Long Reads

Stephy Mavididi: ex-Arsenal Prospect Ready to Make his Mark in Ligue 1

In two years, Stephy Mavididi has gone from an Arsenal youth prospect with a chance of breaking into the first-team, to signing for Montpellier. That may leave some pondering as to the cause of the Englishmen’ downward career trajectory. But the reality is quite the opposite. Mavididi’s career is on the up, and following his £5 million move to Montpellier, we are waiting with bated breath as to whether the ex-Arsenal academy starlet can stamp his mark on Ligue 1…again.

So, what route has led Mavididi to the southern coast of France, and what impact is he likely to have at Montpellier?

Following his release by Arsenal in 2018, Mavididi was swiftly brought in by Juventus.

In the 2018/19 season the vast majority of Mavididi’s playtime for Juventus came through the U23 team, based in Serie C. He was mainly deployed as a central striker, or slightly behind a partnering forward in a second striker role. A goal return of 6 in 32 games was not extraordinary, but Mavididi showed signs of his quality.

In the Coppa Italia Serie C his goal against Albissola demonstrated his sharp link-up play. Mavididi dropped a little short of his defender to receive the ball of his midfielder, before exchanging a neat one-two with Matheus Pereira, as he quickly swiveled around the Albissola defender, and then neatly finished the one-on-one.

The standout moment of Mavididi’s time with the U23 side came against Siena. After chesting down a long header just inside Siena’s half, the Englishmen flicked the ball over Siena’s left-back. With the left-back making a recovering run and a Siena centre-back closing the space, Mavididi somehow fit himself and the ball through the tightest of gaps. Now inside the box, he emphatically snapped the ball back from another defender and past one more once again. Mavididi’s tired effort rather hobbled over the line, but that could take nothing away from the skill and pace that created the goal.

Aside from his goals, Mavididi’s performances clearly had made an impact in Turin, before the end of the season, he featured for the first-team, albeit in a defeat to Spal.

But that didn’t change the fact that Mavididi had achieved his objective in his first-season in Italy. Play for the Juventus first-team.

Despite his appearance for the first-team, Juventus were looking to loan out the player in the summer of 2019.

Mavididi ended up at Dijon. The club had stayed in Ligue 1 by the skin of their teeth, the season prior – surviving only thanks to a relegation play-off win over Lens.

With forward, Wesley Said, leaving for Toulouse that summer, the club knew they needed to strengthen in attack.

Signing Mavididi was certainly a risk, though. The player was unproven in the top European leagues, and his record in Serie C the previous season still left something to be desired.

Mavididi’s hand was strengthened by a certain, Thierry Henry. Henry, who worked with Mavididi in the Arsenal academy, is said to have given Mavididi “a really good recommendation” to Dijon.

The striker’s performances for Dijon in the season just gone, have lived up to Henry’s high-billing of the player.

8 goals in all competitions may at first look like a relatively meagre return. But, considering that these goals came in 28 games (due to the season being cut short), his contribution appears far more significant.

Moreover, Mavididi’s 5 Ligue 1 goals was the joint second-highest amongst Dijon players. Overall, his 5 goals accounted for nearly 20% of all of Dijon’s goals in the league. Despite the plethora of attacking talent in Ligue 1, the league has become increasingly goal-shy in recent years. In 2018/19, Ligue 1 had the lowest average goals per game (2.56) of the top 5 European leagues, compare that to the 3.18 goal per game average in the Bundesliga, and we can see the value of even 5 league goals.

Considering that this is Mavididi’s first season in a top-flight European league, in a country that he’s not necessarily familiar with, it’s a great achievement.

Mavididi’s case is further strengthened when analysing the various positions he was deployed in over the course of the season. At Juventus U23’s he was primarily played as a central striker or second striker. At Dijon, Mavididi started just four games as a central forward.

Stéphane Jobard typically played a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 formation, and it was common for Mavididi to feature as a left midfielder. Although he was sometimes played on the right too.

