In the 48th minute of PSG’s second match of the 2019/20 Ligue season, sixteen-year-old Rennes midfielder, Eduardo Camavinga lofted a thirty-yard ball that Romain del Castillo headed into the PSG net. Rennes held on to beat the Parisian giants 2-1 and Camavinga deservedly grabbed the headlines.
What this result also shows, however, is that there may be a chance for teams to challenge PSG for the Ligue 1 title, something that has become a rarity in French football. Les Parisiens have won six of the last seven Ligue 1 titles. Last season they won the league with weeks to spare- finishing on 91 points, despite playing poorly for months before the season’s close.
So can anyone challenge PSG this season? Or are we about to once again witness the widening chasm between PSG and the 19 other Ligue 1 clubs.
Like Camavinga, Lyon also grabbed the headlines this weekend. The 6-0 thumping of Angers on Friday night displayed the ability and confidence of Les Gones this season.
This summer they appointed former Arsenal and Barcelona full-back, Sylvinho, and it seems that he has already firmly made his mark.
Lyon’s 6-0 victory over Angers followed on from their equally impressive 3-0 win over Monaco. After matchweek two they sit at the top of the Ligue 1 table having scored nine goals and conceded none in their opening two matches.
Of course, two games does not necessarily mean that Lyon will have a stellar season. So what is it that suggests that they will contend with PSG this campaign?
Firstly, it is important to note the large-scale change that has gone on behind the scenes at Lyon this summer. Lyon legend, Juninho, most famously known for his imperious free kicks in the mid-noughties, has been appointed at the club’s sporting director. Juninho’s arrival should be significant, due to his legendary status in Lyon. At the end of last season in a match against Lille at the Groupama Stadium, Juninho’s name was sung by the Lyon fans before any dangerous free-kick was taken.
Juninho’s popularity in Lyon is unsurprising considering the talismanic Brazilian won seven titles for Lyon (the only seven Ligue 1 titles the club has won) in an eight-year spell. The club’s new sporting director will certainly be hoping that the French club can match the heady heights reached in the mid-2000’s.
Following their exit to AC Milan in the Champions League quarter-finals in 2006, Les Gones had reached the last eight in Europe for the third year running. That season in the Champions League demonstrated the quality that the French club possessed, something they will be hoping to replicate this season. With players including Gregory Coupet, Tiago, Florent Malouda, Sidney Govou, Silvain Wiltord and of course, Juninho, Lyon tore apart the ‘Galatico’s’ of Real Madrid 3-0 in the Champions League group stage.
Their best Ligue 1 campaign also came in the 2005/06 season, as Lyon amassed 84 points. Lyon fans will be hoping that their rejuvenated club will be able to do just as well in this campaign.
The unsurprising warmth felt towards Juninho contrasts the hostility surrounding former manager Bruno Genesio. The majority of Lyon fans were constantly on Genesio’s back following the widespread belief that the manager lacked the tactical capabilities to break down teams who sat back. These criticisms were supported by Lyon’s failure to get anywhere near PSG in Ligue 1 in recent season, as well as their disintegration in the latter stages of the Europa League in recent years.
Juninho’s arrival has led to much greater optimism amongst the Lyon fans for this season. Lyon president, Jean-Michel Aulas has even said that Juninho’s return has “soothed the atmosphere,” Evidently, this will have a positive impact of the team’s performances, as the infamously impatient Lyon crowd will be sure to be given more time to this new project.
With the knowledge that Juninho knows Lyon inside and out, Aulas has given the Brazilian the authority to choosing Les Gones new manager for the 2019/20 season. Juninho’s decision indicated the scale of the shift happening at Lyon. His appointment, former Brazilian team-mate, Sylvinho, is Lyon’s first foreign coach since the 1980s.
So why has Juninho taken such a different stance on Lyon’s managerial recruitment for a non-Frenchman? What’s more, a non-Frenchman who speaks little French and has a distinct lack of managerial experience in Europe?
For what he lacks in managerial experience Sylvinho makes up for in his unmatched obsession with football. “I write down names, concepts, defensive tasks, things about attacking, meeting things, ideas,” he told France Football, “I would forget them if I did not write them down. It’s a part of my life. And even my wife does not touch this notebook!”
This attention to detail will, no doubt, be apparent in his coaching at Lyon. “It will be necessary that the group adapts to its requirements”, said Sylvinho’s former team-mate at Celta Vigo, Peter Luccin. Sylvinho’s obsessive focus on football should have an unvarying effect on players that do not naturally share the Lyon manager’s eagerness. Memphis Depay and Houssem Aouar are two stars at the French club, but they have been accused of inconsistency and a lack of focus for long durations of the season. Sylvinho will be hoping his fresh mindset will change this.
Furthermore, Sylvinho has had experience in the dugout before an elite European club. In December 2014, he was appointed as Roberto Mancini’s assistant coach at Inter Milan. This experience enhanced the Brazilian’s tactical knowledge, something pivotal to Italian football. “It allowed him to learn more about Italian football, to pay even more attention to the details of the defensive line,“ believes Italy’s under-16 coach, Patrizia Panico.
