One to watch: Téji Savanier
From his Romani roots in the outskirts of Montpellier to the top of the Ligue 1 Conforama assist chart, Nîmes midfielder Téji Savanier has come a long way - and has has enjoyed himself the whole time. The secret to his success?
Savanier is without a doubt one of the revelations of the current Ligue 1 Conforama season. The 27-year-old midfielder has made the step up to the "more technical, more cerebral" Ligue 1 Conforama with promoted side Nîmes Olympique and done so in style, mixing it with the league's best and biggest names.
Les Crocodiles have surprised many in their promotion season - notably local rivals Marseille in Week 2 - and Savanier's pulling the strings in midfield has been a key element. And he has upped his game since the turn of the year, bagging eight of his 12 assists to currently stand as the most prolific assists provider in Europe's top five leagues in 2019.
His talent has duly drawn the interest of a number of big clubs, with boyhood club Montpellier notably looking to take him back to the Stade de la Mosson, where he has been going as a fan since eight years of age, and south-coast giants Olympique de Marseille ready to overhaul their squad. But there is also interest from Italy (Fiorentina) and England (Burnley)...
But who is the man behind the hype? Read on...
Back story: Born into the Romani community in the Montpellier suburb of Gély, Savanier joined Montpellier HSC's youth set-up as a 16-year-old, reaching the final of the Coupe Gambardella (the youth version of the Coupe de France) in 2009 with the club's golden generation (which included Younès Belhanda, Rémy Cabella, Jonas Martin, Abdelhamid El Kaoutari and Benjamin Stambouli, all of whom went on to win the Ligue 1 Conforama title with the club's senior team in 2012) but missing out on a place in the 2-0 final win over FC Nantes.
Not offered a professional contract, Savanier made the switch to south-coast club Arles-Avignon in Domino's Ligue 2, where he worked his way into the first team and became the side's dead-ball specialist. When the club were relegated at the end of season 2014-15, he signed for Nîmes Olympique on a one-year deal (with a supplementary season as an option).
The move took him closer to his beloved family and home town and this paid dividends on the pitch, where he finished his first season as the club's top assists provider (7) and played a key role in their beating the drop despite a hefty eight-point penalty for suspected match fixing. His stats improved as the seasons went by, with two seasons topping the Domino's Ligue 2 assist table and a place in the Domino's Ligue 2 All-star team for season 2017-18 - before promotion to Ligue 1 Conforama, where he now sits atop the assist chart once again.
Style of play: The 1.71m midfielder has played most of his career as a playmaker behind the forwards, but he has slowly dropped back into more of a regista - or deep-lying playmaker - role not unlike Marco Verratti's at Paris Saint-Germain. He is a dead-ball specialist, and it is from set pieces that his trademark technique has brought the assists flooding in.
"I've been working on it since I was a kid. I have a way of hitting the ball that's maybe a bit different - it makes the ball dip heavily behind the defence. It's difficult to explain but I try to hit the ball hard, somewhere around the instep, hitting through it so it doesn't spin. And my teammates know where it's going to go."
But he also excels in open play and has been responsible for 39% of his side's successful passes so far this season.
Current campaign: Savanier has played a huge role in Nîmes' securing their survival with a consistent string of superb displays that have caught the eye of fans, teammates, opponents and bigger clubs alike. In his 30 starts, he has scored six goals - two strikes shy of his personal best (he scored eight for Nîmes in Domino's Ligue 2 in season 2016-17) and provided a league-high 12 assists - more than last season's assist champion Angel Di Maria of Paris Saint-Germain and Argentina.
What you didn't know: After arriving at Nîmes five kilos overweight, Savanier made serious changes to the fast food diet he had favoured when at Arles-Avignon - away from his family, who prepare his meals - and now he only indulges once a week, picking up MacDonald's and taking it home after matches.
Best goal: Savanier has said that his most memorable goal-scoring experience came when he bagged a brace for the first time - for Nîmes against Orléans in season 2016-17. "I scored with a nice left-footed shot and then from the penalty spot. My daughter was in the stands that night, and I went over and hugged her after I buried the second goal. It will remain etched in my memory. When you come from a poor neighbourhood and you score two goals in front of your whole family, it's a magical moment. I hope there will be others like it."
What he said: "I'm just happy to find myself in such a position, among such big names," he said when asked what it was like to be behind only . But I'm not thinking about that sort of thing when I'm playing football. I prefer to enjoy myself."
- when asked what it was like being fourth on the list of French sports daily l'Equipe's player rankings - behind Kylian Mbappé, Marquinhos and Marco Verratti - in April 2019
"That's where I feel the most grounded. Nothing can go wrong for me there. That's were I was born and where I'll die. When I arrive in the city, I'm zen and very relaxed. When we're at home, we're at home. We're among gypsies and we do our thing, and that's it. It's not something you can really explain. We play pétanque in the afternoon, and then the loser goes to the butcher to buy the meat for the barbecue. In the evening we play guitar outdoors. I don't think that there are a lot of professional footballers who are lucky enough to live this life. When I'm with my kids, my wife my parents and my cousins, I forget everything. Going home, for me, is the most beautiful thing in the world. Football comes after family."
- Talking to L'Equipe about his home in the Montpellier district of Gély in April 2019
What they said: "I told him that he is really good, that he played very well. You can see that he understands football very well. He plays the kind of football I like. Everything he does has a purpose. He never looks to just get rid of the ball; he wants to play. He's a great player and I hope he has a huge career."
- Paris Saint-Germain and Italy midfielder Marco Verratti in February 2019
"I can think of someone who should have been nominated for the UNFP Trophies - Savanier. The guy is a defensive midfielder and he has scored six goals and provided 12 assists."
- Former France international Willy Sagnol in May 2019
"I love Savanier. Technically, everything he does is perfect."
- France great and former PSG boss Luis Fernandez
"Keeping Téji at the club will be very difficult."
- Nîmes Olympique sporting director Laurent Boissier, talking to Midi-Libre