Lyon: Les Gones reemerge from the shadows as they return to the Champions League

In Europe’s top leagues, only Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have scored more than the 28 Alexandre Lacazette has plundered in Ligue 1, so it is no surprise that the 23 year old heads into the summer as hot property. Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal have all been linked, with the Anfield club seemingly most likely to be ahead in the race for the striker’s signature, but if Lyon chairman Jean-Michel Aulas has his way, they will face an almighty fight to get him.

Calling his striker “untransferable”, Aulas was firm in his desire to keep hold of Lacazette in the January transfer window, saying he was priceless. “What’s the name of the Welshman at Real Madrid?” he asked, “Bale! I think Alexandre is a lot better. But Alexandre doesn’t have a price, so it’s pointless thinking of one.”

It is indeed hard to argue with Aulas. Lyon aim to move into their new 58,000-seater Stade des Lumieres in December and it is mainly down to Lacazette’s goals that Les Gones are due to house it as a Champions League club. With three games of the French season to go and at this moment Lyon sit on top, with PSG just behind (who have a game in hand), but almost certain of claiming one of the three qualification spots for a return to Europe’s premier competition.

It is apt they are currently on course to finish sandwiched between France’s ultra-rich, PSG and Monaco, clubs owned by Qatari and Russian billionaires respectively. Les Gones, Lyon’s nickname, translates to The Kids and it is true of what the club has become in the absence of such resources. Of the regulars under manager Hubert Fournier this term, only Christophe Jallet, Henri Bedimo and Maxime Gonalons are above the age of 25.

24 year old Clement Grenier and 21 year olds Samuel Umtiti and Nabil Fekir, the excellent winger who was released from Lyon’s academy in 2007 only to return in 2011, have all emerged from Lyon’s talent stream and, as well as Gonalons, have all been tied down to new deals.

It is three years since Lyon, who won the league title in seven successive seasons over the last decade, competed in the Champions League proper, finishing outside of France’s top 3 in 2012 for the first time since 1998 before finishing fifth last time out. Remi Garde was in charge for both of those seasons and then stepped down last summer for personal reasons to be replaced by Fournier, used to working on limited resources at Stade Reims whom he guided back to Ligue 1 after a 33 year absence.

Over the past 3 years Lyon have cut their wage bill down by 40% and sought more academy products to follow the path of Karim Benzema, who made the club £32 million with his sale to Real Madrid in 2009.

Since the £19 million signing of Yoan Gourcuff in 2010, Lyon have spent less than that entire fee, £17 million in total, over the course of the following 3 years while recouping £66 million on the sales of Jeremy Toulalan, Miralem Pjanic, Hugo Lloris, Aly Cissokho and Dejan Lovren.

Unable to lavish the same eye-watering amount PSG did on David Luiz last summer, they have preferred to go with Gonalons and fellow academy graduate Jordan Ferri to replace Pjanic and Toulalan while 20 year old Corentin Tolisso, in only his second season, slots in alongside them in midfield.

24 year old Portuguese goalkeeper Anthony Lopes, also former member of Lyon’s youth teams, had only made 7 senior appearances for the club before this season and has kept 12 clean sheets from 34 games, a record bettered only by four keepers in the league. With 29 goals conceded in total only Monaco and Saint-Ettiene have shipped less, their defensive solidity kept in check by the experience of the 31 year old Serbian Milan Bisevac and the quick, powerful, technically-gifted Umtiti, who complement each other effectively.

Not that Fournier puts any particular emphasis on defending however, with his Lyon side proving to be a potent force going forward. Their 68 goals is just 2 short of PSG who sit top of the scoring charts and with a rate of 13.4 shots per game only Marcelo Bielsa’s barnstorming Marseille team trouble the opposition goal with more regularity. It is the understanding of the dangerous Lacazette and Fekir that is behind such attacking power, with the latter playing an impressive support role his partner with 12 goals and 9 assists.

Goals have also been found from other sources with the classy Tolisso breaking forward from midfield to score on 7 occasions while Cameroonian Clinton N’Jie, yet another youth team product, has chipped in with 6 goals and 7 assists from 14 starts. Fournier has also been boosted by the return to fitness of Gourcuff, so troubled by injuries in his past 4 seasons with the club, who has made 17 appearances and created 21 chances, scoring 3 goals and making 4 at the attacking-midfield tip of Fournier’s favoured 4-3-1-2 system.

Lacazette will seize the headlines and Aulas will continue the fight to keep him, though he will perhaps be pleased that the spotlight being shone on his striker will prevent its glare landing on the other areas of the squad where quality is present. In a season where the vast sums of money available to PSG and Monaco were again tipped to dominate alongside Bielsa’s Marseille, Lyon have spoiled the party on limited resources and are now in a position to sustain it.

Success may evade them this season but they have proven to France that there are other paths to the top, not just the ones paved with gold.

 

Written by Adam Gray

Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250

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