into the final third without harassment.
Olympique Lyon were a team in transition adopting a new brand of football, looking to settle into the football Sonia Bompastor wanted to instil, with mixed results against Bayern Munich, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain.
Lyon did a lot of things right on Saturday. Their every press, movement, and tackle was timed with precision and frustrated Barcelona for 90 minutes. While the back four led by Wendie Renard were able to keep Alexia Putellas and co. at bay, it was their midfield who stole the show. Amandine Henry, Catarina Macario, and Lindsey Horan all disorientated Barcelona’s midfield by applying pressure in key areas as well as the astute defending from the wide areas. The forwards capitalised on the midfield success and propelled them to a 3-0 scoreline in 35 minutes.
Understanding where Barcelona faltered and Lyon capitalised is fundamental to deciphering this tactical masterclass. Barcelona’s issues originated from a combination of poor positional play and a lack of penetration across the pitch. The wingers were unable to create chances against their full-backs and Hermoso’s movement as the false nine was nullified by the compact space which also limited Alexia Putellas and Aitana Bonmatí's space to occupy in the box.
What’s more, Barcelona’s defenders were not quick enough to react to Lyon’s fast-paced transitions and counter-attacks and pressing traps which again left the defence slightly exposed. Putting all this together, you find that Lyon took advantage of small, intricate details and executed them to perfection.
Without going into a comprehensive review of the final – Om Arvind of the Tactical Rant has covered this extensively and quite excellently here – I aim to look at the defensive nuances and specific battles that contributed to Lyon’s win over Barcelona.
Positional & pressing discipline
The starting eleven was the same one that started against Paris Saint-Germain in the second leg. The team successfully defended and executed the adjusted game plan and probably deserved to start the final. The game plan was simple – create a central mid-block whilst pressing their active ball carriers and off-ball playmakers without relieving their compactness. The midfield trio of Macario, Henry, and Horan were diligent in their defending and were arguably the core of their success. The whole system relied on their positioning and ability to resist and retain possession from Barcelona.
Bompastor wanted to stop the opposition from playing centrally forcing them into the wide areas. Barcelona’s wingers in Caroline Graham Hansen and Mariona Caldentey started and Lyon fancied their chances in a 1 v 1 battle. The idea to delay them enough to create a stronger central base worked given the number of rotations to each side creating superiority. What was interesting was the roles each player had.
Though they majorly created a double-pivot, Henry was tasked with patrolling and winning possession back deeper while Horan was a pressing force slightly further forward. Macario was a supporting figure to both and positioned accordingly. Her role was more of an attacking outlet, however, she added to the numerical advantage Lyon had in the pressing zones. These pressing zones were essentially the space across the defensive midfield line. Any time a Barcelona player stepped in, a swarm of Lyon players would press the ball carrier.
Building a central block out of possession ensured Alexia Putellas and Aitana Bonmatí were cover-shadowed and space between the lines were compact. That forced an overreliance on the wingers and full-backs to become more creative. The forwards played a crucial role in occupying Patri Guijarro with Ada Hegerberg, Delphine Cascarino, and Macario cover-shadowing the central defenders and No. 6, limiting Patri Guijarro’s influence for much of the first half. The pressing structure was very much a high man-marking press when Barcelona played out from the back but quickly retreated into a 4-4-2 in the event of progression further down the pitch.
The passing network shows the clear positioning of the three midfielders. While Wyscout shows a starting formation of a 4-2-3-1, Lyon floated between that and a 4-3-3 which is indicative in the graphic. Henry (#6) clearly sat as the deepest-lying midfielder while Horan (#26) is further up next to Macario (#13). However, in reality, Horan spent a lot of time deeper next to Henry to keep the central spaces tight.
The space Henry was covering was to stop Hermoso from dropping in to receive passes but also held a dual role in stopping the late midfield passes and runs. As a matter of fact, Henry was responsible for initiating Lyon's counter-attacks when she won back possession. The sight of Hermoso starting would have been a part of the relief for Renard, given the lack of pace in the middle. This afforded Lyon the ability to defend deep without being too far into their penalty area.
