Suppose you were cherry-picking the best attributes from Europe's top attacking players to create the ultimate forward, which elements would you take from each player? Kylian Mbappe's pace? Harry Kane's finishing? Luis Suarez's cunning? From Lionel Messi...well, from Messi you'd just take the whole package and be done with it, but for the purposes of this exercise, let's say his dribbling. As for the left foot, how about Thomas Lemar?
Exhibit A: the exquisite cross with which Lemar set up Bernardo Silva to score in Monaco's 3-0 win at Nancy last season, the ball plucked from Stade Marcel Picot's greasy synthetic surface and tossed onto Silva's head with all the finesse of a Roger Federer half-volley.
Exhibit B: his first goal for France, in last August's 4-0 win over the Netherlands, a sumptuous first-time hit from 20 yards—laces, impeccable body shape—that zinged into Jasper Cillessen's top-left corner.
Lemar's set-piece technique is reminiscent of Juan Mata's. Both players flatten their left foot into a right-angle as they strike the ball to ensure maximal surface-area contact, and with it, maximal control. "His left foot is amazing," Lemar's former Caen team-mate Alaeddine Yahia told beIN Sports (via Ligue1.com) after he scored against his old club in March 2016. "It's like a hand."
That hand-like foot, allied to Lemar's other gifts, has opened the door for the 22-year-old midfielder to leave Monaco in a transfer expected to be worth around £90 million, with Liverpool and Arsenal fronting the queue of clubs vying for his signature. But the last time Lemar held the shirt of a new club in his hands and smiled for the cameras, the fee was a great deal lower and the circumstances very different indeed.
Philippe Tranchant watched Lemar play football for the first time during a trip to Guadeloupe in November 2008, and he knew within minutes he had found a special talent.
"I first saw him play on a terribly bumpy pitch, because the pitches in Guadeloupe are catastrophic," Tranchant told Bleacher Report. "He dribbled past everyone and put a shot right in the top corner. He was a head shorter than everyone else on the pitch, but he was the only thing you saw. He had all the fundamentals. In terms of technique, he was already exceptional at 13."
Tranchant was the technical director of Caen's youth training centre, and within two years he had Lemar under his orders. The shy, delicately built teenager left his home and family over 4,000 miles away in the Caribbean to begin a new life on the Normandy coast.
"It was difficult for him, he admitted that to me after a few months," Tranchant said. "He didn't even say anything to his parents. He kept everything to himself. The climate in Normandy is a long way away from the climate in Monaco, let alone Guadeloupe. The food wasn't the same. The schooling was a bit tougher than what he was used to in Guadeloupe. So in every area, it was difficult."
Tranchant immediately moved Lemar up an age group, and by 16 he was playing in the club's reserve team and turning out for France at under-17 level. But his integration into Caen's first XI proved problematic.
He was handed his professional debut in August 2013, and his maiden season culminated in Caen securing promotion to Ligue 1. Yet, when the following campaign kicked off, he found himself kicking his heels on the bench. Caen's coach, Patrice Garande, had doubts about Lemar's robustness and preferred to align N'Golo Kante and Julien Feret in the attacking-midfield roles in his 4-1-4-1 system, leaving the 18-year-old to make do with substitute cameos.
When Lemar made his full Ligue 1 debut, in a home game against Lorient in October 2014, his head began to pound and his heart started to beat unnaturally quickly, forcing him to come off in the 41st minute. He was found to have suffered an attack of tachycardia, which Tranchant attributed to stress. He would make only five further starts that season, lining up at kick-off alongside Kante—his future France team-mate—on just a handful of occasions.
"He was a very young player, with a very slight physique, who wasn't at the physical level he's at today," said journalist Guillaume Laine, who covered Lemar's time at Caen for regional newspaper Ouest-France. "Garande and the directors at Caen thought they needed to take their time with him and not burn him out."
Garande is believed to have promised Lemar more playing time in the 2015-16 season, but the relationship between player and club had broken down. He had already attracted Monaco's attention, and after he impressed for France's under-20s as they won the Toulon Tournament in the summer of 2015, the principality club made their move. He signed from Caen for a fee of just €4 million.
Surprise Champions League quarter-finalists in the spring of 2015, Monaco were a team in transition, and Lemar arrived amid a flurry of incoming and outgoing transfers at the club's La Turbie training centre.
"There were no expectations because they'd paid less than €5 million for him," said Mathieu Faure, who has reported on Lemar's time at Monaco for Nice-Matin and So Foot. "He didn't play very much at Caen and he wasn't in the first team very often. There was a sense that he struggled to play lots of games in succession."
Although Lemar scored five goals in his first Ligue 1 campaign at Monaco, injuries disrupted his adaptation, and with coach Leonardo Jardim struggling to accommodate both him and Bernardo Silva in his starting XI, he was bumped around from position to position and taken in and out of the team.
As recently as the beginning of last season, Lemar wasn't sure of his place in the side. When Monaco travelled to Wembley to play their opening Champions League group game against Tottenham in September 2016, he started on the bench, having missed their two previous games with an ankle injury.
His luck turned in the fifth minute, when Nabil Dirar injured his calf and had to go off. Lemar went on in his place and scored a 31st-minute goal that proved to be the winner in a 2-1 victory, lashing a shot high into the net past France captain Hugo Lloris from close range. "It was clearly a significant match, because if I hadn't played in that match, I might not have gone on to become a first-team player," Lemar told So Foot (in French) earlier this season.
That same month, Jardim settled upon the 4-4-2 formation that enabled him to field Lemar and Silva in positions where they could vent their attacking instincts: Lemar on the left of midfield; Silva on the right. It was a key staging post on the road that would lead to the French title and a place in the Champions League semi-finals.
With Benjamin Mendy (now at Manchester City along with Silva) motoring past him from left-back, Lemar had the freedom to float into the central areas where he feels most at home. He registered 14 goals and 17 assists in all competitions, finishing the season with five France caps to his name and a new status as one of the most sought-after players in Europe.
His redeployment as a No. 10 by Jardim this season has made him an even more central figure. Fleet of both thought and foot, Lemar cites Xavi, Andres Iniesta and David Silva as his idols and says he derives greater pleasure from creating goals than scoring them. "Setting up a goal is a unique feeling," he told So Foot. "Much stronger than scoring."
Lemar is naturally reserved and notoriously suspicious of the media. He has an Instagram account, but describes himself as a reluctant user of social networking sites. "He doesn't like putting himself in the spotlight," Faure said. "He doesn't go out much. He's a simple person who uses his free time to rest up because he knows his body is a tool of work." Tranchant said he lives in a "football bubble."
Lemar's quiet demeanour masks a fierce determination, forged amid the wrench of leaving his family at such a young age, the frustrations of his delayed take-off at Caen and the mixed returns of his first season at Monaco. Now, in a World Cup year and with Europe's elite clubs circling, the stratosphere beckons.
"Technically and tactically, he's above 90 percent of other players," Tranchant said. "I think Thomas could play for any high-level club, and as the level gets higher, the higher he'll raise his level. That's the mark of the great players."
All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.
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