To follow on from the first #EuropeanFitbaw podcast of this 2020/21 season we’re having a continental period at Pure Fitbaw. Colin Cunningham kicked us off with a data scouting article that unearthed some unheralded attackers, Byron Hutchison put the spotlight on players to watch in the Bundesliga and we’re in France for the next selection; my five from Ligue 1.
Eduardo Camavinga is just 17 years old but played almost three thousand minutes for Stade Rennais F.C. in the shortened 2019/20 season and has featured in all of their league matches in this season so far. In fact, the young central midfielder came off the bench to assist the equaliser in their opening game and has started the following four ties, all of which Rennes have won leaving them top of the table.
Camavinga was born in Angola, which has a number of talents blossoming around his age including LOSC Lille’s recent signing Capita, but he moved with his family to France when very young and has been at Rennes for some time now. A senior debut in the league came in April 2019 and his rise since then has been prodigious; becoming a regular by the end of the 2018/19 season, helping his club to a best ever third placed finish in Ligue 1 in 2019/20 and becoming the youngest player to receive a senior France cap for over a century when he subbed on against Croatia in the Nations League in early September.
The most exciting thing about Camavinga is of course not where he’s come from or what he’s done but what his potential suggests he could be. The stats hint at the blend of attributes that makes for a complete midfielder; in 2019/20 he was, for midfielders in Europe’s top 5 leagues, in the 90th percentile for tackles won (adjusted for possession), in the 94th percentile for successful pressures, in the 92nd percentile for pass completion and succeeded with 78% of his dribbles. But, in order to appreciate him fully, he’s a player you’ve just got to watch. A jaw slackening mix of technique – with a deft left foot which can help him roll his way out of pressure or send medium range low direct passes forward – physique – lean but muscular, tall and speedy at carrying the ball or covering ground – and desire – thumping into tackles with a sound that would carry even once full crowds are allowed back in French stadia – means it’s no surprise that he’s already been linked with moves to huge clubs such as Real Madrid. Hopefully we can enjoy a full season of him at Les Rouge et Noir first.
Around a year younger than Camavinga is another one to watch; Rayan Cherki. He turned 17 less than three months ago and already has an admirable list of footballing achievements. Born in Lyon, he’s been part of the Olympique Lyonnais setup for the last decade and first played for their reserve side at the age of just 15. He made his senior Ligue 1 debut for OL in October 2019 and in early January 2020 became the youngest player ever to score a senior goal for the club with a strike against Bourg-Péronnas in the Coupe de France aged 16 years and 140 days. Fourteen days later he scored two more and also got two assists as he inspired his team to a 4-3 win over Nantes in the next round of the same competition.
During the 2019/20 season he went on to appear in six Ligue 1 matches, including a start away to PSG, while also appearing for the reserves and the u19s. In the UEFA Youth League he scored five times, netting in each of the four matches he featured in including an injury time equaliser against Atalanta in the round of 16. OL won the resulting penalty shoot out but Cherki wasn’t available for the next round of the competition as it was postponed, due to Covid-19 till August 2020 and therefore clashed with the closing stages of the Champions League in Lisbon which he’d been selected for. In fact he went on to be used off the bench in the semi-final against Bayern Munich, becoming the youngest player to ever feature at that stage.
So, just what is it that’s causing Cherki to be knocking on the door of senior football at such a young age? The initial standout thing is that he looks to have the build for it. Powerful, with a broad chest, and squat but springy, he’s got the obvious pent up kinetic energy of a boxer. Secondly, he’s not afraid. This is a player that is going to play the way he wants to play no matter the level. He’s direct, devastatingly unpredictable and has a clear determination, quickness of touch and thought that can set him a step ahead of opponents. He’s been used, and is capable, all across the front line from left to right and even in deeper areas but is most effective somewhere between a 10 and a second striker. It’s in these central areas that his close control, dribbling ability, sheer power with the ball at his feet, weighting of throughballs and ability to get to half chances first can do the most damage.
This season he has been involved in all five of Lyon’s matches and has started the most recent two. It’s been a mixed beginning to the campaign for OL generally but Cherki has, despite playing only 209 of a possible 450 minutes, played the 6th most through-balls and dribbled past the 10th most opponents of all players in Ligue 1. He’s yet to score or assist in Ligue 1, and it’s clearly a limited sample size, but has some underlying numbers which compare well to more experienced creative players; a non penalty xG + xA per 90 of 0.39 which is the same as Dimitri Payet and his xA per 90 is higher than that of Teji Savanier and Cesc Fabregas.
An issue for Cherki may be how he gets consistent minutes for OL in his best role given their system and personnel but he’s just pure excitement on the ball and is a must watch this season wherever he plays.
Adil Aouchiche was born in north-eastern Paris, joined PSG’s youth academy in his early teens and impressed as he progressed through the ranks at the club. His progress as a youth wasn’t constrained to Paris as he starred for France on the international stage; ending the 2019 u17 European Championships the all-time top scorer as his country took fourth spot and assisting six times as they finished third in the 2019 u17 World Cup. Aouchiche scored or assisted in nine of the eleven games he participated in across those two tournaments and was named in the team of the tournament at both.
He went on to gain twelve caps at France u18 level but his appearances for PSG were limited to minutes in the UEFA Youth League and involvement in just three competitive senior matches. Like many other recent graduates from the PSG academy he chose to let his contract expire and moved on this summer, shortly after turning 18, in search of regular first team football. Landing at AS Saint-Étienne, ironically the record holders for Ligue 1 title wins with ten to PSG’s nine, has worked out well so far with five starts out of five for the player and ten points for the club putting them fourth in the division.
