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Despite being born in the Paris suburb of Le Blanc-Mesnil, Lorient fullback/midfielder Raphael Guerreiro grew up a Benfica fan, supporting Os Aguilas from afar as a means of honoring his Portuguese heritage. After some time at the French Football Federation’s vaunted Clairefontaine academy, in 2008, Guerreiro signed for Caen, for whom he made his professional debut in Ligue 2 in the 2012-13 season.
Playing every match save one, the youngster was named to the team of the season at 19, helping the squad to a fourth place finish and attracting a bevy of interest along the way. Originally a midfielder/winger at youth levels, Guerreiro’s move to the senior side at Caen had seen him converted to left back, a position where he has also played for his country. Despite having little knowledge of the language, Guerreiro had received a call-up for the Portuguese U-21 side that March, and over the past two years became an important part of the side that eventually captured the silver medal at the most recent European Championships.
A move to Lorient was secured that summer for €2.5M as the player sought to improve his level of competition, moving into France’s top division under the stewardship of Christian Gourcuff. Continuing to operate as a left back, Guerreiro remained a stalwart for the club, figuring in 34 matches as Lorient exceeded most expectations by finishing eighth. His raw offensive numbers were less than impressive, recording only a solitary assist, but between the lines, the player’s ability to use his pace to break up play and start counter-attacks was beginning to turn heads.
That summer, however, was one of upheaval. Gourcuff took over the Algerian national team, and was quickly followed out the door by leading scorer Vincent Aboubakar, center back Bruno Ecuele-Manga, winger Kevin Monnet-Paquet and forward Jeremy Aliadiere. Longtime assistant Sylvain Ripoll replaced Gourcuff, and a host of new players, largely from Ligue 2 or abroad, were brought in, including another left back, Istres’ Vincent Le Goff. Rather than provide competition for the young Portuguese, however, Le Goff allowed Ripoll to move Guerreiro further forward, to create width and pace in midfield, replacing the elements lost by Monnet-Paquet’s move to Saint-Etienne.
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Now relieved from his defensive duties, Guerreiro became a terror, his pace devastating opposing fullbacks with regularity. Notching 7 goals and 4 assists, both figures second on the team behind Jordan Ayew, Guerreiro was one of a few bright spots on a Lorient side that battled relegation for much of the season, sinking as low as last place on Week 13. Dynamic and direct, his performances were soon rewarded by his first senior call-up. Last November, Guerreiro found himself included for a Euro 2016 qualifier and a friendly against Argentina, and rewarded Fernando Santos’ bold choice by scoring a remarkable winner to beat Messi & co 1-0 at Old Trafford.
While Fabio Coentrao is still first choice at left back for Portugal, further success at club level will continue to make the youngster an important squad member. For Lorient, after last summer’s upheaval, this transfer window has been relatively quiet, the club placing their faith in Ripoll and his ability to further the growth of a relatively young side. With Guerreiro and others such as goalkeeper Benjamin Lecomte and striker Benjamin Jeannot still developing, the hope is that the club can be more of a mid-table side this season, which might allow a bit more freedom as regards the team’s attacking style.
Whether used at left back or further forward, Guerreiro’s style of play has always been about pace. When deployed as a left back, his speed allows him to quickly spring onto the ball if the opposition are sloppy in their passing. With Ligue 1 such a defensively-oriented league, the importance of a player’s ability to quickly start a counter attack in this manner can’t be overstated. Small and slight at just 1.70 meters and 63 kg, Guerreiro is gifted with not only pace, but a fine sense of anticipation, which allows him to make the odd mistake and still recover. Deployed as a left back, Guerreiro’s runs from deep gave both Lorient and Caen much-needed pace and width, making their counter attacks incredibly efficient.
This season has seen him used most often as a wide midfielder, albeit one who constantly cuts inside, with the arrival of Le Goff, a more defensively-oriented full back, having helped Guerreiro’s game immensely. Played further forward, the player’s quick first step and ability to overlap and interchange has been at the heart of Ayew’s success and indeed the former Marseille man’s impressive assist totals, 3 of Guerreiro’s 7 goals last season having been provided by the Ghanaian. With Guerreiro a natural left footer, the duo’s interplay forced opposing defenses to pick their poison, as it were, as both are quick players who are unafraid to either shoot or pass. Averaging 1.6 shots per match and 1.3 key passes, Guerreiro’s numbers for both rank among the very best in Ligue 1 for proper wide players, alongside the likes of Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco and Paul-Georges Ntep.
