Amongst the many exciting, eye catching talents at Monaco, Aurélien Tchouaméni is arguably clear of the rest. This alone is testament to a rare player, with a rare skillset.
“Box-to-box”. The midfielder who can do everything. Defending on the back foot deep in the defensive third. Charging upfield through the middle zones. Attacking and creating in the final third.
The athleticism, stamina and energy to play in this manner is extraordinary. It is why so few midfielders can truly claim to master the distinct arts of both attack and defence, under the ‘box-to-box’ moniker.
Such a player gives their team elevated potential to perform as they wish. Rather than using players of mutually exclusive skillsets to balance each others’ weaknesses, the all round midfielder in themselves cover a team’s deficiencies.
They also are an unrivalled spectacle to behold. The power and technicality of the role pushes backsides towards the precipice of seats. ‘Box’ refers to the penalty area, but could easily stand for ‘box office’.
Aurélien Tchouaméni. AS Monaco’s brilliant box-to-box midfielder. The 2020/21 season was one of pleasant development for a young developing team. Tchouaméni stood front and centre of this effort. FTF spoke to Tchouaméni’s former coach Philippe Lucas, to find out where the development began.
Beginning at Bordeaux
Aurélien Tchouaméni made his footballing breakthrough at Girondins Bordeaux in 2018. However the city of Bordeaux, on the west coast of France, was also where Tchouaméni spent much of his childhood. He was born in 2000 in Rouen, Brittany, before moving to Bordeaux as a child.
By the age of eleven, Tchouaméni was already a part of Bordeaux’s academy. This early development would be the start of a perfect trajectory, that would take the midfielder to the first team.
It was in the years preceding Tchouaméni’s senior breakthrough however that he was first coached by Philippe Lucas. Philippe had played for the club between 1992 and 1996, featuring in the 1996 UEFA Cup final against Bayern Munich. His involvement with the club rolled into coaching, and coached a teenage Aurélien Tchouaméni as coach of Bordeaux B.
‘I saw him play at 18 for the first time. I saw potential but a player who still needed to grow. He needed to develop himself physically and work technically.’
This team also featured the talents of Jules Koundé. Both boys were in their embryonic career stages under Philippe’s tutelage, with Koundé two years Tchouaméni’s senior.
Few could have imagined that both, together, would represent the future of the French national team heading into the mid-2020s.
Discussing the baby-faced versions of elite players is always a fascinating discussion. There are certain players who stand out immediately. The star pupils, who immediately make themselves known to the coaches and staff that worked with them. The sort of players that said coaches reflect on and say: “I always knew.”
This player based epiphany was not the case with a young Tchouaméni. The teenager coached by Philippe Lucas was a very different proposition, both technically and physically, to the six-foot-one midfielder seen today.
Asked whether the teenage Aurélien Tchouaméni bore the same physical capacities of the twenty year old today, Philippe disagreed.
‘No, that wasn’t always the case. It is above all the fact of playing regularly in Ligue 1 in Monaco that allowed this change and that allowed him to take a step forward’.
The tall stature and broad stance of Tchouaméni is an inescapable factor. It is what marks him out from others of his tender age. Yet Philippe attributes this to his growth and exposure to senior football, over a genetic or natural physicality.
Tchouaméni would make his Bordeaux senior debut in 2018 as an eighteen year old. A matter of months after his bow at the highest level, Tchouaméni rifled in his first goal for the club. A left footed drive in a 3-1 away win over FK Mariupol in the Europa League qualifiers remains one of only four senior goals in his career.
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Making the grade
Tchouaméni was bursting into a European level side at only eighteen, having progressed from the youth ranks. It is the progression every fan and vested party long to see young players take.
That first goal in the Europa League might have elevated awareness of Tchouaméni. However the midfielder had already been a youth international since 2015. Between that first France under-16 appearance in 2015, to his senior debut in 2018, Tchouaméni amassed thirty six caps. He was already part of the national furniture.
Given his physical size, and the excitement that comes with an emerging central midfield such as he, it is no wonder there were eyes locked onto him so young.
When asked what it was that caught his eye about Aurélien Tchouaméni, Philippe Lucas says just this. ‘It is his ability to play “box to box”. This is what makes him a complete player’.
Comfortable defending deep in his own territory. Tackling, blocking, marshalling attackers. Winning the ball and moving it forwards, or striding into advanced zones himself. Even threatening the opposition goalkeeper. This is the textbook Tchouaméni subscribes to.
That first senior goal, punishing a loose ball on his weaker foot, is an example of one of Tchouaméni’s great traits. An eye for a rasping long range rocket. Four senior goals is no great haul, and hints at a relative shyness to unleash (1.53 shots/90 only weights this). Nevertheless, one find themselves leaning forward when he lines up an effort from range.
‘Today, this is indeed one of his strengths, he uses it more and more thanks to the confidence accumulated at the highest level. He uses it very well today and it is important that he continues to alternate between short and long play.’
The breeding ground
The Bordeaux side that Aurélien Tchouaméni broke into was competing for Europa League football. However the one he would grow into would slide considerably.
The 2017/18 side that finished sixth slid to fourteenth and then twelfth in the following years. Tchouaméni started twenty one games over these two seasons, and it was in the truncated 19/20 campaign that he began to flex. Eleven players in the squad bettered his league minutes, yet only one played more than his 70 progressive passes. Moving the ball forward and progressing play in a team that scored only 40 league goals (from an xG of 29). Impressive stuff, considering Tchouaméni left the club in January 2020.
