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Innovation & Steel: What Lindsey Horan offers Lyon
Horan's move to Lyon could prove to be a masterstroke and dilemma.
In the prematch press conference before the Round of 16 Coupe de France, Sonia Bompastor boldly claimed her Lyon side were the favourites in their game against Paris Saint-Germain. For the most part, that might have been true given their last meeting was a resounding 6-1 win for Lyon.
In broader terms, it was going to be tough to beat a full-strength PSG side when Lyon were missing a handful of first-team players. Amandine Henry, Damaris Egurrola, Daniëlle van de Donk, and Amel Majri are all out for the foreseeable future whilst Ellie Carpenter is away at the Asian Cup. Last week’s 3-2 win against Montpellier was another close encounter but using a new 3-5-2 system was the likely cause of the narrow win for Lyon.
But where context ends and excuses begin depends on your perspective.
One thing is for certain and that is Lyon’s need for reinforcements in central midfield. If you want to know my thoughts on who Lyon should have bought, you can read it here. A new defensive midfielder should have been of paramount importance, but on deadline day Lyon signed American midfielder Lindsey Horan on loan from Portland Thorns.
Horan’s signing has had a split reaction – none more so than the selection dilemma it causes with Eugénie Le Sommer and Dzsenifer Marozsán entering back into the fold. Now that Horan is here, it’s important to dissect and understand the qualities she brings to this Lyon midfield and whether there is scope to enhance the system for others to thrive.
So, what exactly does Horan bring?
Horan’s move from Portland Thorns to Olympique Lyon should present a much shorter adaptation period, given her previous stint at Paris Saint-Germain in 2012. This bodes well for Bompastor and given the number of injuries in midfield, they’ll need Horan up and running as soon as possible.
In Horan, Lyon have signed a player that can bring a touch of flair, directness, and a possible plan B, if needed. Indeed, Lyon already have players of a similar vein but Horan has this mixture of Dzsenifer Marozsan’s creativity, Eugenie Le Sommer’s touch, and Amandine Henry’s vision for passing.
Horan has benefited from a consistent run of games and a system catered around her in Portland. As a natural central midfielder, often playing off the left, Horan is a playmaking, attacking No 8 that fulfils various roles from this position. She’s a hybrid Mezzala, playmaker, and box-to-box midfielder with impressive agility. So what this means is she can drift into the wide areas and create whilst also making late runs in the attacking box to receive crosses and cutbacks.
Horan’s role under Marc Parsons was centred to maximise her output by deploying her in the left-sided No 8 role. She largely played in a 4-4-2 diamond in this very position where she attacked the box whilst also being the primary creator for the side. She likes to receive the ball in congested areas and spaces which makes her very press-resistant. With an exquisite touch and vision, Horan is able to release a pass within a split second after taking a space-creating touch.
Playing in such a narrow formation, Horan would typically pick up spaces in pockets highlighted here. Being able to combine with the overlapping full-back and drifting No 10, Horan was able to be a creator-in-chief and act as a decoy for other willing runners. Megan Klingenberg would push up while combining with Morgan Weaver as Horan becomes the link player between them, breaking the press through pick-ups under pressure and smart passes in the left pockets.
There is an alternate plan known as ‘Vlatko Andonovski’s Goal Down Scenario’. While we’ll get into the details of how this can be used to Lyon’s advantage, it’s essentially a scenario where the team go an ‘all-out attack’ from minute one and uses Horan as a very attacking second striker.
This sort of versatile skill set is rare and one that will have Bompastor brimming with excitement.
Alternatively, Horan’s skill set also includes a versatility of both playing position and style. Capable of also playing as a No 10, No 6, and No 9, the American brings a tactical versatility to Bompastor’s ever-changing systems. The No 10 is probably where Horan is best after the central midfield position, but being able to play as a No 9 or 6 in certain situations can prove useful.
It will be interesting to see whether Bompastor persists with her 4-3-3 or if she tinkers and starts to utilise the 3-4-3 or 4-4-2 variants. Their last four league games have used four different formations which suggests that Bompastor is trying to find alternate solutions given the personnel shortage.
There are, however, different uses of Horan’s strengths in each of them.
The Lampard/De Bruyne Hybrid - No 8
So far, Bompastor has opted to use three distinct formations though she has stayed relatively true to the 4-3-3. However, she has opted to use a 4-1-4-1 and 3-5-2 at times this season. The reason for variety comes down to both tactical flexibility and increasing their unpredictability when it comes to the biggest games.
