Fair to say that as usual the French league is “pétri de talents” and I felt the urge to share some of these names with you all. As per usual, this list is subjective, I might leave some of the talents out of the list and by no means this list is an absolute gauge of quality. I mean, I am known for saying once on twitter:”I am not convinced by N’kunku”. That in itself should bring some balance to the argumentation below. To be part of the list, I have focused only on the players born 2001 and below, therefore a player like Saliba is considered as the upper limit of what I am looking for here. Caqueret who is one of my favourite player in Ligue 1 right now will not make the list, not because of his talent, but his age…
Anyway, let’s start with the list… hope you’ll enjoy it!
15 – Evann Guessand (Nice)
At first, I went for Badiashile but the lack of improvement from last year to this year pushed me away from this choice. He is also a bit of a wild card because of his lack of playing time, but I like the profile. Product of the Nice Academy, he was loaned last year to the Swiss SuperLeague where he was fairly successful for his club Lausanne. This season he has played a few games and the sample is still fairly limited. Fairly tall (1.85m), his physical abilities are supplemented by excellent technical abilities. His volume of shots per 90 dropped significantly this year however I think he is getting into better position allowing him to be more efficient in the final third. Definitely one to watch in the future and at 20yo there is still room to grow. Next season has to be a breakout season for me, I think there is space upfront for him to make his mark.
14- David Pereira Da Costa (Lens)
Not the most talented player on this list but much more of what we call in France, “Un coup de Coeur”. I actually feel that he might be too limited physically to impose himself in other systems/league and clearly he is benefitting from the Frank Haise system at Lens. Aesthetically, he is a beautiful player to watch, very pleasing (seriously just watch Lens and you’ll see what I mean). Tactically he is the typical model of the player finding space in between the lines, smooth and sweet on the ball. However, it also feels that the system has to be just right which might be a limitation on his career prospects. Will he develop further than Lens? I am not so sure. The only caveat to his development is that he is quite a late developer (this season is his first real season) and with Kakuta getting towards the end of his career he could possibly be one of the key player for Haise and Lens in the coming seasons.
13- Mohamed Ali-Cho (Angers)
One of the youngest players in the list and my one to watch at the beginning of this 2021/2022 season. And honestly, I could not have been more smug after seeing his performances at the start of the season. His first two months were close to unbelievable for a player of his age and I recall how much this was talked about in France. What was reassuring was the fact that the sample was sufficient to make you feel that he would develop even more. I think he will. His technical abilities are really interesting, excellent in pressing and in ball progression, Cho is the type of explosive striker being able to eliminate his opponent on his first step. Actually his first step is devastating. From the outside he looks frail but in reality, he has this capacity to resist to the physical contact when 1-on-1 vs the defenders. The most recent games are more difficult for him but then again, you do have to consider his age profile before being too concerned. In the long run, I hope he will improve on his finishing where he is currently in the 56th percentile of the non penalty expected goals. The qualities are there and the upside is extremely high. I feel that he could benefit from a move away from Angers (which has been one of the worst team in Ligue 1 these last months).
12- Malo Gusto (Lyon)
Not far from being one of my new favourite player of the season, “mon chouchou de cette année”. So why so low? Still lacking minutes even if he started more than 10 games as a starter this season. Top 5% in pressures, top 5% in tackles, top 10% in progressive carries, he is definitely a proactive defender (he was actually trained as a wide midfielder). Weaknesses? They all tend to be defensively focused but at this age there is still a lot of time to work on these. We have seen other FB/RWB being so important offensively that some relative weakness defensively are often swept under the carpet (TAA anyone?). He has this capacity to whip the ball in the box which makes him an interesting support on the right side of the attacking lines. At this stage of his career and with Dubois failing to impress the stats and the fans at Lyon, it is pretty clear that Dubois’ minutes will drop next season and Gusto will benefit from it. The wing play at Lyon has also been a problem this season and Gusto could benefit from a player on his side. Faivre could have been the option, it would appear now that Tete might be the one. If there is only one to watch next season, just watch him, I think the sky is the limit for this kid. I have rarely seen a talent of that sort in France and that’s pretty exciting for the future.
11- Issa Kabore (Troyes)
Another RB, another progressive player. I truly loved him during the CAN with Burkina Faso and I would absolutely love seeing him in a progressive system such as Sampaoli with Marseille. Offensively his start of the season with Battles was probably better than the recent weeks, but what I like about him is his ability to dribble. Offensively I think he is slightly better than Gusto when isolated on a 1-on-1. I think he is the type of player who needs to move away from Troyes and I would not be surprised that his stats would improve significantly if he was in a stronger team. Typically the type of offensive RWB who would find difficult to adapt to a back 4 team, he is gifted with one of the best crossing quality in France at his position where he can basically whip the ball pretty much anywhere he wants to. Similarly to Gusto, he does struggle defensively and unless we see a significant progression next year I fear the top of Ligue 1 might be the ceiling for Kabore.
