It is a measure of Lyon’s progress under Rémi Garde that Wednesday night’s 1-0 loss at Caen could be shrugged off as a mere inconvenience. Garde allowed himself a rueful smile during a pitchside interview after the match as he admitted he had been perplexed by his side’s sluggish approach to the game and in the subsequent press conference he was equally equanimous, likening the defeat to “a little kick up the bum”.
This time last year, Lyon had won just one of their first seven games and slipped into the relegation zone after a 1-0 defeat at the hands of their great rivals Saint-Etienne in the 100th Derby du Rhône. Disgruntled fans had begun to string up banners calling for Claude Puel’s dismissal in eye-catching locations across the city and although OL recovered to finish third, the mood scarcely improved.
Twelve months on and, despite having lost the last unbeaten record in the division at Caen, Lyon find themselves in third place, two points off top spot ahead of tomorrow’s game with Bordeaux. More importantly, Stade Gerland has become a happy place. Garde has galvanised the squad and has Lyon playing a brand of expansive, attack-minded football that has quickly won him the approval of the fans.
Strikingly, the turnaround has been effected without a single major summer signing and despite the fact several of OL’s most impressive performers were on the brink of leaving the club during the transfer window. Kim Källström looked destined for Galatasaray, Aly Cissokho was reportedly close to joining Liverpool and Michel Bastos spent the summer waiting for a call from Juventus that never came despite months of eyelash-fluttering from La Vecchia Signora.
Jeered during the team’s pre-season photo shoot, Bastos has responded with some of his finest performances since his 2009 switch from Lille. He humiliated César Azpilicueta in the 2-0 defeat of Marseille, laying on the opening goal for Bafétimbi Gomis before finding the net himself, and with three assists to his name he is one of the league’s in-form attacking players. He is not the only one to have been reinvigorated by Garde’s arrival either: of the 11 players that started the match against Marseille, 10 were already at the club last season.
Having authorised a €175 million splurge on transfers between June 2008 and August 2010, OL president Jean-Michel Aulas made it clear to Garde that there would be no funds available to overhaul the squad he inherited from Puel. The sales of Jérémy Toulalan and Miralem Pjanić brought in around €21 million but it was reinvested sparingly. Burkinabé centre-back Bakary Koné arrived from Guingamp for €2 million (rising to €3 million – if Lyon avoid relegation), with versatile full-back Mouhamadou Dabo signing from Sevilla for an initial fee of €1 million.
The real bargain, however, was Gueïda Fofana. Having failed to persuade Auxerre president Gérard Bourgoin to yield Delvin N’Dinga, Lyon turned to Fofana and were able to secure the services of the France Under-20 captain from Le Havre for just €1.8 million (plus €800,000 in add-ons). A multi-faceted central midfielder billed as the heir apparent to Patrick Vieira, Fofana has his whole career ahead of him and could prove to be one of the best bargains in recent Ligue 1 history.
Lyon’s encouraging start to the season demonstrates the fallacy of automatically associating a lack of conspicuous expenditure with instant failure. In much the same way that Tottenham were deemed to have regressed this summer despite having not sold a single first-choice player, Lyon’s inability to match the spending of Paris Saint-Germain saw them cast as this season’s most likely underachievers in Ligue 1. Instead they have flourished - Bastos calibrating his left foot to find Gomis at every available opportunity, Källström forming a well-balanced midfielder partnership with Maxime Gonalons and Dejan Lovren is blossoming into one of Europe’s most capable young centre-backs.
As a result, the absences through injury of Cris, Lisandro López, Ederson and Yoann Gourcuff have barely been noticed and there is now a youthful hue to the Lyon squad that is starkly at odds with the sense of decay that settled upon the club last season. Nine of the 19 players named in the squad for the trip to Caen were aged 22 or under, and the acquisition of Fofana means that Lyon now boast eight members of the France squad that finished fourth at this year’s Under-20 World Cup. Lyon’s need to balance the books meant they were always going to be obliged to lean on their academy graduates, but doing so has had the added benefit of injecting the squad with a fresh identity.
As the former head of OL’s youth training programme, Garde’s readiness to blood young players is unsurprising, but the real triumph of his man management is the way he has coaxed performances out of players, such as Bastos and Cissokho, who had seemed so traumatised by the events of last season. In doing so, the thoughtful 45-year-old has proved that a lack of financial muscle in the transfer market need not herald the death-knell for a team’s ambitions.
Privately criticised by former Lyon coach Raymond Domenech for being “too serious” during his playing days, Garde impressed Arsène Wenger at Arsenal with his ability to assess a player and swiftly asserted his authority this summer by jettisoning the 4-3-3 of the Puel era in favour of a sleek and straightforward 4-4-2.
With Gourcuff expected to return for the trip to PSG on October 2, Garde’s only headache concerns how to accomodate the French playmaker and club record signing in his new system. It is a state of affairs for which Puel would have given his right arm, and yet the resources from which Garde has hewn such an effective team were actually there all along.