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Nathan Staples writes a comprehensive scout report about the young France and Toulouse goalkeeper, Alban Lafont.
The team that brought you the likes of Moussa Sissoko, Wissam Ben Yedder and Etienne Capoue are quietly going through a renaissance period. With a number of academy graduates gracing the starting line-up under fiery manager Pascal Dupraz, there is a lot of people keeping a close eye on the goings on at Le Téfécé.
What could prove to be the shining jewel in that crown is teenage goalkeeping sensation Alban Lafont. Having started as the youngest ever goalkeeper to start a Ligue 1 game, passing a record formerly held by French international Mickael Landreau, he has strung together a number of top quality performances that have him ranked as one of the best prospects in Europe between the sticks.
Born in Burkina Faso, Lafont came to France when he was just nine years old. After switching from playing as a striker to a goalkeeper at AS Lattoise, he had a number of offers to join an academy in France that included the likes of Monaco and Bastia.
He chose Toulouse, which was closest to his home and just over a year later, he made his first team debut in November 2015 against Nice aged just 16. Their then recently appointed manager Dominque Arribage had placed his trust in a number of young players to turn their relegation-threatened season around.
After rotating through a cast of goalkeepers that season, Lafont was finally the missing piece. The entire squad seemed more confident with him in between the goalposts and with a number of good displays, he helped Les Violets remain in the top flight of French football.
However, the 2015/16 season would be just as trying for Toulouse, who failed to continue the momentum they finished the previous campaign with. While he performed admirably under immense pressure, it was not until the final day of the season under new boss Dupraz that they could confirm their safety in Ligue 1.
This season has been rather different, with Toulouse exploding out of the box and into European contention. A slow few months before the winter break tempered expectations, despite great home wins against Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco with Lafont a major factor in both.
They have remerged since then after reinforcements in January and with Lafont continuing to excel, they are looking towards the Europa League places again and a chance for these young players to test themselves against even greater competition.
A sweeper keeper at heart, Lafont is very much a cog within the young defence as much as he is the last line of it. He likes to be able to clean up in behind his defenders when he can, he is comfortable enough with the ball at his feet to tease attackers and slowly build up play.
However, unlike most modern keepers, his distribution tactically tends to be longer balls up to the fast attackers. Toulouse employ that strategy a lot more against stronger opponents but that happens more often than not, given their position in the table for the past few years.
He would still suit a more European club with a more pass-out-from-the-back style, in fact he would excel in it, which is a real positive moving forward. He’s also not one to shy away from his responsibility of organising his back four and could grow into a real leader.
First and foremost, for almost any goalkeeper, Lafont is a great shot-stopper. Whether it’s with his hands or his feet, from long-range or from close quarters, his combination of reflexes and athleticism allow him to pull off saves of the highest order.
Take for example his superb save against Edinson Cavani in the 2-0 home win over Paris Saint-Germain. Already in the air making himself big, he adjusts his right leg while in mid-motion to bat away the Uruguayan’s point blank strike that on any other occasion would have been a simple tap in.
It’s an unbelievable save, showing how he can correct his position even at the very last moment to deny the opponent. It never seems like an easy task to beat the youngster, who has a superb spring to dive quickly and he covers the goalmouth extremely well.
He has great closing speed one-on-one, never allowing the forward player to pick his spot early. That combined with his knowledge to stay on his feet for as long as possible in those scenarios means that he never makes the task of winning those scenarios too simple for the attacker, Lafont seemingly never helps them make up their mind quickly.
Coming to claim crosses is also not an issue for Lafont, who tends to prefer catching them to punching. That can be a great relief to defenders, having the danger dealt there and then but when it is needed, he can put his fist through the ball strongly.
Having played in an outfield role earlier in his career, he is comfortable with the ball at his feet and his short passing is strong enough that Toulouse can build from the back. While that’s not always been a case with their style, it’s a great attribute to have for scouts looking at him as a future Champions League level goalkeeper.
Lafont also carries a quietly strong demeanour, his relaxed attitude translates to those defenders in front of him. He has become more and more vocal as he’s grown within the team, slowly building his confidence in organising his defence and also chastising them when they make a mistake.
As with most players still in their teenage years, he’s yet to really grow into his frame. He’s tall at six foot four but doesn’t quite have the bulk to mix it with bigger players during set pieces.
That can affect when he does come for crosses, as in a packed box he can seem a little lightweight. Once he has fully grown in his early 20s it should be less of an issue but it’s a tactic more teams are looking to utilise.
He’s also inaccurate when asked to play the ball long up field, which has especially been the case during games against better opposition. It has seen more success if he allows the likes of Christophe Julien to hoof the ball up field as he has much more accuracy on his long balls and it is an area he can improve.
This can be frustrating from goal kicks and kicks from out of his hand as according to Squawka, he misses more of those distribution attempts than he is successful with. While that can seem like an odd stat given the likelihood of winning a ball in a contested aerial duel, when you mix it with his great distribution from thrown attempts, it shows that he should maybe change how he starts Toulouse’s play.
Other than those small nit-picks, he has plenty of tools that he just needs to continue growing. He can become more of a leader, he can be even stronger on claiming the ball and if he can get consistent game time along with that, he could become a very special goalkeeper.