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It might have been the rock bottom of Yoann Gourcuff’s career as he wasted a great counter-attacking opportunity in the friendly against Iceland last Sunday. One single lax pass, one single action, those few seconds perfectly summed up Gourcuff’s season and made the decision of cutting him for the Euros easier for Laurent Blanc. When the French national coach announced the names of the two players who hadn’t made it to the European Championships in Poland & Ukraine on Tuesday, most people were actually surprised to hear Yoann Gourcuff’s name. As for my part, I wasn’t that surprised. Gourcuff has been underperforming for a few seasons and a nomination for the Euros would have been nothing but a bad joke. However, it is pretty interesting to analyze the playmaker’s fall from grace.
Blessing or curse
Gourcuff began his professional career at Stade Rennais in January 2004 at the age of sweet 18. He was quickly recognized as one of the most promising French talents, not least for leading Rennes’ youngsters to the win of Coupe Gambardella (kind of a Coupe de France for the youth teams) in 2003. In July 2006, Yoann Gourcuff joined the Italian powerhouse AC Milan for a transfer fee of 4.5 million Euros after having turned down Arsenal London and his fellow countryman Arsène Wenger.
The young Breton was praised as the new Zidane, a cliche that would never leave him again. While Gourcuff was outstanding in the youth teams and still very good at Rennes, he wasn’t able to bear the pressure on his shoulders in Northern Italy. He could never answer expectations for the Rossoneri. One goal and four assists in 30 games in his first season abroad clearly weren’t enough. However, Yoann can claim to have won the Champions League in 2007 despite not appearing in the squad for the final – he was awarded a medal for his performances in the group stage.
His second season in the Lombardy wasn’t more successful, though. One goal and two assists in 21 games are mediocre and earned him lots of criticism. Carlo Ancelotti decided to loan him out to Girondins de Bordeaux where he could finally fully unfold. Under Laurent Blanc, he sensationally lead Zinedine Zidane’s former club to the Ligue 1 title with 12 goals and 11 assists in 37 league games. In August 2008, Raymond Domenech called him up for the first time ever to the French national team. Also, he was compared to Zinedine Zidane after a short period of time again.
What followed was a 13.5 million Euro move to Girondins who had already payed a fee of 1.4 million one year earlier to loan him out. Since Christian Gourcuff’s son (manager in Lorient) had raised expectations in his first season on the Atlantic Coast, he was struggling to answer them. He couldn’t quite live up to this outstanding first season, and 6 goals and 8 assists in 29 league games only lead Bordeaux to a rather disappointing 6th place. Again Gourcuff couldn’t handle the pressure of expectation well.
The World Cup in South Africa
Despite a rather disappointing second year in Bordeaux, Raymond Domenech called France’s bearer of hope up for the World Cup 2010. The tournament turned out to be a disaster for the self-proclaimed new world champion, though. No team spirit, enviers in the squad and a manager who wasn’t accepted at all by the team were at the origin at a shameful month of June for “Les Bleus”.
Yoann Gourcuff was in the focus of attention on and off the pitch. However, at first Gourcuff wasn’t surprisingly starting in the first game against Uruguay and replaced by Abou Diaby. He wasn’t even part of the squad in the second game against Mexico and in the last encounter of the group stage, he did start but was sent off after only 25 minutes… One more time, the fans’ favorite was underperforming when under pressure and in focus, Ribéry’s statement playing with Gourcuff was similar to playing alongside Zidane surely didn’t help much either.
Off the pitch, Domenech first wanted to send Anelka home after the latter had called him a son of a bitch in the dressing rooms, then the team striked because they wanted to keep him and finally Gourcuff was in the focus of attention. During an interview with Domenech, Franck Ribéry entered the studio and denied reports of a fight between him and Yoann on the airplane. On top of that, it was rumored Yoann Gourcuff got bullied and team mates would envy the attention he got. Some did freeze him out because he was appointed new “Zizou” by the fans and the medias.
At the latest after the most disgraceful World Cup in France’s history, Yoann Gourcuff fell into a sort of limbo. As he returned to Bordeaux, rumors around him didn’t stop. Arsenal London, Real Madrid and Olympique Lyon were only some of the interested clubs. Finally he joined Olympique Lyonnais for 22 million Euros in August 2010 as last piece of Jean-Michel Aulas’ (OL’s president) puzzle to regain power in the French elite league. 15,000 (fifteen thousand!) fans were waiting at Lyon’s training ground on Gourcuff’s first day after his move to Lyon. Thus the expectations were pretty high…
Anxious in Lyon
Gourcuff’s first season in Lyon wasn’t much of an success. 4 goals and 5 assists in 36 league games are a pathetic display for such an expensive player. He was never able to fully unfold under Claude Puel and officially stated that his vision of football was different to his manager’s but rather similar to Laurent Blanc’s. His second season was similar to his second at AC Milan. He played even less due to many injuries and when he played he couldn’t convince. 2 goals and 2 assists in 13 league games pilloried him.
