It’s easy to overstate the impact of a young player making his breakthrough because they offer your eyes something different. Whether it’s direct dribbling, slick passing or defending every cross, shot and scramble as if their lives depended on it, that youthful exuberance can capture the imagination. However, purple patches fade, mentalities are tested, and untimely injuries will see talents chewed up and swallowed by the brutality of modern football. Thankfully this wasn’t the case for Nabil Fekir.
Much like Karim Benzema – a forward with north African roots progressing through the OL academy – his first team performances were outstanding. Playing in a 4-4-2 alongside Alexandre Lacazette, Fekir scored 13 goals and assisted a further nine as Lyon pushed PSG all the way for the Ligue 1 title. Much was expected from his follow-up campaign, but it was cruelly cut short. Having scored an impressive hat-trick against Caen, he would leave to play for France, but his national team debut lasted just 13 minutes after an innocuous collision brought up three words no footballer wants to hear.
Ruptured cruciate ligament. An injury that effectively ended his season and any hope of representing Les Bleus at Euro 2016.
We often underestimate how draining long-term injuries can be on both the body and mind. Sitting on the sidelines watching your teammates play every week while you build yourself up again from zero. But Fekir was always positive, and despite suffering obvious disappointment after a promising campaign, his aim was ‘to always give 100% for the club’. Last season was supposed to symbolise his return to form, but alongside a more than respectable output, something seemed missing.
That dynamism, a burst of acceleration, shifting past defenders with ease: everything he had shown for Les Gones in the past looked to be lacking. Although still playing well enough to start, he wasn’t that same explosive player. Radamel Falcao, Sami Khedira, Ilkay Gundogan and Lorenzo Insigne have all shown in recent times how cruciate injuries can affect your pace, physical mechanics and psyche when returning to the intense physicality of top level football. However, Falcao currently averages a goal per game for Monaco, Insigne continues to shine for Napoli, while Khedira and Gundogan play important roles for Juventus and Manchester City respectively. It’s possible to find your best level again and after a difficult 12 months – Fekir was determined to do so as well.
With Alexandre Lacazette, Corentin Tolisso and Maxime Gonalons departing the club, the 24-year-old lost his partners in crime, but instead of sulking about being left behind he saw it as a challenge to step up for his boyhood club. “I wouldn’t say it’s a new Nabil Fekir – it’s the one we knew before his injury but with more maturity,” head coach Bruno Genesio said after watching him score from the halfway line against Bordeaux. “He’s made every effort to bounce back. He’s physically well, better in his head and has regained his best level.”
Responsibility is said to be the making of a man and in this case it is no different. While others may have outgrown Lyon, Fekir has embraced the armband and remains hellbent on finishing what he began three years ago. “It’s changed me,” he laughed after his double against Monaco. “It’s true that I talk a little more, but I’ve stayed the same. I give myself on the field for my team-mates, for the fans and for my family. This time it worked.” Perhaps one of his most impressive traits is to remain modest despite being such an important cog in the Lyon side. It is certainly a value appreciated by his manager.
His latest brace against fierce rivals Saint-Étienne highlighted his development and even if goading the home fans wasn’t the brightest idea, it simply revealed his passion for Lyon. There aren’t many players in Europe who share his composure in front of goal, awareness in the final third or newly found thirst for leadership, and with 13 goals and four assists to his name already this season – Fekir is truly back to his best. Europe’s biggest clubs and Didier Deschamps will be wise to take notice.