Located adjacent to the first right on the Mulsanne Straight of the world-famous 24 Hours of Le Mans racetrack, a diminutive 18-year-old starts a journey of his own – national team hopes would grow and fade, but after shining on the European stage, a dream Premier League move has arisen.
Lining up against Nampalys Mendy on the patchy football pitch tucked inside the Circuit de la Sarthe, colourful seats surround Morgan Sanson as Claudio Ranieri makes his way to the technical area, a few yards from Yannick Carrasco hugging the left touchline. AS Monaco were the crème de la crème of Ligue 2 when they travelled north of Monte Carlo in search of another victory in their race to secure promotion.
His slick mohawk might add a few inches to his height, but with a game associated with broad shoulders and tough tackles, Sanson’s muddied shorts were no longer the aureolin yellow shade they once were when he strolled onto home turf for only the ninth time in the 2012/13 campaign.
The number 25 stretches across the width of his shirt, but for many of Ranieri’s experienced Monaco veterans, the bold numbers on the back of Sanson’s red jersey blurred when the French prodigy announced himself to the home crowd, who would soon bask in the celebration of crowning their latest boy wonder, waving red and yellow scarfs aloft.
Pouncing on a misplaced header from Adrea Raggi – who would later win a Ligue 1 title and reach the Champions League semi-finals with Monaco – Sanson allowed the ball to bounce twice on the edge of the box, before thrashing it through a crowd of bodies and beyond Martin Sourzac’s reach – a star was born over 100 miles from home.
The MMArena hadn’t witnessed scenes of such jubilation as Sanson netted his first for Les Mucistes, with the stadium built as little as 12 months prior to the youngster’s breakthrough campaign, but this modern arena was far from the familiarities of home.
Sanson’s birthplace was Saint-Doulchard, a traditional small suburban French town north-west of its arrondissement, Bourges, in the Centre-Val de Loire region of France. Home to fifteenth-century manor houses and mills, the chateau of Varye too provides a quaint if not picturesque setting to pick up the beautiful game.
You wouldn’t expect this part of the world to be a breeding ground for sports stars, but following the successes of Loïc Jacquet and William Bonnet from the worlds of rugby and cycling, Sanson was introduced to football as a boy at local side Gazélec Bourges, before joining minnows, Bourges 18, who were playing in the fifth tier of French football in 2005.
Four years later he made the step up to Le Mans and whilst only 17-years-old, Sanson was promoted from the development set up to the first team – it seemed at the time that he had the world at his feet. Sanson was destined to become a superstar when links to the Premier League and some of Europe’s top clubs emerged between 2012 and 2014 when he was billed as one of the game’s brightest youngsters.
After scoring his first career goal in style against the eventual Ligue 2 runaway leaders, Monaco, for Sanson, likewise the club from the south of France, elite European competitions would await – the youngster who made his name at the city on the Sarthe River was navigating his way to the top.
Developing through the ranks at Le Mans – a club who have served as a stepping stone for former Premier League stars Gervinho, Stéphane Sessègnon and even Didier Drogba – was the grounding Sanson was required to make an early name for himself in his homeland.
Amongst their Ligue 2 competitors in 2012, Le Mans were battling for survival against clubs with a similar model of recruitment and indeed player development programmes. Caen have added a plethora of stars to the Premier League, including N’Golo Kanté, while clubs like Angers and Le Harve have brought through the likes Lassana Diarra, Riyad Mahrez, Benjamin Mendy and Nicolas Pépé – the lower French divisions have so often proved a gold mine of talent in recent decades.
Aston Villa due luck in a lucrative market
Aston Villa have tried their luck in this lucrative market before, but with varied success, it must be said. From Jonathan Kodjia to Charles N’Zogbia, Frederic Guilbert and even Jean Makoun, Villa have found little bang for their buck from players who’ve started their development in France. Jordan Amavi bucks the trend somewhat – granted he made his professional debut in the French Ligue 1 – but like his former Marseille teammate, Sanson is all the better off for spending the majority of his professional teenage years in the French top flight.
15 games after scoring his first goal for Le Mans, Sanson was on the move – such is the lifespan of exciting youngsters at these ‘feeder’ clubs in the lower French divisions.
Having made a total of 27 appearances for Le Mans in his breakthrough Ligue 2 campaign, those 1,700 minutes on the pitch and indeed three goals persuaded Ligue 1 side Montpellier to take a chance. Parting with €700,000 to secure the services of the teenager with bags of potential was a coup for the Occitanie-based club.
Ahead of the 2013/14 campaign, Montpellier manager, René Girard threw the tenacious 18-year-old straight into the lion’s den of the French top flight. Sanson dealt with the step no bother, registering an assist on his second appearance for the club in a 2-2 draw with Évian before playing a pivotal role in MHSC’s 5-1 destruction of Lyon, registering a second goal contribution after his first four starts for La Paillade.
