Welcome to Window Shopping, a recurring feature in which Defector highlights and analyzes some of the biggest players rumored for a big-money transfer each window. Each summer and January, we will take a look at these potential stars in order to answer two simple questions: Who the heck is this guy, and why is he worth so much money?
Three years ago, Houssem Aouar was one of the hottest names in French soccer. The then-21-year-old midfielder and Lyon product had followed up his first full season in Ligue 1—during which he compiled an impressive six goals and five assists in the 2017–18 campaign—with an even better breakout year: seven goals, seven assists, and a third-place finish for Lyon in the league. On a Lyon team that was set to be raided by Europe’s richest clubs, Aouar stood out as one of the potential jewels.
But a move never materialized. Though Liverpool and Arsenal came close to signing him (the Gunners were reportedly ready to pay €55 million for him in 2020), Aouar has remained in Lyon. Two years on from the summer of 2020, and coming off two similarly productive seasons, Aouar now appears to finally be on the move to England, only this time to either newly promoted Nottingham Forest or Crystal Palace, and for a much smaller sum closer to €20 million.
Aouar is now 24 years old, ostensibly just entering his prime. For a player who’s had no major injuries, and who’s remained productive, the path of his career makes little sense. Are the big clubs making a mistake in passing him up for shinier and younger toys, or is Aouar just not the player that his breakout made him appear to be?
What Are The Rumors?
Nottingham Forest has spent a lot of money this summer. Like, hundreds of millions of Euros worth of money. It’s encouraging to see a team go for it upon promotion to the Premier League, and Forest has not disappointed there. It’s therefore somewhat reasonable to see that the club would drop a relatively small sum of money for a player of Aouar’s pedigree. Money appears to be no object for Forest, and it definitely does not seem to be the issue here.
Similarly, Crystal Palace has reportedly jumped into the fray to try to steal Aouar from Forest. For the sum that Lyon will reportedly accept for a player with one year left on his contract, Palace should be able to afford his signature, if it can convince him to sign for Patrick Vieira’s project instead of Forest’s much more precarious one. Either way, it appears that the middle and lower ends of the Premier League table are more interested in Aouar’s services than the top clubs.
Are These Rumors Bullshit?
In the case of a normal player with a normal transfer history, I’d feel comfortable saying that one of these moves will happen. With Aouar, though, who can say with any certainty? Forest just spent a bundle for Wolverhampton Wanderers midfielder Morgan Gibbs-White, who is probably worse than Aouar, though he is definitely younger and more English. Will the Trees still have money left over from their depleted war chest to grab Aouar too? Well, Aouar’s price is low, so maybe.
Palace seems in a better position to snatch him up, and my hunch has changed since I began writing this article earlier in the week. I think Aouar, if he ends up moving at all, will end up at Palace, where he will give the Eagles a much-needed boost of creativity in the midfield behind a strong attack led by Wilfried Zaha.
What Does He Do?
Aouar is an interesting take on the central midfielder, in that he is not exactly a possession monster, but he’s also not a classic creator. He’s somewhere in between those two traditional roles, which makes him a valuable tool whether he starts from deep or from the tip of an attack.
His main tool when playing deeper is his skill on the ball. This manifests itself in two, equally important ways. The first is that he is impossible to take the ball from. Compared to other midfielders in the top five leagues across Europe, he ranks in the 99th percentile in dribbles completed per game (2.31 per game), and in the 94th percentile for progressive carries (7.04 per game). This makes him a safe and effective tool for getting the ball safely from defense to attack.
Once he’s closer to the opposition box, he turns into a lethal attacking weapon. He takes a barrage of shots—2.72 per game, also in the 99th percentile—and is similarly ranked for goal-scoring, with his 0.25 goals per game ranking in the 96th. In short, he is everything you could want in a midfielder once he turns upfield and gets into the attacking third:
He’s also someone that a team can run an offense through before the final moves. He’s a safe passer, though not the best at that, and he always finds himself in open spaces around the penalty box. This gives his forwards an outlet that they know can lead to a different, more dangerous attacking move: he made 3.86 shot-creating actions per game last season, good for the top 3 percent of midfielders.
What Doesn’t He Do?
