One to watch: Kenny Lala
By S. Willis
Strasbourg full-back Kenny Lala is enjoying his best-ever season and will bring his pace, power and knack for scoring superb goals to Coupe de la Ligue BKT final against EA Guingamp in Lille on Saturday!
Kenny Lala may have been plying his trade in Domino's Ligue 2 just two seasons ago, but the 27-year-old is currently the most decisive defender in Europe's top five leagues and seems set for big things.
With a career-high four goals and eight assists in the current campaign, Lala is going from strength to strength under RC Strasbourg Alsace coach Thierry Laurey, as his stunning free-kick against Amiens - which beat Régis Gurtner at his far post - showed.
Lala has just signed an extension on his Strasbourg deal, which ties him to the club through to June 2021, despite intense interest from the likes of Lazio, Marseille, Real Betis and Bordeaux.
But who is the man behind the hype? Read on...
Born in the Paris-region town of Villepinte to Martiniquan parents in 1991, Lala came up through the youth systems at ES Parisienne and Paris FC before being given a chance with the latter's senior squad in the National (D3) at the age of 18. A season, later, he made his Ligue 1 Conforama debut with Valenciennes, but it wasn't until after he spent two years in Domino's Ligue 2 with RC Lens that he signed for RC Strasbourg Alsace and really made his mark on France's top flight.
As former Valenciennes coach Daniel Sanchez noted, the dyed-in-the-wool Paris Saint-Germain fan took some time to adapt to the rigours of professional football, but his potential was clear.
"You could see that he had huge potential with his pace and acceleration, but he also really knows how to see things through. When he breaks down the flank, he's doing it to put in a cross, not to look pretty," explained Sanchez. "He has made some great career choices, making sure he didn't move too fast, and I'm not in the least bit surprised by his progress."
Style of play:
Lala is renowned for his acceleration and pace but is also powerful in the tackle, he caps it all with vision, passing and talent with the dead ball while his mental strength, forged by seasons at the coal face the lower divisions, is exemplary.
He has played most of his football at right-back, but he can also deputise on the left flank or in the centre of defence. His pace, power and decisive play mean he can also play as a right-sided midfielder or right winger.
After bagging a career-high three goals (four assists) in his first season with Strasbourg (2017-18), Lala has already outdone himself in the current campaign, nabbing four goals and eight assists.
What you didn't know:
Kenny has a number of tattoos, one of which is dedicated to his boyhood friend John, who died in tragic circumstances.
"He always pushed me to believe in myself," explained Lala. "I want to succeed for him and for my family, to be an example to the neighbourhood where I grew up."
Lala hit a standout winner for RC Lens away to AJ Auxerre in season 2015-16. With the scored tied on 89 minutes, Lala came into possession on the half-way line and hit a pin-point 50m drive over home 'keeper Zacharie Boucher.
"It was a clearance," said Lala, showing that, no matter his attacking capabilities, he is a defender at heart. "Sure, I was aiming for goal, but it was a clearance."
What he said:
"I'm ambitious; I want to achieve certain things. I want to play for big clubs. Strasbourg are helping me so much in all this and I feel great here. And then - and I've already spoken about this a bit - there is the France team. I think that sooner or later, you have to just be honest and say what you want. It either happens or it doesn't... that's life. What I want is to have no regrets."
What they said:
"In his position, there aren't exactly 36,000 names that spring to mind when you think about the France team. [Benjamin] Pavard and [Djibril] Sidibé are struggling and there is no-one untouchable ahead of Kenny, so if he continues to improve, then why not give him his chance?"
- Daniel Sanchez, Lala's coach at Valenciennes (2011-15)
"He needs to improve in terms of consistency and concentration."
- Thierry Laurey, Lala's straight-shooting coach at Strasbourg (2017- present)