It’s not as if it hasn’t happened before, an academy product replacing a much more highly regarded talent in Lyon’s starting eleven. Even as recently as last season, Nicolas N’Koulou was often benched for the young defender Mouctar Diakhaby, despite being on an eye-watering wage packet. In seasons past, Jimmy Briand was shifted to the wing to make space for Alexandre Lacazette, and Maxime Gonalons got his first chances in the side at the expense of Jean II Makoun.
This season, it appears that Memphis Depay, despite having only been at the Parc OL since January, is in real danger of becoming the next name in that sequence. The Dutchman’s first few months at Lyon were decent enough, but the likes of Maxwel Cornet and Rachid Ghezzal hardly offered the stiffest competition, and his goal and assist numbers were hardly a fair reflection of his overall contribution.
More was expected of him in the current campaign; alongside Nabil Fékir and summer signings Bertrand Traoré and Mariano Diaz, Lyon’s rejuvenated attack would place an emphasis on youth and dynamism, with Fékir being named captain as a nod to his importance in this regard.
Lyon, now winless in four after failing to beat Atalanta in the Europa League yesterday, have struggled somewhat in defence, but in benching Depay for youngster Houssem Aouar in the team’s last two matches, manager Bruno Génésio may have uncovered the club’s next breakthrough player. Diakhaby had impressed in flashes last season, but Lyon had generally struggled in recent times to see an academy player make a strong impression.
The signings of the likes of Lucas Tousart, Tanguy Ndombélé, Cornet and the now-departed Emanuel Mammana had seen the club buy younger players in lieu of the next Lacazette or Corentin Tolisso appearing, but Aouar looks set to break that cycle.
Only 19, Aouar had made his official first start for Lyon in the infamous Bastia match of last season, but aside from a handful of substitute appearances, had barely played. That appeared to continue to be the case this season, as a fit Depay looked eager to build on what had been a step up in form from his time at Manchester United, no longer having Ghezzal and Mathieu Valbuena as obstacles to his place in the first team.
Aouar was given the start against Dijon last weekend, but at home against a seemingly middling opponent, it seemed more the case that Génésio was resting players with an eye on yesterday’s match against a weaker opponent, as both Cornet and Depay were left out of the squad entirely.
What followed last Saturday, however, was quite impressive. Despite Lyon failing to beat Dijon, Aouar looks a natural. Wiry but strong, he plays with the same sort of positional versatility that is seen elsewhere in attack with Fékir and Traoré. Able to move inside or switch flanks, Aouar’s relationship with Traoré and Fékir has immediately given Lyon more ability on the ball, and more creativity.
His goal against Dijon also showed how he can take more central roles, even swapping positions with Diaz to add another threat in the box for Lyon. Along with that willingness to play on the ball has come an impressive relationship with Ferland Mendy, the young left back signed in the summer from Le Havre, seeing Aouar frequently cutting inside to allow the defender to provide more natural width.
Aouar is similarly able to go wide himself, but he really shines on the ball, playing a more inverted role although not to an overly selfish extent. His strength allows him to carry the ball and consistently earn free kicks in dangerous positions, while not being remiss in looking for his teammates.
This last aspect is particularly important, as Depay, despite his talent, can be maddeningly selfish with the ball at his feet. The Dutchman is still only 23, but has played enough football to know his limitations, or so one would hope. However, he is often let down by his touch, insisting on attempting to use his pace, rather than his technical ability to beat his man.
Aouar has no such compunction about relying on guile over speed, although not because he is particularly slow, but rather that he seems able to take a more holistic view of how the team’s attacking strengths (Diaz’s aerial ability, Fékir’s powerful shooting, Traoré’s dribbling) function and complement them rather than, as Depay is wont to do, attempt to make himself the focal point.
That is not to say Aouar plays as a sort of shrinking violet, as he showed against Atalanta. His strength and drive against the veteran Andrea Masiello impressed, and he was also more than happy to track back defensively, not only giving his side a bit more of a solid outlook but also more freedom for Mendy to get forward.
This all comes, of course, with the caveat that it has only been two matches, neither of which Lyon won, and against hardly the highest calibre of opponent, but the early signs for Aouar are promising indeed.
Depay has the talent to make the battle for the starting role more competitive, to be sure, and may feature against Angers on Sunday, but only through rotation. For the moment, Aouar is the deserved starter, and Lyon’s renewed emphasis on youth looks set to be led by one of its own.
For a club at which the mood had been rather dour following the summer’s sales of Tolisso and Lacazette and failure to qualify for the Champions’ League, Aouar represents a genuine hope for the future. If managed carefully, he can no doubt scale the heights of Fékir and Lacazette, and hopefully propel what is a talented but at times slightly incoherent team back into the top three.