The Next Pogba: Midfield’s Future in France

On the heels of Paul Pogba’s record-setting transfer to Manchester United, a raft of clubs have already started scouring the French professional ranks for the next big thing. While the moves of the likes of Jordan Veretout, Henri Saivet and Remy Cabella haven’t exactly been resounding successes, the allure of pulling a prospect or a more polished player has surely been boosted by the seasons that Andre Ayew, Riyad Mahrez and Dimitri Payet had in the Premier League a year ago. Two of those three had moved from the more highly regarded environs of Marseille, but Mahrez was plucked from Pogba’s club, Le Havre, providing further motivation for scouts to head to France.

Already this transfer window, Le Havre have seen another promising young player, Lys Mousset, move to Bournemouth for the astronomical (by Ligue 2 standards) sum of €6.5M. The amount paid by the English side is exceeded only by the move of Sebastien Frey to Inter Milan for €14M in 1998, and Jean-Philippe Gbamin (€5M to Mainz) and Aissa Mandi (€4M to Real Betis) were also lost abroad from France’s second division. While Mousset is an attacking player and Mandi a central defender, Gbamin is only one of a number of central midfielders of French origin who, like Pogba, may lack a defined position, but have undeniable talent. Some of them (Gbamin, Remi Walter) are more perfunctory, while others (Corentin Tolisso, Vincent Koziello) have more in their locker going forward. In writing this piece, there is no suggestion that all (or any) of these players will reach the level of the former Juventus player, only to demonstrate the riches in central midfield in France.

Tiemoue Bakayoko, AS Monaco

Somewhat hindered by injuries and the presence of former France internationals Jeremy Toulalan and Geoffrey Kondogbia in the past, this season has all the makings of a grand arrival for Bakayoko. Much like the Inter Milan man, Bakayoko is a big, sturdy player, who brings a physical presence without sacrificing mobility. He may not offer as much going forward as Kondogbia, whose rampaging runs made him a thrilling presence at the Stade Louis II, but his assuredness in the tackle makes him a fine shield for a back four. He likewise lacks the vision of Toulalan in terms of his passing, but that may yet develop, especially as Monaco don’t call upon their central midfielders in that manner in their current system.

Monaco having now qualified for the group stages of the Champions League, his role and importance in tight matches make him an ideal fit for Leonardo Jardim’s new-look 4-4-1-1. Playing alongside Fabinho in the middle of the park, Bakayoko shook off an iffy performance away at Fenerbahce to turn in three impressive matches in the return leg and against Villarreal. His combativeness and interplay with the Brazilian has been key to conceding just two goals in their last four matches, the pair’s defensive abilities allowing a fully overhauled back four the necessary time to gel. Ahead of him, the likes of Thomas Lemar and Bernardo Silva can play with more confidence knowing that they can focus on their attacking duties with the big former xx player behind them. Capped by France at xx level, Bakayoko’s ceiling is hard to determine, having only become first choice this season, but among this list of players, his defensive qualities arguably shine brightest. That, and Monaco’s seemingly renewed European ambitions, give him a good chance at being an integral part of the national team, perhaps forming a defensively-oriented midfield pairing alongside N’Golo Kante.

Jean-Philippe Gbamin, Mainz 05

RC Lens are one of France’s sleeping giants, enjoying raucous support in a well-appointed stadium, a national title in 1997-8 and one of the country’s finest academies. The likes of Serge Aurier, Raphael Varane and Kondogbia are among the club’s more recent graduates, and Gbamin may be ready to join their ranks. Along with Wylian Cyprien, Gbamin made a big move away from the northern club this summer, to German side Mainz. The road between France and Germany isn’t an exceptionally well-trodden one, but former Metz right back Gaetan Bussmann and ex-Guingamp ‘keeper Jonas Lossl are also in Martin Schimdt’s charge at the Opel Arena.

