Olympique Lyonnais 2016-17 Season Preview: Another Title Challenge on the Horizon?
Flashback to the beginning of April 2015 and Ligue 1 was in the midst of a mini renaissance as a league. They were host to the best title race in Europe as PSG/Lyon/Marseille were within two points of each other while the likes of Monaco and Saint Etienne were nipping at the heels ready to join that threesome. It could've been the beginnings of a new era in French Football where it wasn't just a one team monopoly. As the story goes, Marseille flamed out in spectacular fashion and missed out on the Champions League while Lyon didn't have enough gas in the tank to beat out PSG for the title but still had their best season in years. However the goodwill didn't carry through as last season amounted to a stroll through the park for PSG with Lyon floundering until the winter break and Marseille collapsing with their ownership turmoil.
This season? Well Lyon to this point have kept their prized player Alexandre Lacazette out of Arsenal's grasps and the closer we get to the season starting, the chances Arsenal meet Lyon's rumored asking price get smaller. They've made a big show about how they're going to maintain their stars and to this point they've mostly succeeded. Add in the fact that PSG are going through some retooling and no one else domestically are anywhere close, and if there was any year for a non PSG team to sneak up and snatch the league, it'd be this one for Lyon.
Shot Dif Rank 2nd
SoT Dif Rank: 2nd
Big Chance Dif Rank: 2nd
xG Dif Rank: 2nd
There were two versions of Lyon that existed in 2015-16: The one that languished through the first 19 games which featured a horrible CL campaign, a mid-table position, infighting within the players and injuries to their two main attacking players in Lacazette and Nabil Fekir. And then there was the other version of Lyon that were as dynamic as ever, featured an in-form Lacazette who looked like himself again, and played their best 19 game stretch of football in years, better than at any point in their title chasing 14-15 season.
||Big Chance +/-
|First 19 games 15-16
|Last 19 games 15-16
On the aggregate Lyon came out as the 2nd best team in France, which well you look at that, they finished in 2nd place. Sure they ended a million points behind PSG but had their first half of the season been relatively sane, they probably would've ended up being ~12 points behind PSG. So which Lyon are we supposed to believe? The one that couldn't go one month without a major incident imploding them or the one that hipsters were intrigued with coming into the season. If I was forced to choose, I have more belief that the Lyon we saw in the second half of the season was much closer to their true talent level. I mean they're the team that ended PSG's waltz to an undefeated domestic season!
Transfers In: Emanuel Mammana, Nicolas N'Koulou
Transfers Out: Samuel Umtiti, Henri Bedimo, Bakary Kone, Lindsay Rose
Outside shuffling some deck chairs in the defense, Lyon have continued their trend of not selling their best players unless they get something close to fair value for them. Samuel Umtiti within Lyon's defensive structure was very good but getting €25M for him is probably a fair enough price. Despite being in the Lyon starting XI for a few seasons, he's still only 22 which is kind of nuts. But getting N'Koulou for free and Mammana as replacements are fine transactions. The last time N'Koulou had a proper manager to learn from was Marcelo Bielsa and he had a very fine season even though it was injury plagued. I really couldn't tell you much about Emanuel Mammana seeing as I've watched two South American games in my lifetime, but maybe he does well in a league more favorable to defenses.
The other big rumor with Lyon was that their prized midfielder Corentin Tolisso was off to Napoli. Losing Tolisso would've been a blow to Lyon and made it harder to construct an argument for them chasing PSG. In addition to his ability to play multiple roles at a fairly high level as a midfielder alongside some spot duty at RB, Lyon's midfield core without him would've been pretty shallow. After you get past the likes of Sergi Darder, Maxime Gonalons and Jordan Ferri, it's basically youngsters they've poached from other clubs like Lucas Tousart and Oliver Kemen to fill the role. However with Lyon apparently keeping hold of Tolisso for another season, now Lyon's midfield won't need to be stretched as much as some feared. I also know a friend who watches Ligue 2 extensively and he vouches for Tousart as a player, so Lyon might possibly be able to roll with five quality midfielders to rotate for league and CL football.
