Corentin Tolisso: Heir to the Lyon Fortune

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In a parallel football universe there may well be a version of Corentin Tolisso plying his trade in Serie A wearing the famous sky blue shirt of Napoli. Maybe he’s reveling in the new climes of Italy’s top flight; conversely the midfielder could be kicking his heels on the bench pondering the merits of his move to Naples.

It’s actually fascinating to think how the talented young Frenchman would have fared playing in Italy, but Serie A’s loss is certainly Olympique Lyonnais’ gain. Napoli were reportedly willing to pay €37.5 million for OL’s number 8 but despite the interest Tolisso didn’t feel the time was right to leave.

“As soon as I had taken my decision, everything was clear in my mind,” he said in an interview with France Football. “I quickly turned the page. The next day, I was 100 percent Lyonnais again. I had also done my preseason with that attitude before the official start of training. It was when Napoli came back during July that I really hesitated. But once I had definitively said ‘no,’ my priority was to have a big season with OL. I really made a choice of the heart, a sporting choice. I knew that there were advantages to going there, but OL, for me, is not about the money.”

“A choice of the heart” is certainly one way to define his decision to stay on but it’s the words that immediately follow which is worthy of more scrutiny: “a sporting choice”.  He could have taken the money and ran but would his development have stalled at Napoli?  That is conjecture but the immediate reality appears to be that his decision to stay is paying dividends, despite les Gones’ less than convincing start to the season. There is an air of a player who is not just blossoming from “potential talent” to the “real deal” but is in fact turning into an on-pitch leader too. That’s no mean feat considering OL already possess the talismanic Alexandre Lacazette, who is surely playing his final season at the club, as well as captain and mainstay Maxime Gonalons.

Most importantly though Tolisso looks to be growing up as an individual as well as a player. Rewind back to the dying days of Hubert Fournier’s reign in late 2015 and there were reports linking Tolisso, despite denials, to a training ground bust-up with Lindsay Rose as well as rumours of the Lyon youth academy graduate offering choice opinions about Claudio Beauvue. Come 2016, Beauvue and Rose are no longer at the club whilst Tolisso is captaining the side in the absence of Gonalons and Lacazette. It’s a huge statement of faith shown by head coach Bruno Genesio and a responsibility that the 22-year old is not taking lightly.

Speaking ahead of last week’s Rhône derby Tolisso said “It will be a great source of pride to be OL’s captain for the first ever derby at the Parc OL. I’ve been at the club since I was 13 and it’s a dream to wear the captain’s armband for this match; I’m very happy. Being captain is a very special role and I try to fulfill it to the best of my abilities. You have to talk a lot and encourage everyone. But we all talk to each other on the field, we all stick together”.

If anything Tolisso’s press conference before the match against Saint-Etienne showed many sides of this rapidly maturing player: the confidence to wear the armband, the awareness to impress upon the new arrivals what this match means to les Gones, the willingness to shield his teammates and a healthy level of ambition balanced with a dose of humility.  Tolisso must know he’s doing something right when he’s earned praise from OL legend and former holder of the number 8 jersey Juninho Pernambucano.

The 22-year old backed up his words, leading OL to victory against their biggest rivals, a feather in his cap that he won’t remove in a hurry.

Whatever the Frenchman’s past struggles he seems to have come out the other side of the tunnel and is not just realising his exciting potential but transforming himself into a bona fide on-pitch leader to boot. A huge amount of credit for Tolisso’s turnaround from the nadir of the Fournier era must rest with Bruno Genesio. In hindsight his promotion to head coach has been a boon for players who went through the Lyon academy as he helped nurture their talents and prepared them for professional football. Genesio has a level of trust with his players that few others coaches could have and he is benefitting as a result.

Tolisso has already notched five goals in all club competitions, is on course to surpass his best return of seven in the 2013/14 and 2014/15 seasons, and could be into double figures long before this campaign is out. More recently the versatility that first attracted attention when he began his career has again come to the fore, allowing Genesio to alter Lyon’s formation to cope with the club’s current injury and suspension woes. Tolisso is more than an adequate wing-back but the sooner he returns to the centre of midfield to dictate the play the better for all associated with les Gones.

With Ligue 1 looking potentially more open than in recent years OL could do with their number 8 operating in the middle of the park and helping them bounce back from a rocky start to put the team back in the title reckoning. Perform well enough and the France U21 captain could find himself promoted to the full squad even though les Bleus are blessed with an abundance of midfield talent. His sumptuous strike against Georgia certainly did his cause no harm and underlines the threat he poses shooting from distance.

Of his future, Tolisso expressed a desire to play in different leagues one day: “A lot of clubs make me dream, like Real Madrid, Barcelona or in England with teams such as Arsenal. I love the Premier League and I think I have the profile. It’s the most competitive league, the most open, the most hotly contested and the most spectacular.”

Who’s to say he won’t make it at any of those clubs? After all, Tolisso possesses the tools required to be the complete midfielder: he’s tactically aware, technically proficient, disciplined, powerful, a box to box player who can assist the attack and shield his defence and most importantly has a good head on his shoulders. He was smart and brave enough to make a “sporting choice” by staying at Lyon where he’s effectively guaranteed first team minutes which in turn is helping him develop as a player. He may not have been afforded that luxury at Napoli no matter how much better his bank balance could have looked.

The money will come but right now competitive football is priceless for the OL academy graduate and he’s fully aware of that. One day we may see Tolisso lining up alongside Samuel Umtiti at Barcelona, perhaps following Karim Benzema to the Bernabéu or donning the kit of Arsenal but right now he has unfinished business at the Parc OL. Corentin Tolisso is not just a footballer for Olympique Lyonnais, he is fast becoming the club’s totem and leader. He is relishing the responsibility and is growing as a player and as a role model.

You can read more from Thariq Amir at World Soccer Talk

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