Having won the country’s best youth academy awards for multiple years, the current Ligue 1 side Stade Rennais has become the ultimate talent hotbed in France, providing some of the finest talents to the footballing world over the years. Some of the renowned examples are Mikaël Silvestre, Yoann Gourcuff, Yacine Brahimi, and Yann M’Vila, while the likes of Ousmane Dembélé and Tiémoué Bakayoko are the names that the new football fans will recognize.
A more recent name from the academy that has started to make noise at some of the top-tier clubs is Stéphane Diarra. The 21-year old Ivorian sensation has been honing his craft under the mainstream radar with Le Mans for the past two years, having started his journey with Evian followed by a tough two-year spell with Rennes, and finally moving to Le Mans.
The youngster, on loan during his first year at Le Mans, quickly became a vital cog in the side and helped his team to achieve promotion to Ligue 2 in 2018/19. He has shown considerable improvement from the last season after bettering his goal contribution tally from five (three goals and two assists) in 18/19 to eight (four goals and four assists) 2019/20, and that too by playing lesser minutes.
Stéphane Diarra is an attacking winger who prefers to play on the right flank, albeit he is also adept in playing as a left-winger. He is primarily a left-footed player who likes to cut inside from the right flank to influence the attacking third from the half-space or central areas of the pitch. When he is playing on the left, he provides width and likes to put crosses inside the penalty box with his strong left foot.
Standing at 173 cm and 62 kg, strength and aerial abilities are not his key attributes. The youngster, however, has several other qualities to admire. Although speed and dribbling are his greatest assets as we shall see later, the 21-year old shows great agility and balance. He is very elegant on the ball and his runs with the ball are a spectacle to watch that has the potential to get the viewers off their seat.
Moreover, he has an amazing first touch and ball control abilities that is shown in the following figure.
As you can see, Le Mans is switching the play that results in a long ball from the left half-space by a center-back (not shown in the image) towards Diarra (red jersey) who is positioned in the right flank. In this case, the Ivorian successfully killed the long ball and brought it down with ease despite the pressure from the opposing defender. With such a short distance to the opposition full-back and another opposition player moving towards the ball, it only requires a slightest of the first-touch error to lose the possession. It is never easy to control this kind of deliveries but the 21-year old does it with ease without losing ball possession. This instance speaks volumes about his first touch and ball control.
Speed and dribbling
Before moving into the tactical side of things, let us talk about the two key attributes which make the 21-year old special. The Ivorian is lightning quick on his feet not only without the ball but more importantly, also with the ball. Moreover, he has above par acceleration that helps him cover extra miles off the ground. His speed and acceleration not only allow him to beat the defenders in 1v1 duels but also assists him in making dangerous overlapping runs on the flanks.
In the following figure, Diarra (red circle) is making an overlapping run behind the Chambly’s full-back Judicael Crillon (blue circle) while the man in possession is trying to control the ball to follow a through ball for the Ivorian on the flanks in the attacking third.
Although the body shape of Crillon suggests that he is starting to accelerate while Diarra is already in the acceleration phase, the Chambly full-back is one of the fastest players in his side and one who cannot be easily beaten by pace. However, Diarra made a run from outside the full-back, received the ball in the outer space, and covered few more yards to come inside with the ball and still beat Crillon with ease, as indicated by the distance between the two players in the following figure.
Apart from the pace, Diarra also has great dribbling abilities. The Ivorian is one of the rare attackers in the world (Lionel Messi is one of them) who can dribble the ball with pace. This kind of dribbling is extremely difficult to defend against.
He is more of a nudge dribbler who likes to keep the ball near his feet while making vertical runs when he is facing an opposing defender in front until he is close enough for a 1v1 duel opportunity. Once Diarra is in a 1v1 situation, he tries to beat the defender either with the famous step-over dribble or by tapping out smartly to explode in space. This is shown in the following figure.
