What is wrong with Yoann Gourcuff?

Yoann Gourcuff has carried a weight of expectation on his shoulders ever since he was a local ping-pong champion aged 12 in Morbihan. But the scale of the pressure that the France international is currently burdened with is arguably unlike any he has experienced before.

When Gourcuff moved from Bordeaux to Lyon late in the summer in a transfer that could well end up costing Jean-Michel Aulas as much as €26.5m, the gates to the Stade de Gerland were opened up to allow 15,000 adoring fans to witness France’s first ever Gálactico-like unveiling. The 24-year-old described the whole affair as “pleasant” but “embarrassing” before telling the assembled journalists: “I don’t consider myself to be the messiah.”

And yet after 18 months of treating Gourcuff as the second coming, some are now beginning to wonder whether he is in fact a false idol. It wouldn’t be the first time France has been taken in by the charm of a playmaker with the face and feet of an angel. After all, for every Zinedine Zidane and Michel Platini there is usually a Philippe Vercruysse and Jean-Marc Ferreri left by the wayside. Both were without doubt talented playmakers who ultimately dazzled only to deceive. And just like Gourcuff they each won a league title at Bordeaux, something that eluded Zidane, which is surely more of a coincidence than a bad omen. Yet the sudden fall off in Gourcuff’s performances this year means the possibility is at least now being considered.

Between August 2008 and December 2009, his rise was seemingly irresistible. Gourcuff’s star was in the ascendancy like few others in the world at the time. Two magical goals against Toulouse and Paris Saint-Germain showed a Houdini-like appreciation for escapology, the skill and conception of which prompted France to let out a collective gasp of “oh là là là, c’est magnifique.”

The jaw of the French press was on the floor, it’s tongue wagging. “Gourcuff isn’t the new Zidane. He is Zidane,” read one headline. His 12 goals and 10 assists inspired Bordeaux to their first title in a decade.  And initially at least Gourcuff’s form was carried into the national team too, his 30-yard screamer against Romania in October 2008 saving Raymond Domenech’s job after France’s early exit from the European Championship that summer.

He seemed to be the complete package, both on and off the pitch. Gourcuff’s clean-cut image and good looks served to make his appeal stretch way beyond the game itself, yet any risk of a Beckham-like phenomenon within France were curtailed by a desire for privacy that stemmed from his childhood being firmly rooted in football.

Gourcuff was also the thinking fan’s crumpet. While at Bordeaux, he lived at No 21 on the Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau and according to Julien, the waiter at Gourcuff’s local café: “Yoann read books never newspapers.” Take into account his father Christian’s past as a player and present as an aesthetically minded coach at Lorient, then Yoann’s graduation from Rennes, the best academy in France, and subsequent two-year spell at Milan, and it’s fair to say Gourcuff’s education in football appeared to be second to none.

When asked why he’d decided to make Gourcuff the second biggest signing in Lyon’s history, Aulas smiled: “It’s the kind of thing that happens once in a lifetime.” Yet while the high-profile investment would have once looked like a guarantee of success with no risk entailed, it now bore a greater resemblance to a leap of faith, the hope being that 2010 has been an aberration in Gourcuff’s career so far. A study published earlier this month laid bare the scale of his Année Noire in all its miserable detail.

Astonishingly, Gourcuff has won just 30 per cent of his matches in 2010, scoring half as many goals and laying on half as many assists as he did last year. Ranked 151st in L’Équipe’s individual player ratings with an average score of just 4.73 out of 10, the extent of his poor form was put into even starker relief.

“His balance is mixed,” said Jacques Crevoisier, a respected psychologist who worked as Gerard Houllier’s assistant at Liverpool. “He is not decisive in spite of the enormous attention that he sparks. He has cost a lot of money. He plays very deep. He often takes several touches of the ball before passing. He is inconsistent. He doesn’t justify his transfer at the moment.”   

France’s investigation into Gourcuff’s malaise has been a forensic one with no stone being left unturned in the effort to discover the reasons he has become a shadow of his former self. A page of Carlo Ancelotti’s autobiography, I prefer the Cup, in which he described Gourcuff as a “strange lad” who was both “egocentric” and “a little mad” was quoted at length.

Paolo Maldini was interviewed before Auxerre’s Champions League match with Milan on the 25th anniversary of his European debut at the Abbé-Deschamps. His opinion of Gourcuff was candid to say the least. “He got it 100 per cent wrong at Milan,” Maldini said. “Yoann’s problem was his behaviour. He didn’t study Italian at all. He didn’t want to work on tactics. He wasn’t always on time. A lot of things happened. But he knows very well what he did.”

The Italian perception of Gourcuff simply didn’t correlate with the one held in France. If anything, he had a reputation as a teacher’s pet. “It was completely the opposite,” explained Bordeaux goalkeeper Cédric Carrassso. “He was here an hour before training and worked a lot. It’s true, he had a bad season, but he also had such an exceptional one the year before, it’s tough to stay at the same level.”

