Malbranque leads Lyon's young steeds towards Europa League quarters

Unable to compete with PSG and Monaco on a financial football, the Rhone giants have turned to their youth set up to rediscover their glory days
By Robin Bairner

It is said there are two sides to every story, and at Olympique Lyonnais’ Stade de Gerland they know this well.

The uninitiated would point to Lyon’s current fifth-placed standing in Ligue 1 as evidence of the fall of a once-great club, yet the truth is rather more complex as the Rhone giants progress through a transitional phase that is neither as painful nor as traumatic as some might suggest.

No longer does president Jean-Michel Aulas seriously dream of winning the Champions League, yet last week he said that challenging PSG and Monaco in years to come is the goal for the club.

“With a medium-term vision and sound ideas, it can be done,” he explained. “I was asked the same question on my arrival, when Lyon were in the middle of Ligue 2. It was something that no one believed.

“We won many more titles in 12 years that all the others combined. What has widened is the difference in income. We were not born with a silver spoon in our mouth. We will come back by other means.”

Aulas’ answer has been simple: he has turned to the club’s traditional strength, its youth academy.

Since Les Gones - which fittingly means 'the Kids' in the local dialect of Arpitan - dominated French football by winning seven straight Championnat titles in the first decade of the millennium, the landscape has been shifted by the gigantic investments in PSG and Monaco, and with OL in the midst of a lengthy project to build a new stadium, they have been forced to turn to young players to inspire the club.

Lyon’s youth system was one of the great foundations of the team as it grew from a Ligue 2 makeweight through to a Champions League semi-finalist. Centre Tola Vologe has churned out top-level players at a volume only Barcelona and Real Madrid can match in recent seasons, with stars such as Karim Benzema, Hatem Ben Arfa, Loic Remy, Sidney Govou and Ludovic Giuly amongst its graduates.

After an ill-fated spell in the transfer market, Lyon’s decision to appoint former youth team boss Remi Garde as head coach little more than 18 months ago was evidence of their desire to turn back towards their academy. Now under the former Arsenal midfielder’s stewardship, they are reaping their rewards.

Already this season six graduates have made more than 20 league appearances for Garde’s side, while countless more have offered contributions less significant.  

LYON'S YOUNG GUNS | Six academy graduates in Ligue 1 this term
Jordan Ferri
Age: 21
Position: Midfield
Appearances: 21
Goals: 1
Assists: 0
Maxime Gonalons
Age: 25
Position: Midfield
Appearances: 27
Goals: 0
Assists: 1
Clement Grenier
Age: 23
Position: Midfield
Appearances: 25
Goals: 4
Assists: 4
Alexandre Lacazette
Age: 22
Position: Forward
Appearances: 27
Goals: 13
Assists: 2
Anthony Lopes
Age: 23
Position: Goalkeeper
Appearances: 23
Conceded: 25
Cleansheets: 9
Samuel Umtiti
Age: 20
Position: Defender
Appearances: 22
Goals: 0
Assists: 0

The Europa League has been used as an important breeding ground for this talent, as Lyon’s push for success in Ligue 1 has compelled the coach to make heavy changes to his thin squad on the road. The youths, however, have responded immaculately and indeed Lyon remain unbeaten in the competition and poised for a quarter-final berth after beating Viktoria Plzen 4-1 at home last week.

“It is a competition that has special meaning for me because it has given me the chance to play,” 22-year-old midfielder Jordan Ferri, who has featured seven times in the Europa League this season, admitted to the press last week. “I like it a lot and I want to go as far as possible.”

Fittingly, the victory over the Czechs was inspired by Steed Malbranque, a youth academy alumnus who has returned to his former club to finish his career. A peripheral figure on the whole this season, the 34-year-old midfielder produced one of his most memorable displays for the club as he fashioned goals for Alexandre Lacazette and Arnold Mvuemba with pinpoint passes that were amongst the best in Europe last week.

Malbranque return is symbolic - it is as if the old guard is now handing over to the next generation, which will allow Lyon to regain their status as one of France’s elite clubs. And in this regard there is room for optimism.

Already this group are flourishing. The playmaking talents of Clement Grenier are already well established, while fellow midfielder Maxime Gonalons captains the side at 25-years-old. Both are already international players.

Goalkeeper Anthony Lopes is seriously challenging to be Portugal’s No.1 goalkeeper at World Cup 2014, while Alexandre Lacazette has top scored for the Stade de Gerland outfit in Ligue 1 this season with 13 goals and is pushing for a place in the France panel. Athletic defender Samuel Umtiti, meanwhile, has attracted attention from several of Europe’s biggest sides, having caught the eye in the Europa League last season with a stunning goal against Tottenham.

Beyond this elite group, though, are another capable bunch. Jordan Ferri has proven himself a viable option in the midfield, while the likes of full-back Mehdi Zeffane and attacker Yassine Benzia hold plenty of promise.

When Corentin Tolisso, on the occasion of his second Ligue 1 start, delivered a superb stoppage time winner against Bordeaux a fortnight ago in the league, it marked the arrival of yet another teenager to keep an eye on.

"I'm happy to be here today," the 19-year-old confessed to the press. "There is no reason to be afraid. At Lyon, there is a squad of great quality, and [the young players] have been bred to be integrated into it."

With an academy packed full of youth internationals, perhaps the smartest transfer move that Lyon made all year was to tie down Stephane Roche, the man who oversees the project, on a new contract that will run until 2017.

Boasting a coach who knows the value of youth in the form of Garde and strong foundations laid down by one of Europe’s most prolific systems, Lyon’s challenge in the coming years will be how to attract the necessary talent but how to keep hold of it. If Aulas can find an answer here, perhaps PSG and Monaco will have real competition after all.

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