It made for a pitiful sight. On Saturday afternoon, Bruno Genesio presented himself at a press conference to announce his decision – no longer Jean-Michel Aulas’ decision, but his – that the 2018/2019 season would be his last at the helm of Olympique Lyonnais.
Genesio was all alone; there was no Jean-Michel Aulas, who had had his back for years on end. Against Dijon and Nantes, it seemed even the players were no longer behind their coach anymore.
As for the supporters, many had abandoned him long ago, and with good reason. Lyon had the second-highest operating budget in Ligue 1 at €285M, but you would not know it by watching them play. On Saturday evening, they found themselves in third place deservedly behind Lille.
Genesio’s press conference brought to an end a will-they-or-won’t-they saga surrounding his future at the club. It was a drawn out story, unworthy of a club of Lyon’s stature – a tale that, much like Genesio’s own tenure, should have ended far earlier than it did.
The Calm Before the Storm
Genesio’s demands for the club to make an early decision about his future came from a position of relative strength. Lyon had made it out of the Champions League group stage and was still in contention for the Coupe de France. More importantly for the club’s finances, Lyon remained within touching distance of Lille in the domestic table. In terms of results, the season had only been marred by a premature Coupe de la Ligue exit to Strasbourg. It was in this context that Jean-Michel Aulas set a date for the decision on Genesio’s future – the end of March.
Early in February, Lyon kept pressure on Lille by defeating Paris Saint-Germain at home. It was a convincing victory – rare enough to underline it. Four days later, the club would confirm and keep their Coupe de France hopes alive by defeating relegation-threatened Guingamp.
Lyon’s five match winning streak came to a sudden halt the very next weekend against Nice. Genesio’s men attempted 23 shots but failed to score with even one, and Nice punished them for it through a penalty. Even then, a feeling of déjà vu lingered.
The match was not only reminiscent of Lyon’s earlier meeting with Nice but also of countless other matches in the past three years. This was the standard match under Genesio’s direction: a Lyon team teeming with talent that showed up regularly for big matches but was clueless when faced with organized, deep-lying defenses. Lyon did return to winning ways against rock-bottom Guingamp one week later, but they could only manage the bare minimum for a win.
Barcelona came knocking soon after, and Lyon ground out a 0-0 draw. On paper, it was a good result, far better than expected. On the pitch, they needed incredible luck and a brilliant Anthony Lopes to escape with a goalless draw. Lyon only looked threatening through a Martin Terrier shot from distance that hit the bar and another attempt that missed the target altogether.
In-between the two Barça legs, the inconsistencies resumed. Lyon were dominated by a rejuvenated Monaco side before winning their Coupe de France quarterfinal and then trashing Toulouse. And just before the return leg against Barcelona, Lyon once again failed to hold onto a two-goal lead against Strasbourg. The team lacked character and discipline.
It was finally time for the much-anticipated second leg against the Spanish champions. This time, Houssem Aouar did not start. Terrier, one of the few players that looked spirited in the first leg, was not even on the bench. These decisions were the kind of questionable choices that Lyon supporters had gotten used to seeing from Genesio.
Aouar and Terrier looked on as Lyon bowed out of the Champions League. In fairness, supporters would feel hard done by a severe penalty in Barcelona’s favor, and things would surely have gone a bit differently had Lopes not been forced off with a concussion. Nevertheless, Genesio also got his tactics completely wrong.
The team played exactly like they did in the first leg. The thin midfield failed to come up with answers against Barcelona’s high pressing and left Moussa Dembélé and Memphis Depay starved for chances up front. There would be no miracle for Lyon in Barcelona. One week after a youthful Ajax ousted Real Madrid out of the same competition, Lyon was powerless in a 5-1 defeat.
In the aftermath, Lyon defeated Montpellier and during the international break that followed, Jean-Michel Aulas met the club’s supporters groups. Some of them explained that they wanted Genesio to leave at the end of the season, but the iconic president made it amply clear that the supporters would not be the ones making the decision. Once the international break was over, a victory against a ravaged Rennes seemed to have made his case.
Against Rennes, Martin Terrier came on as a late sub to win the match 1-0. Genesio could not contain himself. On live TV after the match, he announced with glee that he knew what Jean-Michel Aulas’ decision would be. L’Equipe was quick to parade Genesio’s decision to bring on Terrier. The headline the next day ran “Signé Genesio” – Signed Genesio.
In Ligue 1, Lyon’s position on the podium looked manageable, but the feeling of insufficiency remained among supporters. That feeling was short-lived, overtaken by regret as France watched Strasbourg defeat Guingamp in a timid Coupe de la Ligue final. That same Strasbourg team had knocked out Lyon earlier and deprived them of a shot at a first cup in 7 years. Lyon could have – and probably should have – been in and won that final.
As deadline day approached, French media seeped optimism for the embattled coach. The verdict was unanimous among journalists – Bruno Genesio would sign on for two more years. It all seemed settled for Genesio to stay on, but there was one last obstacle – the Coupe de France semi-final against Rennes at home.
The semi-final against Rennes was a turning point before it became a real turning point. For Genesio’s critics, there was one last battle to fight before the decision. Twitter’s “Café du Commerce” – the term that the club had used to mock Lyon’s online community – took on the challenge.
The same social media that Genesio blamed for creating an unhealthy environment took a stand. Lyon supporters cheered, but not for their team. It was a sad sight.
Those same supporters had lived through the years of austerity that preceded the Groupama Stadium – a stadium that Bruno Genesio himself inaugurated. They had cheered on teams with a midfield composed of Arnold Mvuemba, Steed Malbranque and Jordan Ferri – teams so starved that Corentin Tolisso had to play as a right-back.
