Lacklustre Lyon face soft-touch Schalke

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It started with a whisper that became a shout. Like an errant snowball, the singing gained momentum and rolled down from the Gerland’s virage nord, collecting bodies as it went before spilling out on the pitch in a cacophonous roar. The chant was now unmistakable. “Puel out! Puel out!”

Lyon had conceded an avoidable equaliser at home to Valenciennes, taking a hit from Gaëtan Bong in the 69th minute who quietly wandered into the box for a corner and found himself so inexplicably unmarked it was like the opposing defenders had been, well, smoking something.

This was supposed to be “the hour of truth”, at least according to L’Équipe’s front-page headline on Saturday morning, although someone should really tell them that a match lasts 90 minutes. Instead, it felt like Groundhog Day as a lacklustre Lyon played out a disappointing 1-1 draw.

Puel’s side have collected just five points from their opening five games in Le Championnat and lie 16th in the table, making it the club’s worst start to a league campaign since the 1995-96 season. Believe this blog when we tell you that there’s no need to dig out your reference books folks - Raymond Domenech had gone by then.

Admittedly, OL’s supporters have been spoilt over the last decade, but given Alain Perrin couldn’t even screw things up domestically, they naturally feel entitled to ask why Puel is still in the job.

In August, Lyon’s blue-sky-thinking owner, the charismatic Jean-Michel Aulas, had said: “We are going to try and win the Champions League before the new stadium is built.” Despite his natural disposition for making bold statements, Aulas’ words should be taken with a pinch of salt even in light of Lyon’s first appearance in the semi-finals of Europe’s elite club competition only five months ago.

The Champions League could be a pleasant distraction for Puel

Metaphorically-speaking, the weather vane placed on top of the Gerland had blown back towards winning the league, a feat once considered routine, which Lyon now haven’t achieved in each of the last two seasons under Puel who prickles at being the only coach not to win it with the club this decade.   

“Of course we want to win the title,” he snapped in July.  “What do you want me to say? ‘We want to win the title! We want to win the title!’ I don’t need to tell you what to think. Rather it’s knowing how to go looking for it, that’s the idea.”

Puel didn’t exactly spend the summer turning over every stone at Lyon’s training ground ‘looking’ for a clue left by one of his predecessors as to how to actually win the title. It seemed he just decided upon a change of philosophy. Arsene Wenger’s protégé finally promised to shed his conservative skin and emulate his mentor in style. He told L’Équipe that he wanted his side “to play better football” and “to have more technical control.”

It was a clumsily constructed message to placate the fans. But it appears old habits die-hard. Puel soon retreated within himself, inducing a yawn by adding that: “Last season we were the team who had the most shots and one of those who made the most passes”.

Still, the signing of Bordeaux playmaker Yoann Gourcuff for £19.8 million – a record between French clubs - brought renewed hope of a Lyon that played in a way that took your breath away rather than choking you into submission under legionnaire-like shouts of presser, récupérer and accélérer.

Gourcuff was understanably welcomed like “a rock star”, at least that’s how he described having dinner with Cris. But the 24-year-old offered a disclaimer. “I am not the saviour,” he said. Stats taken over 135 games show he is no Juninho, not in terms of goals, decisive or otherwise. And after two appearances in the Lyon shirt, he appears to be right, even if it is early days.

Lyon are clearly rebuilding. The club’s best-laid plan, that of moving Jérémy Toulalan from midfield into defence to replace the departed Jean-Alain Boumsong, didn’t work as well as it did in experiments last season, costing Lyon points against Caen and Lorient. 

Speaking to L’Équipe last week, Toulalan admitted that his experiences at the World Cup in South Africa and his subsequent ban meant he wasn’t yet mentally ready to make the change. “I ate out only once at café Leclerc,” he said. “I was behind a big pot of flowers at the back of the room with my head down.”

Lyon will hope Gourcuff can come to the fore in coming weeks

Now that Toulalan is reprising his old position in midfield alongside Maxime Gonalons albeit with the expressed intention of being a defender “in the medium to long-term”, Pape Diakhaté, the Senegal international centre-back who was brought in on loan from Dynamo Kyiv, will take over the role with the brief of steadying the ship as he did so well at Saint-Étienne last year.

The system as a whole is logically being built around Gourcuff with Puel shifting from a 4-4-2 to a 4-2-3-1 with Lyon purposely playing through him. The former Lorient youngster touched the ball no fewer than 86 times against Valenciennes on Saturday and completed 89 per cent of his passes, one of which came in the move that saw Jérémy Pied give Lyon the lead.

However, the spotlight inevitably fell on his relationship with Lisandro López, last season’s Ligue 1 Player of the Year and Lyon’s top scorer with 24 goals in all competitions. At first glance, the connection was disappointing, which can obviously be put down to a lack of playing time, but also some off the field issues.

Gourcuff had apparently walked out of an interview with Téléfoot after being asked yet another question about his relationship with Franck Ribéry, something Aulas moved to hush up, while it has also been widely suggested that there might be more to López’s pre-season Achilles injury than first thought with Lyon sacking their fitness coach Vincent Espié.

Aulas didn’t deny reports claiming ‘Lisha’ clashed with Puel over pre-season training, admitting that there have been “differences of opinion” between player and coach while also clarifying that he personally wrote to him to ask that he attend the Emirates Cup in August.

Having yet to see Gourcuff and Lisandro click, it’s a pleasure to witness Jimmy Briand settling in so quickly, offering instant creativity. Lyon’s £5.4m signing from Rennes has already gone a long way towards paying them back, making four of their five goals this season.

So while at the moment Puel’s side resembles a block of marble in need of a chisel and a Michelangelo, there is the potential for a polished piece of art to one day be unveiled at the Gerland. Whether it ever reveals itself fully under his tutelage remains to be seen. Puel seems to have an aversion to exhibition football.   

Nevertheless, if the fans can’t wait any longer, then there is the reassuring news that tonight’s opponents in the Champions League, Schalke, have gotten off to an even poorer start, their worst in the Bundesliga for 23 years. “Like us, Schalke are a wounded beast,” Puel said yesterday. What better time to bite back then?

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