The following article is extracted from Football News’s 200,000 word guide to the world of French football, The Football News 100 which focuses on ranking individuals’ performances over the course of 2015 as a calendar year. To download the whole guide, click here.
The following piece was written in December 2015 and published on the 1st January 2016. Michy Batshuayi did not feature in the 2014 edition and ranked an astonishing 35th in our index out of French football’s 100 best players in this year’s Football News 100.
In the early career trajectory for young players (normally midfielders & forwards), there are two distinct years. One is where they join a bigger club to the one that they were at before. And the second is where they rise to announce themselves on the European stage as the team’s most important player.
If 2014 represented year one for Michy Batshuayi, 2015 was most certainly the second, whose calendar year has been a textbook example of the above scenario. At the beginning of 2015, the young Belgian star was number two to Andre-Pierre Gignac, who was enjoying a bit of a purple patch in the scoring charts.
Marcelo Bielsa however, noted the importance of Batshuayi as a pretender to Gignac’s crown. And OM knew full well that Gignac would be departing in the summer, with almost zero chance of spending millions on an established striker to replace him.
Batshuayi it seemed, was bought for the sole purpose of being groomed as the Frenchman’s heir. The only issue was for the 22-year-old to replicate the faith that had been shown in him from the management.
And the ex-Standard striker, despite sporadic game time, did superbly in highlighting his worth. Reduced to a bit-part role, he was the one player Bielsa could call upon to make a difference. And a difference he did make.
In late February against St Étienne, a side that Marseille usually do not do well against away from home, Bielsa took off the under-performing Gignac and replaced him with Batshuayi as OM looked for alternatives having gone 1-0 down. 40 seconds later, Batshuayi controlled a long ball expertly, chesting down & holding off his marker before firing OM level. Forty seconds.
Two minutes after that, inexplicably OM were ahead. Saint-Etienne were lackadaisical in defence, and the visitors pounced. Benjamin Mendy’s low cross was caught on by Batshuayi who steered the ball past Stephane Ruffier. 63 minutes he had come on, 67 minutes OM were 2-1 ahead, Michy had two.
He was given the nod to start the next game against Caen at Stade Vélodrome, but could not replicate the same performance in a difficult encounter. Gignac replaced him after the hour, and scored – before OM lost 2-3. It was a steep learning curve for the player, however.
He was given a second chance against Toulouse at Stadium Municipal. This time however, he managed to impress, scoring twice once more – at the beginning of the first half (2’) and at the end (44’) before being substituted. Marseille had two firing strikers on the pitch and on the bench.
And the rise continued against Lens at the Stade de France. He replaced Gignac at the break, and scored within a minute, putting OM 1-0 ahead before completing a 4-0 scoreline at the end of the game with a tap-in. Michy Batshuayi was becoming a veritable super-sub in European football with his quick impact. While he’d have preferred to be the club’s no.1 striker, he was excelling despite his bit-part role.
And such performances not only caught the imagination, but also caught the attention of Belgium coach Marc Wilmots, who handed him his debut against Cyprus in Euro qualifying. Coming on for Christian Benteke – and? You guessed it, scoring his first international goal three minutes later.
Surprisingly, for such an end to the season, there were few reported suitors for Michy Batshuayi. Marseille had made it clear that they had no intention of parting with their young starlet. Gignac had indeed parted in the summer, off to Mexico with Tigres UANL. And while the core of OM’s side were sold off, Batshuayi would remain having been promoted as the club’s number one striker.
Instead, Marseille were seeking a striker to alleviate the workload that Batshuayi would have to get through. He was the number one striker indeed, but the only striker on the club’s books.
And as OM failed to bring in reinforcements, including a failed bid to bring in Erik Lamela on deadline day and Wissam Ben Yedder remaining at Toulouse, all eyes turned to the big Belgian who would have to carry his side into at least the first half of the 2015-16 season.
Hard work indeed, but Batshuayi relished the challenge. It beat being on the bench anyway, as he was now guaranteed to start every game pending match fitness. After a spotty start to the season, he bagged two against Troyes, and a further one against Bastia – but it was towards the end of September when the streak began, scoring five in five to aid Marseille in their revival.
He became Marseille’s most important player this season, and having scored already 11 goals in 18 in Ligue 1, with a further three in the Europa League, he has done superbly well in keeping OM afloat despite their striking deficiencies.
The problem with Batshuayi is, that it is hard to really judge if he is the all-encompassing striker as is evident. For every goal scored, there remains one or two clear-cut chances missed, which adds a layer of frustration for viewers of his game.
If he does show great desire and determination to win the ball and bully defenders, he often complements that with poor decision making in failing to feed team-mates on the counter-attack. It is the same problem that Marc Wilmots has spoken about when deciding to call him up on the counter-attack.
As ever, Batshuayi needs to benefit from strong competition, with Marseille attempting to pull out all the stops to sign a centre-forward which can challenge him for the second-part of the season and to also assist in helping him avoid burnout as OM launch an attack on all four competitions they remain active in.
And it is important that Batshuayi remains fresh and potent in attack for 2016 will prove to be a big year with possible participation at Euro 2016 with the Red Devils. There has been talk of possible £30m moves in the summer, but for now, he remains the undisputed holder at Stade Velodrome. Long may that continue.