The goal, even as a part of a losing effort, stands out. Rachid Ghezzal spins PSG midfielder Thiago Motta on the halfway line, slipping the ball to Maxime Gonalons. Lyon’s captain scurries forward before switching play to Rafael, streaking up the flank. The little Brazilian cuts inside and lets fly with a wicked, curving shot, which hits the far post. Nabil Fékir snatches at the rebound, and the chance goes begging, a cruel reminder of a season that, to that point, had seen more than its fair share of near misses, whether to the likes Lorient in the league or to Juventus in Europe.
On this occasion, though, things took a positive turn as Mathieu Valbuena blasted home an sublime volley from his weaker left foot, leaving Alphonse Areola no chance to level the match at 1-all. Valbuena, introduced at half-time, had been on the pitch all of three minutes, but “Le Petit Velo” wasted no time in making his presence felt. The goal was only Valbuena’s third for Lyon, after more than forty appearances over nearly a season-and-a-half, but it had a certain air of redemption to it. Even if many of those appearances had been off the bench or during the reign of Hubert Fournier, where he was mis-used as a makeshift replacement for the injured Fékir, this, finally, was the player that Lyon had sought out after signing him from Dynamo Moscow.
A late winner for Edinson Cavani consigned the hosts to a 2-1 loss, their third in six matches, seeing the club slip to seventh in the process. Yet with Valbuena leading the way, Lyon reeled off four straight wins in the league, rising to fourth in the process. With a match in hand after the incidents in Metz, Lyon were being touted as having a genuine chance to get back into the top three, and Valbuena was at the heart of it, with five goals and two assists in five matches starting with the loss to PSG. His goal-scoring record has inevitably cooled, but not his form.
Since that loss to PSG, Valbuena, even suffering through a leg injury in February, has been Lyon’s best player. Alexandre Lacazette has scored more goals, and Memphis Depay has more assists, but the former Marseille man has been a stunning benchmark of class, quality and persistence. Drawing fouls, linking play and willingly swapping flanks to better suit Depay or Maxwel Cornet, Valbuena’s renaissance has been a genuine joy to watch. Never the most humble of players during his time at Marseille, he seemed a withdrawn, even beaten presence last season, cowed by injury, his personal affairs and a lack of a consistent position in the side, even being dropped in the run-in as Cornet and Ghezzal were preferred.
Valbuena never complained, though, and when given his chance this season, he has sparkled. Those hungry for statistics may scoff at this notion, but they would do well to examine his numbers more closely. Despite appearing in 28 of Lyon’s 36 matches in the league this season, fully half of those have been substitute appearances, and of the 14 starts he did make, in just six of them did he play the full ninety minutes. Of those six matches, however, in only two of them did he fail to register a goal or an assist, setting a career-high of eight goals, all from open play, in the process.
By taking Valbuena’s statistics on a case-by-case basis and looking at his contributions in terms of time on the pitch (rotation for the Europa League has been a concern in the last three months), he is, it could fairly be argued, in some of the best form of his career. A call-up for France may seem unlikely, with the little winger 33 when Russia 2018 kicks off, but one would do well in this instance consider Valbuena’s particular skill set, especially in comparison to his competition.
Like Dimitri Payet, Valbuena has embraced a return to French football, but unlike the former West Ham man, he has emerged as a veteran leader on a young team, rather than offering the occasional sparkle for a more experienced group. Florian Thauvin’s goal and assist totals are comparable with Valbuena’s, even on a per-minute basis, but the youngster’s hubris often gets in the way, and he is also unable to play effectively on either flank, as his erstwhile teammate has shown.
Ousmane Dembélé and Thomas Lemar are undoubtedly the future on the flanks for France, but given Valbuena’s effectiveness on a per-minute basis, his versatility and, most importantly, his willingness to come off the bench, as he had on that chilly November evening six months ago, his experience and guile must surely make him deserving of consideration.
Didier Deschamps will soon call up his squad for a pair of friendlies, against England and Paraguay, with a trip to Sweden sandwiched in between. The manager is well-known for his bizarre loyalties when it comes to certain players, with Payet starting over Lemar of late arguably more down to the Marseille man’s Euro 2016 performance than the current season only the latest example.
However unlikely, it would be a massive (and deserved) validation for Valbuena were he to be selected, given the obstacles he has overcome since returning to France. Deschamps is unlikely to shuffle his deck at this stage, with qualification not quite assured, but if Valbuena puts together another season on the level of the one just concluded, could he regret his decision in a year’s time?