Over the past five years, perhaps no country has produced more elite footballing prospects than France. Yet despite this unparalleled rate in talent production, France have often struggled in youth tournaments, underachieving despite frequently bringing stacked squads with plenty of senior minutes under their belts.
Their players aren’t as reliant on a youth tournament to attract the spotlight as players in South Korea, Ukraine, or Venezuela, all of which have excelled in recent youth tournaments. Nonetheless, there have been exceptions. France claimed the European U-19 Championship in 2016, defeating Croatia, Netherlands and Portugal in the process, and trouncing Italy 4-0 in the Final.
Several of those players on that Les Bleuets side, such as Kylian Mbappé and Marcus Thuram, have already begun to fulfill their enormous potential, emerging into some of Europe’s finest young talents. One of those players is Ludovic Blas, who, at 23 years of age, is finally making a name for himself on the world scene.
Blas began his professional career at Guingamp, becoming both the youngest player to debut for the club in Ligue 1 and to score for them. Having gained the trust of manager Jocelyn Gourvennec, he was given the start in the Derby de la Bretagne, and thrived as Guingamp trounced Rennes 3-0. However, it wasn’t until the U-19 Euros that Blas put his talent on display for all of Europe to marvel at.
After being benched for France’s first group stage match, a 2-1 defeat to England, Blas returned to the starting line-up in the second match and dazzled in attack alongside the likes of Mbappé, Amine Harit and Jean-Kévin Augustin, as France ended up lifting the trophy in Sinsheim.
Blas, who had already registered 11 appearances in Ligue 1 at the time, attracted interest from Lyon, Liverpool and Inter Milan after his stellar tournament, but he decided to stay in Brittany, renewing his contract until 2020.
While the first eight months of his professional career were met with instant hype from French football fanatics, Blas’ progression slowed down after Antoine Kombouaré replaced Gourvennec as manager in the summer of 2016. Blas struggled to develop as a player, and his initial promise dwindled.
Part of this was due to Kombouaré, who constantly shifted him from position to position, never quite giving him a regular role that he could practice and master. He played Blas on the wing, in a midfield two and a midfield three, and behind the striker, chopping and changing the formation from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1, and failing to find the right system to exploit Blas’ abilities.
Although Kombouaré’s overly conservative tactics didn’t help affairs, Blas failed to put in the consistent performances that would have otherwise granted him a fixed spot in the starting line-up.
A technically gifted winger known for his close control in confined spaces and spell-binding skill in 1v1 situations, Blas was often played in midfield double pivots in order to organize the second phase of build-up and evade pressure in dangerous areas. It helped him become more versatile, but it didn’t help him churn out the performances that would have guaranteed Guingamp a comfortable mid-table position.
Whilst boasting the likes of Marcus Coco, Marcus Thuram and Blas in attack, Kombouaré failed to get the most out of his youngsters, and was sacked in November 2018 amidst a relegation fight. In his place, Gourvennec returned to the club that he had spent six years at and won the Coupe de France with.
Despite being reunited with the man who gave him his professional debut, Blas still produced the impression of a hot and cold player. An intelligent playmaker who could weave his way past every team in Ligue 1, but whose errant decision-making and lack of efficiency in the final third meant that he was regularly benched by Gourvennec.
Again, his role and position in the team regularly changed; he even started at wingback in the Coupe de la Ligue Final, helping nullify the marauding runs of Anthony Caci in Gourvennec’s well-oiled 5-3-2. Strasbourg ended up winning 4-1 on penalties, but Blas’ defensive work rate gave promising signs of a matured player.
Less than two weeks later, he reminded the Guingamp fanbase that he was still only 21. While he was set to come in as a late impact sub to help turn around a 3-2 deficit, he ended up returning to the bench with his tail tucked into his legs.
The reason? He had forgotten his jersey in the locker room during halftime. Instead, Yeni Ngbakoto came on for a tired Didier Ndong, and it was the Congolese winger who put in a lovely cross that led to Jérémy Sorbon’s equalizer. Guingamp ended up taking home one point against Strasbourg, but Gourvennec was displeased.
Speaking to Canal+, he said of Blas’ mistake, “It is a youthful error. I need fighters and warriors, and Yeni is a warrior.”
There were moments of individual magic, like in the penultimate league match against Nîmes, where Blas provided two assists, but they were too irregular to keep his team up. Six years after Gourvennec achieved promotion to the top flight with Guingamp, they returned to Ligue 2 after drawing 1-1 to local rivals Rennes.
— Breaking The Lines (@BTLvid) December 8, 2021
Alongside teammates Thuram, Pedro Rebocho, and more, he left the Brittany side, joining Nantes for €6.5 million plus €1.5 million in bonuses. He remained at the club until very late in the summer transfer window, gaining interest from Angers, Nice and Strasbourg, but club president Bertrand Desplat refused to let him go.
The French midfielder of Martiniquais descent made his desire clear: “Even if we’d stayed in Ligue 1, I would’ve wanted to depart.” Eventually, it was Nantes who won the race for the player on the final day of the window. He was brought in to replace the injured Coco, who had played with Blas at Guingamp and France’s U-19 team, and who joined La Maison Jaune following Guingamp’s relegation.