There are actually some reasons for Gourcuff’s problems. He might not have fully come to terms with the World Cup 2010 yet but the most reasonable explications are the tactics and the media. While Laurent Blanc, when still manager in Bordeaux, clearly told his players to the centre of rotation of their game, Claude Puel and later on Rémy Garde in Lyon stick to their 4-3-3 in which the wingers get most balls. Thus Gourcuff is literally erring in the centre waiting to shine but he can’t. However, in this year’s Coupe de France final against Quevilly, the playmaker was one of the best players on the pitch and did initiate the attack to Lyon’s winner.
Marouane Chamakh, meanwhile playing at Arsenal under Arsène Wenger, once said in an interview that his former team mate from Bordeaux wasn’t lacking love in Lyon but rather joy of playing. The Moroccan explained that, in Bordeaux, Gourcuff and Chamakh entered the pitch knowing they would have fun. They played one-twos, back-heeled passes, nutmegged their opponents and knew Alou Diarra (now Olympique Marseille) would back them in the defense.
In Lyon’s 4-3-3, though, Gourcuff also has to look after the defense, thus he can’t attack as well as in Bordeaux. Ironically this is exactly what Lyon, and in fact the whole hexagon expects from him; find the form from his first season at Girondins and lead Lyon to the top. However, the pressure on his shoulders seems to be too much and the, in his view, unfavorable tactics complicate his situation even more.
In fact the French media can be blamed for Gourcuff’s slump as well. His team mates in Lyon and some friends such as Marouane Chamakh and also Laurent Blanc do defend the women’s crush and rightly say that if the team had played a bad match, Yoann was the scapegoat and when the team performs well (Gourcuff included), the most expensive player to have ever moved from one French club to another is often forgotten. For example in the cup final against Quevilly or in 1-1 versus Brest (36th match day of last season) where Gourcuff had almost given 4 assists after having even scored the opener… Clearly this doesn’t build up confidence.
A totally “different” player
His father Christian was once quoted saying his son was different. And he’s actually right. Yoann Gourcuff is pretty different to most footballers. He’s got a very elegant playing style for which he has been compared to Zidane and his sensitive nature is quite extraordinary, too. That explains why he needs to feel loved and have fun at a club to answer expectations. His long and intelligent post-match interviews in a more sophisticated language and the media’s attention haven’t made him more popular either.
Carlo Ancelotti described his former player as “egocentric” in his biography and Paolo Maldini once said the main reason for Gourcuff’s failure at San Siro was that he didn’t make much of an effort to integrate himself into the squad. Actually, he has a different cultural background and rather intellectual interests. At the World Cup in 2010 some of “Les Bleus” leaders were said to have appeared in Domenech’s hotel room and complained there was no place for a “cry baby” in the squad. Before the friendly against Iceland on Sunday Gourcuff was only warming up with Carrasso, the third goal keeper and former team mate in Bordeaux, instead of playing with the other outfield players. The 25-year-old himself says he was “shy” and “afraid of accepting responsibility”…
To be honest, it will be very difficult for Yoann Gourcuff to come back. He’s constantly under high pressure which he can barely bear. His non-nomination for the Euros was a kick in the teeth for an already mentally fragile player (Carlo Ancelotti said something similar about him) and I do think it’s the rock bottom of his career. However, the good thing about it is that his situation can only improve. In my opinion, he should move abroad away from the high expectations to succeed Zinedine Zidane. A move to Arsenal would be wise; Arsène Wenger has always been interested in him and has improved each French player at Arsenal. He would surely understand Yoann and help him on and off the pitch. Furthermore Chamakh as well as several French players could help him to integrate himself into the team. Since the Gooners do have many super stars, Gourcuff wouldn’t be in the centre of attention and had enough time to come back stronger than ever before. Not least, Gourcuff had to change himself a bit, too, what might be a difficult task to undertake for the “arrogant” Frenchman. I do wish him the very best for the future and really hope to see a better Gourcuff in Brazil in two years…
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