In his debut piece alongside editor Charles Stone, Mohamed Mohamed charts the progress of the five most improved Ligue 1 defenders over the course of the 2014/15 campaign.
Jordan Amavi – OGC Nice
It is no secret that Ligue 1 is full of wonderfully capable, modern left backs, who fulfill most if not all the requirements of the archetypal, modern-day fullback; possessing the ability to push forward and make overlapping runs that create good scoring opportunities whilst retaining some semblance of defensive positioning and balance. From the likes of Benjamin Mendy to Lucas Digne to Layvin Kurzawa, French football is stocked with very talented fullbacks.
Jordan Amavi is definitely someone who checks nearly every requirement. Amavi has been thrown into the spotlight this season having played virtually every game this season and he has responded beautifully. Amavi has produced three goals this season, which ranks very high among defensive players. He has also made dramatic improvements in ball retention at both ends of the pitch, becoming one of the most reliable players for Nice in possession this season.
For such a young player, Amavi is on his way to being one of the most complete fullbacks not just in Ligue 1 but also possibly in Europe. His game to some extent is reminiscent of a young Patrice Evra, particularly with how both in their younger days played matches as a left-winger. He was instrumental for Nice in their huge victory against Lyon before the international break, containing Lyon’s ability to attack from the right side especially by nullifying the right-back Christophe Jallet’s eager runs forward. It would be mutually beneficial for Amavi’s development and Nice if the player remained on the Côte D’Azur this summer and experience another full season playing every match for a club in one of the elite divisions of European football.
Marquinhos – PSG
PSG are perhaps, alongside AS Monaco, the best defensive side in Ligue 1 this season and it is not difficult to see why. With the amount of talent that PSG’s two most established central defenders possess, Thiago Silva and the mercurial David Luiz, one could be forgiven for thinking that PSGs defensive dominance per player rests there. Brazilian youngster Marquinhos however has proven that he possesses incredible qualities of his own and that he has both the potential and the attitude to better his compatriots in the future.
What has been impressive with Marquinhos this season is his apparent versatility, shifting from centre-back and into right-back whenever Blanc requires. Marquinhos is a natural central defender but has played on the right hand defensive flank on notable occasions this season, one of which was during PSG’s fantastic dismantling of Chelsea in the Champions League first knockout round second leg.
Marquinhos was injured for the month of October and with previous albeit limited experience combined with great mobility for someone his size, he made the right-back position his own, furthering the case for his appearance in this article. Blanc initially opted for Marquinhos at right-back because Serge Aurier was at the African Cup of Nations and Gregory Van Der Wiel was hurt and against Saint Étienne in late January, he was arguably the man of the match in an otherwise dull affair between two of the best sides in Ligue 1. He provided endless width, fulfilling the role of the modern day fullback.
Marquinhos’ future is extremely bright and has more than justified the huge transfer fee PSG paid Roma for his services. It was fantastic news for the capital club when they re-signed the Brazilian to a contract extension that will keep him in the French capital until 2019, following intense interest from Manchester United. At only 20, it will not be long before his name is brought up in discussion for the best CB in the world.
Fabinho – AS Monaco
Very much like Marquinhos, Fabinho has stood out this season because of his ability to excel in multiple positions. Nowhere was this more evident than during performances versus Arsenal and Juventus in the first leg where both a red and an injury to midfielder Jeremy Toulalan forced manager Leonardo Jardim to elect Fabinho to fill the defensive midfield role.
Alongside another young standout in Geoffrey Kondogbia, Fabinho performed very admirably against Arsenal and Juventus as he rarely strayed out of position and held the fort down for Monaco defensively.
Of course being able to play secondary positions in a pinch are a great bonus but Fabinho more than holds his own when playing his natural position in right back. His defensive awareness is frankly phenomenal given his tender age and offers the perfect complement to his fullback partner Layvin Kurzawa, who is arguably more known for his abilities in the final third and instigating opportunities on goal.
The youngster is consistently linked with Barcelona, but AS Monaco Vice President Vadim Vasilyev has assured the club’s fans that they are doing everything they can to make the Brazilian’s two year loan deal from Rio Ave permanent. With the evermore likely prospect that Monaco will finish in the top 3 this season and have a chance at playing Champions League football again, Fabinho would arguably be foolish to breakaway from a club that has given him such a fantastic opportunity to make a name for himself, with the job somewhat being half done before the right-back becomes a truly exceptional player.
Benjamin Mendy – Olympique de Marseille
Marcelo Bielsa’s first and perhaps only season with Marseille has produced interesting results. No one will likely ever forget the massive highs earlier in the campaign when they were scoring goals for fun during certain sequences, which saw Marseille, win eight games on the trot. Yet with the implosion that Marseille are exhibiting right now, the “Bielsa effect” that has seen prior clubs under his responsibility taking a downward spiral in the second half of the season is seemingly well on course.
However, there have certainly been positives to the Bielsa madness this season, with one example being the development of their burgeoning left wing back Benjamin Mendy. This is his second season with Olympique de Marseille, but the “settling-in” period is well and truly over. In an ever-changing amount of formations this season, Mendy has had to cover a virtually insurmountable amount of space down the left sided flank. He has even at times migrated a little more centrally when Marseille hem opponents in their final third with possession.
Mendy’s attacking qualities have become apparent this season, even if they remain a little unpolished. He is very good dribbler who can whip in good crosses from the left hand side. His stamina allows him to patrol that entire area, evidenced this season by Bielsa’s insistence against the tracking back of individuals like Andre Ayew who are instructed to remain in advanced positions throughout the game. Of course, Mendy has shown lapses defensively along the way, often leaving Marseille’s 3-pronged defensive fulcrum exposed.
Lorient’s Raphael Guerreiro has transformed from a fullback into a left sided midfielder and his career has blossomed as a result, is Benjamin Mendy on the same trajectory? The answer is probably not, but this season has been one during which Mendy will have learnt an awful lot about his own physical capabilities as well as balancing defence with attack. This is only Mendy’s second season at the club and what is important is that he continues to grow, whoever is in charge of Marseille next season.
Damien Da Silva – SM Caen
Damien Da Silva’s career is one of a football journeyman, which is saying something considering that he is only 26 years old. After spending nearly a decade of his professional career in the lower levels of French football, he signed with Caen during the summer marking this campaign as his first in the French first division.
It is very demanding playing as a central defender for a club like Caen, who predominantly rely on a very counter-attacking style of play. It is wonderfully incisive and aesthetically pleasing when it culminates in goal-scoring opportunities but Caen have not exactly been revelatory this season. They remain one of the worst sides defensively in Ligue 1, in terms of goals conceded but also when one dissects more intricate shot location data models. As they cede possession often when overcommitting men forward in counter-attacking flurries, Caen’s defensive line has to be very alert at all times.
Silva deserves credit for being the only dependable defender for Caen this season, who has shown remained a focused head during characteristically chaotic, high-scoring fixtures. He played a major role during Caen’s period resurgence from January and February when they gained 19 out of a possible 21 points, and also produced perhaps the goal of the season in Ligue 1 in their 4-1 victory over Stade Rennais in late February.
At 26, Damien da Silva’s progression has probably hit a ceiling at a club like Caen. He is a workhorse who will always put in a shift to execute his own duties perfectly, but also to cover for those teammates whose poor positional awareness makes them prone to leaving gaps in the defence. Caen are fighting to survive the drop at present and it is not farfetched to say that their relegation would have been a forgone conclusion with Da Silva.