OL have been chasing the fourth Gambardella Cup in their history for 25 years. This looks like an anomaly as the Lyon team has proven itself since the victorious epic of the Malbranque-Balmont-Bréchet generation in the queen event reserved for the U19s. Although carried by promising talents with a professional contract in their pocket, namely Karim Benzema and Hatem Ben Arfa in 2005 and 2006, then Maxwel Cornet in 2015, Olympique Lyonnais has so far never won a single final at the Stade of France.
The challenge will be up to Eric Hély’s group, this Saturday (5:15 p.m.) against Stade Malherbe de Caen, and in particular its midfielder Mohamed El Arouch (18), the only player of his generation who has already turned professional (in July 2021). Involved in the three goals of Gambardella’s semi-final against Troyes (3-1), the international U18 tricolor had seduced Peter Bosz last summer, and he had even made him participate in two preparation matches.
“He competed with boys who were 2 years older than him”
If the story between Mohamed El Arouch and OL officially began in 2017, after a trial and then a tournament in the Lyon jersey, during which “he was unanimous at the club”, his observation dates back to 2015-2016. Recruiter for the OL academy from 2000 to 2021, Gilles Signoret was warned that season by the coach of the Sporting club of Orange (Vaucluse), aware of having a very promising boy in his group.
“Mohamed was only 11 at the time but he was already upgraded with the club’s U13s,” says Gilles Signoret. In general, an upgrade at this age is linked to a player profile that is significantly faster or stronger than those in his category. But this was not the case with Mohamed: he was outclassed for his technical quality, his intelligence on the field and his vision of the game. When you see such a little boy competing with boys two years older than him, there is little merit in detecting it. »
A poster of Juninho in his childhood room in Orange
Thanks to “a relationship of trust established with the family”, OL heads the many other interested French professional clubs, such as OGC Nice. From his first visit to the El Arouch apartment in Orange, Gilles Signoret remembers the Juninho poster discovered in the room of Mohamed, who was only 5 years old when the legendary Brazilian midfielder left Lyon. “From a very young age, in his Orange club as in Lyon, he liked to take responsibility for free kicks, and Juninho was necessarily a model for him at this level”, specifies the recruiter.
A trainer at OL, Amaury Barlet saw “Momo” land at the age of 13 in the club’s brand new academy in Meyzieu (Rhône), before having him fully under his orders in U16 then in national U17. His successful season in 2019-2020 (3 goals and 8 assists), before his interruption due to Covid-19, definitively convinced Amaury Barlet of the potential of the young midfielder.
“He was already a cunning kid, who anticipated opposing passes”
“He’s a technical leader but also a leader in terms of commitment and fighting spirit when it comes to the repetition and intensity of races,” says the coach. He knows how to scratch a lot of balloons. “A profile which is therefore reminiscent of Maxence Caqueret. “There is that, because just like Maxence, he is a very popular boy in a group, full of humility, always smiling, and very intelligent in the game”, approves Amaury Barlet. A characteristic that had already jumped out at Gilles Signoret during his observations in Orange.
Mohamed was of course very talented technically, and with a large volume of play. But what struck me even more was his ability to read the opponent’s game. He was already a cunning kid, who systematically guessed and anticipated the passes of the players opposite. »
Unusual “excesses of altruism” for a young virtuoso
Amaury Barlet continues the in-depth study of the profile of his ex-protege, who now shines between the U19 category and the reserve team in National 2, without forgetting his frequent presence in Peter Bosz’s training sessions: “He very quickly identifies the problems there may be in certain matches and he immediately talks about it with his teammates and the staff. His leadership and his sense of the game can be seen there too ”. In this concert of praise around the main curiosity of this Coupe Gambardella final in Saint-Denis, even the main fault detected is not really one.
“Mohamed has always preferred the pass to the goal, summarizes Amaury Barlet. I remember an action in U17, where he found himself alone against the goalkeeper at the entrance to the surface. Even there, he had preferred to serve a partner. At the time, I wanted to point out to him that he had to knock. But in the end, I didn’t even tell him because in fact, his excesses of altruism didn’t bother me. We can easily understand this, as this type of characteristic tends to disappear in modern football that is increasingly individualistic and focused on statistics.
“He does what the game demands”
In this regard, the coach of the U19 Lyonnais Eric Hély praised the mentality of his group on Wednesday: “These players have a taste for effort. Sometimes gifted players think their talent will be enough, but they don’t. An observation that fits perfectly with Mohamed El Arouch, not stingy in defensive efforts, and who took advantage of the 15 months without official competition, during the Covid-19, to test himself against much older players during friendly matches regularly organized by the OL. “He was often a little tickled in matches because he is hard to catch for an opponent, which annoyed some, smiles Amaury Barlet. It’s never chambering, it does what the game calls for. But we still worked with him to prevent the risk of injury. »
Isn’t the biggest challenge for this small size of 1.66 m to assume the status of the most scrutinized hope of the 2004 generation, with all the pressure that entails in an academy as recognized as that from OL? His eldest Rayan Cherki (18), currently injured, for example had difficulty getting his professional career off the ground this season. ““Momo” is a kid very well surrounded by his family, who is full of values and who has his feet on the ground, indicates in this regard Gilles Signoret. Everyone around him is keen not to cut corners. “The discovery this Saturday of the intimidating Stade de France, opening the final of the Coupe de France between FC Nantes and OGC Nice, is already a major step.
“He spent his time dribbling his mother in the kitchen”
His teammates rely on the precision of his set pieces and his vista in the heart of the game, as captain Yannis Lagha points out: “He’s a very good player, I think everyone knows that now. He brings us a lot offensively. Great players are decisive in great moments, and I think he is one of them”.
“We are determined like lions”, spontaneously launched the interested party at the microphone of OL Play, three days before this final of the Gambardella Cup. According to those close to him, Mohamed El Arouch never feels pressure on a pitch. “He’s above all a kid who has always loved the game more than anything,” sums up Gilles Signoret. His parents told me that he spent his time dribbling his mother in the kitchen of the family apartment. “An even better school than futsal to reign with the ball in small spaces, right?