20 Striker Lille Switzerland
2014 has been...
A year spoiled. At the end of the summer striker Michael Frey returned to action with BSC Young Boys and quickly found his goalscoring groove in the Swiss Super League, bagging three goals by the middle of August and looking likely to add more whenever the service sent his way carried the vaguest whiff of a threat. By the end of that month he was a Lille player and his introduction to French football has been a disappointing spell.
Frey was born in Münsingen in central Switzerland two days after Roberto Baggio’s crucial penalty had sailed over the crossbar in the 1994 World Cup final. He rose through the ranks at Young Boys and made his senior debut in 2012, racking up over 70 league appearances before his departure in the last transfer window.
In terms of potential and physique, Frey is a tempting prospect for Swiss football supporters. He’s a tall and robust figure whose stance bears a passing resemblance to Marco Streller, the player to whom Frey might be seen as the heir at national team level, just as an heir is needed. But Switzerland have gone another way and Frey hasn’t been able to make the step up from Under-21 level, where he’s picked up six caps and scored twice since making his debut last year.
The transfer that took him to France cost LOSC a relatively modest €3m and he seemed a worthwhile gamble as a player to come in and cover the absence of Salomon Kalou and eventually replace Divock Origi, the fellow youngster who’s been loaned back to the club after securing a move to Liverpool in the Premier League. Lille are yet to see much of the quality that made Frey worth taking a punt on.
At the start of the season he looked in fine fettle in Switzerland. He was ambitious, trying acrobatic efforts at goal, working the channels breathlessly and looking ever so slightly like the Streller comparison might be relevant in regards to style as well as girth. As a lone striker he shouldered responsibility well, offered a physical presence and gobbled up the dirty work like so much holey cheese.
Just months later, he’s struggling to get a foothold at Lille and he’s struggling on merit. He’s plainly not ready for such a step up, even with Lille out of form and in a problematic spot of their own. A club playing in European competition might even be a stretch for him once he matures, such is the clarity of his forlorn battle against the tide in Ligue 1 action so far.
On paper he’s got a lot going for him when things are chugging along well, and, in Switzerland, even when they weren’t. The workrate isn’t just an attribute, it’s an attitude. He shirks nothing and offers a hulking target at all times. Frey can really motor when he gets his speed up, is fairly assured on the ball and links play nicely. At Young Boys he even showed he has a little trick in his locker, the kind that can get him out of trouble when holding the ball up in a tight space. His movement, technique and reactions in the penalty area are good, but none have been displayed with anything approaching regularity in Ligue 1.
At times he’s become quiet. He lets other players take the spotlight while he fades out and takes his tidy link game with him. It’s a sign of youthfulness and Lille supporters would do well to respect the fact that he is only 20 years of age. Nevertheless, there’s no denying he isn’t doing the business for them. He’s started five league matches, coming on as a substitute six times and scoring just once.
That goal came in his last start on November 1st. Since then Origi and Nolan Roux have taken over striking duties, leaving Frey to feed off a few minutes from the bench most weeks, as well as a place in the starting line-up in Europa League matches. Even in a poorly performing attack, and with Lille 15th in the table and winless in eight Ligue 1 games, he can’t pin down a place. Some time out of the firing line this winter will hopefully do him some good.
And so to the elephant dans la chambre. Frey might have had a poor start to life in France but Lille ain’t all that without him either. They can’t blame Frey for their terrible season to date, nor can they claim to have developed a fertile playing situation in which to nurture his abilities. So, it’s worth considering that there are mitigating circumstances beyond the obvious uncertainties of youth and inexperience.
Regardless, Frey’s a fighter. He has lumps kicked out of him during physical wars of attrition of his own making. He loves to mix it up, to dish it out, to beat defenders for power and sheer strength of will. Can he apply the same mindset to his own development and role for his club? Over to you, kid.
Every year we look ahead to the following one for the players in this list and their challenges are usually quite obvious. Get into the World Cup squad. Make yourself indispensable. Add some goals, some creative impact, some physical strength. Oust the national team incumbent in your position.
For Frey things are a little different. A few players this year have been disastrous and a handful have really shone, but Frey’s one change of circumstances seems to have knocked the stuffing out of his game somehow. So, for him, the early part of 2015 needs to be about finding a rhythm, calming the nerves, doing the simple things well and taking his chances. Forget caps, forget everything that’s not squarely focused on stitching together some form. Find that Bernese summer groove once more.
Talk will inevitably circulate in January about a loan move and it might be just the thing for him. Perhaps some time in Switzerland would help him find his centre, to settle things down and get Frey ticking over again. Whether he takes some months away from Lille or not, there will come a time in six months when René Girard – assuming he’s still there – will need to discuss Lille’s Origi-shaped hole with his higher-ups at the Métropole. One way or another that’s going to present Frey with his biggest challenge ever, and his response to either being or not being trusted to deliver could define his career.
"Signed at Lille to replace Kalou. He looks broad and strong, but has pace along the ground. Touch and movement needs work if he to make this step up successfully." - Andrew Gibney
"Michael Frey's only league goal so far for Lille came in November's 1-1 draw with St Etienne." - OptaJoe
D Too big a step up, too soon.
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