Last Saturday, Lyon drew 0-0 to LOSC Lille. A result that put them 8th in the Ligue 1 table (they have notched up just 11 points so far). On the face of it a goalless draw with a Les Dogues side who, until last night, had been having their best start to a Ligue 1 campaign in 9 years is a forgivable result.
Yet there was something psychologically unnerving at the Stade de Gerland last weekend, something I haven’t seen for a long time. The crowd were sarcastic in their cheers, inconsistent in their jeering of the opposition and the uncomfortable boos that were ringing around the stadium upon the full time whistle were met with sarcastic laughs from Jean Michel Aulas in the executive box. This is a club that wants to be rubbing shoulders with Europe’s greatest, but are they heading down a slippery slope to mid-table mediocrity?
So what is wrong with Lyon?
There is no doubt the club is experiencing a period of transition. The sales of Dejan Lovren and Lisandro Lopez in the summer transfer window may have looked good from a financial perspective, but Remi Garde will be wishing he had a bit more experience in his squad.
The public embarrassments of the Bafetimbi Gomis and Jimmy Briand transfer sagas which ultimately culminated in Lyon being unable to sell them has gone some way to giving Les Gones an undesirable reputation throughout the French football media.
Jean Michel Aulas has waged war with several journalists; most notably Canal +’s Pierre Menes, who he blasted for conducting ‘an improper interview, with conflict of interest intwined within it.’
Jean Michel Aulas’ selling decisions have left manager Remi Garde with a collection of misfits, unproven youngsters and individuals who have already received a large amount of interest from major European clubs in the summer and who have probably decided that this will be their last year at the club (yes, I mean Maxime Gonalons and Clement Grenier).
It is clear that Remi Garde is feeling the pressure. A flurry of strange comments in recent press conferences support this. He labelled Steed Malbranque’s performances as ‘not as impressive as before’ and that ‘Lyon cannot be successful all the time’. One must however applaud the ex-Arsenal player for maintaining his professionalism in what has been a torrid 3 months for Les Gones. The fans are upset and rightly so. Jean Michel Aulas has an unnatural amount of say in transfer policy compared with that of Garde and one can argue that the President has let everyone down.
However, it is far too easy to place the blame on the outspoken Aulas. Ultimately, it is the players who are responsible for earning three points or not. They lack a sense of direction in attack and bite in defence. In other words, Garde is guiding a disinterested group of players who no longer seem to be proud of playing for Lyon; the most successful French football team since the turn of the millennium.
I may have only just highlighted the defensive frailties but in truth these were a feature of Les Gones’ game last season. How many times did we question the abilities of Bakary Kone and Milan Bisevac? Yet no centre-back was signed in the summer, with Bernard Lacombe suggesting that they have enough talented youngsters who can aptly provide cover in this position and even challenge the senior players for a first team place. Samuel Umtiti is receiving a run of games but the centre-back has not been in the best of form since winning the U20’s World Cup back in June.
Meanwhile, Garde has yet to give the auspicious Naby Sarr a chance in the first team despite refusing to loan the player out in the summer. Effectively, Sarr’s progress is being hindered every day he is forced to watch from the sidelines when he could be spending his time playing regularly for a Ligue 2 outfit.
Anthony Lopes shows much promise between the sticks and is likely to keep out veteran Remy Vercoutre when the Frenchman eventually returns from the ASL injury, which he suffered at the latter end of last season.
At left-back, Lyon secured the signing of a proven Ligue 1 talent from Montpellier in Henri Bedimo, one of the very few positives that can be taken from the 7-time Ligue 1 champions’ summer dealings. The Cameroonian has made an assured start down that left-hand flank and will hopefully provide some stability in an otherwise fragile defensive setup.
Another mistake they made this summer was their treacherous and illogical choice of right-back. Although it is still unclear what exactly happened when Laurent Pernet met with Jean Michel Aulas for final negotiations regarding the transfer of Sebastien Corchia, we know that Aulas walked away from the deal right at the death.
We were all certain a deal had been struck. L’Equipe, Foot 365, Le Parisien and yes, Get French Football News. Even Francois Gilles, Sebastien Corchia’s agent was convinced that his client would be a Lyon player this season.
