Identifying Ligue 1's Next Big Breakout Talents #4: Alassane Pléa
Here is Alasanne Pléa’s 2016-17 season:
- Only Edinson Cavani and Memphis Depay this season attempted more open play shots per 90 minutes with at least 900 minutes played in Ligue 1
- Depending on the model being used, Alassane Pléa was somewhere between the top 5-10 in xG per 90 minutes in Ligue 1
- He was the only attacking player on Nice to have not overperformed or even met xG numbers
You can see why Premier League teams in January were considering bidding for Pléa. 24-year-old strikers who produce like that and aren’t already with super expensive clubs don’t exactly grow on trees. Add in that he passes the smell test in terms of athleticism and you’ve got yourself quite the tantalizing forward. Truth be told, I was somewhat skeptical of Alassane Pléa coming into this season. Some of why I was skeptical could be seen here. My main issue was having that nagging feeling that Ben Arfa’s one year renaissance + Germain’s unselfish movements made life for him considerably easier and that those two leaving him would have a knock-on effect. It wouldn’t mean that he’d suddenly fall off the face of the earth, but the most likely scenario would’ve been a slight decrease in his numbers from having to shoulder more of the burden in attack. I also wasn’t quite factoring in the chances of him becoming a much more centralized player, which would hide some of the lack of dynamism he had on-ball.
As it turned out I was wrong, in fact I was dead wrong. Jean Michael Seri had a really good season as a playmaking midfielder, with him and Pléa developing nice chemistry together. Mario Balotelli was fine in the minutes that he and Plea played together, which allowed him to develop even more. You combine that with his natural growth in the striker position--higher volume of shots along with better shot quality--and what you come up with is one of the best forwards in Ligue 1 who if you need him to, can also still play spot duty on the right-hand side.
Last year it could be argued that Alassane Pléa played like a wide forward who could interchange positions and play as a center forward, whereas this season Pléa’s movements and declined on-ball usage much more resembled your typical center forward. This was especially evident in the matches where he wasn’t playing with Balotelli. This isn’t to say his game last year resembled an all action inside forward like say Memphis Depay, but even looking at basic stuff like dribbles or throughballs shows a noticeable change as he was tasked more to create for others:
This year, it’s been different. With so much of the playmaking being tasked to Seri and others, he’s been allowed to be more of a predator, working off the shoulders of center backs and attacking openings with his speed. On the face of it it’s just a simple switch, but it’s one that turned him from a below average shot-maker who had a fairly pedestrian xG per shot of ~12%, to one where he much more resembled a shot-taker.
In a sense, what he’s done this year is somewhat reminiscent of the evolution that Alexandre Lacazette went through between 2014-17; both transitioned into being a centerback’s worst nightmare. Comparing the two today; Lacazette is a better player because he’s just a more fluid attacker in buildup and more adept at getting his own shot off. Particularly the thing that pushes Lacazette over the top in this comparison is his supreme ability to seal off defenders and either spin into open space after receiving the ball or lay it off for a teammate.
But the Lacazette we know today wasn’t the same one at age 24. Sure, he had some of the traits that would turn him into the player that Arsenal are reportedly set to pay a club record fee for, but it would take a couple of more seasons before it led to being a consistently top notch xG contributor. In that sense, one could argue that Pléa at 24 is a better prospect than Lacazette was at that age.
Judging by expected assists or key passes, Alassane Pléa would rank lower on the totem pole for strikers. And I’m not going to say that he’s a brilliant playmaker for a center/wide forward, but I do think he’s fine in the sense that he can make passes that can get his team into advantageous areas on the pitch. On a team with already established playmakers, having a striker who can at least do stuff like this is an asset.
If you had to put me on the spot and ask what is Alassane Pléa’s best spot in the pitch, I would say through the middle, which wasn’t something I would’ve said going into this season. I just think he’s more of an impactful player when he’s concentrating on getting on the end of throughballs and finishing chances. If you structured a team where as a wide forward, all he’d have to do is provide width and make runs, then that’s a different case and he would be a worthwhile gamble. I just think that asking him to be anything resembling high usage with the evidence we’ve seen of him is not getting the best out of him.
