Lyon V2.0 – a football reboot

OL preseason Gouiri Maolida

Three seasons ago a young, exciting Olympique Lyonnais team filled with homegrown talent and coached by Hubert Fournier threatened to upset the PSG juggernaut and knock the Parisians off their perch as champions. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be for Les Gones but there was a genuine sense of excitement at what a side featuring the likes Anthony Lopes, Alexandre Lacazette, Nabil Fekir, Samuel Umtiti and Corentin Tolisso could achieve stewarded by ever dependable captain Maxime Gonalons.

The problem with football is its ability to throw a spanner into the works of even the best-laid plans.  Fournier could not replicate the magic of his first season and was swiftly replaced by Bruno Génésio who performed somewhat of a miracle of his own by guiding OL into second place.

Once again a platform was set for the club to build on, but Génésio’s first full season in charge saw Olympique Lyonnais turn into the footballing embodiment of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde.  The club lost 13 league games last season conceding 48 goals in the process and redefining the concept of “kamikaze defending” in the process.

The Europa League semifinal ties against Ajax summed up Lyon in its purest form. They lost 4-1 in the first leg with a farcical defensive show before nearly pulling off an amazing comeback in the return fixture winning 3-1. As the final whistle went it didn’t just signal the end of the campaign but probably the end of that team as well.

The beginning is the end is the beginning

Over the last few weeks Lyon have seen academy products like Maxime Gonalons, Alexandre Lacazette, Corentin Tolisso, Jordy Gaspar and Rachid Ghezzal leave Parc OL.  In terms of cash, Lyon have pocketed a tidy sum of €101 million thus far but in the process have lost influential homegrown players, their captain and, lest we forget, “le petit vélo” Mathieu Valbuena.

In their stead the club have recruited Bertrand Traoré, Mariano Díaz, Ferland Mendy, Marcelo Guedes, Marçal and Kenny Tete.  It’s clear that the frontline is being revamped but whether this new blood can fill that Lacazette-shaped hole remains to be seen.  Traoré, who helped knock his new club out of the Europa League last season, bagged nine goals in 24 appearances in the Eredivisie for the Dutch giants in the previous campaign. Mariano, OL’s acquisition from Real Madrid, scored just the once in La Liga and netted four times in the Copa del Rey having made an impression for Real’s Castilla side in the 2015/16 season scoring 25 goals.

Mariano Díaz (2016/17)
Competition Appearances Goals Assists
La Liga 8 1 1
Copa del Rey 5 4 1
Champions League 1 0 0
Bertrand Traoré (2016/17)
Competition Appearances Goals Assists
Eredivisie 24 9 2
Europa League 13 4 4
Champions League Qualifiers 2 0 0

Génésio has gone on record stating that he’s happy with his attacking options believing that Mariano can follow in the footsteps of Lacazette. Needless to say, the bar has been set very high.

In addition Les Gones have strengthened their options at full back and signed another central defender to boost options in that area of the pitch. The club has already signed six players and there’s no reason why they won’t bring in more if the right talent becomes available.

But then Lyon’s youth academy, which picked up the Best Training Centre award for a fifth year in row, is still producing players at a handy rate with the likes of Amine Gouiri, Myziane Maolida, Alan Dzabana and even 15-year old Willem Geubbels featuring in pre-season friendlies.  Perhaps the most exciting prospect is Houssem Aouar (you can read his Le50 profile here – ed.) who has inherited the number eight top from Corentin Tolisso. A new generation of young, exciting talent will be looking to make a breakthrough this season and if Lyon’s first team stars aren’t carrying their weight, they could soon find themselves on the bench.

Head coach Bruno Génésio is faced with somewhat of a conundrum.  Does he rely on the talent purchased in the market, effectively buying a first team to replace the one that was built? Can he find a way to blend Lyon’s exciting academy talent with the squad’s more experienced pros? Will he trust youth and hope that they can deliver for him? There’s no easy answer, especially as he needs to maintain OL’s position in Ligue 1 at the very least.

The King of Lyon

Replacing Alexandre Lacazette’s goals isn’t the only headache Génésio has to contend with as he’ll also have to find a successor to long-time captain Maxime Gonalons. His final season with the club may not have set the world on fire but the captain’s armband suited the defensive midfielder and he possessed a natural air of authority.

Now the dilemma facing OL’s head coach is figuring out who should take over the captaincy.  If Lyon’s game against Bourg-Péronnas showed anything it was who could be in with a shout of wearing the armband.  Jordan Ferri led Les Gones in the first half whilst Nabil Fekir took up the responsibility in the second period. On the face of it both are logical choices having come through the academy and been in the first team picture for a few years now. Then again would giving either the armband thrust too much responsibility on their shoulders?  Jordan Ferri will have to show that OL will not miss the likes of Tolisso and Gonalons whilst the creative and goal scoring burden will fall upon Fekir. The duo have a fair amount of responsibility to deal with already so would it be fair to give the captain’s armband to either of them?

