Talent machine takes Lyon back to the top - but can they keep English hands off their stars?
Over recent years, the influx of French talent into English football has undoubtedly had a huge influence on the Premier League. From Eric Cantona at Manchester United and Arsene Wenger’s Invincibles to Jose Mourinho’s original back-to-back title-winning sides of 2004/05 and 2005/06, Ligue 1 has played a huge part in shaping the current landscape of English football.
Two of that famous Chelsea team, Florent Malouda and Michael Essien, were developed and moulded as part of the Lyon side that won seven straight championships from 2002-08. Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas sold on his stars to the highest bidder and it nearly took them all the way to the Champions League final.
Lyon strived for success, but after two exits in the semi-finals of the Champions League, the signings of Yoann Gourcuff, Lisandro Lopez and Aly Cissokho were supposed to take the club to the next level. Having deviated from their normal 'buy low, sell high' methodology, things ultimately turned sour for Lyon, and the club went into a dramatic nose-dive.
Les Gones – The Kids – had to give up their fruitful business plan and players had to be sold on for less than their market value.
The next generation
Last Sunday, the starting XI that played in Lyon’s 3-0 victory over Toulouse featured eight players that graduated from the Centre Tola Vologe training centre. That victory didn’t just move OL to the top of Ligue 1; it was also a statement of intent.
Lyon are back at the forefront of French football thanks to their host of impressive young stars, and now Aulas is waiting for the right moment to reap the benefits of their rejuvenated magical conveyor belt.
The likes of Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur have already been linked with moves for members of Lyon’s current first team. The problem for any club wanting to make a move is that it will no longer come cheap.
France’s No.1, Hugo Lloris, was a bargain for Spurs at £12.3 million. Lyon had to sell to balance the books, with a similar deal taking France youth international Anthony Martial to AS Monaco for €5m the day before the tax year ended.
When Chelsea bought Essien and Malouda for a combined €57m, it made the French club a profit of just over €40m in two years. Lyon spent a relatively paltry €15m on that duo - recruiting them from Bastia and Guingamp respectively - but the latest crop of young stars hasn’t cost the club a single penny.
Undoubtedly, the club’s current jewel in the crown is 23-year-old striker, Alexandre Lacazette. It was the Frenchman’s double on Sunday – his fourth-in-a-row – that helped Lyon move to the top of the league. He now has 19 goals in 20 games this season. Add in the 15 goals he scored in the last campaign and you have one of hottest forwards in Europe.
Although there have been rumours that Liverpool and Arsenal were lining up a bid in the January window, quotes from Aulas to Le Parisien last weekend suggest any bids would be rejected without consideration.
"You can't put a figure on it," he said. "What's the name of the Welshman at Real Madrid? I think Alexandre is a lot better. But Alexandre doesn't have a price, so it's pointless thinking of one."
While comparisons to the price tag placed on Gareth Bale (ah yes, that's his name - Ed) are a little ambitious, Lacazette recently extended his contract through to 2018, and Lyon will therefore be looking for a figure close to what Chelsea paid Lille for Eden Hazard in 2012.
Compared to what Chelsea paid for Hazard, and with Lacazette’s contract recently extended till 2018, Lyon, when they do decide to sell, will be looking closer to Essien’s price, rather than what they got for Lloris.
The brand new 58,000-seater Stade des Lumières opens in 12 months’ time, completing Lyon’s transformation. Aulas wants his stars to remain part of the squad until then, but if he does have to sell, he has plenty of other options before he would need to give up his prized possession.
Anthony Lopes, Samuel Umtiti, Maxime Gonalons, Jordan Ferri, Corentin Tolisso, Rachid Ghezzal and Nabil Fekir, are the other seven players that started against Toulouse. Factor in Clement Grenier and Gueida Fofana, currently out injured, plus the likes of Yassine Benzia and Fares Bahlouli and Lyon’s future looks extremely bright.
A bright future
Lyon’s current model is very similar to what Southampton have been doing successfully for the last few years. The media predicted the worst when the Saints sold Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Luke Shaw and Calum Chambers this summer, but a number of smart signings has seen the club profit while also holding a strong position in the league.
The future looks bright at St Mary’s, just as it is for coach Hubert Fournier and this current crop of Gones.
Just like Southampton selling on Gareth Bale and Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain, the sale of players like Lloris and Dejan Lovren may not have helped Lyon sign high-profile players from Ligue 1, but it helped fund the success of their academy and after a few seasons of struggling outside the Champions League group stage, the hard work is finally paying off.
Lyon’s philosophy of bringing through their own talent was accelerated by the graduation of Rémi Garde to the position of head coach. Players that he had a personal hand in developing are now integral to the first team. Fournier is still using the 4-3-1-2 that Garde implemented, and it’s that free-flowing, attacking style that is helping the youngster showcase their talent.
Lyon is now in a great position of power. Sitting at the top of Ligue 1, they have a great chance of returning to the Champions League this season. The more experience this group of young players can gain over the next few years, the more in demand they are likely to become.
Premier League clubs will continue to monitor Lyon’s conveyor belt of talent, but now, Aulas is the man with the power, and they will no longer be available for a price that doesn’t greatly benefit the Ligue 1 club.