This piece also featured on Guardian Sport.
“I didn’t think he would be a coach,” explained Gilles Grimandi. “I thought he would be disappointed – that he wouldn’t understand why some people don’t have the same spirit as him, invest as much or work as hard. He has such a passion for football that it takes precedence over everything else.” Despite the concerns of his former Arsenal teammate, his minimal experience, little understanding of French, the sales of key players and a volatile fanbase, Sylvinho looks better suited to coaching than Grimandi expected.
Lyon are only two games into the season and Sylvinho is rightly cautious about heightened expectation, but the manager has a pair of meaningful victories to his name. Previous incumbent Bruno Génésio suffered through a toxic atmosphere at Parc OL, incessant pressure from fans and media alike, and widespread criticism of his tactical nous. Under Génésio, Lyon repeatedly struggled for inspiration against the more conservative tactics of weaker Ligue 1 sides, while Europa League collapses horribly punctuated his tenure. Lyon often lacked ideas and cohesion, but that has already started to change under Sylvinho.
A week on from beating Monaco 3-0, Lyon tore a normally well drilled, pragmatic and competitive Angers team apart on Friday night. Their free-flowing 6-0 win was enabled by the unchecked guile and grace of Houssem Aouar, the dynamism of Thiago Mendes and the clinical finishing of Moussa Dembélé – all attributes that were frustratingly intermittent under Genesio. Lyon created chances when they pleased and were five up just after half-time. Memphis Depay, even caught pressing at times, also impressed with a brace and a superb assist for summer addition Jean Lucas.
Their new back four is still settling – centre-back Joachim Andersen joined from Sampdoria this summer along with full-back Youssouf Koné from Lille – but Lyon already appear sharper, more precise and more assured. Although Génésio scarcely deserved the level of criticism he received – fan groups spent nearly two seasons pursuing his sacking even though he had pulled off marquee victories over Manchester City and PSG – these wins, however, feel very different.
Although a managerial change was needed, Lyon’s astute scouting and transfer policy remain in evidence. Ferland Mendy’s transfer to Real Madrid has yet to be felt after the prudent addition of Koné, who helped Lille to second last season alongside Thiago Mendes who long provided Lille with a ferocious, all-action midfield presence even when they dropped into the bottom three under Marcelo Bielsa. Largely unheralded after Nicolas Pépé’s breakthrough year, the Brazilian midfielder should amply cover for the loss of Tanguy Ndombele to Tottenham.
Sylvinho will be hoping former Arsenal attacker Jeff Reine-Adélaïde, who joined from Angers last week, will aid Aouar in filling the void left by captain Nabil Fekir’s surprise move to Real Betis. Emerging at the end of last season as he moved from a wing position, his impact often sporadic, to an attacking midfield role, Reine-Adélaïde’s ability to carry the ball from deep and create with his pace and vision will provide further potency to OL’s attack, with assets the squad are lacking. At just 21, and after a steep rise of late, he has the potential and ability to become the next young Ligue 1 talent to explode on the European scene.
Compared to Genesio’s passionate, one-club-man persona, Sylvinho’s more thoughtful attitude is starting to take hold. He is a considered, thoughtful student of the game, who constantly records his thoughts in a notebook at training. “I write down names, concepts, defensive tasks, notes on attacking, meeting topics, ideas …” he has said. “It’s a part of my life; even my wife does not touch this notebook!”
Crucial to Sylvinho’s continued early success will be the role of club legend Juninho, who appointed him. Regarded as the club’s greatest ever player, the free-kick maestro has returned as sporting director. He carries considerable goodwill from Lyon’s vociferous fanbase – a huge tifo celebrated his return before the Angers game. It remains early, but the atmosphere has changed markedly, largely thanks to the positivity engendered by Juninho.
Juninho’s return has “soothed the atmosphere,” says outspoken president Jean-Michel Aulas, for “fan groups, the media and the surrounding environment”. Nevertheless this is Sylvinho’s first role as a head coach of a club and Juninho’s first directorial position of any kind. Aulas knows their appointment was something of a gamble, conceding recently: “When you’re an entrepreneur and invest €500m in a single stadium, life is full of risk-taking.”
With head of scouting Florian Maurice convinced to stay by Aulas, himself traditionally hands-on, the nature of Juninho’s installation as part public face, part figurehead, part fan favourite is something of a masterstroke. It deflects fan ire away from Aulas and the club, lifting the atmosphere with a returning hero and initiating a new, much needed, change of direction. Although prudent, that change of direction caught everyone off guard.
Previously, Aulas said his coaches needed to have “OL DNA”. Although Juninho fills that requirement, Sylvinho is only the club’s second foreign appointment in their entire history and one unusually made by someone other than Aulas – always prominent during his more than 30 years at the club. Aulas, now 70, has talked of taking “a step back”. Given his consistently prudent leadership, encompassing a run of seven league titles and an almost constant place near the summit of Ligue 1, the club may suffer without him in the long term.
Whether or not Aulas does take a meaningful step back, the near future looks bright for Lyon. With PSG losing against Rennes and Neymar increasingly likely to leave France, Ligue 1 may yet have a title race. In any case, Lyon’s new coach is far better suited to club management than was previously thought.
by Adam White.