Arsenal could pounce on Rachid Ghezzal's Lyon conundrum
Lyon winger Rachid Ghezzal has been heavily linked to Arsenal, but just 17 months ago he was on the verge of a loan move to Gazelec Ajaccio.
The tiny Corsican outfit, who are not even the most popular team in their town, were sensationally promoted to Ligue 1 in 2015, and Lyon were more than willing to let Ghezzal join them in order to get some playing time. Discarded by coach Hubert Fournier, he wasn't considered fast and strong enough, but assistant coach Bruno Genesio eventually persuaded all involved to keep the player.
It turned out to be an inspired choice, because Genesio himself replaced Fournier in December 2015 after a rather lacklustre start to the season. Fans were sceptical about the new boss, but one thing was clear about Genesio -- he knew the club inside out. Born in Lyon, he spent almost his entire playing career with them and returned to work with the youth teams almost a decade ago. He rates and understands local youngsters better than anyone, and you can't possibly be more local than Ghezzal, whose home is just a couple of kilometres from the new stadium, Parc Olympique Lyonnais.
That is one of the reasons why Ghezzal was Genesio's favourite in the youth team before 2011. It is only natural the technically gifted wizard immediately felt at ease under the new coach, and it was symbolic that his first start last season took place at the emotional inauguration of Parc Olympique Lyonnais in January 2016.
Lyon's form was nothing short of disastrous at that stage. They took just one point from Fournier's last six matches, dropping to ninth in the table. The first game at the magnificent new home was easy on paper, against rock-bottom Troyes, but the score stood at 1-1 with just 18 minutes to go. That's when Ghezzal stepped up. The winger received the ball in the penalty area and sent an unstoppable curling shot into the far corner. The celebrations were wild, and Lyon found confidence en route to the 4-1 win. The new star became almost unstoppable from that moment on.
Genesio's tactical switch was all Ghezzal needed in order to flourish. Under Fournier, Lyon mostly used the 4-2-3-1 formation, and the left-footed talent struggled to adapt when given sporadic chances, especially because he couldn't perform defensively as expected. The new coach not only changed the plan to 4-3-3, thus giving wingers more freedom, but also put Ghezzal on the right flank, instructing him to cut inside and shoot with his stronger foot.
The player tried to emulate Arjen Robben in his new role. "Defenders know what he is going to do, but he does it anyway," Ghezzal said. He was able to perform the trick more often than not, and some even considered him the best Lyon player in the second round of 2015-16. Genesio's team won 11 times in the last 15 matches to climb to second place against all odds and qualify for the Champions League, and Ghezzal finished the season with eight goals and eight assists to his name. His performance in the 6-1 thrashing of Monaco, crucial to leapfrogging their rivals in the table, was sensational.
"I wanted to leave when Fournier was the coach, but that would have been a failure. I never gave up, stayed patient and finally got my chance," the winger said in an interview with BeIN Sports.
It took him a long time indeed, and the serious back injury suffered in 2013 didn't help at all. At 24, Ghezzal became a relatively late bloomer in the team that is based on youth. Samuel Umtiti, a year younger than Ghezzal, was sold to Barcelona last summer after four seasons as an undisputed starter at Lyon.
The winger was thus desperate to make it up for the lost years at his beloved club, even though the magnificent form in the start of 2016 led to significant interest from the Premier League. Liverpool, Tottenham and West Ham were mentioned as possible suitors, while Everton put an offer of €11 million on the table, but the player refused to move, stating that he wanted to play in the Champions League. Lyon, on the other hand, were rather tempted to accept the money, with Ghezzal's contract up in the summer.
That was a delicate situation, and Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas knew that a new contract was urgently needed in order to avoid losing the star. "The coach wants to keep him, and he is a great player with outstanding mentality. I've always been a fan," he said in the summer, promising: "We will find an agreement."
And yet, the solution is yet to be found, and the problem has become even more difficult because Ghezzal is no longer an automatic choice this season.
The reason is simple -- Genesio has had to change his tactics again. Nabil Fekir is fully fit after missing almost all of last season with ruptured knee ligaments, and with all due respect to Ghezzal, he is Lyon's most gifted and influential star alongside the prolific striker Alexandre Lacazette. Fekir is a natural playmaker, and there is no place for him in the 4-3-3 formation. Thus the team switched back to 4-2-3-1, or to 3-5-2 at times, and it was a significant blow to Ghezzal because Mathieu Valbuena and Maxwell Cornet are better suited to those systems.
In such circumstances, the winger is reluctant to sign the new deal. "All we want is playing time guarantees, but we don't feel that Lyon are keen to keep Rachid from the professional point of view," Ghezzal's brother and agent Abdelkader, a former footballer himself, said in October.
The negotiations have gone nowhere since, and the January window seems to be the only opportunity for the club to get a fee for the player before he leaves for free in the summer. That is one of the reasons for signing Memphis Depay from Manchester United. With the Dutchman in the squad, Ghezzal's chances of playing have diminished significantly, and Genesio admitted that the purchase was made in order to replace him.
Lyon can't demand a high transfer fee for the winger now, and Arsenal sense an opportunity to try their luck, while Everton are still in the picture as well. That could look like a logical gamble, but there are some reservations to take into account.
Ghezzal's talent and potential was clearly evident in the beginning of 2016, and he is indeed reminiscent of Robben when on song, but he is very inexperienced at the highest level. His recent form is hardly sparkling, and he only started once for Algeria, whom he chose to represent over France, at the African Nations Cup this month. The Fennecs lost that match to Tunisia, and were eliminated at the group stage.
Throughout his career, only one coach (Genesio) fully trusted Ghezzal, and he is only effective in one tactical formation (4-3-3). Arsene Wenger should be aware of that if he tries to do a deal with Lyon, who will be desperate to sell come the end of January.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin