Antonio Conte’s Juventus side scraped a 1-0 victory away at Olympique Lyonnais this evening with the Italian Champions proving to have a very similar problem to the one faced by the Italian national team, a worrying overreliance on the productivity of Andrea Pirlo.
Olympique Lyonnais headed into the tie not in the best of shapes with Remi Garde’s squad having been decimated with injuries at the worst possible time with playmaker Clement Grenier, Yoann Gourcuff, Miguel Lopes and Gueida Fofana all missing tonight’s match through fitness concerns. The team was set up tonight to not concede with the main surprise coming from the inclusion of the speedy Jimmy Briand ahead of the in-form Bafetimbi Gomis. Lyon went with a flat midfield and defence in a 4-4-1-1 formation which saw the French team painfully short on the flanks with Juventus’ two wing-backs able to play almost as additional midfielders without fear of Lyon taking advantage of defensive gaps.
As the game progressed it became clear that Lyon were painfully short up front. Jimmy Briand despite his best efforts off the ball, could not influence the game in the slightest and Alexandre Lacazette struggled to adjust to a role just off the striker as opposed to where he is usually comfortable on either flank or as a centre forward himself. Remi Garde however anticipated this prior to kick-off due to the injuries suffered by Gourcuff and Grenier and the former Arsenal player set up his team in a manner which stopped Juventus from reaching anywhere near their top level.
This was in essence because Andrea Pirlo was stopped. The service to him was stopped through pressure on Juventus’ central defenders once they received the ball from goalkeeper Buffon and to their credit this was one area where Briand and Lacazette impressed. The age old tactic of shackling Andrea Pirlo which over the years has inexplicably been ignored by certain teams was employed to great effect by Lyon this evening. The experienced Steed Malbranque stuck with the Italian playmaker right up until the moment he was substituted late on.
The former Fulham midfielder kept within a five yard radius of Pirlo, constantly keeping his head on a swivel to monitor his movements and ensure he couldn’t get away from the man marking. Malbranque was ably supported by the pairing of Jordan Ferri and Arnold Mvuemba who kept pace with Juventus’ marauding midfield two of Paul Pogba and Claudio Marchisio. As a result of Pirlo being man marked out of the game it was centre half Leandro Bonucci who had a lot of the ball throughout the match, the defender had more than three times the number of passes than Pirlo at half-time however the Italian centre half doesn’t have the quality to make as much of an impact with those passes as Pirlo does so Lyon were rarely troubled from deep positions.
The limiting of Pirlo’s effectiveness showed Juventus to be terribly poor on the evening. Sparse instances of individual talent from Tevez aside the Italian Champions’ forwards did very little to impose themselves of Lyon’s defence and it was only after the introduction of Sebastian Giovinco that there was a real sense of purpose about the Bianconeri’s attacking moves. This reliance on Pirlo creates a worrying argument about the future of Juventus, the situation draws parallels to that of the Denver Bronco’s who are building a team around the ageing Peyton Manning in the hope of quick success.
Pirlo, as Manning does for the Broncos, carries the team forward and if he is to suddenly be taken out of the game or even shackled as Manning was in the recent Superbowl defeat to the Seattle Seahawks then the team fails to produce. With time in Pirlo’s illustrious career rapidly running out you feel that Juventus have to start planning different ways of approaching matches in terms of going forward without relying on Pirlo’s ball movement and creativity otherwise when Pirlo does eventually retire the team will be left painfully without direction.
Maxime Gonalons showed just why Napoli fought so hard to try and prise him away from the Stade de Gerland in the January transfer window with his performance this evening. The French midfielder played in a very disciplined role just behind the other three central midfielders, essentially making Garde’s system a 4-1-3-1-1 with Gonalons providing cover behind Malbranque should a space develop due to his high pressing on Pirlo.
Gonalons was efficient in possession in his own half and seldom didn’t find a teammate with a pass and with the subject of Pirlo’s long term future at Juventus the talk of much debate after tonight’s performance there may well be interest in Gonalons not just from Arsene Wenger in the summer but also Antonio Conte.
The late Leandro Bonucci goal five minutes from the end was a result of a tired Lyon defence. Bakary Kone was caught off guard by a ball holding up on the pitch whilst trying to shield it out for a goal kick and thus conceded a sloppy corner and Lyon never looked ready for it. Gomis tried an acrobatic clearance and got nowhere near the ball and when it fell to Bonucci on the left hand side of the goal he smashed it high into the empty net to give Juventus a crucial away goal heading into next week’s return leg.
Remi Garde can take great comfort from his team’s display tonight. Against the might of Juventus, with very few options due to injury, they held their own. Of course Lyon at this time lack real quality and are going through a transitional period following a near decade of domestic dominance but Remi Garde did his stock as a Head Coach no harm at all this evening with his carefully laid out plans to limit Pirlo’s influence and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see his name linked with higher profile jobs in the near future, particularly in the Premier League.