M’Baye Niang. A name that is well known to move Arsenal fans and one that belongs with the likes of “Yann M’Vila” or “Ricky Alvarez” on the list of players that, at a very young age, impressed at their home clubs enough to be linked extensively with a move to Arsenal. However, as the title of the piece should indicate, such a move never took place with M’Baye Niang opting to instead transfer to the Italian giants, AC Milan. So who exactly is he?
Well, M’Baye Niang was born in 1994 and first began playing competitive football at Basse-Seine Les Mureaux. Just 7 years old, Niang would spend his next two years here before being signed by Amicale Sportive de Poissy. It was at AS Poissy that he would begin to make a name for him with word slowly spreading across France of this new precocious talent. 4 years later, Niang was now being chased by the youth academies of some of the top teams in the French league, with scouts watching him from Paris Saint Germain, Lille and the club he would eventually sign on for, Caen. Actually it was a move that almost didn’t happen with the Caen scouts having suspicious that Niang was actually older than he’d claimed. The reason? He was 5ft 9” at just 13 years old.
Nevertheless, Caen did offer him a trial in which he subsequently impressed all those in attendance by scoring a hat-trick. This would prove to be the fledgling steps in his brilliantly successful youth career with Niang going on to tear through the youth ranks of Caen.
For instance, by the time Niang was 15, he was already playing and excelling in the U-19 division, something which his imposing frame undoubtedly helped with. Philippe Tranchant, the coach of the team at the time, was obviously delighted with his progress and went so far as to say “we’ve never seen a player like him at the club before.”
The next year would prove to be good for M’Baye Niang as he went on to break into the Caen reserves (where he spent the majority of the 2010/2011 season). It was actually at this time that scouts from further afield than his own country’s borders started taking interest in the boy from Meulan-en-Yvelines as clubs such as Juventus, Manchester United and even Tottenham (*shudder*) began following his progress. It is said that the last of these, the shadow-dwellers, even went so far as to put in a bid of €8 million.
The bid was rejected and Niang, instead of experiencing his professional debut with the other lot, would soon break into the first team with a substitute appearance against Toulouse. At 16 years and 114 days, Niang was the youngest player ever to play for Caen. The landmarks wouldn’t stop coming and within a week, Niang was handed a starting position and within a month, had scored his first professional goal in a 1-1 draw with RC Lens. A professional contract lasting 3 years quickly followed and Niang, while only really featuring intermittently for the first team, had by the end of the 2010/2011 season nevertheless amassed 7 appearances with 4 of these being as a starter. He’d even managed to score 3 league goals, a fantastic return for a 16 year old.
The following season saw Niang begin to establish himself in the first team with 23 appearances but indifferent form (only 2 goals scored) and an injury sustained in February served to perhaps be cause for worry that all the excitement was for naught. The worries would prove to be groundless however with huge amounts of interest in Niang being generated the following summer as none fewer than four Premier League clubs offered him trials. These were Tottenham, Manchester City, Everton and of course, Arsenal.
In fact, interest in Niang from the Premier League clubs was at such a high level, with rumours even circulating that Newcastle and Stoke were interested in the player, it came as a little bit of a surprise when AC Milan ended up capturing the in-demand player. So what kind of player could have caused excitement at such a young age?
Well M’Baye Niang is a bit of an enigma. Although he has all the hallmarks of a typical number 9, even so far as to have actually been given the number 9 shirt when he broke through to the senior side of Caen, his style of play is more heavily influenced by one key quality he possesses – his pace. I recently read a fantastic description of Niang on “In Bed With Maradona” where they state that he is “quick over 40 yards – electric over 10”. This couldn’t be truer and coupled with his sizeable stature; Niang has the capacity to “frighten the biggest and ugliest of defenders.”
Furthermore, the 18 year old shows fantastic technical skills (pretty much a requisite if Arsene Wenger is to be interested in you as a striker) and this, coupled with his pace, allows Niang to be just as comfortable cutting in from the wings as he is in a central position where it is perhaps more congested.
While these are all admirable strengths for a player who is still very young, there also remain certain weaknesses.
To give one such example, Niang has been compared with Balotelli in the past with the comparison extending beyond just his style of play into his behaviour off the field. For instance, Niang was caught driving illegally without a license for which he was forced to issue an apology for.
Additionally, Niang was one of the players who visited a nightclub in between the qualifying matches for the U-21 Euro 2013 competition. As a punishment, Niang was handed a ban on all international football until December 31st 2013. While these could potentially be explained away by being nothing more than youthful exuberance combined with an incredibly high pressure environment, his actions hint at an immaturity that Arsene Wenger surely wouldn’t appreciate.
Overall, it could be taken as a good sign that the only real weakness to Niang’s game, other than his lack of experience, is lack of discipline. Both of these are things which can be easily worked on, given the right sort of guidance. On the first of these problems, Hocine Harzouine from Goal.com phrases it nicely when he says: “[Niang] has to improve tactically. He plays more with instinct rather than intelligence.” This is clearly a facet of his game he would need to work on.
The real question, however, is whether Arsenal made a mistake in not signing him. In all honesty, I don’t believe he is what we need right now. He would have been a fantastic addition to our second-option strikers, especially with the real dearth of strikers we currently have, and definitely one for the future but as I’ve touched upon, he does lack experience – something that has to be earned. Currently I don’t see him being much better than what we already have as second-option strikers and in terms of young, potentially-amazing, French strikers…well we’ve already got Yaya Sanogo.