Laurent Blanc will need all of his defensive nous to succeed at Lyon | Ligue 1


Despite being known as a stoic and intelligent centre-back, Laurent Blanc is Montpellier’s all-time top goalscorer. After graduating from the club’s youth system as a midfielder, Blanc scored 84 goals for the club between 1983 and 1991. Blanc retreated into defence as his career progressed, winning trophies for Auxerre, Barcelona, Manchester United and the France national team.

Now Blanc the coach has been appointed by Lyon to bring about a defensive revolution at the club. Blanc’s task is to add solidity to an attacking approach that was haphazardly installed by Peter Bosz, the man he replaces. Blanc is a calming influence, but repeating the defensive transition he achieved during his playing days will be a difficult task.

Bosz’s style never truly fit Lyon, or Ligue 1. His previous successes with Ajax and, briefly, Bayer Leverkusen were achieved in more entropic divisions. Despite a recent tactical revolution, Ligue 1 remains a physical league full of powerful, well drilled defences and Lyon’s attacking approach under Bosz was easily exposed by more results-oriented teams.

Finding the right balance was a constant concern. Bosz tended to stick to his principles stubbornly, which gave the team a soft centre. There were gaps in midfield; the team often lacked a true holding player; and their defensive lines were eagerly exploited by less talented teams who were able to counter swiftly. Although Ligue 1 is moving away from the slow, defensive attitudes that were popular a decade ago, compact teams still know how to defend against stronger foes and Lyon regularly struggled to overwhelm opponents.

Lyon scored an impressive 66 goals last season – only Rennes and PSG scored more – however they also conceded 51, more than any other team in the top half of the table, slumping to a borderline-disastrous eighth-place finish, meaning no European football. Bosz was lucky to keep his job in the summer but was helped by a positive end to the season. There were signs that his ideas were finally starting to coalesce, but their 3-0 win at an off-colour Marseille and an intense 2-0 victory over Nice proved to be unrepresentative.

Lyon began the season brightly, winning four of their first five league games. However, they were exposed once they faced the league’s tougher opponents and quickly went on a four-game losing streak. This season’s surprise package, Lorient, embarrassed Lyon 3-1 in early September before PSG and Lens edged to 1-0 wins either side of a defeat to Monaco. Their 1-1 draw at home to newly promoted Toulouse on Friday night was Bosz’s final game.

Rarely did Bosz’s philosophy and Lyon’s performances match. After the Lorient defeat, the frustrated manager complained: “We defended very badly and played very badly with the ball. At half-time, I would have liked to change eight players.” A poor first half against Troyes prompted him to complain: “We can’t go on like this. We were late every time, badly placed on the pitch, we lost balls too easily.”

The players were not always clear about what their manager wanted. Alexandre Lacazette, the captain, reportedly confronted Bosz earlier this year about the team’s tactics as he and his teammates supposedly struggled to understand the Dutchman’s approach.

Whereas Bosz’s reign felt experimental, Blanc’s appointment is a traditional Lyon move under president Jean-Michel Aulas, in that he’s French (Bosz was only Lyon’s third foreign coach) and, in theory, a safe pair of hands. The situation mirrors what happened three years ago at the club, when Lyon appointed Rudi Garcia after the decision to appoint the untested Sylvinho – who was brought in by sporting director and fellow Brazilian Juninho – backfired.

Garcia took over in October 2019 and was charged with stabilising the club and taking them back into Europe. Lyon initially improved under Garcia, who led them to a Champions League semi-final but was moved on when the club only finished fourth in the 2020-21 season, despite playing the best football in France for much of the campaign.

Zinedine Zidane, Marcel Desailly and Laurent Blanc hold the World Cup in 1998
Zinedine Zidane, Marcel Desailly and Laurent Blanc hold the World Cup in 1998. Photograph: Michel Euler/AP

Blanc has had a mixed managerial career. Having memorably won Ligue 1 with Bordeaux in 2009, his two years in charge of the France team only offered an underwhelming Euro 2012 quarter-final exit to Spain. However, his three-year reign PSG has improved in hindsight, especially compared to the Unai Emery and Mauricio Pochettino eras. Both had less success with stronger squads and played less attractive football than Blanc, who won Ligue 1 and the Coupe de la Ligue in all three of his seasons, and twice lifted the Coupe de France.

