When Nabil Fekir crumpled to the ground on the occasion of his first international start in September 2015, it looked the type of injury to provide a career-defining moment.
Having just turned 22, he had exploded into Lyon’s starting XI and had established himself as one of the next great talents from the club’s formidable production line. However, his worst fears were about to be realised as the knee issue he sustained proved to be a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament, effectively writing off a valuable season of development.
So well has Fekir recovered from his injury, he is once again among Ligue 1’s top stars. Indeed, his form currently shows that he has made a full recovery and is capable of playing for any club in the world.
But Arsenal should also be closely monitoring the playmaker, who turned 24 in July. With Mesut Ozil’s contract due to expire next June and no deal imminent, the Lyon-born star would be an ideal replacement.
Although both players operate in the same role, their strengths are different. The German perhaps has greater imagination, but Fekir carries a far more significant direct threat to goal, is a lithe dribbler and is industrious defensively. Indeed, only one player has won more duels in Ligue 1 than the Lyon star so far this season: Neymar.
"Nabil is a bit like Messi with his small steps when he runs with the ball in one-on-one situations," Arsenal defender Laurent Koscielny said last year. "He's has got huge technical skills. He's able to make a difference on the pitch, with a good one-on-one or with an assist or a goal."
The Gunners, of course, have already done business with OL in the recent past to secure the signing of Alexandre Lacazette, who had settled promisingly in the Premier League by scoring five times in his first 10 appearances, for a fee in the region of £52 million. It would do the frontman little damage to have one of his great cohorts join him in London, with the pair having enjoyed a terrific relationship during their time together in France.
Fekir, meanwhile, provides a goal threat that is not in Ozil’s armoury; a weapon that would change the dimension of Arsene Wenger’s side and give them another serious point of attack. In the season before his injury struck, he got 13 in 34 league matches and was already sitting at four in four games prior to his knee giving way.
Attaining those figures again has taken time, but he has returned to his best. Nine Ligue 1 goals last term was a steady return but he has already matched that tally this season in just 10 matches.
He has shown a terrific variation in the goals he has scored. Among the most memorable was his strike from the halfway line against Bordeaux in mid-August and his last-gasp match-winning free kick against Monaco last month. Yet by scoring a double against Metz on Sunday he proved he is capable of finding the net in a more mundane but more sustainable manner by making well-timed runs into dangerous areas.
“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 that spectacular strike against Bordeaux. “He’s made every effort to bounce back.
“He’s physically well, better in his head and has regained his best level. Since the start of the season, I feel he’s been completely focussed on the team. If I entrusted him to be captain, it’s because he’s been exemplary on the field and with his behaviour.”
Lacazette’s move to Arsenal has, in some ways, been a blessing for Fekir personally, as he has revelled in the responsibility of carrying the team’s attack and leading them as their captain. This willingness to embrace a leadership role has added further qualities to the player’s game, which he freely admits.
“It’s changed me,” he said after the Monaco match. “It’s true that I talk a little more, but I’ve stayed the same.
“I try to encourage and motivate my team-mates. We have a very young team. Although I’m not very old, it’s important to have someone in this role, to encourage and to lead.
“I give 200% on the field for my team-mates, for the fans and for my family.”
Not since Karim Benzema’s rapid start in 2007-08, when he was involved in 13 goals after 11 matches, have Lyon had a player so influential in their ranks early in the season.
In terms of his importance to the Rhone club, he equals the Real Madrid star or Lacazette, and OL would expect to receive a similar fee for his services. The odds are that he would prove worth every penny.