Winless in the league for over a month, with any chance at the Champions’ League rapidly slipping away, things are not looking good for one of the country’s most successful clubs of the last twenty years. With the misery generated by that poor run of form in the league compounded by a listless elimination from a domestic cup and only a victory over an overmatched opponent in the Europa League serving as a bulwark against his dismissal, the team’s French manager in particular has come under heavy pressure of late. While Arsène Wenger would, of course, also fit this description, Bruno Génésio at Lyon seems to be taking a page from the veteran Gunners boss with Lyon’s poor recent form.
Almost from the moment he took the job following the departure of the hapless Hubert Fournier, Génésio has had his critics, with #GénésioDemission (#GénésioResign) frequently trending on Twitter after Lyon have underwhelmed. These naysayers do have their merits, as he is sometimes given to bizarre tactical experiments (see last week’s switch to a three-man defence) or strange substitution patterns, but he is hardly the first manager at Lyon to have his position undermined by the club’s hierarchy, and his successes (pipping Monaco to second in 2015-16, last year’s Europa League run) are impressive given the club’s propensity towards selling players.
Ever the beacon of austerity, club chairman Jean-Michel Aulas continued in that tradition with a vengeance last summer, selling Alexandre Lacazette, Corentin Tolisso, Mathieu Valbuena, Maxime Gonalons and Emanuel Mammana. Taken individually, each of the transfers made sense, as the fees received for Lacazette and Tolisso in particular made a good deal of sense given that both players were academy products and probably could have departed earlier, while the other three were, respectively, looking for a final big payday, no longer first choice at their position, and still unproven. The sale of Mammana may rankle to some extent given his fine play for Zenit St. Petersburg this season vis-a-vis the miniscule profit turned for him, but Aulas also brought in an impressive cadre of young talent to replace those departed.
Mariano Diaz and Tanguy N’Dombélé have been unqualified successes this season, while Ferland Mendy and Kenny Tete are approaching that level. Bertrand Traoré has struggled with injury, but he, Marcelo and Fernando Marcal have all had their moments as well. Meanwhile, while Maxwel Cornet and Lucas Tousart had emerged in prior seasons, they have continued to burnish their reputations in the current campaign. Pape Cheikh Diop, no snip at €10m from Celta Vigo, remains an enigma, but he should be given the benefit of the doubt considering the role injuries have played in his campaign to date.
Thus, Aulas has soldiered on, and despite his parsimony, Lyon looked to be favorites for second place as recently as six weeks ago, having edged a ten-man PSG at home to move to within eight points of the capital side. Over the following matches, however, Lyon have failed to win, compiling the league’s worst record in that span. This spell has undoubtedly been frustrating for the club’s supporters but are those who would have Génésio sent packing in the right, or does the blame lay more squarely at the feet of the president?
The team have struggled lately with a series of niggling injuries, with Anthony Lopes, Nabil Fekir, Rafael, Mariano and most recently young defender Mouctar Diakhaby all missing matches. None of these absences have been longer than a handful of matches, but they are clearly the sign of a squad that is poorly constructed being affected by fatigue, something which is not the fault of Génésio, but rather Aulas.
While there are some veteran players in the side (Marcelo, Morel, Memphis Depay, Lopes), the sheer number of players who are in the very early stages of their professional career means that there are many in the squad are simply not physically ready to deal with the demands of playing every third or fourth day as Lyon try their best to keep themselves alive in the Europa League whilst maintaining a top three position domestically.
Aulas looks to have purchased another impressive youngster in Lille’s Martin Terrier this January, but how does he see fit not to bring in a recognized striker to back up Mariano (whose constant haring after goalkeepers is admirable, but also places him at greater-than-average risk)? What of a fourth central defender, seeing as Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa has become persona non-grata, with not even an appearance on the bench since December?
Even another orthodox defensive midfielder would seem to be useful, as aside from Tousart, Lyon are decidedly lacking in that position. Seeing the players that have arrived into Ligue 1 in January, whether on loan or for a bargain price (Martin Braithwaite, Diafra Sakho, Paul Baysse), one cannot help but wonder how Aulas can countenance this sort of approach given the potential to do better, particularly as his philosophy of developing young talent appears to have hit another snag this past week.
Lyon are no stranger to seeing young players leave on the cheap of late, as Yassine Benzia, Jordy Gaspar and Naby Sarr have all departed, to no great regret of the club (although the jury remains out on Gaspar, who moved to Monaco on a free transfer). However, these departures made sense for the development of the players, who variously saw their path to the first team blocked by others not significantly older than themselves. Thus, the announcement that the team made this week concerning teenage centre forward Willem Guebbels, who appears set to leave in the summer, presumably for Monaco is rather troubling.
In their communiqué published late on Thursday evening, the club slams Guebbels and his “entourage” for the player not taking up the club’s offer of a first professional contract. Guebbels is perhaps somewhat right to be frustrated by not being given more opportunities in the current season, with Mariano rarely rested and Myziane Maolida seemingly ahead of him in the pecking order, but the rapid emergence of Houssem Aouar should put lie to opportunities not arising if they’re merited at the club. To call out the player, and indeed Monaco in such public fashion seems not only rash but badly out of touch with the current reality of the game.
Lyon’s press release had specifically mentioned Kylian Mbappé, whose emergence was rather meteoric for Monaco, likely in an attempt to drive up Guebbels’ price, but how can one imagine recouping a large sum for a player who has been publicly names as being want-away? Calling out Guebbels’ family even in the face of a rejection of what the club termed a “super-normal” offer of “professional” compensation seems a foolhardy tactic, and one which is not only unlikely to entice more young players of the likes of Cornet, Tousart or N’Dombélé to come to Lyon, nor do the same as regards keeping the team’s academy graduates.
Thus, circling back to the initial parallel made between Arsenal and Lyon, perhaps the issue is not a manager who has overachieved despite limited resources regressing to the mean, but a ham-fisted, narrow-minded, even antiquated approach to player transfer policy. The Nantes right back Léo Dubois is set to join on a free in the summer, and it’s hard to see Aulas yet selling any key components of the current side, so a marked improvement could yet come to pass, but unless the team’s president humbles himself and sets about building a squad properly, and without alienating prospects, this could very well herald a similar slide from relevance, both on and off the pitch, for the once-vaunted Lyon.