27th March 2016. By Edward Stratmann.
After impressing for Tunisian club CS Sfaxien, who were managed by former legend of the iconic 1970s Dutch Total Football side, Ruud Krol, when he first joined in 2012, it didn't take long before Didier Ndong had a number of Ligue 1 clubs chasing his signature.
Come the January transfer window of 2015, courtesy of his excellent midfield displays, Bastia and Saint Etienne expressed their interest, but it would be Lorient who won the race for the Gabonese international. Les Merlus had a clear advantage from the outset, however, for Gabon teammate and former Lorient captain, Bruno Ecuele Manga, had encouraged his countryman to join. As it proved, this was vital in stacking the deck in their favour, with Ndong officially sealing his move on January 3, 2015.
Even though he initially struggled to adapt to life in Brittany and needed time to familiarise himself with Lorient's preferred 4-4-2 formation, he's now become a mainstay of this exciting, technically proficient outfit. "It wasn't easy for me when I arrived, just after a difficult Africa Cup of Nations campaign, but I'm enjoying my football now at Lorient, where young players are given a chance, and I want to repay the coach for the faith he's shown in me.
"I'm an attacking player, I like to have the ball. When I arrived I wasn't used to playing in a 4-4-2 so I had to do a lot of tactical work with the coach to get up to speed."
It must be said that all his hard work has unquestionably paid off, for Ndong's now an integral component of Sylvain Ripoll's squad. Having announced himself to Ligue 1 by scoring a breathtaking 35 yard screamer vs. Monaco back in September of last year, the 21-year-old's rise to prominence since has seen him draw comparisons to Michael Essien. The fact he's second in minutes played only to talented goalkeeper Benjamin Lecomte, Ndong's racked up 2516 compared to Lecomte's 2611, suitably illustrates what an indispensable member of the Lorient side he's become.
Blessed with strength, power, pace, stamina and a solid leap, he's indeed a rather imposing physical specimen, who's a hugely challenging obstacle to overcome for any opponent in a 1v1 battle. While the aggressive presser and tackler can display some misplaced overzealousness in his attempts to win back possession at times, something that's seen him already record 14 yellow cards and one red in his time with Lorient, his intent would nonetheless please his manager. On the upside, though, his manful exertions undoubtedly set the tone for his teammates to apply themselves in a similarly whole-hearted fashion.
Defensively, the way he rapidly tracks back to support his defenders, covers for his fullbacks and picks up midfield runners only serves to amplify how well he's developing into a mature, dependable stopping presence.
Meanwhile, on the attacking end, his athleticism and dribbling quality make him capable of driving his side forward, much like his idol Paul Pogba does for Juventus, whenever the opportunity arises. "There are a lot of great players in my position, but if I had to choose a favourite I'd say Pogba, because I like his power and his shooting ability. But I'm not that good yet, I need to work hard to get to that level," Ndong says of the man he one day hopes to emulate.
In addition, he also possess a fine range of passing that sees him able to play everything from raking long balls, slicing through balls and intricate short combinations in confined spaces with equal effectiveness. This is most definitely an area of his game which is ever improving under the possession based philosophy that Ripoli adhers to.
Alongside his mercurial midfield partner, Walid Mesloub, the duo who complement each other so well have struck up a fine partnership and understanding, which has been especially effective of late.
"He recovers more balls than me and he's more involved in defensive spots, while I project myself more in a forward sense and bring technical qualities. We try the best to position ourselves so to obstruct the opponent's game. I think it works pretty well right now," explained Mesloub, who clearly appreciates and enjoys operating in tandem with Ndong.
Unsurprisingly, Ndong, who sports eye-catching bleached blonde locks that have been compared to McDonald's french fries, has now attracted the attention of many EPL teams as a result of his wonderful work throughout this campaign. If reports are to be believed, Arsenal, Southampton and Stoke City have all shown an interest, but for the time being working within Ripoll's philosophy at Lorient is certainly the best place for his progression as a player, both technically and tactically.
After all, he need only look at the likes of Laurent Koscielny, Seydou Keita, Kevin Gameiro, Mario Lemina, Andre Ayew, Jordan Ayew and Christophe Jallet, who have all spent time honing their craft at the Stade du Moustoir, to gain an insight into the club's talent nurturing expertise.
In time, if he continues on his rapid upward trajectory, one day he might even get to the level of his hero, Pogba. He's got all the talent to do precisely that, only time will tell if he, in fact, does.
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Lorient's young sensation Didier Ndong
27th March 2016. By Edward Stratmann.