With the injuries once again piling up, Juventus traveled to Lyon with a very light squad to negotiate a difficult away fixture in the Champions League. The Bianconeri started brightly, keeping possession of the ball confidently and making decent inroads at goal early on. Despite the territorial dominance, however, the French team had the first effort of the night courtesy of a Mouctar Diakhaby header wide from the free-kick delivery. A few minutes later, Gonzalo Higuaín registered Juventus’ first shot of the game; his effort went comfortably wide of the target despite the impressive pace behind the shot.
After a bit of a lull in the game, Juve had its first piece of truly noteworthy action. Paolo Dybala conceded a corner kick after a sloppy pass back to Alex Sandro and, from the resulting set piece, Leonardo Bonucci managed to wrap his arms all over Diakhaby and concede the penalty. The referee had no choice, really, after the defender forcefully dragged the Frenchman down in the penalty area. All eyes were on Alexander Lacazette for the ensuing penalty kick, but it was not to be as the legendary keeper Gianluigi Buffon dove to his left to confidently repel the striker’s shot.
The score remained goalless but what was lacking in goals, certainly wasn’t absent in entertainment value. It was soon time for more goalkeeping heroics, though this time from the other side of the pitch, as Anthony Lopes pulled off a fantastic save from a strong Higuaín header, who had been teed up by an exquisite Daniel Alves cross. Higuaín and Khedira almost fashioned a dangerous chance for themselves moments later, but the impressive Diakhaby denied them the opportunity in what proved to be the last kick of a goalless first half.
Juventus were unconvincing in the first half and the start of the second half did little to alter this scenario. Lyon almost capitalized on this hesitancy early on as well: Corentin Tolisso played the ball into Nabil Fekir during a dangerous counter attack and the striker managed to create a yard of space for the shot which, after deflecting off Bonucci, seemed to have Buffon wrong-footed. The Italian stalwart had yet another trick up his sleeve though as he extended his right hand to guide a shot that seemed so destined for goal over the bar. The drama continued as Mario Lemina picked up his (harsh?) second yellow card of the game during another Lyon counter which forced the Bianconeri to see out the final 35 minutes with 10 men.
Lyon clearly felt the wind in their sails now as the crowd roared them on and Juventus dropped deeper and deeper into defense. They were cutting through the Italian midfield with ease and mounting real pressure for Allegri’s side to deal with. The Juventus manager ultimately decided to make a change to restructure the side: on came Juan Cuadrado for the disappointing Paolo Dybala, and Juventus shuffled to a 4-4-1 formation.
Lyon, however, continued to attack but once again Buffon denied them, this time from a point-blank Tolisso header from a corner kick! Then suddenly, against the run of play, Juventus had the opening goal. Substitute Cuadrado received the ball in space on the right side, showed off some wonderful footwork to dazzle Jeremy Morel, and rifled in an unstoppable near-post shot from inside the penalty area. Lyon seemed utterly dumbfounded by this turn of events, even though they twice came close to an equalizer: Buffon (!!!) saved a rasping Gonalons shot before substitute Rachid Ghezzal side-footed a shot inches wide of the far post with literally seconds left on the clock.
A dramatic finale to an utterly gripping game of football in the Parc Olympique Lyonnais! A 1-0 victory for Juventus!
BUFFON 10 – Where do I even start? Batted away the penalty with superb confidence and single-handedly (literally, on one occasion) rescued not just one, but all three points for the team. Amazing.
BARZAGLI 6.5 – Lacazette occasionally wandered over to his side of the pitch, but generally only had to deal with the occasional overlap by Rafael. Things became more complicated after the sending off though.
BONUCCI 5.5 – Words cannot describe how livid I get from defenders doing wrestling moves in the box at set pieces. Of all people, I didn’t expect Bonucci to do it, though. Other than that, he played fairly alright.
EVRA 6 – He was a bit awkward in his unfamiliar left-center back role, especially in the second half. His link-up play with the midfielders was particularly underwhelming.
DANI ALVES 6.5 – Contrary to general opinion, I thought he performed quite well, although his offensive output was a bit erratic.
KHEDIRA 6 – To paraphrase Tim Vickery, Khedira is one of those players that when the collective functions, his individual quality really shines through. This was not the case here though, but he did alright nonetheless.
PJANIC 6 – Very disappointing game. He is really struggling for consistency, it seems…
LEMINA 4.5 – An evening to forget for the young Gabonese midfielder.
