In time, it will be possible to trace the career roots of some many talented players back to the 2016 u17 European Championship in Azerbaijan. Youth tournaments don’t draw big viewing numbers, especially not when they take place in the same years as their senior equivalent. Anybody who did tune in, though, will now exactly how rich that competition was.
Two years on, some of its brightest stars are beginning to poke through the top soil. Kai Havertz is now a senior German international, Diogo Dalot has signed for Manchester United, and Matthijs de Ligt has eleven caps for Holland. Justin Kluivert has recently joined Roma and Ruben Vinagre, who spent last season on-loan with Wolverhampton Wanderers, moved to Molineux permanently over the summer.
England performed reasonable well. A team containing Mason Mount, Ryan Sessegnon and Reiss Nelson qualified from their group, only to be eliminated in the quarter-finals by eventual finalists Spain. Portugal would win the tournament and, while top-scorer Jose Gomes is yet to make any sort of impression at Benfica, few would argue that he and they were the standouts.
France had a dreadful time, though. Eliminated without scoring a goal, they departed with just a single point to their name. Sweden and England both qualified ahead of them and Bernard Diomede’s side returned home with their tail between their legs. It was a strange series of performances, because France really weren’t that bad. They were hopelessly profligate admittedly, but there were still parts of that side which functioned well. Aurélien Nguiamba looked like a tiny version of N’Golo Kante and Hakim El Mokeddem impressed with his skill and direct running from wide positions.
Nobody stood out more than Mickael Cuisance, though. He was noticeably bigger than many of his teammates and he evidently knew how to use that physical advantage. But he was also outrageously gifted. A sweet ball-striker with an educated left-foot, but also a passing imagination which allowed him to use it to maximum effect across different distances.
Cuisance didn’t score or create any goals, and was quickly forgotten once the knockout stages began. He wasn’t dominant in any of his games, but he had an elusive quality: when he received the ball, you wanted to see what would happen next – not least because he had one of the finest disguised passes anyone could wish to see. Part of that was the context, an illusion created by the imperfections of youth football, but – really – it was a Jimmy Connors sliced-backhand of a weapon, a vicious incision which seemed to come from nowhere.
He was a Nancy player at the time and he would never make a first-team appearance. For a while, his future seemed to be in England, with Manchester City, but a move was never agreed and, in 2017, he joined Borussia Mönchengladbach. There, he would taste senior football for the first time, making a debut Bundesliga appearance off the bench in a 2-0 win over Stuttgart.
His career hasn’t exploded in the year since, but there are signs of it bubbling. He was the club’s Player Of The Month in December 2017 and January 2018, and clearly did enough to earn the trust of head-coach Dieter Hecking, who started him nine times and introduced him 15 times from the bench. In June, he signed a new five-year contract, with Sporting Director Max Eberl describing Cuisance as “one of the great surprises of last season”. That would have been about right, too, because the sense is of a player well ahead of schedule; naturally, Gladbach have been quick to offer that extension.
To date, his progress has come without much tangible production and perhaps that’s one of the reasons why Cuisance doesn’t show up in analytics models or periodically on those long lists of players to watch out for. He isn’t a. A solitary assist in 14 months of league football isn’t enough to draw comparison with someone like Havertz. Additionally, while Gladbach have started the new season with a surge (they’re currently second), he’s played just 31 minutes of football. To treat him as definitively ‘special’ or class him as a true wunderkind would be an embellishment, but there’s time for his status to change. Naturally, this is 2018 and Football Manager forecasts tend to sway opinions, but it’s important to separate the real from the imaginary. Cuisance is highly promising, he’s not rocketing for the stars just yet. Those clever alogorithms ignore almost every factor which dictates success.
What can be said, though, is that the glint he had in 2016 survives. Senior football is more risk-averse and his role within it hasn’t been anything like as a free (he operated as No.10 for that flawed French side, more commonly a central-midfielder now), but the passing ability is certainly there and so is that wonderful disguise in his play which allows him to open a defence within the blink of an eye.
It’s intriguing, because it’s that skill (along with the usual variables) which will probably define his trajectory. Naturally, there are plenty of YouTube compilations which testify to his ability to beat players one-on-one and to impress with little dashes of skill, but it’s his awareness which really stands out – the propensity to identify what’s going on around him, to manipulate those developments to his team’s advantage, and to do it in a way which minimises a defence’s time to react.
Those attributes are becoming increasingly valuable. The wealth disparities in modern football mean that high-powered teams regularly face deep-lying, unambitious opponents. Naturally, that places a premium on line-breaking creative players who can see particular passes and place them at the feet of goal-scorers. Theoretically, he fits that criteria. Should the rest of his game grow alongside that natural attribute, he could become on of those roving, complete attacking-midfielders who attract so much attention.
None of which is to say that Cuisance can start counting his Ballon d’Ors or that, in five years’ time, he’ll be a £50m player running a Champions League game. The point, though, is that he might be and that makes him worth watching. He has a chance to be a very good player.