The emergence of Houssem Aouar and why, at the age of 19, he is already a pivotal first team figure at Lyon

The emergence of Houssem Aouar and why, at the age of 19, he is already a pivotal first team figure at Lyon

Every summer Lyon will normally have at least one youth academy player ready in the wings to make his breakthrough in the first team the following campaign.

Having been given a brief taster of first team action in the 2016/17 season- 35 minutes in an eventually abandoned Ligue 1 fixture in Bastia and two Europa League ties against AZ Alkmaar- Houssem Aouar has certainly flourished in his debut season, frequently subjecting experienced players such as Jordan Ferri and Memphis Depay, to a place on the bench.

When the Lyon academy graduate trio of Corentin Tolisso, Maxime Gonalons and Rachid Ghezzal left the club in the summer of 2017, a midfield rebuilding task was the requisite for Genesio.

Aouar was given his first start at home to Dijon in September, lining up in the No. 8 shirt famously worn by Brazilian club legend Juninho, alongside Lucas Tousart and Tanguy Ndombele- a loan signing from Amiens- in a new-look younger Lyon midfield.

Played on the left side of the attacking trio behind Mariano Diaz in a 4-2-3-1 formation, Aouar’s impressive debut at the Groupama Stadium was consummated with an important goal to restore parity in the game at 2-2. The young midfielder displayed exemplary offensive awareness to break from his left-wing position to the centre of the penalty area to convert from Kenny Tete’s low cross.

The 19-year-old has since started 25 of his 30 appearances this campaign, playing a crucial role in his side’s quest to finish in a Champions League spot, a pursuit achieved by Lyon’s final-day 3-2 victory over Nice.

Aouar ends his first full professional season with 7 goals and 6 assists- notably; also, he recorded an 85% passing accuracy and remarkably, has made more tackles than any other teenager in Europe’s top five leagues this season.

One his key attributes that can expose opposition defences is his predatory movement off the ball, making himself a difficulty entity to man-mark by frequently gliding past his opposition in an instant and offering himself as an available outlet in attack around the penalty area.

Despite having been played in numerous positions in his breakthrough season- indeed- he has played off the left wing, as a No. 10 and as a box-to-box midfielder, his attributes are not restricted in any of these positions and Aouar does not mind where he is positioned.

He told L’Equippe in November: “I’ve always played in the middle, so the role of the hard-working midfielder is the one that I like most- but I like the left wing, too. It allows me to work and to develop other skills. I’ll adapt to anything. It doesn’t matter where I play, I know it’s my chance and I’ll play anywhere to take it!”

His markedly innate ability to pick a defence-splitting pass has often been an ideal component for the pacey options further up the park including Bertrand Traore, Memphis Depay and Mariano Diaz. Indeed, his ease in either attacking on the counter with imposing bursts into the box or in playing within tight-knit spaces in oppositions’ box- frequently with Nabil Fekir- gives Lyon variation in their attack that served them well for the majority of the season.

Aouar’s excellent decision making on the point of receiving the ball on the counter attack is one of the 19-year old’s most mature formidable qualities, consistently the correct incisive forward pass, frequently precipitating a Lyon chance.

His wide array of imposing playing qualities at such a young age will not only make Aouar a crucial part of Lyon’s plans in 2018/19, but will prompt the club’s hierarchy to do what is necessary to ensure the young prodigy is with them for the foreseeable future. We are undeniably talking about a player who is the epitome of the modern day midfielder.

He remains grounded and strongly retains an emotional bond with his hometown city. “I give a lot of importance to my family and the city of Lyon, and I’m happy I decided to stay”. Aouar also stresses the importance of his family around him in this breakout period of his career, “I still live with my mum- She’s done everything for me and I feel great at her place. She brings me equilibrium. Playing in big matches and having cameras trained on, afterwards to go back to her place, it allows me to keep on my feet on the ground- that’s important”.

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Lille fans turn on players as relegation looms

Lille fans turn on players as relegation looms

This season will certainly be one that will live long in the memory for supporters of LOSC Lille. The 2011/12 Ligue 1 Champions are fully embroiled in an all-encompassing relegation battle that is threatening to demote them to the second division for the first time in eighteen years. One of the most disturbing factors behind their current plight is that it is the off-pitch chaos that has exacerbated the evident footballing issues and may yet hammer the final nail in their top-flight coffin.

During their recent draw with Montpellier at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy, hundreds of Lille supporters felt it was time to make their feelings felt by invading the pitch upon the final whistle.  Holding their European-chasing counterparts to a 1-1 draw would hardly be seen as a bad result in the context of their season- but anger has been brewing for some time in this region of Northern France and there was a feeling that things had reached boiling point. The moment the final whistle blew, fans behind Benjamin Lecomte’s goal began to stream onto the pitch in numbers and sprinted in the direction of their own players with menace. Thankfully, the club’s stewards ran from all directions to prevent deplorable scenes from deteriorating and fortunately, no players suffered any physical harm.

