Interview: Mathieu Boyer

Picture: Lumivore Production (Flickr)

Olympique Lyonnais are currently top of Ligue 1 with a team made up largely of homegrown academy players. Mathieu Boyer worked at the academy between 2008 and 2013 and helped instigate a new programme that brought through this generation of talented French footballers. Hugo Greenhalgh spoke to him about the inner workings of the academy and what English clubs could learn from the Lyon model.

Mathieu, how would you compare Lyon’s academy with La Masia at Barcelona?

I think it’s different because at Barcelona they’ve got maybe 30 to 40 different nationalities in the academy. They might come from Morocco, Japan, all over. So it’s not the same. I think at La Masia they’ve got maybe 200 players per age category. That’s a lot. In Lyon, it’s 50. We don’t have a lot of foreign players. Some African – Cameroon for example. We’ve got two Japanese guys, one Lebanese, one from Luxembourg. So it’s not like Barcelona. I think Barca was very good a couple of years ago, but now I think Lyon has the best academy in Europe.

I went to Tottenham and Crystal Palace to speak to the heads of their academies. They didn’t tell me what the budget was, but I know it’s less than Lyon, even though they’ve got more money. It’s just a mentality. Everyone wants a good team now, to get in good players and keep the fans happy. Lyon, after winning seven leagues in a row, we lost a lot of money. We invested over €25 million in good players and we didn’t win the league. So we said, now we don’t have money, we have to build our team in two or three years from the academy. The club put some money in and the budget is around €5-6 million per year. It’s huge but when you see players like Lacazette, Nabil Fekir. You could sell them for €30 million each.

Lyon are currently top of Ligue 1. How did this team develop so well?

When I started working at the club, the current team were 13-14 years old and at that age, everybody wants to be professional. If I chose one guy, it’s Corentin Tolisso, who’s playing every game this season. He was born in ’94. When I was at Lyon, he wasn’t the best player from the ’94 generation. A good player but not the best. He was a very hard worker, he was good at school, his parents were very clever. He had a tough year when he had a very bad injury and he wasn’t living in the Lyon academy. He kept working hard and now you see the result. He’s playing every game, can play several positions and hopefully he’s going to play for France in the Euros. You have a lot of examples like this where he’s not the best player when you are 13 or 14 who’s going to be professional. You just need to work hard, to be confident, to believe in yourself – that’s it.

Maybe we can play in the Champions League next season, in the new stadium, with a team that is 80% drawn from the academy – which would be crazy. That’s good because a lot of young players, even younger are coming through, so it never stops. Alexandre Lacazette, we could sell him for €30 million but we’ve got two or three strikers, 15/16 years old who are maybe going to be better. We had Sidney Govou, Karim Benzema, Hatem Ben Arfa, Loic Remy and now Lacazette. Maybe next we’ll have Yassine Benzia? That’s only forwards.

Lacazatte seems to have come from nowhere to be Ligue 1’s top goalscorer this season. Could you tell that he was going to make it at Lyon?

Lacazette was very good but he wasn’t a striker. He was playing on the right, on the left, number ten. But he wasn’t a big striker. Now, for me, he’s one of the best strikers in the world. He’s like Sergio Aguero – he can score left foot, right foot, head. He’s not tall but he’s very intelligent. These guys are playing together for five or six years, so it’s easy for them. They know all the tactics and the mentality of Lyon. They are all friends and it’s easy when you play with your friends. There are no stars at Lyon, it’s only friends. You’ve got one or two old players like Milan Bisevac and Christophe Jallet so it’s perfect.

With the takeovers at PSG and Monaco, is it even more important to have a strong academy at Lyon?

Now for young players, when you’re about 12 and you’re very good, you start to have a lot of clubs following you. It’s tough for Lyon to fight with Paris because of the money and because of the city too, as Paris is more attractive. With Lyon, the city’s very beautiful but it’s not Paris. I think Paris they put some money last season and this season into the academy because they know there’s a lot of good young players in France and you can’t bring in a new Ibrahimovic or Cavani every year.

It’s a shame for me when you see Paris play in the Champions League because they have to represent France but only one player is speaking in French – Blaise Matuidi. I think Paris want to bring back some French players, like Paul Pogba, but it won’t be easy. We had a new law two years ago, every person who earns more than €1 million has to pay 70% tax. It’s huge. In Paris, the player negotiates another salary after tax so the club has to pay the tax for the player. An English player would prefer to play in the Championship, League One, League Two than play in Ligue 1.

How did you get into football?

I started to play football at 5 years old. I was quite young. I played all the way from 5 to 17 at a good club next to Lyon called Caluire. Lyon always put out a younger team to play us but we’d still lose 5 or 6 nil. I was born in ’86 and Lyon put out the ’87 team. When I played against them, they had Karim Benzema, Hatem Ben Arfa and Loic Remy. You can imagine the team with these kinds of players!

After Caluire, I moved to a very rich club nearby called Limonest to play in the fifth or sixth division. We won five leagues and two cups in five years. We had a lot of old professional footballers and I was the youngest player, I learned a lot. Christian Bassila, who was at West Ham and Sunderland, I played with him. He’s very good! When you’re young you just have to come to training and watch older players – that’s it.

Did the smaller clubs get any benefits from being so close to Lyon?

Not really because Lyon have got a strong, strong partnership with the best clubs in the area. If a young player is good, the manager calls Lyon and says, “We’ve got a young player, he’s 10 years old. Can you come to see him?”. A scout will come and follow him for a couple of months and then years. When he’s good enough, he can come to Lyon for training. If he’s good enough, he can stay at Lyon.

At the beginning of September, you have maybe 200 good players in Lyon. So you have to watch these players every week. By the end of May, you’ve got two or three players left. It’s a very long process and at the end, the best players play for Lyon.