Dijon are a team that like to play deep and keep a compact shape. Their Passes Allowed per Defensive Action (PPDA) was 387.62 last season, the third highest in Ligue 1. This means that Dijon would often allow the opposition to play passes inside their half, before winning the ball back deep, and then launching counter-attacks from there. Mavididi’s defensive shift would have been invaluable to Dijon getting numbers around the ball to win it back, and his pace on the break too was devastating on the counter.

The potency of Mavididi’s pace was most evident against Stade Brest. After Dijon won the ball back inside their own half, a ball was slid through to Mavididi’s run. He ran in from the left-wing, now occupying a central position. Despite Mavididi already having a head start on Julien Faussurier, he widened the gap between himself and the right-back with his blistering pace, before arrowing in a low shot into the bottom left corner.

His goals against Strasbourg, Montpellier, and his last minute equaliser versus Nantes all were inside the box, and close to the six-yard box. Although some were scrappy, particularly his goal against Montpellier, the goals demonstrate Mavididi’s knack for finishing and being in the right position at the right time – something that would be increasingly difficult the more he was deployed on the wing.

Mavididi’ first goal against Nantes was also inside the box. But this goal typified the forward’s close control and dribbling skills, as seen in his goal against Siena.

After receiving a knock down header from Julien Tavares, Mavididi controlled the ball tightly before rolling the ball away from one defender. Now, though he had his back to goal, a sharp turn and shot assured that Nantes’ defender had no time to block the shot. The ball deflected into the net. But, the way Mavididi created the space for himself showed he was more than just a goal-scoring number 9.

With three more goals in the Coupe de France, Mavididi ended the season as Dijon’s top goalscorer in all competitions.

He outperformed his xG by +1.7, more than any other Dijon player last season. Dijon’s style of play may not have been totally suited to Mavididi’s attacking intent, but clearly the forward made the most of his chances when they came.

Unsurprisingly, Dijon were keen to keep the player for at least another season. Dijon President Oliver Delcourt, claimed that Mavididi had told him that “he wants to return to England at all costs.”

Delcourt’s frustration quickly turned to anger as the player joined Montpellier at the start of July for £5 million.

“Two hours before activating our option to buy him, he was nearly crying about how he wanted to stay in England.” Delcourt stated, “We will find players that are more committed to the badge.”

Montpellier’s 8th place finish unsurprisingly offers a more attractive proposition for Mavididi as he looks to climb up the footballing ladder. Similarly, Montpellier will be counting on the Englishman to continue his form from last season, as the club aim for Europa League qualification in the 2020/21 season.

Undoubtedly, Mavididi will offer Montpellier something new.

In fact, Montpellier coach, Michel Der Zakarian said it himself: “He’s different to the other forwards we’ve got here.”

Their two main strikers from last season, Laborde and Delort are less pacey than Mavididi. Moreover, Mavididi’s 6.74 dribbles per 90 last season was more than any other Montpellier player averaged. But, Laborde and Delort are much better in the air (Laborde contested the 9th highest number of aerial duels last season).

Der Zakarian typically played a 3-4-1-2 formation last season. Assuming that Mavididi won’t start as a wing-back, then he’s likely to partner one of Laborde or Delort, offering a perfect combination of attacking talents. Or Mavididi could feature as a second striker, in the hole behind Delort and Laborde, though that will leave holes in the midfield.

It may be the case that Mavididi actually has to bide his time to start for Montpellier, considering that Delort and Laborde have fused such a solid partnership. The youngster took his opportunity at the weekend when he came off the bench to net his first goal vs Monaco, hopefully this will give him confidence to push for a starting place.

One thing is for sure, Mavididi is bound to have an impact in Ligue 1 again, next season. His pace and trickery will increase the arsenal of Montpellier’s attacking force. Whilst, Delcourt is still disappointed at the player for turning his back on the club, can you blame Mavididi, after Arsenal turned their back on him. He now seems to be on a ruthless charge to try and reach the very top European level, and season by season he is getting closer to his goal.

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