The sequence above shows Lyon transforming back into a 4-4-2 shape with an aggressive Henry stepping forward to intercept the pass into Hermoso. What you can notice is how quickly Lyon push three players to close down the ball receiver. The idea of swarming players that received the ball in midfield quickly was key. Even the next pass forward saw Barcelona covered by more players.
Barcelona’s superiority when it comes to playing in tight, compact spaces is visible, but their vulnerability seems to be exposed when they’re aggressively pressed as the ball comes in and are given no passing option. Asisat Oshoala offers pace and runs in behind that give Barcelona a different look. Jonatan Giráldez’s half time substitution was an admission of Hermoso’s positioning not working.
Usually, Barcelona are happy to engage in a slow build-up, finding passing options around teams but Lyon’s willingness to create a high tempo game in the middle third forced the opposition to hurry their passing options.
Here is another passage of play that represents the same high-tempo game Lyon wanted to engage in. The ball from Aitana to Patri to Alexia was followed by a close press from a Lyon player. Winning it back in critical areas was crucial because it not only put Barcelona on the back foot but gave Lyon a catalyst to create attacking chances on the counter-attack. Bompastor’s approach here wasn’t too dramatic of a change, but given what we’ve seen of her approach so far, it’s not a far cry to call this a measured adjustment.
This graphic shows the positions where the three central midfielders won their duels and given how Henry, Horan, and Macario were all over 20 duels, it shows the influence they had over proceedings. Key duels were won across the defensive third but most impressively in the final third too. You can see Horan winning duels further up the pitch helped in catching Barcelona out of position, which was identified as an area of weakness and vulnerability against their defenders. This turned out to be exactly the case with Lyon carving out chance after chance in the opening 45 minutes.
Before the game, I wrote an analysis on the importance of No. 6s for both sides and while Damaris Egurrola was singled out as a key player but the same principles can be adapted to Henry. Henry embodied the role envisioned by Bompastor to the highest degree, and to the point where I believe it was the perfect performance. Henry patrolled the back four playing a hybrid destroyer and distributor role.
Her heat map and duels map both complement and highlight where she was most effective. The high concentration of play on the left side of midfield was an indication of how Lyon felt the need to stop Graham Hansen and Aitana from underlapping and creating pressure between Bacha and Renard. The number of times Henry would appear in a pressing zone and win back possession was profound, but what was more interesting was the speed at which she transitioned play from one end of the pitch to the other.
Similarly, Horan and Macario ensured the right half-space was covered, especially given Mariona’s preference to drift into central spaces which was effectively rendered useless with the double-up from Lyon. The threat of a less mobile right-back meant it was a much easier time for Griedge Mbock Bathy to defend against Fridolina Rolfö in a 1 v 1 rather than a 2 v 1.
Fundamentally, the double-pivot, if not the triumvirate, were pivotal to stopping Barcelona from creating and building up in midfield which left them trying to overcompensate chance creation and penetration through the wide areas.
Defensive positioning & 1 v 1 battles
From the outset the wide area defending and positioning of the central defenders were crucial. Barcelona’s wingers are excellent at creating overloads and extracting the best of key 1 v 1 battles, particularly Graham Hansen.
However, Lyon’s plan to shift play to the wide areas was premeditated and had a prerequisite of excellent defensive combinations from the full-back/winger pairing. Before I explain the impact of both full-backs – especially Bacha – I think it’s important to address the role played by Renard and Kadeisha Buchanan.
The central defensive duo underwent an early change with Carpenter’s unfortunate injury 10 minutes in. The shift saw Mbock move to right-back and Buchanan coming in at centre-back. The idea was to keep Lyon in front of them using the screen of the two 6s and stepping up when penetrated and moving behind for the full-backs to cover the half spaces.
