|Yoann Gourcuff (centre of pic) battles for the ball against|
Montpellier last week. Photo: sport.fr
Why the excitement about one (admittedly very good) performance from one player? For the reason, one must rewind the clock the little. Five years ago, Gourcuff was the hottest prospect in French football. If 2007/08 was the season of Karim Benzema, then 2008/09 was the season of Gourcuff. Playing for Bordeaux on loan from AC Milan, Gourcuff chipped in with 12 goals and 8 assists as Les Girondins cantered the league title (stopping a run of seven successive titles from Lyon!) and the player bagged many end-of-season awards. His immense technical ability, and the sheer brilliance of some of the goals he scored, made him the talk of French football, and he was immediately branded as 'the next Zinedine Zidane'. Bordeaux moved quickly to make the transfer from Milan permanent and, as they started the 2009/10 season by picking up where they left off in 2008/09 (though they couldn't keep it up), the sky seemed to be the limit for the then-23 year-old from Brittany.
Quickly, it became apparent that such expectations were premature and, indeed, too lofty. Whilst no-one could doubt Gourcuff's talent and technical ability, the reason the comparison with Zidane failed was in two key areas. The first was personality-based: "Zizou" may not have been the loudest player in the dressing rooms he shared, but he still managed to exude authority and to guide those around him on the pitch. Gourcuff is also an introvert, even shy, but in a way that means he struggles to exert the same authority and leadership to those around him. Admittedly he briefly struck on a magic formula at Bordeaux, where he was the driving force behind a successful team. However, at AC Milan and, to begin with at least, at Lyon, he sometimes quietly went AWOL into a period of introspection when things haven't gone right (either for him or for the team as a whole), alienating his team-mates and coaches in the process. Sometimes, this approach has even rubbed people up the wrong way; Gourcuff found himself caught in the crossfire in one of the many battles which took place during France's farcical and tempestuous 2010 World Cup campaign, where it was said that him and Franck Ribery did not get on. Whilst Gourcuff could add himself to a fairly big list of players who had fallen out with Ribery, he also managed to make himself the object of some strong criticism from the usually more equanimous duo of Paolo Maldini and Carlo Ancelotti, his club captain and manager from his days at AC Milan. "Gourcuff at Milan was 100% wrong...when he played here, he did not want to make himself available to the group. He [also] did not learn to speak Italian immediately," said Maldini, whilst Ancelotti labelled him "egocentric" and "a strange lad", adding "it's a pity that he could not express himself well here, but the problem was only psychological in nature." At Lyon, whom he signed for in August 2010, initial manager Claude Puel often struggled with the mercurial talent of Gourcuff, and seemed frustrated that he didn't seem to be pulling his weight when things weren't going well.
|An up-and-down career at club level has translated into an on-off|
career at international level for Gourcuff (C)AFP/Getty Images
This season, under the new management of Hubert Fournier (ex-Reims manager) after Remi Garde (Lyon manager since Puel's departure) resigned at the end of last season, Gourcuff - who has taken a pay cut of around 30% with his new contract - again started on the treatment table after an injury picked up towards the end of last season. This time, with the support of Fournier, he has taken particular time to make sure the injury heals fully, and that he listens properly to his body before committing to a return. His return eventually came with a first start in early October against Lille, where he played his part with an assist in a 3-0 win, before his double put Lyon on their way to that comfortable win over Montpellier last weekend. As a whole, his performance playing in the hole behind the two strikers (Alexandre Lacazette and left-wing convert Nabil Fekir) in Fournier's 4-4-2 diamond has been a key part of Lyon's dynamic and positive performances in the last two matches. Today, Gourcuff is part of a Lyon team trying to stand in the way of a rampant Marseille, who have cantered to the top of Ligue 1 under the management of Argentine Marcelo Bielsa, one of football's real tactical philosophers.
Maybe in Fournier and his careful approach the Breton has found a manager who understands him and can nurture him back to frequent matches and a high level of performance. Maybe also, though, it is Gourcuff - now at 28 no longer French football's "Next Big Thing" - who has matured in the intervening period. Although his father, Christian (an ex-pro footballer and manager), questioned some of Maldini's specific assertions (e.g. about learning Italian), Yoann has already attributed the general problems at Milan to his age (19 when he moved) and to the difficulty he had adapting to a move to a huge club in a big city, compared to his youth development with Rennes much closer to home. And after last week's game Fournier added: "This is a boy who has ripened (matured), who has grown stronger after what he has been faced with...for Yoann, this was a successful match, in the image of the team." This is key. Gourcuff will now never be "the new Zidane", but he remains a very talented player with strong technical ability and a good footballing brain. If, with his maturity through the dark days, he can continue to deliver strong performances and integrate himself well with this Lyon team, he will be able to leave behind the problems he had when he joined the team (and also when he was at AC Milan). And if, through Fournier's diligence (if it persists), Gourcuff can be managed appropriately through a full campaign, then the doors could well re-open for a run in the French national side (with the Euro 2016 tournament due to be held in France). Yoann Gourcuff, no longer the Next Big Thing but finally getting a real chance to show his skills on a European and indeed global international stage? For fans of good football and, indeed, fans of skilful footballers, that sounds like something that would be worth cheering.
 - The defeat was the first time that Montpellier had conceded five or more goals in a game for over 10 years. By incredible coincidence, I was at the game when it last happened - a match against PSG in February 2004 (clearly the video is not mine!)
 - I mostly wrote this blog post before and during the Lyon-Marseille match, but have only come to finish it afterwards. The final score was 1-0 to Lyon, ending an eight match winning run for Marseille. Who scored the winner? Yoann Gourcuff