“Each year,” Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas once said, “we fix as an aim to have sporting progress, and progress for our financial resources. It’s like a cyclist riding: you can overtake the people in front of you.”
To persist with the software entrepreneur’s analogy after pedalling up from the second division in the late `80s all the way to the top of the Ligue 1 mountain in 2002 and staying there for seven straight years, the peloton has caught up with Lyon and they’re falling down it.
Sunday’s 5-1 defeat to Montpellier – French champions the season before last but booed and whistled by the crowd at la Mosson recently on account of drawing too many games- was the heaviest Lyon have suffered since February 16, 2000. Members of the team and the club’s coaching staff apparently broke down in tears in the dressing room.
With only one win from their last 11 games in all competitions Lyon are in what the front page of Wednesday’s L’Équipe termed “a state of emergency.” Down in 14th in Ligue 1 with just 11 points to their name, only once has the club made as poor a start to a campaign since the LFP introduced three points for a win back in the 1994-95 season.
That was under Claude Puel in 2010. Lyon of course rallied and finished third, but that was in a league without a Qatari-backed Paris Saint-Germain and a Russian-sponsored Monaco. Repeating the feat looks beyond them. Asked if he felt his job was at risk, Lyon coach Remi Garde replied honestly: “Yes, I feel as if I’m in danger.”
While his decision-making did come under scrutiny against Montpellier – such as the decision to play Gueida Fofana, a midfielder, in the centre of defence ahead of Bakary Kone, a natural centre-back – Aulas’ chief adviser, the former Lyon striker Bernard Lacombe, revealed that before the game Garde had at least told his players to pay particular attention to Hilton and Daniel Congre sending balls over the top. His warning went unheeded.
“After five minutes, they’d already caught us out that way three times,” Lacombe lamented. Victor Hugo Montano’s opening goal came from one. Garde wasn’t to blame. The players were for not following orders and getting distracted. He hasn’t lost them either. The truth is not all “our players were good enough for Ligue 1.” Why is that?
Lyon have been ravaged by injury. Without veteran goalkeeper Remy Vercoutre, centre-backs Milan Bisevac and Samuel Umtiti and full-backs Miguel Lopes and Mahamadou Dabo – so, in short, an entire defence – and playmaker Yoann Gourcuff, the situation is critical. Perhaps understandably given the circumstances, fingers have been pointed at club doctor Emmanuel Orhan and fitness coach Robert Duverne.
The options available to Garde are limited. Promoted from his role as academy director the season before last with a view to bringing its many talented youngsters through to the first team, Lyon have become more and more dependent on it. That has meant kids have been drafted into the first team early, perhaps too early either to cover for the injured or because the club’s austerity policy has meant funds to sign the players needed in areas where the team desperately requires improvement hasn’t been forthcoming.
Some just aren’t yet ready for the step up. Jordan Ferri, the 21-year-old midfielder, started at right-back on Sunday. You felt for him. Montpellier playmaker Remy Cabella gave the academy graduate a torrid afternoon. It was a demoralising experience. His head went down as did those of the other kids around him. “I saw some players give up in the second half,” Garde observed.
Character is absent from their play, as is maturity. Relatives of goalkeeper Anthony Lopes, another player thrust into the first team after Vercoutre’s injury, and those of Fofana argued in the stands over who was to blame for Vitoria Guimaraes’ opening goal in the Europa League a week ago. It ended in a fight.
Spoilt, as so many young footballers are among the elite clubs today and of the opinion that they’ve made it when they haven’t done anything in the game yet, captain Maxime Gonalons – hardly an old head himself at 24 – reprimanded Umtiti after he had a Maserati with the number plate ‘Sam 23’ delivered to Lyon’s Tola-Vologe training ground just days after a 2-1 defeat to Ajaccio in full view of disgruntled supporters too.
Rumblings of discontent extend to the running of Lyon too. Once held up as a model club – Simon Kuper and the economist Stefan Szymanski dedicated an entire chapter to them in their book Soccernomics – Lyon were famed for buying low and selling high. They picked up Eric Abidal, Mahamadou Diarra, Michael Essien and Florent Malouda for €23.7m and later cashed in on them to the kerching sound of €98m entering their bank account.
Aulas was hailed as one of Europe’s savviest operators and toughest negotiators rivaling Porto’s Jorge Pinto da Costa and Tottenham’s Daniel Levy. Around six years ago, his touch started to desert him. Lyon paid €18m for Kader Keita. They then blew €14m on Ederson – the new ‘Juninho’ – and €8.5m on John Mensah. Next came Aly Cissokho for €15m – he got schooled by Pinto da Costa on that one – and then Gourcuff for €22m.
The change in policy was stark. After winning seven consecutive league titles, perhaps Lyon felt they needed to spend bigger in order to make the breakthrough in the Champions League, the winning of which Aulas rather hubristically claimed was a case of when and not if. His indulging of Puel however was disastrous.
Though Lyon reached the Champions League semi-finals in 2010, they won nothing under his charge. There was no return at least in silverware on an investment of €168m in players over his three-year spell at the club. Many of their wages have hung like a millstone around Lyon’s necks.
Shifting them has been like pushing against a series of immovable objects. The players of course don’t want to leave because no one is prepared to match what they currently earn, which in turn has meant Lyon have had to sell the kind of players they don’t want to in order to balance the books. Think goalkeeper Hugo Lloris to Tottenham for a pitiful €12.6m last season and someone like Anthony Martial, the jewel of their academy, one of the brightest talents in France, to Monaco for €5m this summer.
Lisandro Lopez and Michel Bastos’ wages have finally been struck off the payroll – though deals to sell them at better rates could have been done a year ago – and Aulas did at least get good money from Southampton for Dejan Lovren, but players like Gourcuff remain. Due an increase each year under the terms of their agreement he’ll take home €7.6m net in this, the final season of his existing deal, a colossal amount for a club that missed out on the Champions League group stages again after losing their play-off to Real Sociedad.
Unable to get Bafetimbi Gomis to agree to a €10.5m move to Newcastle, Lyon were limited in their recruitment: instead of signing France’s promising right-back Sebastian Corchia from Sochaux they had to settle for Miguel Lopes on loan. Gaël Danic was brought in from Valenciennes for €800k and Clement Grenier, the team’s big hope, was given a new contract, the sensation being that he is the future of the team, not Gourcuff who will be released next summer.
These errors of judgement, Lyon’s subsequent decline as a force on the pitch and the global financial crisis couldn’t have come at a worse time as they press on with their efforts to build a new ground, the privately owned 58,000 seater Stade de la Lumieres. Aulas and another shareholder Jerome Seydoux have put in €135m of their own money into the €405m project.
That has proven quite the burden, one that’s been exacerbated by the excesses of the Puel era, and made painful cuts necessary. Garde’s net spend is +€49m [that’s €17m in expenditure and €66m in sales] compared with -€70m under Puel. An income generator like the Stade de la Lumieres is essential if Lyon are to be competitive. Due to open at the end of 2015, its inauguration can’t come soon enough.
Until then, however, like the cyclist he referred to some time ago, Lyon’s legs will be heavy, catching their breath difficult, the oxygen thin. This season promises to be an uphill struggle for Les Gones.