AS Monaco paid £16 million to acquire Tchouaméni that month. They themselves were struggling in the league, and would finish ninth under Robert Moreno. Tchouaméni played three times between his arrival and the abruptly called end of the season in March, all without starting. Moreno was sacked, and Niko Kovac hired ahead of the 2020/21 season.
This changed the club’s outlook, and rebounded them to the authentic values AS Monaco embodies. Unrelenting faith in youth, with a young and ambitious coach to nurture them. Of the eleven squad players to top 2,000 league minutes in 20/21, six were twenty three years old or younger. At twenty, Aurélien Tchouaméni was still one of the youngest yet recorded an insatiable 3,063 Ligue 1 minutes. The highest in the Monaco squad.
In the former Bayern Munich manager’s favoured 4-4-2, Tchouaméni was immovable from the central pivot. Mostly paired with Youssouf Fofana (second to Tchouaméni for minutes played), this extremely young duo kept the classical Cesc Fabregas from a starting berth.
Kovac’s appointment was met with widespread intrigue. Here was a coach with an unfairly battered reputation for a Bundesliga winning manager. His work at both Bayern and Eintracht Frankfurt proved he was a good trainer and player developer. Where better to land on his feet than Monaco?
Lille undoubtedly proved to be the story of the Ligue 1 season. Breaking PSG’s dominance with a canny, underdog spirit under Christophe Galtier was a victory for defiance and tactical nous. Kovac’s Monaco more than played their part in the drama however.
Lille’s 83 points was one clear of the Parisians, and just five beyond Monaco’s in third. This tally was the club’s fourth highest since the turn of the twenty first century. Only PSG and Lyon bettered their 76 goals too.
Tchouaméni contributed to only six of these strikes, but his contribution went far deeper. Alongside Fofana, the two were defensive behemoths in a free flowing unit. The former’s 97 won tackles were the second highest across the league, and the latter’s 80 placed him fourth. Aurélien Tchouaméni was the more proactive, pressing with pace and volume (656 across the campaign was the tenth highest in Ligue 1). Fofana, more measured in his defensive work, pressed less but tackles more accurately. The twenty two year old won 80 tackles from only 97 attempted, a staggering success rate.
Player pairings are mostly seen to compliment and offset the strength and weaknesses of the other player. Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante for example. The dynamic between Aurélien Tchouaméni and Youssouf Fofana is in their similarity. They compare favourably across most defensive and attacking metrics, save for the former being a more aggressive presser.
Tchouaméni is perhaps the more eye catching. Tall and broad, with an elegance on the ball and in his passing. Fofana is ten centimetres shorter, and is busier and more of a scuttler than Tchouaméni. Together they form a phenomenal pair of ball winning central midfielders who can also spring attacks forward. Such dynamics are rare today and explain why effective 4-4-2s are so hard to find. It is testament to these young talents that Monaco’s is a template model.
Combining outstanding defensive work with ball progression and the occasional sensational goal is Tchouaméni’s forte. The graph above shows how highly the Frenchman ranks across Europe, touching the upper percentiles for tackles and interceptions, successful pressures and aerials won.
The other side to his game was in full flow in a thumping 4-0 win over St Etienne. Tchouaméni assisted the first for Stevan Jovetic, drifting into the left half space to stab a pass with the outside of his boot and roll the opposite way. One could squint and imagine Paul Pogba performing such a deft piece of innovation.
The second goal was premium Aurélien Tchouaméni. One criticism of Tchouaméni is that he can forego opportunities to burst forward. So technical and quality is his skillset that it can seem wasted when held back outside the box. Here he powered forward, pushed the ball wide to the right before being returned a bobbling pass on the edge of the penalty area. Rarely before has a net been punished with such ferocity. First time, on an awkward half volley, crunched past the goalkeeper.
Tchouaméni also stood out in a more chastening encounter. Part of a phenomenally talented under 21 France team, they were knocked out of the European Championships by the Netherlands. Far from an overall poor performance, the team struggled to convert a plethora of gilt etched opportunities. Tchouaméni impressed however. Playing in a midfield with Houssem Aouar and Boubacary Soumare, Tchouaméni was serene.
A series of neat touches under pressure in his own territory. Spreading play with long switches of play. Pulling into the right half space to angle passes into the paths of the forwards. France may have crashed out, but Tchouaméni was worthy of more.
How high is high?
Players aged between eighteen and twenty three carry the same question with them. Just how good can they be? Coaches are reticent to pin hopes too high on such young shoulders. The factors surrounding a player, and person’s, development cannot be ignored nor anticipated.
However with Aurélien Tchouaméni, one cannot help but be excited by what lies in store. His progression has been rapid. A series of moments in his career that have propelled him to the next. With only three senior seasons under his belt, he is already snapping at the heels of the national team midfielders, and garnering attention from the biggest clubs in Europe.
At Monaco, under the faith and trust of Niko Kovac, he has the perfect conditions to grow further. Next season he will also get his first taste of Champions League football. A further test of this young man’s midfield mettle.
‘He has the profile of a very high level player. He will be able to play in the Champions League next year and this experience will further improve him.’ says Phillipe.
A player like Aurélien Tchouaméni will always attract interest. His performances and style are so engaging and exciting that the eye naturally wanders to him. Even at just twenty, it is rarely disappointed by what it is presented with. Every team and club crave an all-rounder like Aurélien Tchouaméni. Yet few players can match the polar extremes of the game as he can, save perhaps for the equally tantalising Jude Bellingham, or Ryan Gravenberch.
With further improvements in his attacking game, Tchouaméni will be a midfield of near unrivalled ability in the game.
‘We can easily imagine him embodying the next generation of tomorrow.’
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