Our friends across the English channel have always boasted a fine tradition of influence in the Premier League‘s illustrious history, from Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira to David Ginola and Eric Cantona, but the sheer volume of imports from France at the moment points towards a growing trend in the top flight.
Newcastle stand out as the club perhaps most in tune with this trend, and having already clinched the signing of France international right-back Mathieu Debuchy from Lille this transfer window, shortly to be followed up by 23-year-old Montpellier centre-back Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa and it seems as if Alan Pardew’s Francophile ranks are set to swell once more. Mbiwa will be the eighth French player in the Magpies first-team squad – Yohan Cabaye, Sylvain Marveaux, Gabriel Obertan, Romain Amalfitano, Hatem Ben Arfa, Mehdi Abeid and Debuchy being the others.
That influence grows even further when you include French-speaking Papiss Cisse, Gael Bigirimana and Cheick Tiote from Senegal, Burundi and Ivory Coast respectively. That’s 11 French-speaking players, and to put this into context, there are only 14 players born in England that have been assigned first-team numbers this season. The moves for Yoan Gouffran, Moussa Sissoko and Massadio Haidara look set to equal that number shortly. This has gone slightly beyond a targeted area of recruitment and into something approaching more flat out colonisation.
It seems Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was at a loss to explain this phenomenon recently, when discussing trends with reporters: “The country where we were really competitive was France, but the French produce fewer players at the top level than they did 10 years ago. The emerging countries now look to be Germany and Spain, they have taken over. When you look at the results of France against Germany at Under-16, Under-17 level, it shows that the trend in coming years will be more in favour of the Germans.”
Of course, Arsenal have their own French influence still present at the Emirates, having reinforced it to a degree with the summer signing of Olivier Giroud from Montpellier to compliment the existing presence of the likes of Bacary Sagna, Laurent Koscielny, Sebastien Squillaci, Abou Diaby and Francis Coquelin, while recently loaned out striker Marouane Chamakh was born in France and played for Bordeaux in Ligue 1 for eight seasons.
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Cast your eye around the big movers and shakers from the transfer window so far and the two biggest battles have been concerning French players – with Newcastle beaten to Loic Remy by a last-ditch move from QPR, while Harry Redknapp’s side lead the front of the queue in the pursuit of Rennes midfielder Yann M’Vila.
Another player linked with a move to England this transfer window has been Marseille midfielder Mathieu Valbuena, but his agent Christophe Hutteau appeared to rule out a switch to Newcastle and reveal his opinion on the trend at the same time, telling French radio station RMC: “He wouldn’t go. You don’t leave Marseille to go and play for Newcastle. It’s just a fad. There was Arsenal, today it’s Newcastle, tomorrow it’ll be Liverpool or Chelsea.”
That would appear to explain why Newcastle have suddenly turned themselves into the French Riviera of the north, but it’s also there that we find the real answer behind the motives of such an invasion in recent times – value for money. According to figure obtained from transferleague.co.uk, Ben Arfa, then already a fully fledged France international unbeknownst to fountain of knowledge Alan Shearer at the time, cost just £5.75m from Marseille. Yohan Cabaye, fresh from winning the Ligue 1 title back in 2010-11 cost just £5m from Lille while Debuchy cost just £5.5m from the same club this month. That’s staggeringly cheap considering their talent, experience and potential, while the sell-on value for all three is superb.
It seems an entire generation of French players have been written off and with the domestic league failing behind the Bundesliga in recent times, there’s simply more bang for your buck over there than anywhere else in Europe’s five top leagues. Even after assessing the risks involved, the squeeze is worth the juice with concerns to French players and plenty of them elsewhere in the league have gone on to become full internationals such as Gael Clichy and Younes Kaboul while Hugo Lloris, Patrice Evra and Florent Malouda were already established but still affordable.
A casual glance at the last squad to be called up for international duty by manager Didier Deschamps (himself a former Chelsea player) only lends itself to the conclusion that this conveyor belt looks set to continue for the foreseeable future with Moussa Sissoko, Etienne Capoue, Blaise Matuidi and Marvin Martin all serious candidates for future investment from these shores.
Perhaps more than any other nation in Europe, France is having a huge impact on the top flight, but even by their standards, they appear to be going through something of a hot streak at the moment. A lack of success in European competition has made it more difficult for French clubs to establish themselves for any prolonged period of time, so whenever a side such as Lille or Montpellier win the league title, they are asset-stripped by the vultures walking the corridors of power here in England.
The balance of power has shifted from the halcyon days of seven straight league titles by Lyon with the last four years seeing a different club emerge with the crown. With just one point separating PSG, Lyon and Marseille at the top of the league this campaign, the more established cream is once again rising to the top and they demand a fair whack for their best players, but with such a fluid league system in terms of competitiveness, there’s always the danger that one exceptionally talented team could emerge from the shadows just like they have done recently only to be gradually torn apart in the future.
There is plenty of talent and value for money to be found in Ligue 1 and even if Monsieur Wenger feels Germany and Spain are safer bets to place your money, for those operating on a budget, there are few better leagues around to cast your net and it simply doesn’t constitute a gamble when the returns are so obvious and the benefits so great.