As a general rule, any young playmaker coming through the ranks at AC Milan will be dubbed ‘the new Kaka’, and similarly, any young playmaker of French origin will be dubbed ‘the new Zidane’. And if you’re unfortunate to have both tags thrust upon you? Well then your name is probably Yoann Gourcuff. Since a high profile transfer to AC Milan as a young prodigy, and a subsequent Ligue 1 title with Bordeaux, Gourcuff’s career has been derailed, and it’s evident that one of France’s brightest lights has been fading rapidly over the last few years.
Following a transfer from Rennes in 2006, he made only a handful of appearances at AC Milan where he was largely an understudy to the likes of Kaka, who at the time was arguably the best player in the world. In an attempt to get him playing more, Gourcuff was sent on loan to Bordeaux, where he quickly became a key focal point of their team, and alongside the likes of Alou Diarra and Marouane Chamakh, fired Les Girondins to a league and cup double 2008/09 – individual acclaim soon followed, and Bordeaux met his release clause to bring him in on a permanent basis.
At Milan, big things were expected of the man they spent nearly £5m bringing in from Rennes. Whilst he showed some promise, he could only manage 66 appearances in 3 years, with the majority of those either being substitutions or out wide. Paolo Maldini, who was nearing the end of his playing career at the time, spoke out about Gourcuff’s poor work ethic (something I’ll come back to), citing his lack of effort to learn Italian. He didn’t feel welcome in Italy, but at Bordeaux he was the focal point of the team. It seemed the natural thing to do at that stage of his career.
It was justified too, given the success he had there under Laurent Blanc (he picked up a Champions League medal in 2007 for AC Milan, but he didn’t play in the final). Quickly, people sat up and took notice of him, and he attracted big European clubs, namely Arsenal, Valencia and Ajax. It wasn’t only club sides that wanted him though.
After defeat in the 2006 World Cup Final, Raymond Domenech (then the coach of the French national side) went about trying to rebuild a squad, following the departures of the likes of Zidane, Sagnol and Trezeguet. Henry was still there, but as has been well documented over the years, he never quite hit the same heights as during his days at Arsenal. Euro 2008 came a little too soon for this new French side, but Gourcuff made his international debut in the aftermath, and it seemed as though the man who went on to be French Player of the Year in 2009 would be the one to lead his nation back to glory.
So what happened to him? Well, I guess one thing you’d have to say is that there is stiff competition in France for the playmaker role – Samir Nasri would be the obvious choice, but then there’s Valbuena, Menez and Malouda who have all been challengers to what should have been Gourcuff’s rightful place in the national side. Menez wasn’t quite on the scene in 2010, and with Nasri’s surprising omission from the squad, it seemed as though Gourcuff could have made the 2010 World Cup his. Instead, his only contribution was a red card against South Africa in the final game, which ended an abysmal campaign riddled with striking and unrest in the camp.
However, by this time he was playing in Lyon, after having only spent 2 years with Bordeaux. Of course, Lyon are a bigger side historically in France, and they were probably a bigger club at the time too, but there has to be something said for remaining at a club so that you can fully integrate into the system. This is where it seems apt to quote Paolo Maldini:
“His problem here [in Milan] was his behaviour. He was not intelligent in the manner of managing himself. When he played here, he did not want to make himself available to the group. He did not start to study Italian immediately.”
At Lyon, under Claude Puel, Gourcuff struggled to make an impact, and cited an inability to fit into the system as the cause of his poor form. He probably had a point. He wasn’t used to playing so deep in a 4-3-3 formation, and he was being asked to operate in a Pirlo-esque role. Whilst Zidane dropped deeper and deeper as his career went on, this wasn’t the same thing – Zidane went wherever he felt he could most influence the team. With Gourcuff, he was being forced into a position that he couldn’t play in (there were suggestions in France that the board were forcing this due to the hefty price tag that he commanded, as well as his reputation as a big player). This season, under Remi Garde, he’s been playing in a more familiar 4-4-2, and his performances, although quite sparse, have shown signs of improvement.
Attitude issues have dogged Gourcuff’s career, but they’re not the only thing – injury has played a huge part in his demise. Knee, thigh and ankle injuries have kept him out for large parts of his career, and crucially they’ve come at times when he’s been picking up momentum. Arsène Wenger, when asked about the possibility of signing his compatriot, said that the injury problems were enough to make him think twice.
So what does he do now, and can he save his career from slipping into the obscurities of French mid-table mediocrity? In my eyes, he can do one of three things – he can either move back to Bordeaux. I wouldn’t advise this – it would only refuel suspicions that he likes things easy, and it would probably represent a step backwards in terms of footballing quality. The second option would be to start afresh in a new country. Newcastle’s French contingent would seem a safe option, but they don’t play with a playmaker, and thus he may have the same issues he faced in his first season at Lyon. Arsenal’s interest has been well documented, and whilst personally I’d love to see him at Arsenal (linking up with Chamakh again? Yes please!), I don’t see it happening, given the depth provided by Cazorla, Rosicky, Chamberlain etc.
That leaves one more option – stay with Lyon, and fight to regain some form, as well as support. French fans can be very fickle, and I remember clearly a match against Iceland before Euro 2012, where every touch he made was met by boos and jeers, no doubt harming his self confidence even more. He wasn’t selected for the tournament, but was recalled shortly after. It would do himself good to try to integrate with the Lyon system, and for them to mould their play around him. If he doesn’t try to impose himself as a key component to Lyon and instead waits for someone who needs him to fill a hole in their team, he could be waiting a very long time indeed.