Wesley Fofana: The Saint-Etienne starlet causing a stir
Since breaking into the Saint-Etienne first team in October last year, centre-back Wesley Fofana has attracted reported interest from the likes of AC Milan, Everton, RB Leipzig and AS Monaco. The 19-year-old has made just 12 appearances so far this season - but has done enough to have grabbed the attention of some of Europe’s top scouts. Fofana has been with the French club’s youth sides since 2015 and signed his first professional contract on 15 May 2018. He made his senior debut just three days later in a 3-0 Ligue 1 victory over Nice, but it has been this season in which he has made his breakthrough.
Standing at six foot two, the French defender’s main ability is his aerial presence. Over his 12 outings this season thus far, Fofana has won an average of 4.5 aerial duels per game, handily more than any of his team-mates. He has also bagged two goals from centre-back, one a header from the near post in a 4-1 Ligue 1 win over Nice, and another just last weekend in a 3-0 Coupe de France victory over Bastia-Borgo. His comfort on the ball is ahead of his years, too, so the widespread interest is of no surprise considering the demand for ball-playing centre-backs in modern football.
What’s more, is that the lad loves a last-ditch tackle. The timing of Fofana’s slide challenges has been almost immaculate this season. Despite only making an average of two tackles per game, his interception rate is better (3.2 per game) as he often uses his pace, another strength of his, to get to the ball first. Speed is not a typical strength of a six-foot-two centre half, so that itself at least explains some of the hype around the young man.
Even as a teenager, Fofana already has European experience having played twice in Saint-Etienne's Europa League campaign, group stage games against Oleksandria and Gent back in November. His best league performance came in the aforementioned victory over Nice, where as well as finding the back of the net, Fofana blocked a shot, made three interceptions, a couple of tackles and three clearances. He has played in both a back four and a back three this season for Saint-Etienne and proved comfortable in both formations making him tactically flexible.
However, there are question marks over the teenager’s concentration. In his first 11 appearances prior to his goalscoring performance in the Coupe de France victory last weekend, he lost possession a total of 94 times. Fofana tends to get on the ball plenty, averaging 40 passes per game, but with a passing accuracy of 82% which is the lowest among any of his central defensive colleagues.
If Fofana matures and improves his concentration, he can become a top centre-back. After Saint-Etienne sold another highly-rated centre-back in 18-year-old William Saliba to Arsenal in a deal reported to be worth £27million (despite him immediately being loaned back to the club for the season) last summer, manager Claude Puel would be reluctant to let go of another one. Amidst the speculation, there have been other rumours that the club is ready to offer a new contract to the French-born defender of Malian descent despite him already being on a contract until 2022.
Signing Fofana would not be a quick January fix for any team. He needs time to mature and for his game to progress, although his potential is obvious for any scout to see. If he were to leave the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard this month, the best option would be to loan him back there to continue his development alongside experienced defenders such as Loïc Perrin and Mathieu Debuchy. However, any club looking for a long-term, ball-playing solution at centre-back should definitely consider 19-year-old Wesley Fofana.