Scouting Ligue 1 Beyond The top 4: Five Potential Gems for European Clubs
It’s been proven over the past few years just how much Ligue 1 has become a shopping ground for affordable high upside talent. The list of talented young Ligue 1 starlets that have made the jump to bigger clubs is long and illustrious. In some ways, Ligue 1 is a more dependable version of what the Eredivisie has become: both leagues gives loads of time to youngster but for a host of reasons, there’s been a better success rate from France.
What makes Ligue 1 interesting isn’t just the talented youngsters you’ll find from the big 4 clubs: PSG/Monaco/Marseille/Lyon, but from the rest of the division. Amine Harit, Ousmane Dembélé, Raphaël Guerreiro, Clement Lenglet, Steve Mounié: there are credible young talents that exist outside of the Big 4 in Ligue 1. Obviously, players as good as Dembélé don’t come around too often as he’s a potential generational talent, but there are credible youngsters that could be had for affordable prices given the context of how out of balance the transfer market seems to be.
With that in mind, I wanted to look at 5 players who might have potential to become something noteworthy in the future, whether it be that they move abroad right away or even just move up the food chain and ply their trade at one of the big 4 clubs in Ligue 1. We’re going to have some ground rules when doing this exercise:
- As the title suggests, we’re not going to include players who are contracted to one of the big 4 clubs in Ligue 1 whether they’re at their parent club currently or on loan somewhere else. The purpose of this exercise is looking for diamonds in the rough, and it gets a bit boring just looking at young players who exist within the elite bracket of French football.
- No team will have more than one representative in this list. Admittedly, this could be viewed as a worthless rule, but considering that we’re limiting this to only five players + the genuine depth of talent in the league, it would seem fairer to include this caveat.
- Every player listed on here is 23 or under as of March 14, 2018.
With that in mind, let’s get to it.
Ismaila Sarr (Rennes)
You would be forgiven for not watching Rennes on a regular basis, even though they have some intriguing young talents, and have been getting better in Ligue 1 as the season has gone on. Outside Dembele’s emergence as a phenom in 2016, Rennes haven’t really mattered over the past few years and unless one of their young players break out and become a household name, that’s not going to change anytime soon.
Ismalia Sarr might be that U23 talent that makes the leap. For a team with Rennes’ finances, spending £15M on a then 19 year old talent from Metz was quite the gamble, especially when his numbers were rather ordinary even given the context of his age + Metz being really bad. It’s looking to be a worthwhile gamble though as Sarr’s performance this season have been promising and there’s even been the scattering of rumors involving Barcelona keeping an eye on his development after their approach last summer.
What makes Sarr an intriguing young talent is that he has flashed the intersection of elite speed + ability to separate himself form his marker, completing 66.7% of his 5 attempted dribbles per 90 minutes. The dude can straight up fly when he’s got it going, and he’s got enough balance and shiftiness in the way he moves to pull off multiple dribbling sequences in a short span of time. If there’s one thing that Sarr has that reminds you a bit of Dembélé, it’s in this department.
There are probably people out there who have made the comparisons between what Sarr has been doing this season versus what Dembele did in 15–16, and we should really nip that in the bud before this becomes a bigger thing in the future. For one, Dembélé has genuine equity as a two-footed player, which Sarr doesn’t have much of. Dembélé was much more of a dual threat in terms of shooting and creating in addition to being close to two years younger than what Sarr is currently, while Sarr is much more of a shoot first type of player. Dembélé was a freak of nature, and even if you’re super high on what Sarr could be, I just don’t think he has freak level of potential.
Despite all of that, Sarr is a talented young player who’s clearly improved over what he produced last season. With the increase of talent level he’s playing with, all his numbers have grown by a substantial amount. While he doesn’t have equity as a two footed player, he has potential to be a dual threat as both an inverted winger or something resembling a second striker because of his speed and relatively decent shot discipline. It can be mesmerizing just how much ground he covers when he’s running at top gear, and he might be someone who can constantly blow by any non-elite defender. It’s probably in his best interest to stay another season at Rennes if they keep the same core together for 2018–19, but we’ve seen more and more super young Ligue 1 talents make moves abroad over the past couple of seasons. I could see teams thinking of Sarr as a high upside bet, and it would be better to get him now before he makes “the leap" and becomes out of their price range.
Wylan Cyprien (Nice)
The hype surrounding Wylan Cyprien before his ACL tear last season was massive, and you could see why so many people were excited about his prospects as a player. In addition to the fact that Nice were hanging around the Ligue 1 title race until the beginning of spring, he checked off a lot of what you would want from a modern day #8: speed, ability to be a dual threat as both a passer and shot taker, dribbling capabilities. He didn’t profile so much as an all around midfielder because his defensive output was rather low, and he overperformed xG numbers, but there was a lot to like with his game.
It was fair to wonder whether Cyprien would come back as the same player considering the severity of his injury. While a torn ACL in 2018 isn’t the death sentence it was in 1998, that’s still a major hurdle to come back from and some don’t ever make it back to their previous self. A lot of the value that Cyprien brought was amplified because of the dynamism he had that complimented his vast on-ball skills, his ability to shrug off markers and then cover ground with his runs afterwards. If those were compromised, his ceiling would be lowered.