Friday’s 2-1 defeat at Monaco leaves Lille two points from a survival spot with eight games left to play. It is an ominous position but it epitomises a season that has been shredded in turmoil from the moment Gérard Lopez bought the club last year. Results on the pitch have reflected the rash approach to management from the top.

The renowned Marcelo Bielsa was hired as manager last May but was dismissed in December after winning only 5 of his 19 games in charge, with his signings having failed to make any impression. Bielsa is still contesting his sacking, seeking as much as 18 million euros for wrongful dismissal. His replacement, Christophe Galtier, has strived to bring stability and renewed hope to their precarious predicament, admittedly evident in hard-fought draws against Nantes and Lyon and in a vital narrow victory over fellow strugglers Strasbourg. However, late goals shipped to Angers and Nice have once again underlined Lille’s undeniable fragilities.

Off the pitch, the club’s financial state was not helped by Bielsa’s considerable net spend last summer and is currently deemed so unhealthy that the French footballing authorities have inflicted a transfer embargo- whilst there will unequivocally be further punishment to come from the violent fan protest ignominy.

Captain Ibrahim Amadou expressed his unhappiness at the events after the recent Montpellier game: “The fans reacted as if the Championship was over and we’ve already gone down. There are nine matches left”. Chelsea forward Eden Hazard also conveyed his sadness at his former club’s plight on his Twitter account: “This evening, I’m hurting for my Lille. Remember, stay united and together in the good times just as in the most difficult moments.”

Hazard’s directives are particularly relevant, with a vital home game to be played against fellow relegation strugglers Amiens on 1 April. Les Dogues must do all they possibly can on the pitch to sustain Ligue 1 survival hopes. Matters off the pitch will have to be forgotten- for the moment.

By Hal Walker (@HalWalker)

Toulouse struggling to address slide

Toulouse struggling to address slide

A 0-0 stalemate on Saturday evening at the Stade de la Licorne to fellow strugglers Amiens was damaging for Toulouse in the sense that they now sit just a solitary point above the relegation zone.  Despite playing against 10 men for the last quarter of the game, Toulouse were unable to muster any quality to earn a much-needed victory. The encounter was synonymous of their season as a whole thus far, as a rather ominous shadow hangs over the club from South West France.

Having sacked Pascal Dupraz a month ago, the club moved to appoint former player Mickaёl Debève as his successor. Despite narrow victories that were earned in somewhat fortuitous circumstances (against an injury-ravaged Nice and a 10-man Troyes side), an amalgam of negative tactics and a consistent penchant to select experience over youth in the first x11, is a direct concern for the supporters. Crashing out of the Coupe de France at the hands of Ligue 2 side Bourg-en-Bresse has certainly done nothing to improve the mood at the club.

The general consensus amongst the French media and the club’s supporters is that the management seem compelled to prefer established players, primarily due to a direct fear of relegation as a result of previous counterproductive transfer windows.

Since selling prized goal-scorers Martin Braithwaite and Wissam Ben Yedder in the summers of 2016 and 2017 respectively, the club have not re-invested in the forward line; instead signing established midfielders on substantial wages (for a club the size of Toulouse). Such recruits include the well-travelled Jimmy Durmaz, Yaya Sanogo, Ola Toivonen, Yannick Cahuzac, Giannelli Imbula and Max-Alain Gradel. Not only have the club failed to get the best out of their seasoned imports, but their transfer strategy has significantly stunted the growth of their promising youth products- midfield talents like Alexis Blin, Yann Bodiger and promising defenders Issa Diop and Kelvin Amian. Teenage goalkeeper Alban Lafont is a marked exception- recently displaying an outstanding performance against PSG in a 1-0 defeat.

Negligence in the transfer market is seemingly being exacerbated by an over-emphasis on negative tactics that is notably unsuited to numerous individuals in the side.  Debève’s arrival has come with a mindset to not concede rather than to score. Frequently deploying a 4-5-1 formation fails to make any use of attacking, pacey outlets like Gradel. That Toulouse are the second-lowest scorers in Ligue 1 reflects the predicament- in fact, only Caen have notched fewer goals this season.

A concurrent criticism of the club by large quarters of French media has been that the young talents within the side are not being allowed to grow or flourish in the current setup- particularly evident during the reign of Pascal Dupraz. After a miraculous escape from relegation in 2015/16, it was thought that highly touted players such as Diop, Blin, Bodiger, and Amian would develop with the club’s ambitions under such a fiery, driven manager. 18 months on and the individuals have not grown to the level that many had hoped or anticipated- hampered by inconsistent tactics and a concerning lack of discipline.

Immediate measures will be taken in the short-term by Debève to ensure Toulouse stay in Ligue 1 this season- an objective that should be attainable given the relative quality of the side. However, if the club’s youth prospects cannot be properly integrated into a structured and cohesive system that promotes their development- it will be a question of when, rather than, if, Toulouse drop out of Ligue 1.