FEATURE | Elye Wahi: France’s teenage striking sensation only outscored by Kylian Mbappé

This is the latest feature in our series counting down French football’s 20 hottest properties, those most likely to feature in elite clubs’ 2023 transfer plans. Look out for the next player tomorrow and follow the run down in full here on GFFN.

Emerging as a first-teamer at Montpellier over Christmas in 2020 at just 17, Wahi’s talent was immediately obvious. A well-timed bending finish off the bench against Monaco on his second appearance was followed two weeks later by a stooping overhead to net against Lens before he reacted quickest to tap home a winner at Lyon in February. As a result, Wahi scored three times in Ligue 1 before even making a senior start.

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Although the teenager had to wait for another 21 league games (mostly as a sub) before his fourth strike, the second half of last season provided a breakthrough despite Montpellier slipping inexorably down the table. The third-highest goal-scoring teenager in Europe’s big fives leagues last season, Wahi finished with ten goals and two assists in 33 Ligue 1 outings and, since forcing his way into the eleven on a more permanent basis, the France under 21 international managed 16 goals in 36 league matches while proving to be a precise, skilful, versatile and intelligent finisher.

Most strikingly, considering his recent steep development curve, Wahi doesn’t turn 20 until early next year. He’s managed more than 60 appearances in France’s top flight already over the last two and a half seasons, scoring 19 goals in total. Although one goal every three matches is hardly competitive with Europe’s leading strikers, Wahi has managed a goal every 174 minutes over his career so far, an impressive return for one so young, especially in a robust division where young strikers often start slowly. Only Kylian Mbappé (41) scored more goals before the age of 20 in the French top flight, meaning Wahi’s 19 puts him above Karim Benzema and Ousmane Dembélé, both of whom hit 18.

A modern twist on a traditional poacher or ‘fox-in-the-box’, Wahi’s strengths are his precise intelligent finishing as well as his pace and movement plus an ability to manufacture chances around the penalty spot to score a wide variety of goals. By November this year, only three Ligue 1 players outperformed their xG more than Wahi while he placed seventh for goals per shot last term, underlining the Montpellier man’s ruthlessness. A lightning burst of acceleration makes the striker difficult to marshal and a constant threat, he was clocked at over 35kph earlier this season.

Wahi’s deadly finishing is aided by finely tuned technical ability, impressive for one so young, as proven by a goal-of-the-season contender against Lyon in October. After OL failed to clear a Montpellier attack, midfielder Jordan Ferri looped a bouncing ball back into a crowded penalty area. With his back to goal and marked by Damien Da Silva near the penalty spot, a back-peddling Wahi, not even glancing at the goal, produced a spectacular volleyed over-the-shoulder scissor kick to equalise.

Always ahead of his academy teammates, Wahi’s ability to perfectly time such volleys has become a trademark. Pierre Ville, the former president of Wahi’s first club, JS Suresnes, which also produced N’Golo Kante, explained to Goal: “He was two or three years ahead of his peers in terms of what he could do. He quickly outclassed them. During a tournament that we hosted, I saw him score a volley with the ball falling vertically out of the sky, it was like watching Zidane in the 2002 Champions League final, but the boy was just 11-years-old.”

Trademark scissor kicks, neat one-on-one finishes, diving headers, tap-ins after ghosting in at the back post, an ability to cleverly round opposing goalkeepers and shimmies to beat tight-marking defenders before firing home, not to mention another sumptuous controlled volley with his laces on the run in the 7-0 mauling of Brest earlier this season, prove Wahi’s versatility as a goalscorer. Although the striker can fade to a game’s fringes for long spells, not helped by an erratic Montpellier side in recent times, the 19-year-old often still coolly dispatches his only meaningful chance of the match.

Although ostensibly a number nine, Wahi’s pace and average height have seen him used on the flanks occasionally too. Just four career assists show the teenager is less useful as a facilitator and, despite often using his body smartly to hold off imposing centre-backs, his current lack of physicality could be seen as an issue. Wahi is fortunate that smaller, nippier number nines are increasingly suited to modern football, as are strike partnerships, but many potential suitors may still be put off by a combination of the goal scorer’s narrow skillset and lack of size. Players like Javier Hernandez and Giuseppe Rossi spring to mind in that regard.

Wahi has also struggled with attitude issues in the past, he was expelled from school after an unsavoury incident involving the harassment of fellow students and a complaint was made to Montpellier against last year by a woman the player allegedly punched outside a nightclub. The player also left Caen’s academy in his mid-teens under a cloud. As quoted by So Foot, now sacked Montpellier coach Olivier Dall-Oglio explained: “You have to advise him, guide him, sometimes be the father figure, the bad guy, the nice guy… He’s slowly learning on his own but, for now, he needs guidance… You have to make him understand that talent isn’t enough… His challenge will also be to find the right balance between the selfishness of a striker and the collective side of the game.”

Having left Caen, Wahi had offers from England but chose Montpellier. However, should he continue on his development curve and maintain a prolific goal-scoring record, bigger clubs will soon be interested again. Having signed a new contract with Montpellier in March that runs to 2025, Rennes were quoted €25m to sign the striker, now represented by superagent Jorge Mendes, last summer before moving on to Arnaud Kalimuendo. Despite that trio of strikes so early in his career and an impressive record since, Wahi has oddly flown under the radar outside France but it won’t stay that way for much longer.

Adam White

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