Born in the northern town of Arras, but tracing an itinerant youth career through the Occitan club Rodez, and later, Valenciennes, where he made his professional debut, the story of Lucas Tousart is far from typical when compared to his Lyon teammates. After the success of Nabil Fékir and Corentin Tolisso, Tousart and Mouctar Diakhaby have become the latest young players to emerge into Lyon’s first team, but unlike the other three players, the midfielder represents a new strategy for the club.
Diakhaby, Tolisso and Fékir are all academy products, with the latter two being from the Rhone valley. Tousart, along with Emanuel Mammana, Jean-Philippe Mateta and Maxwel Cornet, represents a recent shift that privileges buying younger players from other clubs and integrating them into the first team in a manner similar to academy graduates. Comparisons can be made in this way to the tack that Monaco is taking, but the players that Lyon had brought in tend to be slightly younger and less established professionally, which naturally means they command lower fees, a boon for the budget-conscious Jean-Michel Aulas.
Indeed, Tousart’s value looks to have already far surpassed the €2.5m that Lyon paid for him. That is not to say it has been an easy road for the youngster, though. After all, even though Valenciennes have floundered somewhat since their last rotation, they are still a professional club, and Tousart, even at the tender age of 18, had grown accustomed to first team football.
Upon arriving at Lyon, though, he was playing with the reserves in the CFA, France’s fourth tier. The player recalled his frustration upon his arrival, “It was a complicated period for me; I had come from Valenciennes, where I had been a starting player, I was already a part of the professional world. Falling back into the CFA, it wasn’t evident (for me) even though I think now it was what I needed because Lyon and Valenciennes are two clubs of very different levels. I’m not going to be shy about it, it wasn’t an easy period to manage, that descent into anonymity, it was a little tough.”
It was not as if Tousart was an abject failure, just that there were better players in his position ahead of him, but the “demotion” sewed doubts into his confidence. “I had doubts, I asked myself, will I one day have the abilities to play at Lyon? Can I imagine myself as a player? Will I have place in the first team? I began to think poorly of myself through these questions. When I take stock of that first year, it’s a certainty to say it was mixed.”
However, last summer saw a sea change in Tousart’s situation. While he had suffered what he deemed to be a setback in his club career, his development with France’s youth sides was continuing apace. He was made captain of the Under-19s and the team cruised to the UEFA title.
While Jean-Kevin Augustin, and more recently, Kylian Mbappé have garnered much of the positive press surrounding France’s youngsters, his efforts hardly went unnoticed by Joel Fréchet, the side’s manager, “He is a modest, hard-working young man who knows what he wants. His profile matches the modern holding midfielder: skilful and physically strong. He is a great team player who embodies the values we want to pass on at this club, namely humility and enthusiasm.”
Lyon had planned to loan him out this season, to gain more experience (he played only sixty minutes in Ligue 1 last season), but decided better of that, keeping him with the club in the first team, even with a mooted €5m offer from Palermo on the table.
While not exactly an ironclad guarantee of Tousart’s potential, it should be noted that, in general (yes, Anthony Martial is the exception), players who have been loaned away from or sold from the club have generally failed to impress elsewhere, making his continued tenure with the club another boost to the player’s confidence after an impressive summer.
“Last year, you could say that I lacked confidence. I was a complicated season because when you don’t have playing time, when you don’t feel you have a place in the team, you feel bad about your future. I think that I would feel bad for the rest of my life if I had another season like the last one. It was hard, but I gained confidence from the Euros. I’ve progressed in footballint terms, but also mentally. There was a real change when I returned from the Euros. In training, I felt good, even though the coach didn’t immediately put me in the team.”
It was true that Tousart would continue to have to wait his turn, especially as Lyon’s early season was complicated by a raft of injuries and tactical changes by Bruno Genesio, but an early suspension of Maxime Gonalons gave him his first run of play with the team. When the captain returned, Tousart was on the bench again, but remained a consistent presence when the squad was rotated in cup matches, further boosting his confidence.
However, his recent run in the team, initially down to the suspension of Tolisso, hints at something more. Whereas Lyon had generally favored a 4-4-2, Tousart’s inclusion has seen the team shift to a diamond 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1 with Tolisso pushed forward, a clear indication of the increased confidence Genesio has in the youngster.
A more natural fit as a holding midfielder than Tolisso, Tousart’s presence bridges the gap between the team’s more prosaic captain and the academy product, offering steel when necessary, but also a directness and ability with the ball at his feet. He remarks of his versatility, “It’s true that I came through as a 6 (a lone defensive midfielder), a real sentinel. But when I’m played as part of a double pivot, things also go well. I like this position; it’s a little different when I play with Max (Gonalons) as we are both defensive, but we adapt, we do the job.”
Beyond his good attitude and tactical flexibility, Tousart combines physicality with endurance and graft on the pitch. He has earned comparisons to “water-carrier” Didier Deschamps, but there is more to his game than that, even if effort comprises a larger part of his style than talent.
It is no surprise, then, to hear that he looks up to both Thiago Motta and Marco Verratti, as his style of play is in many ways a synthesis of the two Paris Saint-Germain midfielders. From the former Milan man, he brings the aforementioned aspects of being a “sentinel,” and from Verratti, a sense of dynamism and neat passing, as well as a decent level of skill with the ball at his feet.
He has yet to evince a level of long passing akin to either of the Italians, but that will do little to hinder his game going forward; if Tolisso’s expected summer departure does come to pass, Tousart’s directness will be of great value to Lyon.
Even if Tolisso stays, there are still more challenges ahead for Tousart. Already an important part of the U-21s, he will have wait for a chance at the national team, and taking the first steps in qualifying for the 2019 European Championships will continue to aid his growth.
For now, though, Tousart’s goals are more modest, focused on Lyon, who have a challenging pair of matches against Roma to come. “The ambition is going to be to obtain a solid place in the group. I think that the manager counts on me now, and it’s giving me more confidence. It’s something I can prove in this second part of the season. For me, the ambition is there, there is the possibility of doing something good. Collectively, there is work to be done if we’re to continue the momentum we’ve gained from the end of the first part of the season.”
Tousart’s assessment of his current situation displays just the right blend of ambition, modesty and realism, and Genesio, despite his own tenuous status, does depend on the youngster, recently remarking, “Lucas is on his way to imposing himself in this team. He gives a sense of balance if we lose the ball, because he is tactically intelligent, always well-positioned. He is one of the important players on the team.”
There is no doubt that Lyon’s style and tactical approach will continue to evolve, no matter this summer’s business, but given Tousart’s confidence, intelligence and versatility, it would be hard to see him not be one of the keys to whatever changes are in store.