The three systems have largely come about through injuries, but a closer look reveals that Bompastor is trying to get the best out of a squad brimming with talent across the board. Sometimes having too many good players can cause a ripple effect when trying to keep them happy and maximise their output. When you consider Horan’s versatility in positional variation, you begin to see the possibilities that Lyon could have moving forward.
How Horan can make a difference is ultimately the million-dollar question, especially given the selection dilemma this sets when players start returning. So what options does Bompastor have?
Bompastor’s use of the aforementioned system really unifies and enhances the team’s attacking potential. While there have been a few different variations in the forward line, the main attacking idea has remained constant. Bompastor wants the two of the three forwards to rotate positions and play closer together to create overloads whilst the opposite winger stays wide and provide a wide crossing angle.
The system relies on structured yet fluid rotations between the forwards. A lot of this has come between an interchange of players on the left side with the opposite side offering width support. Delphine Cascarino and Ellie Carpenter are Lyon’s best wide players so it makes the right flank the best source of crosses.
In this setup, it is the left channel that interchange play and create passing exchanges to pull players out of position. This involves the left central midfielder, left-winger, and even left-back. The striker could invariably drift into the channels to contribute but if there’s enough support, then it isn’t required. The left-sided central midfielder is an attacking threat here and one that Horan is evidently suited at.
Inevitably, this creates positional overloads as the left-back is now free to make overlapping runs to add an alternative outlet. The other option is the right-sided forward finding opportunities to create balance, but if there’s an opportunity to come inside, then the right full-back will overlap.
This is the underlying principle of the situation which hasn’t been an exact formula – rather an interpretation for the players to follow and execute.
As you can in this passing network from their UEFA Women’s Champions League game against Hacken, Selma Bacha (#4) and Perle Morroni (#5) are much narrower than Carpenter (#12) and Cascarino (#20). The shape was initially a 4-2-3-1 but it morphed into this 4-2-4-like shape which saw Catarina Macario (#13) push up next to Ada Hegerberg (#14).
Now, what we’re concerned with are the holding midfielders. Considering the double-pivot is supposed to support the defence and contribute going forward, there is a case to be made to keep the Griedge M’Bock and Amandine Henry midfield. However, they lose a lot of dynamism from this partnership and considering their possession-based style of play, it makes no sense to be this defensive.
Horan alongside Henry would allow the two to rotate positions and merge with their combination of passing, vision, and predatory attacking senses. Not to mention their history together at Portland Thorns would help them play together better.
Horan’s ambidexterity in terms of movement is evident from the heat maps taken from three different games in the NWSL. What this reveals is Horan is not an inactive player but rather one that is agile and mobile across her side of the pitch. Given that one of the double-pivot needs to be active from an attacking perspective, it suits having Horan and a partner to interchange roles.
There is a hint of Frank Lampard in Horan’s late runs into the box and Kevin de Bruyne in her vision of passing and finding space. Both players are classic examples of masters of their craft both past and present and Horan brings elements of both their games to the table.
This example shows Bacha and M’Bock pressing Kheira Hamraoui in midfield and once possession is turned over, Bacha progresses Lyon forward, launching an attack and pushing the team closer to goal while she makes her own run forward. Similarly, Horan has done something similar for Portland.
Horan protects the ball and relieves possession to churn ball movement and receives it back in space, but is then highly pressed by another OL Reign player. Her exquisite first touch bundles her out of this situation and puts Portland Thorns in an attacking advantage. She plays the pass but also makes her way into the box. Similarly, she can mirror what Lyon’s double-pivot are required to do from a deeper position.
Horan’s 1 v 1 dribbling put her tenth in 2021’s NWSL season with 6.5 per 90 minutes coupled with 4.45 touches in the box, ranking her 13th. Overall, the picture is of an attack-minded central midfielder with a desire to surge into the penalty area in search of goals.
The underlying numbers pin Horan as a safe ball protector and someone able to break lines with passes and running - all of which becomes imperative given the low-block systems she’ll likely face but that is where her creative passing range comes into play.
Her deep-lying passing is another added benefit given she can also find players from deep. While Van de Donk and Marozsan are more adept at this, the added advantage of Horan is the efficient box presence she provides. Given how Macario was used in this position earlier – which I’ve written in more detail here – Horan is a much more of a natural fit there.
In this example, Horan remains as the deepest of the midfielders in this attacking situation and feigns her marker into thinking she’s going to her right. The quick, agile movement to the left sets her up for a driving run but she smartly decoys the move into an intelligent line-breaking pass that breaks Gotham’s structure.
