Lyon 2.0: Is The Reboot Turning Into An Upgrade?

Fekir v ASSE

“The times they are a-changin’,” a wise, well-known musician once mused, and in the case of Olympique Lyonnais perhaps things are “changin’” for the better.

The Great OL Turnover

This time last season Lyon’s starting eleven against Angers going into the winter break lined up like this: Lopes, Yanga-Mbiwa, Diakhaby, Jallet, Morel, Gonalons, Tousart, Lacazette, Ghezzal, Fekir and Valbuena.

12 months on this was the side Bruno Génésio picked to face Toulouse before Ligue 1 went into hibernation: Lopes, Tete, Marcelo, Morel, Marçal, Aouar, Ndombele, Tousart, Díaz, Depay and Fekir.

The only constants, player-wise, between the starting elevens in the two games are Anthony Lopes, Jérémy Morel, Lucas Tousart and Nabil Fekir, and it’s fair to say they’ve been the foundations of Bruno Génésio’s reboot. The likes of Jordan Ferri, Rafael and Mouctar Diakhaby have been used more as squad players whilst fresh faces from the transfer market and the academy are being integrated into the set-up.

A cursory glance suggests that thus far the experiment is working for OL. Currently, the Rhône-Alpes side sit third, only separated from second by virtue of goal difference, and are seven points better off than they were last season. One does have to note that Lyon had played one game fewer last campaign going into the winter break due to the abandonment of their match against Metz.

The progress made by Les Gones has been impressive, though – especially given the overhaul they went through prior to the start of this season. The summer saw big names such as Alexandre Lacazette, Corentin Tolisso and Maxime Gonalons leave for pastures new, along with talents like Mathieu Valbuena, Emanuel Mammana, Maciej Rybus, Christophe Jallet, Rachid Ghezzal, Nicolas NKoulou and Sergi Darder (the latter two on loan admittedly). Not only did Lyon let go of three key starters but they also ushered the departure of a whole raft of squad players.

Finding replacements was always going to be a challenge but on the face of it Lyon’s recruitment has been pretty sharp. In a case of “if you can’t beat them, buy them”, OL shelled out to purchase Bertrand Traoré and Kenny Tete from Ajax; striker Mariano Díaz, a capture from Real Madrid, has quickly found his feet in Ligue 1; there was a clear intention to add experience to the backline with the signings of Marçal and Marcelo and young talent with huge potential was secured, namely Ferland Mendy, Pape Cheikh Diop and Tanguy Ndombele.

What could have been a pretty stormy window seems to have been navigated well by Lyon and the new recruits look to have cushioned the impact of losing Lacazette, Tolisso and Gonalons.

Following in the footsteps of Lacazette and company from the youth set-up are the likes of Amine Gouiri, Christopher Martins Pereira, Myziane Maolida, Willem Geubbels and Houssem Aouar. OL’s academy is well-versed in producing top quality footballers but the progress of Aouar may have even surprised the most optimistic Lyon supporter as the 19-year old has effectively established himself as a key component of Bruno Génésio’s starting eleven.

On the pitch things seem to be improving but how do the numbers stack up?

Number Crunchin’

Olympique Lyonnais 2016-17/2017-18 Winter Break Comparison
Season Played Wins Draws Losses For Against Goal Difference Points Position
2016-17 18 11 1 6 34 19 +15 34 4th
2017-18 19 12 5 2 46 20 +26 41 3rd
2016-17 season inclusive of rearranged Metz match result*
2016-17 19 12 1 6 37 19 +18 37 4th

*Match against Metz was abandoned and replayed on 05/04/2017. Lyon won 3-0

As mentioned, Lyon’s match against Metz in week 16 of the 2016/17 season was abandoned and that has tilted the numbers somewhat but even so the improvements look marginal rather than significant. There’s no substantial gap between the number of wins and surprisingly OL performed slightly better defensively in the 2016/17 season. Even taking the result of the rearranged Metz match into account, OL only conceded 19 goals compared to the 20 this campaign.

The main difference is the number of goals scored with the current side outperforming last year’s return quite markedly. The increase in successful strikes hasn’t translated to the win column though, with Les Gones picking up more draws instead. It’s a stretch to say that Lyon have become more ruthless but at the very least they’re becoming more difficult to beat.

