What a difference four months make. At the beginning of September, Olympique Lyonnais were looking down the barrel of a bleak season. They had lost three of their first four Ligue 1 fixtures to sit in 17th place, and had also suffered a humiliating European exit to littleknown Romanian side Astra Giurgiu, sending the club into autumn without any European involvement for the first time in 17 years.
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Today, it is harder to assess which is the greater shock; the struggles of champions Paris Saint-Germain, a club with a budget superior to that of Ligue 1’s other 19 clubs put together, or that OL sit proudly atop the table.
It is not a position to which Lyon are entirely unaccustomed – they won the title seven times between 2002 and 2008, a French record – but in the current financial and sporting context within the club and in France in general, it is nothing short of remarkable.
President Jean-Michel Aulas, in office since 1987, has radically reconstructed the club’s business model since those glory years, which also took in three successive Champions League quarter-finals and a run to the semis in 2010.
“Aulas a toujours eu un plan” (Aulas always had a plan), read the headline above an article on the president’s strategy bearing fruit in Thursday’s L’Equipe.
That plan has been clear for a while. The senior team would incorporate more and more graduates from the club’s vaunted academy at Tola Vologe – just a stone’s throw from the club’s current home, Stade de Gerland – while cash was directed towards construction of a new stadium, some 14km outside the city centre in Decines.
Years of high-profile sales, with a project to shed big earners including Dejan Lovren, Lisandro Lopes and Michel Bastos, with little in the way of purchases to replace them, looked as if it had taken a near-fatal toll by the start of this campaign. What would be the point of a state-of-the-art, 60,000 capacity stadium is there wasn’t a team worthy of the name – or good enough to deliver European competition – to go in it?
Just past the halfway point in Ligue 1, this question is no longer asked. Lyon will again make no major purchases in the winter transfer window, but it doesn’t matter. Aulas’ decision to rely heavily on Tola Vologe graduates now looks like a masterstroke, rather than penny pinching.
Eight academy products were in the XI that started Saturday’s 2-0 win at Lens that kept OL top – their sixth victory in a row. Among them are France’s brightest young stars – Alexandre Lacazette, who has scored 20 times in the first 21 matches of the season, and creative foil Nabil Fekir, who has provided five assists while also scoring eight.
The reordering of the club’s priorities is clear. The three non-academy products that started against Lens – Christophe Jallet, Mahamoudou Dabo and Lindsay Rose – cost a total of €3.55m (Dh15m) in transfer fees. At €3m, midfielder Arnold Mvuemba (usually a substitute) is the club’s most expensive signing since the recruitment of Yoann Gourcuff for a club record 22m euros (Dh93.4m) in late August 2010.
The drop-off between Gourcuff in 2010, Mvuemba in 2012 and now, vividly underlines of just how deep a hole Aulas had dug himself to get here. While there is much romanticising of a young, homegrown team leading the way, the current policy is more than an ideological or ethical choice. It recalls the words of Danish economist Ester Boserup, that “necessity is the mother of invention."
The wild spending sanctioned by Aulas in an attempt to make the last leap towards joining Europe’s elite began with the 2007 arrival of Abdulkader Keita for €18m (Dh76.5m), and accelerated after the 2008 arrival of Claude Puel as coach. It brought OL to their knees.
When the alarm bells rung, thoughts of the academy were never far away. Even in the club’s years of plenty, the academy was considered important. Karim Benzema, Hatem Ben Arfa and Sidney Govou were the team’s front three for most of the doublewinning season of 2007/08 under Alain Perrin. If we go further back, names like Ludovic Giuly, Frederic Kanoute and Steed Malbranque provided strongservice before being sold on at a premium.
Remi Garde’s three-year tenure in charge of the first team was not without its challenges, as he oversaw drastic cost-cutting in his first senior job. Yet crucially, Garde was the perfect link man to help OL commute from the old model to the new one. The erstwhile assistant to Paul Le Guen and Gerard Houllier had since spent a year as director of the club’s academy, familiarising himself with the club’s best talent.
The quality of the graduates is no coincidence. Investment is key, with OL spending €8m (Dh33.9) per year on coaching staff, training and living facilities for their scholars.
While there is much romanticising of a young, homegrown team leading the way, the current policy is more than an ideological or ethical choice.
The current academy director, 44-year-old Stephane Roche, a former OL player and himself a Tola Vologe product, oversees the programme. Continuity and an understanding of the house style is important, with Jallet praising the club’s products as “conscientious” and “grounded” last week. It was one of the club’s most celebrated ones, captain Maxime Gonalons, who instigated the revival in September, leading impromptu fitness sessions in the city Parc Tete d’Or to improve stamina levels.
The academy spend has escalated in the light of construction delays with the new arena, Stade des Lumieres (in tribute to the brothers of the same name who created the first motion picture in history late in the 19th century), which is now due for delivery in January 2016. According to Aulas, 95 judicial enquiries were undertaken in respect to the stadium project, which “could have been finished in 2010”. The youth-heavy emphasis has thus been extended.
The idea of the new stadium is to enable, with Aulas explaining to L’Equipe that the new stadium will create “between 40m euros and €50m” of revenue in its first year, a figure that should be doubled within five years. The crucial difference between Lyon’s project and the other bright new stadiums that will help to host Euro 2016 is that OL will own their stadium, a first in France.
High rent almost pushed Marseille, another of the title contenders, to quit their iconic Stade Velodrome, which revealed its spectacularly redevelopment in October. The city council, which owns the stadium, initially demanded an €8m (Dh33.9m) annual sum. In the event, OM will pay €3m (Dh12.7m) this season (before taxes), rising to €4m (Dh16.9m) for each of the next two campaigns and being subject to review. Similarly, Lille – double winners in 2011 – are lumbered with a €6m (Dh25.5m) annual rent at their Stade Pierre Mauroy. OL’s ownership model is based on the templates laid down by Bayern Munich and Arsenal, speculating to accumulate.
Even with this bright future, OL are not out of the Financial Fair Play (FFP) woods yet, after it was announced in December that UEFA had asked the club to submit “additional information” about their finances before February.
Initially, the aim is for the increased income to help the club hold onto their best players, which is by no means guaranteed beyond the end of the season. Yet whether by accident or design, this vibrant young side is capturing the imagination of the public in France, and beyond.