Olympique Lyonnais isn't the most well-known club in the world. It doesn't have the history of the traditional European powers like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United or Liverpool have. Nor does it have the bottomless pockets of the noveau riche, such as Manchester City or Chelsea.
But if you’re looking to become a keen a fan of the Beautiful Game, this is a club you should pay very close attention to. It is a club that has carved its own niche into the consciousnesses of European soccer by being patient, prudent and just plain smarter than everyone else.
OL has seen some of the best stars past through its door, using the seven-time Ligue 1 champions as a springboard to bigger clubs. Current Premier League players such as Hugo Lloris, Hatem Ben Afra and Michael Essien once called the Stade Gerland home and earned big-ticket moves to England while at Lyon. Real Madrid’s top striker, Karim Benzema, matured into a top-flight center forward with Les Gones (The Kids) before his transfer to the Spanish capital.
With all the players that come and go, you would naturally think it would be difficult to keep Lyon competitive in European soccer. Most of Europe’s big boys, the likes of Chelsea, Real Madrid and Barcelona have cherry-picked Lyon’s top players whenever they’ve seen fit. Remarkably, Lyon has still managed to be a major force and stayed a contender for top honors in Europe's premier club competitions, staying contention for both the Champions and Europa Leagues.
A lot of that has to do with the way the club is run under the stewardship of chairman Jean-Michel Aulas. Aulas makes no bones about how he runs Lyon; he treats OL strictly as a business and, while success on the field is extremely important, the bottom line is making profit of Aulas. The plan under Aulas has been simple: Find promising young players, develop them into world-class talent and sell them at their peak for huge transfer fees. The result is huge sums of cash for Lyon. During the 2011-12 season, Lyon accumulated approximately $172 million in total revenue, good for 17th on this year's prestigious Deloitte Football Money League List and the top French club on the list.
For Aulas and OL, developing youth isn’t something that they want to do. It’s absolutely necessary for the club’s survival.
"The youth academy has had the same strategy for 25 years and it's still working,” Aulas said in an interview with the team’s official channel at the end of the 2012-13 season. “We count on that academy. We had 19 players from the academy out of 35 used in the first team [during the 2012-13 season] … Reducing the wage bill doesn't mean weakening the club.”
What Aulas has done is similar to what the Oakland A’s did under general manager Billy Beane during the early 2000s, using the “Moneyball” strategy. Find an undervalued asset, exploit the asset for all its worth and then cash in when the situation is most advantageous. In fact, Aulas and Olympique Lyonnais have a chapter dedicated to the club’s transfer strategy in the book, Soccernomics by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski. In the book, the authors go in depth in how Lyon try to use transfer market to their advantage and lessen the risk of making big-money mistakes. Unlike Chelsea or Manchester City, Lyon cannot afford an error in making transfer decisions and spend their way out of a hole.
There is one major difference between OL and the A’s, however, is that Lyon won seven titles in a row from 2002-07, a record of dominance that was simply staggering in the world soocer.
But Lyon’s grip at the top of France’s premier soccer league is no more. Taken over by multi-billion dollar owners, both Paris Saint-Germain and AS Monaco have changed the landscape of Ligue 1, spending obscene amounts on top soccer stars. Once the hunted, Lyon join the pack of hunters looking to chase down PSG, the defending league champions. It won’t be easy and the financial advantage the two other sides have is overwhelming. Still, Aulas trust that his approach will be successful and that OL will be able to compete against the big spenders. Lyon finished third last season in Ligue 1, good enough to qualify for next year’s Champions League competition in a “rebuilding” season.
“OL will construct a team around this golden generation of young players. We will do everything possible to keep these players at Lyon,” he said. “Our strategy is build around these kids. It is a strategy that is already paying off."
A couple of the young players that have begun their ascension to stardom are Clement Grenier and Maxime Gonalons, two of the guys that could be in the lineup for Lyon’s friendly match Tuesday vs. the Red Bulls. (Complete coverage is on MSG starting at 7:30 PM). Grenier is a classy central midfielder who has caught the eye of Arsenal, although the 22-year-old has signed a new contract with OL recently.
Gonalons is Lyon’s captain, a defensive midfielder who has been already capped by France’s national team and also been rumored to be off to North London to play with the Gunners. If you get the chance to watch Tuesday, keep an eye on these two.
As Lyon gets ready for another Ligue 1 campaign, the club, while not as dominant, still remains a force to be reckoned with. It is the model soccer club, an example most teams wish they could follow. But watch carefully. OL’s best players of today will be the stars of tomorrow on even grander stages.