Scoring three times in Ligue 1 before even making a senior start, the then-17-year-old Elye Wahi’s talent was immediately obvious as he emerged at Montpellier in late 2020. Although the teenager had to wait for 21 league games (mostly as a sub) before his fourth career goal, Wahi regrouped to finish as the third-highest goal-scoring teenager in Europe’s big five leagues during the 21/22 season with ten goals in 33 games. After another uptick to 19 Ligue 1 goals last term, does his trajectory justify wide-spread Premier League interest?
A modern twist on a ‘fox-in-the-box’ poacher, the waspish Wahi excels via diverse and imaginative finishing, while his sharp anticipation, positioning, and movement are amped up by lightning acceleration. Wahi’s eye for goal is also heightened by his finely tuned technical ability, having always been “two or three years ahead of his peers,” says Pierre Ville, the former president of Wahi’s first club, JS Suresnes.
Despite that raw ability, the now-20-year-old’s execution doesn’t always match up to his ideas, however. For every strike like the spectacular running volley in the seven goal mauling of Brest, the backpedalling overhead against Lyon, or the shimmy and snap half-volley at Toulouse, there are some oddly weak misses. Meanwhile, although his energy could be useful in a high press if coached well, the striker is arguably a little one-dimensional by modern standards and can fade to a game’s fringes if chance are scarce.
Although Wahi’s pace and short stature have seen him used on the flanks too, his patchy effectiveness there only underlines his future is as a number nine, perhaps as part of a partnership – comparisons with the skillsets of Michael Owen, Timo Werner, and Giuseppe Rossi aren’t unrealistic. But, to his credit, unlike other strikers, Wahi doesn’t rely on a set route to goal or a stock finish and, reminiscent of Luis Suarez’s famed use of his backside, is showing a burgeoning ability to use his body to protect the ball and engineer space.
Despite some inconsistency, for an improving 20-year-old, Wahi’s composure and eye for space have nevertheless matured beyond his years and his dependability in front of goal should improve. However, his 19 goals last season should be seen as an overperformance at this stage of his progression. Wahi beat his xG by 6.8 goals (the most in Ligue 1 and the fourth most in Europe, according to FBRef), which can be at least partly explained (although a little reductively) by a sprinkling of fortunate deflections and goalkeeping errors. Such luck isn’t sustainable.
However, that idea is caveated by a league-leading 58% of his shots hitting the target and the fact that Montpellier were abject for much of the season before returning coach Michel Der Zakarian took over. Wahi also ranked fourth for goals per shot ratio in France and seventh the season before, underlining his natural eye for goal, while, promisingly, only one of his 19 Ligue 1 strikes came via the penalty spot last term.
Although his movement and pace will trouble centre-backs at any level, it’s too early to ordain the French under-21 international as an elite-level striker in the making who can (or will) be relied upon to score over 25 goals per season for a top 12 European side. Better defenders will outmuscle Wahi and be wiser to his subterfuge. However, his case is helped by a standout use of space in tightly packed penalty areas, which teams like suitors Chelsea often contend with.
A threat on the counter, the Bundesliga’s open nature would suit Wahi’s skillset more, affording greater chances to threateningly isolate himself against a defender anywhere inside the final third. A mooted move to Frankfurt makes more sense than an oddly sideways and uninspiring loan to Strasbourg from new partners, Chelsea. Needing consistent game time, a fluctuating role at Spurs or especially an initially Gabriel Jesus-less Arsenal could be a step too far and bring regression at this stage.
Having found trouble off the field in the past, notably leaving Caen’s academy in his mid-teens under a cloud, former Montpellier coach Olivier Dall’Oglio suggested last year that Wahi still needs nurturing: “He’s slowly learning on his own but, for now, he needs guidance,” Dall’Oglio explained. “You have to make him understand that talent isn’t enough… His challenge will also be to find the right balance between the selfishness of a striker and the collective side of the game.”
Wahi is an intriguingly talented if, for now, single-minded number nine. Transfer links with clubs higher up the European footballing food chain are warranted, but the interest from leading Premier League clubs remains speculative and says more about the lack of elite strikers available than it does about the young Frenchman. Wahi is a goalscorer; it’s arguably all he is, but he has much to prove and learn before he can be considered a reliable option for the trio of London clubs supposedly chasing his signature.
Adam White | GFFN