Sage words: How Lyon are being rescued from a terrible season

Julien Laurens, CorrespondentDec 27, 2023, 06:00 AM ET

After one victory in their first 15 games to open the Ligue 1 season, Lyon have won three in a row under a rookie manager and have a spark that’s been missing for months. OLIVIER CHASSIGNOLE/AFP via Getty Images

The Lyon dressing room last Wednesday night was buzzing. For the first time this season, there was joy in there, proper smiles, hugs and a winning feeling. L’OL had only beaten fellow strugglers Nantes 1-0 at Groupama Stadium to end the year on a successful note, but it was more than just one match won. Much more.

For the first time this season, the Lyon were out of the bottom three in the table. After months of bad results and even worse performances, they have now won three Ligue 1 games in a row.

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Their first victory of the season at Stade Rennais (1-0) on Nov. 12, after six losses and four draws, was welcomed with a sense of consolation at ending such a dismal streak. Their second against Toulouse (3-0) a month later brought huge relief. The third, a “smash and grab” at Monaco (they won 1-0 with a goal in the 85th minute), was greeted with encouragement. Last week, their fourth victory brought pure happiness, probably because it was not straightforward again — veteran defender Dejan Lovren was sent off — and the team had to dig deep to get the three points.

Nevertheless, you can tell that Lyon are finally on the right path, even though it may have taken them 17 games, five months and three managers to get there. After the failings of Laurent Blanc and Fabio Grosso, it is the unknown Pierre Sage who is at the heart of their revival.

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Blanc and Grosso both won the World Cup as players (for France and Italy respectively) and accrued many other trophies. Both men also had credentials as first-team managers: Blanc had won multiple titles at Bordeaux and Paris Saint-Germain, while Grosso had taken Frosinone up to Serie A prior to his contract expiring in June. Sage has none of that: he never played at the top level and hadn’t coached first-team football before. What he has in abundance, however, is deep knowledge of the region and the club, which was not the case with his two predecessors.

The fans have been on board from the beginning, calling their interim coach “Stone Wise” on social media — a literal English translation of Pierre (stone) Sage (wise). They had seen his great work with the Lyon academy, nurturing young talent and putting his ideas in place. The main question was to see if Sage could do as well with the first team, and he has so far.

Sage’s use of a five-man defence has been working to great effect, with Lyon keeping three clean sheets in a row. He’s also made his squad work for each other like never before this season, as well as restoring confidence in his senior players. Alexandre Lacazette netted four of the five goals scored by Lyon under Sage, with two assists from Rayan Cherki and some big performances in midfield from Maxence Caqueret.

“The players need to have precise instructions and bearings as well as stability. They need to understand each other and that it lasts,” Sage said in one of his first news conferences.

Sage, middle, has worked wonders with this Lyon squad in a limited time as manager, but the players believe in him despite his lack of experience. OLIVIER CHASSIGNOLE/AFP via Getty Images

A source within the club tells ESPN that Sage will be given a contract until the end of the season. He has earned it. The players love him and they want him to stay, according to the same source. Some members of the first-team squad had called Blanc out for incompetence, and they were were never on board with Grosso, whom they judged as too inexperienced. With Sage, they are happy.

For the first time in a long time, Lyon are playing like a team rather than 11 individuals. Their performances still aren’t perfect — the first half against Nantes, in particular, was appalling — but at least the effort is being shown, the unity is there and the results are starting to come. Lyon have taken nine points in their last three games, having taken just seven from the previous 14.

Their downfall, before Sage’s arrival, was a lack of leadership from owner John Textor, who replaced everyone important and with helpful institutional knowledge at the club (CEO, sporting director, scouts, manager). Textor then made more changes, and the structure above Sage is now much better: Laurent Prud’homme (formerly at L’Equipe newspaper) is a good CEO, David Friio is a solid new sporting director and club legend Juninho is going to come back as Textor’s adviser.

This was always a good squad with top, experienced players like Lacazette, Lovren and Corentin Tolisso, plus young talents — Cherki, Caqueret, Jake O’Brien, Sael Kumbedi Nseke and Ernest Nuamah have all staked their places in the first team. It just had to click, and it seems as though the man they call “Stone Wise” has made it happen.


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