Following three barren seasons, Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas decided it was time his club went about their business in a different way. “If we’re going to move on we need to nurture some homegrown talent,” he announced before the current season got under way. “We've got too many experienced players and not enough up-and-coming youngsters.”
The first step in his plan to restructure the club that reigned supreme in France between 2002 and 2008 was to appoint their training academy director Remi Garde as first-team coach. His brief? To rejuvenate the squad and bring the good times back.
“We can’t say it’s a gamble that’s paid off yet. We won’t be able to say that until we’ve won the Champions League,” said 20-year-old local talent Alexandre Lacazette, one of the figureheads of Lyon’s new wave, in conversation with FIFA.com. “What I do think, though, is that the young guys can repay the confidence that’s been shown in them. To my mind we’ve been making a good impression since the start of the season.”
A hunger for goals
Lacazette was one of the architects of France’s run to the semi-finals of the FIFA U-20 World Cup Colombia 2011, and one of seven Lyon players in that squad. The winner of the adidas Bronze Boot, having tied as the tournament’s top scorer with Brazil’s Henrique and Spain’s Alvaro Vasquez with five goals, despite making just the one start in seven games, the front man has understandably fond recollections of his breakthrough tournament.
“Not everyone has the chance to play in a World Cup finals,” he said. “Obviously we would have liked to have finished higher than fourth, but I’ve got good memories of it all the same.”
Lacazette has carried that sharp form forward this season, seizing the opportunity given him by Garde. A starter in 15 of the 28 games he has played for L’OL, the fresh-faced finisher has struck seven goals, five of them since the turn of the year.
“He’s a young player with his head firmly screwed on his shoulders,” commented his coach. “He works hard and he’s a team man. Alexandre’s not the finished article yet, but he’s got bags of quality and if he keeps it up, he’ll go a long way.”
Lacazette’s success with Lyon is not exactly a new phenomenon. The opportunistic striker earned a reputation as something of a super-sub last season, scoring his first goal on his maiden appearance, when he came on for Michel Bastos against Sochaux in October 2010. He later opened his European account after replacing Miralem Pjanic in a UEFA Champions League match with Hapoel Tel-Aviv.
“I take whatever comes my way,” said Lyon’s latest hot property. “Obviously it would be great to start every game, but I’m young and I’m competing with a lot of great players. Even so, I can see that the coach is giving me more and more starts.”
Dig the new breed
One such start came in the first leg of Lyon’s ongoing Champions League Round-of-16 tie with APOEL Nicosia, the France U-21 international getting the nod ahead of Bafetimbi Gomis and going on to score the only goal of the game.
“That’s my job and my hard work paid off, though the faith my team-mates and the coaching staff have in me also plays a big part in my performances.”
The modest Lacazette is not the only youth product starring under Garde this season. Maxime Gonalons (22), Samuel Umtiti (18) and Clement Grenier (20) have formed an impressive quartet with the forward, who has built up an especially productive partnership with midfielder Grenier, a team-mate of his for the last five years.
“We’ve been playing together for years, and I know where he wants the ball without even having to look,” explained the Lyon-born Lacazette. “He’s classy, elegant and a great passer of the ball. He’s what you call a great player.
“The spirit in the team is great,” he continued, wrapping up our conversation. “The new coaching staff and the fact we’ve known each other for so long has definitely helped with that. Personally I’m very proud to be wearing the shirt of the town where I was born and grew up. All my family and friends live in Lyon, and playing at the Gerland was my childhood dream. I tell you, I wouldn’t mind spending the rest of my career here on the Rhone.”