Jean Michel Aulas claims that Sochaux asked for €5.5m; whereas a certain distraught French right-back moaned that all his club actually wanted was €3m and that Lyon’s bid had fallen just €250k short of Les Lionceaux’s evaluation.
Either way, Jean Michel Aulas passed on an opportunity to sign a player who we believe can become France’s most complete right back in 3 or so years time who will certainly be worth more than €5.5m by that point.
Instead, Lyon inexplicably sign a Portuguese international on a season long loan from Sporting Lisbon. Lopes announced on his arrival that he was ‘sad to leave Porto’ and hopes ‘to play again soon’. Instead of finding a long-term solution, Aulas has brought an unwilling, temperamental player in who’s performances in all competitions have thus far been generally sub-standard.
What is worse is the fact that a buy-out clause exists in Miguel Lopes’s loan contract whereby Lyon may buy the player outright for €10m. The fact that this clause exists indicates that Aulas has no intention of extending Lopes’ stay at the Gerland past the year-mark. Where is the viability in all this?
As you dismantle Lyon’s decision-making (both on and off the pitch) in the manner in which I have just done so paralleled with the distinct lack of quality that is evident in certain areas of the field; it is perhaps no wonder that the cracks are beginning to show.
However, Lyon’s problems do not simply lie in their defence. There are gapping holes in terms of quality in their midfield. An imbalance of genuine talent and flop signings which causes Remi Garde a myriad of issues when faced with an injury crisis.
Maxime Gonalons had his breakthrough campaign last season and impressed many, including Napoli. The Neapolitans spent the majority of the summer months submitting failed offers for the Frenchman who is now a fully-fleged member of the French national team.
He announced recently that he ‘wants to do another year at Lyon and win things [there]’. The fact that Lyon’s own captain cannot even commit definitively to more than another year as a ‘Gone’ is frankly telling.
What’s more the 24 year old has been a shadow of his former self this season, and this has undoubtedly had an impact on the player’s around him. Perhaps the weight of the captaincy is inhibiting Gonalons from focusing more on developing his own game at a crucial stage in his career, than trying to lead the team. He admitted that ‘captaincy comes with great responsibility.’
With reports in French media just last week that Gonalons remains a Napoli target for the January transfer window, barring a turnaround in Lyon form, the defensive midfielder may well jump ship.
If this is the case, who have Lyon got to replace him? Arnold Mvuemba. The Frenchman has struggled to make an impact since arriving from Lorient in 2012 and, for me, his performances to date with Les Gones were summed up last weekend when he gifted Lille their best chance of the game. Lille’s energetic striker prised the ball away from Mvuemba who was unable to sort his feet out in time to get the pass through. Lille were through on goal only for Salomon Kalou to shoot straight at Anthony Lopes.
In a side that needs muscle and control at the heart of the midfield, Mvuemba is simply not the answer. He has simply failed to show he is suitably able to cope at the level a potentially top 4 side in Ligue 1 expects. Another central midfielder who’s substandard performances of late will perturb Remi Garde are those of Steed Malbranque.
Personally, I couldn’t understand how the veteran was going to fit into the mobile, direct style of football that Lyon showcased last season but I will be the first to admit that he completely proved me wrong. He was lively, looking to take players on and showed creativity, providing for the likes of Lisandro Lopez on several occasions.
His contributions became less notable as the season progressed and he has been unable to break that trend at the beginning of this campaign. He looks half a metre slower, weaker in possession and less focused in providing intricate passes to teammates. Lest we forget Malbranque is 33 years old and has had a wonderful career to date. However, Lyon should not have put themselves in the position where they are forced to rely on him to regularly start.
Gueida Fofana provides an interesting option in that position with his strength and urgency to shoot but Garde has been forced to hamper his development by playing him in several different positions already this season including centre-back and right-back to compensate for the various injuries his squad members have suffered. Fofana is fast becoming Garde’s utility player and it will only have a negative effect on his growth as a player because he cannot become comfortable in one, preferred position.
Unfortunately for Lyon, the overall picture is not any more aesthetically pleasing in attack than in defence. Clement Grenier was the first to admit he ‘was rubbish’ last weekend and has struggled to bring himself to the forefront of Lyon attacks since the beginning of this season. He has looked subdued in attack and unfocused when taking set pieces.
