FEATURE | Jonathan Gradit: Europe’s most underrated player?

This is taken from the GFFN 100, our leading 150-page FREE publication ranking the best 100 players in France, see the full list and read every profile right here.

Born in the rugby-mad southwest of France, Jonathan Gradit’s winding road to success in Ligue 1 is not necessarily an uncommon story. Players as diverse as Laurent Koscielny, Olivier Giroud and N’Golo Kanté have shone on the biggest stage after slow, peripatetic starts to their careers. Indeed, Gradit’s erstwhile Lens teammate Jonathan Clauss is also an example of this, having trawled through the lower leagues in Germany as well as France, but Gradit has done so whilst remaining resolutely in the shadows, a combined product of his age and the clubs for whom he’s played.

After leaving Bordeaux’s academy in 2012, he stayed in the region, dropping down the leagues to turn out for Bayonne before making the move north to Tours – an auspicious one in that both Giroud and Koscielny had both turned out for the team before making their names at Montpellier and Lorient, respectively. Collective success evaded Gradit there, however. The club’s performances were decent for much of his spell there, but they finished bottom in 2017/18, and he made a move to Caen, then playing in Ligue 1.

Despite the presence of Gradit, as well as Alexander Djiku and Paul Baysse among the Norman side’s defence, they were blunt in attack, and he suffered a second straight relegation. A move to a more upwardly-mobile Lens followed, despite his having spoken in glowing terms of life in Caen. However, his first campaign was shortened by the pandemic, with the team earning promotion by dint of holding second place when the season was prematurely ended by the league’s hierarchy.

That first season in Lens also saw an evolution of his play. At Caen, he was most often played centrally in a back four, alongside the more imposing Djiku. At Tours, he had been used far more often as a right-back but, with Frédéric Guilbert having made the position his own with his dynamism, Gradit was moved inside by manager Fabien Mercadal in an effort to bring in a bit more positional intelligence to and pace to shore up a defence that was struggling badly.

It was a move that Gradit was unsure about at first, telling Ouest-France that “it was a move that made me a bit uneasy at first. At Tours, I had helped out there, but it was tough to adapt, but I felt comfortable there eventually.” More to the point, though, Mercadal, despite his checkered record on the bench, has recognised that Gradit’s abilities had much more potential centrally than on the flank, where his relative lack of pace could leave him exposed against more fleet-footed attackers.

Now firmly ensconced at Lens, playing on the right of a back three, he has gone from strength to strength, both individually and as a teammate, helping in the development on young defender Christopher Wooh, who has since moved to Rennes, and in the acclimation of Austrian centre-back Kevin Danso to Ligue 1 since his arrival from Augsburg last summer, displaying a preternatural level of leadership even without the captain’s armband.

Too, having initially played as a right-back, he has also served as an ideal bookend to Facundo Medina on the left, the Argentine having similarly played as both part of a back three and as an orthodox left-back in a four before making his move to France. Despite above-average recovery pace and good anticipation, Gradit relies more on his nous than on his physical abilities, not being as strong in the air as most central defenders.

His good play, of course, hasn’t come without plaudits, both from Lens’ passionate fans and from the media, with the rumour mill constantly churning despite his having recently turned thirty. Earlier this season, there were even jokes about Gradit being linked to Real Madrid, and concrete interest from Marseille has been expressed as well, but, unfortunately, Gradit was struck by a broken clavicle which caused him to miss five matches in the league, including Le Sang et Or’s only loss, in the derby to Lille. While a nominally bigger club such as l’OM would seem an impressive match, given the chance to play on Europe’s biggest stage, Gradit would be best served by staying with Lens, following in the footsteps of Seko Fofana, who signed an extension earlier this season.

Gradit has also been philosophical about the fact that, for all of their attacking prowess, Lens’ solid play at the back has been at the core of their success, telling L’Équipe: “Solidarity is our greatest strength. Confidence, too. We have gained confidence in ourselves over the past few seasons, and we know what we have done well. And humility, too, because it is the most important thing to have in these situations. It will be necessary to remain humble to be as consistent as possible to the maintain this.”

To wit, then, for all of the sparkle and fizz generated by Lens’ attack, it is perhaps even more the case that a steady, veteran presence, someone who knows how precious life in the top flight can be, let alone jousting for Europe, is key to a team’s attitude. And in Gradit, Franck Haise has that in spades, a consistent presence who has battled adversity and remained a steadying influence despite a near-constant influx of teammates, both in attack and in defence, making him more than deserving of what may seem, to the untrained eye, as a lofty ranking.

Eric Devin | GFFN

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