Hitting rock-bottom: What has gone wrong at Lyon?

Lyon's ultras turn up the heat against PSG before berating their own players after falling to a 4-1 defeat. (Photo by Vasile Mihai-Antonio/Getty Images)
Lyon's ultras turn up the heat against PSG before berating their own players after falling to a 4-1 defeat. (Photo by Vasile Mihai-Antonio/Getty Images) /
Lyon at a loss
Lyon’s Portuguese goalkeeper Anthony Lopes puts on a protective mask. He is one of the few longstanding members of a much-changed squad. (Photo by JEFF PACHOUD/AFP via Getty Images) /

Once record-breaking champions of Ligue 1, Lyon are at risk of dropping out of the very league they used to dominate.

Bottom of the first division, with only a single victory to their name, it has been a sharp drop from the top for Olympique Lyonaisse.

Just three years ago, Les Gones were Champions League semifinalists, impressing the continent with their free-flowing attacking football. A decade before, they became the first French side to win seven consecutive titles.

But last season ended with a 7th place finish, disappointing but not disastrous. No one could have predicted what was to come for Lyon.

That, in the opening weeks of the season, the club’s ultras would be publicly berating their players. After a 4-1 defeat to PSG and with 1 point from their first four games, the ultras, microphones in hand, railed at the players:

“You’re wearing the Olympique Lyonnais jersey. You’re the ones who wear the OL jersey. Others before you have worn it, glorified it. You don’t have the right to tarnish it.”

Lyon’s American experiment gone wrong

Many fans have laid the blame of their club’s fate at the new owners. Last December, long-term owner, Jean-Michel Aulas, decided to sell the club to John Textor, another American looking to have his part in the lucrative market of European football.

Textor’s sporting investment company Eagle Football Holdings (EFH) already owned Botafogo in Brazil, RWD Molenbeek in Belgium and had a 40% stake in Crystal Palace. Lyon were just the latest in a relatively successful venture.

The final cost of the buy-out, €900 million, is by far the highest in French footballing history. A sign of Textor’s intent. To impact European football at its highest level.

How things have quickly soured …

The EFH ownership would change the fabric of a club run by the same man since 1987. Aulas originally intended to stay on as director with his now 8% stake, maintaining a stability in this sea of change. But within four months, he was out.

Disagreements in strategy eventually saw him pursuing legal proceedings against the club. The proceedings were described as an “attack” by Lyon that was “as violent as it was illegitimate.” A court disagreed, however, freezing €14.5 million of the clubs assets last month as a result.

This was to be the least of the club’s concerns. Soon after Aulus’ departure, the French financial regulator (DNCG) rejected Lyon’s spending budget due to a lack of sufficient financial guarantees and so limited their ability to sign new talent.

A Textor-made revolving door

Lyon celebrate victory over Rennes
Newcomer Jake O’Brien celebrates Lyon’s winning goal in their 1-0 victory over 10-men Rennes (Photo by SEBASTIEN SALOM-GOMIS/AFP via Getty Images) /

The disappointment was compounded by the departure of 18 players in the summer. Seven of these left on a free transfer, including the likes of Moussa Dembele and Houssem Aouar.

So, although the club did gain €107.2 million in deals from selling the likes of Bardley Barcola to PSG and Castello Lukeba to RB Leipzig, it was far below the overall value of the assets that left.

Due to financial restrictions, only €19.34 million was spent on their replacements, a mixture of loans, free transfers and full fees bringing in 10 largely unknown talents. The arrival of Ernest Nuamah was the most enticing of these. Even his arrival has been shrouded in controversy.

His €25 million fee was initially paid by fellow EFH club Molenbeek before he was immediately loaned out to Lyon the very next day, with the deal set to be made permanent next summer … a totally legitimate complete bending of the rules.

The turnover has not been limited to those on the pitch. Manager Laurent Blanc was sacked in September after their disappointing start to the season. His replacement, Fabio Grosso, has struggled to turn things around.

Despite all of this upheaval amongst the boardroom, managerial and playing staff, many fans have still been left shocked by the club’s instantaneous demise.

Searching for signs of hope

After nine games, Lyon had only scored 7 goals, second lowest in history, and have conceded 18, their highest since the 1969-70 season. After 11 games, they have now scored 9 and conceded 19.

The player turnaround has no doubt had a huge impact. Of the eight players who scored more than once in the league last season, only three remain, including an aging Alexandre Lacazette.

But it is their replacements who have largely underwhelmed, failed to fill the gap. Nuamah has only started five games. Loanees Duje Caleta-Car and Mama Balde have provided little.

Jake O’Brien is possibly the only shining light for the club. The relatively unknown Irish defender has provided impressive cover at the back with speed and strength in the air. His goal against Rennes last time out provided their only victory so far, albeit against 10 men.

So, what is to come for Lyon? The possibility of relegation looms as a realistic threat. Their recent victory provides a glimmer of hope for revival though many still doubt the abilities of Grosso to bring this about.

Textor himself remains hopeful, telling the Financial Times: “You expect some turbulence … Give me a year-and-a-half. Our approach has worked in other markets. We’ll see if it works in Lyon.”

‘We’ll see’ is not exactly a ringing endorsement of faith in your own process. Especially one that was touted as Lyon’s route back to the top and has so far only led them in the opposite direction.

Next. Tension-filled evening at the Maracanã. dark

It will no doubt be a tragedy to see such a giant fall. But perhaps it will be a reminder that the influx of American owners is not the guarantee to success it once seemed.