As you can see in the topmost part of the figure, Diarra is at a considerable distance with the defender. Hence, he simply uses small touches to keep the fall near his feet (nudge dribbling) while getting closer to the defender. Once he is as close as around three to four feet to the defender (middle part of the image), he then starts making the step-overs by rolling his feet alternatively over the ball to create a doubt in the defender’s mind regarding the final direction in which the winger will move. As soon as he is very close to the defender (last part of the image), he fakes the direction of his bend on the right side thereby over-emphasizing the direction in the defender’s mind. Once the defender moves his body shape towards his left, Diarra quickly dribbles the ball past the right side of the defender with his strong left foot. Although his final touch was a tad too heavy in this case which resulted in the other defender closing the winger down in the half-space, it shows a dribbling pattern that the 21-year old often uses.
Diarra’s speed and dribbling abilities help his team to create fast and dangerous counter-attacks. According to Wyscout, the 21-year old dribbles 9.15 times per 90 minutes, which is the fifth-highest amongst all the attacking players in Ligue 2 this season. Moreover, he has a decent dribbling accuracy figure of 53.95% which is one of the best in Ligue 2 this season.
Having said that, the Ivorian tends to overelaborate his dribbling quality at times which not only causes dangerous possession losses in the deeper areas but also reduces his dribbling accuracy which potentially can be higher than 53.95%.
As shown in the following figure, Diarra has just received the first pass of the attacking transition in the defensive third. Even though three opposition players are trying to close him down in such a deep position, he still tried to dribble past them. The Ivorian eventually lost the ball in a dangerous area that isolated Le Mans defense and created a dangerous attack for AC Ajaccio in this case.
In the above case, if Diarra would have been successful in dribbling past the three players, it would have surely opened up a large space for the Ivorian to create an attacking situation for his team. However, taking such a chance in the defensive third, especially when opposition players are closer, has more risk potential than the reward. This makes the youngster unpredictable, which can be termed as a rash at times when it causes problems for his team in the defensive third like above.
Role in Le Mans attacking setup
Richard Déziré was replaced by Réginald Ray on 23 February 2020 as the manager of Le Mans. However, Réginald managed only two games for Le Mans before the season saw an abrupt termination due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Because Diarra played under Déziré for most parts of the season, we will talk about the Ivorian’s role under 47-year old French manager.
Diarra has been an essential attacker for Le Mans for the past two years. In fact, he has been the most important attacking player for Déziré’s Le Mans during the 19/20 season. Because Diarra is an attacker, it is only natural that he spends most of his time in the opposition half. Consequently, he does not contribute much to the defensive side of things, apart from his team’s set-plays as we will see later in this section. The following heat map of Diarra’s 19/20 season shows that even though he played on the left flank at times, the youngster’s go-to position was on the right. It also shows the Ivorian’s influence on the flank as well as the half-space.
Besides, the heat map shows that Diarra’s more active areas are deeper than the final third. This is because his primary role in the attack has been to make progressive runs from the deeper areas to vertically progress the ball in the final third. Diarra made 4.52 progressive runs per 90 minutes during the season, which is the highest in Ligue 2.
The figure above showcases the youngster’s ball progressive actions, which highlights the Ivorian’s propensity to make use of progressive runs more often than progressive passes. The figure also shows that most of his runs begin from the areas deeper than the attacking third.
Besides, most of his runs begin from the areas deeper than the attacking third, which highlights the Ivorian’s ability to carry the ball in the final third from the deeper areas. Diarra is really good at reading a game that allows him to intelligently position himself when he is out of possession, which in turn helps him to maneuver the ball in the final third.
When the ball is live, which means that when the ball is in play, he tends to occupy available spaces in the middle third. Whereas when the ball is dead in his own half, which means the ball is out of play like a throw-in or a set-piece for the opposition, the Ivorian positions himself in such a way that it distances him from the nearest opposition players. These kinds of off the ball positioning, combined with his speed and dribbling abilities, gives him the time and space to move the ball in the attacking third as soon as he receives the possession. We shall see both the scenarios in this section. The following figure showcases the first scenario.
The figure above shows Diarra’s positioning when the ball is live. The Le Mans defensive midfielder had engaged in an aerial duel against the opposition attacker after the opposition goalkeeper’s long ball before this image was taken. Diarra reads the ball trajectory and understands that his teammate has a better chance of winning the duel due to his physical superiority over the opposition attacker. Hence, observe how the youngster moves away from the opposition full-back towards the pocket of space that is available between the lines in the hope of receiving the possession. Indeed, the defensive midfielder of Le Mans won the duel in this instance and the ball landed in the space that the Ivorian had occupied with his movement. It gave him time and space to make a turn and with his speed and dribbling abilities, he was able to successfully enter the penalty box to create an attack.
