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This is something I meant to do for some time, but personal reasons have stopped me from doing. If you recall, last year I sent Tim my top 15 youngsters who impressed me the most from the Ligue 1 2021/22 season. Fair to say that some of these players have demonstrated their ability to push further (ahem Saliba), some others just did not quite press on. The beauty of writing these short articles is that every year new players are showing up, and this season is a very good one (I think).
Before I start, here is a whistle stop tour of the top 15 from last year:
15: Evann Guessand. Mainly used a sub, never pressed on.
14: Da Costa. Barred by Sotoca, I am questioning his future at Lens.
13: Ali cho. Signed for Sociedad, barely used this season.
12: Gusto. Signed for Chelsea in January, his career has probably ended then.
11: Kabore. Signed for Marseille, barred by Clauss.
10: Thuram. Expected to sign for Liverpool this summer.
9: Merlin. Not helped in Nantes system, a LB who should be a midfield. Zinchenko anyone?
8: Doku. See this season top 15.
7: Cherki. See this season top 15.
6: Sulemana. Now plays in Championship.
5: Kalimuendo. Preferred the Lens version.
4: Onana. There is a player in him, not sure we’ll see the best at Everton.
3: Saliba. In one season, he destroyed the PL.
2: Lukeba. See this season top 15.
1: Ekitike. Why did you sign for PSG?
Now for this year’s list….
15 – Elye Wahi (Montpellier)
I am 100% convinced he will get a big transfer this summer, but I am also convinced this will not be for a top 4 club in the PL. Touted as one of the most lethal attacking propositions for France U21 right now, I just cannot stop thinking that if he was THAT good, why would then a 7 goals a season Kalimuendo start ahead of him? And the answer might be that, aside from being a finisher, I am not seeing Wahi as being any good at anything else. Since his first season with Montpellier he consistently outperformed his xG, this season going ballistic with 18 goals scored against a predicted 11nP xG (which is the highest overperformance for any strikers this season). I think any club signing him is taking a massive risk that this 22/23 season is nothing more than a massive outlier in his career. For me, Montpellier needs to cash in and fast.
14- Carlos Baleba (Lille)
Not the most minutes played in this Top15 but every time I saw him playing, I have been impressed. Typically barred by the most experienced Andre in the middle of the park for Lille, he is a player that tends to make the most of his playing time. Baleba is a player who impresses with his physicality. He is a powerful runner who can break the lines with incredible drive, and once he is motoring, he is very difficult to stop. I have always loved a midfield dotted with higher than average explosivity and this is what Baleba brings to the game. Still very raw, but only 19 years old, I hope he can gain more time in 2023/24 under Fonseca. He needs to work on his decision making in the final third. Once he has done that, it will be very difficult to ignore him any longer.
13- Ismaël Doukouré (Strasbourg)
Another player touted for a move to a more prominent club this season (Newcastle seems to be interested, but with Chelsea’s reported interest, it would not surprise if we were to see him in blue in the short term). Doukouré is a very modern type of CB. Active on the ball, he is comfortable in multiple positions (played at CB, RB and CDM this season). He is a typical French trained CB, ball carrier always looking to progress the play through the opposition lines. Indeed, his progressive carries are well above average, notably helped by some game time as a RB and CDM, however he is still very active when deployed in his CB position. Defensively, he is an active defender, competing for the ball using his speed and agile footwork. I am not entirely sure if his future will see him competing for a CB position (fairly short for a CB) or deployed in a more advanced role. Nonetheless, he is one of the most talented players in Ligue 1 this season (of course, otherwise he would not be in this top 15).
12- Sael Kumbedi (Lyon)
This one is a bit of a curve ball. Kumbedi was part of Le Havre Academy (a club close to my heart) and just like Isaak Touré, I have spent maybe way too much time watching their games with the desire to see them succeed. Kumbedi benefitted from Gusto’s injury (and transfer to Chelsea) to gain playing time at Lyon under Blanc. Smaller than Gusto, Kumbedi uses his low centre of gravity to transfer his power to ground quickly. One of the most athletic FB at his age, he still has to develop his defensive play one on one, indeed he is too often out of position, but nothing that cannot be taught by the club. So yes, he is extremely raw but his ceiling is possibly higher than Gusto. With Lyon finishing outside of Europe for next season, and Malo leaving for Chelsea, I am expecting that Sael will benefit from more game time which will be beneficial for his development.
11- Habib Diarra (Strasbourg)
At 19 years old, Habib Diarra is possibly one of the least known players on this list, yet his importance for Strasbourg this season was most predominant during the run-in where he was not far from being their best player. Deployed in the midfield, Diarra is one of the most technical players at his age in France. Press resistant, fast, agile, and capable of a wicked shot, he is already touted for a transfer to the PL. Unlike Baleba, Diarra has the knack for the last pass whether it is low through the defence or over the defensive lines. The talent is there, and I hope he’ll stay in France for one more season in order to develop further. Time will tell, but I fear he will be on his way out sooner than later.
