When Olympic Lyonnais wrapped up the French title in the spring of 2008, celebrations were muted. This was their seventh consecutive title and a season where their dominance of French football was confirmed when they also won the Coupe de France. There were few reasons to doubt that this success was about to end.
Ultimately it was ambition that got them. For years Lyon had excelled domestically by matching their ability to snap up upcoming French talent with the willingness to sell their best players once a financially enticing offer came from overseas. This served them well but in time it became restrictive. Winning loses its attraction when it becomes too easy and that is what Lyon eventually starting experiencing. They wanted something more; they wanted the Champions League.
As with so many other clubs they stretched themselves to try gain success in Europe by spending huge amounts on players who they hoped could help take them to the next level. The purchase of Yoann Gourcuff, Lisandro Lopez, Aly Cissokho, Michel Bastos and Bafetimbi Gomis brought to an end their buy low, sell high policy.
Of course, it wouldn’t have been too bad if these players had succeeded in keeping their previous results. Instead they were, to varying degrees, disappointments and this hit Lyon hard. Their financial structure was delicately poised on the twin points of selling of players and Champions League qualification. Suddenly they found themselves struggling to qualify to the latter whilst seeing their big investments fail from appreciating in value.
Inevitably they went down the path of others who over-stretched themselves in search of European glory. Any players that were of interest got sold to plug the gap in their balance sheet and with them went their ambition.
Fortunately for them, they had a backup.
Even during the years of plenty, Lyon had always had the capacity to produce players. Steed Malbranque, Sydney Govou and Karim Benzema had risen from Lyon’s own academy to the first team where they achieved success before going on to star elsewhere. Now that the finances weren’t what they once were they just had to rely on their academy more heavily than before.
The result was a young side where up to nine players had come through Lyon’s academy. They weren’t always the most consistent of challengers – as teams filled with young players invariably are - but theirs was invariably the most exciting French team.
This wasn’t a fluke. Success at youth level never is. Instead it was all part of Jean-Michel Aulas, Lyon’s long-standing president, plan. Ever since 2008 Lyon have been trying to move to a new stadium which would give them a solid enough financial platform to really push on. Due to a number of administrative and political stumbling blocks, this new stadium is still to get lift off.
In the meantime, Lyon’s investments have been going into their Tola Vologe centre where both the first and youth teams train. This centre should be spoken of in the same reverential manner that is typically reserved for La Masia, such is the thinking that has gone into it. More than €24 million has been spent to improve those facilities but more important than that is the whole structure that has been developed around their youth programme.
Lyon’s stronghold remains the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region where the club is based. That is where they look for talent through the team headed by Gerard Bonneau.
Bonneau is one of the few people within Lyon’s whole system who not only did not play professionally with the club but was never a professional player anywhere. Even so, he had been involved in the game for all of his working life and has been doing the job of heading Lyon’s academy’s youth scouting system since 2003 when he took over from the late Alain Thiry, himself a former Lyon player, for whom he had been an understudy for three years.
Those years working under Thiry were critical because Lyon is very much a club that believes in doing things on their own terms. That is why the bulk of the people at the club are also former players with the majority having also come through the system. They don’t talk about ‘the Lyon way’ but there is very much a distinct philosophy in place and the belief is that having people whose professional career was built on a foundation laid by that philosophy will be better placed to pass it on to others.
That is why Bonneau had to spend that apprenticeship so that he can tell his team of around twenty scouts – a quarter of whom are employed full time – what to look for.
Those criteria depend largely on what age of players they are looking for. Size, however, is rarely an issue and what they look at is players’ technique, intelligence and athleticism. The only exceptions is when it comes to bringing in central defenders and defensive midfielders for the older age groups where taller players remain the norm.
Indeed, Lyon have quite a history for producing players who aren’t the tallest. In the 1970s, the Lyon strikers Bernard Lacombe, Serge Chiesa and Fleury Di Nallo were nicknamed "the three elves". Forty years on, their main offensive players – Alexandre Lacazette, Nabil Fekir, Jordan Ferri – who have come through the youths system also all measure less than 1.80 m.
"Once the Xavi-Iniesta double pivot in midfield became the reference, the whole world has been trying to learn how to work like the Spanish team. But at Lyon, we have long been smaller than our opponents in most youth matches,” Bonneau said when this was pointed out to him.
This might not seem significant but is in fact quite countercultural. French academies have often been accused of preferring the muscular players in the heart of midfield rather than those who favour flair. At Lyon that isn’t the case.
Indeed, having smaller players coming up against bigger ones during academy games is often looked upon favourably. “They compensate for their lack of size with an iron will" U19 coach Joël Fréchet (again, another former Lyon player) has said in the past.
Mental strength along with character are the other big thing at Lyon. No cost is spared in this respect, with Aulas having argued that "Lyon must become leader also in this type of research."
As such, psychologists monitor the players individually to determine how they are progressing whilst researchers from the University of Lyon test the collective and social openness of the youth teams. Everything is logged, monitored and adjusted to ensure that there is a cohesive spirit where individual talent – whilst encouraged – does not come at the expense of team spirit.
This means a readiness to let go of players who do not show that they have the mental attitude that they require. “"We have had too many disappointments,” Aulas has lamented, referring to players like Hatem Ben Arfa and Herold Goulon. “To avoid this, we have redefined the profile that we look for so that we exclude selfish behaviour. Today, the first concern is over ethical potential."
Bonneau echoes this. “We are very careful about the mindset, their attitude in school, the general behaviour with the authority and ability to work, to put in an effort".
“Talent is not enough, the mind makes the difference."
What they look for are players like Anthony Martial who moved to Lyon from Paris. Initially he struggled to adapt to Lyon’s disciplined approach that requires that players do their homework after training finishes after five in the evening and that lights are switched off at ten. It is such discipline that helps make men and dedicated professionals.
Lyon’s attention to detail is such that they have now invested in the use of NeuroTracker, a tool that is also used by Manchester United, which measures and improves the cognitive skills of its users. Essentially, this helps players’ perceptions of how the game is flowing around them and allows them to improve their ability to think faster during matches. Given how essential speed of thought and match intelligence are becoming in modern football, the importance of such tools is significant.
They do not rely exclusively on such tools, however. Indeed, that is why they insist on former players to coach their youths. Stephane Roche – who played for Lyon before embarking on a coaching career that eventually saw him take over as the head of their academy when Remi Garde joined the senior side – explains that “it is essential for these young people to be less guided by former players." It is such coaches who have the big game experience needed to show them how to act during games.
For all the experience and success that they have built up over the years, Lyon’s task is becoming increasingly more difficult. Bonneau explains that “the important thing is not to destabilize lives”, which is why their focus is predominantly on the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region. They don’t even have people looking at players overseas, where the only pointers they get are from Florian Maurice (again, another former Lyon player) who works predominantly for the first team but keeps an eye out for any interesting young players that he might notice.
That however might have to change in the future given that there are always others – such as the big English clubs – who are always ready to pay big sums money to attract youth players whilst the shadow of Paris St Germain also looms large at this level: they are increasingly going into Lyon’s territory to attract youth players.
Despite all the changes, their strength remains in their philosophy. "We are very sensitive to the human aspect,” Bonneau details. “Our setting is familiar and we will strive to keep our identity. We have a recognised approach. The aim is to consolidate our values and export this model.”
“We have to stay true to our convictions."
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Editorial Note: An earlier version erroneously stated that Maxwell Cornet was a product of the Lyon academy. In fact, he was signed from Metz.