SPIRO: TALENT APLENTY BUT NO EASY PICKINGS
By M. Spiro
There appears to be no shortage of interest in Ligue 1's top talent this window but even Europe's wealthiest clubs are finding it hard to lure players away, writes Matthew Spiro.
What do Thomas Lemar, Malcom, Jean-Michaël Seri, Javier Pastore, Karl Toko Ekambi and Emiliano Sala all have in common? Clubs from richer leagues have tried but so far failed to sign them. There may be twists in the coming fortnight but right now there is ample evidence to suggest the upward curve Ligue 1 is undeniably enjoying is enticing players to stay and making it harder for the predators to swoop.
At the time of writing, there have essentially been no major departures (Nice's promising young midfielder Vincent Koziello joining Cologne is probably the only blip even if he was not playing regularly), while at the same time a handful strong, proven performers - including Paul Baysse, Paul Georges Ntep and Yann M'Vila - have come in to the league.
Risings stars think twice
Monaco's wonderful midfielder Lemar turned down a 100m-Euro move to Arsenal in August, and he looks poised to resist further pressing from the Gunners and Liverpool this month. The 22-year-old left-footer is expected to play an important role for France at the World Cup, and understandably feels reluctant to change settings just five months before the competition.
Likewise Malcom has, according to The Times newspaper, turned down Arsenal this week. Bordeaux's Brazilian also harbours World Cup ambitions and is wary of switching clubs in January.
But the World Cup isn't the only factor here. Lemar's August decision was evidently influenced by the fact Monaco have a domestic title to defend in a league that is improving in terms of quality and notoriety. Crucially the principality side were also offering him Champions League football, and thus the opportunity to relive the fantastic experience of 2016/17 when Leonardo Jardim's team blitzed their way to the semi-finals.
Of course if money were the only factor, every Ligue 1 side other than PSG would struggle to resist any kind of Premier League overture. But thankfully this sport is still about more than money; loyalty, playing time and development continue to play significant parts.
Nantes striker Sala was offered the chance to join Brighton earlier this month - and receive a hefty pay rise in the process - but the Argentine striker is thriving under Claudio Ranieri. His desire to play at least one full season under the Italian proved stronger than the advice he was probably receiving from his bank manager.
Karl Toko Ekambi has reportedly attracted a 14m-Euro bid from West Brom this week, yet he looks set to stay. Firstly because Angers are reluctant to sell in their current predicament, and secondly because the excellent Cameroonian striker does not want to disrupt the best season of his career and probably feels he has a mission to complete too.
Players, it seems, have learned that changing clubs and leagues - no matter how tempting it may be financially - presents big dangers for a career.
Indeed, Lemar might well be looking at Bernardo Silva, who has been used sparingly by Manchester City this term, and wonder whether that move was best for his former's colleague's development. Nice's Seri is now being linked with both City and Manchester United, but he would be well advised to seek assurances with regards playing time first before discussing anything else.
When moving to another country it is so important to join a club and a manager that has a plan for you and is seriously counting on you. Just ask Florian Thauvin, Jordan Veretout, Henri Saivet, Georges-Kévin Nkoudou, Steve Mandanda and Emmanuel Rivière, to name but a few.
It would be naïve to suggest that everybody is happy to stay at their respective Ligue 1 club forever. For the players, the lure of experiencing other leagues is of course considerable. Likewise Monaco might well be happy to cash in a 100m-Euro cheque for Lemar - just as Angers may ultimately welcome the windfall that Toko Ekambi's sale would trigger.
But right now the foreign predators are encountering considerable resistance from both the players and the clubs in Ligue 1, and that has so be a good sign.