The following figure shows another instance of his knack of occupying spaces between the lines in the middle third. This time, his team is in an attacking transition.
Once again, observe how his positioning in the half-space has provided him with the time and space to make a run into the final third once he received the ball. He can either make a run into the final third or lay off the ball into space for the right full-back on the flanks or for the center-forward, who is making a run into the right half-space.
Let us now talk about Diarra’s positioning during a dead ball, especially in the defensive half when the opposition has an opportunity for an attacking set-piece. A set-piece can generally result in an effective attacking transition if the defending team gets hold of the possession and have quick runners pushing forward immediately. Le Mans once again makes use of Diarra’s ability in such transitions to set up a quick counter-attack when they regain possession after an opposition set-piece.
The Ivorian seldom indulges in the defensive block; rather he stays outside the defensive shape that is high enough to receive the first pass in transition. Once he receives the pass, he quickly tries to get past the opposition defensive line that stayed higher in the attacking phase. The top and bottom parts of the following figure respectively show Diarra’s positioning during an opposition corner and attacking free-kick.
The Ivorian’s positioning is interesting in both situations. He has positioned himself in the first line of attack in such a way that he is at a reasonable distance to receive the first pass in attacking transition but still at a considerable distance from the opposition players. Once Le Mans regains ball possession after the set-piece, the man in possession would immediately look for Diarra, who would then have the time and space to make a progressive run. Observe that Diarra is not the most highly positioned player, but just enough to be able to receive a pass from a team-mate in the box.
The figure below shows a similar kind of positioning from the youngster during an opposition throw-in.
Because of his role in making progressive runs, Diarra often engages in offensive duels. According to Wyscout, he makes 13.92 offensive duels per 90 minutes. Although it is not the highest in Ligue 2, it is still a significantly high number that reflects his playing style and role in his team.
Diarra is not a one-dimensional player when it comes to moving the ball in the attacking third. Apart from progressive runs, he often makes overlapping runs from outside the full-back to get into the final third by indulging in a one-two passing combination play with the nearest available teammate, as shown in the following figure.
In the figure above, we can see that Diarra is not in the best position to dribble past the opposition press easily. Hence, instead of taking on the opposition full-back, the 21-year old makes a diagonal pass to Vincent Créhin, who is dropping slightly deep into the half-space to provide a passing option for Diarra. We can also see that because the full-back has pushed forward to close down the Ivorian, there is space on the right flank. Hence, the Le Mans number nine follows up with one-touch lateral pass on the flanks for the Ivorian who enters the attacking third with a run in the wide attacking space on the right that was earlier vacated by the opposition full-back.
To conclude this section, let us highlight the Ivorian’s defensive contribution during set-pieces.
Observe in the figure above that Stéphane Diarra has positioned himself in the last line of the attack for a free-kick in the opposition half. This kind of positioning is not only because he is not the strongest player in the air, but also because in case of a quick counter-attack from the opposition post the set-piece, the Ivorian’s speed can be useful in closing down the opposition attacker and thus prevent a potential goal-scoring opportunity. His positioning during an attacking corner for his team would also be on similar grounds.
Attacking in the final third
Diarra is not only flexible when it comes to ball progressions from the middle third. The Ivorian is a multi-dimensional player when it comes to creating attacks in the final third as well. Once the youngster is in the final third, he looks to use his dribbling skills to carry the ball near the 18-yard box before making a cut-back in the half-space or central areas to provide a cross inside the penalty box or attempt a shot on goal.
We have already seen his dribbling tendency earlier in the analysis. Let us analyze his attacking behavior in the final third. The following figure shows Diarra’s actions in the final third.
It is clear that although the Ivorian chooses to carry the ball inside the penalty box more often, he is also seen to be making several crosses inside the box.
Wyscout suggests that Diarra is a decent crosser of the football, having made three out of his four assists this season from crosses. The Ivorian has made 4.52 crosses per 90 minutes (excluding set-plays) with 32% accuracy in the 19/20 season. Kylian Mbappé has 31.4% crossing accuracy which suggests Diarra’s figure is not bad at all. Only six attackers have put in more crosses than the Ivorian in Ligue 2 this season.
