Identifying Ligue 1's Next Breakout Talent: Houssem Aouar
The summer of 2017 was when big named players from Olympique Lyonnais left for greener pastures. Alexandre Lacazette finally made his long-awaited move to Arsenal, Corentin Tolisso left for Bayern Munich, Maxime Gonalons took his talents to Italy and signed for Roma. Even Rachid Ghezzal, a player who was equally as frustrating as he was brilliant, left for Monaco on a free transfer. While it might be a bit much to claim that this was going to be a new era, it was clear that there was a distinctly youthful approach occurring, with the club once again tapping into its famous academy along with the youthful players they bought as replacements for the departed.
So far, it’s worked about as well as one could hope for. Lyon were never going to challenge for the title, but they sit 3rd in Ligue 1 with a massive goal differential at +21 and underlying numbers that for the most part look like what you would expect from a top three side in Ligue 1. It’s fair to say that they won’t continue shooting at a clip of 16.1% in open play (only PSG has a higher conversion clip) but they mostly project as a good side even if the goals start drying up. Nabil Fekir is back to his best and is doing the business, Mariano is shooting first and asking questions later, and their midfield has arguably been the best in Ligue 1 despite their main three contributors being 20 and under, which makes that even more impressive.
One of the members in that midfield is Houssem Aouar. While mainly a central midfielder, he’s shown versatility as to where he can play. He can be used as a deep midfielder in a double pivot, as the furthest forward midfielder in a trio, or even giving width as a wide man who can drift inside to help overlapping fullbacks. In a sense, his positional versatility is reminiscent of Tolisso, who was also able to play basically anywhere on the pitch and not be a hindrance to the team. Considering the circumstances he's dealing with and who he's replacing, Aouar has been as good as you could realistically expect from a 19 year old who’s logging regular minutes in a major league for the first time.
One thing that has helped Aouar is that whenever he’s part of a midfield trio, there’s a nice blend of talents for him to work with. Lucas Toussart has replaced Gonalons as the steady hand who can act as a water carrier if required, while Tanguy Ndombele does a little bit of everything. More importantly is that both of those players aren’t terrible with the ball at their feet, which helps considering that Lyon give off the feel of a club who win by talent more so than with a cohesive structure.
It can be argued that Aouar’s greatest trait is his dribbling and how he can make opponents look silly with little shakes and changes of direction. He is one of the better dribblers you’ll find in Ligue 1 when it comes to being able to maneuver in tight situations. In an era of football where space is becoming less and less available, players who can be hard to nudge off the ball are assets. Aouar profiles as someone who can potentially become something of a needle player: someone who can maintain the ball in dangerous areas despite being pressured by opponents.
I wouldn’t say that Aouar is fast but he can be intelligent with how he maneuvers himself and find space to work with. He’s someone who glides on the pitch more than he would zoom past people. When he plays with NDombele and Tousart, there are situations where he will try to break in through opposition lines and get himself into the penalty area. They don’t happen too often, but you see it here and there. When it does happen, he seems to be more comfortable making cutbacks towards open teammates and looking to set them up for solid opportunities.
If Aouar’s dribbling is his best attribute, not far behind is his ability to play defense splitting passes and he has been in an ideal situation for this development. Lyon constantly play 3 or 4 attackers with pace that have a solid first touch once they receive the ball. Whenever he's played in a double pivot or part of a midfield three, the pitch is stretched out it's allowing him options on the ball. In particular, he's developed a nice little chemistry with Memphis and Mariano where he will look for an audacious pass whenever either of them loses their marker.
For being only 5’7, he’s also a surprisingly decent tackler. He's dogged and to borrow a tired cliche, "gets stuck in". You could imagine that in a team where there was more cohesion in terms of how to press with specific triggers, he would fit in. Considering how good is he with the ball at his feet, in a counter pressing system that prioritized transitions, he would be able to create scenarios both for himself and others.
With the way Aouar moves around and constantly tries to find space to work with, he can do a decent job in being part of scenarios where Lyon will have a man advantage so the ball could be progressed into dangerous areas.
I’m not sure Aouar profiles as a guy who will produce high expected goals per season when he’s in his prime, and that could potentially leave his contributions underrated. With how much he loves being on the ball and presenting himself as an outlet in deeper areas, his importance comes more so in progressing plays rather than finishing them with a shot for himself or others. He doesn’t shoot at high volume, and his locations haven’t been inspiring either. Even though his chance creation numbers are pretty good considering how many different positions he's played, they’re not spell binding. It's possible all this will improve over time and with more coaching but I also think that with him being 5’7, potential recruiters might try to stick him as a #10 and I’m not convinced he would be great in that role.
Houssem Aouar is only 19 years old, but he’s hit the ground running already at a decent team in a big league. At his best, he’s a magician with the ball and he’s not afraid to try and create big chances from deeper areas. The fact that he’s this young and is already looking like an above average midfielder says a lot about his possible upside once he hits his prime years. Despite my apprehensions towards Bruno Genesio as a manager, he’s at a club that does like to promote youth at a steady pace and he’ll stand a better chance at being a consistent starter at Lyon over the next couple of years. The best compliment that could be given to him is that Lyon sold a great midfielder in Corentin Tolisso over the summer, and haven't seemed to have missed him.