The promise in Lyon’s Nabil Fekir is so much that many have compared the 21 year old to Karim Benzema, the Les Gones academy graduate who raised the club £32 million for his sale to Real Madrid in 2009. However the Frenchman himself has another comparison in mind, likening the winger to Hatem Ben Arfa, whom Benzema says “I saw do unbelievable things with the ball”.
Ben Arfa is also a fellow product of Lyon’s fertile youth system but who now acts as the warning for how things can go wrong as much as Benzema, a winner of so many trophies in Madrid, is the poster-boy for what can go right. Now 28, after tumultuous spells at Marseille and Newcastle, Ben Arfa has been a free agent since having his contract at Nice terminated in February. Benzema feels that Ben Arfa left Lyon too young, possibly in a veiled attempt to influence any decision that Fekir is about to make.
Fekir has scored 12 goals and made 9 assists in a season where Lyon have emerged unexpectedly to run the financial powerhouse PSG right to the wire in Ligue 1 and although Les Gones are set to miss out on a first title for seven seasons, their return to prominence under Hubert Fournier has arguably been story of the season in France. Alexander Lacazette, Samuel Umtiti, Jordan Ferri, Corentin Tolisso and Anthony Lopes have all starred as Lyon have gone with the kids and, along with the free-scoring Lacazette, Fekir has grabbed the headlines.
Playing as a left-footed central attacking midfielder, nobody has completed more dribbles or crafted more goals in the Lyon squad than the 21 year old Fekir who is second only to his strike-partner Lacazette in terms of attempted shots and chances created. Standing at just 5 ft 8 inches tall, he has the ability to keep the ball in tight areas and weave through defences with both feet.
That style draws similarities to Eden Hazard and Mario Gotze but Lyon’s president Jean-Michel Aulas, no stranger to fits of enthusiasm when it comes to his own players, likes to go a step further. “He is my Messi,” he says. “In a match he is capable, like Lionel Messi, of shaking things up.”
After breaking through into Lyon’s senior team last year but being restricted to 11 appearances, this season has seen him play 32 times in the league. For a debut campaign it has marked an impressive rise and his form certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed. Didier Deschamps was forced to go to extensive effort to personally convince Fekir to choose France over Algeria and has recently rewarded him with 2 caps, but while the latest in the long line of Lyon-created players to represent their country may be yet another source of pride for the club’s academy, concern will grow about the attentions coming from elsewhere.
Aulas has had to trim the club’s wage bill by 40% over the past three years and the age of restrained spending is due to continue for the near future as the club continues to pay for the construction of the new stadium they are due to move into in December. Lyon hope to enter their new 58,000-seater home with their best players in tow and with the prospect of Champions League football being used as a bargaining tool, Aulas has been allowed to take a stoic stance on wide-spread interest in top-scorer Lacazette.
Manchester United and Liverpool have been linked to Lacazette while Fekir has seen interest come from Arsenal but the pair, who have 39 goals between them this season, will both remain at Lyon according to the insistent Aulas. Yet the president will be aware, just like he experienced with Benzema, every player has a price and as midfielder Maxime Gonalons, another of the club’s graduates, says, both players can make their own minds up regarding their future.
Fekir’s father has said that Arsenal is the best possible destination for his son rather than moving to sit on the bench at Manchester City and while fees in the region of £15-20 million have been said to be the extent of the Gunner’s willingness to take the playmaker to north London, he is right to seek assurances on the chances of first team football at the Emirates.
He would be moving into a squad that currently houses Alexis Sanchez, Danny Welbeck, Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla, Aaron Ramsey and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in advanced midfield spots, as well as Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott as they continue their rehabilitation from injury. Fekir may add versatility and a penetrative aspect to the attacking midfield, one who can chip in with goals consistently enough to complement Olivier Giroud, but he faces a stern contest with Cazorla, Ozil or the fit-again Ramsey for position in support of the main striker.
Manager Arsene Wenger may be better using the funds available to reinforce the spine of his squad as he has once again discovered that the difference between Premier League success and also-rans has been the ability to game-manage and shut-out the opposition when needed, but that will be of little concern to Lyon who will be intent on keeping their star attractions.
Fekir is likely to be told of the dangers of ending up like Ben Arfa and he will be constantly reminded of his potential to be another Benzema, or Messi, or even Zidane like he has also been likened to.
Fekir meanwhile, will be focussed on being himself, regardless of wherever he ends up next.
Written by Adam Gray
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