Abdullah Abdullah looks at Olympique Lyon’s impending midfield issue and scouts for players who could solve the problem.
The January transfer window is a challenging time for most clubs given its timing. On the one hand, it is a midseason opportunity to fine-tune squads, to turn title challenges into league titles or qualifications to European tournaments. At the other end of the spectrum, it gives clubs at the bottom of the table a chance to turn things around going into the second half of their seasons.
Olympique Lyon have made a good start to this season after coming off the back of a less than successful season prior. They recruited well in the summer under the tutelage of Sonia Bompastor, bringing in Daniëlle van de Donk, Christiane Endler, Perle Morroni, and Signe Bruun. The serial French winners have so far qualified for the quarter-finals of the UEFA Women’s Champions League and have stormed ahead in the D1 Arkema.
The first half of the season has been better than expected but injuries have still plagued the side, especially in midfield. Damaris Egurrola, Amel Majri, and Van de Donk herself have been sidelined with medium-to-long-term injuries which have left the team short in the middle of the park. On top of this, Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir is still out after the birth of her child so we can consider the Icelandic midfielder out of selection for now.
There is some solace in the returns of Dzsenifer Marozsán, Eugenie Le Sommer, and Sarah Bouhaddi but there is still a need to add depth in the midfield area. There are notable youth prospects in Ines Benyahia, Laurine Baga, and Sally Julini but the three cannot be relied on to make an instant impact—they instead will play cameo roles to boost their experience.
With the transfer window upon us, we used our TransferLab tool to decipher and analyse potential options that Lyon could look at.
Options within the System
Before we look into the potential options available for transfer, we need to define parameters and pinpoint what position and type of midfielder are required.
Let’s start by assessing the current squad of players. The graphic below is a squad analysis of Lyon’s squad in their most-used 4-3-3 formation:
However, there are a couple of observations that we need to consider. Catarina Macario is classified as a centre forward—and rightly so—but this season she has been utilised in a more left-sided central midfield role which adds to the depth.
Amandine Henry has also been used further forward than is suggested here though she can play a deeper role. Similarly, Selma Bacha has played as a left-winger and left-sided central midfielder so far.
With all this in mind, this is how we classify Bompastor’s midfield options (players listed in bold are currently unavailable for selection.):
DM: Damaris Egurrola, Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir, Griedge M’Bock
RCM: Amandine Henry, Daniëlle van de Donk, Dzsenifer Marozsán,
LCM: Catarina Macario, Amel Majri, Selma Bacha, Eugenie Le Sommer
The risk of injury is high and we’ve seen how it’s already affected key members of the squad so far. Risking further injury to the rest can be catastrophic given the time it will take for Van de Donk and Damaris to get back into full match fitness.
This image is a representation of the various players that started against Benfica in the recent Champions League group stage game:
As you can see, Bacha (#4), M’Bock (#29), and Henry (#6) started the game with Macario (#13), Bacha, and Henry ending it.
Playing central defender M’Bock as the defensive midfielder might have worked for their run of games at the time but it’s not ideal. An injury to either Wendie Renard or Kadiesha Buchanan means M’Bock will have to drop back or the inexperienced Alice Sombath steps in. Depending on the magnitude of the game, this could become a problem.
Playing Amandine Henry deeper isn’t ideal given that her talents are suited higher up the pitch and Bacha has been a revelation at left wing. The returning Sara Björk will need time to get match fit after over a year out and cannot be relied upon as a consistent starting option this season. Equally, the Icelandic midfielder’s contract is up in the summer so she will need replacing anyway if no extension is offered.
Building a Profile
So what type of midfielder should Lyon go for? Based on our analysis, it’s safe to say getting a deep-lying midfielder with strong defensive and distribution attributes would certainly be useful to bring in.
The fact of the matter is that January is a tough time to buy primary transfer targets so there is a chance that none of these targets are attainable. However, we will attempt to find three targets of varying degrees of obtainability that would suit the squad and explain why they fit in both the immediate and long term.
To start off our search, we used TransferLab’s “Search” function to filter out players to fit the type of player we wanted. Using the “Defensive Midfield – All Round” profile and filtering for players under the age of 29 across the last 12 months, we’ve selected a shortlist of players within TransferLab’s top tier (WSL, NWSL, Frauen-Bundesliga, and Division 1 Feminine):
The outcome at first observation is quite positive. We see some high-profile players coming up in our results, and based on the data metrics chosen, this seems to have given us some good options. However, we must undertake a deeper analysis to truly analyse which of these players fit into Lyon’s system.
Option 1 – Sarah Zadrazil
Lyon could look towards a more experienced option in Sarah Zadrazil. The Bayern midfielder has quietly gone about her business in one of Europe’s top sides, anchoring the midfield and allowing her teammates to flourish further forward.
