Super sub Moussa Dembele might have caught the headlines after Lyon’s unlikely 3-1 victory over Manchester City in Saturday’s Champions League quarter-final, but it was Houssem Aouar who was the grand architect of what was one of the greatest nights in the history of the Rhone club.
On an evening upon which OL did not have a single failure, the classy midfielder showed the breadth to his game that has often been overlooked for his silkier offensive attributes. The 22-year-old showed industry and grit, but his technical ease on the ball would have had City boss Pep Guardiola purring.
Even Premier League Player of the Season Kevin De Bruyne was left sufficiently wowed to have taken note of his opponent, despite admitting that he does not watch much Ligue 1 football.
Aouar’s performance against City has been hailed as the long-awaited “take off” in his career in his homeland, yet his numbers throughout Lyon’s Champions League campaign of this year and last stack up well.
Since the beginning of the 2018-19 season, he has seven Champions League assists, putting him in elite company: only PSG’s Kylian Mbappe (10) and City’s Riyad Mahrez (eight) have more.
The more difficult the challenge, the better he adapts.Armand Garrido
But it was the stage that this colossus of a performance was achieved that was most impressive, and it was reward for the additional focus he has been giving his game.
“Houssem realised that he needed to work a little more from day to day because a career can pass you by very quick,” Lyon sporting director Juninho, a brilliantly talented playmaker in his day, though one that never graced the final four of a Champions League, said after the game.
“It’s day-to-day work that wins games. I hope that will follow him throughout his professional life.”
In league play, his numbers have been rather pedestrian, with three goals and three assists in 25 outings.
Indeed, his tendency to rise to the big occasion is highlighted by his Football Critic average rating in Ligue 1 of 6.8 rising to an impressive 7.4 in the Champions League, but his former Under-17 coach Armand Garrido has an explanation.
“The more difficult the challenge, the better he adapts,” he told AFP. “It’s not a question of being inconsistent when he plays, but in the easy matches he can go easy. We know that in the big matches we can count on him because of potential is so huge.”
And few matches are bigger than the one he will experience on Wednesday when OL meet Bayern Munich for a place in the Champions League final.
His hometown club know, however, that they may not have long to enjoy his talents. Even if Aouar has refused to discuss his future, he is expected to be a big protagonist in the summer transfer window, and his performance last weekend has only enhanced already existing links with a switch to the Etihad Stadium, a venue where he would surely fit in neatly.
His poise in possession is certainly seductive, his ability to wriggle out of improbable spaces akin to that of his idol Zinedine Zidane.
Of Ligue 1 players who typically play centrally, only team-mate Jeff Reine-Adelaide averages more dribbles per game. Additionally, he ranks in the Top 20 players for final third passes completed per 90 minutes (fifth among central midfielders), doing so with a completion accuracy of 86% overall – better than all but four players above him in that statistic.
Defensively, he does not shirk his responsibilities. Against City, he competed in 19 duels – four more than anyone else on the pitch – while in the league he was an effective defensive presence, winning more than 50% of such battles and 57% of his aerial duels.
“This isn’t a job interview,” Aouar told the press before last weekend’s clash, though he acknowledged that it was “flattering” to see his name associated with City.
His all-action display has served only to strengthen those links, but his name continues to be cited also with reference to Juventus, another team to have suffered at his velvety feet in recent weeks.
While his lack of consistency may have some doubting his capacity to survive at such teams, where ‘world class’ is expected on a weekly basis, it is easy to forget that Aouar turned 22 on the final day of June. With 136 top team appearances since his debut against AZ in February 2017, it is easy to forget he is still a young man.
Game number 137 may be one of his last in OL’s white, but it is sure to be the biggest. If Aouar loves a challenge, they come no bigger than Bayern, and though he will not admit it, he must know that another big display may be all the convincing that Guardiola needs to finally make his move.