Last man standing Wissam Ben Yedder on road back
And then there was one. Twelve months on from the fallout that saw La Fédération Française de Football (FFF) expel a clutch of their young hopefuls from the national side, Wissam Ben Yedder of Toulouse is the sole member of the group still in Ligue 1. Yann M’Vila and Chris Mavinga play in Russia now – both with Rubin Kazan – while the remaining two of the infamous five, Antoine Griezmann and M’Baye Niang, were already plying their trade outside of France.
Ben Yedder’s excellent hat-trick against Sochaux on Saturday reminded us of the talent that had made many think the FFF were throwing the baby out with the bathwater when dealing with last year’s controversy. It had been a youthful indiscretion for which the perpetrators paid an extraordinarily high price.
While on Under-21 duty in October last year, the quintet made a clandestine visit to a nightclub in Paris after skipping out of camp at Clairefontaine in between the two legs of a European Championship play-off. Having been busted via photos on Facebook – naturally – they were punished in November.
Four, including Ben Yedder, were banished from any national team involvement at any level until 31st December 2013, with M’Vila’s punishment initially extended to 30th June 2014.
With M’Vila, Ben Yedder bore plenty of the brunt, as he remained in the domestic glare unlike Griezmann or Niang. It was difficult, given he was in his breakthrough season as a starter at Toulouse, during which he relegated Emmanuel Rivière to the bench, with the latter joining Monaco in the January transfer window.
Ben Yedder dealt with the pressure of constitutional condemnation as well as he had coped with being feted as a shooting star, carrying on post-sanction to score 15 in 34 games during 2012/13. This campaign has been trickier. Before Saturday’s game against struggling Sochaux, the 23-year-old had scored just twice in 12 Ligue 1 starts this season.
Perhaps it’s the pressure of being back on the France radar that has inhibited him. Following an appeal in February, Ben Yedder was theoretically able to be picked for international duty from 1st October, with his ban still expiring on 31st December but suspended from the earlier date.
It’s a stretch to imagine that given the competition, with Olivier Giroud, Karim Benzema and Loïc Rémy ahead of him – with Marseille’s André-Pierre Gignac and the Lyon pair of Bafétimbi Gomis and Alexandre Lacazette also waiting in the wings – that a World Cup spot is necessarily there for the taking.
Yet Ben Yedder re-announced himself as ready to carry Toulouse this weekend. It came almost six years to the day since the last time a Toulouse player scored a hat-trick, when Johan Elmander bagged three in the December 2007 defeat at Bordeaux.
They need a prolific Ben Yedder more than ever. Alain Casanova’s team are hardly famed for their adventure, but this season has been a painful spectacle for their supporters. Even after pasting Sochaux, they have scored just 16 times in 15 games.
While the Danish forward Martin Braithwaite has been a useful addition for Casanova, there is significant demand on Ben Yedder. He scored 31% of Toulouse’s goals last season. Only Zlatan Ibrahimovic (43%), Nice’s Dario Cvitanich (33%) and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (32%, for Saint Etienne) contributed a bigger portion of their side’s goals.
Saturday was far more like it. After Toulouse went a goal down, Ben Yedder began to motor, showing his quality and versatility with a diverse trio of goals – a back-post volley at a tight angle from Braithwaite’s cross, a cool instep finish after leaving Joseph Lopy on his backside with a jink inside, and a confidently struck penalty after the break.
The technical ability Ben Yedder displays – the liveliness and the quick feet – reminds us at every turn of his background in futsal. Standing at 1m70 and weighing 68kg, he was rejected by professional clubs as a teenager for being too slight (as was Griezmann), so it’s reasonable to remember that he’s still learning the game, in his second full season with the pro group.
Given that relative immaturity, Ben Yedder did well to thrive as he did last season. He was forced to operate as the lone front man in a 4-1-4-1 for a lot of that campaign, despite not being the ideal candidate to fill the role. He prefers to drop deep, either directly behind a central striker or out left, to give himself space to run with the ball. Toulouse’s new formation (a rough 3-5-2) and the incorporation of Braithwaite for him to operate behind could ultimately be to his advantage.
There is still plenty for Ben Yedder to do. His WhoScored rating for 2013/14 is 6.63 for the season, making him only Toulouse’s 15th highest performing player. After Saturday’s game, his season’s work reads as 5 goals and 2 assists in 13 starts. This compares with 9 goals and 1 assist in his first 13 starts last season.
He clearly needs to get more shots away, having had just 1.8 per game so far this season, and needs to bring his considerable ability to bear for the team, with an average of only 0.7 key passes per game to date. His ability to frustrate even surfaced in his opening goal, with Braithwaite creating the chance having had to retrieve a wayward Ben Yedder cross that he had been waiting to tap in.
The in-house strategy will be to make him thrive under expectation. “Wissam has a lot of talent,” said Casanova after the game, “but we ask a lot of him. I know he’s going to score 15 goals this season.” The team will continue to score. Saturday’s quintet of goals were scored from just 11 shots – 6 on target – so Le Téfécé need Ben Yedder to be clinical, not just pretty. The signs seem to be that he is heading in just that direction.