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Being a football hipster is serious business with knowledge about the young starlet making waves for a non-mainstream mid table side often a prerequisite rather than a feather in the cap. To further enhance your, perhaps, burgeoning reputation as a true hipster, Outside of the Boot is on hand to provide an in-depth guide to some of the less celebrated teams around Europe. In this edition of the series, Jack Flanagan tells us about Lyon.
Les Gones, or “The Kids”, are one of France’s most interesting, and successful, clubs. Founded in 1899, a whopping 117 years ago, the club from Rhône-Alpes are anything but young. But, as is often the case, with age comes prestige, and this is something that Lyon certainly do not lack. In fact, there are only two clubs in the entire country who have won more trophies in their homeland in the last 100 years – Paris Saint-Germain and Marseille.
In more recent times, France has seen the club of its capital, PSG, sweep domestic honours and fly the Tricolore in Europe. But, there was a time not so long ago when PSG were just helpless onlookers to Lyon’s total dominance. Rewind the clock back to the year 2002, and you have the first of Lyon’s 7 Ligue 1 titles. Incidentally, the 7 were conquered consecutively – from 2002 to 2008. Within this decade, arguably the most talented of all Lyon sides reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League 3 times, and the semi finals once. This was an era that featured Florent Malouda, Sidney Govou, Mickael Essien, Eric Abidal and Grégory Coupet, as well as a raw Karim Benzema and Hatem Ben Arfa, and the enigmatic Juninho, free-kick taker extraordinaire. All in a Lyon shirt. This side was an absolute joy to watch, and it is scary to think what they could’ve achieved if they had kept hold of all of their talents.
For now, the baton has been passed over to the oil-rich Parisians, but do not let this deceive you. Lyon are by no means a spent force. In fact, it is their academy (one of the best in the world) which keeps them going – most of the current starting XI are youth products – including the midfield trio of Ferri, Gonalons and Tolisso, as well as their top goal scorer, Lacazette. It was this same academy that birthed the all-conquering Lyon side of the mid 00’s too – Malouda, Abidal, Coupet, Benzema and Ben Arfa to name a few all rose from the youth sides at Lyon. With a young, talented group of individuals, and a new stadium to shout about, they are beginning to rear their head again. After a barren decade, will the 2016-17 season be theirs?
Last season was very nearly a disaster. At the halfway point, they were languishing in 9th place, well off the pace. But a managerial change and a tactical rethink later, and Lyon found themselves sitting in 2nd place at the end of the season. Quite an achievement, given their lack of form for the first half of the season.
Although they were 31 points behind Ligue 1 winners PSG, and therefore never challenged them for the lead, last season cannot be viewed as a failure. The table doesn’t lie, and it makes them the 2nd best team in France. With significantly fewer resources than their Parisian neighbours, this is something they can be very proud of.
It is also important to note that Lyon’s focus on youth, and therefore lack of activity in the transfer market, makes their achievement last season all the more impressive. Unlike PSG, or Monaco, who they ended up finishing above, they made few movements in the transfer market, and invest most of their wealth in their highly successful academy at Centre Tola Volage. In the modern football climate, where transfer fees are ever inflating and big-name acquisitions are ever more common, Lyon are something of an outlier. But this is exactly how we want to see football done, is it not?
It would be wrong to say it is all smiles in France’s third biggest city, however. The 2014-15 Ligue 1 season saw them much closer to PSG (24 points closer, in fact), and saw them challenge for the lead for much of the campaign. Last season did not see much change in their squad, and so their performances could be seen as a relative disappointment. A decline, perhaps. This “decline”, however, is largely thanks to their performances in the first half of the season. If we focus on their results since January 2016, we can see that Lyon lost just 4 games between then and May, dropping just 7 points. Such was their strength of performance that they embarrassed Monaco on the second to the last day of the season by beating them 6-1 at home, a phenomenal result which ultimately confirmed their 2nd place finish. So, there are plenty of reasons to be looking forward to the upcoming season.
Lyon manager Bruno Génésio has only been in charge at the club since Christmas, but his impact has already been felt. Promoted from the role of assistant manager with the club languishing mid-table, he couldn’t have performed much better in his new role so far. Of the 23 games for which he has been in charge, he was won 14, losing just 6 in the process. Single-handedly, he has brought confidence back to the city, something which slowly waned in the first half of the season.
Who is this man, I hear you ask? Despite playing 144 times, Génésio is a relative nobody in the management world. This is not the first time Lyon have dug into the depths of obscurity to find their man. In fact, Génésio’s predecessor, Hubert Founier, was plucked from lowly Reims after just 6 years in management. Even Paul Le Guen, the man who kickstarted their success in the previous decade, had only managed Rennes for a few years before leading Lyon to 3 consecutive Ligue 1 titles.