It’s only been 478 minutes of league play since coming back from injury, so we’re still gathering more information. His statistical output since coming back has look more or less mirrored what he was producing last season which is encouraging, and at the very least there’s enough evidence to suggest that even with some potential athleticism lost due to injury, Cyprien is the same dynamic passer that he was last season.
Yves Bissouma (Lille)
I must admit that when Yves Bissouma was being linked to Tottenham Hotspur in December, I was rather surprised at that happening. Considering that 638 of the 1786 career Ligue 1 minutes that Bissouma have played has come as a sub, and we know that sub effects are a real thing that can distort statistical production, it seemed like Tottenham could do better than gambling on a young player from arguably the worst team in Ligue 1 this season.
This isn’t to say that Bissouma isn’t talented as a 21 year old, because he is. The fact that he’s also played spot duty as a right back is interesting, though Lille have been so messed up this season that I don’t know how much you can take away from that. France is constantly pumping out athletic midfielders like a factory, and Bissouma definitely fits that archetype. He’s able to undergo defensive actions in different areas of the pitch, and immediately help the team transition the ball whether it be with his own dribbling or one of his teammates collect the ball.
In addition to his physical prowess, he’s shown to be a valuable asset during possession play with his ability to pick out long passes. His shot selection is bordering on Andros Townsend levels of awful, but perhaps some of that is due to the environment he’s playing in. There’s something there with Bissouma, though I’m not sure if it’s anything great.
Jonathan Bamba (Saint-Etienne)
The intrigue with Jonathan Bamba is that you don’t often see noted youngsters run their contract until expiration. The fact that it’s mid-march and no contract has been signed seems like this will end in Bamba leaving on a Bosman transfer, which has been reported by certain outlets. Considering how much Saint Etienne have declined over the past few years, you can’t exactly blame a 21 year old for thinking there’s a better place to grow and become a better version of themselves, though one of the clubs linked to his services was West Ham and they haven’t exactly been a club known for stability.
What you’re getting with Bamba is a guy with potential to convert into a full time striker with his ability to beat opponent’s backlines because of his speed, this being his first season of consistently playing as a lone forward. I don’t think he’s anything special in terms of creating space from his dribbling, his shot selection can be quite erratic though it’s fair to wonder how much is that because of him or the environment he’s been playing in, and he’s not been an elite chance creator to date. The fact that it won’t cost a transfer fee to acquire his services makes it that lower level PL clubs could kick around the possibility of getting him, but I’m not sure he’ll grade out any better than “solid”.
Nordi Mukiele (Montpellier)
In 2018, having a ball playing centerback is such a luxury because it can help mitigate potential problems in terms of passing by the midfielders. If you’ve got midfielders who can’t pass to save their lives, having a CB that can help alleviate some of those problems is a life saver. Mukiele is interesting because he’s played significant minutes at both right-back and center-back, so there’s already intrigue by having someone who could operate in two positions. I’m not quite sure if he would have that positional equity against tougher competition, but it’s a possibility and he’s clearly very mobile for the CB position.
Even with all the advances that have been made in video scouting + data analysis, CB scouting isn’t the exact science that it is at other positions. Outside of goalkeeping, it’s one of the biggest blind spots going. You have to factor in the type of system they play in and how much could they translate. Hell, even the littlest things like which foot do they lead with while defending could be dissected. However, this isn’t to say that it’s an impossible task, because there’s been good writing in the public sphere towards scouting central defenders and making it more of an exact science.
All of this is to say that I’m not sure how good Mukiele is. Maybe he’s the next Samuel Umtiti and turns out to be an awesome defender who plays at a big club once he gets to age 23–24, or he could turn top out as a decent Ligue 1 defender but nothing much more than that. All I will say is that I’m definitely intrigued by the combination of mobility + passing that Mukiele appears to possess, and teams in need of a CB should do more rigorous scouting on the guy.
Truthfully, this list could’ve gone to ~10 players, which is a credit to how deep the young talent pool is in Ligue 1. We didn’t include more well known guys like Malang Sarr, an intriguing young defender who also has a combination of mobility + passing. Alexandre Mendy has been a consistent performer in the limited minutes he’s had over the past two seasons, Allan Saint-Maxamin has been making subtle progress as a player with better quality of teammates. Ligue 1 is ridiculous stacked with young talents, and doubly so when you include the ones who are in the big 4.
As for the five players discussed in this piece, I’m a bit hesitant to say that any of these guys will turn out to be star level players. It could be argued that Sarr has the highest upside out of all the players listed because his elite level speed and dribbling exploits allow him a higher ceiling than some in his age group, and we’ve already seen that his level of play increases when surrounded by talented teammates. Mukiele could be someone with genuine positional versatility, fits the mold of what you want from a modern day CB, and that position has such scarcity in football that you’ll be ahead of the game if you have a promising young central defender. Assuming Cyprien is fully healthy and nothing physically has been lost from the knee injury, he’s probably the most ready out of the group to make a move to a big-ish club, but he’s also 23 years old so there’s less theoretical room for improvement left in his game.
I think all five of these guys are going to have successful careers, and perhaps someone from the group turns out to become a star, which isn’t an impossible scenario even if I do have reservations about that happening. But the fact that we’re even contemplating that potential outcome is a credit to the depth of young talent that exists in Ligue 1.