How Pierre Sage Took Lyon from Last Place to the UEFA Europa League

 On the 30th November 2023, unknown managerial rookie Pierre Sage was appointed as Lyon’s third manager of the season. Les Gones were only 12 games into the season but sat bottom of the league with just three points. Meanwhile behind the scenes, in-fighting and threatened lawsuits between new and old owners only fuelled the fire occurring each week on the field, and exacerbated the impending sense of crisis amongst the ardent fanbase.


Lyon fans’ ultra group ‘The Bad Gones’, translated as ‘The Bad Kids’, had already voiced their frustrations in a quite remarkable public dressing down of players after a dismal 4-1 home loss to Paris Saint-Germain just four games in. The scenes were stark. An incohesive squad filled with despondent, ashamed, and underperforming players stood by and watched as their supporters furiously demanded they step up or risk “tarnishing” the Lyon jersey. And, whilst it may have had a delayed impact on their actual performances, the players certainly listened.


Rayan Cherki: The Next Superstar to Emerge From Lyon’s Academy?


Because, just six months on from his appointment, Sage has turned the sinking ship around, taking Lyon from relegation fears to finishing sixth in the table and set to face PSG in the Coupe de France final on Saturday 25 May – as they look to claim their first piece of silverware in over a decade. But, just how disastrous was the situation Sage walked into, and got Lyon there in the first place?


A Season in Turmoil Before It Even Began


Ahead of the 2023/24 summer transfer window, French football’s financial watchdog – the Direction Nationale du Contrôle de Gestion (DNCG) – announced it had decided to monitor the club’s wage bill and transfer activity for the following season, due to the budget presented by CEO and Owner John Textor not providing “sufficient financial guarantees”.


Through his company Eagle Football Holdings, Textor purchased a majority stake in Lyon from long-time owner and president Jean-Michel Aulas in December 2022, with the promise of putting Lyon at the “epicentre” of his Multi-Club Ownership (MCO) group (Textor’s business also holds majority stakes in Brazil’s Botafogo, Belgium’s RWD Molenbeek, and is the largest of four shareholders Premier League side Crystal Palace).


At the time of the takeover, Aulas, who had been Lyon owner and president since 1987, was initially set to work alongside Textor and stay on as president for a further three years. However, this didn’t go as planned, and in May 2023 Lyon announced Aulas would be stepping down into a role of honorary chairman, with Textor becoming the French side’s new president, and, consequently, the main man in charge.


Maxence Caqueret – The Heart of a Lyon


This was likely down to Textor’s frustration at Aulas over the DNCG’s ruling, with the American businessman later suggesting that the 75-year-old had not adequately informed him of the club’s financial situation (Lyon’s 2023 accounts showed a staggering €458m of gross debt) before the sale was completed.


To summarise briefly, Aulas wasn’t happy with this insinuation; retaliating by denying the claim, threatening to sue Textor for defamation, and then taking the club to a hearing in front of the Chamber of Commerce to order the freezing of €14.5m of their funds, the equivalent of Aulas’ shares in the club.


The dispute seems to be somewhat resolved now, and tensions between the current and former owner have subsided, but the main point here is that this all occurred throughout the summer transfer window. Subsequently, in addition to the DNCG monitoring every incoming and outgoing, Textor’s transfer plans were impacted substantially, as was then manager Laurent Blanc’s squad.


Lyon offloaded a raft of talent for a total €94.9m, the most notable of which included star academy graduates Castello Lukeba and Bradley Barcola for €30m and €45m to RB Leipzig and PSG respectively. Meanwhile, high earners such as Moussa Dembélé, Houssem Aouar, and Jérome Boateng also departed, whilst 20-year-old right-back Malo Gusto moved on having been sold to Chelsea and loaned back the prior January.


The Coming of Age of Castello Lukeba at Lyon


Though, due to DNCG restrictions, this couldn’t be reinvested, and just under €20m was spent on arrivals. As well as a loan move for Duje Ćaleta Car the free transfer of Ainsley Maitland-Niles, these arrivals included Belgian full-back Clinton Mata for €5m, 6’8” midfielder Skelly Alvero for €4m, and a then-curious yet eventually lauded €1m deal for Ireland and Crystal Palace U-21 centre-back Jake O’Brien.


