Lyon’s sale of Alexandre Lacazette to Arsenal represents a potential record sum for the club, and takes their transfer fees received from the summer well past the €100m mark. The departures of Lacazette, Corentin Tolisso, Maxime Gonalons and even, yes, Mathieu Valbuena mean the team have moved definitively to break with their core, largely composed of academy products, with Rachid Ghezzal and Jordan Ferri also tipped to be on the move before the summer’s end. Nabil Fekir and Clément Grenier remain with the club, as does the consistently excellent ‘keeper Anthony Lopes, but Lyon are, in the immediate future, a team lacking an identity.
It is not only the sale of players so closely associated with the club that creates this condition, but a now seeming lack of over-arching strategy. One can hardly find fault with the business that Lyon have done this summer, but one would have hoped these fees, coupled with the Chinese investment from earlier in the year, would have seen more ambition from Aulas. The window is far from over, and Bertrand Traoré looks a snip at €18m, but Lyon seem to lack direction in their spending based on the players whose arrivals have been confirmed.
The bulk of the club’s academy players have left (Clinton N’Jie and Samuel Umtiti in previous years) and sensing a gap between the current crop of departures, Lyon have spent considerable money on younger players in the recent past. Lucas Tousart and Maxwel Cornet have already made a considerable impression with the first team, but Sergi Darder, Jean-Philippe Mateta, Olivier Kemen, Emanuel Mammana and even Memphis Depay to some represent a set of players who have been bought for their potential, and not their achievements. Traoré and fellow summer arrivals Ferland Mendy and Mariano Diaz, neither with much first-team experience, follow this trend as well, with Marcal, late of Guingamp, providing a safe pair of hands if Mendy proves too callow in the short term.
Lyon do have some intriguing academy players coming through, with Mouctar Diakhaby the most prominent, but there are also Timotheé Cognat, Gaetan Perrin and Hassem Aouar. That said, given the ages and lack of experience of these graduates, Lyon are unlikely to experience another “golden age” of academy players in the immediate future, so the purchase of young players with a modicum of experience and potential for improvement seems a logical approach. But is it too spendthrift?
Even if Nice do keep Jean Michael Seri, Les Aiglons‘ losses of Paul Baysse, Ricardo Pereira and Younés Belhanda leave Lucien Favre with significant rebuilding, while Marseille’s summer has been rather uninspiring. Bordeaux have held firm for the most part, but even Monaco could be a target after their losses, as the champions could suffer from a lack of depth. Lyon, even in losing arguably their three most influential outfield players, should be positioning themselves, given their financial situation, for a return to the top three, or at least a more convincing tilt at it.
Earlier in the summer, the club were being linked with the likes of Javier Hernandez, Carlos Vela and Kasper Dolberg, players whose fees and wages would necessarily be higher, but could offer, especially with the two Mexicans, a level of experience that the team sorely need, especially in attack. Given Aulas’ comments in the winter window, concurrent with the signing of Depay, that Lyon would be able to purchase a player of the Dutchman’s calibre with regularity (before any intimation of the sales of Lacazette and Tolisso), this would have been what fans had expected.
While Monaco and Dortmund, for example, have taken the tack that talent should be bought young and sold on, that is not quite Aulas’ intent, as these players to date, have been slightly more experienced. Lyon’s approach, then, is to take players who couldn’t quite cut it at Europe’s bigger clubs but still have the potential for improvement (Diaz, Traoré (a former Chelsea player) and Depay).
It is a strategy that isn’t without precedent, as Napoli have trod this path many times, generally with good results. The Italian club have been regular participants in the Champions’ League, even if they have been unable to wrest the title from Juventus, by relying on players like Gonzalo Higuaín, José Callejon, Pepe Reina and Raul Abiol, all out of favor at bigger clubs. Granted, Higuaín still commanded a massive fee, but Napoli’s ability to function as a shop window allowed the Argentine to take a step back into Europe’s elite whilst still allowing the club to make a profit.
If this is Aulas’ intent, it smacks of his other recent deviation away from his academy-centric strategy, his decision to spend massively on the likes of Ederson,Yoann Gourcuff, Lisandro Lopez and Aly Cissokho at the turn of the decade. At the time, Lyon were regulars in the knockout stage of the Champions’ League, and the chairman thought those players could turn the team into legitimate contenders for that competition.
All except for Lopez were poor and the club lost something along the lines of €60m in fees as a result. This doesn’t look to be as catastrophic, even potentially as those signings were, but these players could similarly fail to have any re-sale value, even if they do prove competent replacements domestically.
If Lyon are loath to spend along the lines of the fee that they paid for Depay, they would be better served recruiting domestically, bringing in players who are young but have some amount of first team experience.
The arrivals of Tousart and Cornet have been handy in this way, and the arrival of a player like Valentin Rongier or Ellyes Shkiri for a lower fee makes far more sense than pinning a higher amount (and higher wages) on a player like Diaz, who is 24 in three weeks’ time but has barely featured for Real Madrid, despite an impressive goal-scoring record for the reserves. Perhaps Aulas has an ace up his sleeve and merely wanted to confirm the departure of Lacazette, but for the moment, Lyon look to be once again bereft of a consistent, sustainable approach to player personnel, and with more competition in Ligue 1, could well be in danger of suffering a steeper decline than that of the early part of the decade.