50. Soualiho Meïté
Now, now, I know what you’re thinking. “Oh, Zach took the #1 and #2 spot for the first list, of course he’s going to write the first article that people see.” I assure you I am writing about this player not for the spotlight, nor because everyone else had a player, and I got stuck with sloppy seconds, that one late bloomer who’s finally joining a big club at 23.
To be honest, I’m not sure if I’d be writing this if my associate Thomas Anderson had not started the hype train with a video/thread we did on him back in June. Not going to give away any spoilers here, but Thomas is writing about the guy that my guy replaced. There were a few others on the borderline, but none gave more convincing testimonies than #50.
Soualiho Meïté. The name sounds like a Swahili greeting, or an aria for a Venetian soprano. Still, those magnificent six syllables are only 20% of the reason he’s on the list.
I’m not gonna lie, there’s about 20 tweets in the past four weeks with the words “Soualiho Meïté,” and I’m pretty sure I’ve tweeted at least one-fourth of them. Meïté was born in Paris and grew up in the 13th arrondissement on the left bank of the Seine, but his roots are in Côte d’Ivoire. It’s no exaggeration to say that his playing style seems more Ivorian than French. You can just tell that with some players, and it’s not a statement regarding quality or technique, it just is, regardless of the fact that he chose France and has featured in several French youth tournaments. We could discuss this in a human geography course (of which I received an A for my description of Uruguay’s homogenous population), but let’s talk about why he’s on this list in the first place.
Meïté had a typical Parisian footballing background. In 2002, he began his footballing career with Gobelins, a renowned school affiliated with Paris Saint-Germain, and moved to Vincennes a few years later. However, he had to leave the capital for Burgundy in order to truly establish himself as one of France’s eminent youngsters.
10 years ago, Meïté joined Auxerre’s academy to further his development, but not only because of their famed training facilities, but most importantly because they let him go home on weekends (more or less explains my college choice as well). He rotated from center back to central midfield with France’s youth teams, making Les Bleus’ squad for the U21 European Championship alongside the likes of Benjamin Mendy and Aymeric Laporte. Still, he may have made his way up France’s youth tiers, but he has yet been able to secure a senior team call-up for France, thus leaving the door open for an orgasmic midfield of Meïté-Franck Kessié-Jean Seri for Ivory Coast.
From hours of comps, illegal Zulte-Waregem streams, and 9 individual seasons of Soualiho Meïté in FIFA 17’s Career Mode, I have gathered that Meïté is a rough, tough-tackling midfielder best utilized as the bulky bodyguard next to a lightweight interior. He’s not reckless like Gattuso or Casemiro, (which is not to say he’ll be as good as either), but I find his game to be mostly based on brute strength and intelligent positioning. Still, in order for the French-Ivorian to become one of the best midfielders in the world, he must resolve his identity crisis.
At 6’2′ and 176 lbs, Meïté isn’t a mediocentro or a mediapunta; he’s the new point guard for the Dallas Mavericks. In all seriousness, Meïté is a maverick on the pitch, not so much the “my way or the highway” whimsical brat, but more so the “caught between three different career paths and not really choosing any one, just drifting on the solid, yellow stripes” type. It should come as no surprise that he has played at wide right midfield before, although to little success, holding midfield is his only niche. There’s a part of him that wants to be Pogba, so he thinks he can take five seconds longer on the ball than he actually needs. Granted, with confidence, he can bulldoze his way into the penalty box-a la Kessié-and score a cracker of a goal-a la Yaya Touré-but above all, his upper-body strength, stamina and accountability are his greatest skills.
Mr. Reliable sounds like a direct-to-video rom-com or a plumbing company, but for Meïté, it’s his character. He is reliability personified. Whether it be unconsciously filling gaps of space ahead or behind him, or making that quick tackle in midfield, where, if he does make that tackle, it’s just a normal action, but if he doesn’t, five quick passes later, and his team is down a goal.
Meïté has relied on tactical intelligence and physical strength to develop a late-bloomerish, yet impressive career so far. I hope he realizes that, with the likes of Wylan Cyprien and Steven N’Zonzi struggling to get into the French squad, he’s best off choosing Les Éléphants, a burgeoning national team that has two players on this list alone.
His move to Lille in 2013 was supposed to be the big break for his career, but he remained that raw, stagnating academy product. Just another Parisian gone to rust. Time for last-chance saloon.
Last summer, for the first time in his career, Meïté found himself playing in somewhere outside France. He found himself depressed, bereft of confidence, unfit, and washed up on the shores of East Flanders’ Leie River. If he couldn’t break through at Lille, the club that created Eden Hazard, perhaps it was time to try his luck at Zulte Waregem, the club that created Thorgan Hazard–and soon, Soualiho Meïté.
