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Ligue 1 Review – Week 35

“You do not have the right to be eliminated in this way,” Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas informed his squad following what might have been a season-ending Europa League exit to CSKA Moscow. “Individualistic behaviour always ends up being punished!” OL’s array of gifted forwards have routinely been guilty of such selfishness this campaign and, with the team barely playing like one, ahead of the game immediately after their European exit at Marseille it was clear that both Lyon’s season (5 points back from OM in third), and the coach’s job were in the balance.

Often Lyon’s president can become embroiled in puerile public spats, as he has this past week with his Marseille counterpart Jacques-Henri Eyraud, but his opinionated persona can also cast him as an inspirational leader. In this case his rage instigated a spectacular turnaround for his team, its coach and, especially, Memphis Depay.

Bruno Génésio has long been the nearly man at Lyon, always either on the brink of finally getting the best of his talented if unwieldy group or everything falling apart. But with his job on the line, Génésio received a helping hand from the opposition: “Forgive me for being vulgar,” Marseille midfielder Frank Zambo Anguissa told La Provence, “but we want to destroy them.” These words soon adorned Lyon’s dressing room wall, words they saw as an unprovoked attack, stoking a rivalry that never requires much rekindling. Lyon were at last ready to fight.

For long periods of a rumbustious, streetwise 3-2 win back in March, Lyon finally looked like they were playing for each other as they frustrated Marseille, brilliantly keeping possession as part of an uncharacteristically mature display. Génésio survived in style thanks to Memphis Depay, who had been dropped after the CSKA game, with a last minute header. Infuriatingly for Génésio, his off the bench winner again underlined his undoubted ability and inconsistency. However, as his players drifted off to international duty, Génésio was again given an unexpected helping hand.

With his new Netherlands side lacking attacking options, Ronald Koeman deployed Depay as a centre forward in a 3-5-2 for their trip to Lisbon. Depay stood out and scored in an eye-catching 3-0 defeat of the European Champions, with Koeman amazingly praising Depay for “working hard for the team,” having placed faith in arguably his premier forward, giving him more creative and goal-scoring responsibility. Perhaps surprisingly, Depay relished it. Upon the Dutchman’s return to Lyon, Génésio took Koeman’s ideas and ran with them.

Again utilised as a central forward, with Mariano suspended and injured in recent games, Depay has gloriously returned to the sort of form enjoyed by PSV fans and that grabbed attention at the 2014 World Cup. Lyon have won all five Ligue 1 games since The Netherlands’ victory in Portugal, netting 17 times and conceding just twice with Depay scoring or assisting 12 of those strikes and generally proving virtually unplayable.

Previously, Depay had been a little stranded out wide for Lyon. With many teams willing to sit in against Les Gones, allowing midfielders to double up to help their full backs, leaving little space for the Dutchman to exploit. Depay found himself frustrated and surrounded, convincing him, wrongly, that he had to try to dribble his way out. Meanwhile, the defensive responsibilities of a wider role are duties Depay performs reluctantly at best. “It was impossible for me to play this way.” admitted Depay, “it wasn’t really where I was at my best.”

In central areas, whether as a false nine, playing off another striker or as an attacking midfielder, Depay is given the scope to seek out space, allowing him to follow his instincts, thus playing to his strengths of pace, skill and, now that he is situated much closer to goal, finishing. Plus, for a player who stated recently that he knows he has the quality to be the best in the world, being appointed the attacking fulcrum clearly taps into his self-confidence and mollycoddles his sense of self-importance.

Crucially for Génésio, Depay’s rebirth as a striker has solved a number of tactical issues that he has struggled with throughout this campaign, almost overnight. The diamond used in the routine 2-0 win over a floundering Nantes this weekend allowed his supremely talented midfield quartet to play to their own strengths. The balletic 19-year-old Houssem Aouar in particular benefitted from a central midfield role, rather than being forced out wide, as did talismanic captain Nabil Fékir, while the marauding Tanguy Ndombélé is also given the freedom to bulldoze around midfield by holding player Lucas Tousart.

Remarkably, Génésio is again riding high, having been so close to finally folding. Considering his powers of recovery, perhaps his latest salvage operation should not come as a shock. Despite seemingly stumbling upon the perfect formula, Génésio has a newly freewheeling Lyon, led by Depay, back above Monaco into second in Ligue 1 with the Holy Grail of Champions’ League football on the horizon once more. Ominously for the rest of Ligue 1 however, the notoriously erratic Depay might have finally found his footing. “I can do a lot better if I believe in myself more,” said the Dutchman after his goal and four assists helped thrash Metz, “I like playing in this position.” President Aulas meanwhile, although always divisive, may again have proved decisive.

 

1 | While his former side were busy moving up the table, ClémentGrenier did his best to see Guingamp do the same, albeit in much tougher circumstances. The visitors conceded two late goals to draw 2-2 vs PSG at the Parc des Princes, but Grenier contributed an assist, his third in four matches as the Breton side extended their unbeaten run to five. Grenier is still a long way from the player whom injury prevented from going to Brazil in 2014, but much like his erstwhile Lyon teammate Jimmy Briand, decamping to Brittany looks to have rejuvenated his career.

2 | Another week, another crucial victory for St Étienne, who moved into fifth on the strength of Nice only beingable to draw away to Strasbourg. Jean-Louis Gasset has impressed since being given full charge of Les Verts in December, by relying on a mix of new acquisitions (Yann M’Vila, Mathieu Debuchy & Neven Subotic) and canny veterans, such as Stéphane Ruffier. In the recent absence of captain Loïc Perrin, Ruffier has been particularly imperious, including saving a penalty against Montpellier on Friday to preserve a clean sheet, his fourth in six matches. He has butted heads too often with Didier Deschamps to realistically be considered for Russia this summer, but with Steve Mandanda’s status still in doubt through injury, Les Bleus could do with Ruffier’s combination of experience and brio.

3 | Finally, Lille earned a vital win to keep their hopes of survival alive. Troyes also winning complicates things for Les Dogues, but Christopher Galtier’s charges still control their own destiny, as a win over Toulouse on Sunday will see them out of the automatic relegation places at a  Spurred on by energetic performances from Nicolas Pépé (eight goals in 2018) and midfielder Yves Bissouma, Lille played a match that was not always pretty, but illustrated in no uncertain terms that they have the desire and talent to avoid the drop, no small matter given the club’s looming financial issues.

Results: PSG 2-2 Guingamp, Lyon 2-0 Nantes, Monaco 0-0 Amiens, Angers 1-1 Marseille, Montpellier 0-1 St Étienne, Rennes 2-1 Toulouse, Strasbourg 1-1 Nice, Bordeaux 3-1 Dijon, Troyes 3-1 Caen, Lille 3-1 Metz.

A.W. with E.D.

 

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