Overshadowed by Real Madrid’s new “Galacticos” circa 2001 and Man City aka money city’s lavish spending spree a la Chelsea 2004, perennial French heavyweights Lyon – under the cover of the fanfare surrounding Barcelona’s trade by barter plus 40m Euros swap deal for Ibrahimovich and the transfer saga starring Frank Ribery nom de plume “World’s most wanted player” – shelled out an astonishing 70m Euros on new players this summer in an attempt to strengthen and regain its footing domestically, and to a lesser extent, reassert its “tag” as the Champions league’s darkest horse.
Following the somewhat surprise sacking of Lyon’s double trophy winning manager Alain Perrin two seasons ago, most expected the team to continue its dominance and perhaps fare better under the care of disciplinarian new manager Claude Puel.
In addition to the pressure carrying the torch at Lyon, Puel was expected to a cure (or rather address) locker room unrest, transform a lackluster formation under the old regime, shut up shop in defense, provide an alternative to the team’s sheer reliance on Juninho for any creative play and ease the burden placed on Benzema as the sole attacking threat.
To everyone’s astonishment, Puel wholly failed at every task.
Tipped heavily to win its 8th Ligue 1 title in a row, Lyon finished a disappointing third last season. Much worse than its final standing in the table was the team’s sometimes abject display during most of the season as ongoing dressing room squabbles, morbid attacking play and a non-existent defensive unit contributed to a rather forgettable season for Les Gones.
Surprisingly, Claude Puel (Lyon’s first silver-less manager in 7 years) was spared the chop. More surprisingly, his position was further strengthened as the club engaged in a summer spending spree unlike any other in its history.
At the end of the domestic campaign, aging influential midfield lynchpin & club legend Juninho Pernambucano announced his departure from the club and his subsequent retreat to the footballing hotbed of Qatar. Along with Juninho, much heralded wonder-kid Karim Benzema was snapped up by Real Madrid to the tune of €30m and former club record signing turned disaster Kader Keita was sold to Galatasaray for about half his purchase price.
Following the exodus of its best two players, the question on everyone’s lips was how club Chairman Jean Michel Alaus would revamp the club. Would the hard talking horse trader really loosen the purse strings or would he be skimp with the cheque book? And in what can only be described as letting shooing the cat out of the bag, Alaus not only let go of the purse strings, but went as far as ripping its latch with € 70m investment in new faces – some class, others crass.
As the the club’s hierarchy indulged in a lavish spree of top talents, the pressure on Claude Puel grew; could he banish last year’s mishap, integrate the new players into a successful playing style, reclaim the Ligue 1 crown thus silence his critics or was he a marked man, his days all but numbered?
Surely this wasn’t part of the plan; had the best-laid plan of mice and men gone astray?
Before his appointment as Lyon manager, Claude Puel spent 6 years at the helm of Northern French power house Lille OSC. The 2000-01 Ligue 1 title winning manager at Monaco quickly transformed Lille into a defensively astute club with a “never say die” attitude. Furthermore, lacking funds akin to French heavyweights Lyon, Marseille, PSG or Monaco, Puel – within a span of two years – guided the club to a second place finish – its best in over 80 years.
Considered a demi-god by the Les Dogues faithful, he masterminded arguably the club’s greatest ever win as they defeated Manchester United at Old Trafford in the 2005-06 Champions league group stages, and subsequently improved on last year’s results by finishing second in its group the following season, thus qualifying for the second round only to lose to a revenge-eyed Manchester United.
During his time at Lille, Puel groomed the likes starlets Matthieu Chalme, Jean Makoun, Mathieu Bodmer, Kader Keita and Michel Bastos – most of whom ply their trades at Ligue 1’s Big Three. With an absence of financial power, and the yearly sale of the club’s best players, Puel was often exacerbated, and the desire to compete at a higher level eventually resulted in his appointment as Lyon manager.
After the summer transfer hullabaloo at the Stade de Gerland which saw the replacement of Benzema in the shape of FC Porto’s Argentine striker Lizandro Lopez, Lille’s Brazilian playmaker / dead-ball specialist Michel Bastos as playmaker / Juninho clone, the questionable €14m spent on FC Porto’s French fullback Aly Cissokho (who cost Porto €300k twelve months ago from Vitória Setúbal) and the utter daftness of wasting €13m on the most “over-rated” rated player in French domestic football aka Bafetimbi Gomis, the onus was on Lyon to wrestle the title away from the hands of Bordeaux whilst keeping abreast off potential title challengers Marseille.
And once again due to reasons beyond a lay-man’s comprehension, Puel failed to build on his managerial strengthens by overlooking the club’s most graving issue; an overcrowded and non-effective midfield further overshadowed by a center back defensive unit that is deceitful at best, criminal at worst.
Mathieu Bodmer. Kim Kallastrom. Ederson. Miralem Pjanić. The four aforementioned players have, at one period of the other, labeled heir to the Juninho Pernambucano. Yet all have failed to reach the King’s mantle. With a squad and manager preferred two holding midfielders (Makoun & Toulalan), Kallstrom, Ederson and to a lesser extent youngster Pjanic whom are not the most versatile footballers have been inconsistent when employed as the central play-maker.
Kallstrom (once dubbed the Swedish Zidane) has witnessed days as Stade Rennais sorcerer disappear and Ederson – though has shown some brilliant flashes reminiscent of his time at Nice – has come short in big games. Pjanic is young and regarded one for the future while Bodmer has seen his natural attacking instinct almost become a thing of the past as he’s often employed as a center back – mostly due to height, and not any applicable defensive prowess.
If the void of a genuine midfield artist presents a worrying sign to the ardent Lyon fan, the deterioration of its center defensive constituent is a precursor to insomnia. Loic Abenzoar is 20yrs old, yet to feature much for the first team, and is probably best suited to go on loan to gain experience. 29yr old Cleber Anderson just returned from a loan spell at Sao Paolo after failing to settle in French football and stated his desire to return to his homeland.
Joining Anderson down the slippery slope is John Mensah, who was rated the number one player in French football as of the 2006-07 season, has been rather shit since his transfer from Rennais. The Ghanian defender has been heavily linked to English side Sunderland with Lyon chairman Alaus eager to dispose of him.
Last but not the least are preferred center back pair Cris and Boumsong. It goes without saying that footballers lose their place as they become older, but Cris has also managed to lose his defensive positioning which doesn’t bode well for the rest of the error prone Boumsong.
Boumsong is fast (his sole impressive trait), poor in the air, an abject tackler, has horrible positioning, complicates the simplest of tasks and is overly casual when in possession of the ball.
Despite these glaring errors, Puel has failed to bring in any reinforcements to seal a porous defense.
The first impressions of Puel’s Lyon don’t look promising. It’s hard to envision Lyon (in its current state) terrify clubs aiming for the Europa league such as Toulouse, Lille or PSG. And its even harder to conceive title hopefuls Bordeaux and Marseille succumb to the threat posed by a languid Lyon side.
If I were a betting man, i would be tempted to wager a considerate sum of money on the Puel getting the sack before the start of the winter transfer window. Add to that a nice chunk of cash on Lyon finishing in 3rd place. It’s still early days in the new season with considerable time left for the team to address its shortcomings, but all signs point to another enigmatic season for Olympique Lyonnais.