Gourcuff had clearly ruffled a few feathers on L’Hexagone, though, primarily because of the timing of his decision to quit Bordeaux, which came late in the transfer window when the season had already started. “The manner in which it happened irritated me coming on the Saturday evening before an important match,” Bordeaux coach Jean Tigana said. “We were coming off two defeats and going to face PSG at the Parc on Sunday. Asking to leave on that day shocked me a little. It could have come on Monday. It would have shown respect to the group. If he is at the level he is today, it’s because of Bordeaux.”

Jean-Louis Triaud, the club president, had also been left with a bitter taste in his mouth, snidely commenting that Gourcuff’s loss would be minimal because there are other players in the team who could take corners. Bordeaux’s Ultra Marines followed that up by drafting a press release insisting that Gourcuff is no longer considered welcome at the Stade Chaban-Delmas and that they were actually more dismayed at Fernando Cavenaghi’s departure to Mallorca. Unsurprisingly he was whistled on his return to the ground in September.

In Gourcuff’s defence, there are mitigating circumstances. Things fell apart at Bordeaux in January when the-then president of the French Football Federation Jean-Pierre Escalettes made it clear that the search for Raymond Domenech’s successor had begun. He made no secret of the fact Laurent Blanc was the No 1 choice to replace him. It destabilised the club, as Blanc’s head was turned and knowing that he was considering his future, some players did too, notably Marouane Chamakh. Bordeaux incredibly threw away a nine-point lead at the top of Ligue 1 and finished sixth. It was an epic collapse, the psychological effects of which are still being felt within the squad today. Gourcuff is no exception.

The World Cup only served to make matters worse. Gourcuff’s confidence had taken a beating even before the flight to South Africa. In the build up to the play-off with the Republic of Ireland, Domenech had stripped him of his set-piece taking duties. He then lost his place in the team on the eve of the finals and started the opening match against Uruguay on the bench. Reports claimed Franck Ribery was bullying Gourcuff. Then came the notorious strike at Knysna and his harsh sending off against South Africa in the final group game. It was a personal nightmare.

When cast in that light Gourcuff’s desire for a new challenge at Lyon appeared acceptable enough. The presence of his friends Jérémy Toulalan and Hugo Lloris would naturally help with his rehabilitation. But Gourcuff unwittingly walked straight into another mess. Lyon made their worst start to a season for 13 years. Claude Puel was given until the end of October to save his job. There was reportedly dissent within the dressing room while the spine of the team itself was mostly missing with the exception of Lloris, as Cris and Lisandro Lopez suffered niggling injury problems and Toulalan needed time to deal with his own inner demons after playing a surprising role in the strike in South Africa.

Suffice to say that Lyon’s current problems haven’t exactly been conducive to Gourcuff finding his feet. The composition of the team has changed so regularly that the development of any chemistry has been difficult. “Yoann needs reference points,” said Lyon director Bernard Lacombe. “At Bordeaux he played with the same players for two years in an identical formation: Fernando, Alou Diarra, Wendel, Chamakh and Gouffran. It’s normal that he has different sensations here. The team alternates between good matches like against Rennes and complicated matches.”

Puel’s dedication to a scientific rotation policy has also seen Gourcuff often replaced before the 90-minute mark, which has frustrated the player in his efforts to find any match rhythm after the World Cup. “Ask the coach why I came off,” Gourcuff said after being replaced against Nancy despite playing well. “I wasn’t knackered. It bothered me.” And yet signs of recovery have been forthcoming. “He’s a lad who is in need of reconstruction,” Blanc said. “His qualities haven’t disappeared.”

Gourcuff has received no special treatment from his former mentor. But Blanc has used him wisely for France, nurturing the player’s confidence with care. He scored from the bench against Romania and from the start against Luxembourg in October, going back to his club on a real high. Gourcuff subsequently found the net in a key match at home to Lille to make it three goals in nine days, only for Puel to undo all of Blanc’s good work by taking him off at half-time against relegation strugglers Arles. Gourcuff was then desperately disappointing in the League Cup against PSG and seemingly back to square one again.

Last week’s events epitomised his year. Just three days after Gourcuff’s best showing of the season in a 3-1 victory away to Lens, where he made an inspirational second half cameo, a spanner was thrown in the works yet again, as he suffered a nasty Achilles injury against Schalke.

Gourcuff now faces a three-week spell on the sidelines, leaving little if no time at all to salvage what has been a rotten 2010. Lyon fans can only shrug their shoulders in dismay. Gourcuff famously once likened himself to a “diesel engine” because of the time it takes for him to get going, but it would appear someone has actually filled his tank up with the wrong fuel, as this year has seen plenty of spluttering and an eventual breakdown.

The faith in Gourcuff’s potential remains, though. “He is the prototype of a Barcelona player,” Xavi told France Football earlier this month. “I adore him.” Nevertheless, Gourcuff now has to lay the doubters to rest. “I don’t agree with the journalists on their analysis of my performances,” he said. ”But one thing is certain. We have yet to see the real Gourcuff.” Meanwhile, France and Lyon are asking if he’ll please stand up, Achilles injury permitting, of course.