What if Lyon didn’t sell their best players?
For 20 years, Olympique Lyonnais have been one of the foremost names in French football.
Once a side languishing in Ligue 2, their fortunes were transformed by the canny stewardship of president Jean-Michel Aulas thanks to a shrewd transfer policy and a willingness to put their faith on a youth academy that is arguably the most prolific in Europe presently.
What has been most remarkable about Lyon’s efforts is that they have primarily drawn their young players from the locality of the city. Names such as Karim Benzema, Alexandre Lacazette, Corentin Tolisso and Nabil Fekir are just some of those who have graduated from OL’s ranks with honours, and over the course of the years, they could have built a formidable side purely drawn from their own products.
However, Lyon’s very model is built on the principle of turning a profit thanks to such players. Nevertheless, it leads to the tantalising hypothetical question of what might have happened if they were able to keep hold of their best players.
One thing is clear: they would have a team capable of challenging for the Champions League, the ultimate aim of Aulas in the early 2000s, though one which has faded someone as the new financial landscape of the elite level has become increasingly dominated by a few ultra-charged clubs.
In goal, they would boast one of the continent’s best goalkeepers over the course of the last 10 years in the form of Hugo Lloris. The shot-stopper, who is now with Tottenham and is France’s long-time No.1, was signed by OL from Nice but sold on at a substantial profit. Since moving to London, he has justified the French side’s hopes for him in his trademark athletic style.
One area in which Lyon might have issues is the defence. They have rarely enjoyed a wealth of quality. A notable exception to this is Samuel Umtiti, who was sold to Barcelona after a successful apprenticeship at Stade Gerland and latterly Parc OL, while current centre-back Marcelo would partner him.
The full-back areas, though, are a position of clear weakness. Rafael, who may be sold this summer due to unconvincing performances, would probably take up the role on the right, while on the left current option Ferland Mendy is as good as anyone to fill that position in recent years.
Tolisso, now of Bayern Munich and France, would be an obvious and easy selection for one of the holding midfield positions, where he could be joined by Maxime Gonalons.
Further forward, Lyon’s options are plentiful and the difficulty begins to be how to fit everyone effectively into their side.
Benzema has to be an automatic choice in this regard. The Real Madrid striker has played for Europe’s most successful club over the course of the last decade, and though not always a favourite at Santiago Bernabeu, he is a player who retains great support from the likes of Zinedine Zidane and Zlatan Ibrahimovic – two of the most iconic players of the game this millennium.
Indeed, on Benzema’s continued absence from the France national side for Russia 2018, the outspoken Swede commented: “If the coach has a decision in saying he's not good enough for this team then the coach should not be there, but Benzema should. It's very easy.”
Another man to miss out on Didier Deschamps’ selection was Alexandre Lacazette, who is another to have excelled over a prolonged period at his hometown club. Indeed, he reached 100 Ligue 1 goals for Lyon in his final league appearance before moving to Arsenal, where he has still to show his full qualities.
Nevertheless, he would earn a spot on this side, probably playing off the left of Benzema.
The playmaker, meanwhile, would be Nabil Fekir, whose future appears committed to Lyon for now. He appeared on the brink of a move to Liverpool after a wonderful season in France only for talks to break down at the last.
Aulas’ style means that it would be folly to think the move is entirely dead but for now, OL are boosted by the news of a player the president considers “better than Neymar”.
If Fekir filled the No.10 role, that would leave just one further position, which would be taken by Anthony Martial, sold to Monaco for a pittance before he could make an impression in Lyon’s first team – a rare example of one who got away.
Martial might be going through a hard time at Manchester United currently, but he remains a young player with enormous potential and he might have flourished had he remained in the Rhone Valley.
Meanwhile, Lyon are presently in a fight to retain Willem Goebbels, a player considered to be of a similar standard to Martial and, therefore, a massive star for the future. They appear poised to lose him to Monaco for around €20 million, despite the teenager having yet to play for the first team, and they will be hoping that history does not repeat itself.
For Lyon, this is a fantasy XI of players who have turned out for them in recent years; something to look back on with pride over the quality of star they have consistently managed to bring through.
Their model, however, relies on making sales and while the status quo remains, they will continue to be a club that sells to succeed.