Anyone who witnessed Jeremie Aliadiere’s volleyed finish deep into injury time to put Lorient into the semi-finals of the Coupe de France at the expense of Saint-Etienne on Tuesday will be stunned to know that it was the same player who left the UK just two years ago.
The 30-year-old, brought to Arsenal by Arsene Wenger in 1999, arrived at Highbury with a reputation as being France’s next big thing—he never lived up to that tag.
It was not through a lack of ability that Aliadiere did not succeed, though. It was a cruel series of unfortunate injuries that curtailed the best part of his career and stunted his growth in the Premier League.
Now, 14 years later, the Frenchman is finally being able to prove Wenger’s talent-spotting ability correct with a stellar season in Ligue 1. Aliadiere’s career is taking a turn for the better that many never would have predicted, and the Rambouillet native has been one of the French top-flight’s revelations of the season.
A total of 17 goals in all competitions so far is an impressive feat for a player who had not even scored that many goals in his entire senior career at any club, let alone come close to it in any other single season. Aliadiere’s previous best total was the five goals in 29 appearances he managed for Middlesbrough in his debut season in 2007/08.
That tally makes him not only the top French goalscorer in France, but also the most prolific Frenchman in Europe across any league this season. Quite a reversal considering that national-team regulars Karim Benzema, Olivier Giroud and Bafetimbi Gomis are included in that list.
Aliadiere is currently on course to usurp Giroud’s phenomenal scoring stats from last year (25 goals in all competitions), and he's even challenging Giroud in the assists stakes with seven assists (Giroud had nine) so far this season.
What has sparked this remarkable turnaround in fortunes for the former Gunner then? Unbelievably, it is his first injury-free campaign in his entire career. His first season back in France last year, although good by his standards in that he managed 15 starts, was still disrupted by injury.
Two goals in 18 appearances was the sign of a player struggling to get back to full fitness without actually knowing what full fitness meant or felt like. Now he is in the best shape of his career. It shows in the confidence he has on the pitch and his razor-sharp reactions that enabled him to score in such clinical fashion at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard on Tuesday. The goal also ended Les Verts' impressive unbeaten run that had not seen them taste defeat in 2013.
Now people are talking about him as a potential French international. Why not? Given the misfiring Benzema’s continued struggles in front of goal and Didier Deschamps’ preference for talented yet non-complicated players, Aliadiere can arguably contribute something for Les Bleus without rocking the boat.
Yes, he is now 30, but he still has a few seasons at the top level left in him.
Given Deschamps’ refusal to consider Marseille’s Andre-Pierre Gignac because of their fractious relationship when the former was coach at OM means that there is a shortage of talent up top for France. Aliadiere, on current form, could be the answer to that.
Were Arsenal and his other UK clubs Middlesbrough, Celtic, West Ham and Wolverhampton Wanderers all too hasty in letting him go? No, unfortunately it has taken up until this point to prove that Aliadiere has always had the potential that Wenger was so adamant he saw in the youngster from the famed Clairefontaine academy.
Wenger’s role in Aliadiere signing for Lorient itself is a large reason that the seven-time capped French international still has a career. His dedication to his protegee in securing him a move to western France speaks volumes of his, and Lorient’s, astute judgement of character.
The Arsenal coach persuaded long-time friend and Les Merlus owner Loic Fery to take a gamble on the out-of-luck striker. Wily Breton coach Christian Gourcuff, something of an underground institution in French football terms, was delighted to oblige. How that risk has paid off!
Aliadiere has fit in seamlessly in Lorient. The club are famed for their passing, possession-based football that earns comparisons with Arsenal and Barcelona’s style. There is even a moniker given to their footballing philosophy known as "le jeu a la Lorientaise" (the Lorient way), and it is that approach that has enabled the 30-year-old to salvage something of his career.
Rumours linking him with Marseille and a return to the UK are fully deserved (per Sky Sports). Aliadiere has been one of the revelations of the season in Ligue 1, and along with Alain Traore, he has been a large part of the reason that Lorient currently enjoy eighth position in the table and could arguably sit higher up.
Given that his roots remain in the UK, though, it would not be a surprise to see him return to the Premier League at some point in the near future. It would be great to see him stay in France, and there will be no shortage of takers if he does decide to leave Lorient. But there is no doubt, second chances in football are rare and Jeremie Aliadiere has earned his moment in the sun.