Lyon lacking bold recruitment as vulnerability shows

Copyright: Gonzales Photo/Dejan Obretkovic

If we turn back to August 2020, Olympique Lyonnais had just won their seventh Champions League title. They were celebrating their feat under the lights in San Sebastián, after enduring what turned out to be a pandemic-stricken season.

There were bumpy moments during the back-end of the campaign. Lyon stuttered their way to the final, but they turned it on when it really mattered against VfL Wolfsburg.

Now, many would put their inconsistent performances down to a disjointed season – which is a viable reason. But, the warning signs were starting to emerge regardless of the external factors of that season.

Jean-Michel Aulas has been a powerful and influential figure, not only at Lyon but in women’s football in general. He put the club on the map and attracted world-class talent to their doorstep. Yet, it seems lately that his strategy has stuttered.

That win imbued a double-edged feeling of admiration and vulnerability. This was the first time in Lyon’s recent past where they seemed wounded. Like a lion smelling blood in the wild, the other contenders sensed that the 2020/21 season could be a turning point and a chance to break their wearisome domination in Europe.

Fast forward to February 2021, you see those fears surface. At face value, it doesn’t seem all too bad. The champions currently sit second in Division 1 Féminine and are just one point behind league leaders Paris Saint-Germain. Yet, it’s the manner in which they’ve reached this point that leaves much to be desired.

Injuries and incomings

Injuries have hit Lyon hard in key positions but the blame can partially be levelled at their summer recruitment. The summer window saw high profile exits in Lucy Bronze, Jessica Fishlock, Shanice van de Sanden and Alex Greenwood while Ada Hegerberg was recovering from a long-term injury.

Amandine Henry and Eugenie Le Sommer have also been susceptible to injury this season. This meant that the team required more vigilance in their recruitment of crucial areas. Another long-term injury could see a crisis form.

To some extent, they’ve managed it well. The arrival of Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir has added quality to the midfield. At the same time, Sakina Karchaoui and Ellie Carpenter have been decent in their full debut seasons.

Nevertheless, injuries to Wendie Renard and Le Sommer have left Lyon lacking with their replacements not maintaining their high standards for long periods of time. 

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Melvine Malard and Kadeisha Buchanan are able deputies, especially in the latter’s case. Though, the two haven’t been on top of their games over the course of the season. An injury to Buchanan has meant Saki Kumagai has moved to play at centre-back, which isn’t abnormal but you’d want her playing in her customary defensive midfield position.

This ultimately comes down to poorly handled recruitment, resulting in unbalanced reinforcements in areas that may have not needed strengthening whilst leaving the ones that did need it to not be filled sufficiently. This is where the difference lies between the upward trajectory of some European clubs and Lyon this season. 

WSL recruitment

Let’s take Chelsea’s model as a case study and see how they’ve managed to navigate the market. The WSL champions have been ruthless in their dealings with what looks like a well-thought-out strategy and plan in tackling the market.

This season saw the exits of Ramona Bachmann, Adelina Engman, Anita Asante, and Jamie Lee-Napier – all of whom needed replacing. The acquisitions of Sam Kerr, Pernille Harder, Niamh Charles, Jessie Fleming, and Melanie Leupolz were done swiftly, and plugged the gaps in the squad. Many thought some of these players would be surplus to an already bloated squad, but come February they’ve proven vital.

Harder has blossomed into the player we saw dominate at Wolfsburg, adding quality despite Fran Kirby’s injury. Kerr has reached double figures across all competitions, giving Bethany England stiff competition for the No.9 position after a stellar 2019/20 season.

Leupolz has arguably been the best central midfielder in Europe so far. Though there was a need for depth in the position, Emma Hayes raised a few eyebrows with the German starting over Sophie Ingle coming off a career-best season in 2019/20.

Chelsea’s model

Marina Granovskaia’s strategy is to work with the scouting department and work towards picking up club targets and manager targets. This transfer strategy means there are times when players will be picked up much earlier and out of the blue, as was the case with Kerr and Leupolz.

The right-hand to owner Roman Abramovich has been pivotal to propelling Chelsea to the forefront of women’s football, and this season has shown as much.

Jean-Michel Aulas has adopted a similar approach and on paper, it’s a sound strategy. Their modus operandi has been to sign both world-class talent and gifted young players to balance out a need for the present and future. Still, the main issue has been their lack of recruitment in certain areas of the pitch and operating reactively than proactively. Let’s look at their transfers for the current season.

Lyon signings

There was a high volume of transfers during the 2020/21 season. They were looking very active in their pursuit of targets. Let’s break this down.

Lyon let go of four midfielders, four defenders, one goalkeeper and one forward. Subsequently, they’ve brought in three midfielders, five defenders, one goalkeeper and three forwards. At face value, you’d think they’ve done well to replace the number of players that have gone out. To some degree, they have. However, a squad is built not just on numbers but, more importantly, on quality as well.

All four midfielders played in the first team, with Jessica Fishlock and Grace Kazadi being the prominent figures. Yet, the only replacement to come in the summer to rival their quality was Sara Björk. Damaris Egurrola arrived later in January 2021 as a reaction to the injury crisis they faced in midfield and defence and relieve some pressure off Kumagai.

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Bronze and Greenwood are a pair of experienced full-backs. Their replacements came in the form of Sakina Karchaoui and Ellie Carpenter who are relatively inexperienced. Karchaoui has made a decent start but Carpenter will need time. This is especially true if she is to produce the same kind of elite-level performances on a consistent basis that Bronze displayed.

The strangest move is most definitely the transfer of Jodie Taylor. It seemed a forced panic buy because of their new partnership links to OL Reign and the only place to find an experienced back-up to Le Sommer and Hegerberg.

A lot of the other signings were for the academy which bloats the list. Yet, overall there seems to have been a manic approach to the transfer market. While the strategy is clear, the executed plan wasn’t. This one season of moves has impacted their performances and threatens to derail the legacy they’ve built around this season. There was a changing of the guard which was inevitable but more should have been done to protect the on-field performances better.

Regardless of the season’s results, this summer’s recruitment will arguably be the biggest moment in their history given its importance to usher in a new era.

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