Arsenal face fight for Ligue 1 standout Serge Aurier
Name: Serge Aurier Age: 21 Club: Toulouse Position: Right-back Nationality: Ivorian (also holds French citizenship)
Anyone who has watched French football in recent years will be aware of the potential of Toulouse right-back Serge Aurier. Now 21, the Ivory Coast international already seems to have been around for an eternity, having broken through in the same Lens side as Raphael Varane in the 2010-11 Ligue 1 season.
Unfortunately for both, it was the same year in which Lens encountered relegation to Ligue 2. Aurier had actually played a handful of times the year before while still just 17, but it was to be in that second season that he truly established himself at senior level at the Stade Felix-Bollaert. Despite relegation, both Aurier and Varane were able to stand out from the crowd whilst still taking their initial steps at senior level. Their prospects for future success were clear from the start.
While Varane would head to the Santiago Bernabeu, where he has established himself at first-team level in between chronic injury concerns, Aurier opted to remain at Lens. His Ligue 2 career, though, would last just six months before Toulouse came knocking. It has proved to be an excellent career move, where he could continue his footballing development in the knowledge that he would have regular first-team action.
From the age of 13, when he first linked up with Lens’ academy, the Ivorian’s progress has been closely monitored by those in the know. Such is the power and pace that he naturally possesses that he was highlighted early on as an attacking full-back of some potential. With time and experience, he has also improved the defensive side of his game considerably over the past two-and-a-half seasons.
The stand-out statistics of Aurier’s season are, of course, that he has contributed six goals and six assists, with the majority coming while operating as a right wing-back in Toulouse’s favoured 3-5-2 formation. He has also, on occasion, operated as a central defender to some effect, giving an indication of his defensive improvement. Physically, he can hold his own against any opponent, despite standing at just five feet, nine inches tall.
Given his performances this season, it is understandable that his future is up for debate. As ever with promising French players, Arsenal have been heavily linked while Bacary Sagna’s own future remains undecided. Aurier is a known Arsenal fan who has openly flirted with the club via Twitter, notably posting a picture of himself in a Gunners shirt.
The attraction is mutual, though, as French Football Weekly’s annual “Le 50” collection of biographies of Ligue 1 talents noted this week. In the most recent edition, Aurier’s profile reads: “Arsene Wenger’s scouting team have been keeping tabs on Aurier since his RC Lens days and the most remarkable thing about his career is that the Arsenal manager hasn’t already signed him.”
The Gunners should not expect an easy ride, with loyalty meaning little when money is on the line. Among those mentioned in connection with Aurier are the likes of PSG, Monaco and Chelsea; all of whom could be in the market for a right-back and have the financial resources to blow Arsenal out of the water. Indeed, with PSG in particular, it is easy to picture Aurier slotting in seamlessly, and a return to the Paris region where he grew up could be attractive.
Arguably, Aurier is the best young right-back in European football at the present time. Certainly when it comes to attacking ability, there are none who can compete. It is easy to see Aurier as a physical force of nature, but he is also technically strong. He can cross well, can beat a man with his speed and has shown that he can finish well with his stronger right-foot. Aerially, he also more than holds his own with players often considerably taller.
Aurier is an all-action player. Defensively, his tendency is to look to pinch the ball early with tackles and interceptions rather than simply hold position. Against the best wingers in world football, or a side who can dominate possession, it is a mindset he may need to curb. It does, though, mean that his statistics are boosted with high numbers of tackles and assists; though to give credit purely on that basis is a little simplistic.
Casanova has switched to a 3-5-2 formation specifically in order to best utilise Aurier's strengths, with the Ivorian undoubtedly his side's biggest asset. The Toulouse coach is renowned a clever tactician, having previously adapted his team to be based around the power of midfielder Moussa Sissoko, now of Newcastle, and has been clever in his use of his resources once more.
The power and aggressive style of Aurier and Issiaga Sylla in the full-back positions allows the side to pressurise opponents in wide areas and transition into attack quickly. There are downsides to Aurier's style, though, with his occasional impetuousness also leading him to concede possession unnecessarily, but again it is an area in which he has improved considerably. Should he move club, though, he will likely find himself in a system less accommodating to his style and will need to make the necessary adaptations to his game.
It would be a major surprise if, following this summer’s World Cup, Aurier were to return to Toulouse for a further season. Indeed, in Brazil he has the perfect platform to boost his demands in any negotiation and would be well advised to hold off until after the competition. France, meanwhile, may already be regretting that the naturalised French citizen was allowed to slip away without much of a fight. Arsenal, if truly serious in their interest, must ensure that they do not make a similar mistake.
For further discussion on any of the players featured in The Scout’s Notebook, Christopher can be found on Twitter @chris_elastico. More of his work profiling rising talents can be found at TheElastico.com.