• Llew Davies

From the Handbook: Houssem Aouar

This profile was originally published in our digital-only handbook, Scouted Football Handbook Three, released in March 2018. A lot has happened since, but much of this remains the same.

CAREER IN REVIEW


Olympique Lyonnais are in a constant state of re-building. Since their halcyon days – the time of seven-straight title triumphs and exciting European excursions – ceased around a decade ago, the club has been in a perpetual cycle on all relevant fronts. Coaches have come and gone, players sold and signed, even a stadium move from the iconic Stade Gerland to an ultra-modern Parc OL has embedded an all-go attitude into the club’s culture. Tumult aplenty, one thing has remained an unerring constant: their elite youth academy.


Karim Benzema is synonymous with said academy. His entire adolescent career progressed within a system which has produced so many revered talents, but none can match Benzema for legacy nor success. Benzema’s breakthrough seasons eternally endeared the centre-forward to a demandingly fervent fanbase. Houssem Aouar, a 19-year-old midfielder, is enjoying a similar trajectory this term.

The similarities to Karim Benzema are primarily of a personal nature. Both are Lyon born and bred, of Algerian descent, and have grown into men while playing for their hometown club from a schoolboy age. “I know him, I really like the player. I had already talked about him some time ago, I said he was the next generation of the club,” Benzema said of Aouar in a recent interview with an OL fanzine.


Olympique Lyonnais’ current crop, all things considered, is one of their best of the past decade. Yet, in Bruno Génésio, they have one of their worst coaches of the past decade. OL, this season, have usually lined-up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, the principle features of which are a fluid front four, a double-pivot, and a dependable defensive unit. Aouar has flipped between two roles: as a wide-left attacking midfielder and a left-sided central midfield role. The latter suits his skillset more than the former.


Wherever he has played, Aouar has been a revelation and the outstanding performer of an academy group from which so much has been expected. Aouar made his debut in a Europa League drubbing of AZ Alkmaar last season, but remained initially on the periphery. He inherited the number eight shirt – once graced by the great Juninho, and the magnificently gifted Gourcuff – and has not looked back.


He has started 21 games across all competitions to date and is currently on course to surpass 2,000 league minutes in his first season as a professional, an invaluable individual milestone which would be ten-times the tally of last season.


STYLE OF PLAY


Houssem Aouar is an extremely aesthetic footballer. Everything he does on a football pitch is undertaken with a level of technical and physical grace which make him unbelievably fun to watch. North Africa has influenced so many pleasing profiles currently playing at all levels throughout European football over recent years: Houssem Aouar probably trumps the lot for sheer comfort and class.

As alluded to previously, Aouar’s profile is better suited to a central midfield role than a wide role. One attribute which routinely satisfies is his dribbling; his control of the ball in tight situations. He, much like Frenkie de Jong of Ajax, can manipulate his body, the ball and sometimes space in ways which can totally dumbfound opposition players. His shimmies and subtle feints keep defenders guessing as to what he will do next. With the ball at his feet, he is difficult to dispossess: he turns away from pressure with little trouble, utilising a tight turning circle, as the ball rarely ever escapes his immediate control. A punch of acceleration and intelligent use of his 5’7” frame allows him to create time and space to execute his next action.


He can break lines by driving through the thirds of the pitch, but his passing is the real asset in this regard. Extreme technical dexterity means he can receive passes in most circumstances. There are many instances this season where Aouar has touched the ball out of his feet, away from pressure, before immediately playing a decisive pass. His vision allows him to spot space in behind opposition defences and exploit it like no other in this OL squad.


His ubiquitous involvement when playing in central midfield is testament to his style and mindset and provides more support to the thesis of that being his long-term position. He always wants to receive the ball, in any area of the pitch, at any given moment in a game.

He may not always be wise to do so, but it is an admirable trait and one which certain clubs value highly. Playing close to the touch-line naturally limits his options, as he does not possess the physical capacity to mitigate such positional nuances. He is played there because Génésio likes the security he provides in the final third, but this position does not enable Aouar to best showcase his range of talents.

Image: Marco Cononiero, Getty Images

In defensive phases, the diminutive number eight has exhibited a competence which contradicts his career prior to this season. Aouar was always regarded as a number 10 within the club, meaning his unquestionable desire to defend always surprises to some extent. He reads developing situations well and tries to intercept play as much as possible. He attempts 2.6 tackles per 90 minutes this season and succeeds in around 64% of them. He is a tenacious defender too, which surprises further. When possession is lost, he transitions to a defensive mindset quickly and works hard to impact on the ball.


It is important to stress that Houssem Aouar is only 19-years-old. There is so much to his game already at a markedly young age and that makes him an exceptional talent. Bruno Génésio is surviving off striking balances to maximise the abilities of his individuals, and thus collective. He is extremely lucky to have a player of Aouar’s considerable class, who offers tactical balance, technical security and quality in a beautifully compiled package.


FORECAST FOR THE FUTURE


OL are having a fairly decent season. They have clinched a place in the last sixteen of the Europa League, but their Champions League qualification push, by placing as a top top three Ligue 1 team, has hit a glass ceiling. That glass ceiling is Bruno Génésio. It is such a shame to see a group of this potential essentially become the Rhône replica of Arsenal.


Aouar’s breakthrough has caught the eye of many big names. Top level clubs are watching him every week, but, for the time being, there is no need to rush—for player nor club. Karim Benzema made his move to Real Madrid as a 22-year-old coming off the back of his second full season in OL’s first-team. A similar timeline taken by Houssem Aouar would be beneficial for all parties.


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