Second place, Ligue 1
By Daniel Rubens
It’s rare for a club to execute a quick rebuild that leaves the team in better shape than it was before the teardown began. Olympique Lyonnais have pulled off that unlikely feat this season.
The former French powerhouse has faded in recent seasons after a dominant decade in which Les Gones — The Kids, in a local Eastern French dialect — took home seven consecutive Ligue 1 titles. The past few seasons have been filled with peaks and valleys, which has caused significant consternation amongst a fanbase that in recent times has been accustomed
However, the opposite has unfolded. Instead of languishing after losing a few of their most recognizable faces, Lyon have created a perfect recipe for how to overcome those departures, blending a host of talented new arrivals with a group of steady holdovers. The results have been far better than anyone could have expected. With a dynamic attacking corps, a solid and settled spine, and a freight train’s worth of early season momentum at their backs, Lyon have returned to the foreground of the French football scene. The pieces are in place for them to remain there, too.
When we last checked up on them in early 2016, Lyon weren’t in a great place. They had started slowly in league play with two wins and two losses, and they were staring down a daunting Champions League group that included Juventus and Sevilla. The club still stood a decent chance of turning in a terrific season, but the early signs weren’t promising.
Over the course of the campaign, those fears were indeed confirmed — albeit only partially. Lyon actually played pretty well for the most part in both Ligue 1 and the Champions League, but the cards didn’t fall as Les Gones had hoped. Despite scoring 77 goals in the league (a pretty high tally for only being the third best) and winning 20 games, Lyon finished in fourth place, well off the pace of the top three (Monaco, PSG, and Nice) and 14 points back of Nice, who snuck into this season’s UCL as a result. On the continent, Lyon were solid in the Champions League, with their only losses coming away to Juve and Sevilla, but that proved decisive as they could only draw the pair in their home fixtures. Placing third in the group meant an opportunity at a Europa League run, but Lyon stumbled one step short of the finish line, falling 5-4 on aggregate to Ajax after nearly turning around a 4-1 first-leg deficit.
That deep sojourn into the Europa League — along with a four-game unbeaten run that capped off the league campaign — would have at least restored a bit of optimism among the fanbase heading into a summer full of question marks. With the future of a number of key figures up in the air, Lyon were in a tenuous spot. It became apparent quickly that the club was going to lose a few of its stalwarts, including superstar striker Alexandre Lacazette, young midfielder Corentin Tolisso, and longtime servant Maxime Gonalons, who parted ways with Lyon after eight fruitful seasons with the first team. Tolisso’s
While all of this was happening, Lyon weren’t just sitting idly by, however. Chairman Jean-Michel Aulas and manager Bruno Genesio also sprung into action, and the club officially signed four players on July 1: forwards Mariano and Bertrand Traore, from Real Madrid and Chelsea, respectively, and left backs Ferland Mendy and Fernando Marcal. Within eight days of Lacazette’s departure, Ajax right back Kenny Tete and Besiktas center back Marcelo also joined the fold. There were a few more outgoing transfers over the following month — including the €16 million move of Argentine defender Emanuel Mammana to Zenit St. Petersburg — but no further incomings before the beginning of the season.
That means all of the new faces got plenty of time to settle into the squad in the preseason, and it paid immediate dividends. In their season opener, Les Gones smashed newly promoted Strasbourg 4-0 as Mariano scored twice while Traore and Marcal also impressed on their debuts. A week later, Mariano found the net again as Tete made his club debut in a 2-1 away win over Rennes.
Over the next two weeks, though, the hot start cooled quickly as Lyon were held to a pair of draws in back-to-back games in late August. There was still a clear need for a bit more quality, and Aulas and Genesio went out and got it just before the window slammed shut. Over the final three days of the transfer period, Lyon splashed the cash for a pair of 20-year-olds loaded with potential in Celta Vigo winger Pape Cheikh Diop and Amiens defensive midfielder Tanguy Ndombele. The hope was that they would be the missing pieces needed to turn Lyon into a unit at both ends of the pitch.
That hasn’t exactly been what’s happened; Diop hasn’t yet featured for the senior side, while Ndombele took a little time to settle in. He did so fairly quickly, though, and his addition proved to be the key. Following a five-game winless run in all competitions between September 14 and October 1, Lyon finally found the formula.
It all started with an unforgettable victory on October 13. At home against Monaco, Lyon grabbed two early goals but were pegged back twice in a wild opening 35 minutes. It looked like the teams were on course for a draw until Lyon captain Nabil Fekir stood over a
That was just the beginning. Since then, Lyon have seven wins and a draw in all competitions. They’ve won three straight away league games by 5-0 scorelines and have won Europa League contests 4-0 and 3-0. Simply put, Lyon have become a force at both ends of the pitch, and they have quickly transformed into the hottest team in Europe.
Their stunning form can mainly be attributed to the strike force. With 37 Ligue 1 goals, they’re just eight behind PSG’s Mbappe-Neymar-Cavani-led outfit. Fekir has 11 goals and four assists in 11 league games, and he looks like the next shining star to rise from the club’s academy into the footballing stratosphere. Mariano has chipped in with 10 league goals, while wingers Traore and Memphis Depay — an arrival from Manchester United last winter — have hit their top form as well with 16 Ligue 1 and Europa League goals between them. Ndombele has served as a pretty good replacement for Tolisso in the center of the park, and two more top midfield prospects — 20-year-old Lucas Tousart and 19-year-old Houssem Aouar — have become mainstays. The defensive numbers aren’t quite as spectacular due to a mediocre start, but they’ve kept an astounding seven clean sheets in a row in front of their terrific Portuguese goalkeeper Anthony Lopes.
As a whole, that picture is one of a dominant side at the peak of its form, but that might not be the case at the moment. For one, Lyon probably won’t overtake PSG this year (the Parisians are nine points ahead of Les Gones), and while they’ve started well in the Europa League, the latter stages of that competition are often a crapshoot. Yes, Lyon sit in second in the table, but the team is still extremely young, and it’s highly unlikely that they’ll be able to navigate to a title.
However, there’s so much room for growth at virtually every level of the pitch, and that means the future could be as bright for Lyon as it is for any side in Europe. Youth is bursting through the doors into the first team, and there’s more of it on the way. The current group isn’t close to reaching its best yet, and the financial stability and transfer nous the club has displayed make it reasonable to expect further improvements to the squad in coming windows. Life as a big club is a cycle; Lyon are on an upward trajectory that has them on track to get straight back to the top.