Lyon wasn't supposed to be any good this season.
An abundance of summer sales of key players hinted at the outset of a transitional period, and with a celebrated academy that has produced the likes of Karim Benzema, Anthony Martial, and Alassane Plea, relying on the emergence of the next generation would have been excused by Les Gones' faithful.
Manager Bruno Genesio has put his trust in a handful of academy grads, with a host of newcomers sprinkled in, and suddenly, the former domestic giant appears best suited to vault Monaco as table-topper Paris Saint-Germain's greatest threat.
That's not to say the 2017-18 version of Lyon isn't without fault. Genesio has opted for an experienced centre-back tandem of Jeremy Morel and former Besiktas ball-stopper Marcelo after Emanuel Mammana was dubiously shipped out alongside Nicolas N'Koulou and Christophe Jallet. This has amounted to a backline that is a bit short on athleticism, and it's had its consequences, with Lyon conceding too often from set pieces and losing points from winning positions, as it did on opening weekend when it twice surrendered leads in a 3-3 draw with Dijon.
But not even the continent's most decorated clubs have been free of criticism, and while Lyon is far from its early standard of seven consecutive titles from 2002-2008, the future looks bright for one of France's biggest outfits.
Arsenal splashed a club-record €53 million to lure Les Gones' goal-leader Alexandre Lacazette to north London, Bayern Munich shelled out €41.5 million for Corentin Tolisso, and Zenit St. Petersburg spent €16 million to bring Mammana east.
Key contributors Maxime Gonalons (Roma), Mathieu Valbuena (Fenerbahce), Sergi Darder (Espanyol), and Rachid Ghezzal (Monaco) also left the fold on a temporary or permanent basis, and heading into the 2017-18 campaign, Lyon had the look of a picked-over candy aisle on the eve of Halloween.
After registering just 67 points a year ago for an average of 1.75 points per match, a rejuvenated Lyon has won six and drawn four of its opening 11 fixtures this season for an average of two points per match, and much of it is due to some new faces at the Stade des Lumieres.
A refurbished attack has seen Mariano Diaz (Real Madrid) replace Lacazette, while Chelsea castoff Bertrand Traore (Ajax) has proved a menacing addition on the right flank. It cost €17 million for the two summer signings, which appears a brilliant bit of business, and it's handed the conch to Nabil Fekir as the team leader in a central role in support of the striker.
At the back, where Marcelo and Morel provide experience, full-backs Kenny Tete (Ajax), Marcal (Benfica), and Ferland Mendy (Le Havre) have injected dynamism for a relatively scant €13.5 million. Not too shabby that, especially considering the new additions have all played a role in Lyon's early-season success.
Emergence of a young midfield
With Valbuena, Darder, and Gonalons gone, Genesio was left with a gaping hole in the centre of midfield, and he entrusted French youngsters Lucas Tousart (20), Houssem Aouar (19), and Tanguy NDombele (20) with the task of closing it up.
Last season, once Les Gones' brass clued into the reality that Clement Grenier wasn't up to snuff, it opened a slot in the midfield that Tousart effectively filled. Captain of France's UEFA European Under-19 winning side, Tousart is an imposing defensive midfielder who's adept at two-way play, with a great range of passing. His emergence has also covered for this summer's departure of Gonalons, and after making 21 Ligue 1 appearances last season, Tousart has become a pillar of Lyon's rebuild with starts in all 11 of the club's league clashes, playing the full 90 all but once.
Like Tousart, Aouar, 19, is a product of Lyon's celebrated academy, and like his midfield mate, has become a principal part of Genesio's plans, and for good reason. With his first-team debut coming in last season's contentious supporter-fueled nightmare at Bastia, Aouar's progression has become a symbol of Lyon's emphasis on youth. Wiry yet strong, the Lyon-born midfielder is a versatile player, capable of sitting in a deeper central position, or moving into a more attacking role out wide as he did during the 3-3 draw with Dijon that saw the youngster open his senior account. Small sample size, but the future looks bright for the unselfish local boy.
The third jewel in Bruno Genesio's young midfield trio is Ndombele, who joined the Stade des Lumieres lot on loan in the summer from Ligue 1 newcomer Amiens. With an option for a permanent move, Ndombele's acquisition is quietly one of Ligue 1's most influential signings - incredible considering the robust midfielder from south Paris suburb Longjumeau is only a year removed from playing in the fifth tier of French football. A member of France's Under-21 side, Ndombele's league debut this season against Paris Saint-Germain was akin to entering the lion's den with a meat necklace, and the youngster did not disappoint. It's still early days, but considering the pedigree of the players who sought greener pastures this summer, the performances of this emerging three-headed midfield monster has been nothing short of stellar.
Depay hits stride
Pity the young footballer who stars domestically only to falter on the biggest stage. Such was the plight of Memphis Depay, who, after finishing the 2014-15 Eredivisie season with PSV as the league's leading scorer, made a £25-million move to Manchester United amid interest from Liverpool and Arsenal.
It was never to be for the tricky winger, and as the focus of blood-thirsty pundits vacillated between his high-fashion Instagram posts and his struggles on the wing, Depay bagged just five goals in 40 appearances in all competitions. He would secure a move to the Rhone-Alpes region the following January after making a scant four substitute appearances in the first-half of the Premier League campaign.
Night and day for Depay, who scored as many goals in the second-half of the 2016-17 campaign for Les Gones as he did in his entire Red Devils tenure, which set the table for this season's return to promise. The Dutchman is again a menacing presence on the left-wing in Genesio's 4-2-3-1 after a brief spell on the sidelines. "Lately he's sometimes been left out of the squad, sometimes on the bench, and I think that's been beneficial for him," Genesio told RMC.
"He has asked questions of himself and it's true that in training he's a different player to the one we saw at the start of the season."
That has proved useful for Depay, who has five goals this season to go with three helpers, including a maiden senior hat-trick against Troyes, as he resembled the player many saw at PSV. Still just 23 years old, Depay is letting his form do the talking, and it's telling those who wrote him off that their notions were carelessly daft.
Fekir's fantastic form
The shrewd signings have helped Lyon's cause, as has the emergence of a young midfield and Depay's return to form, but if there's a catalyst for the club's season, it's Nabil Fekir.
Now Lyon's focal point in light of Lacazette's departure, Fekir has been one of Ligue 1's best players. A footballer's career arc can often benefit from obstacles, and few will know that better than Fekir, who was released from Les Gones' academy as a 14-year-old for being too weak, only to return to the fold four years later before making his first-team debut in Aug. 2013.
It was hardly smooth sailing from there, and just as the attacking midfielder and second striker began to find his stride and earn recognition from France manager Didier Deschamps, he ruptured knee ligaments and missed most of the 2015-16 season.
Now club captain with the Gonalons move to the Stadio Olimpico, Fekir is a dangerous presence who basks in the shadow of the striker, and already, he and Diaz have forged a strong understanding. With 11 goals in all competitions - including five in his last three outings ahead of Thursday's Europa League soiree - Fekir is on the verge of stardom. His display in an Oct. 13 victory over Monaco and 95th-minute match-winning free-kick was arguably the best individual performance in France this season.
Many footballers shrink under the weight of sporting the captain's armband. Not Fekir, who this season has become both Lyon's leader and its biggest star.
While Lyon is unlikely to challenge Paris Saint-Germain for French dominance this season, the club's unanticipated early-season form this year is reminiscent of Les Gones' academy-driven quality of the early aughts. For a division often typified as a "one-team league," few things are better for French football than Lyon's return to prominence.
(Photos courtesy: Action Images)