This article was originally featured by the Liverpool Echo.
Nabil Fekir grinned. In his hands was a gleaming red shirt complete with Liver bird, his name and squad number. He was almost there. Finalising a move to Liverpool seemed to be little more than a formality after meandering negotiations had finally resulted, as his agent Jean-Pierre Bernès told L’equipe, in the passing of a medical and the obligatory photo shoot. However, holding the red shirt was as close as Fekir got.
Although both Bernès and outspoken Lyon president Jean Michel Aulas hinted at a “real” reason last summer’s deal evaporated, fears over the Frenchman’s previous serious knee injury forced the Anfield club to renegotiate the agreement. The deal eventually collapsed as a result but Fekir’s near miss remains indicative of an increasing focus on the French market emerging at Anfield.
Attempts to sign Fekir preceded flirtations with fellow French international midfielder Thomas Lemar, Liverpool’s bids failed to meet Monaco’s valuation however, and the signing of fellow Monegasque Ligue 1 title winner Fabinho. A reported 80m euro offer for Lille’s breakout Ivorian winger Nioclas Pepe earlier this month amid links with sought after Lyon midfield pair Houssem Aouar, who rejected Liverpool as a youth-teamer, and Tanguy Ndombele, now close to Spurs, amongst others represent Liverpool’s enduring interest in Ligue 1.
While it’s unsurprising for the European champions to court Europe’s premier emerging talents, the scouting of Ligue 1 talent in a wider sense has proven an effective and prudent recruitment strategy across the continent in recent years. A tumultuous two year spell with Roma aside, famed sporting director Monchi’s understanding of the French market proved central to Sevilla’s success both sportingly and financially this decade, for example.
Five of the side that started Sevilla’s 2016 Europa League final win over Liverpool had been developed by French clubs while Polish midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak, full back Mariano and sub Timothee Kolodziejczak were signed directly from Ligue 1. Meanwhile successes akin to centre back Clement Lenglet, who caught Barcelona’s eye having signed from a struggling Nancy, former futsal forward Wissam Ben Yedder, who contributed a combined tally of 35 goals and assists this season having joined from Toulouse in 2016, and even Krychowiak, acquired from Stade Reims for £4m before joining PSG for nearly ten times that two years later, have become common at the Sanchez Pijuan. All plucked from relative obscurity by a typically astute scouting team.
In the meantime the Premier League has been punctuated by successful Ligue 1 and 2 additions across the previous decade. From Yohann Cabaye and Hatem Ben Arfa helping Newcastle United to a 5th place finish in 2012, largely thanks to then chief scout Graham Carr’s understanding of French football, to the dismantling of Monaco’s (and Lille’s - Hazard, Gervinho, Cabaye, Debuchy) title winning team by Manchester City among others across the continent, Benjamin Mendy and Bernardo Silva underlining their quality in England this season, to Leicester identifying N’golo Kante and Ryad Mahrez from further down the leagues, Ligue 1 talent has repeatedly proven adaptable, affordable, ripe for further development and of high quality.
Crucially for an onlooking Liverpool, the French footballing environment is geared towards the development of a broad talent pool, allowing players to emerge well rounded and relatively experienced. Such a focus has proven prolifically successful. Didier Deschamps’ focus on squad harmony above outright quality notwithstanding, France emerged victorious from Russia last summer despite leaving (for various reasons) Alexandre Lacazette, Aymeric Laporte, Karim Benzema, Adrian Rabiot, Anthony Martial, Dimitri Payet, Kingsley Coman, Lucas Digne, Moussa Sissoko and Laurent Koscielny - not to mention Ndombele, Aouar, Lenglet and Ben Yedder - all at home. Laporte aside, all were forged in the proving ground of Ligue 1 first teams.
Pivotally, the standard of coaching young players are exposed to in France has long been of an elite standard. Famed academies such as Clairefontaine, the national training centre not linked to a specific major club, which counts Theirry Henry and Kylian Mbappe as graduates, Le Havre, key to the development of Paul Pogba, Dimitri Payet and Steve Mandanda, and more recently Lyon’s prolific youth system, provide a high quality basis for young player’s footballing education.
Beyond academy level, French football’s focus on development and commitment to youth is, PSG aside, is hardwired into Ligue 1’s DNA. Many French clubs have based their entire sporting model around this process. A sizable sale of one developing talent every other season has become a sustainable financial model for mid table teams downward in particular. The £20m West Ham paid Toulouse for centre back Issa Diop last summer will go a long way.
In particular, Monaco and Nice have proven that the development and sale of young players can result in gargantuan profits, whether those players are produced by their academies, recruited from further down the pyramid or scouted in markets that offer value for money. Notably, French clubs have long been adept at scouting in Africa and the Carribean, often aided by a lack of a language barrier. For example, Ismailia Sarr, Rennes’ explosive Senegal forward, for example was spotted as a teenager by Metz’s Senegalese academy club Generation Foot before joining Metz proper in Summer 2016 and a £15m move to Rennes a year later. Rennes and Reims are among the most represented clubs at this summer’s AFCON. Lemar meanwhile moved to France from the Carribean island of Guadeloupe as a youngster having been spotted by a coach and eventually joined Caen. Portugal is also a particular favourite. Monaco paid just £5m for Fabinho after a two year loan from Rio Ave before his £40m move to Anfield.
