Clément Grenier – Looking beyond the hype
Grenier. Most Ligue 1 followers only had this name in mind when they looked at OL’s stressful last weeks of the season. As the club was going through a tough time that seriously put in jeopardy a CL qualification that looked certain just a few weeks earlier, he rose and delivered a few impressive performances that helped Lyon hold onto the 3rd and last CL qualifying spot. Needless to say, this qualification, though not yet secured due to the incoming qualifying round, still came as a relief for a cash-strapped Lyon side.
As the two free-kicks he scored consecutively against Nice and Rennes reminded nostalgic fans of the golden Juninho era and went viral on Youtube, the end of his season took another pleasantly surprising turn as France coach Didier Deschamps decided to call him up to the senior squad for the first time, as Les Bleus were getting ready for a two-games trip to South America.
A Lyon academy product who just finished his first ‘full’ pro season in a stellar manner, one would naturally think Clément Grenier is getting ready to return to Lyon and experience Champions League football with his club. But as of today, this does not look certain.
· His season
When one takes a look back at Grenier’s season, it is hard to argue against the use of the term ‘breakthrough’. After playing his first professional game with OL in 2009-2010, he gained more playing time in 2011-2012 as former academy boss Rémi Garde replaced Claude Puel as Lyon’s head coach. Through a mix of starting and substitute appearances, he featured in 21 of OL’s Ligue 1 games, showcasing interesting passing and playmaking skills. However, he remained largely inconsistent and failed to deliver on the statistical side, scoring no goal and assisting twice. This is illustrated by an incident that happened in April 2011, when Cris, the iconic team captain, roughed him up during a training session, apparently in retaliation for limited defensive commitment on the field.
At the end of last August, as OL playmaker Yoann Gourcuff was enjoying a stellar start of the season, Grenier looked set to join Nice in a swap deal with Argentinian leftback Fabian Monzon. But Gourcuff’s knee injury twisted but his fate, and Grenier’s. The club decided to keep him (Monzon would end up with OL but quickly appeared as a failed signing) following the insistence of Rémi Garde. However, this broken-down Nice move demonstrated the somewhat limited faith in Clément Grenier at the club.
Nevertheless, first performances as Gourcuff’s replacement immediately caught the eye, as he was directly involved in all four goals scored at home against Troyes, before scoring himself and delivering two assists against Valenciennes.
His fall did not turn out to be as good as his summer, despite a few interesting performances – but at times, he kept showcasing the inconsistency he had been criticised for after a few appearances the preceding season. His 2012 year ended up in a sad way at the beginning of December – starting in an away game against arch-rivals St Etienne, he was forced to leave the field in tears after just more than 15 minutes following a thigh injury that would keep him sidelined for weeks. The OL that headed into 2013 only bore a slight resemblance to the team that had developed what some Ligue 1 followers called the most attractive football played in the league. A confidence crisis from key players such as Malbranque, Gomis or Lisandro, transfer rumours and an early exit from Coupe de France against Epinal, a third-division side, broke Lyon’s momentum. OL picked up a better pace in February, and Grenier scored a brace against Bordeaux in a 4-0 away victory. A few days later, the club faced Tottenham Hotspurs in a Europa League double-header that would see Grenier deliver a great performance at home during the return leg. But Spurs made it through and OL sunk again. For a few weeks, Rémi Garde chose to start his team in a defensive 4-3-3 that would feature neither Grenier nor Gourcuff. A head-scratching situation considering how the club had been relying on creative midfielders for years, from Carrière to Juninho and from Pjanic to Gourcuff.
But as the club kept struggling, Grenier regained time on the pitch, either as a playmaker, or as a left attacking midfielder in a 4-4-2, just like at home against Sochaux. The story from the last weeks of the season is now well-known: led by a spectacular Grenier, who scored a last-minute screamer to give OL the victory at Montpellier, but also two wonderful freekicks, including one at Nice that would help a 10-men OL avoid defeat against Nice, a direct competitor for a European spot, the club held its 3rd spot and hopes to be back to Champions League action next season.
Grenier was rightfully praised for his goals – but he wasn’t necessarily the driving force behind OL’s rather successful end of the season in the run of play. Indeed, most of his performances were rather average. His game against Toulouse (matchday 32) might have been the last complete game of his season, with a lot of influence, and on top of that a delightful half-volley assist for Koné, added to the game’s opening goal. In a deeper midfield position alongside Gonalons, he played behind Gourcuff. However, and we’ll see that later, his passing completion average remained rather low, even in a defensive midfield position, with 73%. In comparison, over the whole season, Malbranque had an 82% pass accuracy rate, while Gonalons had 85%. This highlights two things: he’s willing to play forward most of the time and risk the hard passes – but he also tends to lose focus during games, thus decreasing the quality of his delivery.
