Following defeat to Clermont Foot on Sunday, Lyon are bottom of Ligue 1 and have just three points from nine games. It is their worst ever start to a league campaign, but how has it come to this?
On 2 April, 2023, Lyon’s players left the field at the Parc des Princes having earned a 1-0 win against Paris Saint-Germain. Laurent Blanc’s team were more than a match for the eventual Ligue 1 champions on their own pitch, with exciting youth product Bradley Barcola scoring the winning goal.
The 2022-23 season had not been Lyon’s finest, but the victory against PSG was the first of seven wins in their final 10 Ligue 1 games, seeing them finish in seventh place. A strong end to the campaign meant there was some seemingly well-placed optimism ahead of the 2023-24 season.
Nine games in and Barcola has left for PSG, Blanc has been sacked and Lyon sit bottom after failing to win any league games as we approach late October (D3 L6).
Between 2001 and 2008, Lyon won seven consecutive Ligue 1 titles. In 2019-20 they reached the UEFA Champions League semi-finals. Nine games into this campaign, they remain without a win and slipped to the bottom of the table after losing 2-1 at home to Clermont Foot – who had been the only team below them – on Sunday.
It was the latest humbling in a bizarrely poor start to the campaign, with a 4-1 thrashing at home to PSG in early September the final straw for the Lyon board, who sacked Blanc and replaced him with Fabio Grosso.
So, what changed? How did a team that beat PSG, Rennes and Monaco in the latter stages of last season get to this point, bottom of Ligue 1 having lost at home to the only team that had been below them before the weekend?
Lyon’s consistent production of talented young players is well known, and that conveyor belt remains on show but is also perhaps too often pointed at the exit door. In the summer, the club lost Malo Gusto to Chelsea (a deal that was agreed in January, but the right-back stayed on loan until the end of last season), Castello Lukeba to RB Leipzig and Barcola to PSG. More experienced players Houssem Aouar and Moussa Dembélé left for José Mourinho’s Roma and Steven Gerrard’s Al-Ettifaq respectively following the expiration of their deals.
Lyon made some good money from the first three deals but much of it wasn’t reinvested in the squad. According to Transfermarkt, OL spent less than €20 million on incomings in the summer despite receiving over €100m. They picked up players like 30-year-old right back Clinton Mata from Club Brugge, Duje Caleta-Car on loan from Southampton and Ainsley Maitland-Niles on a free transfer following his release from Arsenal.
Exciting youngster Ernest Nuamah also came in on a deal made complicated due to apparent financial restrictions, moving from FC Nordsjaelland to RWD Molenbeek – also owned by Lyon chief John Textor’s Eagle Football Holdings – before being loaned to Lyon for the season with a purchase option.
Despite their strong end to the previous season, the warning signs were there for Lyon before a ball was even kicked in 2023-24. After opening their pre-season with a 2-1 win against amateur Dutch side De Treffers, they went on to lose all four of their remaining friendlies against Manchester United, RWDM, Celta Vigo and Crystal Palace, failing to score in any of them. Would things pick up once competitive football began?
A Stuttering Start
May saw Lyon involved in one of the most incredible games in Ligue 1 history at Groupama Stadium. They trailed Montpellier 4-1 after 55 minutes, before remarkably coming back to win 5-4. The game saw Elye Wahi score four goals for the visitors, before Alexandre Lacazette did the same for Lyon, including dispatching a penalty to win it in the 10th minute of stoppage time.
With memories of that day still presumably fresh, it will have been particularly concerning that, when they faced Montpellier at home again on Matchday 2 of this season, they found themselves 3-0 down after 66 minutes. Lacazette threatened to repeat the trick as he made it 3-1 soon after, but ultimately Blanc’s side went on to lose 4-1.
That followed a 2-1 defeat at Strasbourg on the opening day, but then came a respectable 0-0 draw at Nice that suggested Lyon were starting to find their feet. They were swiftly knocked off their feet by PSG at home. Luis Enrique’s side raced out to a 4-0 half-time lead, with Kylian Mbappé scoring twice and generally toying with the entirely out-of-sorts hosts. A Corentin Tolisso penalty pulled one back in the second half but the humiliation was set and Blanc was soon gone.
Grosso was appointed after the Italian led Frosinone to the Serie B title last season, when they scored the most goals in the division (63) and conceded the fewest (26). He may have scored the winning penalty for Italy in the 2006 World Cup final, but could Grosso turn things around for his former club?
So far, no. In fact, Lyon didn’t even score in the first three games following his arrival, which included a goalless draw at home to Le Havre (though technical director Jean-François Vulliez was officially in charge that day) and away defeats to Brest and Reims. Things were looking up when they took a 3-1 lead at home to Lorient, only for the visitors to fight back and earn a 3-3 draw.
