FEATURE | Malo Gusto: Why Premier League clubs want to sign the Lyon right-back

Football is ever-evolving. Tactics, formations, philosophies and even positions continuously change. In the modern game, where dominant teams expect defenders to be a creative presence and provide forward impetus, full-backs have become one of the most vital, and most entertaining, cogs in the machines deployed by the world’s best coaches. Every elite club is on the lookout for the next Trent Alexander-Arnold, João Cancelo or Achraf Hakimi.

Lyon’s Malo Gusto could be just what they’re after. Still only 19, he has all the makings of a top-level full-back. It’s hardly surprising that such a talent was produced in Mezieux, the home of Lyon’s prolific academy, and L’Équipe reported that Barcelona were admirers of the France under 21 international this summer, but Lyon stood firm. What makes Gusto so sought after is his ability in both the attacking and defensive thirds, enabled by his impressive athleticism.

Gusto is often required to cover the whole right flank throughout a game. Some players are criticised for being reliant on physicality to excel but this is far from the case with Gusto. Lyon’s former captain and fellow right-back, Leo Dubois, was often criticised for this and the French international was almost forced out of the club, eventually joining Galatasaray, due to Gusto’s fast track to the first team.

Most striking is the Lyon academy graduate’s attacking intelligence, while Gusto’s passing range and effectiveness are paralleled by very few in his position. Crossing is key for a modern full-back and Gusto has an impressive knack for creating dangerous situations for opposing centre-backs. He’s currently in the top 1% of full-backs for crosses into the penalty area from across Europe’s leading five leagues over the last year, according to FBRef.

Elite modern full-backs are specialists in their teams and their systems. Alexander-Arnold is Liverpool’s progressive and creative passing chief while Hakimi has the awareness and ability to complement PSG’s attacking trio as the spare man, allowing the Moroccan to score a freakish amount of goals for a full-back. Gusto has this same effect but in a different capacity. OL left-back Nicolás Tagliafico’s experience makes him the safety net at the back for young centre-back Castello Lukeba and his partner, meaning Gusto has the freedom to roam the right flank and be the spare man out wide, picking up more inverted positions while finding the free man in the area.

Gusto currently produces 1.4 key passes per 90 minutes and completes over three balls into the penalty area per 90 – fantastic numbers for a right-back. His passing is impressive, although not on the same level as that of Alexander-Arnold but, at just 19, the Frenchman has plenty of time to develop this area of his game.

Modern-day full-backs are often criticised for not being as complete defensively as traditional full-backs, whose primary role was to defend. Despite sometimes being caught out of position and occasionally guilty of naive defending, this part of Gusto’s game makes for a rather promising viewing. He completes 3.51 tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes and is a pressing machine when it comes to winning the ball back, providing 18 active pressures per game. More work on his positioning and defensive awareness with time could present Gusto as a complete modern-day full-back.

Given his form, potential and current ability, there are lots of options for Gusto. Barcelona and Bayern Munich have been looking for the next Dani Alves or Phillip Lahm for years without any real success and Real Madrid’s Dani Carvajal isn’t getting any younger.

Despite these potential destinations that would suit the Frenchman, it appears the Premier League would be the most likely option for the Lyon full-back this window or potentially in the summer. Newcastle United, Manchester United and Chelsea have all been heavily linked. However, it is the latter who are leading the race having opened negotiations with OL and agreed personal terms with the player, according to Fabrizio Romano. The main question to be answered is whether Gusto is ready for the Premier League.

Gusto’s aforementioned style would appear to suit many clubs at the top level. Progressive in his attacking play and adequate in his defensive work, with some room for improvement – Gusto presents a diamond in the rough for top clubs. Under the right manager with the right guidance, the Lyon right-back could become one of the best in his position. Potter would appear to be a manager that could get the best out of him. With a track record of improving players dramatically and maximising players’ strengths, the former Brighton manager and the 19-year-old could be a match made in heaven.

Using Chelsea as a reference case, due to their pole position status in the race for Gusto’s signature, the French under-21 international would face stiff competition for places if he were to move in January. Chelsea currently have captain Cesar Azpilicueta at right-back and are awaiting the return of Reece James from injury. When the England international returns, considering his influence on Chelsea, opportunities for Gusto could be limited if assurances over his playing time are not made.

Despite Gusto potentially having to force his way into contention for a starting birth, stylistically, Gusto’s skillset certainly appears to fit Chelsea and the Premier League like a glove. With the experience of Thiago Silva to his right, Gusto would have much more freedom to maximise the attacking threat he provides at Lyon as a key ball progresser and crossing menace. Learning from full-backs like James and Azpilicueta would also provide him with the possibility of learning from two of the game’s leading full-backs.

Gusto’s defensive nous is possibly the negative when discussing the teenager’s suitability for the Premier League. There is an assumption among Lyon fans that this is the weakest part of his game and somewhere that he needs to improve to reach the top level. As Potter likes his teams to play on the front foot and in a possession-dominant manner, Gusto could perhaps be susceptible to counterattacks and being caught out of position as he likes to occupy advanced positions.

This has been his downfall at times in Ligue 1, so making the step up to the Premier League at 19 could see this become a regular occurrence. However, Gusto certainly has the potential and work ethic to maximise his game and working under Potter would likely see him improve as a defender.

From a pressing standpoint, Gusto would be an asset to any team that adopted a high press in the Premier League, including Chelsea, due to the mammoth number of active pressures he completes for a right-back. This paired with his crossing ability and impressive endurance could make him a handful for opposition defences.

Gusto would certainly have to raise his game to become an instant hit at a top Premier League club like Chelsea and a mainstay over a longer period, but, considering his meteoric rise at Lyon and boundless potential, it’s easy to see why Chelsea are so keen for the teenage French defender to swap the Rhone for the Thames.

Liam Wraith | GFFN


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