Olympique Lyonnais 2016-17/2017-18 Results Comparison (up to the winter break)
2016/17 GAME WEEK 2017/18
Nancy (a) – 0:3 (W) Week 1 Strasbourg – 4:0 (W)
Caen – 2:0 (W) Week 2 Stade Rennais (a) – 1:2 (W)
Dijon (a) – 4:2 (L) Week 3 Bordeaux – 3:3 (D)
Bordeaux – 1:3 (L) Week 4 Nantes (a) – 0:0 (D)
*Marseille (a) – 0:0 (D) Week 5 Guingamp – 2:1 (W)
Montpellier – 5:1 (W) Week 6 *PSG (a) – 2:0 (L)
Lorient (a) – 1:0 (L) Week 7 Dijon – 3:3 (D)
*Saint-Etienne – 2:0 (W) Week 8 *Angers (a) – 3:3 (D)
Nice (a) – 2:0 (L) Week 9 Monaco – 3:2 (W)
*Guingamp – 1:3 (L) Week 10 *Troyes (a) – 0:5 (W)
Toulouse (a) – 1:2 (W) Week 11 Metz – 2:0 (W)
*Bastia – 2:1 (W) Week 12 *Saint-Etienne (a) – 0:5 (W)
Lille (a) – 0:1 (W) Week 13 Montpellier – 0:0 (D)
*PSG – 1:2 (L) Week 14 *Nice (a) – 0:5 (W)
Nantes (a) – 0:6 (W) Week 15 Lille – 1:2 (L)
Metz ** Week 16 Caen (a) – 1:2 (W)
*Stade Rennais – 1:0 (W) Week 17 *Amiens (a) – 1:2 (W)
Monaco (a) – 1:3 (W) Week 18 Marseille – 2:0 (W)
Angers – 2:0 (W) Week 19 Toulouse – 1:2 (W)

*Denotes games played after a European tie

**Match against Metz was abandoned and replayed on 05/04/2017. Lyon won 3-0

What is noticeable is how much tighter the Lyon backline has been from week 10 onwards this season. Of the 20 goals conceded, 15 came in OL’s first nine matches and indeed that contributed to their fairly underwhelming start which saw just four victories. Incredibly the first nine matches also saw Lyon engage in three 3-3 draws, against Bordeaux, Dijon and Angers.

From week 10 onwards something clicked at the back as OL let in just five goals in 10 games. The defence has kept six clean sheets from the Troyes match onwards and even managed to string a run of five in a row. It could simply be the case that the new recruits Marcelo, Marçal and Tete needed time to settle and now the club are benefitting from possessing a more experienced defensive unit with the nous to close out matches. It also helps that Anthony Lopes is in goal and the midfield cover consists of the excellent Lucas Tousart and Tanguy Ndombele. Lyon are developing into a tougher side which is being reflected in the results; perhaps Bruno Génésio has found a solution to his Achilles heel.

It’s also worth noting that Lyon are performing slightly better in post-European matches. Their record in matches immediately after European matches is four wins, one draw, and one loss. OL’s solitary defeat came against PSG, a match in which Lyon performed extremely well against Ligue 1’s nouveau riche powerhouse.

Lyon’s equivalent record last season was three wins, one draw and two defeats. It’s a small difference but a marginal improvement is better than no progress, especially taking into consideration the challenges playing in the Europa League entails in terms of fixture logistics.

The (New) Kings of Lyon

It’s fair to say that Lyon lost a lot of experience and leadership with the departures of Lacazette, Tolisso and Gonalons, and the effect of the loss of that trio on a mental level could have been painful. There was always the possibility that the team could have regressed and gone into their shell without those guiding influences.

If anything the opposite has happened, Génésio’s decision to hand the captaincy to Nabil Fekir looking to be a masterstroke as the mercurial talent has flourished under the responsibility that the armband brings. His celebration after scoring the fifth goal in Lyon’s 5-0 rout against Saint-Etienne became instantly iconic and though it earned him a suspension in the process it further endeared him to Les Gones’ faithful who paid tribute to their skipper in the following match.

Fekir has scored 13 league goals this season including match-winning strikes against Guingamp and memorably versus Monaco. Crucially, the captaincy has not stopped him from playing his natural game as evidenced by his audacious effort against Bordeaux; the calm approach of Gonalons has been replaced by the inspiration of the magician Fekir and Les Gones haven’t skipped a beat.

Another OL Academy graduate who has found himself in the role of senior player is goalkeeper Lopes. Like Fekir, Lopes has embraced the responsibility of leadership and has proven to be an extremely solid last line of defence with his shot-stopping coming to the fore. He has already formed an understanding with the experienced centre back pairing of Marcelo and Morel, though interestingly he has the same number of clean sheets this campaign (eight) as compared to the same point the season before. But if Fekir is the player who provides the inspiration then Lopes is the insurance that gives Lyon the licence to go forward. Lopes may not officially be OL captain but that hasn’t stopped him from stepping up as a bona fide team leader.

If Fekir is the player who provides the inspiration then Lopes is the insurance that gives Lyon the licence to go forward

Speaking of stepping up, the rise of Aouar has been remarkable with the young midfielder slotting into OL’s starting 11 and not looking out of place in Ligue 1. He’s already proven himself to be a match-winner, dragging his side to victory with a brace against AmiensIn the 2017 edition of Le50 Aouar was tipped to make an impact this season given that he has all the facets required of a modern day attacking midfielder. His versatility, composure, passing range and creativity have been the hallmarks of his play and he’s not afraid to do the unglamorous things, frequently looking to win back the ball and playing with defensive discipline when required. The 19-year-old inherited the number 8 jersey from Corentin Tolisso and thus far is proving to be a worthy successor.