10- Kephren Thuram (Nice)
On the face of it Thuram should be better than he is, but his qualities on the pitch are just phenomenal for such a young player. He is a player who has the ability to project forward, where he is top15% in the progressive carries in Europe right now. He can score, he can pass, he can carry the ball, he can dribble, if only he could be as interested by the defensive duties and we would have one of the best midfielder in France right now. Typical double pivot with an interest in progressing the ball, he brings something different to a team at this post. Putting my Arsenal head on, I would very easily seeing him playing alongside Partey in a double pivot where he could bring some of the progressive carries that we might lack since Guendouzi left the team alongside a stronger interest for defensive duties.
9- Quentin Merlin (Nantes)
Bit of an odd one since Merlin is basically a freshman in this list. First real season at this level he is growing in stature in a Nantes team which has seduced me this season. I might sound like a broken record, but another progressive FB, but this time playing on the left side of the pitch. Top 5% in progressive passes, he is benefitting from a positive game plan at Nantes. Extremely strong on the tackle for such a small frame (1.73m), extremely active on the pressures, he is an absolute poison for the opposition. Needs to improve on his ball delivery and explosivity. Possibly better suited to a back 4. With 1 goals and 2 assists this season, I am keen to see him stay at Nantes next season and to develop in this system.
8- Jeremy Doku (Rennes)
I know, I am probably falling for the hype, but hey, he might be leaving at the end of the season so it is worth mentioning his name in this list. He is a player who has seduced me. Extremely active on the wing at Rennes I feel he is a player destined for a move to a top club in Germany (Like Dortmund). Top 1% in progressive carries, Top 1% in completed dribbles, Top 5% in touches in the penalty box. I mean if you want an exciting wide player, do not look any further. My main concern with him? his fitness. Played less than 500 minutes in Ligue 1 this season, he is not far from becoming the Zion Williamson of Ligue 1. We know the talent is there but we might never be able to appreciate it due to him being injured all the time. I really like what he offers… when he plays. He is one dimensional but a bit like St-Maximin, the one dimension is like another dimension altogether.
7- Ryan Cherki (Lyon)
Again another player that I start to have more and more doubt about. I love the talent and I sincerely hope he comes good. All the stats are pointing towards a very special player here. My worry is that he has been for many years one of the biggest hype in France since Ben Arfa and I am worried he might end up following the same path. The talent is there, there is no doubt about it, but I do not see much progression on his game time from last year to this year. I mean, if you have a talent of that sort on your team and your team struggles on the wide open play, why not giving him more minutes? This is all baffling to me. For me next season has to be his season otherwise we will start to seriously question his ability to translate his talent to the first XI of a Ligue 1 team. Again, the talent is there. Offensively we know what he brings by being in the top 10% in a wide range of categories (I mean look at the Fbref list of similar players to him for Christ sake). The real caveat to his talent is that defensively his stats are just awful, the pressures being possibly one of the main issue I have with the player. It is one thing to agree for Neymar not to be involved defensively, it is another for Cherki to feel that he can basically do the same thing. I once remembered a kid who was told that he is too talented to waste in talent defending… this kid was Ben Arfa and I do worry if this might be the road Cherki takes rather than say a Neymar or Di Maria.
6- Kamaldeen Sulemana (Rennes)
Another Rennes player who is pretty much injured all the time (what the hell do they do at Rennes? Good team, great system but my god get yourself a new physio!). Anyway, when Rennes signed him (and Doku) I could not be more excited to see what these two players could achieve on the pitch together. Well I could not have predicted that both of them would basically be out of action for so long that we barely seen them together on the pitch. On the face value, Doku would be a more interesting proposition for a top team, but I think that if you dig a little further, Sulemana would probably appear to be the best proposition. I find him as being a more complete and creative player to Doku, someone who has more intrinseque qualities to be able to adapt to a wide variety of systems and Leagues. He is also far more interested by the defensive duties than Doku, even though I would not describe him as anything else than competent. Less of a dribbling machine than Doku in a way that I think he playing style is more vertical and direct than Doku Sulemana is natural ball in feet. I do not see him moving away from Rennes this summer, but he might benefit from Doku moving away (which I think is most likely).
5- Arnaud Kalimuendo (Lens)
The subject of one of the craziest transfer story from last summer where PSG paid Lens to get him back at the club (after agreeing the loan) to then loan him back to Lens. All very bizarre. So why Kalimuendo? I think this is one of these players where the stats look worse than the contribution of the player on the pitch. Nothing in him is calling for world class but yet his impact on the pitch by the way he links the play, retains the ball is excellent. Quite small in stature, he reminds me of Lacazette in the way that he can play off the other players and how multifaceted he is. Similar to our own AL#9, Arnaud is struggling in front of the goal with an offensive return to be quite disappointing even though he managed to score 7 goals this season. If he can improve on his finishing by means of improving on his shot creation + selfishness in front of the goal, I think we may have a player on our hand here. In terms of comparison, I think David / Lacazette might be the closest to his style, left to see if he will reach the same number of goals in open play than David (who is two years older than him).
