Next Generation - Blossoming Ikone to earn Lille big money as PSG rue impatience again

By Sports Desk March 31, 2020

Paris Saint-Germain ended strong speculation about Jonathan Ikone joining Juventus when finally securing him to a professional contract in 2016. At the time, it was seen as a potential turning point for PSG's academy.

The attacker, who grew up in the same area of Paris as Kylian Mbappe, had long attracted admiring glances from some of Europe's biggest clubs, so PSG were eager to not let another get away.

Two years earlier, Kingsley Coman left for Juve when it became clear a route into the starting XI – and the France squad – was more straightforward in Turin than in Paris and, although injuries have since disrupted his career, there's little doubt PSG have been made to rue their ineptitude on that front.

Ikone's emergence was supposed to redeem PSG. For much of the QSI era, their use of homegrown young players has been heavily scrutinised.

"Jonathan is a midfielder with a big future," club president Nasser Al-Khelaifi said after the contract was announced. "His signature is another example of the importance the youth academy holds for the club and just how much the club is counting on these young academy graduates."

But in 2018, PSG sold Ikone to Lille for a relatively insignificant fee – and the player has blossomed since his departure. 

False hope and new beginnings

After helping PSG to the UEFA Youth League final in 2015-16, Ikone's new contract was followed by promotion to the first team. He made a smattering of appearances before being allowed to join Montpellier on loan in January 2017.

This spell provided Ikone with his first genuine exposure to first-team football, playing 14 times in the second half of the 2016-17 Ligue 1 season.

He returned to Montpellier for the following campaign and, while it was not quite as fruitful as his first stint at the club, he did enough to earn a reported €5million switch to Lille, whose applaudable transfer policy in recent years has seen them snap up a host of well-regarded young players.

"We can say that PSG train young players very well, but actually playing there is complicated," Ikone told L'Equipe last year. "But the training you get in Paris, it's the best. Really, I enjoyed my time at PSG. I have no regrets. Getting playing time there is difficult, there are really great players there. So, I decided to show my talent at another club."

The transfer again raised doubts from some with respect to PSG's handling of their academy, while others suggested Ikone had not done enough to earn fresh terms, with the chance to earn a reasonable fee too good to turn down for PSG given his deal was due to expire in 2019.

Lille are reaping the rewards and will likely earn a significant fee when – if – he eventually leaves, with the latest reports suggesting he could be bound for the Premier League and Everton. At least PSG managed to secure a sell-on fee, which could amount to as much as 40 per cent of €70m, Les Dogues' apparent asking price.

Establishing himself

Although his skill set makes him a versatile option in attack, Ikone is at his most threatening when deployed as a no.10, behind the main striker.

The inside-right channel is where he operates most often, coming inside on to his left foot, allowing him a greater range of options whether he's dribbling, looking for a disguised pass or simply feeding Victor Osimhen into the space beyond defences.

Having been a regular option throughout the French youth setup, Ikone earned his first call-up to the senior side in September and netted on his debut, becoming the first player to do so for Les Bleus since Younes Kaboul and Marvin Martin in June 2011.

Skilful and inventive on the ball, there is a lot to like about Ikone, but he will not need anyone to tell him that staying in contention is not going to be an easy job.

France are blessed with a host of options in attack, many of whom boast similar strengths to Ikone.

Menacing but not in it for the long haul

Having scored three and set up nine goals in Ligue 1 last term, Ikone cannot be accused of a lack of consistency or taking a drastic backwards step. With a chunk of the season still remaining, he has the same amount of goals and six assists.

Ikone is averaging a goal involvement every 230 minutes, five less than last term, and appears to be playing with even greater confidence.

After averaging 3.6 dribbles per game in 2018-19, that's increased to just under five in 2019-20, while his completion rate has remained almost identical at 55 per cent. By comparison, Neymar's is 56 per cent.

Nevertheless, Ikone's productivity in the final third has significant room for improvement.

With 31 key passes, he is way behind the likes of Dimitri Payet (87), Angel Di Maria (77) and Zinedine Ferhat (52).

There are also doubts about his endurance. Since the start of last season, Ikone has been taken off 43 times in Ligue 1 alone.

But, at 21, he is developing impressively. While €70m may look a little steep at the moment, any potential buyer will hope there is still plenty more to come.

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    Just six months after opening, the ATFA had its trailblazer, their first 'graduate'. Director Fran Castano travelled with one teenager to Spain.

    Salisu was signed then and there – his journey to the top had begun.

    Destined for the top

    Life at the ATFA didn't start particularly well for Salisu.

    "I remember my first time meeting him – he came without his boots and was late. I was very, very angry and I was close to telling him to go home," Castano, speaking to Stats Perform News, recalled. It proved a wise decision to hold that thought, however.

    "He took some boots from the goalkeeper and after 10 minutes playing we saw something different. I talked to him and told him that if he can be serious and work, I promised him in half year I could send him to Spain."

    Sure enough, in October 2017 Salisu was signed by Real Valladolid, with the ATFA earning a small fee and a percentage of any future sale. That could be cashed in sooner rather than later as well, with reports in Spain suggesting Rennes are very close to completing a deal in the region of his €12million release clause.

