Lyon's Identity Crisis (Issue 2)

This piece from Rich Allen is an extract from Issue 2 of the Modern Footballer, Get Football's European football guide. 

It has been a rocky 12 months for Lyon. As one of the inarguable powerhouses of French football, changes internally and externally have resulted in questions being asked of their position and whether they are facing something of an identity crisis.

During his tenure, President Jean-Michel Aulas has always had the club’s best interests at heart. Therefore, when coach Bruno Génésio announced he was stepping away from the club towards the end of last season, the impression was that new faces would join to help take the club forward. Step forward club legend Juninho Pernambucano, a huge fan favourite and a key player in the team’s dominance in the early 2000’s. 

Aulas brought Juninho in as the new Sporting Director, tasked with the day to day running of the club. His first job was to find a replacement for Génésio. Juninho quickly pushed for the appointment of ex-Brazilian teammate, Sylvinho. The former full-back had held assistant coaching roles for the likes of Inter Milan and the Brazilian national team, however the Lyon job was his first as a head coach. It was a gamble which did not pay off. Only two months into the new season, with results not as expected, Sylvinho was sacked - Lyon losing to local rivals Saint-Étienne in his final game. 

Faced with a struggling team, a rookie Sporting Director and now no coach, Aulas and Juninho turned to Rudi Garcia. A slightly left-field appointment as although he had plenty of Ligue 1 experience during his time with Lille and Marseille, his time at the latter proved disappointing while the rivalry between the two clubs growing ever fiercer during Garcia’s OM reign. The Marseille faithful took joy in seeing a coach with a mixed recent reputation and who they were happy to see leave taking over at their Olympico rivals. The Lyon fans were hardly happy about the appointment either and losses to the likes of Rennes, Lille, Nice and Marseille in the early-going did not exactly help turn the tide in his favour.

Looking at the off-pitch personnel, and other than the novice appointments of Juninho and Sylvinho, there have been departures which have not altogether sat well with the Lyon fans. The two big changes saw exits for Florian Maurice, highly respected Head of Recruitment, and Grégory Coupet, former goalkeeper during those glory years turned Goalkeeping Coach. 

Maurice, who oversaw the recruitment of the likes of Ferland Mendy, Tanguy Ndombele and Moussa Dembélé, was seen as a candidate to take the Sporting Director role prior to Juninho’s appointment. However, with Aulas opting for the Brazilian, Maurice struggled to gel professionally with his new boss. With Aulas a big fan of Maurice, having previously said he expected him to go only to one of the European giants, it was clearly a major blow when he announced his decision to leave, taking the Sporting Director role at Rennes. Maurice also convinced his assistant at Lyon, Jérôme Bonnissel, to join him in Brittany as Head of Recruitment. Former Director General of the PSG women’s team, Bruno Cheyrou, has subsequently been appointed as Maurice’s replacement. 

Coupet’s departure was slightly more acrimonious. After being unveiled as new goalkeeping coach at Dijon, he confirmed he did not receive any contract extension offer from Lyon. He further went on to tell L'Équipe that he heard nothing from the club when he asked them about his future way back in early 2020. A breakdown in communications from the club led Coupet, he of that iconic double save against Barcelona, to feel there was a “lack of consideration.”

For a club that has worked recently with a few ex-players, the fact that Coupet was overlooked does indeed appear to be a slap in the face. Who that responsibility should have rested with remains to be seen. Certainly, Coupet’s concerns over his future pre-dated Juninho’s appointment, however, sorting out coaches’ contracts is something that should really have been on his to-do list upon joining. 

One thing gently bubbling on the backburner is the future of Aulas himself. The 71-year-old has previously mentioned he would look to step down when he turned 75 and so speculation is mounting over his successor. Back in April, L’Equipe ran a piece on the close links between Aulas and French basketball star Tony Parker. Parker currently sits on the board of NWSL side OL Reign in the US and is president of Lyon based basketball team ASVEL, who are part owned by the OL Group. 

There has been a great deal of mutual praise between the pair with Aulas a fan of Parker’s “professional and human qualities”, in turn Parker is enjoying the relationship with Aulas, “I want to develop with Jean-Michel, to continue learning from him….if one day he sees me like this (as a future president)….I think it is a position which can not be refused.” What comes of this remains to be seen but will need to be a move given a great deal of consideration.

On the pitch then and it is not altogether plain sailing there either. With the futures of Houssem Aouar, Moussa Dembélé and Memphis Depay in question, Lyon either need to continue the reliance on their academy or bring in fresh faces. In this area, results have been mixed. The emergence of Rayan Cherki has been a real positive. Cherki carries huge expectations with enormous potential and has recently signed a contract extension. Seeing young defender Oumar Solet and forward Amine Gouiri leave the club, however, does ask the question of whether the current management are able, or willing, to bring academy players through as the club have before. 

The departure of forward Martin Terrier to Rennes did feel a little hasty, especially with the futures of Dembélé and Depay unsure. That will put reliance upon Jeff Reine-Adélaiïde, who is returning from a lengthy ligament injury and striker Karl Toko-Ekambi who turned his loan move from Villarreal into a permanent one. If there has been one recent barnstorming transfer success though, it has been that of midfielder Bruno Guimarães. With Juninho playing a key role in his joining the club, the Brazilian has certainly made a positive impact on his arrival, but with each strong performance, the bigger clubs will begin to circle once more.

It is of course obvious to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused untold disruption globally. With regards to football and Ligue 1, where the decision was made to curtail the season, Lyon were left with the potential of going into the new season without European football for the first time since 1997. With a 7th place finish in the league, their only chance for Europa League qualification is to win the re-arranged Coupe de la Ligue final against PSG. Alternatively, they will need to win the Champions’ League. They play the second leg of their Round of 16 tie against Juventus in early August. A tough ask to progress, even with a 1-0 lead from the first leg. Even if they do so, they would be playing Manchester City or Real Madrid in the quarter-finals before a likely semi-final tie against Bayern Munich or Barcelona.  

The 2020-21 season could well be a defining one for the club. With a new sponsorship deal with Emirates coming into force and a hefty new TV rights deal for the league as a whole, the club’s finances are well-positioned, however with other clubs such as Marseille, Rennes and Lille evidently catching them up, the onus will be on Aulas and Juninho to bring the entire structure together in order to adapt to the changing environment and to not be blinded by the latter’s apparent deference for all things South American and slight neglect for OL’s youth academy prospects when it comes to recruitment.