On Friday evening Ligue 2 once again restarted and sloppily painted municipal stadium gates around France were opened to welcome fans to the first day of the second division’s 77th edition. The recent transfers of some of last season’s star Ligue 2 players like Corentin Jean to Monaco, Yoann Barbet to Brentford and Sehdou Guirassy to Lille are testament to the fact that the championship has developed a well-earned reputation as one of Europe’s best in terms of its output of highly-talented young players.
In this piece, I’ve decided to pick out eleven to follow this season, focusing on players who play in a range of different of positions and who represent eight different clubs. Each player had to meet one crucial parameter – they had to have been born in 1991 at the earliest. When reading this piece, the reader should remember the astonishing fact that every single player I have selected has progressed through the youth development system of the club that they now represent at first-team level in Ligue 2.
To paraphrase the great Jean-Paul Sartre: as first-team players, every single one of these players will have to find their own paths in the game, and they may or may not end up as great successes in the future. The most important thing however though is that these players have been selected on the basis of the glimpses of genuine class that they have demonstrated so far in their short career. Their futures, at this stage, look bright.
Bingourou Kamara – 18, Goalkeeper, Tours FC
An inclusion in my Ligue 2 – Three U23 players who shone in 2014-2015 article, Bingourou Kamara can be justly described as one of the most exciting talents currently developing in French Football. The eighteen-year-old, who has been his side’s established number one since he made his debut last season as a seventeen-year-old against Stade Lavallois, always impresses with his agility, athleticism and his instant reflexes.
The 6’4″ stopper has improved vastly with regular first-team football and he is certain to have a bright future ahead of him in the game. He represented France U19s at the recent European Championships in Greece, pulling off smart saves against the hosts in a Group A clash. Expect Kamara to gain an increasingly influential audience should he continue to impress at the Stade de la Vallée du Cher.
The eighteen-year-old is yet to sign a pro-deal with his current side, which means would be able to leave the club for a small compensation fee, and top sides on either side of the channel have been alerted to the talented young keeper’s situation.
Mathieu Michel – 23, Goalkeeper, Nîmes Olympique
After moving to his boyhood heroes as an eight-year-old, Michel rose through the Nîmes’ ranks to make his first-team debut fourteen years later. The charismatic keeper broke through to become a first-team regular when Cyrille Merville moved to the club’s second division rivals Créteil. Ever since, Michel has become a fans’ favourite among Les Crocos’ loyal support and to date he has amassed an impressive forty-four appearances for the club since the end of the 2013-2014 season.
Like a lot of goalkeepers in France, Michel is a solid shot-stopper and he is quick to come off his line without hesitation when he feels that his input is needed to remove danger. However what marks Michel out from other goalkeepers in Ligue 2 and perhaps even more widely in France is the fact that he has an extremely safe pair of hands. His handling technique combined with his ability to pull off diving saves make him a comparable player to Rennes and France international goalkeeper Benoît Costil. Les Nîmois are renowned for their leaky defensive play, so Ligue 2 followers should have plenty of occasions to see Michel involved in the thick of the action this season. Things defensively however have started brightly for José Pasqualetti’s side, with Michel and his teammates winning a clean-sheet on the opening day of the season against Évian Thonon-Gaillard on Friday.
Unlike Kamara, Michel has recently committed his future to his current club. The twenty-three-year-old signed a new three-year deal until 2018 with his current employers in May and he has spoken about his desire to push his side back up towards the top half of Ligue 2. He will however attract potential Ligue 1 suitors if he can produce the type of saves that he is capable of pulling-off.
Clément Lenglet – 20, Centre-back, AS Nancy
Few players in France’s second-tier have attracted as much high-profile attention as Clément Lenglet managed to last season. As well as being tracked by a host of Ligue 1 clubs, the young centre-back was reported to have been scouted regularly by Juventus, with the Italian club keen to add to its history of luring French talent to the other side of the Alps. Despite advanced negotiations between the two clubs, a visit made by Lenglet to Juventus’ training ground and previous reports of a deal having been reached for the French youth international’s services, the twenty-year-old remains a Nancy player today. The interest in Lenglet remains high, but for the moment he can still be considered as one of the brightest prospects in Ligue 2.
Lenglet first made his way into Nancy’s first-team set-up by making three brief appearances for the Meurthe-et-Moselle side in the 2013-2014 season, but his rise to prominence began last year, when he became a regular in Pablo Correa’s side beside his defensive partner Joël Sami. Lenglet has impressed with his physicality, coming out in top in aerial duels against some of the league’s most forceful centre-forwards, and more often than not his timing of tackles has been impeccable, thanks to his high level of composure. As a left-sided player with a gifted left-foot, Lenglet has also aided his side in terms of his good range of passing and his ability to aid attacks by pushing up into midfield. What this cool-headed defender has in composure however, he lacks in pace and this could be his main weakness as his career develops.
