Though football is perhaps the most immediately accessible sport to people all over the world, it must be said that the balance of money, power and talent still lies predominantly in Europe’s ‘big 5’ leagues. The fifth most popular league in Europe, France’s Ligue 1, also happens to generate the least television revenue of those five leagues. Over the last twenty years, the soaring television money has not graced Ligue 1 with the near exponential growth of the others. The English Premier League’s financial power has continued to lengthen its advantage versus the rest of the leagues in Europe.
What this has lead to is a system across Europe that turns many clubs into “buying” clubs or “feeder” clubs. In some cases, whole leagues, such as the Dutch Eredivisie have become particularly famous for focusing on the development of young players, with the hopes of achieving success and later, financial gain if successful. Clubs such as Ajax and PSV Eindhoven have continued to successfully turn players into Euros and yet more young players again.
As French clubs have fallen behind many of their counterparts from other leagues in revenue, more and more clubs have turned toward a model of sustainable youth development. A look at the squads at such clubs as Monaco, Nice, Lyon, and Toulouse makes this quite clear. As star players are tempted away from their clubs quicker than ever to richer clubs in richer leagues, more young players are given a chance to shine at clubs that may formerly have had a first XI full of veteran players.
Since Arsene Wenger’s arrival, young and relatively unknown talents shipped in from the French first division have played a huge part in firing Arsenal to glory. Wenger’s history of forays into the French market are well documented, from his near perfect hit rate in the early days to the far more competitive global transfer market of today, in which he has still found success in varying degrees. In the late 90s and early 00s, Wenger benefitted tremendously from his many years in France as player and coach, having established good relationships with people whose opinion he could trust, and seen many of the players he would later come calling on later with Arsenal.
The other great benefit to Arsenal at the time was that other clubs in the Premier League were slower to embrace the globalisation of football, leading many not to have the same sort of connections and working knowledge of the league. A look around the Premier League today reveals a much different story; there are French coaches, players and managers all over the league. Put another way, If you want to buy something at the store, and there is only one of that item left, that is no problem, it’s yours. But if all of a sudden, ten people are there all trying to purchase that same item, the odds of it being you who goes home with the item are much less.
The most demonstrative thing about this new level of competition is the level of player Arsenal are now coming away with. What two decades ago might have been Nicolas Anelka, Robert Pires, Patrick Vieira or Thierry Henry (not all of these players came directly from a French club, but Wenger was familiar with them from his time in France) in the past, is now a bit of a less inspiring set. Olivier Giroud and Laurent Koscielny, perhaps the two most relevant examples, are both very solid and respectable players, but neither are likely to supplant Thierry Henry in the average Gooner’s personal pantheon of club greats anytime soon.
So with the glut of young talent currently playing in Ligue 1, and Arsene Wenger appearing likely to get one last contract to try and go out on a high, with silverware, here is a look at some young players from all over the pitch that should interest Arsenal this summer and beyond
Goalkeeper- Alban Lafont, Toulouse
Playing a position that usually benefits from experience, Europe has seen two teenage sensations star in goal this season. At AC Milan, Gianluigi Donnarumma has started to make the position his own, and at Toulouse, France’s most purple club, Alban Lafont has done the same. Having only just turned 18 in January, Lafont has made the position his own. Originally an attacking midfielder, the 1.93 m Lafont was converted to a goalkeeper by his youth club AS Lattoise. He became the youngest ever keeper to start a match in Ligue 1 as a 16-year-old, and has only validated since. The future is certainly bright for this young, athletic keeper, and with Petr Cech starting to look his age this season, and David Ospina being both restless at the club and a poor fit physically for the Premier League, Wenger might look to bring in someone whose name could be the first on the team sheet for the next decade. As a former midfielder, he is relatively comfortable on the ball for a goalkeeper, an asset in the modern game.
Defence- Issa Diop, Toulouse
Sticking with Toulouse, we find another young talent pushing the 2 m mark in height. Possessing a towering frame, with impressive strength for his age, this 20-year-old has the potential to be a dominating presence in the air. Despite his imposing physical presence, he is considered a ball playing centre back. He has the athleticism and skill far greater than most defenders of his age and size. Because of this, he can play on the front foot, often stepping up to man mark, typically a role suited to smaller more agile players. In a country stacked to the brim with young defensive talent, he may yet prove to be the best of the bunch. He seems like the ultimate signing for Wenger, with his skill allowing him to fit into Arsenal’s style seamlessly, yet his elite size and strength would augment the group Arsenal currently have with certain qualities they lack. This is perhaps one of those signings that could have been more likely a year ago, with his potential sure to drive up any price a team may have to cough up to pry him away from ‘Les Violets’. His pedigree must be noted, as the grandson of Lybasse Diop, the first Senegalese player in Ligue 1, with Bordeaux.