So how much will Alassane Pléa cost a club? Well that’s a bit hard to pin down. Technically, Ligue 1 doesn’t allow for release clauses to exist but more clubs are getting past that legality, and reports suggest that Pléa’s got one in the region of €50M. Nice just qualified for the Champions League and combine the funds they’ll get from that along with the probable sale of Seri for big money and the Chinese takeover in ownership, there isn’t the need for Nice to sell. Having said that, what could depreciate his value a bit is that he’s had two major knee injuries over the past two seasons, and he could well be at risk in the future to sustain another one. He had an ACL injury that knocked off four months in 2015-16, and lost the back end of 2016-17 to another knee injury. You don’t have to be a doctor to figure out that repeated trauma to your knees doesn’t exactly scream confidence of avoiding future injuries, but that’s just making an educated guess. Teams that are looking to buy him will get the medical reports and determine whether these two injuries are immediate red flags.
Let’s assume a world where Alassane Pléa has his age 24-29 year uninterrupted by serious knee injuries, what teams would be the best fit for him? One place that could’ve been fascinating was a return to Lyon as a potential replacement for Alexandre Lacazette, though the purchase of Bertrand Traore and the probable asking price from Nice makes the fit considerably more difficult. It’s kind of a shame because the prospects of an attacking core featuring Memphis, Pléa, Traore, and Nabil Fekir as a backup plan for Lacazette’s departure would’ve been grand. For now, we could probably label this as unlikely, even with the scattering of reports that had Bruno Genesio making him a priority this summer.
In England, Southampton could be an intriguing place for him because in many ways he’s the actualized version of what Claude Puel tried to do with Nathan Redmond when he tried to convert him into a secondary striker. The two could work very well together since they’re both capable passers who could interchange positions on the pitch because of their athleticism. He’d also alleviate the worries of what would happen if Gabbiadini got hurt for an extended period because the two aren’t dissimilar in playing style. Again, the worry here isn’t so much in terms of fit as much as whether he’s over their price range, even with them just raking in £122M in Premier League funds in 2016-17. It’d be much of a Southampton move if they instead targeted someone like Yann Karamoh from Caen; who’s only 18 years old, has one year left on his contract, and has shown signs of possibly being a very good forward soon.
There are other places for him to go to in England if it’s not Southampton. Arsenal need forwards and certainly have the money, though the increasing likelihood of Lacazette going there means if they still wanted to get him, it’d probably be more so as a wide forward more so than a striker. Pléa does fit some of the requirements that Arsenal look for: pace, shot location discipline, and not having two cinder-blocks for feet in the passing department, and they could use Pléa in a role not so dissimilar to what Theo Walcott was at his apex. Numerous jokes have been made about West Ham’s continued search for a center forward, and their interest in January probably indicates the search hasn’t ended. On strictly pure need this makes the most sense and West Ham certainly can pay the big money it would probably take to get him, but my level of trust in West Ham putting together a cohesive midfield to accentuate the best parts of Pléa's game isn't exactly high.
Alassane Pléa has turned himself into a very solid player in Ligue 1 despite being a late bloomer of sorts, having just completed only his third season of over 1000 league minutes at age 24. He’s increased his shot load from last year and simultaneously improved his shot location as well. His ability to operate in tight areas has improved, his passing is fine, and combined with his ample athleticism makes him a good player that's embarking on the prime years of his career. We don’t know if the knee injury that ended his season took something out of him, and if anything, that’s the biggest worry. He's certainly worth monitoring through next season, and with health, at 25 could still represent a good purchase. Once again, we find Ligue 1 to be housing high quality talent and the path from France to Europe's bigger clubs is well trodden. Pléa could well be one of the next guys to make the switch.
This is part four of a series, check out the first three parts:
#1 Corentin Tolisso
#2 Thomas Lemar
#3 Kylian Mbappe