Given Paris Saint-Germain’s near-monopoly of domestic trophies in France in the 2010s, and subsequent changing football landscape, Lyon’s own dominance of the country seems much longer than a decade ago.
But under the vision of Jean-Michel Aulas, Les Gones were the No.1 force in French football throughout the 2000s until their Champions League ambitions got the better of them and their attempts to compete with the riches of the Premier League led to them becoming too stretched financially.
As a result, Aulas turned to the club’s academy. Around €30million was invested in making the facilities among the best in Europe, and in terms of production, an argument can be made they are the equal of the likes of Barcelona’s La Masia.
Indeed, research last month by the CIES Football Observatory found 35 of Lyon’s academy graduates in first-team squads around Europe’s top five leagues – the second highest behind Real Madrid’s 36 and one ahead of La Masia who have produced 34.
Aulas’ focus on the academy was sensible for two reasons: firstly, because it allowed Lyon to re-establish stability around the turn of the decade with a consistent production of young first-team ready players and it proved a lucrative business model to assist the club financially.
Bruno Génésio’s squad in 2018/19 is littered with prospects, many homegrown, and considering their outrageous potential, it’s hard to conceive the club holding onto them for much longer than the current campaign.
According to reports in France, Houssem Aouar is being monitored closely by a clutch of clubs across the continent with Chelsea believed to be considering the 20-year-old as a long-term replacement for Eden Hazard. Liverpool and Barcelona also interested, while Pep Guardiola has become a fan after the youngster caught the eye in Lyon’s two Champions League group games against Manchester City.
We profile the talented midfielder/playmaker, assessing his strengths and weakness and outline where his next move could be.
Who is Houssem Aouar?
Born during France ’98 in Lyon, Aouar has been a member of the club set-up since the age of 11 and has been carefully nurtured through the ranks before making his B-team debut at the age of 17. In 2014 he also earned a call-up to the France Under-17 squad.
His big break came in 2017 when he made his first-team debut as a late substitute in a Europa League fixture against AZ Alkmaar before scoring his first goal for the club a week later in the return leg, firing in confidently from close range with the score at 5-1.
That prompted Génésio to make him more a part of first-team plans and he was given his Ligue 1 bow less than two months later against Bastia in a match abandoned at half-time as Corsican fans invaded the pitch to attack Lyon’s players.
Aouar went on to make two more league appearances that season and in the following campaign developed into a fixture of Génésio’s side, scoring seven goals in 44 appearances as Lyon finished third in Ligue 1 and earned a return to the Champions League.
Individually, that campaign also saw him nominated for FIFA’s Golden Boy award as one of the best young players in the world and his progress has continued in 2018/19, as an integral figure of the starting XI as no player has started more games in Ligue 1 and the Champions League as the 20-year-old (15).
What are his strengths?
What immediately stands out is Aouar’s poise in possession, both in receiving the ball and distribution. He possesses a natural rhythm and appealing body shape in the way he shields the ball and then moves it on.
Although a strong dribbler (1.64 successful take-ons per 90), is very much a pass-first midfielder. Looking to make either quick 1-2s or incisive passes down the channel. He is bursting with technical prowess but doesn’t hog possession nor slow moves down, everything is quick – perhaps sometimes too quick – and always in motion.
Although he mainly plays on the left-hand side of a midfield three under Génésio he is two-footed and has operated both in a deeper role or as a No 10-style playmaker, where his close control and vision are perhaps best deployed.
But the fact that Génésio wants him to perform as much of a defensive task as he does in his attacking plays shows the faith he has in his work-rate and ability to support his defence.
Which makes the “Hazard replacement” line a little hard to buy into because it’s unfair to classify Aouar as merely an attacking player, like the Belgian. Yes, he is excellent around the penalty area but there is also plenty of unseen work which deserves merit.
That said, he is ranked second among Ligue 1 midfielders for touches inside the opposition box (4.1), fifth for scoring attempts (2.64) and first for open play xG per 90 (0.25), having scored five times. In the Champions League, the first two numbers are even higher: 5.25 and 3.0.
What are his weaknesses?
For all his technique and elegance on the ball, he could, if anything, produce a bit more for his teammates. Perhaps, it’s because Génésio stations him a little deeper but his 1.27 open play key passes per 90 is good, without being great, so too his 0.08 xA. No surprise, therefore, that he only has one assist in Ligue 1 this term.
As mentioned, he can be a little hasty in trying to move the ball on sometimes, attempting a first-time pass or flick when a touch and raise of the head could reveal a more conservative but efficient option. His 85.8 per cent pass accuracy revealing of this, again considering just how good he is on the ball, it should be towards the 90s.
That is partly to do with him often receiving the ball in high-pressure areas, flanked by defenders, areas where he’s mostly keeping the ball, but sometimes Aouar’s ability can get the better of him as he tries the ambitious too often.
His tackling could be a little better, especially when he plays that little bit deeper, but eventually, he’ll more than likely find himself further upfield as a playmaker so we’re nit-picking, really.
Where will he end up?
In short, the very top. It’s just a matter of when, rather than if, Aouar gets his big move. The question is, which club, team and approach suits him best.
Barcelona’s belief in slight-of-stature playmakers makes him an obvious fit at the Camp Nou but Aouar seems too direct, too front-foot for the Catalans. Those natural instincts could be reined in but his game does lean more towards the Premier League or the Bundesliga.
For the latter, Bayern Munich or Borussia Dortmund would make for excellent fits but if either were to declare an interest they will surely find competition from within England.
And of the Premier League’s finest, the “best home” as such, as predictable as it sounds, would be Manchester City. For Aouar has more than a touch of David Silva about his play, combined with a find work ethic Pep Guardiola would love.
Ultimately, it will be down to him and who can pay whatever value Aulas places on him. Theoretically, Aouar could have his pick of Europe’s elite.