Believe it or not, there was once a time where it was Lyon dominating Ligue 1 and giving the rest of the French top flight very little chance of success.
Five clubs have won more Ligue 1 titles than Lyon in the history of the competition, but no team (not even PSG) have been utterly dominant for as long a streak as Les Gones’ seven consecutive triumphs. From 2001/02 to 2007/08, Lyon were untouchable in Ligue 1 as they set the record for most consecutive title wins.
It is a record that still stands in France and was only recently beaten by Bayern Munich and Juventus among Europe’s top five leagues.
Since that seventh title, Lyon have finished second three times, third five times, fourth three times and fifth once. Not the biggest of falls, but a fall nonetheless.
Arguably the biggest reason for Lyon’s slip has been their tendency to sell star names, something that actually came into being during their dominant patch. Over the years, Lyon have had some wonderful players, but have eventually sold them to bigger clubs for big fees. Economically, it’s a smart decision that will keep money flowing into the club. But when you look at some of the players Lyon have let go, you can’t help but wonder whether they’d have won the Ligue 1 for an eighth time had they kept hold of them.
So we’ve put together an XI of top former Lyon players who we think could have given Paris Saint-Germain a run for their money in recent years.
Goalkeeper: Hugo Lloris
Lyon appearances: 201
Current club: Tottenham Hotspur
When Gregory Coupet left in 2008, Lyon needed a replacement, and looked to Hugo Lloris, signed from Nice that same summer. In his four years with Les Gones, Lloris grew into one of the most highly-rated goalkeepers in Europe, keeping 49 clean sheets in 146 Ligue 1 games and making himself a regular feature in Lyon’s Champions League journey.
In 2012, Lloris had done enough to persuade Tottenham Hotspur to sign him, and he remains at the Premier League club as captain. Although questions have been raised about his quality, the 33-year-old is still one of the divisions’ top goalkeepers and was part of France‘s side that won the World Cup in 2018.
Right-back: Corentin Tolisso
Lyon appearances: 160
Current club: Bayern Munich
Yes, we know Corentin Tolisso isn’t a right-back, but we’re asking him to play out of position as Lyon’s best right-backs are either retired or still at the club. And he has played the role before.
Known mostly as a box-to-box midfielder, Tolisso actually got his breakthrough into the Lyon first team as a utility man, playing right-back and left-back before getting his chance in his preferred position.
Tolisso has had a tough time at Bayern, struggling with injuries, but when he has made it onto the pitch the Frenchman has shown his class, particularly in 2017/18.
Centre-back: Samuel Umtiti
Lyon appearances: 170
Current club: Barcelona
Samuel Umtiti came through Lyon’s academy to break into the first team aged 19 in 2012, and made a name for himself as one of the most promising in his position over the next few years. Barcelona were persuaded by his performances to spend €25m on the then 23-year-old, and he was set to become a key part of their defence alongside Gerard Pique and Gerard Mascherano, later forming a centre-back pairing with the former.
Things haven’t exactly worked out for Umtiti in recent years with injury problems, but the 26-year-old remains a solid centre-back.
Centre-back: Mouctar Diakhaby
Lyon appearances: 55
Current club: Valencia
Another central defender to come through Lyon’s academy before moving to Spain is Mouctar Diakhaby. The former French U21 international broke into the first team in 2016, shortly before his 20th birthday, and formed a centre-back pairing alongside Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa.
Diakhaby’s career so far has been hampered by injuries both at Lyon and current club Valencia, but the 23-year-old remains a good centre-back prospect who could be on the move with Los Che reportedly gearing up for a mass clear out.
Left-back: Ferland Mendy
Lyon appearances: 79
Current club: Real Madrid
One of Lyon’s more recent sales, Ferland Mendy left the club after two years as their first-choice left-back. Now at Real Madrid, Mendy had a solid first season and looks to have set the club up well for life after Marcelo, playing the majority of the season over the Brazilian.