Horan will have a role defensively too. Winning turnovers from the middle and final thirds is key to the identity Bomapstor is trying to create at Lyon. Take this recovery map against Montpellier, you’ll see that out of 107 recoveries, 47% came in midfield.
Bompastor’s insistence on playing a deep-lying midfielder with natural defensive duties becomes an obvious requirement. Though the highest recoveries were made by the two central defenders, Mbock registered the third-highest whilst being the deepest midfielder. Horan is not a defensive-minded player and while she can play as a regista, her onus is to focus on build-up which is serviceable in some games, but not so much in other ones.
This is a role she’s taken up more for the United States Women’s National Team in 2021. Across 13 games, Horan averaged 7.75 defensive duels with a 74% win percentage. Taking this figure into context, many of the games came against less competitive opposition but there were a couple of high-profile games against the Netherlands, Sweden, Canada, and Australia. These games entice us to think about the possibility of Horan taking up this role for Lyon, especially given the dire need for short-term reinforcement in that area.
This graphic illustrates Horan’s duels against Sweden from last summer’s Olympic games. Though they lost 3-0, Horan registered 10 duels, winning 9. A high success rate coming from a deep position but also an aggressive playstyle. This is also further emphasised by the fact she had the second-most recoveries against Australia in the Olympics behind Julie Ertz, playing in both a left-sided 8 role and a double-pivot. The only downside with Horan playing deeper is her recovery pace and positioning.
Horan is much more suited to playing as part of dual sixes than as a sole No 6. Horan’s playstyle is generally more aggressive – she pushes up to win duels and interceptions, and when it works, it puts USWNT in favourable attacking situations. But any time the opposition players bypass her press, it becomes difficult for her to cover because there are vast amounts of space vacated behind her as illustrated below.
Here, Horan pushes up to Carpenter but the right-back’s quick shift across leaves Horan stuck higher up. Though Australia didn’t build up with speed, Horan isn’t back covering the area quick enough. There is a case for her to play as a pressing midfielder under the right circumstances, but again, that is probably a case when she’s playing more as a No 8. It’s not that she can’t play the No 6 - she’s just better utilised further up the pitch.
Second Striker/No 10
Perhaps the signing of Horan could innovate and invigorate a pocket strategy for when Bomapstor needs it most. The 3-5-2 is a system that is being trialled and while there is cause for optimism given the players at her disposal on paper, there were nonetheless nervy moments against Montpellier.
The system is based on a defensive foundation with marauding wing-backs and a pair of elite strikers. Each of these ingredients is in abundant supply at Lyon, and it could become the difference-maker against a side like Barcelona in the Champions League.
Horan’s second-best position is playing as a No 10 and this can easily work when Lyon want a genuine, mobile No 10. The alternatives are Marozsan and Van De Donk but both are more playmakers than attacking ball players and thrive in a different sort of setup. Horan can work as a second striker or No 10, playing in and around Ada Hegerberg in a 3-5-2 or 3-5-1-1 formation, learning lessons from USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski’s patented tactic at the international level.
He would start matches like they were chasing a goal. Andonovski referred to this as the ‘Goal Down Scenario.’ The team would line up in a formation reminiscent of a 3-3-4 formation with Horan playing alongside Carli Lloyd as dual forwards playing off each other. This goal against Mexico is a picture-perfect example of this system in motion.
While the hallmark of this is more direct football into two target-like centre-forwards, Horan shows a capability to find good positions in and around the box and play off another striker.
This might be a slightly bold suggestion, but pairing Hegerberg and Horan can create an intriguing partnership given Horan’s playmaking abilities and Hegerberg’s instinctive spatial awareness and mercurial finishing. Putting an emphasis on overloading the central area could invoke Marozsan and Henry to play more line-breaking and progressive passes into a dropping Horan, all whilst overlapping the No 10 when transitioning into the final third, thus creating a potential overload of four midfielders. Pushing the wing-backs up to support Hegerberg and become a passing option can stretch teams further and later create a 3-4 player attacking overload, creating an overall 3-3-4 shape in transition.
Horan has forged a reputation of being a very consistent performer and will pose an intriguing tactical question for Bompastor to solve. In a month’s time, a couple of players should become more available and that’s where squad depth and management will be key.
For now though, Horan will be better for a second spell of experience in France. The truth is that these days the bridge between the Lyon of old and new is still being forged. The spine of the team remains while the outer shell is starting to take shape and the hope is the new Lyon to announce itself on the grandest continental stage once again.
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