The French national team have had plenty of success picking players of African descent in the past. Think Patrick Vieira, Marcel Desailly or Zinedine Zidane. Well, M’Baye Niang could trump them all. The Caen striker is just 17, but already he is drawing comparisons to Thierry Henry given his ability to drift out wide and take players on.
Niang has figured on the European radar for just over a year now, since he made his debut in April 2011 against Toulouse at just 16 years and 144 days, the youngest player in Caen history. He bagged his first professional goal just a couple of weeks later against Lens, making him the second youngest player to score in Ligue One. This end of season run in the side saw him finish with three goals in seven appearances.
In 2011/12, Niang found the going a little tougher, just managing two strikes in 23 appearances, but Caen had a poor campaign that eventually ended in relegation. Contractual issues also hampered Niang’s form as his professional contract became the subject of some debate. Nonetheless, he is still rated as one of the brightest talents in world football, sparking a race to try and secure his signature. Both Arsenal and Tottenham have been accredited with an interest in his services and should Caen chose to sell their young starlet, the Emirates could be an ideal destination given Arsene Wenger’s proven track record in developing youngsters into top players, not to mention the already-strong French contingent that runs through the club.
Whilst one has to be wary of over-hyping a foreign talent at such an early age (look at Romelu’s Lukaku’s struggles at Chelsea for evidence of this), Niang has the attributes that would make him a hit in the Premier League. As mentioned before, Niang is perfectly adept at starting out wide and using his pace and power to terrorise defenders when cutting back. His physical attributes are also worth a mention, indeed he already possesses the upper body strength to tangle with those hard-as-nails Premier League centre backs, while he already stands at over six foot ensuring he’s more than handy in the air as well.
After an initial struggle between France and Senegal for his services at international level, the French seem to have won that battle and have accelerated him through the age groups. Despite missing the Fifa U17 World Cup, Niang made his U21 debut against Latvia last September, scoring his first goal during that game as well, before appearing again against Portugal a couple of days later. Given Karim Benzema’s poor form at the European Championships, the French may look to Niang as a potential candidate to lead the line at the World Cup in 2014.
Undoubtedly the young prospect has natural talent that we could only dream of. The challenging part is keeping his feet firmly on the ground and ensuring that Niang can fulfil his potential to the level it deserves. For the time being, he may be better off establishing himself in the Caen first XI before moving across Europe. If he does stay in Ligue Two, make sure you keep an eye on Caen’s performances, because Europe’s top scouts will already be there, without a doubt.