The teenager was expected to become the long-term replacement for the supreme Remy Cabella. The winger was always going to leave for pastures new, but quickly Sanson made his mark as a central midfielder, playing 32 times in his debut Ligue 1 campaign.
Although Sanson had never played in the top flight, he took to it like a duck to water. Cabella would leave for Newcastle in the following season and the creative role in Jean Fernandez’s team fell into Sanson’s hands. He had already shown different facets to his game, either winning the ball and then starting a counter-attack with his driving runs, playing deeper, or taking on the playmaker mantle, pushing the ball down the channels and drifting past opponents.
Having surpassed expectations in his first year at Montpellier, and indeed his debut season in Ligue 1, Sanson kicked on another gear in the 2014/15 campaign. Montpellier finished as low as 15th place and survived relegation by two points and so Fernandez was sacked and replaced by the new gaffer, Rolland Courbis.
In his second full season at the Stade de la Mosson, Sanson scored six times, assisted twice and looked every bit the promising player capable of living up to the hype that had surrounded him for several years… until a serious injury put the bed any talk that he could break into the national team side after impressing in the French Under-21 set up that season.
Having knocked on the door of Europa League qualification all season, Montpellier won only two of their final six games following a serious injury blow to their midfield maestro. Coming off in the second-half against Toulouse, the prognosis for his premature departure was a ruptured ACL knee injury – ruling the youngster out for no less than seven months.
Sanson was named in Outside of the Boot’s 100 Best Young Players to Watch in 2015, coming in at ninth for the best midfielders category, but his knee injury had serious implications for his immediate development as a promising French midfielder.
As the season wore on, it became increasingly apparent that Sanson’s role in the side was not merely that of a youngster making up the numbers, but of a rapidly maturing ball-playing midfielder.
Sanson had been afforded enough space to demonstrate his creative competencies when playing alongside Benjamin Stambouli in the 2013/14 campaign, but offering much more than a long-raking pass for a YouTube highlight reel, his goals and performances were instrumental up until his crippling injury.
The Frenchman had so often benefited from performing in various positions and roles – a refreshing take on how a youngster may react to being forced to perform various roles across the midfield and attacking areas. Under Courbis, Sanson was generally used further forward, playing more often on the right-wing or behind the striker than as part of a midfield partnership, where his creativity would be wasted, but the other side to his game was just as polished.
Montpellier ranked second in Ligue 1 for interceptions per match in the 2014/15 campaign, which speaks volumes of Sanson’s ability to press in a variation of Jürgen Klopp’s famed, ‘Gegenpressing’ system. Dean Smith employs a similar tactical method, but one that simply demands ‘hard-works and effort’. In this case, Sanson’s profile would suggest he is a perfect fit for Aston Villa.
Having come awfully close to qualifying for a European place with Montpellier in 2015, Sanson played an almost indispensable role for his first Ligue 1 club during his three-year stint at Montpellier. He also eliminated disciplinary issues that plagued him at Le Mans, as 18-year-old learning the ropes.
Sanson accumulated seven bookings in the 27 appearances he made for Le Mans during his debut season in French football, incredibly one more than he totalled for Montpellier in sixty-four league appearances with the club.
Morgan Sanson battles setbacks to earn Champions League nights
Recovering from an ACL injury is never easy and for the young midfielder, it all but spelt an end to his time at Montpellier. Followed by a pesky knee injury too, his serious injury troubles meant that he’d only be able to make six starts in the 2015/16 campaign – the very season Aston Villa were delving into the French market themselves for several midfield stars from Ligue 1.
For on-looking scouts, the hardest thing to determine is exactly what type of midfielder Sanson is, having acquitted himself extremely well across a number of roles and in a multitude of systems. He wasn’t what Villa needed to prevent an embarrassing Premier League campaign in 2016, but what’s happened has happened, and now that Sanson has packed his bags for Birmingham, his influence could help Villa achieve a European dream of their own.
With green shoots of recovery, Sanson slowly picked up a level of form that had turned heads across Europe for several seasons. On his first third appearance back from an injury blighted run in 2016, Sanson scored a brace in what was his first full 90 minutes back in a Montpellier shirt, before leading by example in a 3-0 triumph over the all-conquering Paris Saint-Germain. Young Parisian midfielder Christopher Nkunku was the name on everybody’s lips during that campaign, but it was 22-year-old Sanson who covered every blade of grass, not giving an inch away to the promising youngster, as he finished the game with two assists, five tackles and three interceptions.
His performances were starting to gain more traction from across Europe, but after beginning the 2016/17 season with ten goal contributions in his first 20 games, his impending transfer away from mid-table Montpelier was long overdue.