Central midfielder: Miralem Pjanic
Lyon appearances: 121
Current club: Juventus
Over the past nine years, Miralem Pjanic has made a name for himself as one of the best midfielders in Serie A at Roma and then Juventus. But before Roma bought him, Pjanic spent three seasons building his reputation at Lyon. Joining shortly after their final league win, Pjanic took some time to break into the Lyon first team, but once he did there was no dropping him and the Bosnian played in various midfield positions.
Five impressive years at Roma were followed by glory at Juventus, with whom he won four league titles. Pjanic will join Barcelona at the end of the 2019/20 season, something that could come for the Bianconeri at the hands of Lyon, who they face in the Champions League last-16.
Central midfielder: Tanguy Ndombele
Lyon appearances: 96
Current club: Tottenham Hotspur
Partnering Pjanic in our midfield, Tanguy Ndombele was highly sought when he left Lyon for Tottenham Hotspur last summer, and it was easy to see why.
Compared to Michael Essien by Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas, Ndombele made being a defensive midfielder look easy at times while also bringing the ball out from the back effectively. His talents earned him links to the likes of Juventus and Real Madrid, but it was Tottenham who signed Ndombele for over £50 million.
Ndombele has struggled since the move, with Jose Mourinho particularly scathing of his performances, but his quality should not be forgotten. There is a reason a club so averse to spending money like Spurs made him their all-time record signing.
Right-winger: Anthony Martial
Lyon appearances: 4
Current club: Manchester United
Everyone will know Anthony Martial as the promising teenager Manchester United signed from Monaco, but the Frenchman actually started his career at Lyon, joining Les Gones aged 14. He would only make four appearances for the first-team, however, before joining Monaco and stepping up his progress.
In 70 games for Monaco, Martial scored 15 goals and showed enough promise to persuade Manchester United to spend £36m up front on the teenager, which was a record at the time. The fee put pressure on Martial early, but the Frenchman has more than proven his worth in the five years since his signing. Now the club’s starting striker, having also spent time on the wings, Martial has scored 71 goals for the Red Devils and is on the shortlist for the Premier League‘s Young Player of the Season for 2019/20.
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Attacking midfielder: Nabil Fekir
Lyon appearances: 193
Current club: Real Betis
Nabil Fekir was excellent during his eight years at Lyon, having initially joined as shortly before his 18th birthday in 2011. Eventually making his way to the first team, the French attacking midfielder was a threat on the opposition goal both by himself and when setting up teammates.
Capable of playing across the attacking midfield positions, both centrally and on either wing, Fekir scored 69 goals and recorded a further 46 assists, convincing Liverpool to try to sign him in a move that reportedly only fell apart due to a failed medical (though Fekir later refuted this).
Fekir did get a move to Real Betis last summer and enjoyed a decent first season in Spain but will be expected to step up a level in his second campaign.
Left-winger: Alexandre Lacazette
Lyon appearances: 275
Current club: Arsenal
Karim Benzema’s departure in 2009 opened the door for Alexandre Lacazette to move into the Lyon first team, having come through the club’s academy. And the Frenchman ensured they did not miss his compatriot.
Lacazette’s 275 Lyon appearances brought 129 goals and made him one of France’s most frightening strikers. After a few seasons on being linked, Lacazette finally moved to Arsenal in 2017 and scored on his Premier League debut.
He perhaps hasn’t kicked on as well as many would have hoped, but the Frenchman remains a solid striker (or left-winger if you’re trying to shoe horn two strikers into an XI, as Arsenal have at times) who works tirelessly and links play with great skill.
Striker: Karim Benzema
Lyon appearances: 148
Current club: Real Madrid
Four-time Ligue 1 winner Karim Benzema scored 20 goals in the 2007/08 season, finishing as the division’s top scorer, to mark the end Lyon’s seven-year domination. One season later, Benzema left Lyon for Real Madrid in the same summer Los Blancos signed Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka.
Although he was often overshadowed by Ronaldo during his time at the club, there is no disputing the impact Benzema has had on Real Madrid’s successes particularly in Europe. A selfish striker when he needs to be but still frightening in front of goal, Benzema has scored 248 goals in 512 goals for Real Madrid and helped them to four Champions Leagues, three La Ligas and two Copas del Rey.