Ligue 1 and French football in general has a reputation for developing young talent within the European men’s game. Smaller Ligue 1 clubs, in particular, don’t have much in the way of financial resources, so they tend to bank on finding future stars through their academies to keep themselves sustainable.
The idea of placing large emphasis on the academy does also extend to the big clubs in France such as Stade Rennais, Olympique Lyonnais, and Paris Saint-Germain as they’re major talent producers in their own right (although PSG tend to sell their highly touted prospects early). A quick glance at some of France’s recent U21 sides goes to show how much young talent France produces.
There’s also a historical element to this, as some of the best players of the past 30 years began their careers in French football. Thierry Henry made his debut at 17, playing predominantly as a winger before transforming into a superstar at Arsenal. Karim Benzema came along during the tail end of Lyon’s dynasty in the 2000s and quickly hit the ground running by 2007. Few young talents in the history of football ever ascended to the level Kylian Mbappé reached in his early years.
European clubs feel a certain level of confidence when acquiring young players from France as there’ve been enough successful transfers over the years. Aurélien Tchouaméni’s move to Real Madrid is the most recent example and he’s so far lived up to the hype. William Saliba and Gabriel Magalhães are mainstays in defence for a young Arsenal side that might win their first Premier League title since 2004. Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa was a very talented midfielder for Marseille in his early 20s and he’s a big reason why Napoli are on course to win their first Serie A title since 1990. There’s a lot of talent within the French top divisions.
As we’re deep into the 2022-23 season, it’s time to highlight three young Ligue 1 talents currently plying their trade who could become household names in the near future.
Rayan Cherki’s name has been talked about within France for quite some time. Some have even mentioned him as the best prospect to come through Olympique Lyonnais’ academy since Benzema. Part of that stemmed from him getting his first taste of action with the senior team in 2019-20 aged just 15, which in of itself might be a decent indicator for how highly rated a prospect he is. Despite this, his playing time has been limited over the years until the last couple of months.
Smooth would be an appropriate adjective when describing Cherki’s game. His skillset is tailor-made for the No. 10 position. Cherki consistently scans his surroundings to find pockets of space in the interior to make things happen; his touch when receiving can at times look effortless; and he’s very shifty as a dribbler. Trying to dispossess him is a nightmare.
Although no one would classify the Frenchman as a speedster, he can dictate tempo just enough through subtle changes of pace during carries to keep opponents off balance.
Going into matchweek 24, no player in Ligue 1 had generated more shots following a ball carry per 90 minutes than Cherki at 2.0.
The touch he’s got as a passer helps complement his ball carrying even more. He can attract multiple opponents before getting the ball to a team-mate with a pass that doesn’t break their running stride. What also makes him such an intriguing prospect is his comfort passing and shooting with either foot, which opens up more angles than others of his archetype.
He’ll try disguised passes in the middle third and reverse passes into the box in the final third and look convincing doing so. His goal against Stade Brestois from a few weeks ago was an example of the upside he has as a two-footed shooter.
Add that all up, and it’s not surprising to see Cherki’s name at the top of Ligue 1 in terms of attacking sequence involvements per 90. It’s an impressive feat when considering the talent currently in the league.
It’ll be interesting to see how Cherki develops in the years to come. His profile as a floating playmaker with high final-third usage and defensive question marks is one that’s less coveted at the highest level of play.
However, his technical abilities might be at a level where he’s the outlier who makes it work.
Whether his development continues at Lyon beyond this season is anyone’s guess. Between previous rumours of him considering his future when minutes were scarce under Rudi Garcia and especially Peter Bosz, PSG placing a transfer bid for his services in January, and his contract only running until 2025, it’s no certainty he’ll be playing at the Groupama Stadium for the 2023-24 season. Lyon losing a young talent of Rayan Cherki’s calibre so early without playing him a ton would be a considerable setback.
