France’s Ligue 1 has always suffered from seeing its best players pack their bags for top European clubs, though this does mean that doors are often opened to young players a little earlier than usual. Proving that their worth is not measured in years, many have wasted no time in transforming themselves into veritable leaders on the pitch.
Indeed, while the team of the year is yet to be announced in France, there are a multitude of precocious talents who have a chance of being included, such as defender Mamadou Sakho, defensive midfielder Yann M’vila, playmaker Marvin Martin and versatile attacker Andre Ayew. Each one is a rising star in his early 20s, known respectively for his solidity, reading of the game, passing skills and versatility.
As a cornerstone of the Paris Saint-Germain backline, being recognised as one of the division's most competent defenders is turning into a habit for Mamadou Sakho. Although just 21, his rangy frame has been a regular feature of the Parisian side’s matches for over four seasons now.
“I was born in Paris; it’s a dream come true to be able to play at the Parc des Princes,” said the tireless centre-back, who made his debut the day after his 17th birthday in 2007, under the watchful eye of then PSG coach Paul Le Guen. “I used to go to games when I was little - I’d be high up in the stands and the players would all seem so tiny. That’s why I always give 100 per cent when I enter the field."
Nowadays, he enjoys a much closer view of proceedings on the pitch, and would like to see a little more of Polish and Ukrainian stadiums in particular. His ambition of appearing at UEFA EURO 2012 – set to take place in the aforementioned countries next summer – is not as far-fetched as it might once have seemed, given that France coach Laurent Blanc has included him in numerous squads over the past few months. These frequent call-ups for EURO qualifying matches have clearly had a beneficial effect on the tough-tackling Sakho.
“Perhaps the national team has helped me, psychologically speaking,” he said by way of explaining his superb 2010/11. “It’s my fourth season in Ligue 1. When you get a good run of matches under your belt, it’s easier to express yourself and perform consistently out on the pitch.”
Rennes’ Yann M’Vila, on the other hand, had just one Ligue 1 season behind him before this year’s campaign began. But his early appearances in the top tier were enough to convince Breton supporters that in M’Vila, the club possessed a real rough diamond of a player.
Rennes coach Frederic Antonetti proceeded to go about polishing the diamond, and even went as far as to predict that his protégé would win a place in Les Bleus’ squad for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. In the end, while he was included in the initial 30-man list, he did not make the final cut. But he would not have to wait long for international recognition.
In August 2010, Laurent Blanc handed the holding midfielder his first cap, pinpointing him as an essential component of his newly rebuilt national side. M’Vila repaid the faith shown in him by both his coaches by first enabling Rennes to compete for a European spot, and then by helping the French national side to restore its image within the game.
During a 2-0 win over Luxembourg in March, he successfully completed 124 out of 134 passes - a record for a French international. This efficiency has been equally evident on the domestic scene, where his ball-winning and passing have impressed, with Rennes’ match against Valenciennes – in which 100 of his passes reached their intended targets – being a notable example.
Passes, especially those of the piercing variety, are also a speciality of Sochaux’s Marvin Martin. Practically unknown at the beginning of the season, the 23-year-old has established himself as one of the top providers of telling balls in the French game. With just two games of the current season left, he has already set up goals for his team-mates on 16 occasions, a vital number for a team chasing a place in the UEFA Europa League despite being many fans’ pre-season favourites for relegation.
On course to better the record of 18 assists set by Jerome Rothen with Monaco during season 2002/03, Martin has admitted taking inspiration from another well-known passing maestro. “My favourite player is Xavi,” revealed the diminutive midfield man. “I’ve always admired the way he constantly moves around, and the fact that he hardly ever loses the ball. I love watching him play. He’s an exceptional player.”
The Sochaux playmaker still has some way to go in his career before proper comparisons with his idol can be made, but Martin is already assured of succeeding Marseille’s Lucho Gonzalez as the league’s top passer.
In fact, Gonzalez, L’OM’s star midfielder, has seen his thunder stolen somewhat at the Velodrome this year, and by a 21-year-old youth academy graduate, no less. Up to the beginning of the season, Ghana international Andre Ayew was better known for being the son of legendary African footballer Abedi Pele than for his own displays on the pitch.
Despite enjoying an impressive FIFA World Cup last year, Ayew had previously recorded a rather quiet domestic campaign out on loan to Arles-Avignon in the second division, therefore making it difficult for observers to ascertain whether his international form was nothing but a flash in the pan. A few months later, they had their answer, as by then Ayew had established himself as Marseille’s most important player. Winner of the French League Cup and still in with an outside chance of a championship medal, the left-footed winger has already begun to attract the attention of some of Europe’s biggest clubs, but he has no intention of rushing things.
“This is the first year where I’ve been able to play in a lot of matches, and I really feel like I’ve improved my game,” commented Ayew, whose younger brother Jordan is also on Marseille’s books. “It was important for me to come to a club like this one, where there were great players that I could learn from. I had to make this breakthrough so that I could keep progressing."
Due to their tender ages, the word ‘progress’ has been used a lot recently in reference to the burgeoning football careers of Sakho, M’Vila, Martin and Ayew. And if this exciting new generation continue to develop at the same rate over the coming seasons, the word ‘success’ is sure to be heard just as often.