This feature is part of The Academy Way
IN THE AFTERMATH OF ARSENAL’S first Emirates Cup win since 2010, following a 1-0 win against VfL Wolfsburg, the spotlight was firmly focused on one player. Kevin De Bruyne, the hustling Belgian playmaker subject of admiring glances from around Europe, wasn’t the centre of attention, neither was Nicklas Bendtner on his return to the Emirates Stadium.
Instead, 17-year-old French winger Jeff Reine-Adelaide stole the show, assisting Theo Walcott’s winning goal and sending journalists into frenzy to try and find more information on Arsène Wenger’s latest gem.
Reine-Adelaide couples languid dribbling with serene balance, leaving De Bruyne chasing shadows following one particular piece of skill. While much has and will be written about Reine-Adelaide, especially in lieu of the fact he wont be loaned out next season, it is worth looking at the wider picture, as the 17-year-old is a product of one of France’s most prolific academies: Racing Club de Lens’ La Gaillette.
The late 1990s and early 2000s represented the greatest period in the history of Les Sang et Or, when the club won Ligue 1 and both the UEFA Intertoto Cup and the Coupe de la Ligue twice, as well as reaching the semi-final of the UEFA Cup. However recently times have been tough for Lens, being relegated from France’s top division in 2008, 2011 and again last season.
The season was a disaster from start to finish, with supporters forced to travel to Amiens, over 100 kilometres away, because the Stade Bollaert-Delelis was under renovation ahead of Euro 2016. Furthermore, the club were hit with a transfer embargo, meaning manager Antoine Kombouare was unable to strengthen his squad, although any attempts to reinforce the squad would have been futile as Lens’ promotion the previous season was deemed invalid meaning the club would have been relegated regardless of league positioning.
One silver lining of not being able to purchase players in the summer was that Kombouare was forced to turn to Lens’ youth team to supplement his first-team squad, and there are few academies around Europe as fertile as La Gaillette.
The Centre technique et sportif de la Gaillette opened in October 2002, comprising of a sprawling 22 hectares for the senior side and Lens’ youth teams. As well as 12 training pitches, La Gaillette provides accommodation for more than 100 young players.
As with any project of this scale, Lens’ ambitious academy-based drive was initially slow to yield results, with only three players of note progressing into the first-team, although the sale of Gaël Kakuta to Chelsea in 2007 remains a bone of contention.
Firstly left-back Benoît Assou-Ekotto broke into the first-team during the 2003-04 season, making his debut against Paris Saint-Germain as a 19-year-old, making three league appearances as Lens finished in 8th position.
Assou-Ekotto was joined in the Lens squad by midfielder Jonathan Lacourt for the 2005-06 season in what turned out to be the Cameroon international’s last season at the club before he moved to Tottenham Hotspur for around £3.5 million, having made over 60 appearances for the club.
Lacourt, a France under-20 international, made over 40 league appearances between his debut in 2005 and leaving for Valenciennes in 2008 for around £1 million.
The next season, 17-year-old winger Kévin Monnet-Paquet, another French youth international, made his first-team bow, appearing as a substitute on five occasions. Monnet-Paquet stayed with Lens until 2011 when he moved to Lorient have played nearly 100 league games for Les Sang et Or.
When the club were relegated from Ligue 1 in the 2007-08 season, after finishing two points behind Toulouse and three points behind Paris Saint-Germain, the academy began to reap dividends. However, one major issue was convincing promising young players to stick with the club despite relegation, as was the case with defender Timothée Kolodziejczak.
Despite being just 16-years-old Kolodziejczak was hot property following Lens’ relegation, with the defender, who was already part of France’s under-18 squad, refusing to sign a five-year contract the club were offering. With Manchester United and Olympique Lyonnais bidding for the player Lens were powerless to hold onto one of their prized assets, who joined Lyon on a season-long loan before signing a permanent deal for £2 million the next summer.
Now 23, Kolodziejczak recently won the Europa League with Sevilla, whom he joined in August 2014 from Nice for a fee of around £2.5 million.
Lenswere promoted as champions following a solitary season in Ligue 2, meaning a return to Ligue 1 for the 2009-10 season. That season Steeven Joseph-Monrose, Samuel Atrous, William Rémy and Samba Sow were promoted into Jean-Guy Wallemme’s first-team, although Joseph-Monrose was loaned to LB Chateauroux for the second half of the season.
Of the quartet, defensive midfielder Sow, a Mali international, and centre-back William Rémy, a France under-19 international, made the biggest impressions, appearing over 100 times collectively for club, although both have now departed the club, playing their football at Kayserispor and Montpellier respectively.
After finishing in 11th place in Ligue 1 Lens were blessed with two exceptional defensive talents through their youth academy for the 2010-11 season in Raphaël Varane (pictured) and Serge Aurier. Full-back Aurier had made two appearances during the prior season but the campaign represented his first as a regular first-team player, while centre-back Varane was yet to start a game.
Aurier made 27 league appearances during the season, with Varane appearing 23 times, as both earned plaudits for their mature displays, with Varane even captaining the side on one occasion, despite the fact that Lens were relegated along with Monaco and Arles-Avignon, winning just seven games.
Aurier stayed with Lens for the first half of the Ligue 2 season before joining Toulouse in a £1 million deal and then subsequently PSG, initially on loan and then on a permanent basis for £7 million this summer. Varane, on the other hand, was instantly snapped up by Real Madrid for a fee of around £9 million, and has gone on to become of the best centre-backs in Europe, despite being only 22-years-old.
As with the last relegation, Ligue 2 allowed Lens’ youngsters to come to the fore once again, with imposing midfielder Geoffrey Kondogbia impressing in his solitary season as a starter before joining Sevilla in a £2.5 million deal. Subsequent moves to Monaco and Inter mean Kondogbia has already racked up over £30 million in transfer fees, not to mention breaking into France’s midfield alongside the likes of Paul Pogba, Blaise Matuidi and Morgan Schneiderlin.
Struggling with finances, Lens have seen more young prospects leave the club for minimal transfer fees, such as Ange-Freddy Plumain to Fulham, Alexandre Coeff to Udinese, Dmitri Kevin Cavare to Rennes and most recently Baptiste Guillaume to fierce rivals Lille.
Arsenal signed youngsters Yassin Fortune and Reine-Adelaide with the latter already looking like a special player during his cameos in the Emirates Cup.
Lens’ precarious finances mean they will continue to struggle to hold onto their best youngsters, but that hopefully wont stop the club bringing through players for the first-team. The worry is that if the financial issues continue to deteriorate and investment in the club isn’t forthcoming then La Gaillette would be an obvious place to begin to make cuts, despite the fact that it has produced so many talented footballers.
By James Robinson. Follow @JvmesJournalist