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FEATURE | The attacking starlets behind France’s U17 World Cup charge

That’s it. France were knocked out of the U-17 World Cup after an eventful game against Brazil on Thursday night. After leading 2-0, Les Bleuets collapsed in the second-half and eventually lost 3-2. Although they’ll have a chance to clinch the bronze medal against the Netherlands, the manner in which the match unfolded was disappointing. But despite this unfortunate exit, the football world witnessed the rise of a new promising French generation, personified by its front four: Adil Aouchiche, Georginio Rutter, Isaac Lihadji and Nathanaël Mbuku. The four youngsters were the major source of satisfaction for France’s coach Jean-Claude Giuntini, as they scored 19 goals in six games. As the time has come to draw conclusions, what can we expect from the 2002 generation, after such an explosive competition? 

2002 and Brazil are a date and a name that sound kind of familiar to football fans. But no, we’re not talking about Ronaldo’s masterclass in the 2002 World Cup, even though Les Bleuets were definitely as free-scoring in similar ways in this tournament. But, paradoxically, it also reminded everyone that on this occasion, France were condemned to becoming a beautiful loser. Much like Belgium during last year’s World Cup, France was led by a flamboyant attacking bunch of players, but did not reach the final. 

The fantastic four

RMC recently previewed France’s game against Brazil by painting a portrait of the “fabulous four”. Who are they?

The first player front-and-centre is Adil Aouchiche. Born at Le Blanc-Mesnil in Paris’ suburbs, the young midfielder was the conductor of the French attack. Good with both feet, he played as a genuine #10 on the pitch. His positioning allowed him to bring his great vision and passing skills into the spotlight, as he ended up with six assists in five games. With still one game to go for France (they’ll face the Netherlands in the third-place game), the Frenchman still has the opportunity to improve his assist tally. Indeed, he is currently the tournament’s top assister.

It is not the first time that Aouchiche has impressed in an international competition. Indeed, pundits discovered him during the U17 Euros where the young Parisian finished as the top scorer with nine goals. Those stats did not prevent Adil from remaining pragmatic and humble. Prior to the Brazil game, he said to L’Équipe: “All I want is to be useful to the team. I don’t care about scoring less goals. (My number of assists) proves that I have improved myself and extended my skills range and that I can give great balls to my teammates. As long as I am decisive, it is okay for me.” 

Alongside Aouchiche, two other players were a permanent threat to the opposition defences: OM’s Isaac Lihadji and Nathanaël Mbuku. The two wingers were responsible for eight goals (five for Mbuku and three for Lihadji). The two wingers are quite similar in their style of play and approach to the game. Lihadji, playing on the right is quick, raw and devastating. His pace has given the opponents nightmares and he does not hesitate to cut inside from his flank to assist or score.

On the opposite flank, Nathanaël Mbuku has had a hell of a World Cup, being the second highest scorer in the competition, one goal behind the Netherlands’ Sontje Hansen. What that statistic does not show is that the Reims prodigy scored a hat-trick against Australia in the Round of 16, more proof of his incredible talent. As RMC highlighted, the Reims kid gets his inspiration from Kylian Mbappé, as he told L’Équipe: “I am inspired by Mbappé and his pace, his skills and his mischief, as well”

Both Lihadji and Mbuku were crucial in France’s journey. But one last player participated in Les Bleuets’ goal-fest: Georginio Rutter. He is the man playing upfront. The 5 ft 9 striker scored three goals in the competition and benefited from the creativity of Aouchiche, Mbuku and Lihadji. Rutter’s main asset is his ability to score with both feet. Used as an anchor to open up spaces for his team-mates, his first touch is gold and he is a deadly finisher. Even though he scored less goals than Lihadji and Mbuku, his involvement in France’s build-up made him the 1st name on the team-sheet for Jean-Claude Giuntini. 

What next for the 2002’s? 

The competition is, in fact, not completely over for the Bleuets. They will play against the Netherlands on Sunday to try to grab a third-place finish that would sweeten the Brazilian loss and embellish their World Cup. A chance to leave the country on a good note. However, it’s the players’ futures that will be most intriguing upon their return to their respective clubs. 

For Aouchiche, PSG are actually working on making him sign his first professional contract. The little Parisian’s performances attracted plenty of interest from many big clubs. The midfielder has already featured in PSG’s professional team and he even started in Paris’ victory over Metz (2-0) in August. Tuchel is a big fan of the midfielder and Aouchiche is one of the few youngsters the German has continued to push to keep him in his squad. Whether he will get more game time with Les Parisiens’ upon his return is another question, especially as PSG have Julian Draxler back from injury. But Adil’s polyvalence could be a real asset, especially as PSG frequently faces injury crisis throughout the season. 

Isaac Lihadji’s situation is quite similar. The OM winger has yet to sign a professional contract with his club and, as RMC reports, it has become a major point of discussion on the Canebière. The ‘minot’ has already played two games with the first team, but not yet at the Vélodrome. The stakes are huge for OM, as the club’s academy, unlike Paris or Lyon, hasn’t been very successful in providing quality players to the first team. With Isaac Lihadji, the Phocéens have finally found themselves another promising talent. A rare enough thing that needs to be highlighted, as their last performing academy graduate was Maxime Lopez. 

Things are a little bit different for Mbuku and Rutter. The first one already played a part in five Ligue 1 games this season, including Reims’ surprising victory at the Parc des Princes, a match where he featured in the starting line-up. He is therefore the most experienced player among the magical front four, having signed his professional contract last year. Georginio Rutter is, on the flip side, the least experienced. Even though, as RMC says, he signed his first contract last year, the striker has only featured once in Rennes’ first team (versus Angers) and sat on the bench for its entirety.

The 2002 generation, whether they finish in third or fourth place, have shown the world their potential during these weeks of competition. Not just the front four either, the likes of PSG’s left-back Timothée Pembélé, and midfield pair of Juventus’ Aouirou Ahamada and Inter’s Lucien Agoumé all showed consistent brilliance as well. But a discussion of their journeys will be left for another day.

A.D.

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