Le50 2017 – Youssef Aït Bennasser
As ways to announce yourself to the wider French footballing public go, Youssef Aït-Bennasser’s choice was quite spectacular. With promotion-chasing Nancy 2-1 up in the 94th minute against Le Havre, Youssouf Hadji unleashed a thunderbolt from 20 yards. The ball hit the top of the crossbar and ricocheted directly upwards. Aït-Bennasser – already named man of the match – was the only player to react but, as the ball eventually came down a metre or so to the right of the goal, and only centimetres in front of the by-line, he appeared to have no options. However, somehow – while still moving at speed – he managed to wrap his right foot around the ball and backheel it into the net from what seemed an impossible angle. “I did what I would do playing at home – I tried it and it went in!”
Although the goal – the first of his professional career – made some sit up and take notice, the then-19-year-old had already caught the eye of regular followers of Ligue 2. Given his debut by Pablo Correa as he was named in the starting line-up for Nancy’s first match of the 2015/16 season, Aït-Bennasser grabbed his chance and, by the time of his goal against Le Havre in late November, had already become a first team fixture. He ended the season with 33 Ligue 2 appearances, 31 as a starter, as Nancy won the title and with it promotion.
Sharing his playing time between defensive midfielder and a play-linking central midfielder, the tall, muscular youngster has the range of skills to suggest that he could succeed in any midfield position he chooses. His tackling and positional sense are both strong and a good set of lungs helps him transition quickly from defence to attack. He has fantastic footwork and the full gamut of skills and tricks – along with the confidence to use them – and he can break lines with his range of passing. Freed from his defensive duties and given the chance to work more on his final ball and his finishing, he would benefit any team greatly. Although it smacks of an agent bigging up his client, Aït-Bennasser’s representative is actually not far off the mark when he says of his client “he has great vision and his style of play is similar to Pirlo’s – except that Youssef runs a lot too”.
Unsurprisingly, heads were turned and Monaco, continuing to stockpile some of the world’s best young talents, won out (not for the first time beating off rumoured Arsenal interest), signing Aït-Bennasser for a bargain fee of around £2 million, before loaning him back to Nancy for their 2016/17 Ligue 1 campaign.
Recognition came on the international stage too as the youngster, born in Toul, was sounded out by France and Morocco. Aït-Bennasser opted for the Lions de l’Atlas, whom he’d already represented at U17 level, making his full debut against Albania in August 2016. To date, he has won seven caps and was included in the team’s AFCON squad, although he featured for only nine minutes in the tournament.
As Nancy struggled in Ligue 1, eventually being relegated, Aït-Bennasser inevitably also found the going tougher. The disruption of international representation and a couple of knocks meant more of a battle for consistency as the team as a whole battled for form. He was nevertheless one of the team’s better performing players, playing 26 league matches (starting 23) and contributing three goals – including Nancy’s first of the season (an accomplished finish from the edge of the area after winning the ball in midfield) against Lorient and les Chardons’ fourth against bitter rivals Metz, completing a 1-2 which he began with another cheeky pirouetted backheel.
Of his debut Ligue 1 season, Aït-Bennasser says “from a personal view I’m happy with what I’ve produced, although I’m conscious that I can do better. I expected Ligue 1 to be difficult – and I was right! Now it’s up to me to adapt, to learn quickly. I’ve progressed physically but need to work harder on my aerial game”. Of a return to Monaco, he adds “I’m impatient but it’s up to me to break into the first team squad as quickly as possible, to help the team achieve good results. Fabinho and Bakayoko have great qualities but it’s for me to put doubt in the coach’s mind”.
With at least one of the two midfielders mentioned certain to leave, Aït-Bennasser may yet get a chance – although there have been strong rumours of another season on loan, possibly to Caen. Wherever he plays this coming season, if he can continue to develop his wide range of tools, he will quickly become a player to dominate matches in the top flight, as he did as a teenager in Ligue 2.