Les Bleus boast an astonishing raft of talent right now thanks in no small part to Lyon’s prolific youth academy which is showing no signs of slowing down, writes Matthew Spiro.
Few coaches have a tougher task than Didier Deschamps in the coming months. The France boss must chose five names from the following to leave out of his World Cup squad: Kylian Mbappé, Ousmane Dembélé, Dimitri Payet, Antoine Griezmann, Olivier Giroud, Alexandre Lacazette, Nabil Fekir, Kingsley Coman, Florian Thauvin, Kévin Gameiro, Karim Benzema and Anthony Martial… rather you than me, Didier!
No other nation – Brazil included – can match Les Bleus when it comes to attacking talent at the moment, and while the selection process will doubtless cause Deschamps a headache, his glittering array of options are evidence that the French game is in rude health.
OL on point
For this, one club deserves particular praise. On Tuesday night, when France came to within seconds of beating the world champions in Germany, Lyon’s incredible youth academy came to the fore. Anthony Martial (who left for Monaco aged 17) set up Alexandre Lacazette for the opening goal. Lacazette, another Lyon graduate, who scored 100 league goals before joining Arsenal in the summer, added a second after the interval.
At centre-back, Samuel Umtiti looked so strong and commanding he is now being tipped for a starting berth in Russia – as is midfield dynamo Corentin Tolisso, who impressed once more in Cologne. Umtiti and Tolisso may play for Barcelona and Bayern Munich respectively, but they have both been marked emphatically with the Lyon seal of approval.
Fekir firing on all cylinders
The player probably talked about most in the media this week didn’t even get on. Indeed Deschamps’ reluctance to give Nabil Fekir more playing time in the friendlies against Wales and Germany has sparked frustration amongst observers. Lyon’s latest home-grown star and current captain won the Ligue 1 player of the month award for October and has arguably been the best player in the country so far this season. His time will come and hopefully sooner rather than later.
Lyon’s ability to produce top players isn’t a recent phenomenon. Ludovic Giuly and Frédéric Kanouté came through in the 1990s, Karim Benzema and Hatem Ben Arfa were the stars of the noughties. Yet never before has the academy been quite so consistently prolific. With the club financing the construction of a new stadium, long-serving president Jean-Michel Aulas has insisted on placing a greater accent on development – and the results have been extraordinary.
Just the beginning?
Lacazette, Fekir, Tolisso, Anthony Lopes, Martial and Umtiti could be considered the first harvest, but history may prove that they were merely the start. The current crop of kids is generating great excitement at the Rhone Valley club. “Right now we have three of four youngsters who can go on to do as well or even better than Karim Benzema,” Aulas told me in the summer.
He didn’t name names but I am assuming Houssem Aouar is one those players. The local-born midfielder, 19, has looked sensationally good on the seven occasions he has played in Ligue 1 this term. Lyon have succeeded in tying Aouar down to a professional contract despite the interest of Liverpool, and Aulas hopes another gem, Willem Geubbels, will follow suit. Still just 16, the striker is drawing comparisons with Kylian Mbappé and Manchester City are already hovering.
The current rise of Aouar might help convince Geubbels to sign his first professional deal with OL. This is a club that has become a specialist in detecting, nurturing, developing and blooding elite youth talent. Deschamps and supporters of the French national team are already grateful for that.