“Pull yourselves together or get lost,” read the not-so-subtle banner plastered across the fence next to Lyon’s training ground. Their team had picked up just one point from their first two games of the season against sides tipped to battle relegation and Lyon’s combustible fans were frustrated. The players seemed to have taken the criticism on board when they raced into a 3-1 lead against newly promoted Clermont on Sunday but they capitulated again, conceding two late goals to draw 3-3, intensifying the latest of their many recent crises. After nearly a decade without a trophy, this latest debacle runs deeper than the team’s performances on the pitch.
Although Lyon stayed in the title race until the final few weeks of the campaign, last season was a low-key disaster for the club. Having held on to Memphis Depay, Moussa Dembélé and Houssem Aouar in the summer transfer window, while also adding Lucas Paquetá and Tino Kadewere, Lyon started the season as title contenders. With PSG only able to gather 82 points – their lowest in the QSI era – Lyon had a chance to win the league. But Lille were crowned champions and Lyon only finished fourth, missing out on Champions League football altogether.
It was an unforgivable outcome and coach Rudi Garcia paid for it with his job. Garcia’s bitter murmurings about sporting director Juninho and president Jean-Michel Aulas underlined a toxicity that has distracted the club for years. Much as Arsène Wenger’s final years at Arsenal dissolved into a mess of fan scorn and angry frustration, former coach Bruno Génésio’s relationship with the Lyon support similarly deteriorated, Parc OL becoming a suffocating rather than an uplifting environment. Génésio eventually departed in 2019 after a dramatic U-turn from Aulas, who had often fiercely backed his man.
Sylvinho replaced Génésio but his hapless reign only lasted for 11 games before the club turned to Garcia, who was seen as a very conservative choice. Lyon supporters immediately rejected the new manager given his recent spell with rivals Marseille. Peter Bosz took over from Garcia in the summer but the animosity at the club shows no signs of abating. If anything, it seems to have now permeated the dressing room.
A half-hearted and ill-disciplined display at Angers last weekend resulted in a deserved 3-0 defeat. Defender Marcelo’s performance was so poor – he scored a comical own goal, narrowly avoided a red card and was given a one-out-of-10 rating by L’Équipe – that the club sought to cancel his contract, despite having agreed a two-year extension in March. Marcelo has often been the subject of fan ire and he reportedly infuriated staff by smiling as captain Léo Dubois read the riot act after the defeat.
Juninho was furious with the players. Maxwel Cornet, Thiago Mendes, Houssem Aouar, Rayan Cherki and Islam Slimani were reportedly put on the transfer list for their poor attitude, with Bosz looking to sanction some for “a lack of respect, rudeness and arrogance”. “Football starts with your mentality,” said Bosz last week. “I reminded them, but normally I shouldn’t have had to – those are the basics!”
Talent has rarely been an issue for Lyon, thanks largely to their prolific academy. Instead, the recent turmoil has been perpetuated by mismanagement from the coach upwards. Aulas handed much of his responsibility over to sporting director Juninho in 2019. While the free-kick master will forever remain the darling of Lyon’s old Stade Gerland, his legacy, or even competence, as a director remains in question. His first major decision was to hire Sylvinho as Génésio’s replacement despite the Brazilian’s lack of experience as a head coach and lack of knowledge of French football. It proved woefully misguided.
Juninho’s knowledge of Brazilian football was supposed to help Lyon tap into the world’s biggest talent pool but, of the players they have signed from that market, only Bruno Guimarães has looked like meeting expectations. Garcia’s appointment, although likely steered by Aulas, was as unimaginative as Sylvinho’s was risky, effectively placing the club in a holding pattern for 18 months. Garcia was meant to be a safe pair of hands but, given his argumentative persona, the wholly predictable negative fan reaction and his inability to engineer results on a consistent basis since his Roma days, Aulas and Juninho were always asking for trouble.
Bosz, however, seems like a far better fit. His success with Ajax in developing younger players within an attacking outlook suits Lyon, but the Dutchman is also a risk. Since leaving Ajax in 2017, he has taken charge of two clubs that are similar in size to Lyon and effectively failed at both of them. His stay with Borussia Dortmund was over before Christmas and, despite some thrilling highlights at Bayer Leverkusen – where he took them into the top four in his first six months in charge – Bosz was unable to replicate that success and was sacked in March.
Although Ligue 1’s tactical zeitgeist has dramatically shifted this season, French football remains a far more pragmatic division next to the Bundesliga, making Bosz’s Cruyff-inspired high-intensity, gung-ho philosophy all the more dangerous. Pre-season games with Porto, Wolfsburg, Villarreal and Sporting Lisbon produced 22 goals, but an organised Brest were able to battle their way to a 1-1 draw on the opening day before Angers outplayed Lyon last weekend.
Lyon raced into a 3-1 lead in the first half on Sunday but they still looked alarmingly porous and unstructured in defence. Clermont repeatedly countered with ease and would have reeled in Lyon earlier but for their lack of ruthlessness. Lyon collapsed late on, Clermont substitute Elbasan Rashani dinking home to make it 3-2 before heading in the equaliser in injury time. Lyon were bereft of defensive rigour or organisation. “I saw things at the end of the match that you don’t see at under-12 level,” said Bosz.
More than two years on from Génésio’s departure, Aulas referred to Lyon as in “crisis” once more, urging the club to “stay mentally strong”. In truth, aside from a brief period last season when Garcia’s team threatened to challenge for the title, Lyon have been in some form of crisis since Juninho arrived. After more than a third of a century at the helm, Aulas may have handed over responsibility too soon, and to the wrong man, whose appointment has afforded the club some goodwill from fans but little else.
The “pull yourselves together or get lost” banner was predominantly directed at Lyon players, but the sentiment could easily have been aimed at the club’s hierarchy. Bosz’s fledgling team are too easily picked apart and the people above him at the club have allowed a toxic attitude to develop and spread. Bosz says he “agreed” with the supporters’ banner but insisted that “it’s not easy to change mentality.” Nevertheless, Lyon’s season – and Bosz’s job – will hinge on just that. Any failure, however, may not be entirely down to him.
Lyon’s capitulation means that PSG are the only team with a 100% record after three rounds of fixtures. Reigning champions Lille improved on last week’s 4-0 humiliation to former manager Christophe Galtier’s Nice but conceded a late equaliser at Saint-Étienne to draw 1-1. Monaco, meanwhile, distracted by their ongoing Champions League playoff tie with Shakhtar Donetsk, succumbed to their second consecutive defeat as Aleksandr Golovin was sent off in a 2-0 home loss to Lens. After another thrillingly topsy-turvy weekend, the feeling that anyone can beat anyone in Ligue 1 persists.
Marseille’s trip to Nice on Sunday night was marred by abhorrent scenes of pitch invasions and brawls between fans, players and staff. Having been targeted by water bottles thrown by the Nice ultras throughout, Dimitri Payet lost his cool and angrily threw a projectile back into the stands late in the second half. Enraged, Nice fans poured over hoardings and attacked Marseille players, one kicking out at Payet, whose back was left scratched. Pictures of strangle marks on the necks of Luan Peres and Mattéo Guendouzi also emerged later. Following various altercations between the two camps as the chaos slowly moved toward the dressing rooms, Marseille refused to continue, leaving Nice players to briefly restart the game alone before it was brought to a premature ending. The ramifications for both clubs could be extensive.