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Wednesday 08 August 2012

Overseas arrivals #1: French football's finest

Ligue 1 expert Matthew Spiro assesses the Premier League's latest French imports

  • Olivier Giroud is a late developer who believes his best years are ahead of him at Arsenal

  • Eden Hazard has the ability to boost Chelsea's Premier League campaign

  • Romain Amalfitano will be looking to make a name for himself at Newcastle

  • Samba Diakite impressed with his strength and drive while on loan at QPR last season

  • Modibo Maiga thrived when playing alongside a big front man at Sochaux

Some of the most exceptional players to have plied their trade in the Barclays Premier League started out in French football.

From Thierry Henry to Eric Cantona, Patrice Evra to Robert Pires, David Ginola to Marcel Desailly, myriad stellar talents have made a name for themselves after crossing the English Channel.

This season a new raft of Ligue 1 imports will be looking to make their mark on the Barclays Premier League, and in the first of our features on overseas summer signings, Paris-based football writer Matthew Spiro casts his expert eye over the latest Gallic arrivals.

Olivier Giroud (Arsenal)

What can you tell us about Olivier Giroud?
Matthew Spiro:
Giroud is a big, strong target man of a centre-forward. He has a cultured left-foot and scores a lot of goals in the air. You could call him an old-fashioned English-style centre-forward, but he’s also surprisingly quick for his size.

Is it true that he almost didn't make it as a footballer?
He's taken a very roundabout route to the top. He was rejected by club academies when he was younger, and had to really fight his way through the lower leagues. He was even told by his manager at Grenoble that he wasn’t good enough to play in the French second division, so he had to start again with Tours.

"Over the last four years he has made incredible progress every season"
- Matthew Spiro

What changed?
He comes from a middle-class background which is unusual for a French footballer. Perhaps he lacked the hunger at first. But over the last four years he has made incredible progress every season. Three years ago he was top scorer with Tours in the second division and two years ago he had a very good first season at Montpellier. 

So that's where he made his name?
He only scored 12 goals in his first season but he was playing on his own up front and impressed everybody, and the next year he won the league and finished top scorer with 21 goals. In his first start for France he was also superb, scoring in a 2-1 win over Germany. At 25 he feels his best years are still ahead of him and I would go along with that.

Eden Hazard (Chelsea)

How good is Eden Hazard?
Spiro: He won Player of the Year two years running, he won the Young Player of the Year two years running before that and we’ve known about him since he made his debut at 16. He was a regular at 17 and it was really obvious that he was an exceptional talent.

So he has the talent to succeed in the Premier League?
Spiro: He has outgrown the French league and he needs more of a challenge to get the best out of himself. There are times when he hasn't been as effective as he could and he's very self-assured but I think that is a positive because he won’t be worried about sharing a dressing room with big stars.

"Eden is two-footed, quick off the mark, and can go past people very easily"
- Matthew Spiro

Where does he play?
Spiro: In his first few seasons he played on the left side of attack in a 4-3-3 but last season he was given a more central playmaker role and did very well in that position. He's two-footed, quick off the mark, and can go past people very easily. He's got a footballing brain and he can pick passes.

Will he cope with the physicality of the Premier League?
Spiro: He's not a big guy but he's toughened up and he no longer gets knocked off the ball. He's happy to get stuck in. He’s always the most fouled player in France by a long way yet he’s remained relatively injury free.

Thorgan Hazard (Chelsea)

What can you tell us about Eden's younger brother?
Spiro: He is seen as a talented young player but he's never been regarded as a precocious player like Eden so this looks like a signing to help his brother. Whether Thorgan will be loaned out or not I don't know but I think it's too soon for him to be playing regular football for Chelsea.

"This is a massive step up for Thorgan"
- Matthew Spiro

Where does he play?
Spiro: He's an attacking midfielder. Not in the same class as Eden but he was playing second division football last season and he is relatively inexperienced. Eden's side Lille were playing Champions League football last year and have been competing for titles over the last few years, whereas Lens have a very good academy but they are a club that have to sell players in order to survive. So this is a massive step up for Thorgan.

Romain Amalfitano (Newcastle United)

Doesn't he also have a famous brother?
Spiro: Yes, Morgan, who plays for Marseille and made his debut for France last season. Romain is a similar kind of player in that he's diminutive in stature, has very good technique, and is a two-footed player who plays in the attacking midfield role.

"He can play on the right or in the middle behind an attacker"
- Matthew Spiro

Where exactly does he play?
Spiro: He spent last season playing wide on the right for Reims before he got injured and then was involved in a contract dispute. But he can play on the right or in the middle behind an attacker.

How highly do you rate him?
Newcastle aren't taking much of a risk financially as they got him on a free but, like Thorgan Hazard, this will be a big step up to go from a French second division team to a big Premier League team.  People shouldn't expect too much from him in the first season at least. Even though the French presence up there will help him to settle, it will take him some time to get up to speed with Premier League football. 

Samba Diakite (Queens Park Rangers)

What do you think of the former Nancy player?
Spiro: I like him a lot. I actually saw him play against Arsenal when he was on loan at QPR last season. He scored a goal and was superb. He's a powerful midfielder who is technically sound, has good ball control and although he doesn't have an exceptional passing range he has a fantastic engine and he is capable of going past players.

"He can inject momentum and pace into moves by driving through midfield"
- Matthew Spiro

Who would you compare him to?
Spiro: He is not as good as Patrick Vieira but he reminds me of him a little in that he can inject momentum and pace into moves by driving through midfield as well as being a physical, athletic player who defends well and wins a lot of balls. I think he's a very good signing. Lyon were very keen on signing him a year ago, which shows he is highly rated over here.

Modibo Maiga (West Ham United)

What can you tell West Ham fans about Maiga?
Spiro: Modibo is a technical, pacy attacker. He has good speed, close control and dribbling ability to get past players. He doesn't quite have the physical presence to be a lone striker because he doesn't have the strength required for that but as a second striker or playing wide in a 4-3-3 he could be very useful in the Premier League.

In what sort of formation do you think he can flourish?
Spiro: In 2010/11 he helped Sochaux finish fifth when he excelled playing alongside a big Nigerian striker called Ideye Brown. They played really well in an attacking 4-1-3-2 and he was able to feed off knockdowns from Brown. Last season Sochaux struggled for a number for reasons, not least the fact that Brown left.


"I think Hazard will be one of the top three or four standout performers in the Premier League"
- Matthew Spiro

Which of the above will take the Barclays Premier League by storm?
Spiro: Of the above Olivier Giroud and Eden Hazard stand the greatest chance of impressing and, as the price tag would suggest, I think Hazard will be the biggest success.

Do you think he will hit the ground running?
Spiro: It might take him time to settle in but I think Chelsea will give him time if the first month or two don't go smoothly. In the last three or four months of last season he was almost unplayable. I can see Giroud doing well but in my opinion Hazard will be one of the top three or four standout performers in the Premier League.

Which of these players will make your Fantasy Premier League team? To register your team click here.

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Key Points

  • French expert Matthew Spiro predicts success for Chelsea's Eden Hazard
  • Arsenal's Olivier Giroud 'keeps making progress year on year'
  • QPR's Samba Diakite likened to Patrick Vieira