Le50 2016: Aldo Kalulu – Olympique Lyonnais
Heading into Lyon’s fourth home match of the season, against Bastia, with the team still winless at the Gerland and missing Nabil Fekir who had just sustained a serious knee injury, coach Hubert Fournier needed to do something different. He gave 19-year-old Aldo Kalulu his first start.
Less than 20 minutes in and Fournier’s gamble had already paid off. A Steed Malbranque flick had sprung the offside trap but Kalulu still had work to do. Under an auspicious rainbow sky, his first touch brought the ball, which was travelling at pace and looked to have escaped him, under control; he then opened his body as if to bend it round on-rushing keeper Jean-Louis Leca, instead cheekily flicking it over him with his second touch; and with his third, he nonchalantly stabbed home. The latest star off the Lyon conveyor belt was born.
As Kalulu ran towards the stands, the crowd and players reacted as if they knew that they had seen something special. Alexandre Lacazette’s bear hug practically ripped the youngster’s head off. As Kalulu later commented: “it was madness. Everything was scrambled in my head… It was like a fairy tale… As for the move, I just did it by feel… I was waiting for my chance and didn’t want to waste it.”
Kalulu is beginning to make a habit of taking his chances, on and off the pitch. After joining Lyon from local club Saint-Fons (“I didn’t want to join them at first because we used to beat them all the time!”) the French-Rwandan striker actually began his career as a number 10. However, in a Lyon under-17 match against La Duchère, the team found itself short of strikers and asked him to fill in… by the end of the season he had 23 goals. As he acknowledges: “I’m not yet a real striker, I just have the capacities to become one. I was always a passer, I never took many shots.” With top class former strikers such as Bernard Lacombe and Florian Maurice on Lyon’s backroom staff and Alexandre Lacazette beside him, he is not short of quality teachers.
After impressing last season, scoring five goals during Lyon’s run to the Coupe Gambardella final, Kalulu (actually his dad’s first name – real surname Kyatengwa) was brought into the first team squad for the Emirates Cup last summer. Starting this season as fifth-choice striker, he expected chances to be limited, but poor form and injuries to those higher up the pecking order gave him his next chance. After making his debut as a substitute against Lille in September, he came off the bench days later against Gent in the Champions League and won the 87th-minute penalty which should have given Lyon a win.
Two more starts (the Bastia match and Valencia) and two substitute appearances followed before Kalulu’s ascent was halted, as a bad ankle sprain – caused accidentally by Mapou Yanga Mbiwa in training – forced him out for over two months. More injury niggles since have limited him to a handful of substitute appearances and one more goal, a composed finish against Bordeaux. But, having signed a contract extension to 2019 in February, after only turning professional in August, he is fully appreciative of where he is at: “I thought I’d be playing in the Youth League, maybe in the CFA squad. Life is beautiful with what’s happening to me right now”.
Now 20, Kalulu still has a steep learning curve ahead of him as he learns his new position. His low centre of gravity, speed, technique on the ball – particularly in tight spaces – and ability to make intelligent runs already make him an excellent prospect. He now needs to improve on the skills essential for a centre-forward, acknowledging that, where he was used to having the play in front of him, he needs to learn to play with his back to goal, holding the ball up and serving as a pivot. One of his youth coaches, Gerard Bonneau, also observes his need to build up his physique and stamina: “he is more about body swerves, feints, dribbling. But he tires quickly. And for Ligue 1, he needs to bulk up.”
There may well be a few personnel changes in Lyon’s squad over the summer. Next season, with his versatility and ability, Kalulu will no doubt get the chance to shine. It is up to him to grab that chance; the recent past suggests that he will do so with relish.