Now, many supporters wore Rennes’ crest and openly wished Lyon would crash out of the Coupe de France. To them, a loss would transform Aulas’ choice into one between blind faith in his coach and salvaging Lyon’s season. It became a question of either supporting the club or supporting the team, and many supporters had made up their mind.
At half-time, the situation looked dire. Rennes were leading an uninspired Lyon through M’Baye Niang. Two minutes after the second half kick-off, Bertrand Traoré found the net to put the teams on level terms, but that was short-lived. In a game of back-and-forth, Benjamin André put Rennes ahead before Dembélé scored a fortuitous penalty to equalize.
Then, it happened. Ten minutes from full-time, Rennes’ Ramy Bensebaini picked up the ball in midfield and made a dashing run forward. The Algerian passed the ball to the wing and stayed on the edge of the box, completely unmarked. A miscued shot fell to him. First-time shot and goal. Full-time: OL 2-3 Rennes.
The defeat was one too many. The immediacy of the decision’s reveal unleashed the fans at the stadium. Chants of Genesio Demission could be heard coming from the North and South Stands. Amid the tension, the nervy pair of Genesio and Aulas made it to the press conference.
We talked about the ensuing farce during Lyon Offside’s most recent podcast. The media dissected the night and examined every facet, but there is always more to say. A sheepish Genesio sat next to Aulas, who took over and twirled around the subject before delivering his judgment.
Lyon’s failure to make the Coupe de France final ruled out an automatic extension, but there would be no decision on that night. Journalists and supporters alike had waited impatiently to discover the answer, and were leaving empty-handed.
When it was his turn to speak, a shell-shocked Genesio said that he wanted to leave the club as he found it, with another Champions League campaign on the horizon and the financial guarantees that it brings with it. A Freudian slip, perhaps. It was the beginning of the end for Genesio.
The Rennes cup tie was followed by another home match against Dijon, who were last in Ligue 1. Worse than the indecision of the shambolic press conference is the fact that the impending decision had forced the supporters’ hand, and it was too late to take it back.
Lyon sold tickets for as low as €1 and expected 50,000 fans, but barely half that number filled the stands. Most of those that attended did not do so to support the team. Supporters started unfurling banners before the match even started. Harsh criticism targeted Genesio and the players alike as Twitter’s Café du Commerce took physical form.
In the weeks that led to the decision, Lyon were not playing especially poorly – not any poorer than they had been playing in the rest of the season anyway. However, the Dijon match was something else. Terrier gave Lyon the lead within the first minute, but over the next 6 minutes, Dijon scored twice – first through Wesley Saïd, and then through a Marcelo own goal.
The match settled into a sleepy rhythm, and Dijon recovered from the initial shock to organize themselves. When that happened, the opposition did not matter. Lyon moved the ball around and waited patiently for a mistake. Although though the Lyon players attempted more than 20 shots, they did not score again. Three years later, Genesio still had not figured out how to break down an organized defense, no matter how poor it was.
Deep into the second half, a second own goal of the day put Dijon 3-1 ahead. Maybe reality caught up to Lyon, or the players had already started abandoning their coach, but salvaging even a draw seemed absurd at that point. Towards the end, cries of “Ole Ole” broke out as Dijon passed the ball around. Lyon’s players were met with whistles in their own stadium.
Next week, more of the same occurred away at Nantes. Before the game, Canal+ revealed that Memphis Depay and Ferland Mendy (later corrected to Cheikh Diop), and Nabil Fekir and Marcelo – club captain and vice-captain respectively – were involved in two separate brawls. The reports were shot down by Aulas, but Lopes confirmed the tensions. The involved players did not start the match.
Against Dijon, Lyon’s 27 shots at least signaled intent, but none of that was on display against Nantes. The home side took an early lead through Kalifa Coulibaly and Lyon waited until just before half-time to equalize.
Terrier took the ball from outside the box and turned it into the net with a sublime finish. He did not celebrate his goal, and no one else came to celebrate with him. An Anthony Limbombe freekick decided the game in Nantes’ favor. In the away stand, even the passionate fans who had made the trip started chanting for Genesio’s resignation.
The next day, they got their wish. Bruno Genesio called a press conference and unceremoniously declared he would be stepping down. Journalists, supporters and even social media did not escape the usual digs. However, that move, at least, could put everyone on the same page.
At the time of writing, Lyon is third in Ligue 1, 3 points ahead of Saint-Étienne and 5 in front of Marseille. It is a respectable position, but the 25-point gap between Lyon and PSG does not do them justice.
Lyon still needs to play against Bordeaux and Marseille. They also host Lille in-between – 8 points separate Lyon from les Dogues. Although Lyon are still favorites to get the podium, it is not a given, and they will have to fight hard for it.
Genesio’s move could get Jean-Michel Aulas his “Union Sacrée” back – the “Sacred Union” of fans, players and staff fighting together for a podium finish. Perhaps the rift between players and coach, and between supporters and club is too wide to reconcile in such a short time. Quite possibly, it’s too little too late for the team to make amends.
As for Genesio, he will always be the coach who delivered Lyon into the Groupama Stadium. He will always be the coach that performed an incredible turn-around to get Champions League season in his maiden half-season.
Maybe when all is said and done, and Bruno Genesio looks back on his time at the club he loved so much, his biggest regret will be staying too long. Like a modern day Icarus, he flirted with heroics but crashed back to Earth all alone.