Well, Aouar is not a defender. No amount of hemming and hawing will hide the fact that, played as a central midfielder, he will not be retrieving the ball for his team. His pressure rate, tackles, interceptions, and blocks all around in the bottom half of all midfielders. Part of that is that he is not particularly physically imposing: Aouar stands just 5-foot-7 and weighs 154 pounds. That lack of physicality also makes him a negative in the air, particularly off goal kicks.
In a more attacking sense, as mentioned before, he’s not the most accurate of passers. Part of that is that he seems to always be looking for the dangerous pass rather than the smart one, which is valuable in some instances but can leave his team open to counter-attacks in others. It’s not a huge knock on his game, especially if he’s further up the field in a formation, but it does put more pressure on whoever is the pivot midfielder behind him. Also, for a player who seeks those dangerous passes, his assist rate is below average: He only notches 0.12 per game.
How Does He Fit Into A Top Team?
One of the reasons that Aouar has been a bit overlooked over the years, despite breathless reports every summer about his potential destinations, is that he is not a particularly well-rounded midfielder. He does some things really well, and that’s worth a lot, but he also lacks defensive solidity and physicality. On a top team, or even a team on the Forest and Palace level, his best role is a so-called No. 8 midfielder. Traditionally, these are the side midfielders in a 4-3-3, and their responsibilities are to shuttle the ball from defense to attack, while also providing offensive threats once the ball is in the opponent’s final third.
This is exactly what Aouar excels at, while minimizing his weaknesses in defense, as mentioned above. This role relies less on athleticism as well, which is one of his other shortcomings. This is also why he could, in theory, play as a central attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 formation; that would almost completely eliminate his defensive duties, unless a team plays an aggressive press. (This is why he wouldn’t have fit at Liverpool all that well, what with the Pool Boys’ maniacal pressing and 4-3-3 rigidity.) Either way, for Aouar to be something close to the hype he had three years ago, a club will have to give him a spot in its midfield that highlights his wizardry on the ball.
Who Would Hate This Move?
Expensive transfers tend to shake things up, be it the dressing room, the roster hierarchy, the manager’s position, the fans’ outlook, and the domestic and international landscape. With that it mind, this section tries to determine who stands to lose from the potential transfer.
This is a weird one, but I think Aouar himself will likely hate this move the most. At the very least, his reduction in status from an Arsenal target to having two lower-end teams battling for his signature has to hurt the ego. That being said, he will likely be one of the better players on whatever team ends up signing him, and a smart manager will tweak the midfield plan to let him succeed.
Elsewhere, if Aouar is given that freeom and does succeed, as I expect he would, then any top team that needs a midfielder will kick themselves for not dropping the very reasonable amount of money for Aouar. As covered last week, Arsenal could use a playmaker in midfield, and having failed to secure Aouar two years ago, it would likely sting to see him succeed at a third of the cost. There’s also Manchester United, but we’ve talked enough about them. Just know that Aouar is probably better at this stage in his career than Adrien Rabiot, who United was heavily linked to before he, uh, rejected them.
Finally, on a broader level, freshly promoted clubs both this year and going forward will hate this move if Aouar succeeds at Nottingham Forest. By showing a commitment to staying up in the Premier League, Forest can attract better talent than it should have any right to, especially compared to Fulham and Bournemouth, its partners in promotion this season. The Premier League is getting more and more competitive every year—just ask Everton—and going anything but all in is as close to a guarantee for a relegation battle as one can have.
Important signings are bound to be controversial, so here we include a representative example at each end of the spectrum of sentiments.
Where Does He Rank On The Defector Boom/Bust Scale?
At some point, Aouar is going to get a chance to prove himself on a bigger stage than a second-tier Ligue 1 side. If he’s not expected to come in and completely run a midfield, I think he should be able to shine on any stage, never mind the wasteland that is a Premier League relegation battle. There just aren’t a lot of players with his skill and talent available for teams in the bottom half of the table. Even when Lyon stagnated following the departure of so many of his teammates, Aouar continued to provide moments of excellence for the club. Given his durability and steady production, Aouar should be a blessing for his new team, even if he never reaches the same heights he did earlier in his career. For these reasons, Houssem Aouar grades at a 50.8 on the Defector Boom/Bust Scale.