Appearances mean a lot in football nowadays. Focus is often given to how players act off the field, in an age where anything they do could be splashed across social media within hours, and young supporters are influenced by everything from their idol’s choice of boots to their preferred haircut. Unfortunately for Florian Thauvin, it was an unusual choice of appearance that would come to depict his ill-fated spell in England.
He couldn’t have hoped for a worse start than being lambasted by a legend of the club he had only recently joined on the country’s biggest football show. Speaking on BBC’s Match of the Day, a furious Alan Shearer said: “This is a serious business we’re in here, it was funny on the first day of the season, it’s not funny anymore,” after Newcastle United’s new winger opted to arrive for a home game against Watford dressed in a full tuxedo.
Thauvin has since spoken about the impact the comments of Shearer, and others, had on his confidence after moving to the Magpies from Marseille for £13m back in 2015, telling L’Equipe that he “was not the only one wearing a bowtie” and in the style of his now-teammate, Mario Balotelli, questioned “why is it always me?”
Regardless of the inspiration behind his 007 look, this unusual incident would prove to be the biggest talking point from his spell in the Premier League, despite arriving as the club’s marquee signing. The winger played just a handful of times for the Magpies, rarely exhibiting the type of form Newcastle fans had anticipated when Steve McClaren signed the highly regarded Frenchman.
McClaren didn’t hold back in praising his new man when he arrived, as managers often do to take the pressure off, even going as far as labelling him “one of the best young players in Europe”. For a short while, it looked as though his confidence was well placed.
In a 4-1 League Cup drubbing of Northampton, Thauvin notched his first goal in English football with a spectacular volley and went on to assist the other three. Whilst it may have been against lower league opposition, excitement for their new man among the Newcastle faithful began to grow. Unfortunately for them, it just wasn’t meant to be for Thauvin in England.
Back in France, Thauvin had built up quite the image of himself – but not all of it positive. It was at the small, second-tier club of Bastia, on the French island of Corsica, that he first started to attract attention, helping them win Ligue 2 in 2012 and earning himself a £3.5m move to giants Lille the following year.
Thauvin’s talent was clear, winning Ligue 1’s Young Player of the Year with Bastia before his transfer, and Lille seemed like the perfect move. Not so big that he wouldn’t get a chance but big enough that he could showcase his exceptional quality. Then came the controversy.
Following the end of his six-month loan deal back to Bastia, which had been agreed as part of the move, problems with his transfer to Lille began to surface. The indignant reaction caused by the wearing of a tuxedo was a rain shower in comparison with the storm he created by his decision that he no longer wanted to play for Lille, as he had agreed just a few months prior.
The subject dominated the French media. His image as the poster boy of a new era of French football, forged by France’s Under-20 World Cup win in which he starred, was tarnished and had been replaced with one associated with selfishness and a lack of loyalty. But what had caused this sudden and seemingly brash course of action?
Reports suggest that Lille’s change of manager from Rudi Garcia to René Girard may have contributed to the Frenchman’s unhappiness. Moreover, Lille’s lack of European football and his discontent with the wages of his contract had seemingly disrupted a move that was meant to see the coming of age of an exceptional talent and, for LOSC, someone who could recreate the magic that Eden Hazard had not long ago performed in a red shirt.
Thauvin won few plaudits for the way in which he handled the situation, going on strike and refusing to train to force through a move to an interested Marseille, closely observing the situation like a hawk ready to swoop. Luckily for him, they did, and his move came.
Sometimes, two things just go together perfectly. Bread and butter; gin and tonic; Florian Thauvin and Marseille.
His reputation may have taken a serious blow, but that didn’t stop the winger from showing what he could do on a bigger stage during his first spell at the club before joining Newcastle, particularly under the management of Marcelo Bielsa, where he looked on the path to greatness.
It was following his return to OM for a second spell that the excellence Steve McClaren anticipated, and which was exhibited so clearly in that League Cup tie against Northampton, has been consistently shown. After scoring 22 league goals last season, Thauvin again handsomely leads OM’s scoring chart this, sitting in fifth overall in the top scorers in Ligue 1 along with the world’s most expensive player, Neymar.
Last season, he played a key part in Marseille’s run to the final of the Europa League, scoring in the semi-final against Red Bull Salzburg before eventually losing out to Atlético Madrid in the final, a defeat which would see them fail to qualify the Champions League altogether after finishing fourth in Ligue 1. His exploits in the league last season also saw him nominated for player of the season, but would come up short to PSG’s Neymar.
Now playing under Rudi Garcia, the man he expected to be his manager at Lille, the ability he has shown since his ill-fated spell in England has been nothing short of magnificent. With lighting quick feet, a turn of pace that would frighten any full back and an Arjen Robben-like ability to cut in from out wide, any Newcastle fan who has seen Thauvin play since he departed could be forgiven for thinking they are watching a different player.
This season’s performance against Amiens reminded everyone just how talented he is, scoring a wonderful hat-trick in a 3-1 win including a pinpoint, curling free-kick which flew into the top corner. Yet things haven’t quite gone to plan for Marseille this season, despite some brilliant individual performances from their star man, and there remains an air of uncertainty around his future.
It seems difficult to comprehend how such a talented player could fail to make an impact at one of the Premier League’s bottom clubs. Thauvin has since revealed that moving to England at such a young age was a big part of why things didn’t work out, telling UEFA’s website: “It was too early. It’s a transfer that was done quickly. Normally, we take our time, we think, but for me it’s done too quickly [after] the departure of Bielsa.”
”Footballers who come to play in England often talk about their struggles in dealing with the physicality of the Premier League compared to other competitions, an opinion the Frenchman shares, also telling UEFA that “you have to go through the bodybuilding box before going to play in the Premier League”.
Premier League clubs have so far resisted the urge to send their new signings on pre-season bodybuilding camps, but he certainly won’t be the last player to find the step up in toughness a tricky one. Though Thauvin has never been a player who has relied on strength to succeed, his performances for OM have suggested he has adapted his game to best suit his skills, even doing enough to be included in the 2018 World Cup-winning squad ahead of Anthony Martial and Kingsley Coman.
And, with his spectacular form showing no signs of halting, it’s no wonder the giants of Europe are watching. London has been touted as a possible destination for the Frenchman, with Chelsea rumoured to be interested, though these whispers appear to have hushed somewhat given the Blues’ recent £58m acquisition of Christian Pulisic.
A potential swap for the blue and white of Marseille for the red and white of Arsenal has too been tipped by some media outlets, and with Thauvin doing little to put the minds of Marseille fans to rest with the latest statement on his future, it looks increasingly likely that another move could be a real possibility.
Marseille currently sit outside the Champions League qualification spots in Ligue 1, and speaking to Maritima TV, he said: “I need maximum to progress in my career. I do not know what the future holds. I will stay at Marseille for as long as is required and for as long as it improves me … so long as the club enables me to play at the highest level and to maximise progress.”
Interested English clubs will face stiff competition from elsewhere, though. Bayern Munich are said to be looking to him as a potential replacement for Robben and Franck Ribéry, while Atlético Madrid and Internazionale are also rumoured to be keeping a watchful eye on any developments. Marseille’s president Jacques-Henri Eyraud has previously claimed the club would ignore an €80m bid for their star talent. But with Thauvin seemingly setting his sights on a higher stage, it remains to be seen whether his chairman will stay true to his word.
His image and appearance might have been the sources of criticism in recent times, but it is Florian Thauvin’s talent which has him on the path to becoming one of Europe’s top players.
By Dan Bennett @dandbennett97