Olympique Lyonnais are seemingly back on the rise in France's Ligue 1, says Sam McGuire.
Paris Saint Germain may be the new powerhouse of Ligue 1, but before them it was Olympique Lyonnais. This wasn’t an empire built on mass spending like PSG’s, this was all about clever management, elite scouting and an academy stocked with talented prospects.
Seven consecutive Ligue 1 titles, culminating in a first league and cup double in 2007/2008 season whilst Alain Perrin was at the helm. At the time nobody could have foreseen that the club would go on a barren spell on the trophy front for the next few years, only winning the Coupe De France against National 2 minnows US Quevilly in 2011/2012.
What was the cause for the fall of the French giant? After the success of 2007/2008 in a surprising move Lyon appointed a new manager, ex Lille boss Claude Puel. The aim of the chairman, Jean-Michel Aulas, was to win the Champions League and their new strategy was taken from the pages of other elite European clubs. Spend big on ready-made players.
This strategy strayed from what had made Lyon successful in the previous years, but Monaco’s run to the Champions League final in 2004 whet the appetite of the Lyon chairman. He wanted Europe’s greatest title now the French League had been conquered.
The club, responsible for talents such as Ludovic Guily, Sidney Govou, Steed Malbranque, Loic Remy, Remi Garde and Raymond Domenech, was now wanting to bring in ready-made talent instead of bringing their own through the system, the whole time putting their emphasis on playing the purest of football and giving youth a chance.
With the appointment of Puel in came Jean II Makoun, Ederson, Hugo Lloris, Miralem Pjanic and John Mensah for a collective total of 53.4 million Euros. The outgoings in the same window happened to be two youth graduates; Hatem Ben Arfa and Loic Remy, along with Milan Baros, for a combined total 25.5 million Euros. Failure on all fronts that season lead to the club sacking the manager the following season.
Lisandro Lopez, Michel Bastos, Aly Cissokho, Bafetimbi Gomis and Dejan Lovren for 80 million Euros all arrived, once again a youth product, Karim Benzema, was sold. For a second consecutive season the club failed to win Ligue 1, but a successful stint in the UEFA Champions League (a semi final appearance), lead the club to believe they were on the right path.
Not knowing financial ruin was around the corner they continued to spend big whilst taking a loss on big money signings. Yoann Gourcuff and Jimmy Briand arrived at the Stade De Gerland for 28 million Euros. Out of the revolving door at Lyon went John Mensah and Jean II Makoun. The club took a 16 million Euro loss on these players, something that isn’t and wasn’t, of course, sustainable. Despite the outlay Lyon could only finish 3rd in Ligue 1 and the project was effectively over.
Remi Garde, ex Lyon and Arsenal player, was tasked with the job of steadying the ship at the French club. Spoken of as a potential successor to Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, Garde is held in high regard amongst the Lyon public having been head of their academy before making the step up. Lyon’s very own Pep Guardiola. This wasn’t just a job for Garde, this was an obsession.
He took over as the strategy had shifted, no longer the biggest club in France and no longer operating with an open wallet, Lyon had to sell their big earners to keep out of serious financial trouble. The 2011/2012 season saw them sign two players, Mouhamadou Dabo and Guedia Fofana for 2.8 million Euros combined. Jeremy Toulalan and Miralem Pjanic were both sold, fetching 10 million and 11 million Euros respectively. You look at Pjanic today and feel Lyon missed out. This is how they were to operate from now on, any offer was considered and no player was off the market. A disappointing 4th place finish wasn’t the best start to Gardes’ career but he did win the Coupe De France.
