Many of the current and past stars in the French national team setup can proudly claim to have made their first steps in France’s second division.
It has been nothing less than a gold mine and the genesis of some world-class talents. N’Golo Kanté, Ferland Mendy and Tanguy Ndombele in recent years are a few examples to name.
Clubs in the EFL Championship have taken advantage of the rather excellent youth systems in place in France which allow these talents to flourish. The likes of Saïd Benrahma and Neal Maupay also made their name in this very league before moving on to pastures new, in England.
Often an overlooked market by the bigger clubs across Europe, Ligue 2 is a great place to find gems worth investing in. As Leicester found out with Kanté and Mahrez, so did Guingamp with Marcus Thuram.
Today, FTF presents five U23 talents worth keeping an eye on in Ligue 2 –
Position: Defensive midfield
Club: Grenoble Foot 38
Former Basel player Charles Pickel is the first of our player picks for this one.
Grenoble currently sit fourth in the Ligue 2 standings and are well placed for a promotion push too.
Having left Swiss football for the pastures of France, it would be fair to suggest that Pickel has made the right move for his career. Since moving to Grenoble, he’s become a fixture in their side as part of the double pivot in a 4-2-3-1 alongside Anthony Belmonte.
He has shown so far all the attributes that you need from a proactive ball winner and shows up decently in terms of his passing and ball progression as well.
When compared to other U23 players in his position in Ligue 2, Pickel stands out for a number of metrics.
He attempts more defensive duels than anyone in the league [8.08 per90] and is successful with 63% of those. His area of actions is predominantly to the right as his heatmap suggests – nonetheless, he is more than capable of screening the horizontal stretch of the midfield as well. Providing solid defensive cover.
Pickel isn’t the tallest of players around in Ligue 2, standing at 6 ft. in height. However, he has a robust physique and is able to win a lot of the aerial duels he competes in.
So far, he has attempted to engage in nearly 6.1 aerial duels per90 and has been successful with 50% of those.
In terms of interceptions, Pickel once again stands out. His keen alertness for dangerous passes and persistence in attempting to win the ball back is another key facet of his game. For possession-adjusted interceptions, Pickel is the best in the league with 9.04 per90.
Mostly operating in deeper areas on the pitch, Pickel is also able to progress the ball with his passes. Averaging about 7.38 progressive passes per90 with a success rate of 68% so far this season.
Whether he is the next N’Golo Kanté or not remains to be seen. If Grenoble do achieve promotion from Ligue 2 to Ligue 1, it will only help Pickel. A full season in the French top-flight might be the ideal next step for the Swiss international.
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Club: AS Nancy
While Mohamed Bayo has been leading the goalscoring charts in Ligue 2, with 17 goals, not too far behind him is Martiniquas international Mickaël Biron.
The AS Nancy forward has been Bayo’s closest competitor in terms of goal contributions, scoring 12 and assisting 2 so far.
Those goals have certainly played a significant role in Nancy’s positive goal difference in their midtable spot in the league standings. Whereas, the teams around them all have a negative goal difference.
At a height of 5’7″, Biron isn’t the most intimidating physically at first glance, however, his goals suggest that he is a bit of a poacher in front of goal.
There are similarities to see between him and Bayo. Biron averages about 1.89 shots per90 and averages nearly 3 touches in the box per90.
While he could certainly improve in terms of his volume of shots per game, the positions he gets into have been useful so far for Nancy. He’s great at reacting to second balls, finding space in the penalty area and creating separations between himself and his markers as well.
His hat-trick against LB Châteauroux was the perfect example of the type of goals he’s good at scoring.
In terms of Expected Goals and Assists, Biron has averaged a combined xG+xA of 0.48 per90 which is second best in the league. At the top is Bayo, with an incredible 0.73 xG+xA per90.
With Biron, it is not only his attacking metrics that are impressive, but his defensive contributions are noteworthy as well.
It could be that these numbers are a byproduct of what he is required to do for his team. Still, engaging in nearly defensive duels per match and winning 57% of them is mightily impressive.
Biron is only 23 and yet it feels as though his career has already been through quite a bit. He’s come a long way from playing in Martinique and briefly fixing air conditioners after a rather forgettable time in Switzerland.
The Premier League is a dream for many across the world and Biron is one of them too. Whether he can achieve this historic feat, should be an interesting journey to follow.
Position: Center-Back/ Right-Back
Club: Amiens SC
Amiens SC are currently sitting 9th in the league standings. In terms of goals conceded, they are one of the most impressive teams, in that they’ve only conceded 26 goals. League leaders Troyes have conceded 30 so far this season.
In terms of Expected Goals Against, Amiens have conceded 26 which is two less than they have been expected to.
One player amongst their ranks who has looked really impressive in a small sample size is Frenchman Valentin Gendrey.
Hailing from one of Europe’s most densely populated suburbs, La Garenne-Colombes in North Paris, Gendrey joined Amiens in 2015 as a youth academy player. Before that, he had spells at multiple academies in the lower divisions.
