Lens, in France’s far north, with a population of just over 35,000, may seem an unlikely hotbed of footballing talent but the industrial Picardy town has produced a number of the country’s most gifted players in recent years.
Hewing defensive rocks has been a particular speciality of local club Racing Club de Lens, with a number of notable figures progressing through their system to enjoy excellent careers. Rod Fanni arrived as a young professional from Martigues and has gone on to earn international honours, while more notably Raphael Varane is currently establishing himself as one of the world’s elite centre-backs with Real Madrid.
Serge Aurier may not quite enjoy the standing of his 20-year-old former colleague, yet the current Toulouse defender is poised to become Ligue 1’s next major export, with Goal revealing on Tuesday that Arsenal are ready to pay up to €8.6 million to bring him to north London.
SERGE AURIER | TOULOUSE LIGUE 1 STATS
The Ivory Coast international, who has made seven appearances for his national side since breaking into the team last year, has already established himself as one of the kingpins of Alain Casanova’s defence in the Pink City but it is not necessarily his defensive attributes that have caught the eye.
Aurier is capable of playing in the heart of the back four, though it has been as a right wing-back that he has shone to the greatest extent. Against Lorient in February, he was instrumental on the offensive in a 3-1 victory. Wissam Ben Yedder might have caught the headlines with a goal and a couple of assists but it was the adventurous defender who offered his side the width required to overload opponents reduced to 10 men early in the game. Aurier even scored what proved the match-winning goal and had a significant hand in another.
This storming showing was no flash in the pan, though. Despite his defensive standing, Aurier has had more shots on goal than anyone else in the Toulouse side, excepting strikers Ben Yedder and Martin Braithwaite, while his tallies of six goals and six assists are impressive statistics for a player who has made 18 of his 33 appearances this season at centre-back.
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Given these formidable statistics, it is little wonder that he is being lined up by Arsenal as a replacement for Bacary Sagna, whose contract expires in June and who has already informed the club he intends to leave.
Certainly, Aurier is an archetypal Arsene Wenger signing. A powerful and athletic runner, he offers a strong technical aptitude, particularly when his physical strength is considered and his being a daunting attacking specimen does not mean that he is a weak link defensively.
Unlike Chelsea’s January signing, Kurt Zouma, who spent the rest of this season with Saint-Etienne, Aurier has a strongly developed positional sense. For such a young player, he has a commendable level of concentration and does not tend to neglect his defensive responsibilities to make gung-ho runs forward.
While some modern full-backs can appear more concerned about looking flashy going forward, Aurier is a defender who actually enjoys defending. He does not tend to needlessly neglect his post at the expense of making dashing runs forward, while he is a strong tackler and a convincing presence in the air.
In terms of his discipline, he is a player still developing, as he freely admits. “I have a problem with the yellow jersey [the referees],” he explained after a scoring display in a 2-2 draw with Marseille on February 2. “I try to keep myself as far from them as possible – I think I’ve made some progress.”
However, Casanova has seen enough in the youngster to hand him the skipper's armband on occasion. “He has been captain and he will be again, here or somewhere else as he has contagious enthusiasm,” the head coach stated, though he warned that his player “could do better managing his emotions”.
The former goalkeeper, though, was largely glowing in his praise. “He has huge potential. Frankly, I wish I could have a clone,” he concluded.
With a plethora of experience already behind him – Aurier has played over 100 top-flight matches – he is a player who offers instant quality but with the potential for further long-term development. Wenger could do much worse.
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