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FEATURE | Nabil Fékir’s fall & rise – from ACL injury heartache & fitness foibles to becoming Lyon captain & making France’s World Cup squad

For a player who is still just 24, the narrative of Nabil Fékir is already rather lengthy one. It started in earnest just over four years ago, in April 2014, in a home match against Bastia. Fékir had made a handful of starts both in the league and in various other competitions prior to the occasion, but he was firmly an afterthought, with the likes of Clément Grenier and Gueïda Fofana the up-and-coming stars of that Lyon side.

Indeed, he had only come into Rémi Garde’s eleven that day because of a swathe of injuries that had left Grenier and Yoann Gourcuff unavailable; though the hosts were still chasing Europe, little was expected of the pint-sized attacker. What transpired, however, even taking with a grain of salt the quality and motivation of the opposition on the day, was nothing less than miraculous.

Linking with Bafétimibi Gomis and Alexandre Lacazette, running at the opposition, dribbling, holding off defenders with his strength, creating from a set piece, forcing the opposing goalkeeper into a fine save from a free-kick and finishing with two assists and a goal, that sunny afternoon was unquestionably the Nabil Fékir show, a veritable catalog of a skilled and well-rounded no 10.

For a player of such a young age with only a solitary cap at youth international level and a rather itinerant youth career, (Fékir spent time on the books of five different Rhone-area clubs before finally settling with Lyon only in 2011) the display marked an altogether sensational arrival into Ligue 1.

Things continued apace in the following season as Lyon topped the table for long stretches of the campaign, only to falter as a lengthy injury absence on the part Alexandre Lacazette saw them stumble. Fékir was at the heart of it all, recording thirteen goals and nine assists whilst playing at the tip of a midfield diamond. Even as Lyon may have been disappointed in letting slip a genuine tilt at the title, the future seemed bright indeed for the Rhône side, as the emergence of Corentin Tolisso and Samuel Umtiti gave the club a young and talented spine.

Fékir’s form for his club didn’t go unnoticed outside of Ligue 1, either. France manager Didier Deschamps was eager to tie down the playmaking tyro, who was also eligible for Algeria. Such was his influence at Lyon that by the following season, he was seen as a potential focal point for Les Bleus, with Didier Deschamps opting to pair him with Karim Benzema ahead of Paul Pogba in a radical 4-3-1-2.

Given how closely Deschamps had stuck to a 4-3-3 since taking over the side, that the manager would even entertain a different system was nigh on shocking, especially as Antoine Griezmann was the player who was being left out.

What could have been for Fékir had he not been injured, however, in that same match. Suffering a torn ACL, he missed an entire season, and returned in 2016 in unfit and in poor shape. Lyon had thrived in a 4-3-3 in his absence, and the form of Lacazette and Mathieu Valbuena meant that when he started it was often wide on the right.

Without the pace and dynamism that had been such a fundamental part of his style of play before the injury, he often looked lethargic. As a result, he was regularly dropped for the biggest matches, looking likely to joining Grenier, Fofana and Gourcuff as players undone by injury during their time at Lyon.

This all brings us to the season that is in its waning moments. Lyon suffered a massive exodus this summer, with Lacazette, Tolisso, Valbuena and midfielder Maxime Gonalons all seeking greener pastures. In the wake of his teammates’ departures, Fékir was surprisingly made team captain by Bruno Génésio, a bold move on the part of Lyon’s manager but one which spoke volumes as to his belief in the player’s talent.

Lyon have had some bumps in the road, to be certain, but Fékir would likely be talked about in the same breath as Neymar and Florian Thauvin had he not missed the better part of two months through injury. Even with those missed matches, he has still contributed eighteen goals and seven assists, figures that are comparable to 2014-15, suggesting he is back to his best, even as he has been used in a variety of different roles on the pitch.

More important than those raw numbers is how Fékir has taken to his role as captain by leading through example. Lyon have played a 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3 and 4-3-1-2 at various times this season, and he has shone in all of those systems. His knack for playing as a number ten was never in doubt, but more impressive is how he has expanded that role. Given the ability on the ball that Memphis Depay and Bertrand Traoré possess, Fékir has often ceded those jinking, tricky runs to his teammates, instead showing a newfound willingness to drop deep for the ball, using his combination of power and dribbling acumen to build from the back, whether he is played as a central midfielder or as a more orthodox playmaker.

He has also improved his defensive work ethic as well, his tackling statistics being nearly double what they were last season, thus showing himself to be a more complete player.

It is indeed this last development that could prove most interesting in the summer to come. For France, Deschamps has experimented with playing Thomas Lemar as a central midfielder in his 4-3-3, but the Monaco player has struggled to cope with the position, being a defensive liability. Fékir, however, has shown no such lack of drive in this regard, and should he impress in the friendlies to come, he could conceivably start alongside N’Golo Kanté and Paul Pogba, especially with Adrien Rabiot having been left out.

It is this last bit that is perhaps most interesting, then, to Liverpool supporters, as the club have not really found a replacement for Philippe Coutinho’s raw creativity since the Brazilian pulled up sticks for Barcelona. A year ago, proposing that an unfit and miserable Nabil Fékir could convince as a creative fulcrum for a Jurgen Klopp side would have been dismissed out of hand, but now, with his unique blend of power, attacking nous and newfound defensive enterprise, that suggestion may not seem so far-fetched. Much will depend on his performances in the World Cup, and indeed whether OL qualify for the Champions’ League, but for now, Nabil Fékir’s recovery is nearly complete, and Lyon’s loss would well be Liverpool’s gain.

 


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