Lyon’s huge investment has had a damaging effect on the club and on player development. But sympathy is limited, says James Eastham
For football fans that feel a sense of schadenfreude when big-spending clubs fall short of their targets, Lyon have provided plenty to smile about in the past three seasons. Shortly after the club won their seventh consecutive league title in 2007-08, president Jean-Michel Aulas decided the way to achieve their ultimate goal of adding the Champions League to their list of honours would be to embark on a spending spree bigger and bolder than anything that had taken place before in France.
Three years and tens of millions of wasted euros later, Lyon are counting the cost of what turned out to be a recklessly expensive policy. Aulas has admitted his strategy proved spectacularly unsuccessful, although it would have been difficult for him to argue otherwise considering his previously all-conquering side have failed to win a single trophy since deciding to go for broke. Reaching the Champions League semi-finals for the first time in their history briefly stemmed the criticism, but that momentary high 16 months ago cannot mask the wider failings of an ill-advised plan.
There’s usually a fall guy in these situations and at Lyon it’s Claude Puel. He was the manager Aulas hired in 2008 to maintain Lyon’s domestic dominance while guiding the side towards European glory. He failed on both fronts despite receiving a level of financial support his predecessors never enjoyed. It was anything but a surprise when the club sacked him at the end of last season. Equally predictably, the affair has now turned bitter, with Puel demanding that the final, unfulfilled year of his contract is paid up. “Having backed him against everyone’s advice, I expected him to behave with more dignity. I put everything in place for him to succeed here,” growled Aulas.
The president has a point, in that he gave Puel bags of money, but looking at how the funds were spent it’s easy to see why Lyon came unstuck. Fees such as €18 million (£16m) for Brazil international Michel Bastos, €14.5m on Jean Makoun – sold for less than half that to Aston Villa last January – and the €14m gamble on a midfielder called Ederson appear more absurd the longer you stare at them.
An overall outlay of €163.5m from 2008 to 2010 in transfer fees alone felt misguided at the time – as if by spending money Lyon would automatically graduate to a higher plane of European football – and looks like seriously bad business when set against the smarter activities of their main domestic rivals during the same period. Marseille’s net spend was around €30m less, yet they ended a trophy drought going back 17 years by winning the league and two league cups. Even more alarmingly, four of Lyon’s signings each cost more than the entire Lille squad that claimed the league and cup double in style last May.
This combination of poor results and unsustainable spending levels has persuaded Aulas to change tack – the idea from now on is to operate along more austere lines. Aulas has replaced Puel with one-time Arsenal captain Rémi Garde, who was assistant to former Lyon managers Paul Le Guen and Gérard Houllier. His experience of heading up the club’s youth scheme should prove useful.
With money running out, Lyon will turn back to the highly regarded training academy that has produced France internationals Karim Benzema, Hatem Ben Arfa and Loïc Rémy over the past decade, but was effectively mothballed by the previous regime. One of the major frustrations of Puel’s final 12 months in charge was that Lyon had five members of France’s 2010 European Under-19 Championship-winning squad on their books but the manager ignored them even though first team performances were below par. After being thwarted by what Aulas now calls “the elitist policy of recent seasons”, this exciting generation of youngsters will finally get a chance to impress.
Garde has been handed a one-year deal but frugality seems to be a long-term proposal. Aulas says the club will sell players consistently over the next few seasons to get their finances in order as they prepare for life in the new 60,000-seat stadium they hope to move into before Euro 2016. And while expectations remain high – a top-three finish is the aim – there will inevitably be less pressure on Garde than Puel because of the financial constraints within which he’s working.
One of the enduring joys of football is that money doesn’t guarantee success. There are plenty of neutrals who believe if a more prudent Lyon get their hands on a trophy, it would be a victory not only for the club but also the wider French game.
From WSC 295 September 2011