Identifying Ligue 1’s Next Breakout Talent: Marcus Thuram
With how things stand in Ligue 1 through nine weeks, Malcom has been the best attacking prospect in the league not named Kylian Mbappe. He’s been by far the most consistent player on a Bordeaux side that’s emerged as a prime candidate to sneak into the Champions League. He’s been electrifying as a dual shooting and creative threat, emerging as a genuine gamebreaker and in the process increasing the likelihood of a big club in Europe bidding for his services in the summer.
After Malcom and Mbappe, things get murkier. There are a bunch of players who are arguably next best young attacker. Kids like Houssem Aouar and Adama Diakhaby have done well, but it’s been in more limited minutes than others. Francois Kamano has largely stayed the same from last season and didn’t make a leap like some had expected. Allan Saint-Maxamin has had his fleeting moments with Nice. Rony Lopes might be the best candidate, as he has taken over for Bernardo Silva and is having just as good a season as any of Silva’s years with Monaco. Ligue 1 is just brimming with young attackers.
One name that belongs in that conversation is Marcus Thuram, who broke into Sochaux’s first team in Ligue 2 last season and currently plies his trade at Guingamp. Teams like Guingamp don’t usually have someone who could be considered a blue-chip prospect, but with every passing week that’s looking to be the case. Despite a pedestrian season in Ligue 2 last season, he’s been very good so far this season, alternating between playing as a lone striker or part of a striker duo alongside Jimmy Briand. Only seven players in Ligue 1 have contributed a greater amount of shots (shots + key passes) per 90 minutes in open play than Thuram’s rate of 4.80, and no player on Guingamp has a higher xG contribution rate. It's early days, but things are looking strong so far:
The biggest reason for optimism with Thuram is the versatility in his game, the potential to be something of a unicorn as an attacker. He’s 6’2, strong like an ox, and could be used as a stereotypical target man. You can even see it with his shot distribution, with over 36% of his shots have come via headers. He’s got all the traits needed to be the type of player who you can play long balls to and hope he can box out his opponent so he can lay it off for upcoming teammates.
But he’s also got the athleticism and skill set to played out wide when needed. In the Under-20 setup, he played for the French national team on the wings with his ability to beat out opponents via his trickery and burst. He’s just as comfortable being able to beat defensive lines with his timing and having passes come to him on the ground. There will even be times where he combines both: the ability to stiff arm a defender and blow past him.
For a guy with a high center of gravity, Thuram has the ability to shift direction in 1v1 situations with feints and turns. It can look awkward at times seeing him be defended by guys who are half a foot shorter than him, nibbling at his feet. It can make for an awkward kind of scene where it’s almost akin to men versus boys out there, but it works more often than it doesn’t.
Guingamp this season have made him arguably their main focal point in their attack, an attack that’s right around average by numerous measures whether it be shots per game or average shot quality. It’s makes it more impressive that around 82% of his own shots have come inside the penalty area. However, despite that, Thuram’s shots haven’t been of the best quality. While Guingamp do have some credible talents on the squad (including another tantalizing attacking prospect in Ludovic Blas), it’s still a team that’s on the lower end in Ligue 1. Without a robust system that makes up for that, it’s left Thuram to take some pedestrian headers that xG models would rate as low quality chances:
Normally I’d be more concerned about a player that most models indicate is taking mediocre shots on average, but considering the circumstances going on and it’s still only less than 600 minutes, it could be put on the back-burner for a little longer.
If there’s one place for improvement as a player it’s probably in his passing, which considering that he rating solidly in passing models, could potentially bode well for his future. Thuram’s only averaging around 19 passes per 90 mins so it’s not as if he’s being tasked as a high usage playmaker. It’s somewhat similar to what Alassane Plea was a couple of years ago when he was still transitioning into a central player; someone who can see a potentially high value pass but not necessarily having the requisite technique needed to make them on a consistent basis.
Having said all that, it hasn't been much of a problem so far. Out of all areas in his game, his passing is one where it would be curious to see what he looks like by seasons end when we gain a bigger sample of his work.
What is Marcus Thuram’s ceiling as a player? That’s tough to say. Besides the fact that we have less than 2000 minutes of data between his time in Ligue 1 and 2, his type of archetype isn’t found too much in football. Guys who are 6’2 and can genuinely alternate between striker and winger aren’t exactly littered all over the place. At some point in their development, players like him probably would’ve been stuck at one position and not float between two. In some ways, you could make a broad and perhaps vague comparison to how Juventus have used Mario Mandzukic as an unorthodox winger who can beat up on small fullbacks in aerial duels. But even then, Thuram is blessed with pace that Mandzukic doesn’t possess even on his best days.
I think there’s a chance that if Marcus Thuram hits the 90th percentile of his potential outcomes as a player, he could be a genuine force as a forward. We obviously know about the athleticism he has. While room for improvement exists in the passing department, he’s good enough to create chances for others at this stage of development whether it be crosses from the wing or headed layoffs, and he's not a hindrance during build up play. All his statistical indicators so far show him to be a more than capable attacking prospect on a team that at best would rate as a middle of the pack Ligue 1 side. He has grown accustomed to the forward position at a quicker rate than some expected, and he just gives off the feel that he belongs in the league, which is impressive considering his struggles in Ligue 2 previously. It's still very early days, but Marcus Thuram just might be the next great French forward in European football.