This year’s Europa League will see Sparta Praha taking on Olympique Lyonnais, just like in 2012, when both clubs qualified for the knock-out stage thanks to a draw in Prague on the fifth matchday. Matthias T., from Lyon counterpart independent website Café du Commerce, brings you a detailed presentation of the French side and what it’s been up to since the last meeting between the two clubs.
Fourth in Ligue 1 last season, Lyon automatically qualified for the next Europa League group stage. They joined as the top seed ahead of Napoli thanks to recent good European results such as a Champions League semi-final post-Covid. The “Gones” remain thus favorite to reach the round of 16.
History of Olympique Lyonnais
You might remember Olympique Lyonnais’ heyday. Back in the 2000s, they topped Ligue 1’s leaderboard seven years in a row, a record that still stands today in spite of Paris Saint-Germain’s domination in the past decade.
This era was the result of historic owner and president Jean-Michel Aulas’s brilliant entrepreneurship and investments, culminating in the signing of Brazilian striker Sonny Anderson from Barcelona in 1999. This transfer did not only bring a tremendous player to Lyon; it represented a more aggressive and ambitious stance OL would now show on the market. 3 years later, Anderson helped Lyon win their first Ligue 1 title, wearing the armband in the legendary final day fixture against Lens, during which both teams fought for the championship.
This new transfer policy had also brought, in 2001, a promising midfielder from Vasco de Gama: Juninho Pernambucano. It is easy to measure how an absolute legend “Juni” is for Lyon. With him on board, OL won seven titles. Without him? None.
His vision, his passing and, more notoriously, his free kicks, carried the club for eight years. He saw – really good – players, coaches, partners in midfield come and go, but he always earned Lyon the title in the end. Alongside with legendary French goalkeeper Grégory Coupet, he remained the pillar whose departure would remarkably damage the club.
Afterwards, poor management by Claude Puel and poor signings made it difficult for Lyon to keep up the hegemony on the French championship. Bordeaux, Marseille, Lille and Montpellier would serve as temporary champions before the Qatari takeover of PSG. Meanwhile, OL entered its worst period of the 21st century. And this is what you, Sparta Praha fans, might remember of Lyon from our first meeting in 2012.
This past decade saw Lyon being less ambitious – giving up against PSG’s nearly infinite money – and more cautious about finances. Aulas made the choice to move into a brand-new, 60-thousand seat stadium, whose commercial area would consolidate the club’s revenues in order to be less dependent on TV rights deals and sport hazards. Though the club continued – apart from last year – qualifying for European competition, the club has only been into title contention once in more than a decade.
Genuine chances, incomplete changes
In 2019, with desire to regain ambition and shake things up, Juninho was brought back to Lyon, this time as a sport director. However, the first choice he made proved to be a poor one: his protegee Sylvinho (former Arsenal and Barcelona player) who was brought as head coach miserably failed and was sacked three months into the season. This weakened Juninho’s position in the balance of power among the club’s executives.
Thus, Olympique Lyonnais’s next coach was chosen under unfavorable circumstances, which basically led to appoint a tactically worse-than-average and a personality-wise despised coach: Rudi Garcia. Though his side reached the semi-final of the Champions League Lisbon tournament and managed last season to be in contention for the Ligue 1 title in front of Lille and Paris, it eventually lost everything in the final stages and could not even qualify for the Champions League (which requires a top-3 finish in France).
This brings us to the current season. The end of Rudi Garcia’s spell meant that Juninho could give a second try to reshape his Olympique Lyonnais. This time, he wanted the smoothest process possible and appointed a new manager who would come with his own staff, unlike Sylvinho. Enters Peter Bosz.
The Dutch manager, who led Ajax to a Europa League final back in 2017, appears to be an aesthete of the game. As a Guardiola follower, he definitely is into attractive and ambitious football, something that tremendously lacked during Rudi Garcia’s and Bruno Genesio’s tenures. Moreover, he is bringing to Lyon a new sense of tactical discipline that is unfortunately too rare with French managers coming from the national managerial courses.
Though this journey might take time, it definitely is compelling. Overall, Lyon fans share this excitement and we might even go as far as to say that a certain sense of a long-term optimism is in the air.
Tactics and lineup
As an aesthete, Bosz prones ball retention, direct and on the ground passing game and gegenpressing to retrieve the ball in just a few seconds. This is what you have to expect while watching Olympique Lyonnais this season. And this is what Sparta should be prepared for.
Olympique Lyonnais Peter Bosz edition tends to shape in a 4-3-3, with one of the midfielders being so free that it often creates a 4-2-3-1. Full-backs are encouraged to be very attacking, while centre-backs and defensive midfielders are instructed to take initiatives, cutting lines with vertical passes sometimes not without risk. Finally, though Bosz did not really get the type of players he wanted, wingers are supposed to cut inside and play as inside forwards around a false-nine striker.
Although Sparta vs. OL will already be Bosz’s thirteenth official match, this still feels like the beginning of the story. And obviously, things are not perfect yet. The playing style his side is showing is more and more encouraging, results are still a bit of a bummer while many mistakes are still far from going unnoticed. Can this weekend’s win over Monaco be a defining moment going forward?
Playing against this young (both for the average age of the squad and as a project) Lyon side, you might want to fight for ball possession – provided you have technically gifted enough players to avoid gegenpressing – or you may choose to operate in transitions. Peter Bosz’s men are actually quite vulnerable in this sector, as adaptation to these new practices takes time. It is indeed not rare to see a full-back being out of position as he was helping an attack, making the defensive line chaotic.
Expected lineup: Lopes – Emerson, Denayer, Boateng, Dubois – Caqueret, Guimarães – Toko Ekambi, Aouar, Shaqiri – Paquetá
It remains to be seen whether Peter Bosz will choose to rest some players against Sparta Praha. Lyon surely does not underplay the importance of the Europa League, but with already two victories in the bag and a busy schedule awaiting, it might be a wise choice. If so, Malo Gusto (instead of Dubois), Sinaly Diomande (instead of Boateng or Denayer), and Rayan Cherki (instead of any of those four attacking players) would be the favorites to step in.
He put up a great show last season as soon as he arrived and began this season with even more leadership and confidence: Lucas Paquetá definitely is Olympique Lyonnais’ key player. Recruited at the very end of the summer 2020 transfer window as a good opportunity, he quickly proved to be essential to the team. His first touch, his vision, his passing and his dribbling combined with his dynamism really makes him the most important piece of this Lyon side.
Paquetá was key to last season’s fantastic run before winter. Recently, Bosz has been trying him out as a false nine, with first choice Moussa Dembélé being injured, but he is a midfielder and will continue to weigh in between the enemy lines no matter his position. Expect a difficult game if he is in good shape – but he might not be 100% fit for Thursday’s game given that he had a tight schedule playing for the Brazil national team and, just two days later, for Lyon this weekend.