Against Celtic, Jérémy Morel was handed the captaincy as Lyon comfortably beat their Scottish counterparts 4-0.  Given that Morel is 33 and that the club have strengthened the defensive unit it would be a surprise if the former Marseille man was given the armband.

But looking around the squad are there any other outstanding candidates? Interestingly, Marcelo Guedes mentioned the captaincy role in passing during his unveiling.  Then there’s Lucas Tousart, the midfielder who outshone Maxime Gonalons last term. He may only be 20 but has all the attributes to become an extremely effective captain.

But then perhaps it’s a bit much to hand over the captaincy to one of the new recruits or burden a young talent with it, leaving Anthony Lopes the only other viable option. The Portuguese keeper has been a mainstay in the OL goal for the past couple of seasons and plays in the one position which has been an oasis of calm in the storm of transfers that has engulfed Lyon.

There’s a case to be made for a number of players to be to be handed the captaincy but the decision is far from clear cut.

Everything in its right place?

Bruno Génésio’s first half season as head coach of Lyon couldn’t have gone much better as he salvaged the wreckage from Hubert Fournier’s tenure and managed to turn things around culminating in a second place finish.

His first full season in charge was a different story with Lyon consistently being inconsistent. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the league campaign was how far off the top three OL finished up, a full 11 points off third-place Nice.  It’s fair to say that it’s been a bruising season for Génésio – so much so that Jean-Michel Aulas is in the process of recruiting a director of football.  All signs indicate that former OL icon Juninho Pernambucano is the preferred choice although the Brazilian hasn’t committed to the role yet.

Clearly, Aulas believes that the OL head coach should focuses on first team duties and not much more beyond that, saying in an AFP report, Bruno Génésio has the qualities which allow Lyon to prosper in the long run and there is a lot of risk in changing coach.  The management committee are of the same view as me.” 

But then there’s also the issue of the sporting structure in general at Lyon. Gerard Houllier and Bernard Lacombe are the two rivals who advise Jean-Michel Aulas and have been ‘sporting directors’ in their own right at Lyon but the relationship the pair share is not a good one, and the last thing the club need when overseeing an on-pitch overhaul is tension behind the scenes.

With that in mind perhaps the 68-year old Aulas has recognized the need to lance that particular boil and recruit, in an official capacity, a director of football to provide a greater sense of clarity and accountability.  His desire to bring in Juninho makes sense as symbolically he is a figure to rally around to unite the club.  Whether the Brazilian is up for doing the job is another matter but the decision to recruit a sporting director is to relieve pressure off individuals at the club from Génésio to perhaps Aulas himself.

Tumble in the rough

As for Génésio, the coming campaign presents a different set of challenges.  Firstly, he’ll need to find a level of consistency that eluded his team last year to challenge for a top three spot let alone the title.

That’s no easy feat as their immediate rivals are already planning ahead: Monaco have been effective in the transfer window al though they have lost big names like Bernardo Silva, Tiemoué Bakayoko and Valère Germain; Paris Saint-Germain are regrouping after a disappointing campaign; Nice kept hold of Lucien Favre; also Lille could prove to be an interesting proposition under Marcelo Bielsa, whilst Marseille are looking to make a splash as well.

That’s the external pressure; internally the OL head coach will have to come to terms with coaching a number of players who haven’t come through Lyon’s academy system.  When he was first appointed to the role Génésio had the advantage of knowing a number of the squad from the academy and having a certain level of loyalty and respect given that these players to a certain degree owed their careers to him.  That may not be the case now especially if he relies on talent captured in the market; it’s one thing coaching a group of players who have come through the OL system, it’s another convincing new recruits that his methods work.  Those purchases will owe their career at Lyon in no small part to Génésio but they are indebted to someone else for their professional careers taking off.  It’s up to Génésio to manage that situation properly.

What does work in his favour is the restructuring of Lyon’s sporting model.  One of the key reasons for the shake-up was to help Génésio focus on coaching the first team and unless things go spectacularly wrong he should have this season as a buffer whilst the new system is implemented.

Ch-ch-changes

Changes on the pitch, changes off the pitch, changes in direction, changes in results? This isn’t so much a transition as it is a transformation in approach from Olympique Lyonnais.  From transfer strategy to adapting to life without the homegrown stars to integrating new academy graduates to changing the boardroom structure, the club are embarking on a fundamental shift in strategy.

There’s an argument to be made that the shift in thinking has been enforced given that Lyon have not quite been able to kick on from seemingly promising platforms.  There’s also reason for saying that it’s required and now’s the time to do it with the departure of key players. Aulas hasn’t quite hit Ctrl-Alt-Delete but there’s a definite reboot feel to this, with a hope that sporting operations will run more smoothly and bring success.

Only time will tell whether that will be the case but as all things stand we are witnessing the beginning of Olympique Lyonnais version 2.0.

One comment

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