FEATURE | Florian Sotoca: The lower-league forward ageing like a fine wine in Ligue 1

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While the North of France is more readily associated with coal mining than wine, the trope of players ageing like a fine one has been instrumental to Lens’ recent success. For as much as France has been known as a font of young talent, and the success that the club has had with their academy in the form of players like Raphaël Varane and Cheick Doucouré, even more vital has been players who have taken less-than-direct routes to the top flight.

Jonathan Gradit, late of Bordeaux’s academy, and who took a path that included spells at Tours and a humbling relegation with Caen, and Jonathan Clauss, who joined from the German second division, are key examples, but the intelligence and overall play of Florian Sotoca has been perhaps even more vital. In the current season, only Neymar and Lionel Messi have more assists, and only Kylian Mbappé and Alexandre Lacazette have more goal involvements among French players.

These statistics are inspiring enough on their own, but perhaps even more impressive is his role in knitting together Lens’ gung-ho attack, which has continued to be re-moulded through Franck Haise’s spell in charge, owing to the departures of Ignatius Ganago, Arnaud Kalimuendo, Clauss, Doucouré and a drop in form from Gaël Kakuta. Through that veritable revolving door of talent, Sotoca has remained a constant, his calm presence, intelligence and physical gifts the key to the team’s push for a European, or perhaps even Champions League, spot – no small feat for a team of Lens’ means, even taking into consideration their past success.

Born in the small Languedoc town of Narbonne, Sotoca played for nearly two decades for his hometown team, FU Narbonne, winning the World University Games with France in 2013. His spell with Narbonne was one marked by his potential, but injuries also played a role in his spell there, including a ruptured cruciate in 2010.

However, his performances for his club and his country would eventually earn him the attention of FC Martigues, a club playing in France’s fourth tier, the National 2. While this was hardly a meteoric rise, he acquitted himself well there, and earned a subsequent move to Béziers, who were playing in the third tier. A strong spell there saw him catch the eye of Montpellier, the region’s biggest club, who had been recently champions of France, notable for furthering the careers of players like Rémy Cabella and Olivier Giroud after spells in the lower leagues. Despite signing his first professional contract with La Paillade, though, his time was an abject failure, appearing in just two matches as the team struggled on the pitch, and after failing to attract the interest of Stade Lavallois with an eye to a loan deal, he left the club on a free just six months after having joined, signing for Grenoble, a club with a legendary past but who were then struggling in the fourth tier.

At Grenoble, Sotoca, motivated by a desire to return to professional football, became a cult hero, scoring in three of his first four matches as the team strolled to promotion in his first season. It was more of the same the following campaign, as he scored thirteen goals across all competitions, powering the team to a place in the Round of 16 in the Coupe de France and the relegation-promotion playoff against Bourg-en-Bresse. After Sotoca netted in the opening minute, the team had to ride their luck, missing a penalty and seeing a man sent off, but after a scoreless second leg, Grenoble were back in Ligue 2 thanks to a 2-1 aggregate win.

The following season saw the team comfortably finish in mid-table with Sotoca, playing both centrally and on the right wing, leading the way with thirteen goals and five assists and even captaining the side on more than a dozen occasions. Grenoble were punching over their weight, but Sotoca, having tasted Ligue 1, was eager to connect with a more ambitious side, and when Lens came calling in the summer of 2019, he didn’t hesitate to join Le Sang et Or, making the trip north for just over €1m, the first time a fee had changed hands for the player.

His first season in the north of France was of course marred by the COVID-19 pandemic, but he still netted nine goals and added five assists in thirty appearances, powering Philippe Montanier’s side to second place and promotion to the top flight for the 2020/21 season. Despite the presence of more experienced players at the Ligue 1 level, including the arrival of Arnaud Kalimuendo on loan, Sotoca worked hard to keep his place, playing as more of an archetypal target man with one of the more pacey Kalimuendo or Simon Banza working off of him in a 3-5-2, ably supported by Kakuta.

That tactical wrinkle has worked so well for Lens with Sotoca as its locus that one has to wonder whether Franck Haise’s genius might really be recognising Sotoca’s talents and getting the best out of him. Despite being impeccable in the air, he is more than just a target man. Even if many of his goals for Lens have been headers, they have often been subtly shaped, crafted from his movement, anticipation and intelligence rather than sheer power.

Beyond his scoring, his assists have also been vital to Lens’ strong form, again displaying his intelligence and, at times, sheer audacity, such as his over-the-shoulder pass for Wesley Saïd against Angers in early November. Having formerly played on the wing, he is able to use his strength and mobility to pull defenders out of position, freeing the team’s quicker attackers nearer to the goal with regularity. Indeed, in this way, his becoming the creative hub of the team has lent them more dynamism opposed to the more slow-paced Kakuta.

Now 32, it’s probably too late for Sotoca to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Giroud or Cabella and earn a big move abroad, but if things continue as they have been, it should be great entertainment to see him battling in the Champions League come next season.

Eric Devin | GFFN

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