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Ross Bramble writes a comprehensive scout report about Soualiho Meïté: Lille’s Young Mr. Dependable.
Generally speaking, my 15-odd years of football fandom has centred on the English game. As a young Southampton fan, my Grandad always used to tell me I could only support one team, and come hell or high water he was going to do everything he could to make sure it was the Saints. At the age of 22, however, I’ve started to broaden my footballing horizons. Through both my time here and with other projects, I’ve begun a burgeoning romance with two European leagues – the Swedish Allsvenskan, and France’s Ligue Un.
The two surest ways to learn something new is to give yourself over to it, body and soul, and to teach others about it as you go. The new Swedish season may still be a few months away, but Ligue Un has provided me with wonderful entertainment in the meantime. Despite often being seen as the lesser of the five biggest European leagues, Ligue Un is awash with hungry young talent, both on the field and in the dugouts, and there’s some genuinely brilliant football on show. There seems to be a surfeit of young French centre midfielders stealing the headlines this season, too; Corentin Tolisso, Remi Walters, Adrien Rabiot and Vincent Koziello to name just a few. Lost in the glow of their lights, however, are the youngsters currently not plying their trade in Ligue Un, and that is who our focus falls on today; Soualiho Meïté of Lille, currently on loan at Belgian side Zulte-Waregem.
Soualiho Meïté was born in Paris, France in the March on 1994. His youth career started in 2002 at the wonderfully named FC Gobelins. Meïté also spent a year with Vincennes before joining a more recognisable name in Auxerre in 2007. By trade, Meïté is a defensive/holding midfielder, but has also been known to play on the wide right of midfield, and simply as a comparatively dull centre midfielder. Holding midfield has always seemed the Frenchman’s niche, however, and the position where he has really made his impact so far.
After four years in Auxerre’s youth system, Soualiho moved up the B team in 2011, making 30 appearances and scoring two goals in two years. At the same time, he was representing the Auxerre first team, and especially came to the forefront under then AJA manager, Bernard Casoni, in 2012. During the 12/13 season, the youngster made 22 appearances in all competitions for Auxerre, before catching the eye of northern French outfit Lille. LOSC invested £1.3m in the youngster in 2013 to bring him to the Stade Pierre Mauroy.
Continuing to appear for both the first team and B team for his new club, Meïté has garnered a cumulative 49 appearances in all competitions for both Lille B and the first team. For a youngster that was gaining so much attention and popularity amongst coaches and analysts, it seemed a little strange to see the midfielder falling down the pecking order in 2016, which culminated in a season long loan to Zulte-Waregem of Belgium. The transfer rumour mill would have you believed that a tug of war is developing over in England for the youngster’s services, with Liverpool, Everton, West Ham and Crystal Palace all credited with an interest. The latter is even said to have entered an £8m bid for the youngster, which creates a problem for his parent side. The loan deal with Zulte-Waregem is alleged to contain a £400k transfer clause with the Belgian side, although that is hard to verify without having been involved in the deal personally. Either way, Soualiho Meïté is making the headlines again for a string of impressive displays for Waregem, who sit atop the Belgian First Division at time of writing. The youngster has so far made 27 appearances for the club during his loan spell, which is due to end in mid-2017.
Deploying a young player in a defensive role is always seen as a big risk on the part of the manager, but fears of disruption and chaos amongst in backline never seemed to be a problem for Soualiho Meïté. This speaks to both Ligue Un’s desire/need to bleed in their youngsters, and to the responsibility and character of Soualiho himself. This one part of his game that seems far more advanced than many others – he carries himself with a composure and ease that many would only associate with players five years his senior. This manifests itself most apparently in his disciplinary record; while he has received two red cards across the back end of the 2015/16 and opening of the 2016/17 season at Zulte-Waregem, the youngster has only conceded eight yellow cards in his 96 games, spanning from his time in Auxerre B to now. An impressive stat, all things considered. His yellow card record speaks for his timing in the tackle, and his strength and size allow him to dispossess opponents without need to make the tackle in the first place. Meïté screens the ball extremely well, and his presence and persistence is usually enough to win the ball back for his sides.
His reading of the game is also far more advanced than one would expect. He seems to see things coming early, and puts himself in a position to deal with it before it can really begin to cause problems. Often it seems as though things are a little too easy for him, or perhaps that he’s not really as invested in the game as he should be, but despite appearances, Meïté is always there when needed. The youngster also has a growing number of clean sheets to claim a hand in – by my count, in the 44 games the midfielder has started in, his side have kept clean sheets in 16 of them. Clearly defending is not a one man show, but results indicate that if Soualiho Meïté starts for your side, the chances of a clean sheet increase. In this regard, Soualiho has all the hallmarks of a future captain, whether it be for Lille, Zulte-Waregem or otherwise. His composure and calmness are a great source of inspiration for those around him, and his physical ability relinquishes the pressure off of his back four.
In terms of technique, Meïté is not going to be challenging Messi any time soon. What he does is simple, composed and effective, but it’s not flash. His passing is cool and easy; often he goes short and spreads the play to those better set to distribute a long pass or pick out a runner, rather than attempt it himself. If we’re looking for comparisons, perhaps the most obvious one is N’Golo Kante of Leicester City fame.
A lack of technical ability must be considered one of the youngster’s weaknesses, however. Certainly the ability to Cruyff turn isn’t high on the list of his priorities, but some of the best examples of deep lying midfielders all have the ability to pick a pass. This has never really been a key responsibility for Soualiho, however, which is a grave shame. If he could do more than simple passes and simple runs, perhaps the world would already be talking about him. Much like Kante, however, he’s a little unattractive to the modern day football fan; all substance, but no flash. His technical ability could use some development just to allow him more involvement in the first team, but certainly it’s a harsh criticism of a player more concerned with the ugly side of the game.
Goals are another area of improvement for Meïté. The youngster has only ever scored five goals for his sides, and four of them came for the Lille and Auxerre B teams. Again, it seems a harsh criticism to make of a holding player who has far more concerning things to worry about than scoring goals, but certainly it has to be mentioned nonetheless. His talents don’t really lend themselves to much in the way of positional diversity, either; defensive midfield is his bread and butter, and while a case can be made for the youngster to also be prepared for a spell as a centre back, it doesn’t seem like he’ll be straying too far from midfield for a few years yet. It’s not so much that he has a stubbornness that will prevent any potential retraining – we just don’t how he’d react, in truth. But his current lack of versatility is still a notch against him.
In terms of his physicality and stature, there isn’t much about him that won’t improve just through age and experience. Certainly in faster paced and more physical leagues his disciplinary record will be tested further, and clean sheets will be harder to come by. Meïté will also have competition amongst the French national team with Tiemoué Bakayoko of Monaco for a role in holding midfield, and his reaction and determination to break in to the first teams of not just the national side, but whichever club he ends up at after the 2017 transfer windows, will be another test of his mettle. All in all, however, Soualiho Meïté is a player of exciting defensive ability, and whether Lille can convince him on the new project at Les Dogues, or whether he opts for Zulte-Waregem or one of the litany of admirers in England, he is a player with a great future ahead of him.
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