Thus, suggestions that Sylvinho is unfit to be in charge of a big European club, due to his lack of experience at the top European level can be quashed. Although, a question still remains whether he can make the transition from an assistant to a manager. “The number one position is very different,” warned his former team-mates, Gilles Grimandi, “there are many additional parameters. There are moments of pressure, there are times when you have to be political.”
Whilst Slyvinho has to deal with the pressure of being the manager at Lyon, some of the burden will be reduced by the ever-reliable pair of Bernard Lacombe and Gerard Houllier who advise the club on transfers.
This summer the club have lost some key players: Tanguy Ndombele, Nabil Fekir and Ferland Mendy to name a few. However, the club have successfully replaced these players and improved upon squad depth in other areas.
The industrious Brazilian central midfielder, Thiago Mendes has arrived after his stellar season with Lille. He should be able to make up much of the loss felt by the departure of Ndombele. Another Brazilian, Jean Lucas from Flamengo has also joined Lyon this summer. Like Mendes, Lucas will be tasked with filling the Ndombele void. Seen as one of the best midfielders in South American football he should fit in well at the Groupama Stadium.
The impact of the Brazilian duo, Sylvinho and Juninho in securing the deals of the countryman cannot be understated.
Elsewhere, the club have signed ex-Arsenal prodigy Jeff Reine-Adelaide from Angers; defender Joachim Andersen from Sampdoria and left-back Youssouf Kone from Lille. Sylvinho has greater options and depth to choose from this year than this predecessor Bruno Genesio.
So how have these changes affected Lyon in their quest for the Ligue 1 title in the opening weeks of the season?
In their opening game of the season, a tricky away trip to face Monaco, Lyon breezed past their potential title rivals. Sylvinho deployed his team in his preferred 4-3-3 formation. With Lucas Tousart operating as a central midfield pivot slotting into a centre-back position when receiving the ball off goalkeeper Antony Lopes. New signings, Kone and Thiago Mendes were handed starts, with Jean Lucas on the bench.
After just five minutes Lyon took the lead through a powerfully planted header from the striker Moussa Dembele. Juninho, who was watching from the stands was seen clenching his fist with joy. Mid-way through the first half a Memphis Depay bullet shot flew through Benjamin Lecomte and into the net. The third goal arrived thanks to Tousart’s low driven shot ten minutes from time. Lyon ran out as comfortable 3-0 winners.
“Last year, with Bruno Genesio, Les Gones were distinguished by their concentration swings,” said FranceFootball, “this Friday, if not for one or two Monaco chances, Sylvinho’s men never put themselves in danger. It’s rather reassuring.”
Their victory at Monaco was trumped by their recent thumping of Angers at the Groupama Stadium in match week two. The Lyon team, who were unchanged from the game against Monaco were greeted by a monumental tifo of Juninho holding a Lyon scarf, a sign of the connection between the fans and their new sporting director.
Young star, Housseum Aouar opened the scoring before braces from Dembele and Depay. The win was capped off by a tremendous goal, created by Depay ‘Cruyff-turning’ a defender no less than three times before finding Jean Lucas inside the box to tap home.
Such an emphatic result is bound to win over the Lyon fans that have seen their team constantly struggle to break down opposition who defend deep. Lyon dropped 17 points at the Groupama stadium last season, with disappointing results against the likes of Nantes, Bordeaux, Dijon and Reims. If Sylvinho’s sharp tactical focus and keen eye for detail can help alleviate some of these problems from last season then Lyon should be in a much better position to challenge PSG.
What’s more, the heavy pressing from the Lyon team in their opening games, and in particular Houssem Aouar and Memphis Depay should provide much optimism to Lyon fans. Both players were inconsistent under Genesio, yet Sylvinho (so far) is managing to eek the best out of both players in terms of both performance and work-rate.
“Sylvinho has got Les Gones playing with a conviction not seen in recent memory,” tweeted GetFrenchFootballNews after the 6-0 win, “Sylvinho’s biggest challenge is keeping [Depay] him entertained throughout the season.”
Although we are only two weeks in Sylvinho has certainly kept Depay’s head screwed on. If the Brazilian can keep a lid on some of the temperamental figures in the team and maintain this slick brand of attacking football then Lyon will certainly be in the conversation for the Ligue 1 title. Their case is strengthened by the acquired acquisitions of Thiago Mendes, Jean Lucas and Kone to replace the departing Mendy and Ndombele. Whilst the signings of Andersen and Reine-Adelaide provide much promise for the future.
The addition of Juninho as sporting director should also enable Sylvinho more time, as the fans at the moment are right behind the team. Should the team replicate the golden period that their sporting director was at the heart of, then this season should be very exciting for Lyon fans. Of course, it remains to be seen if this will be the case come May, but it is certainly a very promising start for Les Gones.