This is taken from the GFFN 100, our leading 150-page FREE publication ranking the best 100 players in France, see the full list and read every profile right here.
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Should a goalkeeping performance linger long in the memory, it is more often than not for negative reasons. This isn’t the case for Alban Lafont, whose performance against Paris Saint-Germain will be remembered for all the right reasons. Only 14 players have ever been given a perfect 10 by L’Équipe, and the Nantes goalkeeper can now count himself as one of them.
Lafont is only the fourth Frenchman to receive that much-coveted and so rarely awarded top rating by L’Équipe. Franck Sauzée and Bruno Martini both received the score in 1988 for their performances in a France under 21 win against Greece. More recently, Kylian Mbappé received the rating for his four goals against Kazakhstan in 2021.
Lafont may not have broken any records during his performance against PSG, but he was undoubtedly the difference between victory and defeat for Les Canaris. PSG racked up 3.93 expected goals during the match, yet could only beat Lafont once, as Nantes went on to win 3-1 as outperforming xG became Lafont’s forte last season. In Europe’s top five divisions, only Walter Benítez, José Sa, Kevin Trapp, and Thibaut Courtois recorded a better post-shot expected goals (PSxG) than Lafont.
For his club, he is an ever-present, no player in the top five European leagues played more minutes than Lafont last season. However, he remains absent from the international scene. The Nantes goalkeeper received his first call-up to Didier Deschamps side in September, although he is yet to feature for Les Bleus. He does, however, have 13 caps for the U21 side.
He is part of the nouvelle vague of French goalkeepers. The old guard continues to cling-on, but for how long remains to be seen. Deschamps chose to take Hugo Lloris (35), Alphonse Areola (29) and Steve Mandanda (39) to the World Cup in Qatar. By the next major tournament, it would be expected that Lafont, Mike Maignan of AC Milan, and potentially Illan Mesilier of Leeds United will have broken through. Their time is coming. Maignan currently looks to be the natural successor to Lloris, but Lafont is certainly stating his case, and emphatically. 2022 has been a brilliant year for Lafont, not just on a personal level, but on a collective level too. He was part of the side that surprisingly won the Coupe de France, starting and keeping a clean sheet in the final against OGC Nice.
That victory allowed Lafont to compete in European competition for the first time in his career this season. As a club, Nantes have struggled in the competition, and conceded 11 goals during the group stage, but Les Canaris nonetheless progressed. Crucially, he kept a clean sheet in the final game of the group stage, allowing his side to secure the victory against Olympiacos and secure progression to the knockout stages. Nantes haven’t thrived in domestic competition either this season. The only benefit of their porous defence this season is that it allows Lafont to shine in goal, and he is an eye-catching goalkeeper – a brilliant shot-stopper.
He also fulfils the crucial function of a modern goalkeeper – he is a confident distributor of the ball, and is particularly impressive in his long-range passing. Last season, only Brest’s Marco Bizot made more distance with their progressive passes. This season, only four players have made more ground with their passes. However, to further progress, there is an argument that Lafont should leave the Beaujoire at the end of this season. During his four years in the west of France, Lafont has developed at a steady pace. He arrived off the back of an underwhelming, but perhaps ultimately beneficial spell in Serie A at Fiorentina. However, Nantes are currently 15th in Ligue 1, and the time has maybe come where he has outgrown Les Canaris. He now looks ready to make the next step.
For their part, Nantes will also be wanting to cash in. As reported by L’Équipe in the summer, Les Canaris were offering Lafont, as well as teammate Ludovic Blas, to teams for as little as €20m. Given that the French goalkeeper will only have one year left on his contract at the end of the current season, it is reasonable to expect that he could be an even cheaper option at the end of this season.
As reported by sources contacted by Get French Football News, Leicester City were interested in the player last summer as a replacement for Kasper Schmeichel, who left the Foxes to join Ligue 1 side OGC Nice. Ultimately, Leicester made no signing, and opted to promote Danny Ward. Given his inability to convince as the Leicester number one so far this season, Brendan Rodgers’ side could certainly reignite their interest at the end of the season. In France, Olympique de Marseille have previously been a suitor of the France youth international, and many top clubs in Ligue 1 could be in the market for a goalkeeper this summer. They would be intelligent to consider Lafont as an option.
For Lafont, there is no doubt it has been an extraordinary year. A Coupe de France winner, the recipient of a L’Équipe 10 rating and, for the first time, a competitor in European competition. As he said before the Europa League campaign, to play in European competition is something that he had waited for since he was little. Having achieved that goal, he must now set his sights higher, and he almost certainly will.
He has the not so thrilling task of keeping Nantes in the top division of French football this season. Given that four teams will make the drop to Ligue 2, staying up is far from a guarantee. There are lots of unknowns about his future, but he will almost certainly be competing at a higher level next season. Making the step up at club level may allow him to pierce the Les Bleus squad and finally topple the old guard.
Luke Entwistle | GFFN