The following week, he had a dream game on paper against Montpellier, with a nice left-footed assist for Lisandro, and a thunder strike at the 94th minute to give OL the victory. But stats are far grimmer as he also recorded a 63% passes completion rate, the lowest of his whole team, losing possession of the ball too easily, even on shorter, easier ones – in comparison, Montpellier’s playmaker in the same game, Younes Belhanda, completed 76% of his own passes. Against PSG at home (matchday 36), where OL was mostly outplayed by PSG, he was silenced by the PSG midfield, only completing 5 passes inside PSG’s won last 30 meters, and failing 12.
· His stats and play style
It’s a fact, playmakers need to take risks at time to deliver the efficient or surprising passes, and Grenier is no exception. His passing quality and touch are above average, and he sees and feels the game like only few players do in Ligue 1. He’s not the best dribbler, but his technical skills allow him to win one-on-ones in a limited space. But above all that, he’s got the ability to make the key pass and create chances. He’s second in chances created this season at OL with 44 (6 leading to goals) in 28 games (20 started) (Malbranque leads with 55 in 31 games – Gourcuff has 18 in 18 games), and his average chances created/game played are consequently the highest at the club.
However, he remains a level below Ligue 1’s best playmakers. Marseille’s Mathieu Valbuena created a stunning 117 chances last season, while Rennes’ Julien Féret had 88, on top of his 11 goals. But he’s above PSG’s Lavezzi and Pastore, even if their role is rarely that of a number 10.
Grenier, despite his 1.86m height, still lacks physical impact and defensive presence, and this is one of the aspects of his game he’s going to have to work on, especially if he is to play more games in a deeper position, or in a 3-men 4-3-3 with a defensive-minded midfielder and two hybrid central midfielders.
As I highlighted above, he will also have to become more and more consistent, and showcase a high passing accuracy rate. Understood, playmakers need to take risks – but Götze had an 84% rate last season, compared to Grenier’s 74%. Consequently, he ranks last among all OL offensive players at that level, with Gourcuff, Gomis, Lisandro, Lacazette and even Briand above him.
With 7 league goals and 5 assists, many of them coming in key games or a very important moments, Grenier did have a very good season at Lyon for someone who was just stepping up in the boots of a regular starter. But he remains a diamond that needs to be polished, and many aspects of his game need to be improved before he can pretend to be a Les Bleus regular.
· His history at OL
Grenier has been with OL for more than ten years now – he joined when he was just 11. Born in Annonay, just 75km south of Lyon, he made his way up to the top and was featured in the French selections for all the age categories he’s been through. He signed a professional contract rather early at just 17 years old – and a rather fruitful one on top of that.
· His contract situation and future
Grenier’s contract will be up in just one year. Ol chairman Jean-Michel Aulas has tried to extend this contract during most of the past season, but did not manage to have the youngster sign a new deal. It is understood that two factors tend to soothe the player’s willingness to do so: Yoann Gourcuff’s presence – the French international, playing in a similar position, is seen as a rival (both players have demonstrated they can perform while starting alongside each other), and his high salary is also said to create resentment on Grenier’s side. The failed Nice deal also scractched OL’s image in the midfielder’s mind.
On top of that, his agent, the well-known Frédéric Guerra, has made it clear his player would only sign if he obtained a significant pay raise, and could consider other options if his demands were not satisfied. He also capitalized on Grenier’s newly acquired fame following his Les Bleus call-up and spectacular last weeks.
The player is rumored to be on Arsenal’s, Juventus’, and other clubs’ radar. But Aulas has stated extending Grenier’s contract is among the top priorities of the summer.The latest news indicate a one-year extension packed with a release clasue could be in the cards. Currently on holidays following his South American tour with the French team, Grenier has dodged most questions and said he’d take a decision when he is back. But even a one-year extension would sound like a weird outcome – it’s not exactly a long-term commitment with the club, and means a departure next summer would look inevitable.
However, considering he only has one full pro season behind him, one could think Grenier might be trying to shoot for the stars a bit too quickly. He probably remains a bit too raw for top-flight clubs and needs playing time to keep developing into the great player he looks bound to become. OL, a club where he has grown up, where the coach and the fans trust him, and where he could play Champions League football, looks like the best candidate for this. Don’t bite the hand that fed you, they say…
A special thanks goes to Squawka Football for their excellent statistics.