Ligue 1 has one of the most exciting title races in Europe this season as PSG are being fought all the way by a youthful Lyon side who just refuse to lie down. They are a team who could teach Arsenal a thing or two about challenging for titles with promising youngsters.
Before the season started, Monaco’s financial troubles meant they had to let go of Falcao go to Man United and James Rodriguez to Real, and PSG were tipped to simply run away with the league. The club from the principality were allegedly left in monetary trouble after the divorce of their billionaire owner Dmitry Rybolovlev, who was ordered to pay his wife an eye-watering £2.6bn in the settlement.
Although Monaco haven’t been able to compete with PSG’s billions, the Parisians haven’t run away with the league. And it’s not that PSG have been awful, it’s just that Lyon have matched them. PSG have lost only three times in all competitions this season, and one was at the Nou Camp in the Champions League group stages. They haven’t been totally convincing until the last few games, but now they are starting to come to form. Yet they are still being held-off by leaders Lyon.
Lyon are a team chock-full of academy graduates, the average age of the squad is just over 24 years of age, and yet they still manage to maintain a team charging for the title against a team with the riches and squad depth of PSG. A team for whom defeat in the Champions League last 16 to Chelsea would have been a disappointment.
Players like Anthony Lopes, Samuel Umtiti, Corentin Tolisso, Nabil Fekir and of course one of the hottest properties in Europe this season, Alexandre Lacazette have starred for Les Gones this season, and all of these players have come through Lyon’s youth academy. Umtiti has been linked with Real Madrid by Goal.com, Fekir with Arsenal by the Daily Mail, and Lacazette with just about any club with a chequebook.
They shockingly crashed out of Europe in the Europa League qualifying round, but this now seems like teething problems that manager Hubert Fournier had at the start. Without the strains of Europe on the young side, they have notched up more wins than anyone else.
The Lyonnais are also a team who are linked very often with Arsenal. The brightest of the Lyon young players are usually linked with the Gunners, and former Arsenal defender Remi Garde was Lyon manager until last year. He was tipped to take over from Arsene Wenger by The Independent, especially at points when Wenger was under pressure last season.
Arsenal are known as a club that likes to nurture youth. Players like Fabregas, Walcott and now Oxlade-Chamberlain have come through the ranks to become top Premier League players. Arsene Wenger spends millions of pounds every year to bring in the best talent from around the world – the latest two being Gabriel Paulista and Krystian Bielik – but add the three I mentioned earlier to that list and you start to get the picture: Arsenal deserve credit for bringing these young players through and nurturing them in the way that they have.
For the last few years the Arsenal team has been made up of these young players. In fact, it has almost been used as an excuse for failure as the club asks the fans to be patient until they can pay off the stadium debt and get back to a solid financial footing.
Yet there should be no need for excuses. Young players can play with a confidence and a fearlessness that you don’t see in established first-teamers. The academy graduates who have made it to the first team have been the best players in their age groups all their lives, and so they play with confidence. They are also young and trying to force their way into the team, and so they don’t show any fear as they try to impress.
Arsenal have plenty of players like this, but they sometimes seem overawed on the big occasions, as though the fear of the moment of truth has consumed them.
The lesson Arsenal can learn from Lyon is not about giving youth a chance – Arsenal are very good at themselves. It is about letting the youngsters go and play without fear. In cliche-speak, we would say that they should be allowed ‘go out onto the pitch and express themselves’. But I actually think that this is an apt phrase this time. It is, after all, about freedom.
The youth of Lyon play with this freedom – freedom from fear. And this is how they have held off PSG for this long. Whether they continue to do so or not, Lyon have had a wonderful season and they can be rightly proud of their youth academy.
The way they play should serve as an example to every team in world football – if you have the youth in your squad, give them a chance to play without pressure. And if, like at Arsenal, the youth is good enough, you might find that they can do something special.