After Gradel, Martial and Payet: Who is Ligue 1's Next Starlet?
Ligue 1 has gotten some play in the English media this season for the talent that teams have bought this summer. Anthony Martial is scoring at a unsustainable rate but he's exactly the type of striker that Manchester United need with Wayne Rooney's continuing decline. Dimitri Payet has arguably been the best #10 in the league this season, Max Gradel before his knee injury was a perfect fit in Bournemouth's system. Even N'Jie Clinton with his spare appearances has been a spark plug for Tottenham when he's gotten the chance. This trend might very well continue next summer with the likes of Sofiane Boufal, Thomas Lemar and Bernardo Silva.
Full disclosure: I am a Marseille fan and I have a special attachment to last year's team for a number of reasons. Whether it was Andre-Pierre Gignac continuing his renaissance as a quality striker, or Dimitri Payet turning himself into the best #10 in France or even Giannelli Imbula somehow averaging over three dribbles per 90 despite being a central defensive midfielder. It was this weird, talented team that under the stewardship of a mad scientist like Marcelo Bielsa became this high pressing offensive juggernaut that for a while looked like genuine title contenders before collapsing in Bielsa like fashion.
He was a supporting character in the wacky Marseille sitcom, but I was quite enamored with Michy Batshuayi. Batshuayi was handled greatly by Bielsa as a change of pace striker whenever Gignac was tired or Marseille simply needed a jolt of energy with his athleticism. He was a goal scoring machine when he got playing time and was a great statistical darling.
Of course there were red flags with Batshuayi's production last season, the main one being that around 47% of his 881 league minutes came as a substitute. There've been previous studies on the statistical effect that being a substitute has on scoring rates, and the evidence suggests strikers playing as subs get a very nice inflation on their goal scoring. With teams as high octane as Marseille were, it’s also a worthwhile discussion to ask just how much artificial boost a player can have on a player’s statistical output. Visually, Batshuayi was very good but he was still very much an unknown when you combined sub effects with potential team effects as well.
With the mass exodus in the summer (11 players from last years' team who played regular minutes are gone), Marseille are rebuilding their squad mainly through youth; whether it be the holdovers from last season, loan acquisitions etc. It's no secret that Marseille don't have anything resembling a backup striker (unless you really want to make the argument that Lucas Ocampos is a backup striker) so Michy Batshuayi has been relied upon even more in a turbulent season.
The good news is that through 10 games, Batshuayi has essentially replicated his production from last season on a less high octane squad with also lesser talents around him.
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Averaging four shots per 90 in a slower pace league like Ligue 1 is no small feat, especially considering the shot accuracy at play. Of course that will go down as the sample size gets larger this season. It’s almost impossible to have a 55% shot accuracy rate on such a high volume, even if the shot location profile is as economic as it is with Batshuayi (78% of his shots have come inside the penalty area this season). But so far, Batshuayi is producing at a level which would put a lot of high profiled teams on notice this summer.
The stigma with players such as Batshuayi is they’re mostly super athletic players with no nuance to their games. That's painting a pretty broad brush on Batshuayi's talent. Yes he lends towards an individualist who likes to create shots for his own and sometimes even go 1v2/1v3, but he's not someone of the Ross Barkley/Andros Townsend family tree where it looks like he has a case of repeated headless chicken syndrome. For only being 22 years old, Batshuayi has shown flashes of being quite multidimensional.
I wrote about this three weeks ago for 13StepsCo (Yes us analytics guys with our air conditioned rooms do in fact watch the games), the performance Batshuayi had versus PSG was quite mature for someone of his age. Whether it was creating shots for himself, playing as a reference point on the counter attack, or even running through the channels in-between the PSG CBs when Marseille had sporadic moments of possession. He vacillated between different kinds of players; playing at times like Romelu Lukaku and other times like a younger, much friskier version of Gignac.
There are some rough parts to his game. Yes the stigma of players of Batshuayi’s type is lazy analysis, but once in a while lazy analysis has an air of truth to it. Batshuayi will sporadically try near impossible galloping efforts that end up in groans from his teammates. He’s not an expansive creator for others, which is similar to what Gignac was with Marseille. Another problem is he’s not a full-fledged target man like Graziano Pelle or even Olivier Giroud. He performed admirably versus PSG as a reference point of attack but that wasn’t done aerially but with passes coming into him on the ground. For all his physical gifts, Batshuayi is only around 6 feet tall and I fear that teams who don't do their research on him will just assume that he's great with hold up play when that isn't the case and they'll repeatedly shoot themselves in the foot.
Where Batshuayi goes next after Marseille will be interesting. Though I do think Batshuayi isn’t a target man, Marseille are a team that’s heavily dependent on crosses from wide areas and he’s a great header of the ball (again, just like the incumbent Gignac!). Whoever gets him would be best served to have an attack that isn’t primarily focused on playing through the center of the final third unless it's on the counter, which would best served Batshuayi's runs through the channels. He also likes to have possessions where he tries to dictate the play on his terms. In theory, a team with the style of play like Crystal Palace would be a remarkable fit for him cause they like to play counter attacking kamikaze football which Batshuayi would feel quite at ease with. Hell, let's skip the middleman. I think Batshuayi would do wonders on Crystal Palace and they have enough financial clout that they could make a worthwhile offer to Marseille with the money coming from the EPL TV deal (yes, we live in a world where Crystal Palace have the money to make a convincing offer for the only French club to have won the Champions League).
As a Marseille fan, it’s sucks knowing that Michy Batshuayi will probably not be with the club next season because of the financial problems that Marseille have. Putting that aside, he's so far shown that last year wasn't a fluke and that he's a dynamite prospect who could become one of the best strikers in Europe very soon. In comparison to players who are considered diamonds in the rough (like a certain Cameroonian in London), Batshuayi is considerably more closer to a finish product. He has to improve on his ability to be a bit more creative with the ball and not just go 1v1 even though he has the tools to win a lot of those battles. Going from 1.1 KP per 90 to say even 1.3-1.5 would do wonders for his game and possibly having more space to work with up top. Being pretty much the only striking option for Marseille will also help Batshuayi in handling a large workload for a possible move to the Premier League next summer.
Michy Batshuayi has gone from the best striker in the Belgian League to a super sub extraordinaire with Marseille to a now tantalizing workhorse in less than 15 months. Euro 16 could be the ultimate breakout party for Batshuayi and have very big clubs open up their wallets to sign him. With the way his career has exploded, don't be surprised if by the next World Cup, Batshuayi is talked about as one of the best strikers in football.