Nimes and Saint Etienne both came into the match fighting for survival in Ligue 2 after having been relegated from the top division in the past two years. Saint Etienne played in a 3-5-2, looking comfortable in possession and dangerous from their left side. Nimes lined up in a 4-2-3-1, hoping to score from counterattacks. In the end, Saint Etienne left with a 2-1 away win. The star of the match was Saint Etienne’s Niels Nkounkou, who was involved in both goals.
- A1 – Very good, could play higher
- A2 – Strong potential to play higher
- B1 – Good, strong player at level
- B2 – Potential to be strong player at level
- C – Average for the level, re-watch
- D – Below average in this match
- Nationality: French
- Age: 22
- Date of birth: 01/11/2000
- Club: Saint Etienne (on loan from Everton)
- Career: Saint Etienne, Cardiff City, Everton, Standard Liege, Marseille, Stade Brestois
- Position: Left Midfielder
- Preferred foot: Left
Niels Nkounkou was listed as a left midfielder/left wing back in a 3-5-2 for Saint Etienne and he played at times level with the forward line. Nkounkou’s duties were primarily attacking, but he showed positive defensive attributes. Niels looked to get in behind and his crossing was the most dangerous form of attack for Saint Etienne. Saint Etienne’s goals both came from his contributions. Nkounkou was level with the offside line, awaiting an instinctive first time pass from Jean-Philippe Krasso before controlling the ball well at pace and finishing at the near post. The second goal came from a Nimes corner kick. After the Nimes delivery was cleared high in the air, Nkounkou’s first touch from the edge of his box was a volleyed outside-foot through ball which sent left forward Ibrahima Wadji on a 60 yard sprint toward goal. Wadji kept his balance through a challenge and placed a composed finish to goalkeeper Lucas Dias’ near post again. Nkounkou’s performance in this game looked impressive and repeatable. Niels’ pace is a lot to handle for defenders at this level, not to mention his fakes, chops, and elasticos (yes, elasticos). His attacking threat is among the greatest in Ligue 2.
Nkounkou was level with Saint Etienne’s midfielders out of possession, rarely part of the back line. Nkoukou was the main counterattacking threat and his defensive positioning was with one eye on transition. Niels has played in deeper-lying roles across his career, but his ball control and 1v1 advantages make him more effective as an attacker at the Ligue 2 level. I expect Nkounkou to continue in a more attack-minded left midfielder role for the rest of the season, putting up a large assist tally.
Rating – A2
Nkounkou was the best player on the pitch today. When it comes to Ligue 2, he looks like one of the best players in the league and can certainly play at a higher level. Saint Etienne do have an option to make the transfer permanent, but he might feel he can play in a higher division next season. I would agree. Everton may want to give him a chance to compete for Premier League minutes next season, especially given his attributes as a defensively adept winger for Sean Dyche’s system.
- Nationality: Guinean
- Age: 20
- Date of birth: 04/07/2002
- Club: Saint Etienne
- Career: Saint Etienne
- Position: Center Back
- Preferred foot: Right
Saidou Sow is a prototypical center back prospect. He is not afraid to put in a high-risk sliding tackle to thwart a counterattack or block a cross. Sow is a very talented 1v1 defender and he is impressive at tackling with both feet. He looks to force the player to his right side where he feels most comfortable, usually poking the ball away with his trailing left foot when the attacker decides to cut inside. Given what I saw from his tendencies in this match and from his highlights, he looks to be significantly better on the right side of defense than the left. Saidou’s best skill is winning possession of the ball with excellent body positioning and smart timing. He picks his moments brilliantly to throw his body in between the attacker and the ball, then shielding them with his superb strength.
Sow looked comfortable playing the ball forward, putting the correct weight on his passes and delivering accurately. Upon watching clips of him after the game, I felt even better about his passing range. Saidou wasn’t under much pressure from Nimes and had mostly shorter passes to make, but he does have a great long ball from right to left. Sow was on the end of set pieces at both ends. He had a chance from a free kick, smacking the post before being called offside. Overall, he looked good for his age. A couple of times it looked like Nimes’ right winger Nicolas Benezet was finding dangerous positions behind him, but Sow’s recovery speed made up the ground. Playing against faster wingers, he will need to demonstrate better awareness so he doesn’t have to count on his physical tools saving the day.
Rating – A2
Sow wasn’t at his best on the day, but his physical profile and his film did a lot to convince me that he is an elite center back prospect who will eventually get a shot at a very high level. Saidou has already played a season in Ligue Un and he deserves another chance to play there, but I’m not sure Saint Etienne is the team to get him that opportunity. Sow reminds me of another center back I’ve evaluated, Christopher Wooh of Stade Rennais. They both played as ball progressing right sided center defenders in a back 3 and thrive in emergency defending scenarios. Sow is not as skilled at beating players on the dribble and playing line-breaking passes against an organized block, though I don’t expect he will be asked to. Where Sow stands out is his tackling ability, strength, and aerial duels. He will need to become a bit more polished positionally before he dominates Ligue Un, but he has all the tools to do exactly that.