1st November 2017. By Ryan Baldi.
The loss of Alexandre Lacazette, Corentin Tolisso and Maxim Gonalons stripped Lyon of three of their most important players this summer. The former left for Arsenal after the Gunners broke their club transfer record to temp OL into parting with their prized asset, and it was a similar story with Tolisso’s move to German champions Bayern Munich, while Gonalons, who had captained the French side, joined Roma for just €5 million.
In a matter of weeks, Lyon had lost their most prolific and reliable marksman, their energetic and technically gifted young midfield dynamo, and their leader and lynchpin in the middle of the park.
They reinvested much of the roughly €100 million recouped from the sales, with, among others, Dominican international striker Mariano Diaz coming in from Real Madrid and versatile forward Bertrand arriving from Chelsea after impressing on loan with Ajax last season.
It would have been reasonable to expect Lyon to struggle somewhat this term, allowing for a bedding-in period for their new signings and an adjustment to life without three of the stars that any recent success had been built upon. But, after 11 rounds of fixtures, Bruno Génésio’s men sit third in Ligue 1, in touch with champions Monaco and leader Paris Saint-Germain, and it’s largely thanks to the superlative form of one man: Nabil Fekir.
Had fortune favoured the 24-year-old France international, he would likely have departed Parc OL some time ago, his star having first risen during the 2014/15 season in which he netted 15 goals and proved the perfect foil to Lacazette in attack as either a second striker or right winger cutting inside onto his stronger left foot.
At the end of that campaign, rumours began to circulate that a big-money move was on the cards for the then-22-year-old attacker, who had attained the Ligue 1 darling status since foisted upon Ousmane Dembélé and Kylian Mbappé in recent seasons.
Manchester United were linked with a move for Fekir in the summer of 2015, and the player openly commented that a move to Old Trafford very much appealed to him, calling the 20-time champions of England “a dream club” shortly after Anthony Martial’s big-money move from Monaco to the Theatre of Dreams.
But Fekir’s progress was checked in September 2015. While making his first start for France, a 1-0 away win in a friendly against Portugal, the Lyon-born star ruptured three ligaments in his right knee, practically ending his season, halting any talk of a lucrative move away from the Ligue 1 side in the near future and setting the young creator on a long and arduous road to recovery.
He recovered in time to be involved in Lyon’s final games of 2015/16, and was a regular feature last season, but only this term has Fekir looked truly back to peak form and fitness, rediscovering the unpredictability, dynamic bursts through confined spaces and knack for picking out the corner of the net from any angle that previously set him apart.
It appears that Fekir’s current fettle is borne out necessity, too. Last term, with Lacazette, Tolisso et al on hand to keep Lyon progressing and providing regular inspiration, Fekir was able to ease his way back into the first-team picture, relatively unburdened by expectations, with high-calibre team-mates shouldering much of the offensive work load.
However, after the star departures this summer, Génésio bestowed the Frenchman with the captain’s arm band, anointing the diminutive forward as the team’s new leader. And he has stepped up to the plate.
Operating predominantly as the No.10 in Lyon’s 4-2-3-1 formation, Fekir has been at the heart of everything good his side has produced, netting nine league goals and four assists in 10 Ligue 1 appearances. Consistently proving decisive, he scored both goals in a 2-0 win over Metz last weekend, coolly converted an early penalty in the Europa League win over Everton, and snatched a last-gasp winner – his second of the game – to secure all three points against champions Monaco in mid-October.
Efficient and effective, Fekir has also shown himself to be capable of the spectacular, too. His stunning, 50-yard strike against Bordeaux all but wrapped up the Goal of the Season award in late August. What made the goal especially impressive was that it was not your typical halfway-line strike that loops over a goalkeeper caught way out of his goal: rather it was a flat, accurate, arrowed shot into the top corner. And executed expertly with his weaker right foot.
Statistically, Fekir is producing career-high numbers in completed dribbles per 90 minutes (4.1), and accurate short passes per 90 (31.7) – the former evidence of his returning confidence and magnificent individual skill, and the latter showing a greater involvement in Lyon’s general play, taking responsibility for the way his team constructs attacks.
Additionally, his 2.3 key passes per 90 cannot be matched by any Lyon player with more than one league start to their name so far this season.
Compared to five-time Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi by Arsenal defender and international colleague Laurent Koscielny, and described by none other than the great Zinédine Zidane, who reportedly considered signing the Lyon man for Real Madrid this summer, as “an incredible player” who “impressed me technically,” confidence is still very high in Fekir, who looks set to resume his international ambitions with France having fully overcome the effects of his 2015 injury.
And his timing couldn’t have been any better, with the 2018 World Cup in Russia arriving at the end of the current season. France will be among the favourites to win the tournament thanks to the wealth of talent manager Didier Deschamps is able to call upon. And competition for a place will be rife among the attacking players in particular, with Antoine Griezmann, Mbappé, Dembélé, Kingsley Coman and Anthony Martial all contesting roles Fekir could fulfil.
But, on current form, Fekir would be an asset for any side, and Deschamps would be foolish to overlook the gifted Lyon No.10.
Ligue 1 has been elevated by the arrival of Brazilian superstar Neymar’s world-record move to Paris Saint-Germain this summer, with the talent level in the division arguably higher than ever. But Fekir is ensuring that he is not forgotten, and staking his claim to be considered among the very best players in France.