With Julian Baumgartlinger having departed for Bayer Leverkusen in the summer, there is a huge opportunity for Gbamin at a club which finished an impressive sixth in last season’s Bundesliga. With European football guaranteed for the Rhineland club, there will be plenty of matches to play, and the 20-year-old should have his chance as one of two holding players in Schmidt’s preferred 4-2-3-1. Originally played as a center back or right back, Gbamin was moved forward into midfield last season by Antoine Kombouare, to great effect. An energetic and pacy presence, Gbamin’s play can suffer from unnecessary errors, but by moving him forward, Kombouare was able to emphasize the strong parts of the player’s style while limiting any repercussions. German football is a much higher standard of play than Ligue 2, though, and with Gbamin having missed a large chunk of last season due to a knee injury, it will be down to the player to make up for lost time and justify his massive fee.

Morgan Sanson, Montpellier HSC

Much like Bakayoko, Sanson’s career has been hampered by injury, although playing under considerably less pressure at Montpellier. His first managers there, Jean Fernandez and Rolland Courbis, allowed him to develop without fear of mistakes, and when fit, he shows signs of being a complete box-to-box midfielder. Brought in from Ligue 2 side Le Mans for just €700,000, Sanson has blossomed in the past few seasons, contributing goals, assists and a superb ability in the tackle.

Given the importance placed on being able to play counterattacking football in the modern game, Sanson makes a compelling case study for the adaptability of French talent. Originally drafted in as a playmaker, injury to Jamel Saihi forced Sanson into a deeper role, and he sparkled, playing 33 matches that season, an integral part of a Montepllier team that was still reeling from the loss of key players from their title-winning side. Adept with the ball at his feet and more likely to link play by winning a tackle and developing the attack with short passes, Sanson was given freedom alongside Benjamin Stambouli to join in the attack when necessary, forming a strong bond with Remy Cabella.

Cabella’s departure to Newcastle, then, rather than hindering the player, only brought out more of his attacking qualities, scoring six goals before his injury to finish third on the team. His passing, as his assist tallies indicate, still is in need of improvement, but as he and La Paillade’s current no. 10 Ryad Boudebouz further their chemistry, that should improve. His discipline, a fairly major issue in Ligue 2, is much improved, as are his tackling rates. Just 22 last week, Sanson’s injury stunted his development badly last season, and he is still suffering from a lack of form. Superb against Angers in the opening fixture, he was decidedly less impressive in last Sunday’s defeat to Saint-Etienne. Still, though, with Montpellier unlikely to be among the relegation candidates this year, if he can find the form of eighteen months ago, his star may yet shine again.

Ludovic Blas, EA Guingamp

Ligue 1 will probably never shake its reputation as a place from which to harvest young talent, but Guingamp laid down a serious marker as to their philosophy recently, signing Blas to a two-year extension. One of the breakout stars of the summer’s European U-19 Championships, Blas has yet to make a mark with his club, but given the proclivity of his new manager, Antoine Kombouare, to put faith in young talent, the feeling is that his emergence can continue apace. With Guingamp looking strong in the season’s early going, Blas will be given ample opportunity to develop, striving to stake his claim to be Younousse Sankhare’s replacement.

An energetic, box-to-box midfielder in the mould of Blaise Matuidi, Blas certainly has the tools to accomplish this. Whereas Matuidi is played on the left side of midfield, Blas has more versatility in his game, being a bit more cultured on the ball than the PSG man. His two assists and two goals in the tournament this summer are fine evidence of this, but conversely his defensive contributions are also in need of improvement. In the France squad, with Lucas Tousart behind him in a 4-3-3, this was less of an issue, but in Guingamp’s 4-4-2, the central players have much more defensive responsibility, making Lucas Deaux and Mustapha Diallo the favorites at present. The pair will be hard to supplant, but if Blas can achieve this as part of a strong season for the Breton club, that extension may serve only as a means to raise his transfer fee.

Wylan Cyprien, OGC Nice

One of a series of intriguing young talents at Nice, the former Lens player is part of a decided movement towards youth at the Cote d’Azur club. Along with Remi Walter, Arnaud Lusamba, Malang Sarr, Yoan Cardinale and Vincent Koziello, new manager Lucien Favre is firmly invested in giving chances to young players, and with a pair of 1-0 results in the books, the club are joint level at the top of the division. Cyprien has figured both matches, starting on the right of a 4-3-3 against Angers and replacing Vincent Marcel against Rennes. This position is something new for Cyprien, but he has taken to it like a duck to water, demonstrating an impressive versatility.