10- Johann Lepenant (Lyon)
Before his transfer to Lyon, Lepenant was touted as one of the most promising midfielders in France and I think his first season with Lyon was starting to demonstrate just that. The second part of the season is more difficult for Johann and I think the upcoming season will be key. Johann is not a big and powerful player, but he is more than adept in his defensive function, using a good football brain to anticipate the play, he has more than decent stats in tackling and ball recovery. When he is in form, Johann makes football look easy; gather, recycle, progress. The jump from Ligue 2 to Ligue 1 was a big step for him and he struggled at times to fully deliver, often described as slightly fragile mentally. Still a very young player with a big responsibility in a big club, I wish for him to stay at Lyon for the foreseeable future, because the talent is there.
9- Jeremy Doku (Rennes)
When he is on the ball, no one can stop Jeremy Doku. To me Doku is nothing less than the best one on one winger in the world right now. Imagine having in your team a player capable of taking on a defender 11 times per game with a success rate of 60% and over? Everything about him is top quality winger play. So why is he not higher in the list or at a top European club like Vinicius? Well, the “small-ish” problem with Doku is that he just cannot stay fit for significant sequences of games per season. Played 30 games this season for 1200 minutes (last season less than 500 minutes), Doku is struggling with fitness and has been since he joined Rennes. All is not lost though. For the first time in a long time, he managed to play 8 games back-to-back and he had a stormer in the run-in. If he can keep fit, Doku is one of the most exciting players in Europe these days, period!
8- Badredine Bouanani (Nice)
A younger version of Mahrez (just watch this space) Badredine has taken Ligue 1 by storm. Used sparingly in the first half of the season, like a few players at Lyon, Badredine benefitted from saying goodbye to Favre in order to gain game time. This has helped him show his immense talent on a more constant basis. So, who is this unknown Bouanani? Nice signed him from Lille academy a couple of years ago. Under Favre he did not play any minutes. Under Digard he played 800 minutes and finished the season with 4 assists. Exclusively playing on his left foot, he is what we call in France “un feu follet” (will-o-the-wisp). Small in stature but quite quick footed, Badredine is the definition of these ultra active and highly technical football players that only Algeria seems to produce. He is only 18 years old, but whether passing or dribbling, his left foot is an absolute threat. To completely fulfil the Marhez comparison, Badredine needs to work on his finishing as well as being more active in the defensive zones. If he does that, I can see him becoming much more involved in the first team next season.
7- Castello Lukeba (Lyon)
He was my #2 young player of the season last year. This year he is not in the top 5. For me the main reason behind this drop is that aside from playing more minutes with Lyon, I have not seen a stark improvement vs. last year. I dared comparing him to Saliba last season and placed him slightly ahead of him mainly due to his age. If we now compare this season, Saliba and Lukeba have some strong similarities, but one has been doing it in the second-best team in England and the other one has struggled a bit earlier in the season for a team finishing outside of the Top 5 in France. Still, Lukeba is a very interesting prospect and a player I would describe as a very typical French CB: strong ability on the ball, always in favour of progressing the play, comfortable in taking on the opposition. Lukeba is geared towards a top club in the future, in the meantime he is talked about at Leipzig as a potential replacement for Gvardiol. He will feature in the French International team in the not too distant future.
6- Eliesse Ben Seghir (Monaco)
Another player who played most of his minutes during the second half of the season. Ben Seghir is mainly deployed as a CF, but can also play on the wing. For me, he is the complete opposite of Wahi. When one is only mastering the art of scoring, the other is an all-active CF with a huge ability to be involved defensively. For such a young age, he has an already well-developed muscular mass and used it proficiently in both defensive and attacking action of play. Press resistant, Ben Seghir is not your typical 9 or 10 and I would favour him in a hybrid 9.5 role. He is not the most explosive player on the planet, but his football IQ is above average allowing him to create space between himself and the defenders marking him. He clearly has to work on his finishing, but when he does, Ben Seghir will be the striker that many European clubs will want to have on their books.
5- Désiré Doué (Rennes)
Clearly one of the players I have a lot of expectations to break into one of the top European prospects in the future. Not far from being a generational talent, Désiré is touted by many in France to become one of the key elements for France in the coming years. The main reasons behind it, and aside from the intrinsic talent of the kid, is that Désiré plays in a position which France has been missing for years. His best position is when he occupies the space between the opposition midfield and the defence, where he can accelerate the play, define the tempo, look for the final pass or go all the way by himself. His technical level is well above average for a kid of his age. He needs to improve his passing and his final ball, but I am pretty sure this will come. Used pretty much all over the place for Rennes this season, I hope that he will finally find his best position and the coach will stick with it. For me he has some similarities with KDB and I can only hope he’ll reach the same level (wishful thinking I know). For the time being, he needs game time, defined positioning and a lot of hard work because this kid’s potential is nothing short of phenomenal.
