This season, Florian Lejeune discovered the Premier League with Newcastle. Despite an injury sustained early on in the season, the central defender has been able to impose himself in the Magpies’ colours. He spoke exclusively to France Football about his first six months in Northern England.
Florian, after a successful season with Eibar (10th in La Liga), you joined the Premier League. What pleased you in Newcastle’s project?
It happened very early on. Even before the final games of the season, I received a call from Rafael Benitez – we spoke quite a bit. I wanted to discover England, but not with any club. Newcastle is a legendary club, with one of the best coaches in the world… so my decision was an easy one.
Despite that, was it difficult to leave Spain after managing three full seasons?
When you come off good seasons on a collective and personal level, where everything has gone well, there is a little heartache because I felt great at Eibar and Girona. But that’s a player’s career. If you want to experience other things, you need to move.
On Wednesday, you will play against Manchester city, the club that you belonged to during a year (when loaned to Girona). Did you think back to that after signing with Newcastle?
There was no major history between City and me. I don’t really have anything to say.
Following your arrival, Newcastle became the most Francophile club in Premier League history (27 players). How did your assimilation go?
It went very well, I had the chance to have a Spanish-speaking technical staff which made things easier. There are also French players, so it was quite helpful – they can help you on a day-to-day basis, both on and off the pitch. However, in Spain, I managed without French players, but that all depends on the player’s personality. I am quite open and always smiling, I do not struggle to go towards people and ask questions. Of course, there is the language barrier, but I am alright in English. So it has been a good assimilation.
On the pitch, you sprained your ankle after 34 minutes of play against Tottenham. How did you overcome this obstacle?
It was a big blow. My arrival went really well, I had the legs, I played all the pre-season games. To fit in, it is important to be a starter. However, there are certain circumstances in football… my recovery was a bit complicated. You receive treatment on your own, while working individually with a personal trainer in order to come back as fast as possible.
This was a difficult time for me but sometimes you have to experience these kinds of things. I tried to get back into it straight away and to get past this pain. I was in the squad for the two games against Swansea and Stoke in mid-September, but unfortunately, the pain continued, so I had to stop for a few days. Once the coach saw that I was 100% fit, I regained my starting spot.
As it happens, have you improved your game against the Premier League’s physical strikers?
In England, games are often quite intense so if you are not ready physically, it is complicated. I am ready but I am still adapting. I am in a new league, so the style of play is different and it is more physical as well. I know I need to work more on the physical and tactical side of my game. There are very physical strikers that are difficult to come up against, even if they are not always the most well-known, like at Burnley or Bournemouth. But they make plenty of runs and make sure I have my work cut out.
You then played twelve full matches. How did you feel?
I felt like I belonged very quickly, seeing as I had gotten back into the habit of playing. The coach wanted to me to get back right away which quickly gave me confidence. I played multiple matches even though we went through a complicated period where we were not getting results.
With one victory following your return (15th place), what is missing from this newly promoted team to compete?
A bit of everything – we have a young team, many players are new the league, and we also need a bit of luck. In some games, in key moments, we were not able to take key chances. During the last three games, we managed more impressive things, and were more cohesive and compact. We saw it against West Ham (3-2) where we took three points against one of our direct rivals.
Your coach, Rafael Benitez, recently stated that patience was required for you and that you could bring “something different.” Do you agree?
He knows what qualities I have and what I can bring to the table. I am a player who likes to play it out of the back, I can also play it on my left foot. He has a Spanish footballing vision with short passes, rather than playing it long every time. There are some plays which we managed not too well in the beginning, and some which which the team did better. When we do not win, the defence is always criticised, which we need to know how to accept. But when the results come, we will be better. It makes sense.
In regards to the fans, how does it feel to go from Eibar’s small stadium (7,083 seats) to Saint James’ Park?
No lie, it feels mad. As soon as you come onto the pitch, 52,000 people screaming and singing…. It’s really impressive. When I signed, I saw the stadium but I did not fully realize it till the first game. The matches always sell out, and away from home, there are 2,500-3,000 travelling fans. The city lives for football.
As the year draws to a close, what can we wish you for 2018?
For us to assure Premier League safety as fast as possible and for me to impose myself. Simple.