SANDRO 8 – An all-action performance by the Brazilian, who continues to win my admiration and plaudits. Struggled a little after the sending-off, mostly because he had to play two positions (CM and LM), but his fitness is absolutely impeccable.
HIGUAÍN 6 – Very quiet throughout the game, with only a few half-chances from long-range efforts to show for.
DYBALA 5.5 – Frustrated throughout the game, though struggled to get reliable service from midfield given Pjanic’s poor display. The 3-v-2 situation, and Lyon’s heavy midfield block, really gave him a hard time as well.
CUADRADO 8 – Scored the all-important game-winning goal with a dazzling display of quick feet and direct play. Cracking shot to score the goal and also won some useful fouls to calm the tempo of the play.
STURARO 6 – Provided some fresh, battling legs in a difficult final 15 minutes of the game.
BENATIA N/A – Played for a few minutes.
ALLEGRI 6.5 – Credit to the boss for the Cuadrado substitution after the sending off. He could have made a defensive switch to stabilize the team – which was actually quite necessary given how Lyon were effortlessly slicing through our midfield at that point – but chose to bring on a direct option in the form of the Colombian winger. Then again, he wasn’t very proactive in solving the most pressing tactical issue in the first half, which was the central midfield battle, so all in all an ok rating for Mad Max.
Tactics: Harder and harder to breath
It was an interesting 3-5-2 vs. 3-5-2 battle in this game. Given that our 3-5-2 has already been dissected with razor sharp incision and insight, I cast the spotlight more on our opponents’ tactical setup. I had two tactical predictions prior to the game based on the battle between these identical formations: the strikers on both sides would have very little joy given the 3-v-2 defensive-offensive situation and the two registi, Mario Lemina and Maxime Gonalons, would be crucial for their respective teams. I was partially right on my predictions, so let’s see in what way I was right and in what way I was wrong.
Let’s start with Lemina. The midfield of both sides was set up such that Lemina for Juventus and Gonalons were free with the most space in the middle of the park. Thus, the question was how each manager would deal with this ‘threat.’ Bruno Genesio, the Lyon manager, responded by instructing his two forwards, Lacazette and Fekir, to drop very deep to deny passing lanes into Lemina. They executed this plan with remarkable diligence: on almost every occasion they were on the exact same lateral line, with Lemina unfortunately sandwiched in between.
This was, of course, very smart because it meant that the Juventus midfielder could barely play incisive, penetrating balls to the wings given that this path was firmly blocked. It’s no surprise then that, despite the fact that he completed almost all his passes, these passes were all very unspectacular:
The knock-on effect was that all three center backs were completely free, but they had no options to pass to given that everyone was tightly marked. Result? A very uninspiring opening 45 minutes of play. Given how little ball possession Lyon had, Gonalons didn’t really do much with his midfield ‘freedom’ either, though I admit it was difficult for me to see because Lyon didn’t have very extensive build-up play for their attacks. So I guess I was half right, half wrong on this one.
It was clear, however, both sets of strikers had a very torrid evening this game. Despite this, I do want to highlight the following curious tactical snippet in the image below. We’ve already discussed Alves’ interesting central midfield drifts before, but here it had a very curious knock-on effect. Corentin Tolisso, usually marking Khedira in midfield, had to make a difficult decision when Alves drifted inside: start marking the Brazilian who was now occupying his defensive zone, or drop all the way back onto Khedira who had stealthily moved forward into attack? The Frenchman (logically) chose the former option, but that meant that there was now an uncomfortable 3-v-3 situation at the back.
Why was this so uncomfortable? Just look at the chasm of space in behind Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa after he followed Dybala’s move to drop deep. Higuaín is now in a great position to make a diagonal run while Khedira is also in a position to participate in an offensive move. Alves is in a central position at the bottom of the picture, marked by Tolisso. Although this situation went unexploited, it was an interesting tactical nuance that had some potential to it but was unfortunately barely used.
Half full, half empty
This was definitely one of the most gripping and intriguing Juventus games I’ve watched in a long time. On one hand, it was a remarkable display of mental fortitude to not crumble under the pressure of an away Champions League fixture with a man sent off with still 35 minutes left to play. On the other hand, it was really one of the most flattering results you could imagine after that stellar display by the veteran hero Buffon absolutely saved us. There’s no time to dwell on this result though, because speaking of difficult away fixtures…