Several exceptionally talented attacking players have progressed through the ranks of the infamous INF Clairefontaine. Thierry Henry learned his trade at the French football centre at which Nicolas Anelka and David Trezeguet honed their skills, and Kylian Mbappé is the most recent front-man to emerge as a product of the work that occurs just south west of Paris.
The most expensive teenager in footballing history crafted his art at Clairefontaine, and between 2011 and 2013, he was accompanied by another bustling forward player. That young man was Alexis Claude-Maurice, and while he may not yet have reached the dizzy heights achieved by Mbappé, he has displayed immense potential for the future – and big clubs across Europe are beginning to take notice.
When the natural wide player sought a move to a professional club in his homeland, he was hardly bereft of offers. The prestigious Lyon pursued a deal for the then-18-year-old, but they were pipped in somewhat unexpected circumstances. Claude-Maurice opted to snub the interest from the seven-time Ligue 1 winners and move to Lorient.
He arrived in Brittany during the summer of 2016, and it took him until the 2017/18 season to truly emerge as a viable option for the club’s first team. He was slowly integrated into the senior side, and despite being used sporadically throughout the campaign, notched up three goals in Ligue 2, exhibiting signs of early promise.
However, in the recently-concluded 2018/19 campaign, Claude-Maurice broke through, and cemented his place among the best young talents in France, and arguably, as the best player in the second tier of his country.
Starting on the left-hand side of Lorient’s midfield, the 20-year-old made 35 appearances for his club in Ligue 2. From these fixtures, he was able to score a highly-impressive 14 goals from wide positions while also contributing with a further four assists for his teammates. The statistics are without doubt worthy of appraisal, but the numbers merely scratch the surface when analysing a talent of Claude-Maurice’s level.
What is patent when observing the Lorient youngster in action is his technique. He is dexterous when he picks up the ball in dangerous areas of the pitch and is capable of scoring goals of the highest order, teasing defenders with his unpredictable nature and often leaving them behind with his quick feet.
Competent on his weaker left foot but outstanding on his right, Claude-Maurice is adaptable and flexible. He has shown technical versatility, varying his shot types and methods of penetrating defences, and also positional versatility. He is most proficient on the left where he can fashion openings in front of goal but has also presented a willingness to play in the hole or on the opposite flank.
While a plethora of young attackers at Claude-Maurice’s age often shy away from making use of both feet, the precocious Frenchman rather embraces the challenge. When space does not present itself on the inside, he needs no second invitation to drive low shots across the face of goal, attempting to catch the goalkeeper off guard.
Boasting tactical intelligence well beyond his years, and the technical ability to execute such demands, the 20-year-old is the quintessential modern-day winger. He operates more commonly in half-spaces than out on the touchline, and his capacity to function adroitly on the half-turn has aided Lorient in their attacking build-up.
In Mickaël Landreau’s typical 4-4-2 system, the wide players move infield, and the full-backs remain high and wide while the team are in possession. An extremely well-spaced and well-structured system is developed as a consequence of the carefully constructed shape, but Claude-Maurice is provided with something of a free role, where is able to put his élan to good use and deploy himself closely alongside the strike partnership.
The Clairefontaine graduate has developed a strong relationship with Vincent Le Goff, the 29-year-old left-back who regularly started behind the dynamic winger in the majority of Lorient’s Ligue 2 games last season, and the experienced defender’s positional discipline enables his compatriot to drift into central zones regularly in matches.
Owing to Claude-Maurice’s propensity to move inside, the defensive and midfield players are provided with an additional passing lane. Landreau’s approach does not facilitate a natural number 10, ergo when the winger narrows his position and occupies the space between the opposition’s lines, Lorient have the option to vary their passing patterns and style in the final third.
When receiving the ball to feet in the middle, Claude-Maurice is excellent. He can regularly be seen leaving defenders for dead with a rapid turn of acceleration or a deftly-executed first touch to transition his side’s move into a dangerous attack. The Ligue 2 outfit benefitted from this quality throughout last season; they were aware that they had a deadly, dynamic tool who could supply them with a lethal counter-attacking threat but also one who could evade opponents’ challenges in lengthy spells of possession given his resistance to pressing.
