The phrase that the outspoken Jean-Michel Aulas has been using, as he tries to make Olympique Lyonnais rediscover their way, is “OL DNA”.
One issue is that it is used to be much easier to tell what those strands were.
They had: the smartest recruitment in football, a hugely productive academy, a series of eight French titles and – as a consequence of all of that – almost a fixed place in the Champions League quarter-finals. Lyon were one of the most respected clubs in Europe. The hallmarks of that were high-quality: Michael Essien surges, Karim Benzema turns, Sidney Govou thunderbolts and – most of all – swerving Juninho Pernambucano free-kicks.
The Brazilian legend has returned to the club as a director, and so has one of those strands. Lyon find themselves in the quarter-finals of the Champions League for the first time in 10 years.
So much has changed in that decade, as the club have become a modern football parable. Lyon now have a much lower ceiling than the Champions League semi-finals, although it is an ironic twist that stage is now within touching distance, and that it is another state-run club in Manchester City who stand in their way.
So much is beyond Lyon these days. The French title that used to be their preserve is now little more than a dream.
That decade has seen Lyon become perhaps the biggest victims of the super-club state-owned era. Paris Saint-Germain have taken their place as France’s perennial champions, if also as the French club who see the Champions League as their elusive holy grail. This Qatar project just has a level of finance that Lyon can’t compete with.
While Aulas assessed a similar scenario and supremely adapted to it in the Champions League in the previous decade, to the point he was seen as the most intelligent owner in European football – and one of the most difficult negotiators – it has been harder to accept in their domestic league. Lyon have generally not responded well.
In that regard, it should be acknowledged that it is not all down to the 2012 Qatari takeover of PSG. Lyon had started to falter and make mistakes before this. They just made them at precisely the wrong time.
The start of that fall coincidentally crossed Pep Guardiola’s rise. Lyon were the first side to feel the force of the Catalan’s great Barcelona in the Champions League knock-out stages, as Thierry Henry, Leo Messi and Samuel Eto’o scored four in 18 minutes of the 2008-09 last-16 game. That season represented a rare occasion when Lyon had failed to make the quarter-finals, but also the first time in nine years the title slipped from their hands.
Bordeaux won Ligue 1 that year, meaning there was some irony when Lyon defeated the new champions in the following season’s Champions League last eight to at last reach the semi-finals for the first time.
The irony was it was Lyon’s most disjointed team. The club had given coach Claude Puel too much power, and made him general manager.
As is an oft-repeated mistake in stories like this, Lyon started to deviate from the approach they had made them.
Lyon fans celebrate victory over Juventus in the streets of Lyon (AFP)
They first of all began to buy big and buy wastefully. They also struggled to produce the same level of star from their previously prolific academy, which was the foundation of Aulas’s entire approach. It allowed him to sell on players like Essien and Benzema for huge money, perpetuating the whole club.
That stopped, and the combination of factors instead brought a financial hole that it took them years to get out of.
They already had a chasm to cross to try and compete with PSG, but they only served to make it wider.
It is why it is hoped this Champions League season could signal the start of a change, and maybe the launchpad of something else.
The opening of the gleaming new stadium in the middle of the decade had worked very well before Covid, and Chinese investors own a minor stake in the club.
Aulas has meanwhile been restructuring the hierarchy, in preparation for his succession. Many around Lyon feel it will be the former NBA star, Tony Parker.
For the moment, Aulas has delegated a lot of responsibility to Juninho, in what was a clear nod to “OL DNA”. That is possibly just as well, since Aulas has become increasingly isolated in the hierarchy of French football of late. Many felt he had a point when he raged against the cancellation of the season, but it’s got to the stage that he’s irritated many of his peers.
The only problem was that Juninho’s first managerial pick, former Barcelona and Manchester City full-back Sylvinho, failed badly. Aulas had to row back, but the team themselves rowed back under Rudi Garcia, so they are now in the quarter-finals.
They feel they also have a plan that is more in-keeping with “OL DNA”, if one now tailored for the new realities. That is all any club outside the top tier can do: try and compromise, try innovation.
For Lyon, that means “50-70 per cent” of the squad will be made up by academy graduates, which helps when they are players of the standard of Ferland Mendy, Tanguy Ndombele and Nabil Fekir. Their sales last summer facilitated the other side of the plan, which is complementing graduates with the bigger signings they can now afford. It is how three of last summer’s buys – Thiago Mendes, Joachim Andersen, Jeff Reine-Adelaide – were three of the five most expensive they’ve made.
It shouldn’t be forgotten, either, that much of this Lyon squad gave City two of their hardest games of last season. Guardiola’s side failed to beat them in the 2018-19 group stage, losing 2-1 at home and drawing away.
That’s worth remembering, as the club tries to recall the OL DNA. They’d dearly love to repeat the strides of 2010 now, but in the longer-term repeat the glory of the decade before.
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