It’s not only football, it’s about behaviour, school, mentality. Parents as well. Sometimes you’ve got parents who want the young guy on a lot of money. Some will already have an agent at 12 years old, so it’s bad. It’s very important for Lyon to have a good guy who has that ‘Lyon mentality’. They want to learn in Lyon, they have the DNA of Lyon. When you see the team now, 80% of them come from the Lyon academy. That’s better than at Barcelona.

You mentioned the significance of the parents, can you elaborate on that?

When you are a child, your parents are the most important thing in your life. If your parents won’t push you to be a professional, you won’t be a professional. You are 13 years old, you have to study, you have to play football. You are under pressure of your parents, of the school, of the coach.

They’re like babies. I saw a lot of young players crying in their room because their parents are very far away or they have a bad day at school. It’s only young guys, they just want to have fun with their friends and enjoy their football at Lyon.

The players who live in Lyon stay with their parents. All the players who live more than 30km from Lyon have a room in the academy. We’ve only got 32 rooms, it’s not a lot. Compare that to Barcelona who have over 100. If Lyon is your city, you have to stay with your parents.

We’re building a new stadium for next January. I don’t know if the academy will stay here or if it will go to the new stadium. 32 is fine – 32 rooms for players under 17 and the reserve team. When the player reaches 18, they have to leave and get a flat.

What was your role at the club?

I started to work at Lyon after my Masters degree in 2008. I was in charge of education at the academy for two years and after that in charge of the development – everything except football. So it was marketing, scouting strategy, education, the brand of the academy. I helped the young players to feel better in Lyon. It was a big job, very interesting.

When I arrived the academy was 35th best in Europe and once I left, it was the best. We did four years of work. We started work with Remi Garde and he’d come through the youths system and used to play for Lyon. He was the assistant manager to Gerard Houlier and he was head of scouting after Houlier, then head of the academy. I started under him. He said, “We don’t have a lot of money like Manchester City or PSG but we have a lot of young players and we have history. Young players like that. We have to build a team with academy players.” And we did it in four years.

It’s not only good players in Lyon. We used the partnerships with clubs nearby and after that 50 km then 100km. Then we looked further. Lyon is very close to Switzerland and Italy, so it’s the same. We aren’t far from Belgium as well. We have good scouts in Paris and in the South. If you see the Lyon team now, you’ve got 80% from the academy but I think 30-40% are from Lyon.

Was a lot of the direction for the academy coming from Garde?

Not only Remi Garde, even before they were thinking about how to build the team with young players.  It’s the owner and manager who have the final say. They’ll put money into the first team straight away. That’s why it took a lot of time to reach this goal. When Garde, Lyon didn’t have a lot of money so that’s why the academy was in the middle of the strategy. I think for 99% of clubs, you’ve got the club, then you’ve got the academy. For Lyon, it’s the opposite. You have the academy, then you have the club. It’s totally different. You play in the first team like you play in the academy. Take any other club and you play in the academy like you do in the first team.

What could English clubs learn from Lyon?

I really think Lyon has to be an example for all the big, big clubs, especially a club like Tottenham who don’t have as much money as a player who comes from your academy is cheaper. There’s a big difference between playing at Under 21 and playing in the Premier League. It’s a big gap. I don’t know if the players from the Chelsea academy are training a lot with the first team. In Lyon, you’ve got a lot of young players training with the professional team. When you have the African Cup of Nations or a France International, Lyon’s got only six or seven international players. So twenty under 17s and under 19s are playing with the first team, so that’s good.

In France, you’ve got the reserve team who play in the fourth or fifth division. When are you good enough to play there, you also start to play with the professional team so it’s not a big, big gap. It’s like in England. The problem is when you are say, Chelsea, you need a result now. The owner puts a lot of money in the team and you have to be 1st or 2nd, do well in the Champions League. You need players who are ready to play. You don’t have the time to put in a young player for some games. So that’s why they end up playing in Championship, League One, League Two.

I don’t think it’s a good strategy. In England I think the Leagues have too many clubs, so the players have too many games. When you have that many games, you aren’t training and you can’t improve. In France I had four training sessions a week and one game, every Saturday. During the week, you’ve got one session for the technical part, one for the physical, one for tactics, one for positions. When you make a mistake in a game, you have one week to learn. In England when you make a mistake, you can do the same thing again on Tuesday because you have another game. That’s a big point. That’s why England won’t win a World Cup or a Euros because young academy players don’t train enough.

How many Lyon players will there be in the Euro 2016 team?

I think four or five. Lacazette and Gonalons for sure. Clement Grenier has been injured for almost six months but he’s a very good player. If he’s 100% fit, he’ll play. Fekir and maybe Jordan Ferri or Tolisso. If you watch a lot of games in Europe, I think you’ve only got Phillip Lahm from Bayern who can play central midfield, on the right, on the left, in defence. Only Lahm, Ferri and Tolisso. I think Anthony Lopes is going to play for Portugal as well. He’s been like this for four years. He’s not tall but he’s very powerful. He’s got a good jump and he’s a good guy, who comes from Lyon. He’s playing for the Portuguese national team. He’s a third choice but he’s going to be the first soon. He’s got a good mentality and he’s a hard worker. For example, he broke his leg and after only four months, he was playing again. He had a daughter at 19, 20. Maybe because of that he’s more of an adult. Lopes is one of the best keepers in the French League.

That’s why I don’t understand all of the scouts from the big clubs in England! They just have to come to Lyon and watch a game. You can find a lot of young players, not very expensive.

You can follow Hugo Greenhalgh on Twitter (@HugoGreenhalgh)

Interview: Mathieu Boyer
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