London – Flooded with tantalising possibility, the temptation for Didier Deschamps to pick his next France squad merely by drawing lots must have some traction. The new wave of talent to burst on to the scene is impossible to ignore as they have sparkled in European football this season as well as domestically. Deschamps’ most recent squad included the startlingly spectacular Kylian Mbappé (aged 18), Ousmane Dembélé (19), Thomas Lemar (21), Adrian Rabiot (22), Corentin Tolisso (22), Benjamin Mendy (22) and Tiemoué Bakayoko (22).
French football has witnessed a whirlwind gathering speed during the season. This week Monaco and Lyon fly the flag in European semi-finals, the former up against Juventus in the Champions League and the latter taking on Ajax in the Europa League. Paris Saint-Germain eclipse all-comers in French football financially but their rivals have found a way to shine through balanced team building and faith in youth.
Rémi Garde, now living back in his home town of Lyon and watching the club’s revival from the perspective he describes as “more than a fan”, is extremely proud of the way the club he represented as player, manager and academy director has developed a talented group from its own production line. Garde was integral to the emergence of Alexandre Lacazette, Nabil Fekir and Tolisso, whose excellent campaigns make them targets for richer clubs, alongside talents who have already departed in Barcelona’s Samuel Umtiti and Manchester United’s Anthony Martial.
“The birth of this generation was a few years ago,” he explains. “It would be a bit pretentious on my part to say I knew they would come through like this. Circumstances have to be right to give young players an opportunity to play. The club had some difficult moments financially because they had to fund the construction of a new stadium. Because I had spent a couple of years with the academy I knew we had a good group coming through. I had confidence in them.
“In France we always have more attacking and midfield players than defensive players. There are a lot of players in all the suburbs of the big cities who develop a special kind of intelligence. It’s like street football and there are not too many rules – so they develop skills to dribble instinctively, the kind of things that are not so well developed in more structured clubs. For them it is only a game, not work.”
Any club blessed with blossoming talent which operates a rung or two down from the most glamorous elite knows it will face a fight to hold on to the most precious. Garde recognises that it is hard to ignore those offers even if it might be more sensible to mature more calmly for a while longer. How many will follow Martial and Umtiti to hastily exit Ligue 1?
“It’s very difficult to say no,” he says. “When you are young, even if you love the club you grew up at, you always dream of the best team in the world. When the day comes, the phone rings and you hear this kind of club wants you it is difficult to resist.”
He expects to see Lacazette, who did bide his time and turns 26 this month, set a major club alight soon. “I rate him very highly. I have the feeling now he is ready – he is strong enough in his head to settle into any team. I know him very well. He improved a lot thanks to his commitment at each training session. The way he supports and leads the team this season is unbelievable. He never left Lyon before and I know from my own experience as a kid of Lyon that when you leave your city for the first time it’s quite difficult. If he chooses the right club, the right manager, and they have a little patience with him, they will be rewarded.”
Garde has watched Martial’s experience since moving to England with interest. “I see more someone who needs to be challenged,” he says. “He has always been like that. He is very gifted but he needs to be pushed. I see that his current manager is sometimes pushing him to deliver more. I am not surprised about that. Anthony is very quiet and calm. Of course when you are playing for United it’s different to what he knew in France but I think he copes quite well. He is a very nice guy and a competitor – he wants to win – but he is a bit reserved. He is 21, which is very young to be a star at Man United. Sometimes you need the experience of other players who can talk to him, push him, advise him.”
He remembers being the senior pro alongside a 20-year-old Patrick Vieira when they moved to the Premier League and Arsenal together. “We had – still have – 10 years between us. Arsène [Wenger] had the brilliant idea to bring two French guys at the same time so it was a bit easier for us to settle, especially for Patrick who was only 20 and didn’t speak any English at all.” Garde notes the importance of having good examples in the shape of experienced players and namechecks Hugo Lloris as having played a vital role in that way at Lyon.
Garde feels it has never been harder for gifted young prodigies to come through. “It’s very difficult today because there are many temptations, so much money at a young age which is difficult to handle, and with the media and social pressures it becomes even more challenging to succeed. Inevitably as a young player you come across very tough moments at some point in your development. In those moments there is always someone telling you: ‘It’s not your fault. The coach doesn’t play you.’
“So you have to have an extra-strong mentality. You need to have a tight family environment, a very good education. The third entity is the agent.”
Mbappé’s explosive season puts him in a simultaneously fascinating, exciting and delicate position. Garde, like any Frenchman, is enthralled by what he sees but he also offers some gentle advice to the teenager: “If you can, stay concentrated only on football, please. Don’t forget you are only 18. Keep your dream of when you were a child, and try to forget everything around you when you are on the pitch. Realise what an opportunity it is to play in such a good collective team.
“If Mbappé is playing well it’s partly because alongside him is [Radamel] Falcao, a very experienced player. He has a very well-balanced team around him and a good manager. Football is very fragile. We have seen gifted players have a very good start who choose not to concentrate any more on football and focus on advertising or media or choose the wrong clubs at the wrong time. The advice would be to stay focused and not to forget you have everything at the moment in Monaco to become a better player. You have time in future to choose and change everything in your football life.
“So far he reminds me of Thierry [Henry]. Maybe he is more mature in his game already than Thierry was at the same time. When you consider what Thierry went on to achieve in the game it is amazing.”
Garde made a visit to England last week which bought back many memories and revived his desire to seek out another chance to coach in a country whose football culture made a huge impression on him. Even though his Aston Villa experience did not work out – it was a difficult situation he could not turn around in the few months he spent there – his own determination is undimmed. “I would have liked that this period lasted longer than it did, but that’s football life. Now I am only thinking about coming back one day in this country to work again and show I can be a manager here. I respect this club – especially the fans who were really supportive. I would be very happy to see Aston Villa once again in the Premier League.”
Garde went back to his former hunting ground to watch an Arsenal match and reflected on the difficult situation around his old boss, Wenger. “He is an unbelievable guy. It is difficult for me to imagine the end. I don’t know when that will be. I can say only he inspired me, the way I manage, the way I behave in life as well. I am sad to read the criticism of him and the bad words, because he committed the last 20 years to the club he loves so much.”
The vast majority of critics will never quite understand the life of a manager. “It’s a job that if you have not experienced it, it is very hard to understand. The problems are coming from different angles, coming everywhere. But it is because it is difficult that we love to do it. When you win a game, when you win a trophy, when you see young players come to the first team that you might have given a little bit of help to, it’s a very good feeling. You are always suffering for these short periods of happiness.”
The Guardian Sport