A departure for Lenglet seems probable, but another season in Ligue 2 would not do the French U21 player’s career development any harm at all. At just twenty, he helped to lead one of Ligue 2’s top ten tightest defences last season and he progressed superbly as a result of regular first-team game time. Nancy are being tipped as serious title contenders this year and there is no doubt that their realistic promotion hopes would be dented in the event of Lenglet’s departure.
Angelo Fulgini – 18, Right-back, Valenciennes FC
Fulgini grabbed Ligue 2’s opening goal of the season and his first professional career goal when he headed in from close range in his side’s one-nil away win against Chamois Niortais on Friday. Fulgini has long been tipped as a rising star by experts within the French game. The France U19 international, who played in all four of his side’s matches at the recent European Championships, first rose to prominence when he was integrated into Valenciennes’ youth system in 2007, becoming a regular feature in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais side’s U15 team. He has since gone on to catch the attention of recruitment analysts of some of Europe’s top clubs, including Liverpool, Barcelona and AC Milan. Manchester United’s France-based scout David Friio is also believed to have watched the eighteen-year-old play on several occasions.
The eighteen-year-old shows great maturity, as he rarely neglects to remember his defensive duties as a full-back, despite his prowess when venturing up the field. Despite his age, Fulgini stands out physically because of his formidable athletic build and he uses this to great effect when holding off wingers when he is in possession, or equally when he attempts to win the ball back by using his strength to shoulder players aside. He also marks opponents extremely tightly and importantly shows good levels of concentration before committing to tackles.
The level-headed right-back overlaps well when going forward and often uses trickery to go by players, also possessing great technical ability with the ball at his feet. He often elects to play perfectly-weighted passes infield to his teammates, giving him an important role in his side’s build-up play.
Despite clearly having the potential to be a future international right-back, Fulgini is by no means the finished product, and his sometimes ineffective delivery from crosses reveals a side to his game that is still very raw. This however should be expected from a player who is still obviously at a very early development stage of his career. Valenciennes fans were given great encouragement when they learned last week that the eighteen-year-old had signed a first professional contract with the club, ensuring that he would not leave the club during the current on a cut-price transfer fee. He should be an intriguing player to follow throughout the remainder of the season.
Jérôme Onguéné – 17, Centre-back, Sochaux
In football, Barcelona and Ajax are usually names that people associate with world class youth development. Ligue 2 side Sochaux however haven’t historically fallen into the same category as the previously mentioned clubs, but Sochaux’s academy is currently bearing fruit. Under the directorship of former Sochaux first-team head coach Éric Hély, the Franche-Comté side’s youth academy is striving, with its crowning success coming last season when the club’s U19 side lifted France’s famous youth cup, the Coupe Gambardella. One of the stars of the club’s journey to success was 17-year-old centre-back Jérôme Onguéné.
Onguéné has become a regular in France’s U18 side and after making his professional debut towards the end of last season, the powerful centre-back is now very much in contention for first-team football at the Stade Auguste-Bonal. The Cameroon-born teenager started Sochaux’s first-game of the season last week against Clermont and he earned rave reviews as a result of his imperious performance, showing a commanding sense of maturity which appeared to be way in excess of the norm for a young player of his age, with the young centre-back helping his side to earn a clean-sheet in the scoreless draw.
According to France U18 head coach Ludovic Batelli, Onguéné is a ‘leader’ and a ‘warrior’ on the pitch. In a post-match interview with the local press in Sochaux, the youngster revealed his self-assurance when he explained that he doesn’t get daunted by the prospect of playing first-team football at such young age, commenting that he treats every single game that he plays in as just like any other match. Sochaux, like Nancy, are also serious title contenders this year and young players like Onguéné have already demonstrated that they can be counted upon when they are need by head coach Olivier Echouafni. This could be a very exciting year to follow Les Lionceaux.
Baptiste Santamaria – 20, Central midfield, Tours FC
The second Tourangeau inclusion in this list is the Centre-based club’s talented central midfielder Baptiste Santamaria. Santamaria has been linked throughout the current transfer window with Ligue 1 sides, but much to the relief of Tours supporters, the number thirty-one looks set to stay with the club for at least the first-half of the Ligue 2 season. The Saint-Doulchard-born product of Tours’ youth system has become a fans’ favourite during his first two seasons at the club and he endeared himself even more to them when he signed a new contract until 2017 at the end of the 2013-2014 campaign. You do however get the sense that Santamaria is perhaps a bit too gourmand to remain at a club like Tours in the long-term future.