One can suggest that the summer transfer speculation has perhaps got to him a little more than he might have imagined and this is affecting his overall performance. We must remember, Grenier is still only 22 years old and it could take time for him to fully recover from the sheer amount of media exposure he has received in just under 6 months.
Out of the two attackers that Remi Garde has recently had to reintegrate into the setup after failing to sell them this summer, I would argue that Jimmy Briand’s performances have been more distinctive than Bafetimbi Gomis’. The long-haired attacker looks rusty and is struggling to play as a lone striker since his return.
Perhaps this is due to a lack of match fitness, or he is struggling to reconnect with team mates after being alienated and made an example of by Jean Michel Aulas. Remi Garde will have to hope Gomis can produce more goals in the coming games but it will be an exceedingly difficult task to motivate the Frenchman after it was made clear that he is not part of Lyon’s long-term plans.
Jimmy Briand on the other hand has reacted more positively after Lyon were forced to give the player a second chance. He has looked lively down the right-hand flank whenever Garde has needed the Frenchman’s services. In his only three Ligue 1 games this season (at the time of writing) Briand has chipped in with both an assist and a goal.
Who else possesses attacking capabilities down the flanks? A collection of youngsters have been drafted in since the start of the season including Jordan Ferri, Nabil Fekir, Fares Bahlouli and Alassane Plea but none of the aforementioned products of the Lyon youth academy are of the required standard for Garde to be able to guarantee them a regular string of games.
Of that quartet, Plea has probably impressed me the most with the maturity in which he approaches the challenges he comes under and his relentlessness going forward. Whether or not Remi Garde feels there is a space in the starting XI for Plea is another question entirely.
Often deployed down the left hand side when he is not recovering from injury, Yoann Gourcuff showed signs of his glorious Bordeaux-era form at the start of the season, scoring an exquisite free kick against OGC Nice. Unfortunately, the Frenchman is suffering another injury and is probably only likely to return for Les Gones after the international break.
When Gourcuff eventually returns from injury, we could very well see him produce one of his best sets of games for Lyon. With talks over a contract extension stalling because of a disagreement over proposed wages, it may not be long until the versatile attacking midfielder is put in the shop window as Aulas looks to make some money off the player before being forced to let him leave for free in 2015.
Although in the grand scheme of things it is early days to talk about the player’s possible departure, Gourcuff must now repay the faith that the Lyon board and coaching staff have consistently had in him since he arrived from Bordeaux by performing. If he can pick up from where he left off against OGC Nice, then he can make a sizeable difference in the eventual fortunes of this Lyon team come June.
Another option that Garde has at his disposal down that left hand side is Gael Danic, who Lyon inexplicably signed during their foray into the transfer market this summer. He signed for under a million euros and if you are trying to fill your squad up then Danic is your man. However, Garde’s plans for the former Valenciennes man appear to me far bigger than most imagined.
Before he was added to Lyon’s excessive injury list, he was playing every game at left wing, even if that meant playing 2 games in the space of three or four days. This is a 31 year old who has never had to contend with continental football alongside the usual Ligue 1 action. I hate to say it, but even against the Swiss Grasshoppers, he looked out of his depth. Another incomprehensible purchase from Aulas, but stranger team selection from Garde.
As for Alexandre Lacazette he has struggled to find his feet after a pre-season beset by injuries and niggles. Another difficult, long-term team selection decision that Garde will have to make in the future, if he persists with this 4-3-3 setup, is choosing between Briand and Lacazette down that right-hand side. At the time of writing, I’d argue that Jimmy Briand’s forays forward are currently consistently more effective than those of Lacazette. Make no mistake, the younger winger’s pace and often outrageous skill consistently caused Ligue 1 defences problems last season. However, Lacazette’s final ball is missing and the connection that Briand and Gomis have on the field is, in my view, a greater asset.
After analysing the vast majority of the squad as well as the the problems off the pitch, I implore you to draw your own conclusions on Lyon’s season ahead. At the time of writing, Lyon have been victorious in just one of their last ten games. Soon enough, someone will have to be held accountable despite the fact that everyone at the club be it on the board, on the touchline or on the pitch has contributed to the clubs failings in 2013-2014 (although you can argue the problems first emerged at the beginning of this calendar year). Lyon are hanging off the edge of an abyss and one thing is for certain: the OL Golden Age is certainly over.