Lyon Transfer Window Review: Summer 2020

Olympique Lyonnais had one of their most active transfer windows for years in the summer of 2020 and now that it has closed we can begin to assess how successful it was.

The transfer window unfolded against a backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, which delayed the start of the season and led to the window remaining open until October the 5th, six games into the new Ligue 1 campaign. Uncertainty over whether some of Lyon’s star names such as Memphis Depay and Houssem Aouar would depart meant that the club was forced into conducting most of their business at the last minute, which severely disrupted their preparations and adversely affected their form during those opening games.

The mandate for this transfer window was clearly all about cost cutting with a view to long-term financial viability in the Covid era. The vast reduction in matchday income due to the restricted crowd sizes came as a double whammy for the club when coupled with their failure to qualify for European competition for the first time in twenty three seasons. Lyon were accustomed to budgeting for the income from reaching the latter stages of European football, so the belt had to be drastically tightened and a bloated squad trimmed in line with their new financial reality.

Looking at the headline figures, Lyon broadly achieved that aim, with twenty three players moving on for a grand total of €47.9 million in transfer fees received. Only seven new faces arrived to integrate the first team squad at a total cost of €33.75 million, so there was a €14.15 million net profit. That’s helpful, but it won’t go very far in this day and age. The real saving is of course in player salaries. The weekly wage bill will be greatly reduced with so many players off the books, and the list of departures included plenty of senior professionals who would have been on substantial contracts.

That should put the club on a much safer financial footing in these uncertain times, but at what cost to the strength of the team on the pitch? The good news on that front is that the club did manage to hold on to both Depay and Aouar, as well as all of their other most valuable playing assets. The majority of the players to leave were on the fringes of the first team squad or youngsters deemed unlikely to make the grade. The only regular starters to depart were Lucas Tousart, who had actually already been sold to Hertha Berlin in January and loaned back to Lyon, and Marçal, who moved to Wolverhampton Wanderers. Tousart had already been adequately replaced by Bruno Guimarães and the emergence of Maxence Caqueret, but Marçal’s versatility may be missed.

Therefore, the first eleven doesn’t look any weaker despite all the departures but the depth of strength in the squad does look a lot shallower than it has been of late. The absence of European fixtures, and indeed the now defunct Coupe de la Ligue, from the calendar could well mean that a small squad will be perfectly adequate for this season. However, that assumption could be severely tested if a Covid outbreak requires several players to self-isolate at once, so it’s a risky strategy but it might pay off.

Depay may yet end up leaving in the January transfer window, which could pose a problem as he would be a difficult player to replace and wouldn’t bring in much of a fee with only a few months left on his contract. The only reason he didn’t end up leaving in this window was because Barcelona couldn’t scrape together the cash to pay for him. Perhaps by then the promising Rayan Cherki will have emerged as a home made replacement for Depay.

Rarely can a Ligue 1 club ever have sold quite as many established professionals as Lyon did this summer, with the possible exception of Monaco. By my reckoning, there’s a team and perhaps even a whole squad of players in the departure list who could comfortably survive in Ligue 1 in their own right and perhaps even finish in the top half. That’s testament to just how bloated Lyon’s roster had become. A line-up of players who left the club in this window would look something like this:

Tatarusanu – Koné, Marçal, Andersen, Tete – Cheikh Diop, Tousart, Reine-Adélaïde – Terrier, Gouiri, Traoré.

There’s a lot of talent in that team. Unfortunately much of it was unfulfilled at Lyon, but has been successful elsewhere in the past and can be so again in the future. The average age is just 24 years and 11 months, so most of them still have their peak years ahead of them. It’s a pretty solid XI for Ligue 1; all of them have Champions League experience, albeit just a few minutes for Gouiri, and several are full internationals. There’s a lot of experience in goal and in defence, the midfield looks pretty robust too and there are definitely goals in the attack. I don’t think they are as strong as the Lyon starting XI that’s left behind, but they could certainly give them a good game.

The likes of Ciprian Tatarusanu, Youssouf Koné, Joachim Andersen and Jeff Reine-Adélaïde had only arrived at the club the previous summer, with big reputations and for a combined fee of €64 million. Koné, Andersen and Reine-Adélaïde only left on loan, to Elche, Fulham and Nice respectively, so they may return next season, but that’s beginning to look like a lot of money poorly spent. Martin Terrier performed well for Lyon when required last season and may come to look at his move to Rennes as an upward step. They are in the Champions League and look likely to challenge for a top three spot again this season. Bertrand Traoré was frustrating at times but was a useful option from the bench and has already opened his scoring account at Aston Villa. Amine Gouiri was perhaps the most disappointing departure. The youngster looked full of promise and scored twice on his Nice debut whereas Lyon’s strikers have struggled for form so far this season.

On the arrivals front Lyon have made some intriguing signings who are mainly unknown quantities in Ligue 1. There is still just about cover for every position in the team, although they could be vulnerable to an injury crisis in central defence and the balance of the squad has been criticised in some quarters. The central midfield department still looks a bit over-staffed and they don’t have many options for the wide areas, particularly in attack.

The first signing was Karl Toko Ekambi, who had impressed with his work rate during his loan spell last season, and his move from Villareal was made permanent for €12 million. A young Turkish centre-back called Cenk Özkaçar joined from Altay Izmir for €1.5 million and will initially go into the reserve squad. Striker Tino Kadewere was recalled from his loan spell at Le Havre, where he finished as top scorer in Ligue 2. He impressed in pre-season and will push Moussa Dembélé for the centre-forward spot. Goalkeeper Julian Pollersbeck was next to arrive for €0.25 million from Hamburg and he will be back-up for Anthony Lopes after the departure of Tatarusanu.

The last three arrivals all joined in the final days of the transfer window. Firstly Brazilian attacking midfielder Lucas Paquetá came in for €20 million from AC Milan, where he’d had a disappointing eighteen months. He’s the closest thing to a marquee signing this window and will look to revive his career at Lyon and provide the creativity that has been desperately lacking at the start of this season. Algerian international centre-back Djamel Benlamri arrived as a free agent to provide defensive cover and Italian international full-back Mattia De Sciglio came in on loan from Juventus to do likewise.

In summary, it looks like a decent summer’s business on paper. They turned a profit and reduced the wage bill whilst hanging on to their star players and not weakening the first team. How it will be judged in posterity largely depends on how well Lucas Paquetá performs at the club. If he can recapture the form he showed as a youngster at Flamengo then it will look like a shrewd bit of business and Lyon will challenge for the European places once again. If he flops then I can’t see Lyon having enough creativity in their ranks to trouble the upper reaches of the table this season and they will have wasted their one big investment of the summer.

A team of Lyon players who left in 2020.
A team of Lyon players who left in 2020