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Why watching a young team can be so inspiring, even when it’s bad

Lyon blew a 2-0 lead on Wednesday, but the brilliance and audacity of their young players made up for the disappointment.

Manchester City v Olympique Lyonnais - UEFA Champions League Group F Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Olympique Lyonnais are fun to watch because they play a wonderful brand of soccer: Fast-paced, possessive, and direct, with the fullbacks allowed the freedom to join the attack, and their young attacking players — Memphis Depay, Nabil Fekir, Moussa Dembélé, and Bertrand Traoré — allowed the freedom of movement and expression.

Against Hoffenheim, Lyon played a 3-5-1-1 formation, with Depay as the highest player; Fekir beneath Depay (Dembélé came in for Fekir in the 74th minute); Ferland Mendy and Raphael as the two wingbacks; Tanguy Ndombele (Pape Cheikh Diop came in for him in the 88th minute), Lucas Tousart, and Houssem Aouar as the three midfielders; and Jason Denayer, Marcelo (the other one), and Jérémy Morel as the three defenders above the goalkeeper, Anthony Lopes.

Often, and especially in the first half, Lyon’s attacks involved wingbacks acting as wingers, with the attackers switching positions with one another while playing quick one-twos and dribbling past defenders. Depay, not a standard striker who sticks to the middle of the pitch, would often peel off to one of the wings, which allowed Ndombele to make runs to fill that space. Fekir, given a free role, was all over the field doing Cruyff Turns and creating opportunities for teammates.

Most of Lyon’s players are young, and their inexperience showed in the second half of the game. After going up 2-0 in the first half and comfortably outplaying Hoffenheim, they conceded two goals to ten-men Hoffenheim in the second half, with the equalizer coming in the 92nd minute.

Lyon was disappointed by the outcome, but there was a lot of fun to be had in watching players so young and talented. It felt like watching up-and-coming artists play shows in small venues. Lyon feels like the PSG teams of the early 2000s that had the likes of Ronaldinho, Jay-Jay Okocha, and Mikel Arteta, or recent Ajax teams where many of the players were named targets for big clubs.

In a few years, if things go right, players like Fekir, Depay, Traore, Ndombele, Tousart, Dembélé, Denayer, Lopes, and Mendy will be playing for big teams all around Europe. They might move to PSG, or go to England, Germany, or one of the two big teams in Spain. Their futures could take a number of turns, but what is evident now is their talent.

Lyon is the proving grounds for these young players, not their final destination. It’s a club that allows them to play against high-level competition in the Champions League, but where the pressure to succeed isn’t such a burden that they don’t feel free to express themselves or make mistakes. Depay for example has the space to learn and be creative at Lyon that he never had at Manchester United, where he admitted that he struggled to be himself.

None of this means that Lyon doesn’t expect to do well, just that those expectations encompass the reality of what the team can achieve, and that young players are not finished products.

There are some young players who can thrive and grow in those big teams, players who can succeed under pressures that require them to be near-perfect every game. But most young talents need a team like Lyon to be their stepping stone, a team that welcomes the totality of youth, where players can explore who they are and work toward who they want to be.

Lyon is a place where Fekir can score the first goal, and then make the wrong decisions on several counterattacks that would have given them a near-insurmountable lead. Not because losing a two goal lead against Hoffenheim is ideal, but because there’s an understanding that sometimes growth is painful.