Off-field confusion at the club had played its part in several underwhelming league finishes under three different managers, and Sanson’s final coach at the club, Pascale Baills would lose the club’s star midfielder to Rudi Garcia’s Marseille for €12million – a handsome profit for Montpellier in what was the only saving grace for a club who were in fact crowned Ligue 1 champions a two years before signing Sanson for little over £600,000 in 2013.
Recording five-goal contributions in his first five starts for Champions League-chasing Marseille, Sanson’s quality was telling in a team that boasted some serious firepower in Dimitri Payet, Florian Thauvin and former Montpellier teammate, Cabella.
Sanson ended the 2016/17 campaign – having played for two top-flight French clubs – fifth in Ligue 1 and within a Europa League place. Come to the end of his fourth full season as a Ligue 1 midfielder, he had amassed 107 games and 13 goals in all competitions, playing under four different managers in as many seasons.
At the heart of a dynamic OM midfield, Sanson played a crucial part in taking Marseille past Braga, Athletic Bilbao, RB Leipzig and Red Bull Salzburg all the way to face Atletico Madrid in the 2018 Europa League final. Despite a 3-0 loss at the hands of Diego Simeone’s side, Sanson managed the best league finish of his career, fishing fourth in Ligue 1 in his first full campaign at the Stade Vélodrome.
A European final was the stage Sanson had been dreaming of as a teen growing up around the vineyard hillsides surrounding Saint-Doulchard. In truth, he belonged there, wherever the big game was, Sanson turned up.
With 19 goal involvements across his final two full season’s at Marseille, Sanson was again due a move away from France to fulfil a potential yet to be discovered in his homeland. A second-placed finish last season was the perfect start for new manager Andre Villas-Boas, but with coronavirus ending the Ligue 1 season abruptly, the curtailed campaign would be Sanson’s last full season in France, even if that meant Champions League was to come next season.
At 26, Sanson seemed to have hit his prime under Villas-Boas, who often deployed the former French U21 international in a creative midfield role in a three-man diamond. With frequent demonstrations of cunning vision to play through balls to Dario Benedetto, Marseille were looking to make their mark in this season’s Champions League group stages.
That, however, wouldn’t play out as hoped. Despite sharing a group with Porto and Olympiakos, Villas-Boas’ side managed to win just once in six group stage ties. Carrying a street-wise player like Sanson should have served Marseille well, but an underlining lack of quality in squad depth let Les Olympiens down when it mattered the most.
In Ligue 1 duties this term, Sanson had played a crucial role in Marseille’s ascent up the division having scored two winning goals in games against Strasbourg and Nimes Olympique during a winning run that extended over six games from October to December.
However, Marseille’s season might have already unravelled, perhaps in part due to the ongoing speculation surrounding Sanson’s future. Amid the financial limitations following the termination of the Ligue 1 broadcasting contract by Spanish giants MediaPro, Ligue 1 clubs have been forced to assess the futures of saleable assets.
Adding versatility to Dean Smith’s midfield
Very much a versatile midfielder, Sanson has often played as one of Marseille’s two holding players, alongside the likes of Kevin Strootman and Luiz Gustavo in a 4-2-3-1 – a comparable system to what Smith deploys at Villa.
Though, Sanson is not limited to just a creative role. Having formed an effective partnership with Maxime Lopez in a 4-4-2 in seasons past, the Frenchman can sit deep, absorb pressure and, like John McGinn, carry the ball or release it into wider areas.
His role during the 2018/19 campaign was rather more defensive compared to the position he occupied in 2017/18. This positional shift unsurprisingly impacted his attacking output, which has proved crucial to Montpellier’s and Marseille’s league finishes.
Since moving to Marseille in January of 2016, Sanson has demonstrated a clinical edge to his game, with eight of his nine Ligue 1 goals in 2017/18 coming from inside the box. Additionally, he created six ‘big chances’ while contributing with a league-high seven fast breaks from midfield.
Performing a different role under Garcia – who stepped down as manager in 2019, to work with Lyon and Villa’s new winger, Bertrand Traoré – Sanson occupied a deeper position, to take on more ball-winning responsibilities; his possessions won in the middle and defensive third rose from 2.98 and 1.82 to 4.15 and 2.73 respectively in the 2018/2019 season.
Contrary to the knee-jerk reactions that have highlighted the low buy-back clause in Douglas Luiz’s contract at Aston Villa, Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens are fully intent on supplying Smith with all the resources necessary to fulfil his managerial potential with the club he grew up supporting.
Sanson will add a degree of depth incomparable to the midfield ranks Villa have released on matchday team-sheets over the past decade, he’s another part of the Villa Park jigsaw that is slowly starting to piece together.