Santamaria impressed during his first-season at the club, but in my opinion it was his second and more recent season at Tours in which his real potential was revealed. At 6ft in height, he is taller than most central midfielders in the league and he demonstrated from his earliest matches with Tours his elegant style of play. He is a technically-gifted midfielder who has a fantastic first touch even when the most inconvenient passes are played into his feet and he has demonstrated often his ability to quickly spot passes which he usually delivers excellently with his wide range of passing.
He also has the ability to chip in with his side’s goalscoring, scoring eight goals for his side in his first two seasons at the club. It was in his most recent season though that he developed the type of grit and steel that it takes for central midfielders to succeed in most European leagues today.
The twenty-year-old was selected to represent France at the recent Toulon tournament, helping his side to lift the trophy thanks to a run of impressive performances. Asides from proving how gifted a player he is in terms of his passing from midfield, he also showed how much he has improved physically, making key tackles in the centre of the pitch, particularly in games against the Netherlands and the USA. He has the ability to make a vital difference to Tours’ performance this season.
Lucas Tousart – 18, Defensive midfield, Valenciennes FC
Like Fulgini, Tousart is another highly talented youth product of Valenciennes’ increasingly reputable academy system. The eighteen-year-old holding midfielder has been the subject of well-documented negotiations between Olympique Lyonnais’ charismatic owner Jean-Michel Aulas and his counterparts at the Stade du Hainaut. After helping his side to their one-nil win in Niort last week, Tousart’s future at the club seems increasingly in doubt and he could soon leave to join Hubert Fournier’s side, but if he remains a Valenciennes player he will almost certainly be one of the best players to follow in Ligue 2.
Like Santamaria, Tousart is also around 6ft in height and as a result stands out in midfield. He is however two years younger than the Tours midfielder, but ever since his first match in Ligue 2 last season against Santamaria’s side, Tousart has been keen to demonstrate his keenness to use his sizeable frame to good effect. The eighteen-year-old makes clever use of the ball when he has it at feet, but it is his ability to win the ball back for his side that has impressed most. He loves to press and hassle opponents, and his tenacity and dynamism have won him admirers across France.
Tousart stood out as a key player for France during their recent journey to UEFA U19s European Championships, earning himself admiration from clubs in England including Manchester City. At eighteen he is in a crucial development stage in his career and first-team football is of an essential importance to him. Valenciennes fans will be desperate for their hard-working midfield prodigy to remain.
Samed Kılıç – 19, Attacking-midfield, AJ Auxerre
Franco-Turkish midfielder Kılıç’s name may be recognisable to some avid football news-reading English Premier League fans. The skilful nineteen-year-old has been linked with a number of English clubs, including Chelsea, as a result of his impressive performances in the white of Auxerre last season. After a grave disappointment to many fans last season in the Coupe de France final, Auxerre will be hoping for a better league finish this season and if they are to improve upon last year’s eleventh place spot, the skilful teenager’s performances could be key.
Alongside the perhaps equally talented Grégory Berthier, Kılıç was part of the Auxerre side that lifted the Coupe Gamberdella in the 2013-2014 campaign. The attacking-midfielder is much more comfortable playing behind the strikers or on the right-hand side of midfield than he is playing in the middle of the park. He excels when he is afforded the chance to run at defences, using his close control and dribbling technique to go by opposition players. He has a keen eye for a pass and will try to play clever passes in behind defences for his attacking teammates to make the most of. He notably impressed against Nancy during his side’s three-nil victory in the Coupe de la Ligue, but did not feature when Auxerre went out of the tournament in the next round after a 3-1 defeat against Bastia. A tournament in which the Burgundian side did progress further was the Coupe de France, where they would eventually lose to PSG in the final.
Another key player in France’s U19 set-up, the nineteen-year-old played a key assist in his side’s two-nil victory against Greece, and he also demonstrated his keen eye for goal, shooting in all four matches that he played in at the tournament. Kılıç only managed to score once last season in his twenty-five appearances for Auxerre and he will be hoping to improve upon this tally throughout this campaign. Both he and Berthier could have key effects on their side’s overall performance.
Lys Mousset – 19, Centre-forward, Le Havre AC
Other than the fact that they’ve all played for France, what do Paul Pogba, Lassana Diarra and Dimitri Payet have in common? They were all also products of Le Havre’s Cavée Verte youth academy, and in more recent years players such as Ryad Mahrez, Ryan Mendes and Gueïda Fofana have followed the same path. If his goal on Friday night is anything to go by, nineteen-year-old Lys Mousset, one of the the Norman clubs newest youth products could be the next talented graduate of the system to watch out for.
