What Happened to the All-Conquering Lyon Side of the 2000s?
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Juninho Pernambucano, Gregory Coupet, Florent Malouda, Sidney Govou, Sylvain Wiltord, Hatem Ben Arfa, Mahamadou Diarra, Benoit Pedretti and Fred. Those were some of the players on the field for the hosts on September 13, 2005, when Olympique Lyonnais thumped Real Madrid’s Galacticos 3-0 at the Stade Gerland.
The Real Madrid side that night boasted the likes of David Beckham, Raul, Iker Casillas, Robinho, Sergio Ramos and Roberto Carlos, but they were completed outclassed by Gerard Houllier’s rampant OL team.
President Jean-Michel Aulas’ expensively assembled side had been expected to go on to conquer Europe, or at least to go close following that result and steadily progress under predecessor Paul le Guen.
Le Guen had taken the side to the Champions League quarterfinals and secured four consecutive Ligue 1 titles to lay the foundations for Houllier, but that success was not forthcoming. The club only managed to go one step further.
A 4-0 dismantling at the hands of Bayern Munich in 2010's semifinal under Claude Puel has been their most successful European campaign to date, and even that came long after the majority of star names had left the French giants.
Lyon’s domestic hegemony had ended the season before in 2009, and since then les Gones ("the Kids" in local Arpitan dialect) have declined to title contenders as opposed to title favourites.
Lyon Becomes a Selling Club
Michael Essien was a key component of Lyon's business strategy—on and off the pitch
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To sustain the progress made since 2002 when OL won their first ever Ligue 1 title, Lyon became a selling club. President Jean-Michel Aulas was quick to recognise the appreciation in value of some of his star talent and set about buying up the best domestic talent before selling it on at a profit to some of Europe’s biggest sides.
The likes of Karim Benzema, Michael Essien, Florent Malouda and Mahamadou Diarra were all nurtured at the club and then sold on to another European rival for a high transfer fee, ripping out the spine of each successful OL side. However, those sales were offset by the replacement purchases of the likes of Jeremy Toulalan from Nantes and the promotion of high-quality youth academy products from within.
The Well of Talent Dries Up
Lisandro Lopez swapped progress at Porto for the promise of Lyon
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One of the major factors behind Lyon’s early success was the brilliant sourcing of low-cost talent from major exporting continents such as South America, Africa and some (at that time) smaller European leagues such as those in Portugal.
Talent such as Fred, Nilmar, Essien, Malouda, Diarra, Eric Abidal, Hugo Lloris and Miralem Pjanic all came from various continents at low cost or were sourced domestically and poached from rival youth academies at a young age. Once reared, these players were then sold on for a higher price to sustain Lyon’s position as France’s flagship side.
It wasn’t long before Aulas’ methods were recognised by European rivals, though. Portuguese sides such as Porto and Benfica have since taken OL’s early business model and adapted it whilst the French side stand still.
Lisandro Lopez arrived in 2009 from Porto when he was coveted by a number of big-name European sides. The chances of a similar sort of move happening now are slim given the shift in status between the two leagues.
The acquisition of Kader Keita was a costly error for Aulas
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As a reaction to other clubs’ recognition of Lyon’s successful sourcing of talent, Aulas embarked on an uncharacteristic spending spree to preserve the status of his club. OL are still paying for this today, as the President seeks to slash an over-inflated wage budget after a series of disappointing transfers.
The arrivals of the likes of Kader Keita, Mathieu Bodmer, Jean II Makoun and Michel Bastos from Lille and Fabio Grosso, Cesar Delgado, Kim Kallstrom and Bafetimbi Gomis came at high cost.
All enjoyed, and some still enjoy, varying degrees of success. But perhaps it is the example of Aly Cissokho who arrived from Porto six months after joining the Portuguese champions for a measly €300,000 at a staggering €15 million, or Yoann Gourcuff’s princely €22 million transfer that best demonstrates the panicked nature of Aulas’ dealings.
The most costly arrivals of Keita, Cissokho, Kallstrom, Grosso and Makoun all left for relatively little in the following years after having earned huge amounts in wages.
The youth academy products that were expected to step in to replace those sold on at higher cost did not live up to their high expectations either.
Puel was the wrong man at the wrong time for Lyon
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With big-name players being brought in at even bigger prices, the pressure to continue domestic domination and make European progress at the same time was huge.
Alain Perrin succeeded Houllier and became the first OL manager to win the double despite only being in charge for a year. Claude Puel was next to come in after working wonders with Monaco, before laying the foundations for Rudi Garcia’s much-admired recent Lille side after the arrival of Michel Seydoux in 2002.
Puel, becoming the fourth coach in four years at Stade Gerland, was the first coach to lead OL to the Champions League semifinals. However, he was also the first coach to fail to win the Ligue 1 title, something that has not yet been rectified. Criticised for playing a number of expensive stars out of position in an effort to prove Aulas’ off-field tactics correct, Lyon’s demise continued until his sacking in 2011.
Although now under the guidance of vibrant young coach Remi Garde and currently top of the league, this season is the first time Lyon have not been in the Champions League since their early domestic triumphs.
It's all smiles in Paris but less happy times for Aulas and Lyon
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Finally, the arrival of new money in the capital signalled the end of Lyon’s time as the dominant force in French football. No longer able to compete on the pitch, Aulas’ fiscal model has been blown out of the water by the millions on display in Paris.
With the capital club going from strength to strength and showing no signs of decreasing their spending as they still await their first title in 19 years, it is to Lyon’s credit that they are even challenging at all.
The productivity of the youth academy has kept the club going as Aulas continually rips the heart out of his teams in an effort to balance the books.