    That would be considered a significant coup for the French side, as Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United and Atletico Madrid are all said to have considered a move for Salisu in the past six months.

    It's even claimed the latter were willing to pay €11m, but curiously wouldn't stretch to the full release clause. It's an oversight they could come to regret.

    "I told him he would make it [to the top]," says Castano, who previously held many roles in youth coaching and analytics for the Niger and Mauritania national teams, Real Jaen, Leganes and Hearts of Oak, Ghana's biggest club, before setting up the ATFA.

    "You always have doubt because it's not only about talent. To come and live in Europe was a big change for him, but I knew he would make it [on the talent side] because I saw his level compared with others in Spain at the same age and the way he can develop. You could see from the beginning he was different. The body, the technique, the winning mentality, the confidence and how he developed faster than anybody. If you increased the challenge, he increased his level."

    Persistence and a friend's trust lead to vindication

    Castano estimates Salisu played just 10 youth matches for Pucela before being promoted to their B team in the third tier, and then at the start of this season he became an undisputed starter for the senior side – indeed, he's one of just four defenders to play all 27 LaLiga matches in 2019-20.

    A former student of sport performance analysis at the University of Granada, Castano's pride in Salisu is obvious – joining Valladolid wasn't just a big deal for the defender, but also vindication for Castano.

    "I offered Salisu to a lot of teams, nobody gave us a chance. Nobody knew Salisu or me. I was just starting and it wasn't easy," he said. "I was lucky. My friend Victor Fernandez, who was a great striker in LaLiga for Valladolid and Villarreal, was coaching Valladolid's Under-19s. I called him and told him about Salisu. He told me he trusted what I say and my eye for scouting players.

    "After one training exercise, just a few minutes, he [Victor] told me: 'Fran, are sure you know the kind of player you have?' He said he [Salisu] could be a very important defender in professional football. I had thought so, but I wasn't that sure of it until he told me."

    Salisu's adaptation to LaLiga was impressive. In October, less than two months after his top-flight debut, he was being championed as a "star" on the league's official Twitter account after impressing in a 0-0 draw with Atletico.

    Jordi Masip has been a fixture behind Salisu in goal. The experienced goalkeeper applauded the youngster's capacity to learn and is convinced a big future lies in wait.

    "He's a player with an enviable physicality, he gets very fast when it comes to interceptions," Masip told Stats Perform News. "He's very young and he can grow a lot. He's a person that wants to improve and listen to us.

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    A dominant defender

    It's easy to argue that Pucela would be in even worse shape this season if they didn't have Salisu. After all, when LaLiga resumes they will start in 15th place, just four points above the bottom three.

    But being in a team that has to spend longer stretches of time defending, Salisu's quality really shines through and it's clear he's making a difference, with only seven teams – all of whom are in the top half of the table – conceding fewer than Valladolid this term.

    When watching Salisu, you really get the impression he loves defending. A real unit with long, gangly legs, he has a habit of pulling off blocks or last-ditch tackles that one wouldn't expect.

    His 67 aerials won is bettered by just eight defenders, while Sevilla's Diego Carlos – widely regarded as one of the standout centre-backs in LaLiga this term – is the only player to make more headed clearances (71) than Salisu (67).

    Diego Carlos – and every other defender, for that matter – trails in Salisu's wake with respect to total clearances, however. The 21-year-old has completed 136, with the experienced Raul Albiol (131) boasting the next most.

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    Liverpool supporters may look back fondly on memories of 1984 at the Stadio Olimpico, where Joe Fagan's team rocked Roma in the European Cup final.

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    1984 - Liverpool stun Roma - in Rome

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    1987 - Tyson takes down Thomas

    Thomas was a more-than-useful American heavyweight in the mid-1980s, a fighter who had held the WBC belt before and fancied getting it back. The only problem for Thomas was that Tyson owned the belt, and the latter felt it suited him rather better than it suited Thomas. That theory was put to the test on a Saturday night in Las Vegas, and despite Thomas' jab keeping Tyson busy, trouble was soon brewing for the challenger. A thundering left hook from Tyson had Thomas wobbling in the sixth round and was followed by a flurry of punches that sent the 29-year-old to the canvas. Thomas just about managed to get to his feet but trainer Angelo Dundee stepped in, taking his man out of harm's way, Tyson retaining the WBC and WBA titles.

    2015 and 2016 - Cook's England landmarks

    Cook, born on Christmas Day in 1984, was the gift that kept on giving for England. Plucked from the county circuit as a prodigy who already had a double century for Essex against Australia, Cook piled on the Test runs for his country, including a ton on his debut in 2006 against India. On this day in 2015, the then-captain Cook passed his Essex mentor Graham Gooch to become England's all-time leading Test run-scorer during an innings of 75 against New Zealand at Headingley. Not content with overtaking Gooch's mark of 8,900 runs, Cook went on to achieve another May 30 feat 12 months later, becoming the first Englishman to tally 10,000 Test runs. He reached that total on the way to England securing a nine-wicket win over Sri Lanka at Chester-le-Street.

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