In 2001, Zulte Sportief merged with K.S.V. Waregem to create Zulte Waregem. Although it is typically seen as a feeder club like Vitesse or Girona, where clubs can throw a lifeline to declining prospects with a cheap loan, the East Flanders club has done well for itself in recent years. In 2012-13, they finished second in Belgium’s Jupiler Pro League, earning a ticket to the Champions League qualifiers where they were smashed to smithereens by Memphis Depay’s PSV Eindhoven. This past season, they won the Croky Cup, essentially the FA Cup of Belgium, thanks in no small part to their recent signings. Luca Marrone came in from Juventus, now-Bordeaux midfielder Lukas Lerager attracted Europe’s mid-tier clubs with quality performances, and Sander Coopman, one of the most interesting talents Brugge has had in years, arrived. But the crowning centerpiece was a special Ivorian-Frenchman.
After his arrival, Meïté immediately befriended Zulte semi-legend Mbaye Leye, training together, focusing more, and finally, getting on the right path to fulfill his potential. This loan spell extracted the best form of Soualiho’s career, with Zulte topping the table before ending up with a 3rd place, Europa League finish.
On March 31, Zulte squared off against the eventual title winners, Anderlecht, and all eyes were on the biggest talent in the country: Youri Tielemans. However, Meïté dominated the match, winning possession, shutting down Anderlecht’s build-up, yet narrowly losing 2-1 to the Paars-wit. That was enough for Monaco’s scouting team, who would end up spending €33m this summer (€25m on Tielemans, €8m on Meïté) on the two midfielders.
If we’re talking about Meïté, we have to talk about Monaco as well. They’re more than just a serial overachiever on the pitch; in terms of profits via players, there’s no club better. Porto used to have that claim to fame, but with the crackdown on Third Party Ownership and Benfica’s Tetra…let’s just say there’s a new sheriff in town.
Dmitry Rybolovlev may be a shadow despot for Putin, he may be a crooked oligarch and he may have brought the most expensive marriage of all time upon himself. When Rybolovlev bought Monaco in 2011, he did it with the dream of making them a superclub, the new Galácticos. With the sudden cash flow, Monaco were out of Ligue 2 within one and a half seasons, and after making the step up, Rybolovlev splurged around €150m on stars from Radamel Falcao to James Rodríguez. It is telling that, of the litany of purchases from that summer, it is Fabinho, who arrived on loan from Rio Ave, has had the biggest impact on Monaco.
Long story short, Monaco lose the league to PSG, Rybolovlev has to pay his ex-wife €500m, and a major sea change happens at Monaco. 3 years later, after Monaco win Ligue 1, PSG are trying to pull off the two most expensive signings of all time in the same market. On the other hand, Monaco replace the most expensive defender ever (€48m Benjamin Mendy) with €13m Terrence Kongolo from Feyenoord, as well as €8.5m Jorge, whom they preemptively bought from Flamengo in January knowing they couldn’t resist a huge Mendy bid in the summer. Furthermore, €50m Bernardo Silva, arguably the best player in France last season, hasn’t technically been “replaced;” Rony Lopes, the likely starter, was brought back from loan, Rachid Ghezzal, after a season of laughable form, signed on a free, and Jordi Mboula left La Masia without even featuring prominently for Barça B, as Monaco triggered his €3m buyout clause. Allan Saint-Maximin, the man most apt at replacing Bernardo, was sold this summer to Monaco’s rival, Nice, for a little more than €8m.
All of this begs the question: What is Monaco’s priority? To win trophies, or to increase profits? Who is Rybolovlev aiming to please-Monaco’s fanbase or Monaco’s stockholders? Can a club that sells their key player (assuming Monaco sell Mbappé or Fabinho to PSG) to their closest rival, who has its squad besieged each summer (see record profits in summer of 2015), be considered a top tier club? What if they win trophies?
Meïté hasn’t completely convinced in Monaco’s preseason-while Kongolo and Tielemans will probably have huge influence this season, the Frenchman will have to put in extra work in training in order to break into the XI. Right now, I think Meïté is more of a financial makeweight, like Youssef Aït Bennasser or Ghezzal, a pawn to Rybolovlev’s profit-hungry economy. Still, throw in a last-minute Fabinho transfer, or a settling-in period from Youri, or João Moutinho’s ankle problems resurfacing, and he’ll have a shot at becoming first XI at the Stade Louis II.
Well, that’s it. I poured weeks of my summer in studying Meïté’s virtual career, did as much research as a non-French speaking person can possible do on him, and probably drew some early conclusions. I hope you enjoy the rest of the list, I hope he chooses Ivory Coast, and I hope the flash in the pan that is Soualiho Meïté metamorphoses into a spell-binding Bouillabaisse.
By: Zach Lowy/@ZCalcio