Originally posted in a slightly edited form on French Football Weekly 28th April 2013

Rémi Garde’s Lyon has used a variety of formations this season, utilising 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2, and as a one-off against PSG in December a 3-5-2, but the main work-horse is their 4-1-4-1.


The back four (in blue) is shielded by the ‘anchor’ Maxime Gonalons (in red), with four midfielders (in white) and one forward (in yellow). The wide midfielders often defend deep like this (level with Gonalons) to protect the flanks if the opposition plays with a lot of width.

Garde likes to play forwards, Jimmy Briand, Alexandre Lacazette, Lisandro López, in the wide positions to make a 4-3-3 when attacking or sometimes to press the opponent when the ball is in enemy territory.


Against Tottenham in the first-leg of their Europa League knockout tie, Lyon were extremely aggressive with their pressing – but the striker’s duties (Bafétimbi Gomis in that game) were to engage the centre-backs differently. Jan Vertonghen’s distribution is far superior to that of William Gallas, and Gomis was tasked with pressing Vertonghen, ‘steering’ the ball to Gallas, and forcing Gallas to play the ball up the field – discouraging the play returning to Vertonghen. Likewise with Spurs’ central midfielders; Moussa Dembele was pressed immediately and not allowed any time, almost to the point of being man-marked, whereas the ball was ‘directed’ to Scott Parker.In the image below you can see the player matchups and Parker (marked with green) being left alone – the centre-forward, Gomis (marked with grey) is discouraging the ball to the central defenders.

Parker (marked with green) left alone

Parker (marked with green) left alone

Parker was harried after he received the ball, but with Tottenham’s fullbacks pushed up very high, he was often forced to dump the ball on the centre-backs, who were being pressed intelligently by the hard-working Gomis.

In the return leg in Lyon, the home side’s strategy (even though trailing 1-2) was to sit back a lot more, inviting pressure and trying to hit Tottenham on the counter-attack, Gomis again was detailed to pay attention to Vertonghen. Here he is pressing the Tottenham defender whilst Gallas and Parker (marked with pink) are left alone.


Let’s contrast this with the game from last weekend against Montpellier who, like Tottenham, play 4-2-3-1. In this game Garde had a different scheme. The centre-forward (Lisandro) took one of the opposition midfielders, and an inside-midfielder (this time it’s Steed Malbranque marked with yellow) moved up and took the other. There was very little pressing of the centre-backs – the priority was to try to stop the ball being played through the double-pivot of Montpellier’s central midfielders.

Midfielder and centre-forward on Montpellier's double-pivot

Midfielder and centre-forward on Montpellier’s double-pivot

Below we see this in action, with Lyon ‘guiding’ the ball back to the central defender, and the match-ups across the pitch to eliminate passing options for the central midfielders in their 4-2-3-1. Those dark blue and green matchups are Gonalons with the central midfielder Bryan Sabo, and Clément Grenier taking the number 10, Younès Belhanda – normally Sabo would be playing deeper and Grenier’s responsibility, with Gonalons picking up Belhanda. Marked with brown is Malbranque, again high up the pitch pressing the deep-lying central midfielder Benjamin Stambouli, to direct the play backwards.

The ball is 'guided' back to Montpellier's last man

The ball is ‘guided’ back to Montpellier’s last man

After some horrendous individual defensive errors in numerous games, Garde has started trying to protect his back four in recent weeks with unabashedly defensive tactics and looking to hit teams on the break, even when playing at home, like he did against Tottenham.

In mid-April, when Toulouse were the visitors, Garde tried a 4-2-3-1 – defensively becoming a 4-4-1-1 with two banks of four:

Two deep banks of four at home to Toulouse

Two deep banks of four at home to Toulouse

If the ball was lost further up the pitch then OL tried to play a narrow 4-2-3-1 with the wide-midfielders coming inside, before falling back to a 4-4-1-1 as above. Less concerned about the flanks against Toulouse, Garde wanted to stop the ball being played through the centre.

The 4-2-3-1 'narrows' forcing the ball wide

The 4-2-3-1 ‘narrows’ forcing the ball wide

Yoann Gourcuff

A terrible run of results for Lyon saw Yoann Gourcuff coming back into the team, after a series of niggling injuries, for the game against Toulouse. Gourcuff was played in the number 10 position behind Lisandro, switching to a 4-2-3-1, with Grenier alongside Gonalons as a double-pivot. This wasted Grenier terribly, the thinking must have been that Grenier’s range of passing would help OL counter-attack, but it resulted in a very uninspired and workmanlike performance. The following week at Montpellier, the pack was re-shuffled and Gourcuff was stationed on the left of a five-man midfield as Garde reverted to the 4-1-4-1, with Grenier and Malbranque as inside-midfielders and Gonalons as the ‘holder’.

Gourcuff’s touch and decision-making have never been poorer, nor has he been more lacking in confidence, and being played in a variety of positions can’t be helping him. So it was odd he was tasked with occupying the left-midfield berth, although given licence to drift to the centre, against Montpellier. In this attack, Gourcuff has moved in from the left and across to a central area, both Lisandro and Briand (pink) are in good positions on the edge of the penalty box, and Grenier and Malbranque (yellow) are supporting from midfield.

The ball Gourcuff should play

The ball Gourcuff should play

The ball to be played is a one-touch pass through to Briand, but instead, Gourcuff tried to flick the ball behind with his instep to Lisandro. Gourcuff failed to get any contact on the ball (in fact it looked like a dummy on first viewing), Briand threw his arms up in exasperation, with the ball apparently rolling out for a throw-in.

Chasing after the loose ball, Lyon youth product Grenier picked it up, one touch to control, the second a beautiful cross for Lisandro (being sloppily semi-marked by Hilton) to score the game’s opening goal with a nice header at the near post. The contrast between Gourcuff’s needlessly elaborate poor play and Grenier’s beautifully simple approach to the game couldn’t have been clearer.

Maxime Gonalons

Probably the key player for Lyon – and it’s hard to imagine them without him – a youth product and now team captain at 23 years old, he is in the Sergio Busquets mould of modern ‘holders’. Not an aggressive all-action midfielder, say Toure Yaya or Patrick Vieira; his game is based on positioning, his reading of the play, and short accurate passing.

It’s rare to see Lyon man-mark, and intriguingly in the return leg against Tottenham in the Europa League, Garde chose to man-mark, not Gareth Bale, but Lewis Holtby. Worried by Holtby’s playmaking talents, rather than Bale’s dribbling and extraordinary shooting, Gonalons was to stick to his man like glue.

Gonalons man-marks Holtby across the pitch

Gonalons man-marks Holtby across the pitch

When Spurs started rotating their three attacking midfielders, with Bale coming central and Holtby moving to the left (occasionally Aaron Lennon would pop up in the centre too), Gonalons played his natural game and closed Bale down, but didn’t man-mark him as he had Holtby, and when Bale returned to the flank and Holtby came central once more, Gonalons picked up where he’d left off and returned to marking Holtby.

Part two: Defensive Blunders