France’s Ligue 1 is renowned as a league that produces talent at a rate arguably greater than any other in the world.
Virtually every leading club in Europe has at least one regular who has emerged through an academy from Le Championnat but while the focus is very much on grabbing up-and-coming talent from the top flight, it would be remiss to suggest that there is not more depth to the game in the home of the world champions.
Just as England’s Championship is a fiercely competitive league, France’s Ligue 2 often provides the setting of remarkable dogfights for promotion.
Amiens are one of a number of teams in recent years who have sped through the division immediately having won promotion from the third tier, while comparatively big clubs such as Lens and Le Havre have found out just how cut throat a division it is as they have failed to win their spot back at the top table following relegation.
And while clubs in the second tier may be less prolific in terms of their production of talent, there remains a steady flow of quality through youngsters who have either come through their own systems or who have been overlooked elsewhere.
Perhaps two of the highest profile such characters currently are Tottenham midfielder Tanguy Ndombele, who played with Amiens during their promotion season before moving on to Lyon and subsequently to Spurs for a fee of €62 million this summer.
Meanwhile, Riyad Mahrez did not depart Le Havre for Leicester until he was 24. Just a matter of weeks ago, he came 10th in the Ballon d’Or voting.
So the talent is there if it’s looked for in the correct places, and here are five potential stars for the future currently making their way under the mainstream radar in Ligue 2.
TINO KADAWERE (LE HARVE)
Ligue 2’s top scorer is a man who has caught the eye over the course of the last year. Signed by Le Havre from Djurgardens in Sweden, the Zimbabwe international took some time to settle in France initially but has gone goal crazy this season, scoring 18 times and laying on another four in 22 matches.
Put into context, he has scored a goal every 105 minutes he has been on the field in a league in which it is notoriously difficult to find the net. Indeed, the average Ligue 2 match only has 2.21 goals per game.
During January, he signed for Lyon for a fee estimated to be around €15m but attracted interest from the likes of Eintracht Frankfurt and Celtic. OL have proven to have had a keen eye for talent at this level in the past, with the most notable example Ndombele, and it seems they have picked up another raw star.
ADRIAN GRBIC (CLERMONT)
With no youth academy to speak of, Clermont are a club who have thrived against the odds at this level thanks to their shrewd work in the transfer market. Players are drafted in each summer, often for free, before being moved on for significant sums a year or two later.
Maintaining this ability to keep finding talent is extremely difficult but Clermont keep finding aces, the latest of whom is 23-year-old Austrian striker Adrian Grbic, who arrived as a free agent six months ago.
The former Under-21 international has carried his team offensively this season, scoring 16 goals in 22 matches.
The centre forward may look like a stereotypical target man, but he has many more strings to his bow, including a strong ability over set pieces and a capacity to score spectacular goals from range.
If Clermont do not make the big step to Ligue 1 this season, it is easy to see him becoming their next major sale, with mid-range clubs around Europe’s top divisions sure to be interested.
CHIECK DOUCOURE (LENS)
Lens may be a small former mining hub in the north-east of France, but it is also one of the most passionate footballing cities in the country, boasting a club whose achievements have consistently punched above what would appear logically possible.
The latest player to cause excitement at Stade Bollaert is youth academy product Cheick Doucoure, who is already a Mali international, having only turned 20 a month ago.
He was spotted at the Under-17 World Cup in 2017, but as he was not a starter, he was ignored by Europe’s big clubs. Their loss has been Lens’ gain: in the 18 months in which he has been involved with the professional team, his performances have consistently improved and his repertoire of play has increased.
Initially signed as a defensive midfielder, he has been used as a centre-back at times this season, where his strength and reading of the game have impressed. But he also uses the ball well and his ability to maraud out of defence has helped Lens break teams who typically lie deep and defend against them.
Nice offered interest last summer but he wanted to stay and develop his game in the north, and there are sure to be more bids come June.
BOUBACAR KOUYATE (TROYES)
When Boubakar Kouyate, better known as ‘Kiki’ left Sporting CP in the winter of 2019, he would have been well aware that he was taking a step backwards to join Ligue 2 side Troyes. However, the defender has made himself a standout in Ligue 2 and already seems ready to propel his career forwards once more.
His first steps in France were taken as a right-back a year ago in what was a fragmented conclusion to the 2018-19 season for the 22-year-old.
And while it has been at centre-back that he has excelled this season, he has particularly caught the eye with his ability at the other end of the park for a goal-shy team. Indeed, he is their leading scorer with five goals from just 17 league matches due to his aerial ability and unerring capacity to find space from set pieces in the opposing penalty box.
“It gives me value and it’s good for my career,” he told local paper L’Est Éclair after netting against Guingamp.
In this way, he is similar to Christopher Jullien, who is currently starring with Celtic in the Scottish Premiership and who was a prolific scorer in France’s second tier.
After a young career that has already seen him play in four different countries, he finally seems to have settled and is building a strong base for a promising future.
Rennes have a youth system that is prolific in producing young talent, and it seems that the Bretons have done just that with this exciting 21-year-old winger. Only, they released him before they knew it.
Having initially started his career with Evian, where he played six Ligue 2 matches in the 2015-16 season, Diarra moved to Rennes and subsequently to Le Mans when they were in the third tier.
The wideman played a starring role on loan as they won their place back to the second flight and has since attracted a good deal of positive attention due to his performances for Richard Dezire’s offensively minded outfit.
He loves to dribble the ball at pace, making him an exciting but sometimes unreliable prospect with a tendency to be over elaborate in his work, earning him comparisons with Hatem Ben Arfa.
Despite having to drop back a level in his career following his setback in Rennes, he remains a player who is being closely monitored by several sides, including Newcastle and Leicester, in part because he has the potential to explode in a style that Mahrez did before him.