There was hope before the clash with Clermont, but that was fairly quickly extinguished as the visitors started the brighter and took a 2-0 lead into the break. A Florent Ogier own goal early in the second half gave Lyon a lifeline, but they were unable to find their way through again.
Just three points from nine games is unsurprisingly Lyon’s worst start to a season in their history. Their joint-next worst starts were in 1979-80 and 1991-92 when they amassed seven points from their first nine games. In 1979-80 they had to compete in a two-legged relegation playoff to stay in the top flight, which they won against Avignon.
They have failed to win any of their first nine Ligue 1 games of a campaign for the first time ever. They have scored just seven goals so far, their second-lowest tally at this stage of the competition after 1991-92 (4), and have conceded 18 goals, their highest tally at this stage since 1969-70 (24).
It may provide some solace for Lyon fans that, according to Opta’s expected points model, they should be three places higher. The model takes into account expected goals (xG) for and against and the quality of their opponent, so their 1.71 xG to 1.01 against Clermont will have counted in their favour even though they lost the game. It therefore calculated that Lyon should have more than eight points, rather than the three they do have. While it hints at slightly better underlying performances than results show, it also needs the team to ultimately be better in both penalty areas.
Lyon have the worst shot conversion rate in the league at just 5.4%, while they have led in games for just 57 minutes, the shortest overall period for any team this season. Lyon’s home form has been particularly bad, with no team in Ligue 1 trailing at home for as long as their 241 minutes so far, over 90 minutes longer than the next team (Strasbourg on 148 minutes). They have also not led at any point in an away game this season, with Rennes the only other team not to have done so.
They have also been susceptible to danger in the air. Muhammed Cham’s opener in the 10th minute on Sunday was the fourth headed goal Lyon have conceded in Ligue 1 this season, more than any other team.
Ligue 1 reduced from 20 to 18 teams last season, meaning Lyon only have another 25 games to play. They may have a 50-50 chance of staying up as, of the four previous teams to have had just three points or fewer at this stage of a season when the French top flight has only featured 18 teams, two were relegated (Strasbourg in 1951-52 and Béziers in 1957-58).
Looking to Lacazette
Do Lyon have the squad to turn it around? You would think so, on paper.
Lacazette returned to the club last season after five years at Arsenal and picked up where he left off, scoring 27 goals in 35 Ligue 1 appearances. Lyon were too reliant on his goals, though, with no other player scoring more than six. In fact, of the eight players who scored more than once in the league for Lyon in 2022-23, only three remain at the club.
Lacazette’s red card against Montpellier earlier this season saw him miss games through suspension, so he has only made six appearances but still managed three goals. If he can stay on the pitch, the 32-year-old striker could help fire them out of trouble.
The mercurial talent of Rayan Cherki continues to see the 20-year-old linked with Europe’s biggest clubs, but he is yet to register a single goal or assist in nine games (seven starts) having produced 10 goal involvements last season (4 goals, 6 assists) from 34 games (21 starts) and created a team-high 67 chances. He was subbed at half-time on Sunday by Grosso, which didn’t seem to suggest the Italian has much faith in him considering he desperately needed goals in the second half.
Maxence Caqueret has been widely admired for his cultured midfield work, but he has just one assist himself despite creating a team-high 19 chances. Only five players in the entire league have created more. Tolisso remains an important part of the side, with only Marco Verratti averaging more passes per 90 (min. 4 appearances) last season in Ligue 1.
Promising Irish centre-back Jake O’Brien was signed from Crystal Palace in the summer after a year’s loan at RWDM and has already made three starts under Grosso, while the experienced Dejan Lovren has also played the last two ahead of Sinaly Diomandé and Caleta-Car, who have been left on the bench for both games. The latter hasn’t played since Blanc left, but whoever Grosso goes with long-term, a steady partnership will surely be key in Lyon gaining some control at the back.
Opta’s Power Rankings have not looked kindly on Lyon’s fall. At the end of the 2022-23 season they were in 51st place in the global rankings.
Following their poor start to the 2023-24 campaign, they have slipped out of the top 100, sitting in 115th place (as of Monday 23 October) behind the likes of Bournemouth, Las Palmas and Luton Town, and even behind Ligue 1 rivals Toulouse.
According to the Opta supercomputer, Lyon currently have a slightly higher than one-in-five chance of finishing in the bottom two and slightly lower than one-in-six same chance of coming 16th, which would require a relegation playoff. Their likeliest final position is supposedly 15th, which they would presumably take at this stage.
Grosso has a big job on his hands, but as Italy fans will tell you, he’s dealt well with high pressure situations before.