The lone holdover from Lyon’s “good old days,” Maxime Gonalons has come to embody the club in recent seasons. After failing to make a big-money move to Napoli in 2014, the captain and academy product was lauded for his commitment to the team, even if, by some accounts, the decision was more of a hard-line approach on the part of Lyon than resistance from the player. Hamstrung financially by the losses suffered from acquisitions such as Aly Cissokho and Yoann Gourcuff, Lyon’s transfer policy at the time was one of austerity, and the team’s performances had suffered as a result, making it unlikely that Gonalons could enjoy regular Champions’ League football or even competition for France’s domestic prizes.
Under Rafael Benitez at the time, Napoli would have offered stability in terms of teammates and an ambitious willingness to invest. However, Gonalons, or more accurately, club president Jean-Michel Aulas, resisted, and the midfielder remains with the club, even as his contract has begun to wind down. Set to expire at the end of next season, that contract has been the source of no small amount of contention in the press, with Gonalons’ agent, Frédéric Guerra, having expressed his frustration with the situation on more than one occasion.
Napoli continue to be linked, even as their pursuit of Corentin Tolisso last summer failed and incumbent Jorginho continues to improve, but did Aulas miss a trick in not selling Gonalons three years ago? Gonalons has never been the quickest player but this season, his positional nous seems to be failing him as well, exemplified by his poor performances against Ajax in the Europa League and Nantes in Ligue 1. There was also his horror challenge on Bordeaux’s Malcom early in the season, a tackle which earned Gonalons a four-match suspension but perhaps could have even been more.
Gonalons’ efficacy has certainly declined, but there is also the fact of a general tactical evolution of his position in modern football; orthodox defensive midfielders are becoming somewhat rare in the modern game, particularly in France. Thiago Motta still churns away for Paris Saint-Germain on occasion, but Unai Emery has often preferred Adrien Rabiot or even Marco Verratti in that deep-lying role, wishing for a more dynamic presence with the ball at their feet.
Nice and Monaco have similarly realised success without an old-fashioned number six, preferring midfield twos that are mobile and adept going forward. Among France’s other European contenders, Bordeaux and Marseille do play with more orthodox defensive midfielders, but Jérémy Toulalan’s positional sense and range of passing are more impressive than that of Gonalons, while William Vainqueur has more energy to his play.
Beyond this evolution, there is also how Lyon set up tactically going forward; Bruno Génésio is unlikely to continue as Lyon’s manager, but how this team will evolve will have a great bearing on Gonalons’ role, as he seems to struggle in a 4-2-3-1. The next manager may want to keep him for his experience but being out of contract next summer makes him ripe to leave on a free. Lucas Tousart has come on leaps and bounds this season and in the youngster Lyon have a replacement who is able to fulfill the prosaic (and physical) aspects of a defensive midfielder’s duties but is also much more of a threat with the ball at his feet.
In addition to Tousart, there is also Olivier Kemen, currently on loan at Gazelec Ajaccio; while the youngster has been hit-and-miss for the Corsican club, he is still only 20 and could yet be an important player for Lyon. Timothé Cognat has also impressed for the reserves and various French youth sides; neither of these players have the physical size or aerial ability of Gonalons, but, again, as the likes of N’Golo Kanté have shown, mobility and energy should perhaps be more important factors than physical bulk in the present day.
With Corentin Tolisso likely on his way out, Lyon’s midfield will already be in need of restructuring. The team’s Chinese investment, coupled with what is sure to be a hefty transfer fee will give them the means to replace Tolisso, so perhaps the club should consider a more complete reboot, with Clément Grenier’s situation also needing to be addressed?
Gonalons has been a good servant to the club over the years, but his interest, effort and level of play have clearly declined. This, in concert with what is required from a “defensive” midfielder in the modern game should see him moved on this summer.
Lyon will be lucky to recoup €12m for a player who was valued at twice that three years ago, but it is unlikely that Gonalons will have the patience, at 28, to want to wade through another rebuilding era at Lyon. It might seem cynical to label Lyon as a “rebuilding” team after making a European semifinal, but their attacking prowess often camouflaged a defence that, even allowing for injuries, could often be found wanting, something clearly evinced by their failure to compete with more complete sides in the league.
Lyon’s new manager will have enough to sort out without a potentially unhappy captain further limiting the team’s ability to build around their younger players. Sentimentality may suggest otherwise, but it makes too much sense for both club and player for Gonalons to continue his tenure at the Parc OL.