Identifying Ligue 1's Next Big Breakout Talents #2: Thomas Lemar
There have been two different versions of Monaco ever since money was pumped into the club a few years ago: the first iteration was the wheeling dealing one where they tried to outspend PSG, looking to become a continental power in the process behind pseudo global stars. Obviously, this strategy had massive flaws and quickly they reverted to their current iteration which has consisted of of buying young and selling high and mixing that alongside some later peak age players. And for the most part, it’s been a successful reboot. Monaco have been good in two of the last three seasons, highlighted by a Champions League run in 2014-15 and their current domestic title push. Sure, there could be legitimate quibbles about just how good Monaco really are, but they’re clearly the 2nd best team in the suddenly competitive Ligue 1.
One of the guys who symbolizes the new age Monaco project is Thomas Lemar. Bought at only £3M in the summer of 2015, he was part of Monaco’s first attempt at buying a ton of youngsters and hoping a couple of them would hit big. We’ve already profiled him previously on the site as the type of talent that could be had for relatively cheap but those days are probably gone. He first broke onto the scene as part of that weird Caen side that were known for one gear and that was blistering counter attacks, something that suited him well.
The first thing you notice with Thomas Lemar is just how shifty the man can be, especially in the middle of the pitch. He doesn’t quite have the top end speed nor the sheer amount of tricks in his repertoire of say Ousmane Dembele, but he can definitely skip past 1 or 2 players with some level of comfort by using his low center of gravity to his advantage. This was evident when he got his opportunity at Caen two years ago and still is now on a Monaco side that play almost diametrically opposite.
With the way Monaco set up in their two striker system, the fullbacks on either side like Benjamin Mendy and Djibril Sidibe occupy the width so it can allow players like him and Bernardo Silva to occupy the half space areas so they have a number of options. When the buildup play begins, the 4-4-2 can suddenly turn into 3-5-2/3-1-4-2 with the two creative engines stationed as nominal midfielders, a back three consisting of the CBs + Fabinho, and the fullbacks basically playing as wingers.
There are multiple ways for players to break defensive lines. Generally, you could classify it through either passing (see: Julian Weigl) or dribbling (see: Mousa Dembele). Lemar is closer to the latter than the former. A lot of times he’ll position himself for a pass in a way that will allow him to gain a head of steam. Often it works because by the end, Monaco can transition to the next stage of their attack.
Where I find Lemar most exciting though is whenever Monaco transition into counter attacks. Because of how central his positioning is, when Monaco want to turn it loose, Lemar can become part of the action. He has the technical ability to make the difficult passes that really open up an unorganized opposition and even when he’s not directly involved, he occupies the correct spaces so that he can receive the ball and keep the counter going.
On a team with pacier strikers, these types of sequences could lead to throughball opportunities which would be an even deadlier asset to Lemar’s game. For a guy who’s first instinct is to dribble, his decision making is decent and he generally knows when he has to end his dribbling sequences and pass it to a nearby teammate. If he could add occasional throughballs to his game it would raise the ceiling on how good a prospect he is because it makes him even more versatile as an option, and it compliments his ability to connect on crosses and long balls from deeper areas.
You add all of this together alongside capable set piece abilities and what you have is an interesting package. He’s got the speed and acceleration of your typical winger, but his dribbling works best in the middle of the park, which is something you expect more so from central midfielders. His statistical outputs mirror this as it portrays an unorthodox talent:
One of the worries with Lemar is he’s just not anywhere close to a potent shot taker. It’d be one thing if he was such a high-level creator that he was tipping the scales massively in his favor regardless, but he’s not quite that. To this point he’s been fine as a playmaker and that’s been the case since his days at Caen, but if you top out as something resembling a solid creator with middling shot numbers, there’s probably a ceiling to how good you’ll as a player. A team thinking of buying Lemar in the near future with much more information to go through has to think critically of this. If you’re expecting him to be the type of attacking player to regularly contribute towards 15-20 goals, at this stage of his development I would be very hesitant as he’s over shooting all his expected goal numbers (both shooting and creating) by nearly double. However if you imagine him as someone who can contribute towards say ten to twelve goals but be super important in being able to create transition opportunities or simply moving the chains from the defensive third to the final third through his dribbling and passing, then that’s a different case and he could definitely perform that type of role.
Player development a lot of times isn’t a linear progression when you go from young talent -> good -> very good and perhaps I’m underrating what 24-year-old Lemar will be. He is still an intriguing prospect, quite young and doesn’t turn 22 until November. While players on average peak around their mid 20s, this is by no means fixed. All we can control is the process and make educated guesses going forward, and to this point, I’m just not willing to put him in the realm of former Ligue 1 prospects like Dembele, Anthony Martial and pre-ACL tear Nabil Fekir where as a big club you would not think twice about splurging money for potentially world class players. He rarely gets himself into opportunities that he can shoot, and when he does it’s not like the shot quality is anything to boast about. In a more attacking role, does he grow into that or will he long term be more of a cog behind more natural attackers?
Don’t get me wrong, Lemar will make Monaco a huge profit when he inevitably moves on from France. His ability to drive his team into the final third with his dribbling is an asset, he has the athletic ability to survive in a higher-octane league, he’s got a wicked left foot for set pieces/crosses and he’s a capable passer. He seems an interesting fit for teams that have somewhat unconventional ways of creating attacks, especially ones that like to have a wide player that can drive play through the middle. In many ways, the variance that’s driving his high goal and assist per90 clip obscures what makes Thomas Lemar a genuine prospect, and it will be in the best interest of his next club to sort out that noise from reality.