Identifying Ligue 1's Next Big Breakout Talents #1: Corentin Tolisso
It’s been a weird season for Lyon. They were tipped by some to be Ligue 1’s only challenger for PSG behind a well stocked attack full of youngsters and prime age talents. That hasn’t been the case and their season has been full of stops and starts, involving injuries and drastically changing formations. For every good performance, they have had (particularly earlier in the season), there have been equally confounding ones. Despite a statistical resume that should have them comfortably in the top three, they’re currently eight points behind PSG for 3rd place (with a game in hand) and there’s a real chance Lyon will lose out on a coveted Champions League spot.
Not everything has been a disappointment with Lyon though, and perhaps the biggest bright spot is their burgeoning young midfielder Corentin Tolisso. Truth be told I’ve been an admirer of his talents for a while now and what’s been fascinating has been his emergence as a creative midfielder. All his expected goal (and assisted) rates have been on the rise and that’s mirrored his rise in scoring contribution.
If you asked me why a team should consider buying this guy during the summer transfer window, this would be my response
It’s literally everything you would want in a modern central midfielder right? The ability to cover passing lanes and anticipate an interception opportunity, being able to accomplish it while controlling the ball smoothly and in one motion pick out an extremely high value opportunity for a poacher like Alexandre Lacazette. There are a lot of other things to like about Tolisso but his ability to make this type of pass is notable.
Besides his throughball passing, the next great trait of Tolisso’s game can be seen in his flexibility, particularly in the minutes that he’s logged at more advanced positions. His overall shot volume this season has increased and that’s allowed him to be a bigger threat going forward. With the mobility he possesses, and his ability to play a variety of attacking passes, he can get into spaces to try and feed his strikers.
All things being equal, I’m not totally convinced you can play him in advanced positions for long durations of the season. As a midfielder one of the things he loves to do is to drop very deep to receive the ball, and even while playing as a number ten of second striker, he continued this habit. Some of it was probably due to how bad buildup was for Lyon during their stretch of matches when they played with a back three/five, as a lot of times the ball wasn’t progressing unless Tolisso dropped deep to become something resembling an outlet (It is a testament to his abilities that even when things look unstable, he can create shooting opportunities).
One potential theory is with the steady rise in his shot numbers, a team could sign him and create an attacking structure where Tolisso would make more off-ball runs to get into shooting opportunities. An obvious comparison would be Dele Alli. No Tolisso doesn’t have the same penchant for nutmegging every living organism on the pitch, but they both do share the ability to pop up within 20 yards of goal and present themselves as a shooting threat. Now Alli is a considerably more polished version, his dribbling abilities are markedly greater and he’s perfected the “sprint your ass off-ball to get on the end of a header” routine, but if you squint hard enough, there is a little bit of merit to this
Push comes to shove, Tolisso’s best position for now is as a central midfielder with some license to roam. He’s grown up with having ball playing responsibilities and the threat of the home-run ball from deep is too good a tool to pass up in comparison to his shot taking abilities. There’s also the little things he does deeper in midfield that could help a team in attack. Like how after Lyon regain possession from something resembling a counterpressing action, he’ll look for a quick transition pass to get his team progressing into dangerous areas.
Having strong buildup structure more times than not is helpful in developing waves of good attacks. Having good structure allows teams to space out the pitch to where they can constantly have a man advantage in dangerous areas. You’ll see this with Tolisso quite a bit where he’ll migrate into areas to help his teammates turn weird 2v2’s into more conventional 3v2’s. He’s also quite adept at migrating into vacated spaces so he can receive the ball and run to find an open teammate. These are all just little things but all together add up to a player who plays at times as if he’s 27 and not 22.
The one weakness in Tolisso’s game is he just doesn’t have much spark as a dribbler. It’s not a major weakness and he does make up for this with an adept mind for finding space. There’s also this to keep in mind; Ligue 1 isn’t a league known for teams pressing each other as most defensive actions are taken care of on the touchlines. Moving to Germany or to a lesser extent England would change this equation. You could see scenarios where teams would give Tolisso much less space to work with and having to evade an opponent with a quick turn would be more essential to unlock his passing gifts. Does he have the juice to do this constantly? I’m not quite sure, but he’s still very young and under the right coach this could be worked on substantially.
Only 22 years old, Tolisso has the makeup to be a very impacting central midfielder. He’s already displayed the ability to be versatile whether being the Doberman of the three-man midfield or in his current incarnation as an attacking hub within a double pivot. He even managed to hold his head above water in parts of 2014-15 as a right back when injuries forced Lyon’s hand. This season he’s increasingly showing more of an attacking output with a heavier usage under his belt. In a world where teams are becoming more flexible with player positioning, having a midfielder who can play in a variety of positions across the middle at a sufficient level is a useful tool to play with. If we think of teams that could be potential homes for Tolisso next season, Dortmund seems an obvious fit. Firstly, under Thomas Tuchel, the club has become the premium destination for young players to build their game while also Dortmund could use another midfielder with the ability to pass and take some of the ball circulation responsibilities off Julien Weigl.
Reportedly he was the subject of a big Napoli offer over the summer and while it didn’t turn into a move, his form this seaon has been good enought o warrant further interest this summer. Midfielders at a young age who have shown to be as versatile as Tolisso don’t grow on trees, and in this writer’s humble opinion, he’s good enough to be playing for a big Champions League club right now. Lyon currently are on the outside looking in for qualifying into the Champions League, and without it next season it’s hard to believe they would be able to entice him into staying another season when he’s shown enough to suggest he’s ready for a new challenge. A Premier League move would also make sense as his athleticism could translate into a goal scoring central midfielder. Who takes the gamble is hard to predict, but whenever they do it will one with few risks attached.