Another newcomer was exciting Ghanaian wonderkid Ernest Nuamah from FC Nordsjælland, or at least seemingly. Whilst the Right To Dream academy graduate was initially rumoured to be joining for a joint club-record €25m fee, it later emerged that he was in fact joining on a loan with an option-to-buy clause from RWDM Molenbeek, who had themselves just purchased Nuamah for €25m – a fee over eight times the Belgian side’s previous record.


As mentioned, Molenbeek are one of the four clubs as part of the MCO group of which Lyon are at the “epicentre” of. So, this is likely just a way for Textor to manoeuvre around the DNCG’s financial regulations and delay the payment until next season, when Nuamah will permanently complete the move to the Groupama Stadium.


Essentially then, Blanc, had a tough task, and, with Aulas’ authority now diminished – Blanc was personally chosen as manager by the president two months prior to Textor’s takeover – the writing was on the wall for the four-time Ligue 1 winning manager.


Ernest Nuamah: Analyzing Lyon’s Prospective Club-record Signing


Blanc was sacked just four games into the season off the back of the aforementioned loss to Luis Enrique’s PSG with three losses and 10 goals conceded after his first four games – the worst start to a season in the club’s 74-year history capped off by the aforementioned battering at the hands of Enrique’s eventual title-winning side.


His successor, Fabio Grosso, didn’t fare much better. The Italian lasted just seven games in charge, accumulating one win and four defeats. One of these was set to include an away tie at Marseille, but the match was abandoned last minute following a violent attack by Les Minots fans on the visitor’s team bus. Grosso was directly hit by projectiles during the attack, resulting in 12 stitches needed on serious facial injuries sustained in which he later stated “could have been a tragedy”.


Thankfully, the former Lyon player was able to speedily recover and was back in the dugout the following week. His side’s performances on the other hand, did not accomplish the same recovery.


Stone Wise


So at this point, Lyon now 12 games into the season, suffering their lowest ever points total during that period, and are subsequently fearing their first season out of the top French tier since 1951. Given the club’s dire situation, dismal performances, and incohesive and depleted squad, surely what Lyon need is an experienced head, someone who knows how to steady the ship and fully focus on securing a top-flight status.


Gift Emmanuel Orban: Nigeria’s Next Top Striker?


Well, not quite. Lyon promoted academy manager Pierre Sage to first team manager, initially on an interim basis. Sage, whose full name literally translates to “Stone Wise”, had returned to Lyon that July following a brief spell as assistant manager at third tier side Red Star FC, from whom he left his role as Lyon’s youth coach to join in January 2022.


Other than those experiences, the former amateur footballer had only undertaken a myriad of roles behind the scenes at clubs in the lower tiers of French football, but was now tasked with turning around a historically bad situation in one of the biggest and most successful clubs in France. Talk about a baptism of fire.  


The 45-year-old’s first game in charge showed some promise, but an unlikely O’Brien brace wasn’t enough to overcome Franck Haise’s Lens in a disappointing yet encouraging 3-2 away defeat. Any signs of optimism were wiped out in the rescheduled Marseille fixture, as they were dismantled 3-0 by Gennaro Gattuso’s side at the Orange Velodrome.


The next three games saw their fortunes take a turn for the better. Les Gones scored five and conceded none in victories against Toulouse, Monaco, and Nantes respectively. Of these five goals, four were scored by club captain Alexandre Lacazette – a common theme throughout the campaign, with the former Arsenal striker’s 19 goals a league high 38.8% of Les Gones’ total count, and 15 more than their next best O’Brien (yes, the centre back!).


Orel Mangala: What Can the Belgian Midfielder Provide Nottingham Forest?