Despite a tough start under manager Christian Gourcuff, Blas quickly became a key asset in attack for Nantes, although he still struggled to shake inconsistencies from his game. He had matches where he excelled at linking together the attack with Kalifa Coulibaly, Imran Louza, and co., and others where he completely disappeared. Nonetheless, by the start of November 2019, Blas began to hit unprecedented heights under Gourcuff.
On November 10, he sliced through Saint-Étienne’s defense with a deft through ball in for Christian Benavente, before latching onto the one-two and slamming it past a hapless Stéphane Ruffier. A few minutes later, he found Louza for the go-ahead goal after Les Verts managed to tie the game. On December 1, he gained vengeance on Kombouaré, ripping apart his Toulouse side and scoring the decisive goal.
A week after scoring in a 2-1 win against Toulouse, he took a would-be stalemate against Dijon by the scruff of his neck, and sealed all three points with a piece of individual brilliance. He zoomed past Dijon’s Mickaël Alphonse, cut in from the right flank, fed a quick pass into Moses Simon, received on the edge of the penalty arc, and launched it past Rúnar Rúnarsson.
Goals against Angers and Saint-Ètienne followed, with Nantes finishing 13th in Ligue 1 at the time of the league’s suspension due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Whilst the 2020/21 campaign started fairly well with a draw to Bordeaux and a win against Nîmes, six losses and three draws over the next 11 matches would see Gourcuff receive his marching orders on December 6, 2020, with Patrick Collot briefly stepping in as a caretaker manager.
With the club languishing in 16th place at the Christmas break, Nantes president Waldemar Kita made the bizarre decision of hiring Raymond Domenech, out of work for over a decade after a disastrous end to his time as France manager, as the club’s new coach. Domenech’s appointment only added salt to the wound, as Nantes took five defeats and three draws in his eight matches in charge of the club.
This paved the way for Antoine Kombouaré to step in and enjoy a reunion with Blas, and it’s fair to say that the second time around worked out better than the first. In his first match under Kombouaré, Blas notched a hat-trick of assists in a 3-1 win against Angers, before grabbing goals in back-to-back draws against Marseille and Nîmes.
Following a month-long dry spell, Blas enjoyed his finest run of form in the home stretch of the season, scoring a late winner to secure a comeback victory at Strasbourg on April 25, before scoring in a 4-1 win against Brest the following week. Having picked up an assist in a 3-0 victory against Bordeaux, he did himself even better the following week, grabbing a goal and an assist in a 4-0 win against already relegated Dijon.
However, he failed to muster up his magic on the final matchday aginst Montpellier, with Michel Der Zakarian’s side picking up a 2-1 victory at the Stade de la Beaujoire. It meant that, whilst the likes of Brest and Lorient secured their status in Ligue 1 next season, Nantes would need to head to the promotion/relegation play-off against Toulouse to achieve safety.
Nantes took the lead early on with Moses Simon holding up the ball and flicking it into space, thus allowing Blas to receive the ball with acres of space, charge forward, and blast a low shot that evaded Maxime Dupé at his near post. Whilst Deiver Machado equalized soon after, Randal Kolo Muani’s goal saw them take a 2-1 victory — Toulouse’s 1-0 win in the second leg meant that Nantes narrowly stayed up on away goals.
It’s been more of the Blas at Nantes this season. This time last year, he had picked up four goals — he’s already found the back of the net on seven occasions this season. After scoring in a 2-0 win against Metz on the second matchday, Blas scored a brace in a 4-1 victory against Angers before picking up goals in victories against Brest, Troyes, and Clermont Foot, whilst also providing an assist in a comeback victory against Lens.
Blas has been utilized in a wide variety of positions under Kombouaré, playing as a right winger, an attacking midfielder and even as a center forward. However, perhaps his finest performance of the campaign came against Lille on November 27, playing on the right side of an attacking trident alongside Randal Kolo Muani and Moses Simon.
Burak Yilmaz opened the scoring for the defending champions in the ninth minute, controlling a pass from Jonathan Bamba and striking it past Albin Lafont with a delightful half-volley. Nantes would equalize 15 minutes later as Andrei Girotto booted the ball up the pitch, with Tiago Djaló mistiming his jump and allowing Blas to pounce and exploit a dangerous counterattacking situation.
With José Fonte retreating and attempting to force Blas onto his left foot, Blas duly obliged and cut inside before curling his shot into the bottom right corner, beating Ivo Grbić at his near post. Later on, Blas received a pass on the right flank, hesitated in order to draw in Reinildo Mandava and Benjamin André, before teeing up Fábio in space, with the ex Manchester United fullback’s effort bouncing off the post.
Whether dribbling through a sea of red shirts, intercepting an errant pass, drawing fouls or utilizing his deceptively powerful torso strength to shield the ball, Blas exhibited attributes that would, in theory, beckon a move to a bigger club.
With Jonathan Ikoné set to depart for Fiorentina in January for €15 million, Lille would be wise to consider a move for Blas, whose contract expires in 2024, but their financial problems may prevent them from doing so.
Nantes are no stranger to exporting talented young players for hefty profits, and Imrân Louza (Watford), Diego Carlos (Sevilla), Valentin Rongier (Marseille) and Amine Harit (Schalke) are just a handful of the players who have earned moves to bigger clubs after establishing themselves at La Maison Jaune. Whilst he will continue to play a protagonistic role for Nantes, expect Ludovic Blas to follow in their footsteps next summer.
By: Zach Lowy / @ZachLowy
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / FEP – Icon Sport