The French club have been forced to innovate after losing their way following a decade of dominance
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. Continue reading
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