As I have reiterated, Ligue 1 sides contain some talents that big clubs should be keeping an eye on. With Marcus Thuram already covered, we’ll move on to another player who has had a standout season, that being Kenny Lala. Strasbourg have been one of many historical clubs to suffer in the 21st century. A club that saw success in the sixties, beating Nantes to win the Coupe de la Ligue in 1966. After years of unremarkable league finishes, relegation and financial trouble, it left the club facing liquidation in 2011. They were eventually reinstated into the 5th tier of French football.
Their rise back to the top has been nothing short of astounding. They returned to Ligue 1 in 2017, where they have remained ever since. After their debut season which saw them survive by the smallest of margins, it was last season which saw them take a step into the right direction. They finished in 11th, fixing their defensive issues while also adding more goals in attack. While xG claims they overachieved in attack, they still deserved to stay up. Their mid-table finish in the league looked even better after their victory over Guingamp in the Coupe de la France, their 4th victory in the competition. A great season for a club who have fought so hard over the years to get to such a point.
Lala was instrumental in this success. The 27-year-old is by no means a prospect and has been playing for different sides in Ligue 2, including Paris FC, Valenciennes and Lens. Strasbourg picked him up after his contract expired with Lens, signing him on a 2-year deal. He has been superb for the side. After his debut season for the Blues, which saw him contribute to 7 goals from right back, showing himself to be a good dribbler and solid defensively, he truly stepped up his game last season.Embed from Getty Images
Strasbourg have been lining up with a variety of formation, with the consistent theme being a back three being deployed in a majority of the systems used. Lala has been playing as the right wingback. He has been their primary source of creativity and is by far his best quality as a player. The Frenchman is averaging 1.8 key passes per game, the most in the side. He will always look to receive the ball as wide as possible. It shows during Strasbourg’s buildup. Lala will usually wait on the halfway line, to give his team an option when attacking. He is the heartbeat of this side. No other player averages more crosses and key passes than Lala. It’s where he excels. He has a fantastic range of passing, enabling him to quickly switch the ball when under pressure. The reliance placed on him can be shown when looking at how his numbers have changed from his debut season. His dribbling has dropped from 2 to 1.1 dribbles per game and defensive work has plummeted from 4.2 to 3.1 tackles and interceptions per game. It shows how his role has changed last season, moving from a regular full back you’d see in the modern game, to the creative hub we see today. He tops the side for assists with 9 and while xG shows how he has massively overachieved in this area, he has assisted some goals that should usually be saved (the opening goal in their 2-1 win over Monaco is a perfect example). It shouldn’t diminish his achievements, however, since he has still been a great creator for his side. His crosses are pinpoint and consistently finds his teammates in the box.
Lala is a player who possesses one enormous strength but features some shortcomings. The first is how he fairs defensively. While he can perform well in a back four, it would lead to losing that creativity he offers from the wide areas. His 3.1 tackles and interceptions aren’t low, but it’s when viewing him you can see how often he can be exposed. Wingers have loved to target his side. He can be easy to dispossess, which will lead to the right side exposed. He isn’t as pacey as Kyle Walker or Roussillon, meaning he can’t make those recovery runs other players can easily make. He is also not great in the air. He only wins 44% of his aerial duels, and considering he only attempts 1.8 per game, it isn’t a good sign to see a player struggle in the little number of duels he attempts. While he helps his team a lot in the final third, Lala can leave Strasbourg vulnerable defensively.
From the way I’ve described his strengths and weaknesses, he is very reminiscent of Kieran Trippier. Both are gifted passers but struggle defensively when under pressure. The difference between the two is that Lala is being played to his strengths, and is relied on heavily by his teammates. Trippier, on the other hand, has struggled this season, partly due to the injuries and lack of midfielders available for Tottenham. Lala has been allowed to excel and while he has his weaknesses, he has been vital in the steps forward that Strasbourg have taken this season.