Rewind to the 19th of August 2020 and Lyon are just about to play in their first Champions League semi-final for 10 years after knocking out Juventus and Manchester City to reach the final four. OL would eventually lose to the same team that knocked them out of the competition in 2010, Bayern Munich, but were still flirting with Europe’s elite on the biggest stage.
Fast forward to today, Lyon sit second-from-bottom of the Ligue 1 table with three points from eight games, and instead of flirting with Europe’s elite, they are flirting dangerously with relegation. So, what actually is going wrong at the Groupama Stadium?
John Textor was announced as Lyon’s new majority shareholder in December 2022, and it was the first time since 1987 that Jean-Michel Aulas had relinquished any control of the club. The relationship between Lyon’s new owner and heralded custodian for the past 36 years looked rosy at the pair’s first press conference. However, things would soon sour.
Upon his arrival, Textor confirmed that Aulas would remain in place as the club’s president. This would last for less than six months with Aulas stepping down on the 8th of May 2023, but being named “honorary president.” Lyon’s “honorary president” has since launched legal proceedings against Textor and has been outspoken on the American’s impact on the club’s demise.
This has led to a rather fractious and public spat between the pair developing in the French media. Since stepping down as OL president, Aulas has criticised Textor on multiple occasions for developments since his departure, such as the DNCG restrictions, saying “I was never troubled by the DNCG. I have never had any problem with them in 35 years as president. Up until now, the DNCG has always congratulated us for our management capabilities”.
Lyon’s CEO Santiago Cucci has also become a key player in the debacle after criticising “what Aulas left” in an interview to which the notorious president replied on Twitter, “A bit of respect please: 76 titles with the teams of our Olympique Lyonnais. I’d love to help you because, with my 9% share of the club, I remain the second [biggest] shareholder of OL Group and I, more than anyone else, have an interest in getting very good results. Go OL.“ Aulas is now suing Textor for defamation and has frozen €14.5m in funds at the club, adding more chaos to the club’s already precarious financial statements.
Whilst all these disputes have taken place off the field at the Groupama Stadium, they have generated a huge amount of noise as OL continue to suffer from the after-effects of Textor’s takeover. The noise off the pitch is certainly an added distraction to the frustrations that Lyon are currently experiencing on the pitch.
A managerial soap opera
Lyon recently appointed former player Fabio Grosso as the club’s new manager. His four predecessors have all at one time or another been embroiled in a fiasco or under immense pressure due to negative results. OL have been unable to find a long-term solution or approach to address their continuous decline.
Sylvinho was brought into the club by former Lyon sporting director Juninho. He lasted just 11 games and 141 days in charge after one win in nine matches. The Brazilian was then replaced by Rudi Garcia who offered a glimmer of hope when Lyon reached the semi-finals of the Champions League and threatened to challenge for the Ligue 1 title in 2020/21, but this would soon come crashing back down with the now Napoli manager losing the Lyon dressing room and becoming a hated figure among fans of Les Gones.
Peter Bosz would then follow Garcia into Lyon – a drastic change in style and approach. The Dutch manager, famous for his attacking style of play at Ajax and Leverkusen, was appointed to bring attacking football and a new vision to the club. Bosz endured a rather inconsistent spell in charge and after a continuous string of negative results was sacked. He was replaced by Grosso’s predecessor Laurent Blanc.
Blanc was arguably the most intriguing and somewhat puzzling appointment of them all – another change in style and approach. The former PSG manager had seen success in Ligue 1 once upon a time but that was long ago and his most recent managerial exploits took place in a rather unsuccessful spell in charge of Qatari side Al-Rayyan. Blanc initially saw success following the 2022 World Cup with his more pragmatic approach. His exploits weren’t enough though as Lyon missed out on Europe for a second consecutive season.
Blanc was largely criticised by fans for Lyon’s preseason form, fearing the worst that this would translate into their start of the season. This became a sudden reality with Lyon looking lifeless and lacking identity, and Blanc himself at his own admission believed he couldn’t solve it. When asked what had to be changed, the former OL manager replied “You have to change the manager“. After a winless start to the season, Textor did just that.
Continuous rotation in those in charge at the club, all with clashing or different philosophies has created a cycle of lacklustre tactics and underwhelming results. Lyon have had four managers in three seasons and with all the drama and media attention, being a manager at Lyon has become akin to a soap opera.
John Textor’s first summer transfer window as Lyon owner was hampered by transfer restrictions placed on the club by the French football financial watchdog, the DNCG. The DNCG monitored all of Lyon’s transfer and wage budget activity during the summer, forcing the club to sell key assets and preventing them from injecting major investment into their playing squad.
These transfer restrictions are one of the major reasons behind the public feud between Textor and Aulas. Aulas promised player sales worth €112m to the DNCG, whereas the club only generated €30m. In addition to failing to qualify for European football, OL were unable to prove their financial stability despite Textor’s best efforts to sell OL Reign and OL Féminin.
This forced the club to sell stars from their academy – Bradley Barcola to PSG and Castello Lukeba to Leipzig. These two transfers alone have immeasurably weakened Lyon and left the club resorting to bargain-hunting and unorthodox transfer tactics until the end of the window. Jake O’Brien arrived from Crystal Palace for €1m to replace Lukeba and Textor had to use sister club Molenbeek to purchase Ernest Nuamah for a club record fee before loaning him to Lyon with an obligation to buy. This transfer is now under FIFA investigation.
Despite John Textor claiming, “in January we will have no governance limits on our ability to strengthen the team”, Lyon’s summer transfer window could yet come back and cause them further problems with this impending FIFA investigation.
Being forced to sell academy stars and being unable to replace them adequately has seen Lyon’s squad get weaker and become imbalanced.
Are the players ready for a relegation battle?
“We have to fight to stay up” – Fabio Grosso
Fabio Grosso himself admitted that Lyon had a fight on their hands to stay in Ligue 1, after their collapse against Lorient which saw them surrender a 3-1 lead to draw 3-3. This admission showed clearly that OL’s coach was prepared for a relegation battle, but the question is are the players?
Lyon’s players have looked tired, bereft of ideas and confidence thus far this season. Whether this is because of the sale of key players, managerial instability or the overall weakening of the team, there has been a fragility and softness about performances which have made the team predictable and ultimately easy to beat.
These performances have seen the players receive a somewhat humiliating and stern dressing down from the club’s ultra group The Bad Gones. The group’s leader accused the players of “smearing” the honour of wearing the shirt and not “giving everything” which saw the club’s issues surface in a viral video.
The performances so far have lacked the intensity and confidence of a team that looks ready to give everything to retain the top-flight status of one of French football’s biggest institutions. Bordeaux and Saint-Étienne before them were both considered ‘too big to go down’, but both suffered relegation and are now languishing in Ligue 2.
It may not seem like a real threat yet, but if Lyon are unable to address some of these critical issues, they are at serious risk of becoming France’s next fallen giant.