10 of the most exciting young football players to watch in Ligue 1 in 2013, rising stars breaking through in France. Part of The 10 Series brought to you by Just-Football.com. Follow this link for an introduction to The 10 Series (including criteria) and here for 10 of the best young players in Italy:
Wissam Ben Yedder
(Toulouse FC, 22 years old)
Wissam Ben Yedder’s transformation from fringe player to one of the most exciting young attackers in Ligue 1 has been nothing short of remarkable. In fact it is more than a transformation, it is a complete reinvention.
At the end of the 2011/12 season the 22-year-old Ben Yedder was no more than a young reserve winger with a trick or two up his sleeve playing second fiddle to the likes of Daniel Braaten, Paulo Machado and Adrien Regattin – happy with the odd substitute appearance here and there.
A tactical switch in the summer however changed his fate. After the failed transfer and subsequent release of Turkish international striker Umut Bulut, Toulouse manager Alain Casanova had just one striker on the books, Emmanuel Riviere, and needed one desperately. Instead he bought no-one, preferring to move Ben Yedder, a futsal star turned academy graduate, from left wing to central striker.
It was a stroke of genius. Ben Yedder has burst onto the scene with his deft touch, technical mastery and surprisingly cool finishing, and his 9 goals so far make him one of Ligue 1′s top scorers in his breakthrough season.
(Lille OSC, 19 years old)
In what has so far been a season filled with disappointments for Lille, very few players can look back at their individual performances with any real satisfaction. Lucas Digne however is one who can be proud of his season to date, as his rapid rise into a real star of this LOSC team continues.
Digne only made his debut for Lille in October 2011, a product of Les Dogues’ academy after joining at 13. But in a short space of time the dynamic full back has grown into a player of real promise, rocketing from fourth to first choice left back in no time at all and attracting interest from the very top European clubs already.
Digne has all the attributes required of the modern full back. Dynamic, rapid, extremely athletic and very good offensively, the French Under-19 international has done so well that Lille recently extended his contract until 2017, no doubt to increase his value in the event of any potential sale in the next few years. Mentally he is also very focused and composed on the pitch, and his manager Rudi Garcia describes his maturity at such a young age as ‘reminiscent of a young Eden Hazard.’ Lucas Digne is definitely one to watch.
(Saint-Etienne, 18 years old)
Kurt Zouma’s progress at Saint-Etienne this season has been hindered to a certain extent due to recurring knee trouble, but the eight games he has played so far this season have only served to affirm the 18-year-old’s truly impressive raw abilities.
Zouma’s physical attributes are what stand him out right now; a towering hulk of a centre back even at 16 when he made his debut. At 6’2 you would expect him to dominate aerially, but his timing of aerial challenges is often perfect, even if positionally he still has a lot to learn along the ground.
Described as ‘like a young Philippe Mexes’ by teammate Jean-Pascal Mignot, the youngster has already been the subject of bids from both Manchester City and QPR. Showing a level-head and intelligence that should hold him in good stead Zouma sensibly turned a move to City down, stating that for the foreseeable future he would ‘prefer to grow here’ – words that came as music to Sainté supporters ears.
Zouma is already quite the cult figure at Saint-Etienne and is no shrinking violet, already increasingly influential in the dressing room despite his young age.
(Montpellier, 22 years old)
Younes Belhanda and Olivier Giroud may have been the main headling-grabbing stars of Montpellier’s championship winning campaign last season, but MHSC were more than a two-man team. 22-year-old Remy Cabella was part of an excellent supporting cast, and with Belhanda’s dip in form this season and Giroud’s departure Cabella has emerged as one of Montpellier’s key men.
Club president Louis Nicollin admits he wasn’t a big fan of Cabella to begin with. “I wouldn’t say I didn’t like him but, I don’t know, I wasn’t feeling him” Nicollin told France Football at the start of the season. “But there’s been a realisation on his part,” says Nicollin. Since Belhanda left for the Africa Cup of Nations in January Cabella has only continued to grow in stature.
A box of tricks, the speedy right winger can also play from a more central attacking midfield position. 5 goals and 3 assists so far this season is a decent return that shows signs of Cabella’s improving confidence and creativity.
(Bastia, 21 years old)
As one of the key components of Bastia’s expansive, entertaining, promotion-winning campaign last season it was baffling to see 21-year-old attacking midfielder/winger Wahbi Khazri relegated to the bench at the start of this season by manager Frederic Hantz. Hantz was seeking a balance in his team that meant Khazri was often left out early on, but the Franco-Tunisian quickly made it impossible for his manager to leave him out with some excellent performances and decisive play in attacking areas.
Khazri can play on either flank or behind the striker and is practically a natural in all three positions. His intelligence, both tactically and on the ball, stand him out while his ability from set pieces is magnificent, as demonstrated via a thumping free kick against Bordeaux earlier in the season.
Recently named in Tunisia’s Africa Cup of Nations preliminary squad, the uncapped youngster has yet to decide whether to represent France or the Carthage Eagles at international level. Either way, he is a rising star in Ligue 1 and has adapted to top-flight French football almost immediately.