That brings us to 2024, where, despite suffering back-to-back defeats in their opening two games of the year, Lyon finally kicked into gear. In fact, looking solely at the 17 games in this calendar year alone, no Ligue 1 side has accumulated more wins (12) or points (37) than Sage’s side – not even champions PSG. In these 17, Lyon scored 33 and conceded 28. That is an average of over 3.5 total goals per game, again, the most in the division.


There were some enthralling matches amongst their wins too, including a 3-1 (Nantes), two 3-2’s (Toulouse and Monaco), and another two 4-3’s (Brest and Lille). Of course, all of these were comebacks involving at least one goal after the 80th minute – one of which was an 106th minute penalty cooly converted by Maitland-Niles in trademark fashion.


The trend of late match-winning penalties continued until the very last day, where a 96th-minute Lacazette spot-kick sealed a 2-1 home victory over Strasbourg and miraculously secured Europa League football for Lyon next season. That leaves one key question though: how did Sage do it?


The Players


Well, part of their turnaround was undoubtedly down to Lyon’s substantial squad overhaul in January transfer window. Remember the DNCG’s financial restrictions? Well, due to the planned sale of “non-core assets” such as the NWSL franchise team OL Reign and the club’s 16,000 seater multi-purpose arena, the reported refinancing of roughly over €300m of debt, as well as the mass sale of players in the summer, Lyon announced on December 5 that it had “regained its budgetary flexibility” due to the financial watchdog accepting their latest budget.


Scouting Report: Saïd Benrahma


As such, the club were allowed to spend what they wanted on incoming players that winter, and it’s fair to say Textor took advantage of this. In January, Lyon had a higher transfer expenditure than any other European club bar PSG, whose €105m spend included the €65m obligation to buy triggered for Gonçalo Ramos, who was already at Les Parisiens. 


Lyon, with the self-proclaimed aim of “improving sporting results”, spent a reported €55m on incomings, Including: Lucas Perri (€3.25m) and Adryelson (€3.58m) of Botafogo, KAA Gent’s attacking duo Malick Fofana (€17m) and Gift Orban (€12m), as well as the ever-reliable Nemanja Matić from league rivals Stade Rennes’ (€2.6m).


Additionally, West Ham’s Saïd Benrama and Nottingham Forest’s Orel Mangala both joined on loan with option-to-buy clauses, the former a €6m initial fee with a €15m option, and the latter a €10m fee with an option to make the move permanent for a further €20m. Largely, these arrivals made a significant impact.


Benrama scored three and assisted three in 12, providing an extra creative spark from the left-wing. Matić was a pivotal figure at the base of midfield, starting all available 15 games started all available 15 games and averaging 8.49 progressive passes per 90, as per FBRef.


Olympique Lyonnais: Failure, Success, and Everything in Between


Fofana and Orban, being 19 and 21-years-old respectively, made a combined nine starts as they were bedded in more strategically by Sage as long-term, high potential signings, but still made their mark off the bench. The talented attackers scored four goals between them in 21 substitute appearances, consistently injecting the side with electric speed, dynamism, and positivity from the front line.


This was particularly true for Fofana, who’s three goals all came after the 75th minute as either equalisers or match-winners in dramatic late comebacks. The latter stat highlights two key traits of this Lyon side under Sage, namely their effective use of substitutions and outstanding comeback ability.


As for their substitutes, this season, only Luis Enrique and Lens’ Franck Haise have seen their subs involved in more goals than Sage’s 19, despite the latter having coached 12 fewer games. Furthermore, only PSG have scored more in the final 15 minutes of matches, whilst no club have accumulated than Lyon’s 24 points and seven wins after falling behind, although their third-worst rate of 23 deficits does certainly play a part.


Nonetheless, especially when considering the dispirited, careless, and toxic attitude that engulfed the Lyon dressing room prior to Sage’s arrival, the motivated, galvanised, and never-say-die mentality the young manager has fostered is short of remarkable. That culture shift that has occurred in the southeast of France isn’t just down to Sage’s integration of winter arrivals, but those of summer signings too, with five of August’s newcomers being amongst his 11 most used players.


