7 Youngsters Playing in France Who Look Destined for Big Moves

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportJune 26, 2019

SERRAVALLE, ITALY - JUNE 21: Houssem Aouar of France controls the ball during the 2019 UEFA U-21 Group C match between France and Croatia at San Marino Stadium on June 21, 2019 in Serravalle, Italy. (Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images)
B/R Football

For a so-called "Farmers' League," Ligue 1 doesn't half produce some decent players.

As the biggest clubs in world football go about replenishing their playing squads during the close-season transfer window, it is toward France that many of them are looking in the hope of snapping up the next Raphael Varane, Paul Pogba or Kylian Mbappe.

Featuring the thoughts of Daryl De Mello, a Ligue 1 analyst at betting services firm Smartodds, here are seven promising players plying their trade in France who could soon be heading for a championship near you.

                

HOUSSEM AOUAR, 20, CENTRAL MIDFIELDER

LYON, FRANCE - FEBRUARY 19: Houssem Aouar of Olympique Lyonnais looks on during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 First Leg match between Olympique Lyonnais and FC Barcelona at Groupama Stadium on February 19, 2019 in Lyon, . (Photo by Quality Sport I
Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Club: Lyon

Player he's compared to: Andres Iniesta

Potential destinations: Liverpool, Manchester City, Barcelona

Lyon have already sold left-back Ferland Mendy to Real Madrid this summer, and club president Jean-Michel Aulas has made it clear he will entertain offers for Tanguy Ndombele and captain Nabil Fekir, but one player OL seem determined to hold on to is Houssem Aouar.

A Lyon player since the age of 11, Aouar has blossomed into a wonderfully gifted central midfielder: elegant, two-footed and blessed with a gossamer-soft touch. After breaking into the first team in 2017-18, he showed further evidence of his potential last season, scoring seven goals and supplying 11 assists across all competitions.

Pep Guardiola made a beeline for Aouar following the 2-2 draw between Lyon and Manchester City in the Champions League group phase in November, which only served to heighten speculation that the 20-year-old could be destined for the Etihad Stadium.

"Houssem Aouar is a very good player. He is incredible," Guardiola said. "We talk a lot about Ndombele, but Aouar is also excellent. He's always very calm with the ball at his feet, with an excellent technical quality."

Questions persist about Aouar's consistency—he has lost his place in the France team at the ongoing Under-21 European Championship in Italy—but on his day, there are few more spellbinding footballers in Europe.

Daryl de Mello's verdict: "Aouar is a really good passer of the ball who's very intelligent and gets into good positions, often finding space in the final third. He's a hard-worker too. But he doesn't score that many goals and he was pretty inconsistent last season. He was amazing for about three months in 2017-18, but since then he may have stagnated a little."

              

BOUBACAR KAMARA, 19, CENTRE-BACK

Marseille's French defender Boubacar Kamara gestures during the French L1 football match between Bordeaux (FCGB) and Marseille (OM) on April 5, 2019 at the Matmut Atlantique stadium in Bordeaux, southwestern France. (Photo by NICOLAS TUCAT / AFP)        (
NICOLAS TUCAT/Getty Images

Club: Marseille

Player he's compared to: Thiago Silva

Potential destinations: Chelsea, Manchester City, West Ham United, AC Milan

Along with midfielder Maxime Lopez, Kamara was one of only two home-grown players to feature regularly for Marseille last season. That status gives him strong symbolic value at the club, but at a time when failure to qualify for European football has left Marseille desperately needing to sell players in order to comply with Financial Fair Play regulations, OM's decision-makers will be keenly aware of his economic value as well.

A Marseille native and boyhood OM fan, "Bouba" Kamara joined the club at the age of five. Now established at centre-back, having also played as a defensive midfielder and full-back, he was one of the few bright spots to emerge from a bleak season at Stade Velodrome. A calm, authoritative defender, the France Under-20 international formed a promising centre-back partnership with Croatia international Duje Caleta-Car during the second half of the campaign and was nominated for the Ligue 1 Young Player of the Season award, unsurprisingly won by Mbappe.

Kamara, who is engaged to reality TV star Coralie Porrovecchio, is represented in contract talks by his mother, Cathy. His Marseille deal is due to expire in 2020, but in a recent interview on TF1, he said: "It would break my heart to leave."

De Mello's verdict: "He's really good on the ball, reads the game well and is always in the right place. He plays with the maturity of a much older player. He's not very big or physical for a centre-back though and he can be over-confident in possession at times. He started making errors on the ball towards the end of last season and his form dipped. But the Marseille fans love him. He's been compared to Thiago Silva, but I think he's more like another Brazilian, Marquinhos."

