By Kevin Hatchard.
The transformation of Olympique Lyonnais into a club that bloods youngsters into the first team could culminate in winning Ligue 1 this season – and encourage more big teams to do the same.
On paper, the constellation of stars at Paris Saint-Germain should stroll to the Ligue 1 title every season. Thankfully, football doesn’t always work like that. Despite having a squad which is worth an estimated 371 million euros, featuring star names like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva, PSG are being kept off the summit of the French top flight.
The league leaders are Olympique Lyonnais, and in some ways they are curious heroes for the neutral to rally behind against the financial might of PSG. After all, Lyon are hardly minnows. They won seven consecutive Ligue 1 titles in the first decade of the 21st century and regularly reached the Champions League’s knockout phase.
Lyon’s ruthless and shrewd president Jean-Michel Aulas has proved to be one of European football’s toughest negotiators, and in the boom years the sales of Karim Benzema, Florent Malouda, Mahamadou Diarra and Michael Essien brought in nearly 100 million euros of profit. In 2009, Lyon were ranked 13th in business magazine Forbes’ list of the world’s most valuable football clubs.
It’s not the size or the recent history of OL that has made them popular title contenders, but rather the way they have built their challenge both on and off the field. When the run of titles stopped, and the Champions League well ran dry, Lyon briefly flirted with the idea of bringing in players with big reputations on sizeable wages. That failed to bring the good days back, and rather than stay at the roulette wheel for a few more potentially catastrophic spins, Aulas took his club out of the casino.
World-class talents like goalkeeper Hugo Lloris were sold, and Lyon focused on developing homegrown talent. The wage bill was slashed, and coach Remi Garde was promoted from the club’s youth department to the top job. He oversaw the transition of a clutch of young players into the first-team squad, including current superstar striker Alex Lacazette, thrusting attacking midfielder Nabil Fekir and defender Samuel Umtiti.
To those unacquainted with Lyon’s restructuring, it appears Garde didn’t have a huge impact during his three seasons in charge and his potential appointment as Newcastle boss has been met with a collective shrug of the shoulders amongst the Toon Army. However, to steer OL to fourth, third and fifth was a fine effort, given the jarring change in the Lyon squad’s profile. Keeping the club competitive clearly took its toll on Garde as he left to take a sabbatical last summer.
His replacement Hubert Fournier is a former Lyon defender who caught Aulas’ eye by dragging storied club Reims back into the top flight, and then establishing them in mid-table. Fournier has picked up the baton that Garde laid down – and has sprinted towards glory with it.
Lacazette has been the jewel in the crown, with 22 goals in 23 Ligue 1 matches, but the star turn has had an excellent supporting cast. Anthony Lopes has been outstanding in goal, Umtiti is maturing all the time, Maxime Gonalons has given the midfield stability, Corentin Tolisso and Jordan Ferri have patrolled the flanks, and the excellent Fekir has chipped in with nine league goals.
There is a unity of purpose and a sense of genuine joy that so many academy graduates have combined so successfully. Indeed, Lacazette distanced himself from a January transfer because he felt loyalty to the club that had given him his footballing education. In the recent 1-1 draw with title rivals PSG, Lyon played seven academy graduates, while the men from the capital didn’t feature any homegrown talent.
If Lyon do win the Ligue 1 title, it might not be a victory for the little guy in the same vein as Montpellier’s extraordinary triumph in 2012. However, if the title goes to a club that has reined in its spending and given a group of hungry young players the chance to shine, it might just set an encouraging example to clubs around Europe. As the saying goes, money isn’t everything.
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