French Connection: Why Denayer is as vital to Lyon as Fekir and Memphis

Less than a year after his arrival at the Ligue 1 club, the Belgium international is performing to a consistently high standard

Playing in a side among stars like Memphis Depay and Nabil Fekir, it’s not easy for a defender to take the spotlight, yet there is a strong case to argue that defender Jason Denayer has been Lyon’s most consistent player this season.

The 23-year-old Belgium international even seems to have solved the central defensive headache that Lyon have had for the past seven years since the retirement of Cris.

When Denayer arrived from Manchester City on August 21, there was little fanfare about his arrival. If anything, OL fans were sceptical about the prospect of a player who had never managed to make a senior league appearance with the Citizens being able to slot into their first team, particularly as they had missed out on their top target of Ruben Dias.

True, Denayer had impressed in loan spells with Celtic, Galatasaray and Sunderland, but his move to France on a permanent deal was one that was set to make or break his top-level career.

Jason Denayer Lyon

Having arrived for a reported price tag of just €10 million excluding bonuses, he has seen his value grow exponentially over the course of an impressive season.

“He has all the characteristics we sought: he can play in every role across the defence, he’s got game intelligence, a good positional sense, he's quick and he’s powerful in duels,” Florian Maurice, recruitment chief of OL, enthused following the signing.

Lyon’s patience to sign a player they had been chasing for three years proved worthwhile.

Highlights have come via a 2-1 league victory over Paris Saint-Germain, during which he executed an extraordinary goal-line clearance, impressive Champions League performances against Manchester City, who failed to overcome OL in two matches, and a scoreless home draw with Barcelona in that same competition.

If the Rhone club are to taste the top level of European competition again next term, though, they need Denayer at his best in the closing weeks of the season as Bruno Genesio’s men are hunted by Saint-Etienne and Marseille for the third spot in Ligue 1, which they currently hold.

The pressure, however, is something that the young defender thrives upon and indeed was one of the reasons he moved to the Rhone Valley.

“There’s good visibility of the French game in the media,” Denayer explained. “Playing in big matches is an advantage for me. I’m playing at a higher level than I was before.”

With no language barrier, Denayer settled rapidly in France, drawing praise from Genesio for his “dream” start.

Speaking in February, Genesio said: “He said he feels like he’s been here a long time and it’s the same for us. He’s met our expectations on the park and has gained importance in the squad, especially with the way the defence is controlled with Marcelo.”

Despite the strongest season of his career and the widespread acclaim that he has earned in France, he remains modest even among his greatest accomplishments.

L1 foreign player Jason Denayer

After his man-of-the-match display in shutting down Lionel Messi and Barcelona at Parc OL, he refused to take any of the credit.

“It was a team performance, everyone did their job well,” he told UEFA. “It’s true I felt good in the game but the whole team did its job.”

His down-to-earth attitude was evident again this week when he criticised billionaires for their quick reaction to the fire at Notre Dame de Paris

And given such performances, it would be unsurprising if there was interest from some of Europe’s biggest clubs in the summer. Denayer, though, would turn his back on this.

“For me, everything’s gone well in recent months,” he said last month. “I’m playing well and it’s allowed me to get back in the national team.

“I need stability and it’s clear that I’ll stay with Lyon next year. It’s my first season here and I’m not thinking about leaving. And I don’t think the club would let me!”

With Memphis and Fekir both pushing to leave Lyon in search of other opportunities, it promises to be a summer of transition in central France, but with Denayer at the heart of the defence, OL know they have a strong foundation from which they can construct their latest team.