(Olympique Lyonnais, 21 years old)
Gueida Fofana has not found it easy to establish himself since he joined Lyon from the talent factory of Le Havre in the summer of 2011, but the signs are that he is beginning to little by little. The former France Under-20 captain looked to have turned a corner at the start of the season, starting Lyon’s first three league games in midfield before the signing of Steed Malbranque.
Malbranque’s immediate impact curbed Fofana’s progress to an extent, but his performances in OL’s Europa League campaign impressed his manager Remi Garde enough to push Fofana ahead of summer signing Arnold Mvuemba in the midfield pecking order. Signed as a defensive midfield alternative to Maxime Gonalons, it soon became apparent to Lyon’s coaching staff that the youngster’s attributes were more suited to that of a midfielder passer and builder of play than a destroyer.
Fofana’s character and maturity are also very important mental attributes that stand him out. “His exemplary attitude in training allows him to progress” Garde has said in praise of the player once coveted by Real Madrid. “I know I can count on him when I need him.”
(Toulouse FC, 20 years old)
Serge Aurier made his debut for Lens at just 16 and in a short space of time has already grown into one of the most exciting young players in Ligue 1. A marauding, swashbuckling full back, predominantly a right back but who can also deputise at left back, Aurier signed for Toulouse in January 2012 after spending half a season in Ligue 2 with Lens following their relegation in 2011.
Since joining TFC he has already established himself as one of their best players. His energy and strength down the right, both defensively and going forward, have added a new dimension to Alain Casanova’s side and the Ivorian has all the physical attributes required to succeed in the modern game. Quick, athletic and fearsome in the challenge, his performances have got better and better with experience and he is already being watched by several top European clubs, with Arsenal particularly keen.
The technical side of his game is extremely impressive; his performance at the Parc des Princes earlier this season springs to mind, when despite Toulouse’s 2-0 defeat Aurier looked every inch the type of player capable of playing for PSG, putting their own full backs Christophe Jallet and Maxwell to shame. Tactically he can still improve, but having just turned 20 Aurier is definitely one to keep an eye on.
(Olympique Lyonnais, 19 years old)
Samuel Umtiti only made his full debut for Lyon on the 8th January of this year, in the Coupe de France against lowly Lyon-Duchère. The Cameroon-born defender soon won Remi Garde’s confidence however, featuring increasingly regularly as part of Garde’s rebuilding at the fallen giants of OL and progressing enough to start the Coupe de la Ligue (League Cup) final against Marseille.
After an excellent campaign at the Under-19 European Championships in the summer, where Umtiti acted as vice captain behind Paul Pogba, the 19-year-old’s star continued to rise in 2012-13. Initially played at left back, injury to Dejan Lovren handed Umtiti his chance at the heart of defence and since November the teenager has since become a first team regular – so good in fact that up to December 12th of this season he was the best tackler in Ligue 1 according to statisticians Opta, with an 85% tackle success rate in 558 minutes of football.
Lyon’s presidential advisor Bernard Lacombe likens Umtiti to a young Eric Abidal and the academy graduate has certainly improved physically in recent months. He has become more combative and reliable in the tackle while maintaining the extremely encouraging technical qualities he possesses with the ball at his feet. Umtiti looks like yet another successful product of Lyon’s brilliant academy.
(Stade Rennais, 23 years old)
What makes Rennes’ summer signing Romain Alessandrini such an exciting, wonderful young player to watch? Let’s start with his array of truly brilliant goals. When it comes to hitting the back of the net Alessandrini has a penchant for the spectacular. His left foot is like a carving knife and paintbrush all in one, as capable of delicate finesse as it is thrashing a football with the force of a jackhammer.
Another impressive aspect of Alessandrini’s game is his decisiveness at key moments. Rennes have often been accused of being a bit lightweight mentally in the past, even by their own manager. This season however Frederic Antonetti’s side have shown themselves to be tougher and more resilient, and Alessandrini has played a big part in that.
The key goal to put them 2-1 up at Nancy, the opener at the Parc des Princes where they won 2-1 at PSG with 9 men, an 88th minute winner v Troyes in the Coupe de la Ligue quarter final; Alessandrini has stepped up at big moments of the season for Rennes since joining from Clermont Foot – an important characteristic of any great player. He’s not there yet, but the Marseille-born man is certainly turning heads.
(Paris Saint-Germain, 20 years old)
“The guy who has surprised me most since the start of the season is Marco Verratti. Although I played in Italy last season I’d never heard of him because he was playing in the second division. I agree with everything positive being said about him. In fact I would say he’s even better than people think.”
“In buying him PSG have made a very good investment. Verratti has an immense talent, now he just needs time to progress at his own pace. People shouldn’t forget he’s only just turned 20.”
As the man who once said Pep Guardiola had ‘no balls’, Zlatan Ibrahimovic does not do empty platitudes. So his words on Verratti above come as very high praise indeed. The Italian dazzled in the early part of the season; Ibra’s delight in the youngster’s pinpoint long and short range passing was often visible as he ran to embrace Verratti after getting on the end of one of his many passes. Thiago Motta’s return from injury has restricted Verratti’s gametime, but the former Pescara star has what it takes.
For more on Verratti see also: Champions League 2012-2013 players to watch.
(Honourable mentions: Adrien Rabiot, Florian Thauvin, Yassine Benzia, Fabrice N’Sakala)