Capable of playing across the back-four, he has been fielded at center-back and right-back so far this season. Though, more often at center-back.
Gendrey’s numbers in a smaller sample of minutes played as compared to his peers have been impressive.
He has won 68% of his defensive duels per game while engaging in 7.35 defensive duels per match.
Gendrey has good recovery pace and has made key interceptions to prevent dangerous crosses or passes into the penalty area. The numbers tell us that he fourth best in the league when it comes to possession-adjusted interceptions, making 7.6 interceptions per match.
Whenever the opposition is in transition and on the counter attack, Gendrey’s conservative position is helpful and his frequent scanning of runners is impressive as well.
Not the tallest of defenders around, standing at 5’11”, Gendrey is nonetheless generally decent in the air too. Winning 75% of his aerial duels while contesting 2.7 aerial duels per match.
In terms of his ball progression, Gendrey’s numbers show up well in his passing – attempting 9.7 progressive passes per game with a success rate of 68%.
Another season in Ligue 2 could do him a world of good. The early signs with Gendrey are looking rather positive.
Blessed with technicality, versatility and an instinct for defending, Gendrey makes for an exciting talent.
Position: Right/Left Winger
Châteauroux winger Ilyas Chouaref has all the makings of a thoroughly exciting winger and has been one of the bright sparks in a rather poor league campaign for La Berri.
Sitting at the bottom of the league table, relegation to the Championnat National seems only a question of when rather than if.
French-Moroccon by descent, Chouaref has come through the ranks with Châteauroux and has been at the club since he was five years old.
It is difficult to not draw comparisons with a certain winger playing for Manchester City, in Riyad Mahrez. Although Chouaref is some distance away from reproducing the Manchester City star’s output, the early signs are very positive.
In two of the four assists, he has had so far, his movement and final pass is reminiscent of the type of passes Mahrez made for Jamie Vardy at Leicester City.
Chouaref’s numbers are incredibly impressive.
When compared to players in his position, here are some of his best metrics –
1st for dribbles attempted per90 – 9.35 with a success rate of about 51%
1st for progressive runs per90 – 2.95
3rd for progressive passes attempted per90 – 4.24 with a success rate of about 73%
All these numbers certainly make a case for Chouaref being an excellent prospect.
Room for improvement in end product
Where he does lack in, however, is his end product. As per expected goal contributions, he is at 0.29 per90.
Chouaref’s style of play is very much the archetype of a winger with flair on the ball. Cutting inside onto his favourite right foot when playing on the left, or choosing to cross the ball when playing on the right. Chouaref is comfortable with both.
Averaging about 3.5 crosses per90 and 2.9 passes into the penalty area per90, Chouaref is someone constantly looking to feed the forward players from the half spaces or from out wide.
Chouaref seems like a steal for any side in Ligue 2 and Ligue 1 at the moment, it will certainly be intriguing to see where the ‘next Mahrez’ ends up going.
Position: Attacking midfielder
Club: FC Sochaux-Montbéliard
Bryan Soumaré of Sochaux, is a star in the making.
The French playmaker received many a praise for his support to the needy last year, when the pandemic had just kicked in.
Soumaré’s gesture as widely praised at the time and rightly so.
Fast forward to today, Soumaré is aiding Sochaux’s efforts to finish strongly in Ligue 2.
With just two goals and three assists so far in the league, Soumaré does not seem hugely impressive in terms of his goal contributions. However, his importance to the team is beyond just goals and assists.
Once scouted by the likes of Chelsea and Sheffield United, the 22-year old playmaker’s creative talents are there for all to see.
Soumaré’s primary area of actions on the pitch is the right hand-side of the pitch. Being left-footed, he is able to cut onto his left and spray passes into dangerous areas for his team-mates.
The best part about Soumaré’s game is his ability on the ball. Dribbling past opponents, darting into space, leaving his markers behind. After doing all this, he has also shown incredible composure to feed deft passes to runners in behind.
In terms of expected assists per90, he is third best in the league with 0.15 per90. With a keen eye for passes into valuable areas, Soumaré is always looking to feed passes into dangerous areas.
He attempts 2.18 passes into the penalty area per90 and also attempts 1.47 through passes per90. Completing the former with a success rate of about 56%.
As mentioned earlier, Soumaré’s ability and close-control with the ball is also another impressive aspect of skillset. Here are some numbers –
4.3 dribbles per90 – 2nd best in the league with a success rate of 52%
2.3 progressive runs per90 – 2nd best in the league.
84% Progressive passing accuracy – 2nd best in the league with 4.16 progressive passes attempted per90.
Currently on loan from Dijon in Ligue 1, Soumaré was very impressive against French giants Olympique Lyon in the French Cup round of 32.
He grabbed two assists in an excellent display against Lyon, although Sochaux ultimately lost 5-2. It was an encouraging display from Soumaré and further proof of his talents.
Only time will tell how far his career can take him and his talents. There is enough talent in him to make the step up to Ligue 1 and perhaps leaving Dijon might be the next step for him.
All stats via Wyscout – accurate upto matchweek 29.
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