Unbreakable Rudi

Could you do your job so poorly that you make it impossible to get fired? Probably not, but then again, you’re not Rudi Garcia.

Cover: Damien LGOL

Rudi Garcia is an enigma. On the day that UEFA named him the 7th best coach in Europe, his Lyon side had won just 5 out 12 possible points, unable to score from open play in more than 5 hours of football. A year earlier, Garcia took over a Lyon side that was ironically good enough to reach the Champions League semi-finals, but not good enough to qualify for next season’s European competitions.

Then, there is his difficult character. During his previous experiences, Garcia cultivated a reputation of an amateur backroom politician. It has been a similar story at Lyon, where he regularly nips at Juninho‘s heels to get what he wants; most recently, against Nîmes, he left Thiago Mendes off the bench because he didn’t believe the Brazilian was good enough to feature in spite of accumulating minutes in the Champions League campaign.

Why call up players who don’t have the level to play?

Rudi Garcia, when asked by Julien Huët why he left out substitutes

And as these things usually go, a short spell of poor results is enough to trigger fantastic rumors of a coach on the edge of an ejection seat. Whether those rumors are true matters little because there is a more important question: can Lyon fire Garcia?

Sacking a head coach so soon after a successful continental campaign is not unheard of. If Chelsea could sack Roberto Di Matteo after winning the Champions League, then any club can do it, but it is not a common outcome. For Lyon, it certainly is not easy.

The club’s appointment of Rudi Garcia was not meant as a long-term strategy, but neither was it meant to be this short. Garcia’s failure to qualify for European competitions, combined with the exceptional reality of COVID-19, has left Lyon in a financial trough deep enough to make the club think twice before firing him.

Rudi Garcia might not have done his job well so far, but he might have done it just badly enough that he cannot easily lose it.

Preparing the post-Rudi

October 2019. Rudi Garcia’s name surfaced in the media after the club dismissed Sylvinho. When questioned about those whispers, Jean-Michel Aulas hit back, with a hint of irony, that supporters should not believe all they hear. Notwithstanding, Lyon presented new head coach Rudi Garcia soon after and when the raised eyebrows settled, most supporters thought two things: ‘oh no’ and ‘hold up’.

That Rudi Garcia would be a poor fit at Lyon was known for at least a few days, ever since his name surfaced in the media. Maybe even for a few months, following his troubled tenure at Marseille. However, there was one detail that was, perhaps, too transparent in his new contract: it was set to expire in Summer of 2021. That date is anything but incidental.

Rudi’s will not be the only farewell party in June 2021. Alongside his contract, most of the senior coaching staff’s contracts are also set to expire then: those of incumbent assistants Claudio Caçapa and Gérald Baticle, as well as Claude Fichaux and Paolo Rongoni. Only one contract did not expire in 2021: Grégory Coupet‘s deal expired in 2020, and when Juninho made him a late offer, it was only a one year extension until 2021. Coupet rejected the offer and signed with Dijon instead.

Lyon’s Champions League campaign already seems like a distant memory.
Picture: Damien LG – OL

Even before Garcia signed, Juninho’s lukewarm appreciation of the club’s backroom staff had become an open secret. Shortly before Lyon dismissed Sylvinho, L’Equipe reported that Juninho observed that Baticle, Caçapa and Coupet lacked authority in the dressing room and proposed little. Their presence in the club did not seem to be based on merit as much as their history at Lyon.

The message seems clear. By Juninho’s admission, Lyon chose Rudi Garcia for his short-term abilities. The long-term plan is to choose Garcia’s successor next summer, who would be free to bring his own backroom staff, as is the practice at most clubs.

If that plan is so transparent to the supporters, Rudi Garcia must have caught on too. Any hopes he still harbors to earn a contract extension are fading, and rapidly. Garcia’s failure to qualify for even the Europa League—a club first since 1996—eclipsed his Champions League run. In the league, Lyon aren’t winning points, and they’re not playing like they want to either, so could an extended poor showing force Juninho’s hand? That remains unlikely.

Option 1: Sticking to the long-term plan

If Lyon was a normal club, it might already have shown Rudi Garcia the door, but Lyon is not a normal club, is it? Back in February, Aulas tempted fate and said that lightning would have to strike the club for him to fire Garcia. Historically, Lyon rarely fire coaches mid-season and it must sting Juninho’s pride to have to fire his second coach in less than a year.

There is one bigger problem than bruised egos: Juninho’s long-term plan. The only way to keep that long-term project on track would be to get an interim manager until the end of the season, and then sign a permanent head coach in Summer.

Lyon’s post-Rudi prospects are not very bright right now.
Picture: Damien LG – OL

That’s not an easy decision. No self-respecting coach of Lyon’s caliber would sign up for a nine-month stint, especially without even being able to bring their own backroom staff. If Juninho really does not subscribe to Baticle and Caçapa’s methods, it is unlikely he would hand over the reins to them.

If Juninho really wants to stick to his original plan, then one solution would be to go for another short-term plan. However, the candidates would hardly be alluring. At best, Lyon would attract an interim coach who is looking to bounce back: someone like Jocelyn Gourvennec or Alain Casanova. Yeah.

The harsh truth is that any coach who would readily sign up for a nine-month interim would not be up to Lyon’s standards. Gourvennec, who was already linked with Lyon as a possible replacement for Sylvinho last year, represents the French traditional head coach: a status quo that Juninho wants to move away from, without much success so far.

Option 2: Advancing the long-term plan

The obvious alternative is to sack the entire backroom staff now instead of in summer, but that is a difficult decision. Thanks to Rudi Garcia’s failure to qualify Lyon for European competitions, Lyon has already been forced to sell several top talents (and Bertrand Traoré). With COVID-19’s effect on the club’s finances, that income might still not be enough to fire him and the entire backroom staff.

To go for the nuclear option so soon, there needs to be an additional and bigger danger looming over Lyon’s finances: the possibility of missing the Champions League berths for the second season in a row. The team’s poor start, coupled with the positive starts of the other contenders, is already endangering next season’s participation and Rudi might find himself out in the cold for winter.

Lyon have finishing problems, but not only.
Picture: Damien LG – OL

Still, the prospects are not very alluring for Lyon if they opt to replace the coaching staff now. There’s a reason why Aulas does not enjoy firing coaches in mid-season: sacking a head coach so early in the season is how you find yourself stuck with Rudi Garcia.

Until May draws near, the selection of available coaches is very restrictive, and most are either too big or too small for Lyon. A few names remain available in-between, but they are not necessarily accessible. The perpetually-unemployed Laurent Blanc sticks out, but he would have to join without his right-hand man, Jean-Louis Gasset, who is now coaching Bordeaux. Blanc already lost the Lyon job to Rudi Garcia, which is embarrassing enough to rule him out now anyway.

Viewed from the other side, Lyon is hardly an alluring destination. There are no European competitions to play this season and next year’s Champions League qualification is not given. That aspect could dent prospects of attracting coaches like Robert Moreno, Marcelino or Leonardo Jardim. Truthfully, even if Lyon could attract them, the club might not afford them after replacing the entire backroom staff.

The more you think about these solutions, the more they start sounding like compromises. Managing the team and overcoming all these obstacles might be too much for Juninho, and he might end up hoping that if the fans could grind out five years of Bruno Génésio, Sylvinho and Rudi Garcia, they can plod through six more months.

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