Soumaré: The Engine Room In Lille’s Title-Winning Midfield
It featured an interview with Francois Rodrigues, an academy coach at Paris Saint-Germain’s academy, based at Stade Municipal Georges Lefèvre, in the western suburbs of Paris.
“He has everything to succeed.” That’s how Rodrigues described one prospect in particular, a tall, robust central midfielder with exemplary technique and impressive passing ability.
The player he was describing was Boubakary Soumaré, then just a teenager, who PSG’s network of youth coaches had elected to fast-track from the Under-17s to the Under-19s side.
Soumaré was born in the suburb of Noisy-le-Sec, east of Paris, in 1999. He had impressed many even before his 10th birthday with Paris FC and, at the age of 12, after being monitored for some time by Paris Saint-Germain, he signed terms with France's most successful club.
Soumaré played with and against players two years older than him while at PSG.
As Leicester City were crowned as English champions against all odds in 2016, it was also a summer which saw the aspiring midfielder help PSG’s Under-19s win the French Championnat National and reach the final of the UEFA Youth League despite only recently turning 17.
Youth players develop at different paces. Some bloom later after several years spent finding their feet. Others shine early and keep the torch alight. Soumaré was definitely the latter – getting fitter with each passing year, earning more and more plaudits and admirers along the way.
The next season, the young Frenchman, now 18, starred for PSG’s reserve side in the fourth tier of French football but, in 2017, Soumaré made the decision to leave the club in pursuit of first team football. Marcelo Bielsa’s Lille, in Ligue 1, was his chosen location.
Marc Ingla, the chief executive at Stade Pierre-Mauroy, credited the youngster’s maturity upon completing the deal. “We must not forget that he is only 18-years-old,” he said.
It wasn't long before Soumaré was representing his country at youth level.
The 2017/18 campaign would ultimately be a bitterly disappointing one for Lille as Christophe Galtier replaced Bielsa just in time to prevent relegation by a solitary point. It would not be too much of an overstatement to say that Soumaré’s cameo displays were a rare highlight.
Despite one of those outings coming during a damaging 3-0 loss to Dijon at Christmas, Galtier elected to talk about the second-half substitute instead of the wider issues facing his side.
“The match was difficult for Soumaré, but he has a lot of good qualities and it is clear he is going to progress quickly,” the newly-installed coach told the assembled media at full-time.
The then 19-year-old was already being touted for great things with reports in French media suggesting English sides were showing an interest.
Soumaré's play in possession was earning many plaudits as Lille competed in the UEFA Champions League.
Soumaré stayed in northern France, on the Deûle River, to play a prominent role in Lille's rapid recovery, as Galtier guided Les Dogues to second in Ligue 1. The 22 appearances made in 2018/19 led to another 30 outings a year later, with Lille again in European contention, finishing fourth.
A vibrant, attacking and youthful side were winning new supporters in France and Soumaré was gradually transitioning from impact sub into a key first-team star. He began to feature highly in stats charts for passes, dribbles and carries, as well as in defensive areas such as possession retention and tackles.
The speed and efficiency of his play became perhaps his most laudable trait in 2020/21 as he was given a platform to showcase his abilities as a reliable figure in possession of the ball.
With Galtier still in charge, Soumaré and his Lille team-mates delivered on the promise they had shown over previous terms, losing just three Ligue 1 games all season, collecting 83 points and lifting only the fourth top-flight title in the club's history, even toppling the mighty PSG.
The 2020/21 campaign was a landmark one as Soumaré and Lille lifted the Ligue 1 title.
Their UEFA Europa League campaign also included a landmark 3-0 triumph over AC Milan and Soumaré – once the archetypal impact sub – made 41 appearances in all competitions.
While the goalscoring exploits of Burak Yılmaz and Yusuf Yazıcı rightly took much of the plaudits, Lille’s No.24 was the engine room, forcing them forwards at every turn.
The man they affectionally call ‘Bouba’ in northern France had finally broken through during a campaign which could, arguably, be labelled Lille's greatest-ever Ligue 1 season.
The 6ft 2in central midfielder who was first fast-tracked and then made to wait for his big chance is Leicester City’s newest signing. Now it’s our turn to wait to see him in action.
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