"So Moe, you've been waxing lyrically about Lyon's squad talent and sure, they've got a nice squad, but PSG have dominated French football for four seasons in a row and had they not been bored two seasons ago they would've walked over Lyon/Marseille in 2015. I'm still skeptical"
Glad you think that way, let's go further down this wormhole:
The Tolisso thing would've put a damper on things even though if it had happened Lyon would've been paid handsomely. The real reason why I'm very high on Lyon being able to challenge PSG is twofold. First: Lyon have a really intriguing depth of attacking players. Lacazette, Fekir, Rachid Ghezzal, Maxwell Cornet, Mathieu Valbuena and even Aldo Kalulu. We've already talked loads about Lacazette, Cornet and Ghezzal had really nice second halves to the season, and if Fekir recovers fully from his acl surgery he could continue his ascent to stardom. He was one of the most electrifying players in Ligue 1 in his real debut season at age 21. Kalulu is basically 6th on the depth chart but he's still a highly rated prospect from the famous Lyon academy. As far as an attacking core, it's hard to do better than what Lyon have done given their financial constraints over the years. You could imagine a scenario where those six players alone score 60 goals and contribute another 15 or so assists.
Meanwhile PSG's attack... has kind of seen better days? Hatem Ben Arfa was very fun last year although I'm still skeptical of him being the type of player to continually contribute 23-25 goals a season (having said that going to something resembling a super club does generally help with goal outputs for players). Angel Di Maria is awesome and will probably continue to be so, plus Lucas Moura is still a talented 23 year old despite his hairline being all but gone. They also recently signed Jese from Real Madrid who may turn out to be a very nice player, but he could also be just a guy who produced in spot minutes on a super team and looks ordinary elsewhere.
However when you go through their striker list, for as rich a club as PSG are it's kind of underwhelming. Jean-Kevin Augustin from all accounts is a very fine prospect but he's only 19. Meanwhile Edinson Cavani is a good striker but he's declined somewhat from his peak years at Napoli. I might have a little sympathy for the argument that playing with Zlatan as a striker partner isn't easy and some have used the excuse that he's been totally shunted out as a LW, but that rhetoric really isn't as true as Cavani still got to play centrally when PSG circulated the ball in opponent's halves. Cavani's had stretches without Zlatan playing and he's still hasn't really returned to his Napoli days. Plus he's turning 30 in February, which for most strikers is when they're firmly in their post-prime period. Even if you're the biggest of Cavani optimists and believe he'll have a great season without Zlatan, it's still only him, Augustin and probably spot minutes for Jese/Ben Arfa down the middle. PSG have kept their powder dry at that position, instead beefing up in other areas mainly their midfield and out wide which is great for squad balance, but it's possible that PSG go back to being a team who scores around 80 goals instead of the supernova 102 they achieved last season.
I know this preview is basically the most optimistic view of Lyon's upcoming season, but I do recognize that PSG are considerable favorites this season even in their current incarnation and there's fair skepticism as to Lyon's ability to do better adjusting for CL football and domestic play. There's also time for them to buy a capable striker to compete alongside Cavani which would probably make them clearly heads and shoulders above Lyon considering how good they are at every other position. But I really do like this Lyon squad and it might be their best one since their title winning days of the 2000s. Fekir has had a full summer to really get back in the swing of things, Tolisso has grown leaps and bounds season after season, One of N'Koulou or Mammana will probably do alright as Umtiti's replacement, Lacazette is in the prime years of his career and they're going to play a full season in the 4-3-3 formation that breathed new life to the club.
I still can't give them the edge over PSG just because of the pure talent aggregation they have. I mean good god they are stacked in the midfield. But in comparison to seasons where PSG have just waltzed to the title, this could be the 2nd season in 3 that they nearly go wire to wire with Lyon for the Ligue 1 title.
If Lacazette stays; they're clearly the 2nd best team in France, give PSG a good push domestically until around April before eventually losing out. Fekir returns to form and further progress is shown on a team level.