Adam White

Shy But Not Retiring

Adam White
Shy But Not Retiring

This article can also be found on Guardian Sport.

“Well, it’s you who’s doing the talking!”, Thomas Lemar informed teammate Emmanuel Imorou as the pair headed to a post game reception with club sponsors. Imorou was not surprised to be thrust to the front, Lemar’s humble and reclusive persona was something the Caen defender had become accustomed to. "He is a little introverted, even shy.” Imorou explained to France Football, “He's a cool, simple guy who just does not feel comfortable with the media or the public.” Former Caen colleague Lenny Nangis agrees; "He does not like to put himself forward or talk about himself, he has always been like that." Throughout what has been an eventful career to date, Thomas Lemar has never sought attention but having already turned down Arsenal and with further mammoth bids imminent, Europe’s gaze can’t be avoided any longer.

Upon first glance Guadeloupe is hardly a hotbed of footballing talent but considering Lilian Thuram and Jocelyn Angloma call the caribbean island home, the fact that the island’s football technical director Franck Louis describes Lemar as “the best player that Guadeloupe has ever known” equals no small compliment. Comfortably outplaying and outthinking the island’s best players as a 13 year old caught the eye of Caen, Lemar eventually crossing the Atlantic for the then Ligue 2 club in 2010. The transition, however, was a rough one explains Caen forward Livio Nabab, who describes “a kid almost lost, but who wanted to move forward, discover the professional world.”

Eventually, move forward Lemar did, helping Caen to promotion. Although initially often on the fringes under Patrice Garande at the Stade Michel d’Ornano in the top flight, a restrained role greatly frustrated Lemar, his standout Toulon Tournament followed a stellar 14/15 Ligue 1 campaign that proved to be his last in Northern France as Monaco were encouraged to pay what now seems a miniscule sum of 4 million Euros to bring Lemar to the Principality.

Despite his renown shyness, a strong drive and intensity was also evident in Lemar. “He did not like to lose, even when he was ten centimeters shorter than everyone else," Louis explains. “His competitive side was not expressed by ranting, but by hyperactivity on the pitch: anywhere the ball was, Thomas was there too. He absolutely wanted to have influence." Lemar’s persistence and guile proved irrepressible under Monaco coach Leonardo Jardim the following season. Seizing his chance after injuries to Joao Moutinho and Jeremy Toulalan, Lemar’s influence on what was then a frustratingly blunt attack quickly became integral.

Although seemingly plucked from obscurity, Lemar’s story is typical of French football. The astonishing depth at the disposal of French national coaches at all levels is born out an engrained system of youth development. Young players are able to hone their craft in the sprawling but competitive lower divisions for either a provincial outfit or a bigger club’s B team. Standouts are then swiftly afforded opportunities to develop at senior level either for lesser Ligue 1 sides or in the second division often when key assets are sold on, regularly for club sustaining fees to foreign sides, as many French teams regularly look for their youth ranks or the lower down the league structure to fill gaps in their squads, just as Monaco did in signing Lemar.

Currently on the verge of the final step in this well trodden developmental path, Lemar may not cross the channel this month but a summer move remains almost unavoidable for Jardim and Monaco, as Arsene Wenger affirmed in September: “Yes we bid 100 million Euros for Lemar [and] yes, we'll come back in for him.” An Arsenal switch could suit the young Frenchman but with the possibly imminent departures of Alexis Sanchez and maybe Mesut Ozil, Lemar should not a seen as a direct replacement for either.

During their rampaging run to the French title last season, Monaco’s 442 practically became enshrined in the laws of the principality, Lemar nominally the left sided midfielder but this position hardly defines Lemar's skill set. Jardim’s set up would perhaps be more accurately described at 4222 with the marauding Benjamin Mendy and Djibril Sidibe providing width from full back while the strength and mobility of Fabinho and his Lieutenant Tiemoue Bakayoko allowed them to orchestrate the midfield letting Lemar and Bernardo Silva to drift off their flanks and operate almost as duel number 10s.

Although Lemar is capable of attacking full backs at pace and providing beautifully whipped deliveries reminiscent of David Beckham, a left sided player in a 4231 for example would not play to his true strengths of supreme technical quality, vision and the ability to play in tight spaces in tandem with others. Lemar would instead be more suited to, should Wenger persist with 3 centre backs, being employed just off the central striker, playing closer to other forwards and encouraging his waspish high press and ability to quickly win back possession.

There is a fierceness to Lemar's play, everything is executed and pace and with power, he's constantly on the move looking for an opportunity to affect the game but he remains, for now, very much part of the collective rather than an orchestrator of games who rarely grabs his team by their collective collars to drag them out of danger. Although Lemar's abilities may lend him to the number 10 role, this is a position and, more importantly, a responsibility, Lemar is yet to master. Whether the admittedly youthful Frenchman truly has developed the capacity to lead a top level side as it's creative director remains uncertain with Jardim’s usage of him here an injury affected mixed bag.

For the player it's Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool that would be his preferred destination as the 23 year old is reportedly an avid Klopp fan while the German’s fluid 433 might prove a far better fit, both in design and ethos. With Coutinho gone Lemar could be a worthy successor, the Monaco man is cast in a similar mould to the Brazilian. A slot as the most forward thinking of a more flexible midfield three would be his ideal position, encouraging him to play off those around him, to create in tandem with others and to ghost into awkward spaces making him difficult to pick up. Lemar would happily pop up in Jordan Henderson's slightly deeper position or in either wider role with proficiency and ease when needed during games.

Reclusive nature aside, Thomas Lemar would be an asset to any side in Europe and despite a cool and unassuming exterior a fiery yet focused determination simmers underneath. As former Caen academy coach Phillippe Tranchant explains to France Football “I can assure you that he is very ambitious. If it were up to him, he would already be at a big European club. This ambition always remains in the service of the collective. He is too educated and respectful to do what Ousmane Dembélé did to leave Dortmund, for example." Underestimating the talents of the seemingly quiet and introverted Lemar would be a mistake, the youngster from Guadeloupe has, as far as he's concerned, always said everything he needs to with a football.

by Adam White