Duje Ćaleta-Car: The Fifth Fortress of Šibenik


Mata and Ćaleta Car have provided valuable experience alongside the towering 22-year-old O’Brien in defence, who has been one of the league’s surprise performers in his first year playing top-flight football. Former Arsenal and England player Maitland-Niles has also been effective, contributing five goals from multiple positions. As has Molenbeek (kind of) loanee Nuamah.


Albeit still raw and unrefined, the right-winger is an exceptionally exciting talent, boasting an explosive burst and quick feet that make him a nightmare to defend against, whilst his excellent ball-striking and ability to cut inside onto his stronger left provides constantly keeps goalkeepers on their toes.


What’s been so vital to the integration of these players is Sage’s use of homegrown experience and talent alongside them. Sage has ensured the squad has the perfect balance between those who are adapting to a new country, lifestyle, and level of football, and those that know – or have even grown up in – the area, the club and the physical yet skillful nature that encapsulates French football.


Lyon have used a league-high seven former academy players this season, who have played a combined total of 1072 Ligue 1 matches between them. For reference, the next highest total is Montpellier’s 424 matches.


Juninho: From Icon to Puppet Master at Lyon


This, of course, isn’t unique to Sage. Lyon have one of the world’s most esteemed academies and have generated more revenue from the sales of graduates since 2014 than all but two clubs European clubs (Benfica and Ajax), according to CIES Football Observatory. Meanwhile, their nickname, Les Gones, literally translates to “the kids”.


The point here isn’t about Sage’s willingness to use such talent, but more in his proficiency in maximising their abilities. Doing so is vital in an environment that often places added pressure on homegrown players to uphold the values and legacy of the club – pressure which, for example, Rayan Cherki has struggled with as Lyon’s projected ‘next big talent’.


When this pressure is harnessed correctly however, the euphoria and pride felt upon achievement can be equal if not greater than the potential stress it can potentially cause, as they aren’t just celebrating sporting success as a player, but as a fan too.   As such, Sage’s exploitation of homegrown stars has not only been pivotal in improving on-field performances, but also in fostering the understanding amongst the dressing room of what it means to “love and respect” the Lyon jersey, as the ultras profusely proclaimed after that bitter loss to PSG.


None understand this importance so than the older academy graduates in the squad. Once club-record sale Corentin Tolisso has been effective in his 21 starts as a box-to-box midfielder, shot-stopper Anthony Lopes was a mainstay for an astounding 10th successive season in France’s top flight, whilst club captain Lacazette’s significant goalscoring influence, and Lyon’s subsequent reliance on him, has already been outlined.


The Nordsjælland Files: Denmark, Right to Dream, and Africa’s Footballing Potential


Arguably the biggest homegrown beneficiaries of Sage’s arrival were Maxence Caqueret and Rayan Cherki, albeit in contrasting ways. See, Caqueret has profited from a consistent role in the side, able to influence the game in all areas of the field, both in and out of possession. The superbly well-rounded 24-year-old has thrived with the added security of Matić behind him, playing the most minutes and making more progressive passes than any other Ligue 1 player, and leading Lyon for shot-creating-actions, passes into the final third, ball recoveries, tackles, and interceptions.


As for Cherki, Sage’s use of the 20-year-old as a super-sub in a myriad of forward positions has granted him the opportunity to regain the confidence and freedom he’d lost under Blanc and Grosso. 10 of the Frenchman’s last 14 league appearances have come off the bench, allowing Lyon to exploit his extraordinary two-footedness, ball manipulation, and creativity from a variety of attacking positions against tired defences.


The 3-2 victory away at Toulouse in March is a prime example of this.Losing 2-1 with 66 minutes on the clock, Cherki came on in place of Maitland-Niles and made a game-changing impact. He was at the heart of every move, making 39 touches, completing eight dribbles, and scoring the equaliser before setting up O’Brien’s headed winner – all in 24 minutes of football.


