At the turn of each of the last two decades, Lille have shined brightly by winning Ligue 1 somewhat as an anomaly once every 10 years. The woes of success have meant that each of these teams have been broken down into pieces as the sharks come circling in the form of top European clubs who prize the very best players away for lucrative sums of money. Such is the life of a Ligue 1 club that is not named Paris Saint Germain.
The trend was set upon their Ligue 1 triumph with Eden Hazard, who was the first of many more who followed suit. Gervinho, Nicolas Pepe, Sven Botman, Victor Osimhen, Renato Sanches and Mike Maignan all imposed themselves as flavour of the year at some point. But who is the next diamond that is ruffling feathers at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy this season?
Introducing: Leny Yoro.
Breakthrough at Lille
Yoro is a Parisian by nature, born in Saint Maurice which is part of the suburbs in Paris. However, he moved to Lille at the age of 6 and has been proudly representing Les Dogues since. The Frenchman debuted in Ligue 1 at the age of 16, becoming the second youngest player in the league’s history to do so – surpassing Eden Hazard as a result.
Last season, he made 13 Ligue 1 appearances in his breakthrough season. This campaign, the goal is much higher. His aspirations, as with most French footballers, will be to play for France at a major tournament. Whilst that may not be a reality set in stone just yet (or for Euro 2024), the hustle behind that goal is well underway and the next World Cup in 2026 could be a very realistic option of a call-up. In order for the fairytale to come to fruition, certain barriers must be broken down.
His first barrier was breaking through the U17 setup to play for the U21 team. This is a box ticked as Yoro has begun to regularly feature for the side, last starting in Les Bleus’ European Championship Qualification loss against Austria next to Castello Lukeba in November 2023.
The next barrier was at club level. Playing regular football for boyhood club Lille was the next immediate objective, also being a dream… despite just turning 18 in November. To do this, Yoro had to displace either Alexsandro Ribeiro or Bafode Diakite in the backline. By his 18th birthday, Yoro had already started more games (14) than he managed to start in the league (13) in 2022/23. He has successfully gone above Diakite in the pecking order, he has kept new signing and World Cup winner Samuel Umtiti out of the side, and he is collecting valuable experience in the Europa Conference League as well.
Standing at 6’2”, Yoro has all the natural attributes to fit the profile of what an ideal centre-back looks like. Whether it is the frame, pace, or long legs – they all aid development at his age and utilisation of these physical traits are an early indicator of a highly intelligent footballer.
Yet what is most impressive about Yoro is not his physical attributes, but it is his technical abilities at just 18. His passing abilities comfortably put him in the top 15% amongst centre-backs in the top 5 leagues this year, despite only playing regularly since the turn of the summer.
His goal against Stade Rennais was a perfectly timed volley scooped with his feet and his other goal against Toulouse was a delicious header. Both goals are early indicators that he is a growing danger at set pieces. 3 goals in all competition places him highly within the top 10% of centre-backs for non-penalty goals.
However, in terms of aerial duels won, he only manages to fit in the 81% percentile which shows the drawbacks of young centre-backs who are not fully developed yet to compete with the very best and physical of forwards. It is something that will come with time as he builds muscle mass with age, but right now he must be going through the awkward teenage age where everyone points out just how lanky he is.
In Ligue 1, this will not be too problematic on a weekly basis, but if he is to move prematurely to another league like the Premier League or Bundesliga, he could struggle with handling some of the most physical strikers. Perhaps this is the biggest question mark over why a lot of managers are hesitant to show their faith in young centre-backs.
As for competing with himself, the data above shows the vast improvement and hard work that Yoro has gone through to improve his all-round game. His progressive passing and ball carries are likely to take a hit as he gets more game-time, but these are two areas that can be interpreted as a player making rash decisions in the elite game. The more experience he carries, the better and more balanced his decision making will become throughout this season and the next.
Overall, Leny Yoro has a bright future ahead him. However, it may be wise for him to ignore possible suitors from abroad to ease into the top level of professional football… for now at least. After all, giving Lille some of his best years would be a personal repayment of the faith the club have shown to him as he has grown up in the city. Whatever he decides when the calls from his agent starting dropping in, the Frenchman has all the growing attributes to make him one of the world’s best centre-backs someday.
By Abdullah Mamaniyat / @mxmnyt
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Sameer Al-Doumy / AFP