Aouchiche is best suited to being a play-maker in central areas but Claude Puel at St Étienne has tended to use him as a left midfielder and, given that the club make the most presses and block the most passes in Ligue 1 so far this season, he’s had to learn to play with more discipline. Despite this he’s making 2.5 key passes per 90 and has a non penalty xG per 90 of 0.34. The youngster has great anticipatory powers and speed of thought, moves between the lines well, receives the ball with a positive and open body shape and is adept at using feints and fake hits to fool opponents. Aouchiche is purposeful; once he’s in possession he looks to attack the opponent and, even in his zippy, hunched over style of dribbling, has great awareness of where his teammates are, where the space is and where the goal is. Quick decisions and close control in tight spaces comes easily to him and he loves to hurt the opposition with disguised passes, no look balls and direct third man runs. This is a player that, if he continues to adapt well to the extra duties and the physical challenges senior football throws at him, could be a real treat to watch this season and another ‘one that got away’ for PSG.
If Aouchiche is ‘one that got away’ from PSG maybe Cheick Doucouré is one that Red Bull Salzburg missed out on. Diadié Samassékou, Amadou Haidara, Mohamed Camara, Ousmane Diakité and Mamadou Sangare are all young Malian midfielders that have recently played for the Austrian team and some of them even moved there from Real Bamako, the same club side in Mali that Doucouré played for before he arrived at RC Lens in 2018. Doucouré is just 20 years old and already has 5 senior caps for Mali, in what is clearly a very competitive midfield, including an appearance at the 2019 African Cup of Nations Finals in Egypt. He played almost every match for Lens in the 2019/20 season, starting the final seventeen league games in a row as they clinched promotion from Ligue 2.
Lens are in sixth place after five matches in Ligue 1 so far this season, winning three, drawing once and losing once to put them ahead of the likes of PSG, Marseille and Lyon. They have the best xG difference per 90, comprised of the second highest xG for (11.3 xG, scored 8 goals) and the second lowest xG conceded (3.1 xGc, conceded 6 goals). Doucoure has been a starter in each match and has been a key part of that early success. He’s a tenacious, smart, mobile and reliable defensive midfielder who’s made the most interceptions in the division, makes twenty pressures per 90 minutes and has won 72% of his tackles. He displays an understanding of when not to dive in, often using his considerable upper body strength to jostle players off the ball, but is tough and decisive when he does commit to winning the ball.
In possession he is fairly press resistant, with a cushioning, shielding first touch and the ability to dribble out of trouble. His dribbling style is jerky, with quite small steps in small areas, but if given space to drive into he can push the ball ahead and use his fairly long stride to cover ground quickly and be something of a two-way midfielder. Often Doucouré has the right idea for a through ball or final pass when carrying the ball at pace but the execution is slightly off. However, if given time to steady himself he has a really nice clipped, lofted medium range pass in his arsenal that he can use to switch play or send a runner in behind, the latter particularly likely to happen if he has dropped between the defenders in the Sang et Or backline. There’s a lot to be impressed by at RC Lens; Loic Bade might just be the next (of many!) young French centre back to look out for, Facundo Medina is an assured and strong left sided Argentine defender and Ignatius Ganago is a 21 year old with four goals in five games but Doucouré is the pick of the bunch for me. Don’t just take my word for it though. Analyst Sancho Quinn picked him out as potentially the next Fabinho!
Boubakary Soumaré is yet another former PSG kid, part of the academy age group which included Odsonne Édouard, Dan-Axel Zagadou, Moussa Diaby and current LOSC Lille teammates Jonathan Ikone and Timo Weah. He moved to Lille in 2017 at the age of eighteen but didn’t start a league match until April 2019 and, although he had a strong first half of the 2019/20 campaign, was out of form and out of favour by the end of the 2020 January window after he rejected transfer moves which the club had accepted. This season Lille are undefeated, hold second place in Ligue 1 and Soumaré has only started two of their five matches. This season, at the age of twenty-one, he needs to force his way into being a consistent starter and is definitely one to watch if he does.
Soumaré is, you guessed it, a central midfielder and tends to be used as the left hand side of a double pivot in a 4-4-2 by manager Christophe Galtier. His is generally a relatively static role with most of the attacking and pressing being left to the front four but he’s calm and reliable at recycling possession even under pressure and, when the chance is there, can evade the press with a precise shuffle of the ball and dribble forward and make accurate passes even when at top speed. In the 2019/20 season Soumaré was in the 85th or higher percentile for Europe’s top 5 leagues on a per 90 minute basis for completion rate of passes when under pressure, dribble success rate and quantity of passes, dribbles and carries into the opposition final third. He moves the ball to teammates with a lovely weight allowing moves to continue at pace, can be useful in transitions both for his ability to win the ball back with his upper body strength and for his skill at carrying it forward and has fine positional awareness, rarely being drawn out needlessly. All in all he’s on the cusp of becoming quite a complete player.
The final piece in the puzzle for Soumaré is to step up and assume the responsibility and match dictating role his talent demands. Lille often deliberately bypass their midfield in possession but that’s been a less effective tool this season after the sale of the dynamic Victor Osimhen and Soumaré could offer a play-making alternative but the onus is on him to demand the ball from his teammates and play with ambition. If he can put it all together then being back in contention for a senior France international cap just ahead of Euro 2020, to add to his thirty five at youth level, is not out of the question.