The Tactics


You may be wondering, if Sage’s impact was so considerable, why is all this analysis about individual performances, rather than a managers’ drastic changing of a teams’ tactics that often generate such mid-season turnarounds? Well, that’s because, without sounding too harsh, Sage’s tactics are pretty basic. Lyon predominantly set up in a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, but have occasionally moved to more of a 3-4-3 depending on personnel and the opponent. 


Tactical Analysis: Eric Roy’s Brest


Either way, their style remains similar. They’re not overly intense or high pressers, they don’t require control of possession at all times, and they don’t have clear preference as to whether they move the ball forwards with directly speed, or circulate play slowly with more passes.


Some statistics via Opta show this, as Lyon rank around midtable amongst other Ligue 1 clubs for shot-creating-actions, passes per defensive action (i.e. pressing intensity), and high turnovers. Meanwhile, whilst their seventh place ranking for goals and expected goals (xG) for is positive, that’s balanced out by their fifth-lowest rank for the same metrics on the defensive side.


Overall, whilst a lack of clear long-term tactical philosophy may not fit with the trend of young and upcoming managers, that is not what Lyon needed when Sage took over, nor is it necessarily what they need going forward. The constant churn of talent in and out of the Groupama each season not only makes it difficult to impose a consistent style of play, but also means the manager’s role is to be flexible and adapt to the specific preferences, needs, abilities of each individual player, therefore improving the team as a collective.


Sage himself explains this best himself. In an interview with L’Èquipe in April, he stated: “The mistake is to think that it’s the coach’s ideas that are important. It’s not! What matters is what the team can do. The idea is not necessarily to play as you want but to play as you can.”


Tactical Analysis: Paulo Fonseca’s Lille


As the Frenchman’s impact has shown, this ensures each player is sufficiently motivated and their skillsets sufficiently maximised, therefore allowing Lyon to profit both off-the-pitch through players sales, and on-the-pitch with enhanced team performances.


The Final


So, with Sage’s seismic influence on Lyon’s sensational 2024 form covered, it’s now time to discuss the upcoming Coupe de France final against PSG, which will take place on Saturday 25 May at Lille’s Stade Pierre-Mauroy. Lyon’s road to the final has been relatively favourable. The first two games saw them defeat fifth and fourth-tier sides Pontalier and Bergerac Périgord 3-0 and 2-1 respectively, before a Rayan Cherki goal and assist helped them claim a 2-1 victory in a tougher tie against Paulo Fonseca’s Lille.


The quarter final was a tense penalty shootout win over Toulouse after a goalless 90 minutes. That left Lyon facing bottom of the league Ligue 2 side Valenciennes for a spot in the final, who were comfortably dispatched 3-0 following two goals from Lacazette and one from Orban.


Next up then is Les Parisiens, and, if Lyon’s other games against the league champions this season are anything to go by, a 4-1 loss for Sage’s men may be on the cards. The catastrophic home 4-1 defeat has already been discussed enough, but it’s worth quickly mentioning the away one that took place in April. 


Why Everyone is Talking About Pierre Lees-Melou: The Modest and Current Star of Brest


Whilst Lyon looked lost and hopeless in the initial fixture, they were much more spirited and cohesive at the Parc de Princes, showing fight to briefly make game 3-1, as opposed to their 76th-minute consolation goal the first time around. However, conceding two set-pieces in the opening six minutes wasn’t good enough, and Lyon were simply outclassed by better players and more creative tactics. 


Additionally, with Kylian Mbappé set to be extra motivated to bow out with yet another medal before (likely) departing for Real Madrid and stopping the from adding a record 15th Coupe de France to their trophy cabinet will be no easy feat for Lyon.  One thing is for sure though, with Sage at the helm, Lyon will definitely be up for the task. 


So, with the sheer amount of talent on display, the abundance of goals seen in Lyon’s games, as well as Les Gones’ ability to overturn any scoreline at any point in time, the final matchup of the French season this Saturday will is certain to be an extremely exciting watch until the very end, even if Lyon do end up going behind.


By: Travis Levison / @TravisLevison67

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / John Berry / Getty Images