Rachid Ghezzal: Meet Lyon's Tottenham-tracked star who could soon be available on a free
The 60-second story
- Date of birth: 9 May 1992
- Place of birth: Decines-Charpieu, Lyon
- Height: 6ft
- Position: Right winger
- Club: Lyon (94 apps, 12 goals)
- International: Algeria (6 apps, 1 goal)
Rachid Ghezzal was a crucial member of the Lyon side that stormed up the Ligue 1 table during the second half of last season to clinch the runners-up spot behind unassailable leaders PSG. Among Lyon’s ‘Equipe-Type’ (the rather neat French term for 'ideal starting XI') to have emerged from the club’s stunningly prolific youth academy, Ghezzal was a revelation as part of a three-man attack that also featured 21-goal leading scorer Alexandre Lacazette and highly regarded France U21 international Maxwel Cornet.
Ghezzal’s tremendous burst of form from January to May this year came at an ideal time to launch his previously stuttering career into orbit: with his contract up in 2017, he suddenly found himself an important piece of the Lyon jigsaw and was widely expected to sign an improved deal over the summer.
Instead, contract negotiations have dragged on and on, meaning Ghezzal has yet to put pen to paper. Should the current state of limbo persist, he’ll be free to sign for another club for a reduced fee in January, or walk straight out of Lyon and into the Premier League as a free agent next summer. There's no shortage of interest either: reports have linked Everton, Tottenham, West Ham and Liverpool among the potential suitors.
Why you need to know him
Being 24 hardly makes you a veteran, but Ghezzal certainly fell into the 'experienced' category at Lyon last season. In a team brimming with young players – Samuel Umtiti (now 23), Sergi Darder (22), Corentin Tolisso (22) and Cornet (20) – he was something of an elder statesman.
He could be free to sign for another club for a reduced fee in January, or walk straight out of Lyon and into the Premier League as a free agent next summer
2015/16 was the turning point he’d been waiting for, as the Algerian pinned down a regular place in Lyon's side for the first time in his career. He’d made his Ligue 1 debut for his hometown club as long ago as October 2012 (Ghezzal was born and brought up in the city’s suburbs), but was forced to take a back seat as Lacazette and Nabil Fekir jumped ahead of him in the pecking order.
The statistics tell a story: Ghezzal managed 10 starts as a 20-year-old in 2012/13, but none the following season and only six in 2014/15. His Lyon career was running out of steam to such an extent that he asked for a transfer in summer 2015, with Ligue 1 makeweights such as Nantes and Angers sniffing around. In the end, though, he stayed put – and what a brilliant decision that turned out to be.
Things finally clicked into place for Ghezzal when Bruno Genesio was appointed Lyon manager on Christmas Eve last year. Ghezzal scored twice in his first match in charge, a French Cup tie against amateurs Limoges last January, and became a fixture in the side from that point onwards.
From January to May 2016 Ghezzal made 18 consecutive Ligue 1 appearances, starting 16 times and producing the sort of brilliantly consistent performances that few believed him capable of. He scored seven goals and supplied five assists to end the season as one of Ligue 1’s most exciting and effective attackers.
As Lyon climbed from mid-table to 2nd in the final standings, Ghezzal’s stock rose accordingly. The bit-part player had become a key man.
Nearly all the top teams operate with at least one inverted winger, so the [right wing] position makes sense to me
Ghezzal was a left winger in the Lyon youth ranks but played on the right flank last season. With Ghezzal on the right, Lacazette in the middle and Cornet on the left, Lyon were arguably Ligue 1’s finest attacking side.
Before that, Ghezzal had often been used at the point of a midfield diamond in a 4-4-2, though he was rarely effective in that role. “Right wing is the position that suits him best,” said Genesio after instigating the positional switch last season.
"Nearly all the top teams operate with at least one inverted winger, so the position makes sense to me," Ghezzal said. "I had to learn the role as I played as a left winger throughout my entire time in the Lyon youth ranks. But I think the right wing suits my qualities better: I can cut inside on my stronger left foot, and it gives me good angles for shooting."
He has a world-class role model, too. "As people are getting to know my game, I need to mix it up: come inside, go outside, shoot for the near post, shoot for the far post," he said. "My reference point is Arjen Robben. With him, you know exactly what he’s going to do – but he manages to pull it off anyway."
Ghezzal was brilliant during the second half of last term – but it was the first time in his career that he'd produced a decent run of form, which raises the question of why it took him so long
For all the attention Ghezzal is getting, would it really be smart business for a club to shell out a small fortune on a player who turns 25 at the end of this season and has only one half-season of top-class football on his CV?
Ghezzal was brilliant during the second half of last term – but it was the first time in his career that he'd produced a decent run of form, which raises the question of why it took him so long.
The player and his advisors would argue that Hubert Fournier – the Lyon manager before current boss Genesio took the reins – never gave Ghezzal a chance to show what he could do. That may well be true, but if Ghezzal were really a top-class player, wouldn’t he have made the decision for Fournier by simply forcing his way into the side?
Ghezzal has also failed to maintain last season’s impeccable standards: his 2016/17 performances have been fitful, with the ongoing contract negotiations and then injury problems upsetting his form. Lyon have generally under-performed – they lie 7th in the Ligue 1 table, seven points behind the top three of Nice, Monaco and PSG – but it's still a concern to potential buyers that Ghezzal has been unable to build on the promise he showed last spring.
There are also legitimate doubts over whether he's versatile enough to be an asset to a side who play in any formation other than a 4-3-3. We’ve seen how effective he can be as a right winger, but what about as a left winger or a second striker? In those positions the jury’s still out, which is something Premier League scouts and managers will surely take into account.
Did you know?
Ghezzal played for France U20s but eventually opted to represent Algeria at senior level. He made his debut for the Desert Warriors against Qatar in March 2015 and now offers cover on the flanks for Riyad Mahrez and Yacine Brahimi.
What happens next?
With his contract due to expire in June 2017, Ghezzal's future will be decided in the next two months: he'll either sign an extension at Lyon on an improved wage, or sit it out and try to secure a move to the Premier League or La Liga.
Everton and West Ham were strongly linked with the player last summer, at a time when talk of a £10m fee was bandied about. He'll surely be cheaper in January, just six months before his contract's up, or he could walk away for nothing next summer.
A host of Premier League clubs are likely to strengthen their forward lines during the winter transfer window, and Ghezzal’s name will surely be on several shopping list – as long as the price is right.