Last season at Lens, Cyprien generally played as a central midfielder in a similar formation, his performances being impressive enough to win him the captain’s armband towards the end of the season. Contributing seven goals, his move to a new position is largely down to the well-established midfield three of Walter, Koziello and Jean Michael Seri at Nice, but while his offensive numbers may suffer as a result of playing wide, his impact on the side should be a positive one. At Nice, Alassane Plea will function as the attack’s focal point, with Lusamba or Valentin Eysseric providing balance. A more dogged player than Eysseric, Cyprien projects as a Moussa Sissoko-type, capable in attack when called upon but also unafraid to do the dirty work when necessary, his lean, powerful frame giving him an advantage compared to most wide players.

Remi Walter, OGC Nice

Another recent arrival to the Allianz Riviera, Walter was brought in last winter from Ligue 2 side Nancy. A vastly experienced youth international, his skill set is more firmly in line with the likes of Gbamin or Bakayoko than the sometimes flashy likes of Koziello or Blas. Still, despite a lack of creative flair, the price of just €1M was deemed surprisingly low, given Walter had been a regular at Nancy since the beginning of the 2013-14 season. Just 18 at the time, his solidity in front of the back line was key toward his former club’s push for promotion, while his versatility meant that Nice were to be less over-reliant on the midfield trio of Nampalys Mendy, Jean Michael Seri and Vincent Koziello. He featured intermittently (only six starts) in the run-in, though, an understandable situation given the impressive play the aforementioned trio demonstrated.

Even so, that the club would let Mendy go says much for the confidence the club have in his role going forward, even if he hasn’t started but one match this season. Lucien Favre´s appraisal of his players is still in a state of flux, as his tactical plan, Walter may yet be a key cog, but in a callow and unsettled team, there will naturally be some time needed. Superb in the tackle, if not as physical as a holding midfielder might be, Walter’s best quality is more of his ability to hold onto the ball and run with it, meaning that he is probably best in a 4-3-3 to act as a shuttle or in a 4-2-3-1 alongside a more imposing player. As yet, Favre has favored a 4-1-4-1 but with the window still open, things may change, hopefully in Walter’s favor, allowing him to more fully demonstrate his abilities.

Corentin Tolisso, Olympique Lyonnais

Arguably the most successful of any of these players, Tolisso has been, despite the headlines generated by the likes of Alexandre Lacazette and Nabil Fekir, probably the key player in Lyon’s recent resurgence. His importance to the team was clearly underlined this summer, with Napoli offering a rumoured €26M, only to find themselves rebuffed. Originally used at right back, Tolisso came into his own in Hubert Fournier’s diamond 4-4-2, playing as the left midfielder. Equally adept in a 4-3-3 and able to do a job in a holding role, Tolisso’s biggest asset is his maturity. The captain of France’s under-21 squad, Tolisso should be seen as the natural successor to Blaise Matuidi, an important piece for Les Bleus moving forward.

While not lacking the defensive concentration and nous of high-energy players as Matuidi and Kante, Tolisso brings a refined quality to central midfield. Physically strong despite his slight frame, Tolisso makes up for his lack of pace with an elegance in the tackle and a strong positional sense. Having scored thirteen goals to go with nine assists and only six bookings in the roughly two seasons during which he has been a mainstay in the starting eleven, Tolisso struggled last season with injury, but his markedly improved play under Bruno Genesio was the catalyst for Lyon’s winter resurgence. With the club having retained all of their key players save Samuel Umtiti, some are tipping Lyon for a tilt at the title in Ligue 1. Given the financial might of Paris Saint-Germain, that remains unlikely, but if Les Gones can make the race more competitive, Tolisso will almost certainly be an integral part of it.

Adrien Rabiot, Paris Saint-Germain

Rabiot is perhaps the most intriguing player on this list, not least for the level of his club and his age. Still just 21, the lanky midfielder is likely best known to football fans in England for his goal which helped seal Chelsea’s elimination in last year’s Champions League. Casual observers of French football will also surely recall his two dismissals against Lille last season, one in the opening match and one in the Coupe de la Ligue final. The truth is that Rabiot is both better than those bookings, if not quite at the level of being a Champions League regular. Big, fast, strong, and a surprisingly adept dribbler of the ball, his positioning and tackling are still a work in progress, but this season will be a watershed for the youngster.

