We take a look at how Olivier Ntcham has performed so far during his loan spell at Genoa, and whether his future lies at Manchester City.
There has been much speculation over the future of both Yaya Toure and Paul Pogba in recent months, particularly as to whether the former might leave Manchester City over the next six months to join former City manager, Roberto Mancini at Inter Milan, or the former might leave Juventus for City at the end of the season.
In reality however, there is hope at the Etihad that the likely imminent loss of Toure and therefore City’s requirements for Pogba might not be as necessary as people think. That hope is pinned, perhaps unfairly, on City producing a prospect from their Elite Development Squad (“EDS”) and, in particular, many of those hopes are directed towards Olivier Ntcham.
The French U-21 international is currently on loan to Genoa, on an initial two-year deal, and has impressed many with his performances in Serie A so far this season. That Ntcham has settled into the tactical discipline of the Italian league, is not only a great credit to him, but also to his development through the EDS system that City now have in place. Whereas Manchester United were once famed for their production of youth talent, it is clear that City have now overtaken them in the ability to attract local and overseas youth talent.
Ntcham played in every minute of Genoa’s first four games of the season, however Il Grifone got off to an indifferent start, taking only three points out of a possible 15, as Gian Piero Gasperini’s men struggled against a run of difficult opening fixtures that included Juventus, Fiorentina and Lazio. In each of those games, Ntcham impressed, particularly given he played in a variety of positions.
The next few games saw Ntcham relegated to the substitute’s bench, but it was his performance against Juventus on Matchday 4, and then against Milan on Matchday 6, that first had Serie A observers taking an interest in him. Ntcham came on as a 69th minute substitute against the Rossoneri and helped Genoa close out a 1-0 victory over Sinisa Mihajlovic’s men.
Two weeks later, again coming on as a late substitute, he provided the crucial assist that secured Genoa a last gasp winner from Panagiotis Tachtsidis to emerge 3-2 victors over Chievo. The victory, and Ntcham’s cameo performance, were impressive given that Il Grifone were forced to play with ten men for the final 35 minutes of the match.
In recent weeks, Ntcham’s appearances have been sporadic, with him missing Genoa’s recent game against Sassuolo through injury, and then coming on as a second-half substitute as Il Grifone crashed to a 2-1 defeat against Serie A newcomers, Carpi. This weekend, Ntcham was an unused substitute in Genoa’s 1-0 defeat against Inter at the Meazza, therefore depriving Inter manager, Roberto Mancini, the chance to witness first hand, a player in whom he has already expressed interest in signing on a long term deal.
Ntcham has often been compared to Toure and Pogba, and the link is partly due to the resemblance of his physique to the Ivory Coast and French internationals. However, the links with Pogba go further, given the Juventus man started at Le Havre just as Ntcham did before his move to City for £730,000 in 2012. Ntcham’s arrival at City was something of a coup for the Citizens, particularly given the interest he was attracting from several high-profile European clubs, including Juve.
Whilst Genoa have a two-year loan agreement in place with Manchester City, which includes the right to buy Ntcham for an agreed fee at the end of the deal, City have inserted a buy-back clause into the loan deal. Ntcham’s performances have, however, attracted a lot of attention from the top Italian clubs particularly, as stated, Mancini’s Inter. If Ntcham’s development continues at the current rate, one suspects that City will look to instigate his return as soon as possible, which might therefore impact not just on the future of Toure, but also on their interest in Pogba. However, with a squad possessing the likes of Fernandinho, Fabian Delph, Fernando, Toure, David Silva, Jesus Navas, Samir Nasri, Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling, City certainly are not short of options in the midfield area, hence Ntcham currently furthering his development at Genoa in the short-term.
Although there are high hopes for Ntcham, my conversations with some seasoned watchers of the EDS have provided a note of caution. Ntcham was one of several key components of the City youth team set-up last season, particularly in their U-21’s run to victory in the International Premier League Cup, where they defeated Porto 1-0 in the final with a goal from Kelechi Iheanacho.
Ntcham usually played on the right of a central-midfield three, in a 4-3-3 formation and, his attributes and physique meant he was, more often than not, the most imposing player on any EDS pitch. There were times however, when his touch let him down, thus meaning he often required more space than some of his more technically gifted and smaller team-mates.