Now let’s park this here for a second because it ties into the way it affected the full-backs. Bacha’s and Mbock’s performances were near flawless. The duo produced some of the best complimentary all-round full-back displays that I can remember. Slightly hyperbolic? Possibly, but not entirely untrue. Keeping two of the world’s best wingers under wraps for an excess of 60 minutes is a true feat and one that went a long way in executing the game plan.
The graphic represents all duels won by all three full-backs (including Carpenter’s cameo) and it’s obvious how influential Bacha was in defensive transition. Mbock’s move to right-back signalled a slight change in plan given she doesn’t have the athleticism of Carpenter, yet it brought about more defensive solidarity and the ability to create a 3-2 or even 4-2 structure in defensive transitions much easier. If Bacha stepped forward, Mbock would become a third faux centre-back and vice versa with Bacha staying inside. As a full-back, Mbock wasn’t tasked with playing as a standard right-back but rather be the extra player to form a solid defensive structure with the added defensive qualities out wide.
Their pressing was based on positioning and certain player movements. If the wingers received it high and the ball-sided full-back was in close proximity, then the press would trigger. Alternatively, only if the ball progressed high and wide did the full-back have the assurance and freedom to press and know cover was around to plug any late runs in behind.
Mbock found it easier to manage Mariona and Rolfö given she only had to face them in individual battles, without the fear of being overloaded. The natural tendency for Mariona to drop and dictate play meant Rolfö was left to attack the right-back but given how her central defensive tendencies kicked in, it made life a lot more difficult for the Swede.
Here you see Mariona sitting in an interior position whilst Mbock faces Rolfö on the touchline and wins the duel. The anticipation and positioning were made the more impressive because she pressed precisely as the ball was received, rather than early so as to not allow her time to dribble past.
Nonetheless, the most impressive performance came from none other than Selma Bacha. The left-back was highly impressive in how she handled Graham Hansen but equally produced an elite attacking performance, capping her night with a picture-perfect cross for Hegerberg. When we talk about executing the game plan, Bacha’s positioning and individual quality to control the left-back space were impeccable and created the need for Barcelona to switch their side of attack.
Bacha’s positioning was very much a hybrid one in terms of where she needed to move. With Lyon adopting a 4-4-2 out of possession it meant the back four needed to be much narrower as the ball progressed forward. The only problem that poses is giving the wingers time to adjust and find their positioning to cross before the full-back pushes out. In this case, Bacha played that role perfectly, stepping out when required and moving into positioning quickly.
In an ideal scenario, Barcelona wanted to expose Bacha’s attacking positioning on the counter-attack to create a 1 v 1 against the slower Renard. So given she was mindful of this fact and the assurance she was well covered by the central midfielders and possession was far enough forward, Bacha kept a handle on Graham Hansen for most of the game.
In this situation, Bacha became one of the centre-backs in a counter-attacking situation and was up against Graham Hansen in a situation where the winger would usually feast on such chances. Bacha, however, tracked her movements and managed to dispossess her before the attack took shape. This was a theme throughout the game even when Lyon were put under pressure for 15-20 minutes in the first half. The period where Barcelona started application of their polished on-ball structure, forced Lyon to sit back for this period without forcing an attacking opportunity. The defensive discipline shown by Bacha was unparalleled and contributed to Lyon’s defensive performance.
Now anytime the full-backs did step up to attack and were caught in transition, the centre-backs were ideally positioned to cover the space in behind and given the lack of pace from Hermoso, Renard was much more relaxed in dealing with any long balls.
The crucial interception by Bacha to stop Hermoso from equalising could have changed the tide of the game, but these small margins and attention to detail made all the difference to reaching the end result. Their defensive performance was outstanding given how other teams tasted success in such small amounts.
Bompastor engineered the current blueprint and became the architect of her success by enhancing the plans. Who better to deconstruct a dominant side than a manager who was part of one herself? The fact that Barcelona didn’t manage a capable comeback and were restricted to one goal meant Lyon were the better team on the night.
Photo by Harriet Lander/Copa/Getty Images