With the likes of Maolida, who already has a league goal to his name, Gouiri, Martins Pereira and Geubbels, who only just turned 16 in August, all on the fringes of first team action, Génésio is not short of players who know what it means to put on the Lyon jersey.

Market Forces

Whilst the academy has continued to churn out first-teamers, the Rhône-Alpes club have made some smart acquisitions in the summer transfer window to ensure that the reboot started smoothly.

Perhaps the most daunting task fell to Mariano Díaz who was recruited from Real Madrid.  It’s no easy ask to replace Lacazette who, lest we forget, bagged 28 goals in the league in his final season at Lyon. On a goal-scoring front Díaz has stepped up to the mark, netting 13 times this season as well as making 3 assists which is a more than respectable return. It was a gamble by the coaching and recruitment team to place their trust in a player who saw little first team action at the Bernabéu but their faith has been rewarded – though Génésio has warned that the striker needs to become more of a team player rather than operating for himself. That being said Díaz’s goals have ensured that the match-winning burden hasn’t rested squarely on the shoulders of Fekir.

The signing of Díaz appears to be good business all around as Lyon spotted a striker hungry to prove his worth and are currently reaping the dividends of his desire to succeed.

The defence received a major overhaul and though the club have conceded a similar number of goals this season compared to last the benefit of operating with an experienced backline is now appearing to bear fruit as the run of clean sheets from week 10 onwards show. Marcelo and Morel have struck up a decent understanding as a central defensive pairing with the Brazilian’s leadership qualities adding an element of know-how to the back four. With a solid central defensive partnership the club added dynamic fullbacks to the squad and now seems well stocked in that area, boasting Tete, Rafael, Marçal and Mendy. With Diakhaby in reserve the options in defence look beefed up and this has allowed Génésio to rotate his squad to keep players fresh.

Another smart piece of business has been Ndombele who, like Aouar, has slotted into the OL midfield seamlessly. At 20 he possesses all the tools to become a complete midfielder, displaying an understanding of what’s required from both an attacking and defensive perspective. Indeed he already has four assists to his name and is looking to be a more astute signing with every passing match. Lyon’s midfield of Ndombele, Tousart and Aouar is as exciting as they come given the combination of youth, dynamism and skill that that trio possesses and one should not underestimate what the signing from Amiens brings to the table.

Génésio’s Redemption?

It’s fair to say that Lyon’s head coach hasn’t enjoyed complete approval since he was hired. He wasn’t universally accepted by the fan base when initially appointed and his first full season in charge was frustrating as the former academy coach failed to build on the momentum he established after replacing Hubert Fournier.

Crucially, Génésio retains the trust and support of Jean-Michel Aulas and has been given the time to turn things around. To a certain extent he’s succeeding and should be credited for effectively generating a new side after being forced to dismantle last season’s starting eleven.

His integration of the new recruits should not go unnoticed and he has juggled resources effectively, though injury has robbed him of the services of Bertrand Traoré for a number of weeks before going into the winter break. His management of Memphis Depay was on the ball too, coaching the Dutchman through a dip in form before being rewarded with a hat trick when OL faced Troyes.

He’s also not been afraid to make unpopular choices such as selling off the highly rated Emanuel Mammana, a decision that was met with disapproval by followers of Les Gones as Jean-Michel Aulas found out all too well.

Despite his troubles Génésio is doing better in terms of points per game than his immediate predecessors:

Points Per Game Comparison
Coach Matches Total Points Points Per Game
Bruno Génésio 76 147 1.93
Hubert Fournier 57 101 1.77
Rémi Garde 114 192 1.68
Claude Puel 114 207 1.82

*All stats taken from transfermarkt.com and ligue.com

It may well be the case that Génésio needs a trophy to win over the critics but if this season is anything to go by he may be overseeing the development of a new, dynamic Olympique Lyonnais.

2.0 to 2.1?

Lyon’s reboot started in the summer and the club did what they needed to do to develop “version 2.0”. In terms of pure numbers, improvement in the league has been steady rather than spectacular, but one has to take into consideration the overhaul that the club has undertaken. There’s a new captain, new leaders, new signings and new precocious stars, yet the team and squad have gelled together quickly to produce an exciting, attacking outfit. Coming into the winter break Génésio has ensured that Lyon have a good platform to build from to challenge for a Champions League position. On the European front Lyon have the added motivation in knowing that the Europa League final will be held at the Parc OL, so there is plenty to play for.

What everyone involved at Olympique Lyonnais has to ensure is that the reboot evolves into an upgrade.

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