Without question, this is a noble approach. Lyon have a huge domestic bias when it comes to managers – in fact, just one of their managers in the past 70 years has not been French. Incidentally, this anomaly lasted just 2 years. Even more interestingly, 2 of their last 3 managers have received their breakthrough at Lyon. Rémi Garde, and now Génésio, had never managed the first team of any club before getting the Lyon job.
In an era in which much emphasis is placed on securing the best managers across the globe, this really is a refreshing strategy. In the midst of Mourinho to Manchester United, Klopp to Liverpool, Guardiola to Manchester City, Ancelotti to Bayern and Conte to Chelsea, Lyon have promoted their assistant manager to fill their new role. A club of tradition? Certainly. Génésio’s true worth will of course be apparent in the upcoming season. But, judging by Lyon’s success in domestic appointments for the managerial role, and if his first 6 months are anything to go buy, Génésio could well be the man to put Lyon back on the continental map.
Génésio has used a fluid 4-3-3 system for his young Lyon side and has seen them play some creative, attacking football. This system is not alien to Lyon sides of recent times, and this tactic saw much success under Founier. Génésio instructs the front three to press from the front, thus acting as the first line of defence when Lyon don’t have the ball. Pressing from the front is extremely important as most mistakes are made at the first stage of attacking movement – a limited press, allowing the other team to keep the ball in this stage, simply allows the team in possession to bypass this stage, building an attack with momentum.
This most likely explains another aspect of Lyon’s play under Génésio – possession football. Last season, Lyon had, on average, 59% of the ball, something further aided by the number of effective passers in the side. Tolisso, Gonalons and Ferri in the middle keep the side ticking over, and their reliability in this field allows for the free movement of the front 3. Lacazette, Ghezzal (or Fékir) and Cornet are often changing positions, making them difficult to mark and unpredictable going forward.
Another aspect of Lyon’s play that has made them an attractive side to watch is that they are an extremely creative side. All you have to do to understand this is to look at their players – people like Lacazette, Tolisso, Ghezzal, Fékir and Cornet in particular are very good on the ball, and thus have the ability to get the ball down and play. A 4-3-3 system is generally seen as an attacking formation, and allows for this creative freedom.
Another important element of this fluid style are the two full backs – in such a system, it is very important that you have full backs who are good on the ball and willing to run. Lyon have exactly that with Rafael and now Rybus – both are very adept going forward and provide extra width, in case Ghezzal, Fékir or Cornet want to come inside, as they often do.
If I were going to guess Lyon’s side next season it would be this. However, this is by no means set in stone, and like any good side, Lyon have depth. Mammana could easily start or force his way into the side at centre-back, although I believe N’Koulou will start the campaign due to his experience. The midfield is rather flexible too – although Tolisso and Gonalons are sure to start, Darder could easily play in front of Ferri as a more defensive option. Equally, Lyon have a bunch of younger midfielders who could get a break next season – Tousart for one could force his way into the side. Up top, Lacazette is a vital component but Fékir could play instead of Ghezzal, despite the Algerian’s cracking season last campaign. Such rotational potential is important when you have a Champions League campaign to consider too!
For a club with a celebrated youth academy, coupled with an emerging group of gifted individuals, a turbulent transfer market (or two) lies ahead for Les Gones.
Recently it appeared that Corentin Tolisso would move to Napoli, for a fee in the region of £35m, but he decided to snub this. I’m sure that after he made his decision, Jean-Michael Aulas blew a huge sigh of relief. Tolisso is one of their most assured players – a careful passer of the ball, he has the ability to dictate tempo down to a tee, a trait that is rather rare amongst 21-year olds. How will the interest affect him for the upcoming season though? I personally think it will strengthen his game, providing him with the confidence to improve and show his worth at his hometown club. It’s rather telling that Tolisso rejected Napoli just due to the attachment he had for Lyon, and it speaks volumes about the community feel at the club. Many of Lyon’s players have been caressed through the youth academy, and thus feel an undeniable warmth and loyalty to their team.
However, you can’t always keep them all. Samuel Umtiti has already gone to Barcelona for a fee of around £25m, as the Catalans look to strengthen their ageing back four. Calm, strong and a good distributor, Umtiti will fit into a technically gifted Barcelona side rather well, I feel. Umtiti’s absence will no doubt be felt this upcoming season at Lyon, though. Given Lyon’s transfer strategy, and Umtiti’s ability, he is relatively irreplaceable.
