French Connection: Rafael Leao, Manu Garcia, Ismaila Sarr and Ligue 1’s outstanding young foreign talent

Rafael Leao Lille 2018-19
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Le Championnat has become famed for the talent that it has brought through over the years - and as this list proves, not all of it is French

Ligue 1 has become famous over the years for its ability to produce high-quality players for some of Europe’s best clubs.

Not only is there a formidable strength in the French academy system, which was evident as Les Bleus won the 2018 World Cup spearheaded by teenager Kylian Mbappe, but there is also plenty of shrewd work done in the transfer market.

Players are brought in from the four corners of the globe to be refined, often kickstarting their careers.

Here are the five outstanding young foreign talents aged 21 or under who have starred in Le Championnat this season.


Gabriel (Lille)

Gabriel Lille 2018-19

Centre-back Gabriel is a relative newcomer to the Ligue 1 scene, having played only 14 career matches in the top flight. Twelve of these have come this season, with the 21-year-old Brazilian having provided valuable but impressive back up in the heart of the LOSC defence. Jose Fonte and Adama Soumaoro have forged an impressive partnership for Christophe Galtier’s side but with the latter missing several key games due to injury, he has stepped forward and proven a replacement worthy of a rear guard that has been the best in Ligue 1 this term. “Now, all of Europe is calling me for Gabriel,” the player’s agent, Leonardo Cornacini purred last month after his player impressed following his breakthrough.

Manu Garcia (Toulouse)

Manu Garcia Toulouse 2018-19

Manchester City loanee Manu Garcia has openly admitted to Marca that when he arrived in France last summer he was “leaving his comfort zone”. The challenge, as he put it, was to be able to flourish in a more physical league than the Eredivisie, where he turned out for Breda last season. The playmaker has shown some promise, although in a side that has struggled offensively it has not always been easy for him. Numerous sides from England and Spain have tracked the progress of the 21-year-old, who has four assists to his name, while his only goal was a memorable one in the Coupe de France against Reims.

Rafael Leao (Lille)

Rafael Leao Lille 2018-19

Jose Mourinho, no less, has praised Lille for their ability to develop young players over the course of the last season, with the former Manchester United manager having taken in Ligue 2’s surprise package on numerous occasions this season. His eye would have been especially caught by countryman Rafael Leao, who has mustered eight goals in relatively limited game time. Lille have been judicious in their use of the 19-year-old, who they signed on a free transfer in the summer after he left Sporting CP by his own volition, but they will hold immense hopes for him next season, when he will surely make his Champions League debut.

Ibrahim Sangare (Toulouse)

Ibrahim Sangare Toulouse 2018-19

One of the revelations of the season has been Ivory Coast midfielder Ibrahim Sangare, whose work for Toulouse has been quietly spectacular. A busy holding midfield player, the 21-year-old has been TFC’s outstanding defensive presence this season, carrying out an immense volume of work in front of the rear guard. He has played 26 matches in Ligue 1 to date and contributed a couple of assists and one goal. Had it not been for a slip in the dressing room that saw him injure his foot and require surgery, he would likely have played virtually ever minute of the season.

Ismaila Sarr (Rennes)

Ismaila Sarr Rennes 2018-19

Having broken through initially at Metz, where he performed so strongly that he caught the eye of Barcelona, it is little surprise that Ismaila Sarr has been one of the standout youngsters in Ligue 1 this season. Now in his second season with Rennes, the 21-year-old Senegal winger, who has been so readily compared to Sadio Mane throughout his blossoming career, has enjoyed his most prolific season to date, having found the net seven times in the league while also impressing in the Europa League, notably against Arsenal. There is still so much more to come from the rapid wideman, who can refine his decision making and become even deadlier in front of goal.