The mounting problems at Ligue 1 side Olympique Lyonnais could see the club’s latest crop of exciting youngsters depart to the Premier League in search of European football next season. Long ago, in a top-flight division far, far removed from the billionaire duopoly of Paris Saint-Germain and AS Monaco, businessman and club owner Jean-Michel Aulas presided over a team that dominated the French league.
Between 2001 and 2008 that team collected a record-breaking seven consecutive Ligue 1 titles playing a swashbuckling style of football that celebrated the attacking talents of players like Juninho Pernambucano alongside French stars like Florent Malouda and Karim Benzema.
A pre-Chelsea Michael Essien also starred for Les Gones, as Lyon announced their arrival on the main European stage with a 7-2 win over Werder Bremen back in March of 2006 which set a new record for the highest aggregate win in the Champions League at the time.
Seven years later, and the club are setting records but, this time, for all the wrong reasons.
Sunday’s 5-1 defeat to Montpelier was the heaviest recorded against the club since a 6-1 loss to Nantes in February. It’s a result that has already sent alarm bells ringing in the head of Aulas, who had previously had grand plans for the club.
After years of Ligue 1 domination and trophies to boot, the 2008-09 season saw Lyon face renewed challenges from the likes of Bordeaux and Marseille. Over the next two seasons Aulas spent big, bringing in South American stars like Lisandro Lopez, Michel Bastos and Ederson while the likes of Sidney Govou, Malouda and Benzema departed the club for big fees.
Champions League qualification was maintained but Lyon ultimately failed to regain their top dog status, with a series of managers coming and going in the intervening years. Despite this, there were some bright spots: the club reached the semi-finals of the European Cup in 2010, before falling to Bayern Munich.
That summer, Aulas took one last roll of the dice alongside then-manager Claude Puel, shelling out €22m for Bordeaux star Yoann Gourcuff in a bid to wrestle back Ligue 1 superiority. The move succeeded in disabling Les Girondins’ title challenge, but the midfielder failed to find the same spark that saw him win the France Football Player of the Year Award in 2009.
Concerned at the club’s level of expenditure and the impossible competition posed by the Dubai-back PSG, Aulas took on a new tact, with Lyon focusing on the latest crop of youngsters, while the likes of Juninho and co were jettisoned.
In truth, the club owner didn’t have to look far for an example of the new model in action. For years Arsenal had enjoyed Champions League qualification, in a league dominated by big spending clubs, while playing good football with a team of unearthed stars and youngsters who were regularly sold on for maximum profit.
Aulas even went as far as appointing an Arsene Wenger apprentice, with Remi Garde previously spending a season on the books of the Gunners, and remaining in regular contact with his former boss.
At first it worked – Lyon even reached the knock-out stages of the tournament last year to ensure maximum profit and finished the season in third, ensuring top-level European football this term.
But then came a qualification playoff against Real Sociedad. The Spaniards had already upset the apple cart in La Liga by pipping Valencia to fourth and they quickly set about causing a shock, with two wonder goals giving the team a 2-0 victory at Stade de Gerland that helped them progress.
The effects of that loss cannot be underestimated, with Lyon picking up just one win in the eleven competitive games played since that first-leg defeat.
Tensions are evidently beginning to mount if the disparity in the comments made by both chairman and manager in the aftermath of the loss to Montpelier are to be believed.
For Aulas, it was a matter of regrouping and blaming external factor.
'We're going to deal with this crisis amongst ourselves and above all to find the origin of the epidemic of injuries particularly in defence with seven or eight players affected,' he said according to AFP, adding: 'We have to support the coach, that's why I'm here.'
By contrast, Garde was evidently angered by the performance and out to blame the players.
'The second half was a string of unbelievable and unforgivable mistakes. Some players tonight did not have the level required to play in the league.'
Brought into the role because of his ability to nurture talent, the comments are at odds with both the chairman and the club’s philosophy and could reflect the growing disharmony among the squad.
This was on display on Sunday with captain Maxime Gonalons setting the tone with an 82nd minute red card and with the 24-year-old defensive midfielder previously linked with a £10 million move to Arsenal, any ongoing problems at the club could see player departures.
Clement Grenier, a 22-year-old attacking midfielder who has just broken through to the France national team, looks likely to leave, with any failure to land Champions League football likely to encourage potential suitors like Tottenham Hotspur.
Any Lyon fallout is likely to benefit the Premier League, with Aulas against selling his stars to direct rivals like Monaco and PSG.
And the list of available players is not simply limited to Grenier and Gonalons either with defender Gueïda Fofana previously tracked by clubs like Newcastle United, while Alexandre Lacazette, the club’s spiritual successor to Benzema, could be subject to interest from others.
The next few weeks could be crucial but if Lyon are struggling come Christmas, expect a New Year’s sale of a different kind just across the channel.
image: © julien haler