The biggest question of Lyon’s transfer window, however, revolves around their top goalscorer last season, Alexandre Lacazette. Will he stay, or will he go? He has yet to commit his future to the club, and with several big clubs interested, we could well see him leave before September. Arsenal have already bid in the region of £30m for him, which was rejected by Lyon. Lacazette’s departure depends upon whether Arsenal stump up the cash Lyon want for him – most likely around the £40m mark. From Lyon’s perspective, this would be a great deal for a striker yet to prove his worth on the biggest of stages. Despite this, his absence would most definitely be felt – he scored 3x as many goals as anyone else in the side last season, including 2 hat-tricks and 3 braces. With Arsenal in the hunt for another striker, it seems very possible that he could move by the end of the window. Lyon’s upcoming season could well hinge on what happens with Lacazette, for they would be a considerably weaker side without him.
In terms of arrivals, Lyon have strengthened their back four with Nicolas N’Koulou, Emanuel Mammana and Maciej Rybus. N’Koulou is an experienced player who has plied his trade at Marseille for the last 5 years. He has been a physical presence at the back for some time and at 26, he still has potential to improve. Mammana is also a centre back, signed from River for €7.5m, and is an individual with huge potential. Part of the Argentina U20 setup that won the U20 World Championship last year, he has been touted as one of the most promising centre-backs in world football. For a CB, he has excellent technique, and no doubt Lyon will see him as a long-term replacement for Umtiti. Rybus, on the other hand, is a left-back, and a forward thinking one at that. He has managed to score 34 goals in his career, and will surely strengthen a position of weakness for Lyon now that Henri Bedimo has left for Marseille. On free transfers, both Rybus and N’Koulou look to be shrewd acquisitions.
Maxime Gonalons: Clearly, given Lyon’s style of play, their attackers and ball carriers are the crux of the side. Gonalons in the holding role is absolutely pivotal, as he adds steel to the midfield trio and allows the more creative Ferri and Tolisso the freedom they need to perform. Without him, it’s hard to see that midfield trio working.
Alexandre Lacazette: Equally as vital is Alexandre Lacazette. As the man who grabs the lion’s share of Lyon’s goals, he is the player the side look to when they desperately need one. Up until now, he has largely repaid that faith, scoring more than 20 goals in Ligue 1 alone for the second season running. With no other prolific goalscorer in the team, his role is huge.
Nabil Fekir: The great thing about this Lyon side is that there is a bunch of players who have the potential to standout too, and are not far away from doing so. In particular, Tolisso and Fékir are two extremely talented players, and could well become vital components in the functioning of this Lyon side in not too long.
For me, the constant emergence of youth talents has been Lyon’s appeal as a club for an extended period of time. You just don’t know who is going to walk out of the tunnel and impress next. The two most obvious players to watch are Corentin Tolisso and Maxwell Cornet. Tolisso is more than an emerging talent, but quite scarily he still has the potential to improve more given his age (22), and is certainly one to keep an eye on next season.
Cornet was Lyon’s 2nd highest goal scorer last season – something made more impressive by the fact that he starts out wide, and is only 19. Quick and a superb dribbler, Cornet is one of those players that gets you off your seat every time he gets the ball. You just don’t know what he’s going to do next! Raw, but clearly very talented.
Sergi Darder is another intriguing talent. Signed by Lyon last season for a hefty fee of around €13m, he is your typical modern-day Spanish CDM – strong, great vision and accurate passer. It is a little bit of a toss up as to whether he starts over Ferri or not, but at the tender age of 22, you could easily see him becoming a regular over the next few years.
Up front, both Ghezzal and Fékir are also ones to keep an eye on. Fékir barely played last season due to a cruciate ligament injury, but was scintillating in the 2014/15 season, where he notched up 15 goals and 13 assists in all competitions. Fékir is one of Lyon’s most dangerous creative assets – an evasive dribbler and with a good footballing brain, he’s everything you’d want from an attacking midfielder. In his absence, Rachid Ghezzal has filled in, and was one of Lyon’s best players last season. A similar player to Fékir, he chalked up 16 goals and assists last season. Who does Génésio play in the front three then? You would assume Fékir would get his chance to impress, but that would mean dropping either Ghezzal or Cornet, who were both excellent at times last season. One thing is for sure though – the competition for places out wide could well serve to improve all three players.
Another 2nd placed finish isn’t a wild prediction – this is exactly where they finished last season despite an iffy first half of the campaign. Although Umtiti is a big loss, they have signed some quality centre halves in replacement and have kept their attacking threat. If Lacazette leaves however, 2nd place may be a push for them, especially when you consider there were only 7 points between them and 6th last season. However, if he stays, Lyon could even challenge PSG for the title, as they did two years ago. The age of their squad is certainly in Lyon’s favour – most of their players will likely improve, and not decline, from last season, as they have few players at their peak. We have seen stranger things happen in football, and it would be great to see “Les Gones” at the forefront of French football again.
Read all our 2016-17 Hipster Guide articles here.