We’ve reached a point in European football where it’s hard for teams with aspirations to get into the top tier to have full-backs who have question marks over their attacking output. Whether they’re strictly of the overlapping variety or also play in the half spaces, full-backs on possession-heavy sides can’t be passengers going forward. Even if they may have question marks as individual defenders, their attacking value can often more than make up for it on aggregate. The hope for Quentin Merlin is he continues to evolve into that calibre of attacking threat. He’s been one of the better full-backs in Ligue 1 in terms of helping progress play into the final third, which is impressive given Nantes don’t often find themselves in that territory.
Merlin isn’t that dangerous going forwards when he tries to beat opponents from a standing start. He’s more comfortable drifting inwards with the ball once an opponent tries to close him down, and from there he is able to find a short pass between the lines.
His progressive pass map below shows he’s adept and making quick, incisive passes from the flank into the left half-space in the final third.
Another asset Merlin brings is his skill as one of Ligue 1’s best aerial passers from open play and set pieces.
There are a few question marks with Merlin’s defending. In one-vs-ones, he has a tendency to bite on fake crosses, leading to him getting turned around and conceding space in behind.
That said, that defensive conservatism also allows him to stay on his feet and not gamble with needless sliding tackles. His off-ball awareness when defending is decent, although there are instances of him ball watching and losing track of runs being made around his area.
Merlin’s passing is intriguing enough that it would be nice to see him play at a club that has a more proactive approach in possession. With his contract reportedly running until 2026 and Nantes in good position to avoid relegation this season, a sizeable transfer bid would likely be required to acquire him this summer. It wouldn’t be a bad idea for a bigger club to try and acquire Merlin soon though, to see if there’s further untapped potential with his creative output.
Okay, confession time. Here at Opta Analyst, we’ve got a storied love affair with Loïs Openda. A stellar campaign last season saw him make our Eredivisie team of the season and we touted him as a player to watch ahead of 2022-23.
This season RC Lens have arguably been the best story in Ligue 1. Until a recent tough stretch of results, the club appeared to be in a solid position to secure a Champions League spot, their best league finish since winning the title in 1998. A brave tactical framework and smart recruitment have allowed the club to punch above their weight since returning to the first tier of French football in 2020-21.
Part of that smart recruitment involved acquiring Loïs Openda over the summer, after his successful two-year loan stint with Vitesse in the Eredivisie.
The Eredivisie isn’t always the easiest league to scout when it comes to attacking talents. Making the switch to a more physical league with less space can lead to growing pains, but that hasn’t yet been the case for Openda.
The Belgian currently leads the entire league for non-penalty expected goals per 90 minutes at 0.63.
Openda’s quickness without the ball is apparent when watching him. He’ll try to take advantage of high lines by curving his runs in behind or making sharp diagonal sprints towards the middle. A common off-ball move from Openda is to start in an offside position before getting back onside to sprint towards the six-yard box once he senses an opportunity for a cross to be delivered. He’ll even have occasional moments where he creates space for others to run into by moving across the final third and dragging his marker with him. The double movements that some of the best strikers utilize aren’t yet consistently in his repertoire, which would make him even more of a threat against low blocks.
The on-ball value Openda contributes at this point is decent but not yet noteworthy, which is a bit of a concern given he’s a shorter centre forward. At this point in his career, he’s a tertiary playmaker in the final third who can contribute the occasional high-end pass into the box.
While he’s not someone who constantly plays with his back to goal, he can hold his own on occasion and make quick lay-offs. The massive dip in his take-on success % this season (down to 14.3% from 32.7% at Vietesse) could very well be an outlier, although if he’s not able to consistently use his athleticism to create opportunities on the ball against stiffer competition, that would further limit his ceiling.
Even with those concerns, Lens have done well in finding a medium-long term solution at the striker position. Openda’s off-ball movement, especially in artificial transitions, has worked well with the impressive amount of very good passers on the squad. If his dribbling and individual ball progression production return to the levels seen with Vitesse last season, along with further improvements off the ball, he could end up being one of the most formidable attackers in Ligue 1.
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