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Yan Valery: Tunisia’s next defensive star?

01:09 GMT+4 13/03/2019
Yan Valery of Southampton
The Southampton starlet has struck twice in his last two Premier League outings
While Ralph Hasenhuttl hasn’t yet dragged Southampton clear of the Premier League dropzone, various Saints players are flourishing under his leadership at St. Mary’s Stadium.

James Ward-Prowse, notably, has scored six in 15 appearances under the German coach already, more than he’s managed during the tenure of any of his six previous Southampton managers.

Similarly, Jan Bednarek, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Nathan Redmond have been more effective in recent months—at times at least—than they had been during their Saints careers before the ex-RasenBallsport Leipzig chief arrived on the south coast.

One player whose improvement has gone somewhat under the radar is right-sider Yan Valery.

The defender arrived at Saints from Stade Rennais back in 2015, but had been treading water in the club’s academy before late November.

While Hasenhuttl can’t take credit for handing the 20-year-old his debut—Valery featured in Mark Hughes’s last two games, once in the league, before the Welshman was shown the door—he has overseen almost the entirety of the youngster’s top-flight career to date.

Admittedly, Valery hadn’t been pulling up too many trees until recently.

His main contribution to Saints’ muddled campaign before a strong showing as Fulham were beaten 2-0 in late February, was the red card he received at the King Power Stadium in mid-January.

Southampton may have survived the defender’s first-half dismissal to win 2-1, but Hasenhuttl could have been forgiven for giving Cedric Soares another chance, rather than returning to Valery after his suspension was served.

Ultimately, however, the Euro 2016 winner was sent on loan to Internazionale, with the German coach placing all of his faith in 20-year-old Valery.

The youngster is beginning to repay that faith, and struck a sensational goal in Southampton’s 3-2 defeat away at Manchester United before netting the winner as Saints came from behind to beat Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday.

It’s been a remarkable week for Valery, who hadn’t scored a senior goal before taking to the field against United, and now has two in three against two of the Prem’s biggest clubs.

In a remarkable statistical quirk, Valery now has twice as many goals against the division’s top five clubs this season as Mohamed Salah!

Considering he only turned 20 last month, a strong case could be made for Valery to be the most improved youngster in the Premier League during 2019 so far.

His recent performances suggest there’s much more to come.

“I just want to start as many game as I possibly can until the end of the season,” the defender told Southampton’s official website.

“I also want to improve myself because I know there is a lot I can improve on as a young player.

“That is my main target.”

Valery’s defensive game still needs work, but with Hasenhuttl opting for a back three, and the wonderkid given a more advanced brief on the right-hand side, he’s been able to demonstrate his offensive prowess with less concern about what’s happening behind him.

That won’t always be acceptable, but the context he’s found himself in—Saints’ changing regimes and relegation struggles—begins to explain his nervy showings to date.

“He gets the trust from us,” Hasenhuttl told Southampton’s official site last week. “I want to see a brave player who is believing in himself.

“Yan made a fantastic development until now. Defensively he is better, and also offensively, that’s exactly the way we want to go.”

His transformation has been eye-catching, with the recent goals the icing on the cake of a series of competent showings. Valery is now playing with the poise of a midfielder, passing proactively, and demonstrating his admirable engine and work rate.

With Valery increasingly catching the eye in the top flight, the question of his international future has begun to become a pressing issue.

He was one of the players contacted by Tunisia coach Alain Giresse early in the Frenchman’s tenure as he attempted to understand the availability—or otherwise—of the Carthage Eagles’ dual-nationality players.

Before he began to light up the Prem, Valery—whose mother is Tunisian—was understood to be open to representing the Eagles. Despite being Paris-born, he’s not represented France since making one appearance for the U-18 side in 2017.

These are exciting times for Tunisia, who leveraged their qualification to the 2018 World Cup to convince several dual-nationality players to represent them.

The likes of Yohan Benalouane, Mouez Hassen, Ellyes Skhiri, Dylan Bronn and Saif-Eddine Khaoui have bolstered an already exciting squad, as Tunisia look to take the lead from their rivals Morocco, who have embraced a plethora of foreign-born stars.

Valery would fit seamlessly into this blend of largely local-based players or talents with French origins, and could represent a key weapon for Tunisia down their right flank.

Critically, he could allow Bronn to move to his preferred position in the centre of the defence—alongside Syam Ben Youssef, therefore simultaneously making Tunisia’s defence stronger both defensively and offensively.

Tellingly, perhaps, Valery wasn’t included in Giresse’s first squad, announced on Tuesday, for the Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against eSwatini.

This may open the door to France, but with the Afcon on the horizon, and Valery’s stock ever rising, Tunisia are unlikely to give up on this exciting young wideman.