FEATURE | Ligue 1’s 5 most improved players so far

With plenty of players impressing in the early stages of the Ligue 1 campaign, which players have stood out as those having improved the most over the close season.

1 | Nabil Fékir (Lyon)

Perhaps the most obvious choice would be Lyon’s Nabil Fékir. The events of September 4th 2015 seemed to have put paid to the development of Fékir, as a ruptured cruciate ligament injury picked up in France’s friendly game with Portugal put him out of action for over seven months. Upon his return to the game, it looked like the injury had taken its toll on Fékir as he appeared to be far off the pace.

Come the summer of 2017 and many were left wondering if such a nasty injury had robbed Fékir from ever reaching his potential. With the departures of key players Maxime Gonalons, Corentin Tolisso and Alexandre Lacazette, Lyon coach Bruno Génésio took the slightly surprising decision to hand the captain’s armband to Fékir. It’s been a key decision in the player’s return to form as has flourished with the extra responsibility. Playing slightly deeper than before and just behind the Lyon front three, Fékir has been able to dictate games with his wonderful vision and movement. With goals and assists already to his name this season, along with a recall to the national team, his career seems well back on track.

2 | Bryan Dabo (Saint-Étienne)

The versatile Bryan Dabo proved a highly influential player for Montpellier the season before last so much so that he subsequently earned a move to Saint-Étienne. Sadly for the player he never seemed to see eye to eye with then Les Verts coach Christophe Galtier. Only a few months after joining, Dabo faced a very public dressing down from Galtier and was part of a small group of senior players banished to the reserves.

It therefore looked very likely that Dabo would need to find a new home however Galtier’s announcement that he would be leaving at the end of the season gave a glimmer of hope for the player. Under new coach Oscar Garcia, Dabo has quickly become a key component in a refreshing, new look Saint-Étienne side.

His versatility is still a useful factor; we are only a few weeks into the season and he has already been used as a defensive midfielder, pushed a little more forward and out on the left. His desire, drive and strength all seem to have returned and it’s no coincidence this has been timed with a return to a more positive looking Saint-Étienne style of play.

3 | João Moutinho (AS Monaco) 

No player suffered more with the brilliant Monaco midfield pairing last season of Tiémoué Bakayoko and Fabinho than João Moutinho. The Portuguese player was one of the original big name signings back when Monaco were a free spending outfit, however he only featured in the starting line up for less than half of Monaco’s games in the league in the title winning campaign. Since Bakayoko’s departure this summer though Moutinho has once again found himself back playing a key role for Leonardo Jardim’s side.

With a side having faced so many key departures in the summer, Moutinho’s experience has proved invaluable in Monaco’s excellent early season form. His performances have actually exceeded those of his midfield colleague, Fabinho as his vision and range of passing have been key.

To emphasise how impressive Moutinho has been, he has kept €25m summer signing Youri Tielemans out of the side. Whilst that may not last all season, Moutinho has, with maturity, shown what an important asset he still is for Monaco.

4 | Younousse Sankharé (Bordeaux) 

For Bordeaux midfielder Younousse Sankharé it has felt a long time coming but early signs this season give hope that the somewhat journeyman player has found the right fit to extract the best from him. From his early days at PSG via spells at Dijon, Reims, Valenciennes, Guingamp and Lille, Sankharé has frequently flattered to deceive, especially with France proving a hotbed for excellent defensive midfielders.

Sankharé’s powerful frame lends itself to a suggestion he should have been at his best some time ago and whilst that was occasionally witnessed especially during his time with Guingamp, he’s yet to produce on a consistent basis. His move to Bordeaux last season was certainly not one of those which caught the eye and his performances followed in a similar vein.

It’s been all change so far this season though as Sankharé has been given licence to push forward a little more by coach Jocelyn Gourvennec. It’s a move which has paid almost instant dividends as the player has found himself amongst the goals. Evolving into a more advanced role, Sankharé has discovered an instant knack for finding space in the box so to combine this attacking instinct with his strong, athletic presence could result in a long overdue stellar season for the player.

5 | Romain Thomas (Angers SCO) 

Perhaps a little tough on Saint-Étienne young defender Ronael Pierre-Gabriel who has excelled early this season, in terms of improvement on the previous campaign, it’s been great to see the return to form for Angers key defender Romain Thomas. Two seasons ago, Thomas shone as one of Ligue 1’s best central defenders during Angers’s excellent return to the top flight. His tall, slender frame disguised a tough tackling defender who possessed excellent vision and anticipation.

It was of course a tough ask for Thomas to keep up those levels of performance and last season brought about a drop in form as Angers suffered a much tougher second season in Ligue 1. So far in this campaign though, Thomas looks back to his best with real stand out performances against Marseille and Lille as Angers went unbeaten in their opening four games despite a visit to the Velodrome and hosting Bordeaux and Marcelo Bielsa’s aforementioned Lille.

His early season form resulted in Angers wisely offering the player a new contract, however despite this and his age (29), it would be no surprise to see Premier League sides come back with interest in Thomas if he can continue with these performances.



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