                     

RAFAEL LEAO, 20, STRIKER

LILLE, FRANCE - FEBRUARY 17: Lille's Rafael Leao in action during the Ligue 1 match between Lille and Montpellier at Stade Pierre Mauroy on February 17, 2019 in Lille, France. (Photo by Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images)
Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images

Club: Lille

Player he's compared to: Kylian Mbappe

Potential destinations: Everton, Valencia

There are ways of alleviating the pressure on a new recruit, and there are ways of cranking it up. Lille's presidential adviser Luis Campos opted for the latter approach after securing the signature of young striker Leao amid last year's Sporting CP exodus, excitably informing RMC Sport's listeners that the club's new recruit was "the Portuguese Mbappe."

With Lille having seen off reported interest from Manchester City, Campos' glee was understandable, but it was a while before the club's fans got a chance to see what all the fuss was about. An ankle injury suffered in pre-season meant Leao did not start a game for his new club until the end of October, but he then hit a purple patch around the turn of the year, plundering six goals in seven Ligue 1 games.

An adroit finisher, Leao is rangy and quick and seems to come to life in the opposition penalty area. In an interview with newspaper Le Parisien in February, the Portugal Under-21 international acknowledged the similarities between himself and Mbappe, but said: "I follow my own path." In any case, Europe's leading recruiters appear to like what they have seen so far: Campos told Portuguese newspaper O Jogo last week that the striker had "lots of suitors."

De Mello's verdict: "He's got the tools to be amazing. He's strong, has decent pace, is good in the air and has a good shot. He seems to have everything, but he disappears in games. I don't think he works particularly hard, and he doesn't really get involved in the build-up play. He got dropped for Loic Remy towards the end of the season as well, which isn't a great sign."

                        

HANNIBAL MEJBRI, 16, CENTRAL MIDFIELDER

French player Hannibal Mejbri looks on, prior to the French L1 football match between Monaco and Angers at the
VALERY HACHE/Getty Images

Club: Monaco

Player he's compared to: No big comparisons have emerged yet

Potential destinations: Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Lyon

It is a measure both of his own huge potential and the fevered state of the market for talented young European players that Hannibal Mejbri has already accumulated more than his fair share of inches in the transfer gossip columns despite being yet to play a single minute of senior football.

The 16-year-old playmaker with the shock of springy curls has hit the headlines in recent weeks after it came to light that he and his parents were attempting to unilaterally terminate a youth contract with Monaco that tied him to the club until 2021. Several European heavyweights—including Chelsea, Manchester United and Bayern Munich—are reported to be monitoring his situation. That, though, is nothing new. Scouts and agents have been buzzing around the youngster since he was only nine years old.

His giant, floppy mane making him instantly recognisable in footage of Monaco's youth-team games, Mejbri is something of a throw-back: an old-school playmaker who sets the tempo for his team's play by electing when to keep the ball circulating and when to speed things up. Assured in possession, he prowls the pitch with a telltale swagger and poses a threat around the box from set-pieces.

De Mello's verdict: "He looks like a very good passer of the ball. He always has time on the ball and he likes to dictate the play. There's a been a lot in the French press about his family breaking his contract. Nobody had really heard of him before that, but the reports suggest he's going to be an incredible player."

                     

WILLIAM SALIBA, 18, CENTRE-BACK

Saint-Etienne's French defender William Saliba (L) vies with Reims' French forward Boulaye Dia during the French L1 football match between Stade de Reims and Saint-Etienne (ASSE) on April 21, 2019 at the Auguste-Delaune stadium in Reims. (Photo by FRANCOI
FRANCOIS NASCIMBENI/Getty Images

Club: Saint-Etienne

Player he's compared to: Raphael Varane

Potential destinations: Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Roma

Saliba hails from Bondy, the same suburb northeast of Paris where Kylian Mbappe grew up, and played as a forward under the orders of Mbappe's father, Wilfried, in his early years at local club AS Bondy. After moving to FC Montfermeil at the age of 13, he began to play in defence, and those formative experiences as an attacking player helped to equip him with a technical repertoire that is impressive even by the standards of modern centre-backs.

Recruited by Saint-Etienne in 2016, he made his first-team debut at the age of 17 against Toulouse in September and is already being tipped for the very top despite having only made 19 senior appearances to date. "For me, this kid has an extraordinary future," former Saint-Etienne coach Jean-Louis Gasset told L'Equipe in November. "He has the maturity, the game intelligence, the technique, the size and, above all, he knows where he wants to go."

Tall, quick and classy, Saliba is considered the most promising centre-back to have come through Saint-Etienne's youth system since Kurt Zouma. Capped by France up to under-20 level, he was forced to pull out of this summer's Under-20 World Cup in Poland because of an injury.