Stylistically, Blanc is a typical 21st-century French coach: pragmatic and adaptable but with a hint of finesse. His peers include Garcia, Christophe Galtier (who is now coaching PSG), René Girard (who led Montpellier to the 2012 title) and Didier Deschamps, who succeeded him as coach of the national team. However, the recent tactical revolution in Ligue 1 – led by young, dynamic coaches such as Franck Haise, who continues to challenge for Europe at Lens; Régis Le Bris, whose Lorient side sit just a point behind PSG; and Julien Stéphan, who led Strasbourg to sixth last season after winning the Cup at Rennes – has changed much.

Four years out of the game and two coaching Al-Rayyan in Qatar will have done little to prepare Blanc for this new Ligue 1, which is producing an average of 3.09 goals per game, the joint-most of Europe’s top five leagues. Teams that once played pragmatically and parked the bus now press and break lines, employing a more vertical style. In Blanc’s last season at PSG, there were just 2.53 goals per game in Ligue 1, the least in the big five leagues.

Although French football may have moved on, Blanc has much to work with at Lyon. Only PSG and Monaco boast more impressive squads. The returns of Lacazette and Corentin Tolisso are major coups and the club’s academy remains as prolific as ever. Mobile midfielder Maxence Caqueret, graceful centre-back Castello Lukeba, and Malo Gusto, a Trent Alexander-Arnold-esque right-back, are all leading young players in their positions. Goalkeeper Anthony Lopes, left-back Nicolás Tagliafico, and forwards Moussa Dembélé and Karl Toko-Ekambi are all reliable performers who ought to be playing in the Champions League.

Blanc will quickly rein in Bosz’s naivety, solidify the midfield and, with a strong squad unburdened by Europe, challenge for the top three in the league. But realising the club’s longer-term aims of winning trophies while being competitive in Europe every season – which Aulas is desperate to see at his beloved Lyon – will be tricky. The club could end up simply replicating Garcia’s reign.

Blanc’s transition towards his own goal during his playing days catapulted him into European football’s elite, but he may not be able to achieve the same shift at Lyon in the long term and in a much-changed French footballing landscape.

Quick Guide

Ligue 1 results

Show

Montpellier 0-2 Monaco

Angers 2-3 Strasbourg

Brest 1-2 Lorient

Clermont 2-1 Auxerre
Nice 3-2 Troyes

Rennes 3-0 Nantes
Lille 1-0 Lens

Marseille 1-2 Ajaccio

Reims 0-0 PSG

Lyon 1-1 Toulouse 

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Talking points

Lorient players celebrate after beating Brest
Lorient players celebrate after beating Brest. Photograph: Loïc Venance/AFP/Getty Images

After Marseille’s shock 2-1 defeat at home to struggling Ajaccio, Lorient are now PSG’s closest challengers at the top of the table. Lorient have already accrued 69% of last season’s points tally in just 10 games. They were tipped for relegation, but rookie coach Régis Le Bris has re-energised powerful striker Terem Moffi – who scored twice in Sunday’s win at Brest – got the best from the talented but slight creator Enzo Le Fée, and helped 20-year-old winger Dango Ouattara become Ligue 1’s breakout young player. After six wins in a row, beating Lyon, Lille and Rennes already, Lorient show no signs of slowing down.

PSG are undefeated this season but, after successive draws with Benfica and Reims, Galtier is reportedly concerned about his team’s form and the effectiveness of the 3-4-3 set-up instigated by sporting director Luís Campos. Despite some riotous early season form, especially from Neymar and more recently Lionel Messi, PSG look less fluid now that opponents have learned how to combat the new system. Galtier is concerned that moving to a 4-3-3 would destabilise his attackers, who are thriving individually in a narrower set-up, by demanding more from them defensively. However, if their results do not improve, his hand may be forced.





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