4- Rayan Cherki (Lyon)
What can I say, on a good day, Rayan is the best talent in France, period. The issue is that Rayan allows his talent to do the talking far more than his physicality. For someone who is built like a Wayne Rooney, he too often disappears from the game, but when he is on it, his numbers are scary. Top 5% in Ligue 1, in shot creating action with 6 per match, Top 1% in progressive carries, successful take-ons, touches in the penalty area, and progressive pass received. Rayan is one of the most talented creators in French football right now and the key reason why the top European clubs are not looking at him more closely right now is because I still believe that Rayan is a little lazy (or just physically limited). When he wants to ignite the play, he will use his extraordinary technical ability and vision to do just that. Do not expect him to be bothered to help the team on the defensive recoveries though. He has clearly exploded this season under Blanc, and I am looking forward to seeing him play a full season under the same coach. Will Cherki become the French Messi or the next Ben Arfa? The jury is still out but the talent is scary.
3- Bradley Barcola (Lyon)
If anyone would have told me at the beginning of the season that Barcola would finish the season that high in this list, I would have thought this was a joke. I was not entirely convinced when Blanc became the new Lyon manager, but boy has he done proper work with the youths there. Lepenant, Kumbedi, Lukeba, Cherki, Barcola, a whole list of kids who have benefitted from him joining the club. Deployed on the left side of the attack by Laurent Blanc, Bradley is also able to play on the right side of the attack. Gifted with a strong right foot, Bradley is one of these typical wingers able to drive the play into the box either by accelerating along the touch line or by bringing the ball inside on his right foot. Not the most explosive player on the first step, but his acceleration is phenomenal and rare are the defenders able to cope with him over 5 to 10 meters. What impressed me the most this season is that he used to be the type of winger dropping all the time and asking for the ball to feet. Nowadays, Bradley is capable of making the most of the space behind the defender by asking the ball to be delivered deep. To me that denotes a certain maturity and ability to learn quickly. Another attribute I like with this kid is his generosity in the defensive phases which probably denotes something strong about his personality.
2- Nuno Mendes (PSG)
One player I did not want to include last season because I am always a little wary of how good a player looks like in a team which is dominating the league. This season was a lot more difficult for PSG (marginally) and they have definitely been put under a lot more pressure (marginally) than the previous years. From that perspective, I cannot ignore how good Mendes has played this season. Actually I could not ignore anymore how good Mendes is! At such a young age, Mendes is already one of the top LB in Europe. Going forward he reminds me of Hakimi or Alphonso Davies. As a pure one on one defender, I think he is better than the both of them. Mendes is not only technical but he is fast. Offensively, he can kill you with his run along the touch line or he can literally drop you by cutting inside and opening the play that way. Close to the box, his final ball and crosses are generally well above average and he is able to create dangerous final balls from a wide range of positions on the pitch. Defensively, I think he still needs to improve his spatial awareness. Too often he allows the opposition to play in the space left behind him, however as a one-on-one defender he is relentless and very hard to destabilise. Give him one or two years and he will be THE LB that every club will want to sign.
1- Warren Zaïre-Emery (PSG)
Let’s be clear, I have not hyped a player that much in France since… Saliba. As a midfielder, maybe I have not seen such talent since Zidane. I am aware I am gearing myself to be demonstrated as a fool in the coming years but I TRULY believe that this kid is special. At 17yo, he became the youngest scorer in PSG history in Ligue 1 and the youngest ever player to start a UCL game. I knew the kid was mature for his age, but he is literally making a mockery of what being ahead of the curve means. Since a young age, Warren has always been moved up in his age category (A bit like Saliba). What’s more remarkable is that at barely 17 years of age, he already looked like a more developed player than most of the more senior players in the team. From a muscular point of view, his upper body strength is phenomenal for his age and does not allow to be bullied too easily. Predominantly playing in the youth team as a CDM, he has been deployed in many different positions for PSG this season, and every time he looked comfortable. The last time I saw a player who exploded into the first team that early was Cesc, and I loved Cesc (still love him). I could very easily foresee the same trajectory for Warren and if his physicality remains at the level it is right now, I cannot see many young players able to deal with him in the coming years. Warren was used to dictate the play with all the youth teams he has been involved with and he’ll have to learn to adapt into a less prominent role at PSG. This however does not worry me. Warren is known at PSG for being a very astute and dedicated player, often getting to training well ahead of time and asking for extra work post training sessions. Strength wise, he is a player with a highly developed IQ, he always brings himself as an option to give the ball to, he has an ability to understand the space on the pitch that he makes it easy. He likes the ball and the ball is attracted to him. His vision is great, his passing accuracy is above average, he knows when to drop the tempo and when to accelerate the play. Pressure resistant he is capable of dribbling in small spaces as well as flying into space if the occasions present itself. This kid is insane. Never seemed to be phased by the occasion he was one of PSG’s bright spots during their UCL games against Bayern. His mentality, desire and drive are absolutely phenomenal for his age. If I have to bank on one of the players listed to become world class, I would absolutely say that Warren will be one of the biggest names in football in the coming years. Exciting time for France for sure.