Claude Puel has been Lyon coach for almost three years, and the jury is still out. Puel was appointed after Lyon's unprecedented dominance of Ligue 1 resulted in seven straight titles, but the club has not yet won a trophy under him. It did, however, reach the Champions League semifinals last year for the first time in its history.
Last Tuesday, Lyon drew 1-1 with Real Madrid in the Champions League round of 16 (last season, at the same stage of the competition, Lyon beat the Spanish side 2-1 on aggregate).
To make matters worse, Lyon missed out on a chance to close the gap on league-leading Lille after Sunday's 1-1 draw.
"If we don't beat Lille, then our title hopes are over," goalkeeper Hugo Lloris told the French press earlier this week.
That may be dramatic, but there is a sense that -- since this is Lyon's worst start to the season in 15 years, when it lost four and drew two of its first seven games -- Puel has never been far from the precipice. There was a crisis in late-September, after a home defeat to rival Saint-Etienne, when Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas bravely argued Puel's case with thousands of home fans who were chanting for the coach's departure. The French press reported Puel had three games to save his job: the team duly beat Lille and Benfica, and drew with bottom club Arles, to keep him in place.
Puel's precarious situation is as much a reflection on Aulas' change of management style than of the new order in French football. Aulas sacked Puel's predecessor Alain Perrin in 2008 for not being popular, despite Lyon winning a league and Cup double for the first time in its history. When he negotiated with Puel, then at Lille and France's hottest coaching property, Aulas allowed himself to cede control and grant Puel more power than any previous coaches.
"I've been sufficiently criticized for giving him a four-year deal, which is too long for big clubs," Aulas told Lyon Capitale on Friday, the closest he has come to a mea culpa. "Right now we have a certain number of points of difficulty." It has also become a matter of pride: if Aulas dismisses Puel, he is as good as admitting he was wrong to appoint him in the first place. (There's also the matter of a reported €6m payoff that he would balk at.)
Puel responded at his Friday news conference with a threat of his own. "At the end of the season, I might decide to stop or go elsewhere. I won't say anything more about the subject."
Puel won Ligue 1 both as a player (1982, 1988) and a coach (2000) at Monaco and earned a reputation as a hard taskmaster, tough to please. His former coach and mentor Arsene Wenger remembered that when he took over at Monaco, he dropped Puel, a tough-tackling defensive midfielder in the Didier Deschamps mold, from the starting eleven. Puel responded by working so hard in training that Wenger had no choice but to select him. "He showed such desire that I had to pick him," said Wenger.
Puel demands the same now. "One day a player admitted to me that before coming to play under me, he didn't particularly care whether his team won or lost: but that since he's been with us, he's physically sick after a defeat," he once told L'Equipe.
Thierry Henry speaks highly of Puel as the man who kick-started his career at Monaco, while Ludovic Giuly, another former player at Monaco, told France Football of his coaching methods: "Puel is a brute and he shows absolutely no tenderness toward his players. One day I went to see him and I said, 'Coach you have to tell me what you think about me because I'm not one of those guys who can just go to work without knowing, so do I need to work harder? If you can't stand me, at least tell me to my face.' Giuly only found out how much Puel admired him after he won the 2006 Champions League with Barcelona and his former boss asked for his shirt (too late: he had given it to Thierry Henry).
At Lyon, Puel was forced to soften his stance. "Everything was too rigid in his first season," defender Jean-Alain Boumsong, who left Lyon last summer, told Lyon Planet. "There was no room for dialogue, improvisation or intuition, and he never asked the opinion of the players." He fell out with captain Cris last October, and has been blamed for the struggling form of Yoann Gourcuff, a €26.5m signing from Bordeaux last summer.
"My vision of football is close to Laurent Blanc's," Gourcuff told Sud Ouest newspaper before Lyon played Bordeaux last month. "I've adapted to Claude Puel's vision but it's different to my own." Certainly Lyon does not play the flamboyant football it did when Juninho Pernambucano and Karim Benzema were at the club, but in Gourcuff, Michel Bastos and Lisandro Lopez, Puel still has players capable of individual brilliance.
If Lyon wins a trophy this season, then Puel will have bought himself credit for another year, the final one of his contract. But, with the club already out of the French Cup (losing to Nice in the Round of 32), and big games against Lille and Real Madrid coming up, he is running out of time. Friday's public spat with Aulas showed that both men are feeling the pressure. No trophy, though, and Puel's time will be up.