Gary Neville’s first match as the Valencia head coach could hardly have come at a much more important time, with his new side’s aspirations of progressing in the Champions League hanging in the balance ahead of their final game of the group stage against Lyon. It turned out that even a win wouldn’t have been enough to put them through anyway, due to Gent’s impressive victory away at Zenit guaranteeing the Spanish side a third place finish, but they went on to suffer a loss at the Mestalla which will have been a disappointment regardless – and it will also have shown Neville that he has a lot of work to do to turn around their rather poor start to the season.
Despite his contract only being a short term one, the most promising thing for the former England international will have been the young players on display: particularly João Cancelo at right-back and Rodrigo De Paul on the left flank of their 4-3-3 system. Cancelo was the one giving them width on his side, regularly hugging the touchline and giving Dani Parejo (their deepest and most controlling midfielder in possession) someone to spray the ball towards when the centre was too crowded, while De Paul took up a narrower position and regularly looked to take men on in his attempts to link up with the other attackers.
It was De Paul who created their best chances in the early stages of their bright start, albeit not from open play as he set up Shkodran Mustafi twice from corners in quick succession in the opening 10 minutes. The German hit the post on the first occasion before powerfully heading in off the bar just a minute later, only for the goal to be questionably disallowed for a foul from his centre-back partner Aymen Abdennour when the ball was in the air.
Other than that, though, Valencia didn’t create much for long phases of the first-half. They retained the ball well and regularly found their full-backs in advanced positions with space but failed to get Paco Alcácer and Santi Mina (their striker and right winger respectively) into the game, largely because of the lack of verticality shown by the two midfielders alongside Parejo. Enzo Pérez did well to push on and get his Argentine compatriot De Paul involved a few times on the left but went off injured for the more defensive Javi Fuego in the 24th minute, while Danilo, another defensive-minded midfielder, simply had very little involvement at all – Alcácer (13) was the only outfield player to have less touches than his 21 in the opening 45 minutes.
Lyon established a very effective defensive shape (a 4-1-4-1) too which certainly made things more challenging for them, and, like in many games this season, they missed the excellent André Gomes controlling the game in areas higher up the pitch. Their inability to do that was enhanced with Pérez going off; something which played a part in Lyon taking more control almost instantly after the substitution. The French side had only had one chance up to this point, through the lively though so far inefficient Maxwel Cornet after he exploited the space between Abdennour and José Gayà following some aggressive positioning by Mustafi, but they created a couple more now.
First came an effort from the young midfielder Corentin Tolisso, Cornet again being involved after initiating an attack down the right wing, with Rafael then forcing the Valencia goalkeeper into an acrobatic save thanks to a header from a set-piece. Hubert Fournier’s side didn’t commit a huge amount of men forward, though they certainly showed elements of looking more dangerous here than they had in any of their other group stage matches this season.
In possession, Lyon’s shape was quite similar to Valencia’s – a 4-3-3 with a ‘1-2’ midfield triangle that had Maxime Gonalons sitting at the base of it. Much like De Paul for the home side, although to a greater extent, Clément Grenier took up narrow starting positions on the left which gave Henri Bedimo space to push up and try to take on Cancelo.
Meanwhile Cornet played wider on the right before constantly cutting inside onto his stronger left foot, the two wide men keeping close to their star striker, Alexandre Lacazette. The most significant difference, perhaps, was that Lyon’s midfield (Sergi Darder completed the trio of him, Gonalons and Tolisso) had a more creative balance to it than Valencia’s did.
That was symbolised in the fact that it was Gonalons and then Tolisso who got the assists for their two goals on the night, although in reality the first in the 37th minute was more down to another piece of good work from Cornet on that right side. Gonalons played the ball to him in space after a quick turnover of the ball in the midfield area, and he cut in on his left to take on Gayà in a one-on-one situation – creating an angle for himself before curling the ball, with a tiny deflection off Abdennour, into the far corner.
It was the last action of real note in the first-half, and it was a very definitive one. Coupled with their need to win to stand any chance of progression, conceding the first goal was undoubtedly a big blow with regards to the game state for Valencia. A lack of midfield penetration was a problem already, and now that Lyon had something to hold onto their 4-1-4-1 without the ball would make it even tougher for Neville’s men to cut through and create good opportunities.
They started the second-half brightly however, much like the first, putting pressure on Lyon and not allowing them to break out. Fuego and Parejo began to rotate their midfield positions a bit more as well, which also made it harder for the French side to prevent their build-up play, with the latter dropping deeper to initiate moves before then pushing on and having Fuego cover him.
A much more notable systematic change soon followed, when the ineffective Danilo came off for Álvaro Negredo in the 52nd minute. This led to a swap from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2, Negredo going up top and giving Alcácer some much-needed support in the attacking third. Negredo’s bigger build and ability to hold up the ball would have most likely made him a more suitable lone striker in the first place, although having not played since the start of October that wasn’t really an option which was open to Neville.
His introduction gave them another edge at first, one of his early actions being to drop deep and spread play wide for Cancelo on a counter-attack; leaving the impressive Portuguese full-back to charge forward into acres of space and fire a decent effort from the edge of the box towards the Lyon goal. For the most part Fournier’s team held firm though and they coped well with the added pressure and more direct play which Valencia tried, keeping an even narrower and more compact shape to combat it. Lyon also started to double-up on the opposing full-backs when they advanced, making it difficult for them to cut the ball back or provide a good cross.
With Valencia throwing more men forward the game became very open from around the 65th minute mark onwards, leaving Lyon with lots of room to break into when they won the ball. Lacazette and Cornet were the main instigators and thrived with the extra space – Lacazette first almost scoring after an outside of the foot cross from his teammate, before setting up Darder when he made a great midfield run from deep.
Darder’s effort was saved well by Jaume Doménech, but the goalkeeper was helpless to prevent the French side extending their lead to two goals soon afterwards. Unsurprisingly the killer goal came on the break after Valencia gave the ball away, when Lacazette played a pass to Tolisso before spinning in behind the high line which the home side’s centre-backs had taken up. Tolisso completed the one-two with a very well weighted pass, finding his teammate who ran with the ball before slotting home coolly under pressure from Abdennour.
It was a wonderfully executed counter-attack, and it turned out to be Lacazette’s final contribution of the night after he picked up a slight knock in the process. Claudio Beauvue came on in his place, while Bakary Koné was also brought on for Darder at the same time; Lyon going to a 5-4-1 with the additional centre-back now on the pitch.
That ended up being enough for them to see out the game without too much issue. The away side continued to hold an excellent defensive shape as they had for a lot of the match, forcing play wide while doing well to limit the space which Cancelo and Gayà had (which became easier now that they had five defenders), while Valencia continued to struggle to generate the tempo of ball circulation which would’ve been needed to create more opportunities.
It was a strong performance from a Lyon side who had nothing to play for going into this last game, giving them their first win of the group stage and something to build on in the rest of their domestic season. Valencia’s European campaign isn’t over quite yet though, with their third place finish seeing them drop down into the Europa League – and it’ll be interesting to see how they get on in that competition under Neville’s tutelage.