James Eastham: How Lyon’s youthful brilliance is lighting up Ligue 1

It can sometimes be difficult to stay positive about events at the top end of European football, dominated as it is by obscene sums of money, multi-million-euro contracts and what can appear to be a cartel of agents, players and managers annually dividing up the spoils between themselves.

So we latch on to reasons to be cheerful when they come along – and right now, there’s no bigger reason to be cheerful in Ligue 1 than Lyon and the youthful promise they are showing week after week.

Lyon have had a reputation for producing good young footballers for many years but they have surely never had as many homegrown youngsters in their squad as they do at the moment. The Lyon side that thrashed 10-man Bordeaux 5-0 at Bordeaux’s Stade Chaban-Delmas on December 21 contained no fewer than eight players from the club’s youth ranks – Anthony Lopes, Samuel Umtiti, Maxime Gonalons, Corentin Tolisso, Jordan Ferri, Alexandre Lacazette, Nabil Fekir and Clinton N’Jie – while two more (Rachid Ghezzal and Mohamed Yattara) came off the bench.

The 2014-15 stats are remarkable. Of the 23 players Lyon have used in Ligue 1, 13 (57%) are products of the club’s academy. Of the 18,810 minutes Lyon players have cumulatively spent on the pitch in Ligue 1 this season, 12,062 of those minutes, or 64%, have been used up by homegrown products.

This emphasis on youth is bearing fruit. Before 2014-15 kicked-off Lyon were considered no better than top-six contenders. With 19 of 38 games gone they sit second in the standings, 1pt ahead of PSG and only 2pts behind leaders Marseille. And Lyon are doing better than simply winning games; they’re playing some of the most entertaining football in the division.

What makes it all so heartening is this represents a return to the values that turned Lyon into such a formidable force in the French game in the first place.

During the 2000s, when Lyon won seven straight French league titles, there was always room for talented homegrown players alongside expensive imports and domestic signings.

Karim Benzema and Hatem Ben Arfa grew up alongside Gregory Coupet, Cris and Juninho Pernambucano. It was that balance that made Lyon such an irresistible proposition, such an honourable standard-bearer for French football on the European stage.

Things started to go wrong when Lyon forgot their traditional values. In 2009, the club decided it was the right time to embark on an unprecedented spending spree in order to regain control of Ligue 1 (they had just lost the title to Bordeaux) and realise their dream of reaching the Champions League final.

The summer they blew €70m on Lisandro Lopez (€24m) and Aly Cissokho (€15m) from FC Porto, Michel Bastos (€18m) from Lille and Bafetimbi Gomis (€13m) from St Etienne. It soon became clear the policy was folly. In May 2010 it was Marseille, not Lyon, that were crowned Ligue 1 champions – but Lyon refused to bend. In August 2010 they spent €26.5m on Yoann Gourcuff (Bordeaux) – yet ironically in 2010-11 Lille completed a Ligue 1 and French Cup double with an ideal starting XI that cost about as much as Gourcuff’s left leg (€11m).*

Yoann Gourcuff-2
Things got worse when Lyon missed out on the Champions League places altogether in 2011-12. The loss of that all-important European TV money meant they no longer had the revenue to cover their massive salaries. So they had to sell their star players, cut back on spending – and pray the youth academy cupboard wasn’t entirely bare.

Fortunately for Lyon, the cupboard was stocked full of talent. There were signs of promise last season, but this season it has moved on to a whole new level. Wasted on the wing when in his younger years, Alexandre Lacazette (aged 23) is now playing as a central striker and has been Ligue 1’s outstanding player in 2014-15 (14 non-penalty goals in 19 games at a rate of a goal every 121 minutes); captain and elder statesman Max Gonalons (25) continues to do a fine job in front of the defence; Samuel Umtiti (21) is firmly established as one of France’s most agile young centre-backs; Corentin Tolisso (20) is a versatile midfielder that can also operate at right-back; fellow midfielder Jordan Ferri (22) is stocky, mobile and packs a powerful shot; and Nabil Fekir (21) is a fantastically exciting second striker recently linked with moves to Manchester City and Arsenal. On the fringes, Bahlouli (19), Benzia (20), Yattara (21), N’Jie (21) and Ghezzal (22) are a quintet of highly promising attackers that should improve over the next couple of years.

Lyon’s youngsters are performing so well the question is: can they turn Ligue 1 into a three-horse race? All season the focus has been on PSG and Marseille but Lyon are right up there and look increasingly capable of staying the distance.

Like Marseille, Lyon have no European football to distract them. Unlike Marseille, they are under hardly any pressure because no-one really expects them to challenge for the title. And crucially, Lyon should be even stronger in the second-half of the season.

It seems incredible considering how well they’ve done, but Lyon have played virtually the entire season without three of their best four midfielders. Gourcuff has started only three of 19 games because of injuries; fellow France international Clement Grenier and ex-France U21 international Gueida Fofana have yet to kick a ball in Ligue 1 in 2014-15 for the same reasons. Lyon are hopeful all three will be fully fit in early 2015; if that happens, coach Hubert Fournier will feel as though he has three new signings.

Stade de Reims v Olympique de Marseille - Ligue 1
So if anyone tells you Ligue 1 is a two-way fight between PSG and l’OM, set them straight. But even if Lyon don’t win the title, 2014-15 will undoubtedly go down as a successful season. Every week they’re reminding us what a fantastic club they are, and Ligue 1 is all the better for it.

Other posts by