The young forward, who made his first appearance for the club’s first-team last season, stunned fans during the match at the Stade Jean-Laville in Bourg-en-Bresse. Coming off the bench on the eighty-third minute, the eighteen-year-old’s impact was almost instant. After just five minutes on the pitch, Mousset cleverly turned his marker with a back-heeled flick, before releasing the sweetest of long-range strikes from around forty yards out, with the ball nestling into the top left-hand corner.
Perhaps Mousset won’t ever score a strike like that again. Perhaps it was the only strike that he’ll ever be remembered for. But for Ligue 2 analysts like me, the goal has sparked a lot of hope. With the departure of Mickaël Le Bihan (the side’s top scorer from last season) looking imminent, could Mousset be yet another star Havrais youth product, who is ready to replace his goals and perhaps go on to even bigger things? The short answer is that we don’t know – but nonetheless he has started his career in the best possible way and it will be very interesting to follow him throughout this season.
Thomas Robinet – 18, Attacker/Winger, Sochaux
Scoring the opener in Sochaux’s two-nil Coupe Gambardella final victory at the Stade de France was probably the perfect way for Thomas Robinet to round off what was a superb season for the young striker. After beginning his career at Olympique Lyonnais academy before being released, the eighteen-year-old must have felt a great sense of revenge when he scored a first-half diving header against the club that let him go when he was just twelve years of age. Robinet has since developed into one of France’s most talked-about young attacking players, scoring a of total twenty-one goals last season for his new club in the CFA, the U19 championship and of course in the country’s most prestigious youth cup tournament. This season could be the first in which the teenager brings his goals to the professional game.
In terms of his playing style, Robinet can easily be compared to France U21 Corentin Jean. He is a natural striker who excels when given goalscoring opportunities, but his quick feet, composure and his ability to dribble past players mean that he like Jean he can also be used as an auxiliary winger. The fact that Robinet is often made to play on the wing by his coaches makes the fact that he scored twenty-one goals last season even more impressive. The France U17 internationalist made his first-team debut for Sochaux on Friday, coming off the bench to join his fellow Coupe Gambardella-winning teammate Jérôme Onguéné.
In addition to their flourishing youth academy, Sochaux already have a pretty strong and expansive squad that should challenge for a promotion spot if all goes well in the coming season. A blow to their title hopes would be struck if last season’s top scorer Karl Toko Ekambi was to leave the club. The twenty-two-year-old has been linked in the current window with English clubs, as well as with Ligue 1 outfit Lorient. Although this would be a cause of upset for Sochaux supporters, it could however provide Robinet with the perfect opportunity to gain the first-team action he needs to elevate himself to Corentin Jean-level status.
Marcus Thuram – 17, Centre-forward, Sochaux
Marcus Thuram was born in northern Italy just seventeen years ago, when his World Cup-winning father Lilian was still stopping Serie A’s best strikers from scoring against his classic Parma side. Unlike his father, it’s defenders that Marcus is creating problems for in both domestic and international competition at youth level. The seventeen-year-old scored a double in the Coupe Gambardella semi-final against Paris Saint-Germain, before scoring a superb goal against Lyon in the final to seal the victory for Sochaux. Having had a taste of Ligue 2 life when he made his debut last season as a substitute against La Berrichonne de Châteauroux, the Sochaux number thirty-three will be eager to make the most of any chances he gets in first-team football this season.
Similar to his father in terms of his physical appearance, Thuram is also a quick and powerful striker. For a player who stands at 6’2″, the young centre-forward is blessed with an extremely impressive turn of pace and this was on show when he scored against Lyon in the youth cup final. After winning an aerial duel, Thuram turned quickly to run in behind the two OL centre-backs to reach a ball played through the defence from midfield. He then showed his class when he made the most of the opportunity he was presented with. He showed great composure when taking the ball round the keeper before finishing well on his left-foot from what could have been a potentially complicated angle. Thuram got his goal and made his mark on French youth football’s biggest stage.
Aged just seventeen, Thuram was also an extremely young inclusion in Patrick Gonfalone’s squad for the European championships in Greece and he made three appearances at the tournament. Sometimes players with ability don’t make the grade and fail to realise their full potential purely because they are psychologically unable to deal with pressure – this can sometimes be the difference between playing Ligue 1 and CFA 2 for some players. Fortunately for Sochaux, Thuram appears to thrive under pressure. The seventeen-year-old didn’t just manage to have a great season on the pitch – Thuram also managed to combine his studies perfectly with his footballing career, passing his baccalauréat (equivalent to SQA Highers or A-Levels) with a good mention. If Thuram is given game time this season, one thing is sure – he won’t crumble under pressure.