Perhaps we’ve misunderstood all along. For all the years that French football has had the "farmers league" tag directed at it, supposedly for the lack of quality in the league, is it possible that the accusers have the whole time been referring to the fertile soil that churns out huge quantities of players talented enough to play on the continent each season?
It’s true of Ligue 1, and it’s certainly true of Ligue 2. Of all the second tiers of the ‘Big 5’ European leagues, Ligue 2 stands out as one of the most prolific and consistent breeding grounds for players that go on to play at the top of the game. In the last couple of years alone we’ve seen Alexis Claude-Maurice (OGC Nice), Pape Gueye (Marseille), Silas Wamangituka (VfB Stuttgart), and Maxence Lacroix (VfL Wolfsburg) graduate from France’s second division to play towards the top end of some of the best leagues in the world. Tino Kadewere, another example, made the summer move from Le Havre to Lyon with great success, completing a seamless transition from the top half of Ligue 2 to a title challenge in Ligue 1.
And so, the next batch. Already confirmed as the next graduate out of Ligue 2 is Kouadio Koné. After a breakthrough season in 2019/20, the 19 year old Toulouse midfielder has dialled it up in 2020/21, enough to convince Borussia Mönchengladbach to part with a rumoured €9million in January to secure his services for the 2021/22 season, leaving him at Toulouse to finish the Ligue 2 campaign. Koné profiles like a classic box-to-box, do-it-all midfielder, contributing plenty on the defensive end, impressive in transition both in carrying the ball and playing forward passes to his attackers, and not shy of testing the goalkeeper from range.
Very active off the ball, Koné has shown a tenacious streak both in his propensity for closing down the player in possession, or making a tackle to win the ball back, or generally firefighting across the midfield.
Koné picks up far fewer Interceptions relatively speaking, with 0.9 interceptions per 90 ranking 50th of 57 Ligue 2 central midfielders to play at least 1200 minutes this season, which is perhaps unsurprising for a player so eager to engage the opposition rather than hold his position. On the flip side, that tenacity has seen him rack up the fifth-most tackles per 90 minutes amongst Ligue 2 central midfielders, as well as the sixth-most pressures.
That’s to ignore the fun stuff though.
Clearly the French U19 international’s standout attribute is his ability to get the ball -> carry the ball. That penchant for engaging the opponent isn’t limited to his defensive work, he’s keen to take them on when on the ball as well: Koné attempts (4.0) and completes (2.9) more dribbles than his Ligue 2 centre midfield contemporaries, and completes them at a rate (73%) only Leverton Pierre (76%) of Dunkerque can beat for players who attempt at least 2.0 dribbles per 90. His ball-carrying ability is also reflected in his Carry numbers, the volume of which is around league average, but his average carry length of 6 metres is second only to Rominigue Kouamé of Troyes with 6.2 metres, displaying his ability to carry the ball over longer distances from the centre of the park.
It’s the areas of the pitch that Koné is dribbling in that make him an interesting player. Clearly a useful asset to have when transitioning from defence to attack, he utilises this skill both in the defensive half and in the attacking third and drifting left or right, with 1.8 completed dribbles per 90 in the middle third and 1.0 in the attacking third. Not just utilising this asset in moving Toulouse up the pitch, but also as a means to create space in the attacking phase as well.
When it comes to progressing the play through passing, Koné has also shown ability here, just behind teammate Branco van den Boomen for moving the ball to the final third (5.2 Deep Progressions per 90) , a figure that puts him 10th overall in Ligue 2 central midfielders. Indeed, he profiles similarly to van den Boomen across most passing metrics, showing similar importance and sharing responsibility in possession with his more senior midfield partner. It’s easy to see why he’s trusted with the ball when he’s able to protect it so well, completing 81% of his passes under pressure.
There isn’t too much of a goal threat from Koné yet, but that’s not to say he hasn’t contributed there, averaging 1.8 shots per 90 – with most of them from 18 yards out or further - amounting to 0.10 xG per 90, a figure which has translated into two goals this season.
Remembering that he's only 19, it becomes easy to see why Mönchengladbach decided to take him on as a project player, clearly possessing the ability to compete at a higher level. If Koné can mimic the success that compatriot Maxence Lacroix has managed in his first season of Bundesliga football at Wolfsburg, then Gladbach fans are surely going to be pleased.
One player who hasn’t sealed a move in advance but has hardly been going under the radar is Mohamed Bayo. The Clermont Foot forward has been spearheading the third-placed side’s promotion push and leads the scoring with 17 goals - 15 when you exclude penalties. Bayo clearly has a superior goal threat to his striking peers in Ligue 2 with 3.4 shots per 90 the highest rate in the league, and many of them come from high-probability positions - an xG per shot of 16% is the eighth-best rate amongst Ligue 2 forwards.
TL;DR: LOTS of GOOD shots.
Bayo’s path to the Clermont first team is an interesting one. A graduate of their academy, he spent the 2019-20 season in the Championnat National on loan at USL Dunkerque, top scoring for his temporary side with 12 goals to lead them to promotion to Ligue 2. It was only the sale of Clermont top scorer Adrian Grbic to Ligue 1 Lorient in the summer of 2020 that gave Bayo the opportunity to enter the XI and lead the Clermont forward line. He hasn’t looked back.
Clearly a capable penalty box forward, scoring all of his 15 non-penalty goals from inside the box, the 22 year old’s contribution to Clermont’s attack extends further than his goal scoring exploits. Defensively his output could be a little higher, registering 10.8 pressures per 90 – slightly below average for Ligue 2 forwards, but his contribution to the attacking phase cannot be questioned. As well as carrying the ball reasonably well, with an average carry length of 4.6 metres and carrying the ball into the box 1.4 times per 90, behind only Paris FC's Gaëtan Laura, and as well as being plenty capable taking on defenders, completing 1.9 dribbles per 90 (only three Ligue 2 forwards complete more), it’s his contribution to creating chances for his team mates that stands out. He sets up 1 open play shot per game on average, and assists 0.17 expected goals per 90, which, when you do the math, means that the average chance he sets up has an expected conversion rate of 17%. Given the average shot is converted at ~10-11%, Bayo’s clearly chooses his moments to pass wisely when he’s not pulling the trigger himself, setting up quality goalscoring opportunities. That creativity plus the expected goals output of his own shots mean that Bayo's expected goals contribution amounts to the highest of all Ligue 2 forwards this season.
Clermont could well be playing Ligue 1 football themselves next season if they can seal promotion, currently two points with a game in hand behind Kouadio Koné's Toulouse, but otherwise it seems highly likely there’ll be interest from the top tier of French football, let alone elsewhere on the continent, for a forward that’s clearly stood out in the second tier this season. Kouadio Koné will certainly be in the big leagues. We'll wait and see if Mohamed Bayo joins him too.
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