France is recognised as a fantastic breeding ground for top young footballers – but by the time a player is 21 or 22 years old he can be known around the world thanks to information being so freely available via the internet. As a result there are very few ‘unknowns’ in football any more.
That said, there are some teenagers who have burst on to the French football scene recently that you may not have heard of, either because they play for small clubs or have made very few appearances.
Here is our rundown of 10 teenagers to watch in Ligue 1 over the next 12 months. Some of them are already on their way to the top while others have some way to go – but what they all have in common is immense potential.
It is remarkable Rabiot is still only 19. On the books of Manchester City at 13, he already has 50 Ligue 1 appearances to his name. A tall, elegant midfielder, he never looks out-of-place alongside Thiago Motta and Marco Verratti, underlining his talent and maturity. Confident rather than arrogant, he has lovely passing ability on his stronger left foot. The next stage in his development is to be more decisive – four goals and three assists is a limited return in 2,371 minutes of Ligue 1 action. But those figures will improve as he becomes more important to PSG, with whom he is under contract until 2019. A future France international – and, right now, the stand-out teenager in French football.
How good is Divock Origi? Difficult to say. He has immense potential – eye-watering pace, power and an ability to produce something from nothing – but can also make basic errors on and off the ball. At times he’ll have you on the edge of your seat, at others tearing out your hair. Most effective on the wing, he may develop into a central striker once his understanding of that position improves. He may also be more effective after joining Liverpool: the Premier League’s more open, frantic nature will play to his strengths. Brendan Rodgers’ claim that Origi can be one of the most exciting players in the world may have sounded hyperbolic – but if and when Origi’s considerable assets align, Rodgers may be right.
This St Etienne teenager is one of the most exciting talents to have burst on to the French scene in the past couple of years. A quick, strong and direct attacker, he can play centrally or on the wings and has not looked out of place in a potential top-six side when he has featured this season. His movement, acceleration and touch are all good, but what makes him stand out is his awareness of team-mates. Like all teenagers Saint-Maximin occasionally dwells on the ball too long but this does not happen often as he generally makes the right decision about when to release the ball. A lively interviewee, too, he has brought a dash of colour and quality to this St Etienne side.
Injuries have heavily disrupted Lopes’ season but he has still played often enough to show flashes of brilliance. On loan from Manchester City, the Portugal U21 international finds space beautifully between the lines, takes the ball effortlessly on the half-turn and has good vision and awareness in the final third. Two-footed, he also takes fine set-pieces and is focused on the collective at all times. The Brazil-born playmaker has developed good upper body strength and become more difficult to dispossess but needs to add a touch more precision to his passing in tight spaces. That Lille have greater variety in the opposition half when he plays is beyond doubt, though, and his staying fit could be vital for 2014-15 to end satisfactorily for the northern outfit.
Guillaume is a throwback to the days when centre-forwards bullied centre-halves into submission and gave goalkeepers nightmares. When the heavily-built, 1.90m striker goes up against you physically, you know about it – but there’s more to the Belgian teenager’s game than bulk and height. His touch and mobility are better than he is given credit for, to the extent that he sometimes plays as a deep-lying attacker rather than Lens’ most advanced striker. Voted the best player in Lens’ feted youth academy in 2012, he already has a high-profile fan in ex-France striker Jean-Pierre Papin and is exciting to watch, with his mix of physical and technical skills. He needs to work on holding up the ball a bit better but could develop into an outstanding centre-forward.
A €5m signing from Lyon in June 2013, Martial has shown flashes of potential but we’re still waiting to find out just how good he really is. Tall, quick and powerful, he can be difficult to deal with when he runs at defenders but his touch can be heavy and his goalscoring rate (a goal every 475 minutes) has to improve. Being in and out of the Monaco side doesn’t help, of course, and constant speculation about his future – it was reported Monaco nearly sold him last summer – has also been an unwanted distraction. Martial has yet to live up to the hype but has some of the raw assets needed to develop into accomplished centre-forward.
Few people will have seen Cornet play; when you do it could be worth the wait. Frozen out by ex-club Metz for refusing to sign a new contract, he joined Lyon on a four-and-a-half year deal this month and made his debut in their 2-0 win over his former club last weekend. Coveted by several big clubs across Europe since his early teens, Cornet is a quick and powerful front man that can operate on the wing or as a central striker. In the Metz team at 16, he has made only a handful of senior starts but his sensational stats for France’s U16 to U19 sides – 21 goals in 39 appearances – underline why Lyon made him a priority signing. Look out for Cornet making an impact for Lyon from the bench during the second-half of a 2014-15 campaign that could end with a Ligue 1 winners’ medal.
Maupay is one of the forgotten talents of French football. A Ligue 1 goalscorer at 16, his future looked bright, but then a serious knee injury and the presence of Dario Cvitanich as Nice’s main striker forced him into the shadows. Don’t write Maupay off – he is only 18 and has the physical and mental maturity to bounce back. A powerful, mobile front player and instinctive finisher, he has an abundance of strength and intelligence and is a resilient character. Right now Maupay is waiting for a prolonged run in the Nice side to show what he can do; when he gets that opportunity he is likely to stay in the limelight for a long time.
Nantes’ once-revered youth system has been unproductive in recent years but Nkoudou’s emergence shows the well has not entirely run dry. A quick, direct attacker, he has mainly played on the wing for Nantes in Ligue 1 this season and that’s where he looks most effective. Quick and fearless in the way he attacks defenders, he can lack finesse and needs to show more variety and cool-headedness on the ball, but his energy and activity has been key features of Nantes’ play, and he would almost certainly be more productive in a more attack-minded side. As he refines his game in the months and years ahead he will become more decisive in the final third.
Gbamin has mainly performed at right-back for Lens so many see that as his position but in the Lens youth academy he operated almost exclusively as a centre-back or a central midfielder. Blessed with immense athletic gifts, Gbamin resembles a 400m runner when he gets into full flow, and you’d back him in a one-on-one race against virtually any player in the division. Tactically and technically, though, there is work to be done – in defensive one-on-one situations he is regularly outflanked and he lacks precision in possession under pressure. Room for improvement, then – but Gbamin has made great strides in a short space of time and it was little surprise to see a number of Bundesliga clubs have been linked with him over the past month.
* Only players under 20 on 1 Feb 2015 were considered for the list.