As previously stated, Guerreiro’s best strength is his pace. That said, it is one thing to be quick, yet quite another to use it properly, as football is littered with players whose pace is the only top-drawer aspect of their game, unable to develop into the type of well-rounded player who is truly international class. The youngster’s pace is, to be more specific, helpful in two primary ways. The first is what is an exceptional first step, meaning that his acceleration over short distances is very good, his small frame allowing to him move away from players quickly. The second is how this, in turn, allows him to recover from a mis-timed tackle or move past a marker with relative ease, improving both the attacking and defensive phases of his game.
The other remarkable aspect of Guerreiro’s game is his close control. Aided in no small part by his small frame, a la Lionel Messi, Guerreiro has a remarkable aptitude for moving the ball in close spaces, dancing around opponents while keeping the ball very tight to his feet. A superb solo goal in a February victory over Reims is worth tracking down, if only to get just a small taste over the almost lyrical way Guerreiro can weave his way about. Expecting a pass, the Reims defenders back off Guerriero just enough for him to unleash a perfectly shaped shot into the top corner. While that particular shot wasn’t necessarily the most powerful, other of his goals this season have shown him to have an impressive combination of range and accuracy when shooting, another well-developed part of his game.
Despite having been such an important part of Lorient’s survival this year, there are still plenty of elements of Guerreiro’s play that require further development. One, of course, has been somewhat ameliorated by moving him further forward, in that he is not a great tackler. This is no great surprise owing to his small frame, which makes it easy for opposing attackers to jockey him off of the ball. Usually, full-backs have some of the highest tackling figures of any players on the pitch, owing to their having to cope with not only opposing wingers, but also the attacking versions of themselves which are so prevalent in the modern game. Guerreiro, however, has never fit into this niche statistically, even when deployed there at Caen and under Gourcuff two seasons ago, as his use in that position being down to a need to give more options in attack.
However, despite some of this difficulty in tackling being down to the way in which he has been used, other parts of his defensive game are also just a bit short of where they could be, particularly his positional sense. Likely owing to an over-reliance on using his pace to recover where he has mistimed a challenge, he will occasionally be caught too far up the pitch on an attack, or be on the wrong flank having switched with the opposite winger. Again, having shuttled among various positions over the past few seasons won’t have helped him here, but a more finely honed positional sense will need to be developed, something which will hopefully come with a degree of stability as to where on the pitch he is deployed.
After scoring 7 goals for Lorient this season, despite missing a month with a groin strain, the sky is the limit for the young player. Despite benefitting to some extent from simply taking the league by surprise, Guerreiro’s compact frame and slight build make him the almost prototypical winger, meaning that a more offensive role is his long term future, both for club and country. With the brilliant displays from Manchester City loanee Rony Lopes at Lille this season, and Bernardo Silva likewise a threat at Monaco, we could easily be seeing the future of Portugal’s national team.
While Guerreiro hasn’t been recalled since that fateful goal against Argentina, his preparations for the U-21 European Championships, combined with the aforementioned injury, were the likely culprits. As the likes of Nani, Danny and Ricardo Quaresma age out of the picture for Portugal, Guerreiro should become a first-choice player. While a move to a bigger club would certainly aid his visibility, and provide more of a challenge, it might be in the player’s best interest at this point to remain at Lorient, to see if he can replicate something close to last season. While the departure of Jordan Ayew to Aston Villa will likely do Guerreiro’s numbers no favors, with the likes of Valentin Lavigne and Jeannot still improving, there is still every opportunity for Lorient to yet be a hub of young attacking talent. If Guerreiro can approach double figures for goals and assists next season, garnering as much playing time as he can ahead of next summer’s European Championships, he has every chance to be firmly on the radar of not only Santos but most of Europe’s elite.
World of Football’s take on Raphael Guerreiro
Written by Eric Devin