No one, and I repeat, no one could have expected what came from Olympique Lyonnais last season. Lyon were still at a point financially where they had to solely rely on their famous youth academy to get them by as their new stadium was still being constructed. It’s been that way for the last few years with Lyon as player transfer spending was cut dramatically. After having a seven year peak of dominating French football and being a relevant power in Europe, Lyon went through an awkward transition period that saw them significantly drop.
It was super exciting to see Lyon have the season they did. It was a nice blend of the young talent that came through the youth academy with the veteran talent that was still present. Alexandre Lacazette went from a solid striker to one of the hottest properties in Europe. Nabil Fekir looked like a potential once in a generation caliber player while Clinton N’Jie had his electrifying moments as part of Lyon’s attacking three, which helped him foster his move to Tottenham this summer.
The success of last year and the new stadium being ready to open in January 2016 allowed Lyon to do something they haven’t done in years: spend money on players. Lyon had a net spend of €14.4M this summer, the highest it’s been since 2010-11. It was a clear sign of intention that Jean-Michel Aulas wanted Lyon to be back as a permanent Champions League participant for years to come and get close to the heights they attained previously during the 2000’s.
Full disclosure: I didn’t think Lyon would be anywhere close to PSG this season, even before the Nabil Fekir ACL tear. In the stupidly long preview I did for Ligue 1 this season, I thought that while talented, Lyon benefitted from a lot of things going their way (one of them being PSG were in a state of flux) and they probably wouldn’t get that same luck again. In many ways, I thought were a junior version of 2013-14 Liverpool. Combine that with PSG getting a game changer in Angel Di Maria and asking Lyon to replicate what they did last season was almost to the point of dreaming.
Even with the probable chance for regression, I thought Lyon would be more vibrant to start the season and could nestle in as the best of the rest in France. I liked the addition of Claudio Beauvue (but more so under the impression that they would keep N’Jie), and adding Mathieu Valbuena was a calculated risk. A front three of Valbuena/Fekir/Lacazette on paper was really talented, even though a decent argument could be made that Valbuena and Fekir overlap somewhat stylistically.
Before the knee injury to Fekir, Lyon’s attack could be best described as insipid. It didn’t help that Lacazette was carrying a back injury for the first few weeks. Only against Caen did Lyon look half decent going forward, and that was mostly due to Fekir going supernova. The pace of play was too slow for what Lyon would ideally like to do, and teams congested the middle to effectively dare Lyon to create from crosses. Lyon were in the bottom three last season in crosses per game and chances created from crosses.
What made Lyon super interesting last year was that their style and numbers didn’t really intersect each other. Last season Lyon were the high flying club that had good but not close to great shot numbers. This season is somewhat more opposite; Lyon haven’t looked special visually but their underlying data looks pretty solid. They’re 6th in expected points at 13.89 points, 5th in expected goal difference, 2nd in shots on target ratio and 2nd in Team Rating. Perhaps the best thing for Lyon is that they’ve slowly started to look better visually as well. Valbuena was great against Marseille (especially considering Marseille tried to kick him off the pitch), Lacazette in his last two games has looked alive and more like himself and their midfield has looked good. Yes they lost 3-1 to Bordeaux on Saturday, but that looked a more or less a pretty freaky result.
A good portion of Lyon’s really good statistical numbers has been due to their defense. I thought Anthony Lopes made Lyon’s defense look a hell of a lot better than it should’ve. He did for them, what Hugo Lloris did for Spurs (While we’re at it, I think Anthony Lopes is going to have a better peak than Hugo Lloris and we’ll talk about him as one of the better goalies in Europe very soon). This season, Lopes hasn’t been needed quite as much as he was last year. Lyon rank second in expected goals against, and have given up the least amount of shots in the danger zone this season. And it’s not like the schedule has even been that easy for them. They’ve played Bordeaux, Caen and Marseille on the road, three of the better attacking teams in France.
It seems like the best midfield three for Lyon could be Maxime Gonalons, Corentin Tolisso and Sergi Darder. Statistically, Tolisso is pretty average in the standard metrics we use to look at midfielders, but I love his game and his ability to either make runs into the penalty area or drop back at a moment’s notice and be the deepest midfielder. It also helps that he could probably play 3-4 positions on the field at an adequate-very good level. Gonalons is good, albeit he might be slightly overrated, but nonetheless, still quality and Darder looked really promising versus Marseille. Lyon’s CB core of Samuel Umtiti, Milan Bisevac and Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa is solid and Bakary Kone as a 4th CB is a hell of a lot better than him having to play over 2000 minutes.
I just wish that I was more confident in their ability to create offense, which again is weird considering what they did last season. As much as I love Lacazette as a talent, there are massive red flags with his ability replicate something close to his 19 non penalty goal output. The Fekir injury was just a bummer. He really looked like he was announcing himself as the next big thing in Europe who would be courted by mega clubs very soon. Beauvue/Lacazette as a front pairing hasn’t been inspiring and just like Valbuena/Fekir, the striker duo have issues as a tandem. In a sad way, the Fekir injury will probably be good news for Valbuena as he now gets to be the creative force for Lyon. Also the performance of Aldo Kalulu versus Bastia during the midweek was very promising. He’s another young attacking player with pace that’s come up from the youth academy. If Kalulu could be this year’s Clinton N’Jie, it would make the front three flow much seamlessly.
If Lyon’s defense can play at this sort of level throughout the entire season and limit their dependence on Lopes’ brilliance to a minimum, they’ll finish as one of the three best teams in Ligue 1 even if the attack remains in this type of state. The contenders around them have their own warts that are arguably more telling. Monaco look like an absolute mess in defense, Marseille have been in a state of chaos since Marcelo Bielsa left, Nice have all the lucky horseshoes a team could possibly acquire and Saint Etienne have been okay so far but have been the beneficiaries of a favorable schedule + red cards . Just how much Lyon’s attack can recover could be the difference between a top 3 finish and perhaps the faint hopes of a title challenge in Ligue 1.