The Austrian international is 28 years old and arguably in the prime of her career with a playstyle that balances both defensive stability with creative, distributive traits. A defensive-minded midfielder who has excellent positional awareness, she has a tactical discipline that enables more attack-minded midfielders to thrive. Henry, Marozsán, Van de Donk, and Majri all thrive when given the license to push forward and having Zadrazil would give them even more freedom to do so.
Zadrazil’s strengths lie in defending through anticipation, overall awareness, and excellent positional sense. Her interceptions numbers (81st percentile per her peers in the Frauen-Bundesliga) and 1 v 1 Defending (90th percentile) are standout qualities with her progressive short passing and accuracy in the late 70th percentiles. This doesn’t indicate her quality as a progressive midfielder from deep due to the nature of her role. At Lyon, these traits suit the current and new style of play being implemented to allow the likes of Henry to carry out less defensive work.
The heat map on here TransferLab profile is also indicative of how much ground Zadrazil covers on the pitch. Being able to shuttle across the pitch and cover in for attacking full-backs means there is tactical versatility that can be introduced. This athleticism and understanding of the position become very important when it comes to covering spaces and knowing when and where to move.
Having played for a top club like Bayern Munich, Zadrazil should have no problems fitting in and adapting to the mentality required at the club. The Bavarian club may be unwilling to let go of an important squad member in January but in the summer, the Austrian might be worth revisiting.
Option 2 – Sjoeke Nüsken
One direction Lyon could go is the youthful option by looking towards the future akin to the signing of Damaris they made last season. That transfer paid off with the Spaniard really cementing her place in the team and now becoming an integral part of the midfield. However, it’s her injury that has sparked the eventual need for a signing and in Sjoeke Nüsken there is value to be had.
Looking at her profile, Nüsken gives us a profile score of 96 as an all round defensive midfielder. Considering the level of talent available, this score is a good early indication that Nüsken has performed well for her age.
At 20 years of age, the dynamic midfielder seems to have the right blend of defensive and creative traits. Looking at her standout profile scores, we see how her progressive long passing (91st percentile), open play headers (89th percentile), and interceptions (95th percentile) point towards a player comfortable sitting at the base of midfield, playing a destructive role screening the defence whilst being able to help progress play with good long passes.
Upon further review and some video analysis, it’s clear that Nüsken is quite a forward-thinking player in that she is willing to move forward and play riskier passes towards the front line. The young German has been seen attempting line-breaking passes in order to create goal-scoring chances in behind but is still far more successful pulling the strings with her long-range passing instead. This is evident in her mid-70s percentile ranking of short progressive passes and through balls, although this is by no means a full indication of her potential due to her young age.
An option for Lyon to look into as one of for the future–especially considering the calibre of players to return in the next 2-3 months.
Option 3 – Lia Wälti
The last option and possibly the most unlikely of the three would be Arsenal’s Lia Wälti. The Swiss international is a regular starter under Jonas Eidevall in a new role but hasn’t looked entirely settled. At 28, Wälti might want to look for a new challenge abroad and take her chances at another top club and Lyon’s new project could be very tempting.
Similar to Zadrazil, Wälti’s defence-first mindset will help ensure the players further forward are allowed the freedom to play. Wälti’s heat map is indicative of this as most of her activity remains in the defensive third as she shields her back four. This also comes from her positional versatility of being able to play as a central defender too.
The Arsenal defensive midfielder is another player that focuses primarily on defence. Her positional awareness is good and her main responsibility is to ensure there are no extra spaces given away between the lines and cover to the centre backs. From a progression perspective, Wälti isn’t an integral part of how Arsenal build-up but is a considered option if the centre-backs are pressed high. This isn’t to say Wälti can’t be the main progressive midfielder but having defensive discipline as a core trait becomes an important foundation to have.
Wälti’s profile supports the profiling we’ve just conducted with. With her impressive scores in tackles (95th percentile) and 1 v 1 defending (93rd percentile), she is clearly one of the best in the WSL. Equally, her progressive long passing at 88th percentile means there is good vision and an eye for a pass from a deeper position.
Considering the difficulties of the window of getting high-profile targets like these might be unattainable but there is enough evidence to suggest that there is a need for a player in this position considering how Lyon will want to be competing at all fronts. These three targets might not be the ones they target but they do present interesting options for Lyon each with their own advantages and skillsets that could be used to the team’s benefit.
Of course, Lyon’s academy products could be thrust into the first team but that would be out of character as Bompastor has been bleeding them in slowly. It becomes important for Bomasptor to reinforce to ensure there are no slip-ups in the league or in Europe. Coming up against a rampant Barcelona side will require the utmost concentration and discipline, and with adequate backup, it can be accomplished by this side.