Several of those EDS watchers have expressed surprise at Ntcham’s early performances in Serie A, particularly as his tactical awareness and positioning for the EDS often meant that he was too high or too wide on the pitch to influence the game from his selected starting position. Whilst he would regularly pop up with creative moments which would be the memorable highlight of a fixture, he was often on the periphery of matches, and not always involved in the game throughout as a central-midfield player should be.
Whilst, the comparisons with Yaya Toure are inevitable; and City fans do, like most fans of other clubs, have a tendency to do that with any midfield player who appears to fit the mould of Toure; Ntcham never quite seemed able to control the EDS games, in the way that Toure has done, and so often still does, in the Premier League.
In Genoa coach, Gian Piero Gasperini, Ntcham will learn much about positional and tactical flexibility, which can only improve his all-round awareness and positional responsibility. Whilst his preferred formation is 3-4-3, Gasperini is not adverse to adapting formations to the situation or opponent which his side faces. Nor is he fazed by rotating his squad or indeed, providing young players with the opportunity to impress. The only requirement from those younger players is that they adapt to the tactical requirements and expectations made of them. That Ntcham played in many of Il Grifone’s early fixtures, suggests that Gasperini is satisfied that he possesses the attributes to fit into the formations and systems outlined by the former Inter and Palermo Coach.
Ntcham’s good start to life in Serie A was epitomised by his performance against reigning Scudetto holders, Juventus. In only his fourth game at senior level, Ntcham found himself thrust into a fixture against the defeated Champions League finalists from last season, and therefore up against world-class talents such as Pogba, Giorgio Chiellini and Gianluigi Buffon. Gasperini, perhaps, conscious of not placing too much responsibility on the shoulders of the young Frenchman, played him further forward rather than in central-midfield, and he flourished thanks to the freedom that being positioned in that role allowed. He was Genoa’s best player on the day, and was unlucky to finish on the losing side; Pogba only securing a 2-0 win for Juve with a late penalty.
Ntcham’s positional flexibility has however seen him play in various positions, including on the left of a front three, in the number 10 position as against Juve, or in the central-midfield position where he has also performed well and with discipline.
As a product of the Le Havre Academy in Northern France, Ntcham is in esteemed company when one considers those who have graduated from there previously. Amongst those produced by Le Havre’s youth system includes Vikash Dhorasoo, Ibrahim Ba, Lassana Diarra and Jean Alain Boumsong. It is, of course, the recent Le Havre graduate with whom Ntcham has drawn immediate comparisons – Pogba.
Ntcham’s strengths might seem obvious when one sees him. He is an imposing figure; tall with physically imposing features, and he clearly possesses many of the attributes that would serve him well in the Premier League. However, there is more to Ntcham than just his physique and athleticism. In many games this season, his range of passing and decision-making has been excellent, whilst he has also shown that he is able to go past players and deliver decisive passes; epitomised, not least, by his assist against Chievo. All those attributes would be pointless however, without Ntcham possessing the correct attitude towards his own development, and that goes some way to explaining why he has settled into life in Serie A well.
He has impressed many at Genoa since his arrival, and Gasperini himself has been fulsome in his praise, stating:
“Ntcham is an unbelievable player. He’s a surprise for me – Olivier is only 19, but plays like a leader. He will become a top player”. Meanwhile, the Genoa President, Enrico Preziosi, was somewhat over the top in his assessment, when he stated: “I’ve been in the world of football 26 years and I’ve never seen a similar player at his age. He has an unlimited potential, and is really a fantastic talent.”
Such reports and assessments have meant that City have been keeping close tabs on Ntcham’s performances, and one would not be surprised should they invoke the buy-back clause in the loan agreement over the next two transfer windows.
City’s longstanding interest in Pogba is well-known, although they face stiff competition for the signature of the former Manchester United midfielder from Barcelona, Chelsea and United. Whilst City are likely to revive that interest in Pogba in either January or July, subject of course to suspected and anticipated managerial changes and requirements, if Ntcham continues to perform well, it might mean the signing of Pogba may not be as much of a necessity as was thought earlier this year.