Having marauded their way to the Ligue 1 title, Les Monegasques comfortably surpassed 500m euros worth of sales by the end of the following summer. Under the revolutionary leadership of president Jean Pierre Rivere and sporting director Julian Fournier, Nice recouped 100m euros from six sales including Jean Seri and Jordan Amavi. A group of players who cost the club a total of less than €5m.
As a result, at every Ligue 1 club outside Paris, there remains a keenness to provide opportunities to young players. When those talents are moved on, either overseas or further up the table, gaps are often filled by fresh burgeoning talents. Lyon continue to lead the way in this area. When Corentin Tolisso was sold for 45m to Bayern Munich while Roma poached midfield general Maxime Gonalons in Summer 2017, both academy graduates, Ndombele and Aouar became their replacements; Ndombele, then just 20, from freshly promoted Amiens and Aouar, a teenager, via OL’s youth system.
Ligue 1 itself then provides a perfect proving ground for those players to develop in a more holistic manner than might be on offer in other settings. French football is physical and tactical with a high standard of play and a strong representation in European competitions, but it’s day-to-day goes largely under the radar. Players like Pepe and Aouar enjoy consistent game time in a testing division but without the same pressure, or need, for immediate success.
As a result their growing pains are largely hidden from the wider footballing spotlight meaning mistakes or poor form usually carry fewer consequences. Talents like Pepe, who has suffered hiccups at Angers and in fighting relegation with Lille, are provided with the right environment to eventually flourish and emerge well-rounded in their craft and surprisingly experienced.
Memphis Depay, linked with Liverpool in the last year, has benefited from the freedom to (comparatively) quietly stabilize his career in France. The initial jump to Manchester United from PSV proved too wide at that time in his development, the pressure to succeed immediately being overpowering. Now, after two years in Lyon, he looks closer to the player United thought they had signed.
A watchful Liverpool’s interest is becoming increasingly peaked by the sense that Ligue 1 products such as Pepe are often on the verge of becoming an elite European player, ready to explode, and are well prepared for that next step. Helpfully for Liverpool and their peers, the selling club and the player in question are usually predisposed to facilitate a transfer. Lemar, Fekir and Fabinho all fitted such a mould.
Although a fee in the 40-80 million range for players like Fabinho, Pepe and Aouar remains a significant investment, it’s a low risk one for Liverpool. Should that player develop to or beyond expectations as hoped, at worst the club would be forced into selling, as with Coutinho, their initial investment likely more than doubled. Should expectations not be met, the sell-on price usually remains a manageable one, given that player’s previous body of work.
As an example, Newcastle made nearly £10m back from their initial £15m outlay on Florian Thauvin as he rejoined Marseille while PSG were keen to bring Fabinho back to France after his oddly slow start at Liverpool. Older, more established, more expensive targets may offer, to varying degrees, less of a sporting gamble in the short term but remain a far larger financial one.
A typical Ligue 1 graduate’s age is also attractive for a club like Liverpool. Although not always the case, 18 year old St Etienne defender William Sailba’s proposed £30m move to Arsenal or Spurs for example is a little ahead of time, the majority of players Liverpool and other leading clubs are linked with are still sufficiently youthful but at a stage where they are often ready to slot into the team with relatively minimal further development needed.
Fabinho was 24 upon arrival at Anfield as Pepe is now, Lemar is 23 as Ndombele will be in December while Fekir was 24 last summer. At the time of Liverpool’s interest all had comfortably surpassed 100 Ligue 1 games, with the exception of Ndombele who has 98 combined French top flight and Champions League outings. Fabinho’s longer settling in period remains something of an outlier compared to fellow top 6 Ligue 1 editions in the last few years, from Eden Hazard to Alexandre Lacazette.
Perhaps most importantly for Liverpool, and more generally for Michael Edwards and the club’s recruitment team, Ligue 1 products may prove alluring because of stylistic similarities. Jurgen Klopp’s demands of a player will be, in very simple terms, easily met by the majority of Ligue 1’s emerging talents. French football, thanks to Clairefontaine et al and French football’s identity, has long produced dynamic, athletic and technically gifted players with sufficient experience in a physical league which often makes their transition to the rumbustious Premier League, and one of it’s more aggressive and dynamic teams, theoretically a smooth one.
Klopp himself is the ideal coach for a young player ready to make that jump to the upper echelons of the European game. An unerring ability to develop and markedly improve the players at his disposal being prominent in Liverpool’s recent success.
As L’equipe reported earlier this month Klopp seems to have a ‘special liking for Nicolas Pépé’ while Lyon based newspaper Le Progrès recently underlined that ‘Liverpool are still following’ Fekir. The sale of Ndombele also remains a strong possibility before the start of next season. Although Liverpool are a little way from securing one of Ligue 1’s latest emerging talents, the club’s concerted interest in the French market and it’s host of young, gifted, well-nurtured and adaptable leading lights suggests that, in the coming months and years, many a Ligue 1 star may do more than just hold that red shirt.
by Adam White