Perhaps the best compliment that can be paid to Newcastle’s new arrival Florian Lejeune is that he has thrived in a league for which he is not naturally suited. The French centre-back caught the eye of a number of clubs thanks to his impressive performances in LaLiga with Eibar, but he shouldn’t face the same struggle to transition to the British style of football that some other Iberian imports have endured over the years. Now that the 26-year-old has made the switch to England, he should finally feel at home.
Born in Paris, Lejeune started off his footballing journey in France’s lower leagues, learning his trade at a number of clubs around the French capital and then beyond. In 2009, the then-18-year-old was offered a trial with Ligue 2 side Istres and he impressed enough to be offered a contract. Despite this step up to the second tier, few expected he would be scouted by Real Madrid within 18 months, yet that is exactly what happened. The main reason for his sudden and drastic improvement was a positional one, with Lejeune swapping defensive midfield for central defence at Istres and making a name for himself as one of the country’s top centre-back prospects, even making it into France’s Under-20s team.
Ultimately, Real Madrid’s interest never developed into anything more concrete, but he did make the move south and over the border in 2011, when Villarreal came calling. He was placed in their B team squad, which was supposed the bridge his journey to the senior side, but he never did cross it. Sure, he earned a few appearances for the first team, but the fact that these can be counted with one hand means that his time at El Madrigal was anything but a success. Of his three years with the Yellow Submarine, the latter 18 months were spent out on loan with Ligue 1 side Brest. It seemed Lejeune and Spanish football weren’t meant to be.
He did not, however, give up and in the summer of 2014 he moved to second division Girona on a free transfer to start afresh under defensive-minded coach Pablo Machín. The Catalans played with a back-five more often than not and it served them well, as their second-best defence (35 goals conceded in 42 games) took them to within a few minutes from promotion to LaLiga. As one of the team’s standout players, he was signed by Manchester City in the summer of 2015 and immediately loaned back out to Girona. This time the team posted the best defensive record (just 28 goals conceded in 42 games) and came one game away from promotion again, losing out to Osasuna in the playoff final.
That final ended in disaster for the Frenchman, as he collected a red card late on to end his side’s chances, but he made the step up to LaLiga anyway, with minnows Eibar coming calling and paying €1.5m to City for his signature. No longer afforded the safety net of playing in a back five, his transition to a traditional back four was set to be an interesting one. Within just a few weeks, it was clear that he’d have no problem adapting.
Another question was how Lejeune would cope with the style of LaLiga, which is just as stylistically different from the Spanish second tier as the Premier League is from the Championship. Known for passing, pace and flair, LaLiga could have been tough for Lejeune, who does not boast those characteristics. Yet he was still able to make a name for himself as one of the season’s best centre-backs. First and foremost, he was a defender and he consistently won the ball back for Eibar through well-time tackles, excellent positioning and, in particular, aerial dominance. The six foot three defender won the ball in the air 108 times, which was the seventh-most of all players, while his 78% success rate in aerial duels was the best of the top 10. Once he’d recovered possession, though, he didn’t always seem to know what to do with it next, often offloading the ball to a teammate to get the next move going.
That’s because Lejeune is a ball-winner, not a ball-player, as his 75% pass completion percentage demonstrates. And that is why he should thrive in the Premier League. Eibar’s style was probably the most English of all LaLiga teams in 2016/17, as the Basque club – who finished 10th, exceeding all expectations – consistently played the ball long and did so quickly, directing it to their wingers and crossing into the box in the hope that centre-forward Sergi Enrich would do something.
Of course, Newcastle have a Spanish coach in Rafa Benítez, but the former Liverpool boss has trained in England long enough to know how the Premier League works and to ask Lejeune to do what he does best, which is disrupting opposition attacks and winning the ball back, rather than ask him to be the player who launches a 20-pass triangulated move from his own penalty area. He should be given license to clear the danger and to focus on little else, and he’ll excel if so. Whatever the French equivalent of “if in doubt, put it out” is, Lejeune clearly had it drilled into him from a young age by his coaches back in Paris.
Costing €10m, it’s clear Lejeune is coming to St James’s Park to start. That may be harsh on whichever one of Ciaran Clark and Jamaal Lascelles has to concede playing time, but all signs point to the Frenchman being a step up and being enough of a defensive mopper-up to anchor Newcastle back into the Premier League. Lejeune was born for it.