Marseille’s Georges-Kevin N’Koudou Continues to Improve as Le Classique Awaits

n'koudou

For Ligue 1 giants Marseille, the 2015/16 season has been a turbulent one. Aside from the poorly-timed resignation of Marcelo Bielsa, they’ve also been forced to endure a transfer saga involving star player Dimitri Payet, who eventually left the club for English outfit West Ham, as well as an extended run of ordinary form. In their most recent match, too, which was played away from home against Montpellier, things seemed to be heading in a similar direction.

The game had been going for over an hour, and Marseille hadn’t even accrued a single shot on target. They appeared to be desperately short of invention in the final third, passing the ball around without any real idea as to how to break through the opposition defence. Then the youthful Georges-Kevin N’Koudou changed things in an instant.

N’Koudou received the ball from substitute Romain Alessandrini, before playing it back to him with a slick first-time pass. Running in behind the final defender, Alessandrini couldn’t quite manage to reel it in, but N’Koudou remained aware of his surroundings. He quickly picked up on the rebound and took a touch to take the ball around an opposition defender. The ball had fallen to his non-preferred left foot, but due to a good degree of two-footedness, it didn’t really matter. N’Koudou powered his shot into the back of the net, giving Marseille a lead that, truth be told, probably wasn’t warranted by the quality of their play.

They went on to grind out a 1-0 win, a result that keeps them in touch with the Champions League qualification places. That N’Koudou was the man responsible for the three points seems totally reasonable at this point in time, given his strong performances this campaign, but the player himself would probably never have expected such a swift ascension to top of French football at the same time last season.

N’Koudou was at FC Nantes back then, a promising but raw 19-year-old who lacked the required refinement in the final third. “When I was in the youth team I was told I had to improve my end-product,” he said. “So I’ve worked hard on shooting and playing those final balls. The coach always tells me to take the handbrake off; he urges me to go on the outside with my pace.”

That lack of end-product meant N’Koudou only scored twice in his 28 league outings with Nantes last term, but Marseille were nonetheless impressed with him. So impressed, in fact, that they acquired his services for around £1 million. By today’s standards, that’s a fairly minimal outlay for a player who so obviously possessed many top attributes: pace, acceleration and the ability to beat a man just to name a few. He did, however, have a lot to improve upon, and as a self-professed “shy” person who needed a boost in self-confidence, the Versailles-born attacker probably wouldn’t have entered the season with great expectations.

His start to 2015/16 probably backed up those expectations, as he only played 27 minutes across the opening five games before missing a couple of weeks with injury on the 8th and 9th Matchdays of the campaign. But he kept working at it. His former boss at Nantes, Michel Der Zakarian, noted that N’Koudou “listens to advice and wants to learn,” and the France U21 international quickly set about doing just that in the surrounds of a bigger Ligue 1 side. Slowly but surely things started to happen for him, and from Matchday 11 onwards, N’Koudou has been an ever-present member of Marseille’s first team.

His first goal of the season, perhaps rather fittingly, came against his former employers, Nantes, and in that single moment he showed the OM fans many of his most exciting attributes. He started off by receiving the ball out on the right-hand side, in transition, before breezing by an opposition defender. Now in a position to shoot on his non-preferred left boot, he hit a low drive from just outside the area. It skidded off the turf on its way in, beating the outstretched hand of goalkeeper Remy Riou in the process, and its significance was such that it allowed Marseille to claim a 1-0 win.

N’Koudou used that strike as a springboard, and he has since hit a further four goals in the league and added a couple of assists as well. Throw in four UEFA Europa League goals, as well as another in the French League Cup, and he has now scored 10 goals in all competitions. It’s a far cry from the paltry two he registered last campaign with Nantes, and his development has been such that even he must be surprised at his progress.

Yet for N’Koudou, he still retains that same desire to improve. “There are a lot of details that need fixing,” he asserted a couple of weeks ago. “I need to channel my energy so I’m less breathless on the field.” That may be so, but for a 20-year-old who shows so much promise in the positions that matter, those in and around the 18-yard area, he is clearly on the right track.

It’s rare for an up-and-coming winger to offer a great deal more than pace and electricity on the dribble, but N’Koudou manages to do it. He may need to work on his passing game, especially when it comes to decision making, but his strength over the ball is extremely impressive for a man of his rather slight, 172cm frame. He can drop short, hold off a bigger marker, as he did on many occasions against Montpellier’s 183cm Mathieu Deplagne on Tuesday night, before running around them with a quick burst of acceleration. Combine these traits with quick feet in one-on-one situations, as N’Koudou did for the goal shown below, in the Europa League against Groningen, and he’s a player with the raw ingredients required to succeed at the highest level.

Then, of course, there’s his ability to shoot with both feet. He favours his right foot, clearly, having used it to take 26 shots across Ligue 1 and the Europa League compared to just 16 on his left, but he scores with similar frequency on both sides. In fact, for his nine goals across those two competitions, five have come from his left and four have been fired in with his right. That highlights his ability to have an impact with either foot, and it also allows him to cut inside and shoot whether deployed on the left or the right.

N’Koudou was also impressive in his brief stint up front against Montpellier, not only scoring a goal but also using his hold-up play to offer something with his back to goal. Put simply, N’Koudou’s unique blend of attributes make him an extremely promising prospect, and perhaps it shouldn’t come as any surprise, then, that the likes of Liverpool, Manchester United and West Ham all sent scouts to watch him during January.

First and foremost, though, N’Koudou will be looking to build upon his strong performances with Marseille. The club need him to maintain his momentum as they press towards a European place for next season, and starting with this weekend’s game, they’ll be hoping for more of the same.

On a personal level, too, N’Koudou will be particularly excited about what he can do in the following fixture. Not only because Marseille play PSG in Le Classique, the biggest match in French football, but also because of his footballing history.

As a junior, N’Koudou was a member of the Parisian team’s youth academy, only for them to let him go after two years in the system. He has gone from strength-to-strength from that point on, and now, as one of the brightest talents in the country, he will be eager to make an impact on Ligue 1’s biggest stage.