With new manager Unai Emery seemingly preferring a 4-2-3-1, there was more than a hint that Rabiot´s place in the team was under fire, even if Blaise Matuidi does depart. The arrival of Grzegorz Krychowiak from Sevilla as a more orthodox and defensively sound central midfielder, with Marco Verratti likely his partner, meant that Rabiot, so adept in a 4-3-3 last season, might find himself on the bench with increasing frequency. His versatility to play any of the three midfield spots in that formation worked to a large degree to his credit, but he will never be in line to displace the likes of Javier Pastore or the wide players. Sunday’s loss to Monaco, however, saw Emery revert to a 4-3-3, with Rabiot playing on the right on midfield. The manager may be yet to settle on a tactical system, but Rabiot has been superb no matter the formation, displaying a refined approach to the game that is perhaps prompted by his inclusion in Didier Deschamps’ provisional squad ahead of the European Championships. If this level of focus and determination continues, Rabiot has every chance of international success.

Valentin Rongier, FC Nantes

Rongier is arguably one of the lesser-known names on this list, but he is also one of the most intriguing. A hugely influential figure alongside Lucas Deaux in midfield, his season was cut short in October by a ruptured cruciate ligament, a disappointing development after missing a handful of matches the previous season owing to hamstring issues. Now fully fit, Rongier is showing once again why, despite suffering to some degree under the oppressive defensive philosophy of Michel Der Zakarian, his box-to-box style is so highly regarded. Whereas he had often played in a two-man midfield alongside Deaux, the arrival of Rene Girard has seen the introduction of a more attack-minded 4-3-3, with Rongier played opposite Amine Harit as one of the two central midfielders, with Guillaume Gillet deployed deeper.

Signed to the club until 2020, along with Harit, right back Leo Dubois and ‘keeper Maxime Dupe, Rongier is one of many reasons the club’s supporters have kept faith despite some difficult times. Despite his small frame, the youngster has a combative streak, and is a fine tackler, without being a liability as regards his discipline. His distribution is also strong, whether linking play on the counter or playing a long ball, and he is also unafraid to have a shot. Given his size, energy and willingness to run, he has drawn comparisons to Blaise Matuidi, albeit with a bit more craft in his dribbling. With Girard’s confidence and a more forward-thinking tactical approach, if Rongier can continue his fitness, his name will likely be much better known come this time next year.

Vincent Koziello, OGC Nice

Despite his boyish features and slight frame, Nice’s Vincent Koziello has displayed a remarkable maturity since bursting onto the scene in 2014. Used sparingly that season, he really came into his own last campaign, being played on the right of a diamond under Claude Puel. Clever with the ball at his feet, and a shrewd passer in tight areas, Koziello is also a willing worker defensively. Still not the most imposing physically, he nonetheless ranked third on the team in tackles (and first in fouls committed), revealing a willingness to do the dirty work when necessary, an especially important contribution alongside the likes of Hatem Ben Arfa and Jean Michael Seri, two players not exactly renowned for their workrates.

With Ben Arfa, Nampalys Mendy and Valere Germain all departed, this season Koziello has been employed as a more creative player. The potential arrival of Clement Grenier may yet upset things in that regard, but the move is driven by more than necessity. His movement constant, his energy and intelligence in making runs is the bedrock of his success, and with the pacy likes of fullback Ricardo Pereira, Wylan Cyprien and Alassane Plea in close proximity, his creativity will allow Les Aiglons to recover from the loss of Ben Arfa more readily. Still just 20, Koziello recently received his first call-up to the Under-21 squad. While he is unlikely to feature much alongside the likes of Rabiot, Tolisso and Bakayoko, that he has been moved up a level ahead of the more experienced Sanson and Cyprien speaks volumes as to what’s expected of him.

Five More to Watch

Even with ten exceptional young midfielders listed, there are still even more talents in the pipeline in France. These five players could all have made this list on a different day, and could all find themselves on the move come the winter or next summer.

  • Amine Harit, FC Nantes
  • Yann Bodiger, Toulouse FC
  • Alexis Blin, Toulouse FC
  • Olivier Kemen, Olympique Lyonnais
  • Christopher Nkunku, Paris Saint-Germain