This particular trait is particularly exciting when investigating just what makes the winger so special; he does not necessarily have to be on the ball to pose a threat to defenders. Claude-Maurice positions himself cleverly, disorganises back-lines with relentless movement from his starting position on the left, and also troubles his markers with blind-side runs to connect with crosses from the opposite flank.
While he is not the most physically-imposing footballer, the Lorient star approaches matches with unconditional bravery and courage. He is desperate to get on the ball – anywhere on the pitch – and what he lacks in natural strength and aggression, he more than makes up for with his exceptional balance and guile. Once Claude-Maurice receives the ball at feet, he is rather difficult to dispossess and bring to a halt.
Young footballers – notably attacking players – are perennially plagued by connotations of inconsistency and a lack of productivity in the final third. However, the 20-year-old is arguably an exception to the rule, evidenced by his 18 direct contributions for Lorient in their Ligue 2 campaign, with Claude-Maurice participating in 35% of their league goals in 2018/19.
Somewhat interestingly, six of the player’s 14 strikes came from outside of the 18-yard box. This reflects his ability to score in style, and also depicts his confidence when he picks the ball up with the goal in sight. Claude-Maurice’s style revolves around making defenders sweat and stinging the goalkeeper’s hands, and he did this on numerous occasions last season as he made more attempts on target from outside of the box than any other player in Ligue 2.
He has no noticeably-favoured striking technique, but his efforts appear to have frightening consistency, and several of his goals for Lorient have nestled with pinpoint accuracy into the bottom corner of the opposition net. The youngster is already an accomplished finisher, and an argument could certainly be made to suggest that a future as an inside forward, or even as a striker, would not be beyond the realms of possibility.
Claude-Maurice already has a plethora of strings to his bow. He is not simply a shooter, but a dribbler and a technician as well. His understanding of space is already evident, and he utilises body feints to evade challenges and manoeuvre his way out of tight spaces – a trait commonly recognised in the skillsets of Clairefontaine pupils.
As the season progressed, the winger continued to ooze confidence, and he became progressively comfortable in grabbing games by the scruff of their necks and powering into attack for Lorient. His average of 2.47 dribbles per game embodies how there is always an impetus placed upon putting defenders on the back foot for Claude-Maurice, who has proven to be problematic to keep quiet, albeit for full-backs of an admittedly weaker standard than the challenges that will undoubtedly await him in the near future.
When Claude-Maurice does come up against defensive players in the higher echelons of European football, it will be an intriguing test of his credentials. He is still extremely young and has time to grow, but he may need to ensure that he distributes the ball with greater speed and improves his decision-making – two attributes that can be nurtured over time by patient coaching and intelligent man-management.
What works in the 20-year-old’s favour, though, is that he is by no means raw. He does not boast the experience that some of Europe’s best prospects do, but he is technically outstanding and has the attitude to willingly learn and adjust to the demands of a top-five league. Claude-Maurice has outgrown Ligue 2 and the time has come for him to seek pastures new at a higher level.
The only promise that the forecast for the exuberant Frenchman’s future would appear to present is success. He has clubs queuing up to secure his signature, and after a breakthrough season such as that of 2018/19, it is easy to see why he is so highly sought-after. Claude-Maurice has deservedly earned plaudits for his efforts at Lorient, and potential suitors from all across the world will have had their heads turned by the winger’s exploits of late.
Arsenal have been linked with a move to sign the 20-year-old, just one year after they raided Lorient for Mattéo Guendouzi, another young talent brimming with confidence, energy and desire. The midfielder arrived at the Emirates Stadium for a meagre £7 million and took to life in the Premier League seamlessly during his first season – there is little reason why Claude-Maurice would be unable to do the same.
Staying in France could also be an option for the France Under-20 international. LOSC Lille have reportedly considered him as they prepare for life without Nicolas Pépé, and he could slot into Christophe Galtier’s 4-2-3-1 shape well, with Les Dogues relishing the challenge of Champions League football next season. AS Monaco are also said to be keen, but arriving at Stade Louis II in the midst of what will no doubt be a transitional season for the club could be a risk.
Speculation will rumble on until the Lorient youngster chooses his next destination – that much is inevitable. However, the world is his oyster, and Alexis Claude-Maurice looks set to be the latest off Clairefontaine’s conveyor belt of footballing talent to make a name for himself and shine, wherever his career may take him.
By: Luke Osman