Diarra has a reasonable crossing ability from his right foot but he prefers to use his strong left foot to make crosses more often than not. If the Ivorian plays on his favored right-wing position, he often tries to make an inside cross from his left foot. While if he is deployed on the left-wing, the Ivorian attempts an outside cross from his left foot. Diarra has made 1.38 deep completed crosses this season according to Wyscout, which is only behind eight attackers in Ligue 2. A deep completed cross is a cross that is attempted in the 20-meter distance from the opponent’s goal. The following figure shows Diarra in the final third after carrying the ball into the penalty area.
As shown in the figure above, the Ivorian is being surrounded by three opposition defenders in the 18-yard box. In this situation, the 21-year old winger makes a cut-back inside to move slightly central and once he has space and time, he puts in a left-footed lobbed cross (deep completed cross) for a wide teammate who is running from the other side, as shown in the following figure. This attack was unfortunately non-productive; however, it highlights one of the attacking tendencies of Diarra in the final third.
The above figure is an example of a crossing action taken by Diarra in the final third from the half-space. The Ivorian, however, also has a propensity to take shots from similar areas with his favored left foot. As you can in the following shot map, Diarra takes most of his shots from the half-spaces.
The winger tends to move into the central areas from wide with or without the ball when the team enters the final third. We have already seen in the above instance that with the ball, he tends to make a cut-back into the right half-space before attempting a shot on goal. If the team attacks from the other (left) side, the 21-year old tends to drift into the center and tries to occupy the available space during crossing situations to have a shot on goal. We have earlier established Diarra’s quality to identify and occupy free spaces in the deeper areas. Having said it, this quality of his is also evident in the final third, as shown in the following figure.
Moments before the above image was taken, Diarra had made a diagonal run into the half-space (his current position) from the right flank while Le Mans was trying to enter the final third from the left side. Diarra quickly noticed the space in zone 14 which would give him a clear shot on goal depending upon the quality of the pass. Fortunately, the pass was accurate and the Ivorian slotted a beautiful low left-footed finish into the bottom-left corner of the net after a perfect first touch.
Earlier in the speed and dribbling section, we had established the youngster’s unpredictability and inconsistent decision making in the deeper areas. It is, however, not limited to his team’s half. This shortcoming can also be seen in the attacking third at times. One such instance is illustrated in the following figure.
This figure shows a very similar goal-scoring situation as the previous figure. In fact, it occurred a few minutes after the goal he scored in the previous instance. This time though, Diarra is in a better position to score since he is closer to the goal. Moreover, since the opposition players are more distanced from him, he seems to have more time and space to calmly get a touch on the ball and take a shot. However, he takes a first-time shot and missed the target by miles. Although it can be debated, it seemed like the youngster got carried away with his previous goal in this instance and a more experienced and calm mind would have taken the wiser approach of killing the ball with the first-touch before taking a shy at the goal.
Overall, Stéphane Diarra is a youngster that is filled with enormous attacking potential. His qualities are not limited to certain attributes and have several attacking ammunitions in his pocket which makes him dangerously unpredictable for the opposition defense. His speed, dribbling, and positional intelligence makes him a dangerous attacker to defend against, especially during counter-attacks.
Like every youngster, Diarra is also error-prone in his decision making which at times can potentially harm his team. Nevertheless, it is something that comes from experience. The more minutes that the Ivorian will get, the better he should become with his decision making.
Although he is still young, his style of play can be compared with the likes of Hatem Ben Arfa and current Manchester City winger Riyad Mahrez. The Ivorian can implode like these world-class talents but the way he channelizes his potential in the future will determine if he remains to be a potential unfulfilled like the former or a champion like the latter.
Diarra is another product of the French Domestic football who is currently eyed by multiple top tier clubs like Leicester City, Celtic, Marseille, and Lorient according to several reports. At 21, the Ivorian is ready for a step up in his career, especially with Le Mans getting relegated to Championnat National. It will be interesting to see if the youngster remains in France or looks for opportunities elsewhere in Europe to continue his development.