De Mello's verdict: "Saliba is a top-class prospect. Towards the end of the season, he was outstanding. He didn't put a foot wrong. He looks pretty complete: reasonably quick, good in the air, good on the ball, reads the game well. He's made a few mistakes, but he looks quite exciting. I'd rate him even more highly than Jean-Clair Todibo, who joined Barcelona in January."

                       

ISMAILA SARR, 21, WINGER

Rennes' Senegalese midfielder Ismaila Sarr (R) reacts after scoring during the French Ligue 1 football match between Stade Rennais FC and Guingamp EAG at the Roazhon Park stadium in the northwestern French city of Rennes, on May 12, 2019. (Photo by DAMIEN
DAMIEN MEYER/Getty Images

Club: Rennes

Player he's compared to: Sadio Mane

Potential destinations: Arsenal, Newcastle United, Watford

A shy and retiring figure away from the pitch, Sarr worked himself into such a state of agitation after a slanging match with Marseille's Lopez during Rennes' 1-1 draw with OM in February that he had to be substituted for his own safety. The following day, for his 21st birthday, his guffawing team-mates presented him with gifts of boxing gloves, a head guard and a gumshield.

Ordinarily, with Sarr, it is dazed opposition full-backs who are left feeling as if they have just gone 12 rounds with Tyson Fury. A devastatingly quick wide player with an eye for the spectacular, Sarr arrived from Metz for €17 million in 2017 to plug the gap left by Ousmane Dembele's departure to Borussia Dortmund the year before. He has fulfilled the role superbly.

The Senegal international found the net 13 times last season (also chipping in with 11 assists) and was an instrumental figure in Rennes' run to the Europa League knockout rounds, scoring stupendous goals against Jablonec and Astana in the group phase and netting with a flying header against Arsenal in the last 16.

Having started out at Dakar's Generation Foot academy before arriving in Europe via Metz, he has trodden a similar path to his celebrated Senegal team-mate Sadio Mane. With several Premier League clubs rumoured to be circling, he may be about to follow in the Liverpool man's footsteps once again.

De Mello's verdict: "Sarr is a strange player. He reminds me a bit of [Monaco's] Keita Balde. He can look amazing on his day, but he's not consistent. He's so fast and he wins a lot of free-kicks. But his finishing lets him down and his crossing can be poor. He's either going to become an outstanding player or one of those players with no end product who just fades from view."

                   

MARCUS THURAM, 21, FORWARD

Guingamp's French forward Marcus Thuram (L) celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal during the French L1 football match between Racing Club Strasbourg Alsace and En Avant Guingamp at the Meinau stadium in Strasbourg, eastern France on April 13, 201
FREDERICK FLORIN/Getty Images

Club: Guingamp

Player he's compared to: Lilian Thuram (inevitably)

Potential destinations: Everton, Tottenham Hotspur, Borussia Monchengladbach, Lyon, Marseille

Saddled with one of the most well-known surnames in French football, Marcus Thuram was never going to be allowed to go about his business quietly, but his exploits with Guingamp last season suggested that the 21-year-old might be about to make a name for himself in his own right.

Tall and powerful, there is no disguising the extent to which Marcus physically resembles his famous father, Lilian, but when the ball arrives at his feet, the similarities end. The younger Thuram typically lines up on the left and possesses a well-stocked armoury of attacking weapons: soft feet, break-neck pace and a bewitching ability to change direction at speed. Renowned for his easy-going nature, he has even poured scorn on his dad's old trade, telling L'Equipe in 2016: "Defending is very honourable, but I don't like it. You go to the stadium to see goals and dribbles, not tackles."

A graduate of the Sochaux academy, Thuram was on target 13 times last season. Although he is occasionally wasteful in front of goal, he produced a commendable show of nerve against Paris Saint-Germain in the French League Cup quarter-finals, atoning for blazing a penalty over the bar by scoring from the spot in stoppage time to send the holders out of the competition. If he wants to remain in the spotlight following Guingamp's relegation to Ligue 2, he will have to find a new club this summer.

De Mello's verdict: "I think he might be slightly overrated. He does look like a good player—he's strong, quick, good technically—but he doesn't score many goals and I don't really know what his best position is. He played as a striker and a left-winger and not really excelled at either. He's also missed a few penalties. But he's definitely got potential."

Other players to keep an eye out for: Rayan Cherki (Lyon), Colin Dagba (PSG), Willem Geubbels (Monaco), Amine Gouiri (Lyon), Jonathan Ikone (Lille), Jules Kounde (Bordeaux), Isaac Lihadji (Marseille), Pietro Pellegri (Monaco), Malang Sarr (Nice), Boubakary Soumare (Lille)

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