The 2012/2013 season began with more key players being sold. This time it was a big blow losing their captain, Hugo Lloris, for 15 million Euros. They also made a 9 million loss on Aly Cissokho, a 15 million loss on Ederson and ended up selling Kim Kallstrom, Jeremy Pied and Belfodil for a combined 9.5 million Euros. High earners and talented youngsters being sold just to keep Lyon in line with French regulations implemented by the National Directorate of management control, the organisation responsible for monitoring and overseeing clubs in France. That experience and quality lost and the club spent 8 million on Mvuemba, Monzon and Bisevac, all defensive players. Despite this, once again Garde did a good job and led Lyon to a 3rd place finish in Ligue 1.
Then once again, summer came round and it meant one thing; losing more players. Lovren, Monzon, Bastos, Lisandro Lopez and highly rated youngster Anthony Martial were all sold for a collective price of 29 million Euros, heavy losses on signings such as Michel Bastos and Lisandro once again cost the club financially. Bafetimbi Gomis was chased by Swansea and Newcastle but didn’t want to be sold, Briand too rejected a move away so the club had to accept offers for Lisandro and Martial. Martial is now at Monaco, a highly rated youngster who will no doubt represent France in the future. Described as a mix of Lacazette and Benzema it must have been a huge blow to Lyon to have to sell him, and for such a low fee. The club were really feeling the effects of overspending in seasons gone by.
This season Garde managed to guide Lyon to the quarter finals of the Europa League and Coupe De France. The club made it to the final of the French League cup equivalent and played four earlier qualifying games of the Champions League prior to being knocked out. They played the same amount of games as Atletico Madrid and navigated their season around losing 7 players to injury in November and December. However a 5th place finish and an emotionally invested Garde had to step down. The latter half of Garde’s last season was when he decided to change the formation. It may have been forced upon him through injuries but he changed from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 diamond. This is the formation the new Lyon manager, Hubert Fournier, has used to devastating effect in the 2014/2015 season.
This subtle change to the formation took Lyon back to their successful days, playing proper football and killing teams off on the counter. With a core of youth graduates all comfortable playing this way it made the transition far easier. Lyon had the answer to their problems under the noses all along; youth.
Lyon currently sit top of Ligue 1, ahead of Bielsa’s resurgent Marseille and the powerhouse PSG, Fournier has his team playing football the Lyon of the glory days would be proud of, and once again Les Gones (the kids) are enjoying their football.
This young team littered with academy graduates is anchored by the experienced and classy Maxime Gonalons, tasked with shielding the defence but also recycling the ball to the more influential midfielders as he goes about his job superbly at the base of the diamond. The defence includes two from the academy, Anthony Lopes, the goalkeeper who will be the Portuguese number one at some point, and the highly rated Samuel Umtiti who will likely be challenging for a start with the French National side in no time.
Beside Gonalons is another two Lyon graduates, Clement Grenier, a mercurial talent who has shown glimpses of what he has to offer, and Jordan Ferri. The young Frenchman will be fully capped by the national team if he continues his form, despite the fierce competition he’s making it hard to be ignored. Leading the line for Lyon this season is Alexandre Lacazette and Nabil Fekir. The former already has over 20 Ligue 1 goals and is in the form of his life. The whole team is in the form of their lives and it’s due to Fournier taking them back to basics, to what they know, and what they excel in. They’re reaping the rewards, and the club will be too if they weren’t to sell any of their young stars.
If Lyon are to go on and win the league this year then it’s no doubt Fournier that deserves the great accolades, but for me, and many others, this would be very much a joint effort with Garde; changing the formation and bedding in the young stars who have exploded onto the scene. Fournier has embedded confidence into a team that was ready to be moulded, and he’s just unleashed them onto an unsuspecting Ligue 1.
Lyon changed a winning formula and had to count the cost for it, financially and figuratively speaking. Their youth academy should be at the base for this club, their graduates don’t just excel with Lyon but also with other clubs. In 2013 Lyon had 32 graduates in top flight teams, second only to Barcelona’s La Masia. In Ligue 1 this season five of the top ten players in the assist table graduated from Lyon. The Manchester City’s and PSG’s of the world are investing heavily in youth facilities to have sustainable success, whilst Lyon had that all along.
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