Le50 2017 – Jonathan Ikoné
For a club where great things are expected, there are a lot of headaches. One of them is how to balance bringing younger players into the squad with the need to play the strongest possible team to keep both fans and players happy. While waltzing to last season’s title, there was the chance for PSG to offer playing time to some of the academy players, but with yet more starry acquisitions in the summer and a slightly more complicated start to the season, it was tricky to do the same this term. One potential victim of this conundrum was winger Jonathan Ikoné.
Formed at the club, Ikoné played a key role in PSG’s 2015/16 UEFA Youth League run, with four starts plus four on-the-hour-mark subs as the club reached the final, losing 2-1 to Chelsea. There was only one goal, but he was promoted in the summer, starting all four of PSG’s pre-season friendlies, including three in the International Champions Cup.
It’s fair to say that he made the most of this opportunity. After playing a full 90 minutes against West Brom, and 70 against Inter, he scored the opening goal in a 3-1 win over Real Madrid, which could easily be called ‘an announcement’. Picking up the ball from Presnel Kimpembe, he dribbled through the final third, past five slightly startled defenders, to slot home inside the first two minutes. He also scored when PSG played Leicester, this a direct move up the centre, a one-two with Thomas Meunier, before charging past Wes Morgan for a another low strike. As pre-seasons go, Ikoné did all he could to prove his credentials; and then the balancing act began.
He was kept in the Youth League team, this time for two goals in four starts, and even won a cameo against Ludogorets in the senior competition, but league minutes were harder to come by. He gained his first start against Nancy in October, and another against Angers in November, but with PSG not exactly lacking in more experienced options, the traditional plan B came into effect: loan move.
In January, Montpellier were on the hunt for attacking cover after Casimir Ninga ruptured his cruciate ligaments in training in October. They ended up acquiring three wingers: Isaac Mbenza mostly on the right, Keagan Dolly and Ikoné mostly on the left. A South African international whose previous club Mamelodi Sundowns had won the treble in 2015/16 (league, cup, CAF Champions League), Dolly seemed the more likely to feature, but Ikoné managed to establish himself as a regular, if not ever-present, member of a team frequently rotated and tinkered with as results did not go well. With seven starts and seven reasonably substantial substitute appearances, for Montpellier he trebled his senior playing time over that with PSG, despite missing most of February with an ankle injury.
As shown in his pre-season goals, Ikoné is a fine dribbler, with a penchant for a long-range effort; his only goal for Montpellier was a low strike from the edge of the area, cutting in from the right as a late sub against Caen. His one assist – for the winner against Bastia – was an example of good decision-making: receiving the ball outside the area he looked to be shaping up to turn and shoot, but instead threaded a pass through three defenders to reach Steve Mounie left much to his own devices in the area for the finish. He has also dealt well with being played all over the front half of the field, as Montpellier have to take a more free-jazz approach to player positions than PSG do. His defensive contribution was less impressive, and he needs to work on holding onto the ball; sometimes even successful dribbles have more than their fair share of nervy moments and luck coming in to play. However, being in a team under pressure is a good training programme for that.
That is the plan for next season, with an agreement in principle with PSG for a full-year loan this time, which just needed the player’s agreement. He apparently wanted a new challenge, but having only just turned 19, that seemed the obvious choice – Ikoné must know that his loan-spell was promising, but not convincing enough to get him regular time at PSG. And it will be easier to build on time-served at Montpellier, with players he already knows, than start from scratch on loan to another club. Ikoné has had to make the decision – what gives him the best chance of being one of the few to make it from the PSG academy to the senior squad.