The common joke about Ligue 1 is that instead of asking “who will win the title”, it’s more so “how many points will PSG win the league by”. As it turns out, PSG can win the league by a crap ton. But if you rewind it back to late July, there were the faint whispers that Lyon could be the team that pushed PSG for the majority of the season, kind of in a similar way to what Napoli did for Juventus. I was a bit skeptical of that happening seeing as quite a few things had to break in Lyon’s favor last season for Ligue 1 to be as competitive as it was, and they benefitted from conversion luck especially in the 2nd half of the season.
But even then, I wasn’t expecting Lyon to capitulate in the first 19 games to the same degree that they did. They were quite frankly… average. They were 9th in the league table with a goal difference of 0, 25 points behind PSG. The same Lyon team that were tipped to at least give PSG a bit of a fight domestically were behind such big clubs like Lorient, Caen, and newly promoted Angers. They were terrible in the Champions League despite making a big fuss about how getting back into the competition allowed them to spend more than they had in numerous years.
Their spending as well came into question. Mathieu Valbuena’s fit was always awkward from the start, a set piece specialist who relied on crosses to create his high volume of chances was always going to have problems fitting in with a team that doesn’t rely on crosses. Claudio Beauvue never really fitted in well when they played him alongside Alexandre Lacazette in a front 2 and his conversion rate dropping by over 12% from 20.5% last season to 7.8% also didn’t help things. Sergi Darder was still getting used to Lyon while it seemed like Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa was committing an error at center back every other week.
It also didn’t help that they were stricken by injury to their prized striker duo. Nabil Fekir tearing his ACL at the time he did (after scoring an audacious hat trick against Caen and looking like an elite young talent) put even more pressure on Lacazette to deliver and considering that Lacazette was dealing with back issues over the first couple of months, it was a recipe for disaster. It panned out that way: shorn of elite talent, Lyon played meekly in the beginning of the season.
And then boom, 5 months later and all those problems kind of just went away. Lyon have been a dominant team ever since the winter break. Their goal difference at +24 is the 2nd highest in Ligue 1, 14 more than the third highest in Lille. Their first 19 games this season have barely resembled the last 19:
Remember when Lyon were challenging for the title last year and they were a couple of points behind Marseille after 19 games last season? Well this stretch of games has arguably been even more dominant than that one.
What’s triggered the explosion for Lyon in the second half has been the return of form for Alexandre Lacazette. I mentioned him earlier this season and the issues surrounding his outlier performance last season, but it can be argued that Lacazette has now had his best ever season and he went on a torrid hot streak. The same can be said for both him and the likes of Rachid Ghezzal and Maxwell Cornet. Lyon ditched the 4-4-2 diamond formation that brought them all their success last season and eventually ended up with those three as their forwards in a permanent 4-3-3.
So this season has been… I’m not sure if success is the right word to use considering that they’re a billion points behind PSG, but getting back to the CL group stages once again will mean that it hasn’t been a failure. Their second half form in particular has been so dominant that it’s almost wiped the foul stench of the first 19 games. The type of performances in particular at home were exhilarating. They were the first team to ruin PSG’s bid for an undefeated season, they walked over Guingamp 5-1, they beat Monaco 6-1 to clinch an automatic birth in the CL group stages. Some of the best football in France this season have occurred in Lyon’s new stadium, Parc Olympique Lyonnais.
Another good thing for Lyon going forward is that domestic competition from teams around their level might be on the decline as well. Monaco have had a disappointing season; last summer’s approach of just buying a bunch of youngsters and hoping for the best hasn’t produced the greatest of results so far. They do have a bigger budget than Lyon but still have more holes to fill. Nice and Rennes have had solid seasons but Hatem Ben Arfa is leaving on a free at season’s end while Rennes are selling their prized young talent Ousmane Dembele to Dortmund. Saint Etienne over the past few years have never proved that they’ve had enough talent to be a serious enough Champions League hopeful while Marseille are in for a long rebuild unless things drastically change. Sure PSG are still there and with all their money they’ll always have a big cushion over everyone else, but even they might be staring at some retooling with Zlatan leaving this summer.
This isn’t to say that it’s all rosy for Lyon. There have been numerous rumors about Lacazette’s interest in coming to England and even though Lyon will be in the CL next season, those rumors won’t stop during the summer. Nabil Fekir is still working his way back to his peak form and the faint scent of rumors for their prized centre back, Samuel Umtiti persist. It’s also not a good look when they spent as much as they did for Valbuena and their best stretch has involved him being nowhere near the starting lineup. Despite how good they’ve been this season, this is a rather small squad and it showed early on when they had to juggle both European and domestic football.
For all that, Ligue 1 desperately needs another decent team in Europe very soon and Lyon is France’s best chance at it. They have the stadium to bring in the revenue they’ve desired for since the project began nearly a decade ago, this will be their second straight season with Champions League football to entice players to come over and they have a great academy that in particular has been able to produce attacking talent. From the likes of Karim Benzema, Anthony Martial, Alassane Plea and now recently with Fekir and Aldo Kalulu. Again, look at everyone else in comparison and Lyon by far are in a more steady place. It’s a far cry from the dark days of 2012-14 when the club had to sell players and solely rely on their academy just to keep itself functional.
Lyon have a lot to look forward to in the near future. Admittedly some of this will depend on whether they can keep Lacazette going forward and if not, what will their contingency plan be. The likes of Cornet, Fekir and Kalulu mean that Lyon at least have the basis for a decent attack if they sell Lacazette and just stick in house. Nobody knows if Bruno Genesio is truly Lyon’s manager of the future, I mean hell at this time last season it looked like Lyon had their manager in Hubert Fournier and that bubble burst by December. But at the very least he’s overseen Lyon’s dominant 2nd half of the season and appears to have pointed them in the right direction.
Four months ago if you asked whether Lyon had a shot of just being in the Champions League next season, the majority of people would’ve been hugely skeptical. Now, Ligue 1 has a potential for a 2nd above average continental team in Lyon. If this version can remain in place for next season, then both Ligue 1 and Lyon will be in a much better place going forward.