4- Amadou Onana (Lille)
Remember when Vieira used to travel across the pitch thinking that he was not moving but no one could get any close to him? Well, this is Onana for you. The kid is massive, 1.95m and for someone with such a big frame he has this unique ability to move elegantly across the pitch. I am not sure what he cannot do but what he can do is excellent and nothing short of exciting for the future. At that age and to be so comfortable in pretty much any position of the midfield is so rare that I have no superlative to describe how much I love this player. We signed Sambi, but I just would love we had some interest in this player. For me the reasons why he is not playing more at Lille is a bit of a mystery because I think he is so uniquely talented and better that Soumare for example who left last summer for Leicester. Strong in the tackle, strong in the air, his technical aptitude on the ball is also interesting for someone with such a big frame. A player that can play in pretty much any system and clearly destined to a major transfer in the next few years. Some of the stats might appear to question his ability, but the system at Lille is not really geared towards making the most of his talent. He needs to be unleashed and I cannot wait for that. His ceiling is high.
3- William Saliba (Marseille)
I know, I know, being an Arsenal fan, it would have been easy for me to put Saliba as my number one. And to be fair I thought about it and questioned my choices for ages. But in every player, there is a caveat and Saliba is no different than anyone else. So why third on the list? 85% of the time, you watch him and you would say that this player is world class, he oozes quality, remember the tackle on M’Bappe? His ability on the ball is by far one of the best in France. Top 5% in pass completion, Top 10% in progressive passes, Top 5% in progressive carries, Top 5% in dribble completed. Everything is pointing the finger towards a player who is capable to organise the play from the back, and be progressive. For someone of his size, he is a lot quicker across the pitch that you would think. So what is the issue? I would say, his only real weakness is his concentration (I recall for example the Galatasaray Europa League where he cost the game to Marseille, one lapse of concentration and it is a goal for the opposition). So yes, 85% of the time he is excellent and a world beater but the other 15% (I might be exaggerating here), his concentration fails him and he will wander out of position, costing his team goals and/or points. Normally this is something that will sort itself out with age, but we have seen with Upamecano that no matter your experience, these traits of character can linger for years. I am confident that this is something can be sorted out and if it was the case, we would have one of the most dominant CB in Europe. Selected for France, I would not be surprised if he was selected for the world cup in Qatar. So am I still raving about our own WS? For sure I am but I am also slightly worried that the patience he might have experienced around his lapses of concentration at Marseille may not be present at Arsenal where he is expected to be finished article. There is work to be done, that’s for sure. Final point: he could also improve in the air, lowest 10% in Europe right now which is dreadful for someone of his size.
2- Castello Lukeba (Lyon)
Probably surprising that I have put another CB ahead of Saliba and I really think that frankly speaking there is not a lot to distinguish one from another. His ball ability is incredible, imagine a better Umtiti, imagine a player born in 2002 who is already the best CB at Lyon. In the starting 11 at Lyon at such a young age, what impresses me the most with him is his ability to organise the play, punchy, able on the ball etc… Smaller than Saliba but better in the air, he is also incredibly focused and does not show the lack of concentration that Saliba might experience once in a while. Intelligent player, he has this ability to cover the ground, not the fastest but always ahead of the game. The sample size of games is still too low to really know how far he can go and possibly one of his main weakness may be his ability to cover the ground when the ball is played deep. A Saliba can cover the ground with speed against runner like M’Bappe, I fear that Lukeba does not have the speed. For me Lukeba and Saliba will be the ones to watch in the future in terms of young French CB. Right now, Saliba is ahead of Lukeba, but both have work to be done in order to iron out some of their weaknesses.
1 – Hugo Ekitike (Reims)
What has been said about Ekitike that is still to be said? Already in demand across Europe, and if all is well he has all the tools to become one of the best strikers in Europe. Often compared to Isak, which I think has much more to do with the frame than the actual game play. When Isak is reasonably well placed statistically for both offensive contributions and use of the ball (albeit rarely in the top 15% across Europe according to Fbref), Isak defensive contributions are close to inexistant where he is never above the low 30% in pressures, tackles, interceptions etc… Ekitike is no Isak. He is 3 years younger and his defensive contribution is possibly what strikes me the most. He has a good engine and speed which allows him to be in the top 20% in both tackles and pressures vs. forwards across the 5 big EU leagues. Top 1% in interceptions, he is an incredible athlete who would be extremely useful as the main spark to initiating the pressure on the pitch. Good dribbler, top 6% in Europe, top 8% in a Reims team which does not create that many goals opportunities, it is difficult to see a lot of issues with his game play. His shot creation is decent and could be improved but he has this ability to create a goal out of nothing. His decision making could be better at times and his final ball is often not the best but yet again the tools are there and I am looking forward to see how far he will go. My only worry is whether he will resist the call of the poor career choice and easy money.