M’Baye Niang 17 Striker Milan
So a young player makes his debut and does well (or to tick off the appropriate cliché ‘bursts onto the scene’), has a little run of games continuing to look good and scores a goal or two - what has to happen next in 99% of all footballing cases?
Well naturally he must be lauded as ‘phenomenal’ and the new *insert any player with a passing resemblance* immediately. Pressure is then heaped on accordingly, a move to a massive club touted and sometimes taken. Some footballer’s buckle under the weight of this praise and then criticism (Keirrison is currently on his fifth loan spell since joining Barca), some never warranted the hype in the first place and quietly progress on to the average career that was always their real destiny (Ben Sahar anyone? Anyone?), and the others are generally Neymar (Neymar).
And so we come to M’Baye Niang, duly tagged a ‘phenomenon’ by management at Caen, now residing in the red and black half of Milan after exactly 30 appearances and 5 goals over two seasons in French football. Which category will he fall into we wonder?
First comes the good, Niang has shown already he has the potential to be special in the future if he continues to develop. He is the second youngest player ever to score in the top tier of French football and in glimpses looked a class above his former team-mates at Caen. He tore through the youth system and forced his way into first team thinking, couple the form with his manager at the time’s willingness to take risks (Newcastle United alumni Franck Dumas seeing as you asked) and Niang the phenomenon was born. Arsenal were the first club to register an interest and if you believe all that you read on the Internet, they retain that to this day.
Second to the talent is the natural athleticism still so desired by today’s scouting networks in spite of Spain’s success with small and gifted over big and strong. He’s the requisite six foot in height, quick over 40 yards – electric over 10, and powerfully built to the extent few defenders will be able to outmuscle him on a regular basis. With the ball he has the ability to frighten the biggest and ugliest of defenders, if he can couple that with skill and intelligence you have the makings of a very good player.
You don’t get the volume of praise he courted unless you show something that sparks it and while Milan are not shopping in football’s Beverley Hills anymore, they still moved quickly to tie up a deal for him when the likes of Everton and Newcastle seemed poised to strike. There is something different enough about Niang, just about enough to justify the move, but before we get carried away let’s make something clear. Milan have gambled on potential over evidence, he is as far from the finished article as he was on the day he made his debut and he already ticks the box marked ‘issues’.
To say Niang is raw is downplaying things, a lot. Part of the immense hype has been served by the unwritten law that if a player plays even a small part in first team affairs at the age of 16, they must be brilliant. He has shown hints that the talent is in there but it must added that’s it – hints, glimpses and flashes, nothing consistent yet, nothing truly noteworthy.
Having arrived with the requisite fanfare at the end of the 2010/11 season with 3 goals in 7 appearances (in particular a goal on the last day of the season in a 2-2 draw with Marseille sent things into overdrive) and to banners marked ‘next big thing’ from those versed in French youth football, last year signs of the potential realities of his future career crept in.
Caen slipped to a deserved relegation and Niang failed to provide the inspiration to put up a fight. 2 goals in 23 appearances, a couple of injuries, an admission he’d slacked off in the first half of the season and ‘didn’t deserve to play’ from both player and manager were the main headlines to report, but beyond that there were also more worrying signs he might never quite live up to that initial explosion.
He fell out with youth coaches at French international level in a somewhat public way and came within a whisker of representing Senegal to the extent of it being widely reported he had been called up to their full squad. He declared himself eligible for France and has now earned a couple of U21 caps, but a cloud remains in an international set-up that really has no need for another disruptive influence. So far a call up to the full squad has yet to materialize and in truth, it seems a long way off yet.
Since joining Milan he has also been arrested for driving without a license, a story with a footnote that he allegedly told Police officers he was actually his team mate Bakaye Traore to try and avoid conviction - a fact denied by Niang in an apology statement but never the less a worrying indication that he may be struggling with the limelight somewhat. Comparisons were made with Balotelli at the peak of the hype, let’s hope they remain drawn from his playing style and not a ‘colourful’ off-pitch life.
His Milan career so far has yet to get going on the pitch (less than 15 minutes of football played in Serie A to date) but when you look at their options, you have to feel that he will get a regular run in the side at some point. He will need to adapt to the pressure of a big club quickly but he will get patience from his coaches as they don’t really have any other choice in the medium term. His pace and strength could serve him very well in Italy, or he may be destined for a middling Milan career and several loans away from the club as his contract runs down, only time will tell.
So he finds himself at the grand old age of 17 and at the first crossroads of his career. Regardless of current financial position, Milan are still a huge club and represent a massive challenge for a young striker to take on. The road to the first team is difficult and paved only with hard work - can Niang focus and grow up enough to walk it? We’re genuinely not sure.
Last year was a bit of a horror show in nearly every respect with brief moments of optimism scattered far too far apart. You get the feeling Niang’s future prospects are almost completely dependent on exactly how much he’s learned from the experience, and how hard he wants to work to achieve his full potential.
“Having shaken Ligue 1 as a 16-year-old, Niang found the transition to first-team regular at Caen a bit more tricky, perhaps not helped by then-coach Franck Dumas' brutal comment that it wasn't his inexperience at the root of his problems, but a need "to move his arse". At 17 he's still a bit wet behind the ears (and was forced to make a grovelling apology after being caught driving with no licence shortly after arrival in Italy), but he is an instinctive finisher with pace to burn, and will get opportunities in a relatively-threadbare squad.”– Andy Brassell (UEFA, The Independent, BBC)
D Relegation and disruption are all that followed the huge hype but the difference with Niang is that he has a fresh start already, can he make the most of it?