Defence- Malang Sarr, OGC Nice
With incredible versatility and potential, the left-footed Malang Sarr is another French defender to experience a meteoric rise to fame. Playing on the left of Lucien Favre’s back 3, and able to function inside or out in a back 4 as well. He possesses even more polish on the ball than Diop, and reads the game at a veteran level, all the more impressive considering he is only just turned 18 this year, in January. Though not as tall as Diop, he too possesses great aerial ability. What might have cost Arsenal £30 million last year to build a central defensive partnership for years to come, may this year cost triple that, with Sarr’s release clause alone rumoured to be €50 million. Still, either or both of these promising young defenders would find the path to the first team at Arsenal short, and in all likelihood, permanent. Sarr, in particular, represents the total package for any central defender in the modern game
Midfield- Morgan Sanson, Marseille
Perhaps some will remember this name from a couple years ago when while still at Montpellier, Morgan Sanson was a teenage sensation, thought by some to be on the radar at Arsenal. Following a devastating injury to his knee ligaments in 2015, Sanson spent much of 2016 getting back to his best. Possessing great versatility, technique and vision while also maintaining his responsibilities defensively (a hallmark of many young French midfielders: well-rounded abilities). He has seen time on the flanks and as a central or inverted number 10, but his well-rounded game lends itself extremely well to a central or holding midfield role. He has good passing range, and at around 6 ft tall, he has the frame and functional strength to eventually flourish in the Premier League. As he only recently moved to Marseille this January, he is not likely to move again as soon as this summer. However, if Arsenal are serious about improving defensively, they must look toward players like this, who function very well in the attacking third, but are able to provide stopping ability in the midfield, perhaps allowing for Arsenal to improve on the attack in transition. Though his is a name that may have fallen from the tops of some wishlists since his major injury, it is still one that I am backing for big, big things in the future.
Midfield- Vincent Koziello, OGC Nice
Returning to the French Riviera, and Lucien Favre’s exciting and young Nice team, we find another player that some Arsenal fans may be familiar with if they had taken a curious glance around Europe for a pint-sized midfielder in the mould of Santi Cazorla to replace his unique contributions, Vincent Koziello. Standing at a Napoleonic 5 ft 7, the young Frenchman has many of the qualities the fans love about Cazorla. He possesses great passing range, and has exceptional agility and stop-start quickness. His diminutive frame allows him to navigate through traffic easier than some taller counterparts. The surprising aspect to his game, however, is his willingness to go into tackles and physical challenges, his highlight tapes frequently bringing a smile to the face as much larger men get dispossessed. Another young French midfielder to have a fully rounded comprehension of the game, he has all the tools needed to succeed in any league in the world. He lacks some polish on the final product, perhaps not involved in as many goals as he could be, but with impressive passing range and accuracy, strength on and off the ball, and a good engine allowing for both high attacking and defensive work rates. Could be the perfect replacement for Santi Cazorla, though the little Spanish magician’s skill from set pieces would have to be replaced elsewhere.
Forward: Nabil Fekir, Lyon
Taking a look at one of France’s traditional powerhouses, Lyon could easily have populated a list like this themselves. Lyon’s focus on the youth setup has reaped lasting benefits, with a seemingly never-ending supply of first team talent coming through at just the right moments. Though no longer the dominant force (foreign investment has seen PSG ascend to their own level financially in Ligue 1) Lyon are still among France’s most successful and talented teams. Leading the rest of the squad behind talismanic forward Alexandre Lacazette is the silky skilled Nabil Fekir. Able to operate on the wings, as a striker in a front two, or just behind in a supporting role, Fekir has the skills to play almost anywhere in the attacking third. Born in Lyon, the stockily built forward has a tremendous left foot and surprising power for a player of his height (5 ft 8). He also possesses good speed and agility, with superb balance also helping him weave through traffic. If there is a weakness to his game, it would be his vision and final ball selection. Though a good passer, he is not the sort of play through the lines creator like Ozil, but more of a chance creator like Alexis. A concern with him, especially if his likely home at Arsenal would be the right wing, is his work rate when tracking back, though far from a unique problem for a forward, this may be an area he needs to improve if he is to help Arsenal take the next step. Perhaps more of a replacement option than a complimentary piece to Alexis Sanchez, the 23-year-old Fekir has many of the tools to become one of Europe’s most electric performers.
Honourable Mentions and an Author’s Note
Here is a list of a few players left off of this list for various reasons, but most of all I have tried to include a few players that aren’t typically cited. For this reason, Monaco is conspicuous in its absence, even though they possess some of the league’s best young players, many of whom would be of interest to Arsenal. In no particular order, they are:
Forward: Kylian Mbappe, Monaco
Probably the hottest striking prospect in the world right now, the teenage sensation is a future superstar, but probably priced out of reach after his scorching second half of the season.
Forward: Thomas Lemar, Monaco
Another short yet powerful winger, Lemar has seen interest in him grow this campaign and could be in for a big money move
Midfield: Tiemoue Bakayoko, Monaco
Every tool a midfielder needs, and in abundance. Huge talent.
Midfield: Corentin Tolisso, Lyon
Yet another young French midfielder that can do it all. Powerful, with a great shot, decent pace and good vision, he also has an aggression and defensive resolve to his game that allows him to play anywhere in midfield.
Forward: Maxwel Cornet, Lyon
A young, speedy winger with great ability on the ball, but much to learn in front of goal. May take next step soon as Lacazette will most likely be leaving at season’s end.
There are, of course, many more exciting young players in France that are just as deserving of a mention. My intention, while avoiding the obvious answers in my assessment was to find players that not only compliment what Arsenal have already but may also bring with them the skills and abilities to finally help Arsenal return to glory. Arsene Wenger’s swan song is fast approaching, with definite confirmation coming soon. If he is given another go, as currently expected, maybe the answer is an old dog using an old trick (the pilfering of the best talent in France) to claw back to the top.
N’est-ce pas génial?