It was no secret that Corentin Tolisso would leave Lyon this summer but his destination has raised eyebrows. The young midfielder had been pursued by Napoli in previous windows and was linked with Juventus but, rather than becoming the heir to Claudio Marchisio and Sami Khedira in Turin, Tolisso is on his way to Bayern Munich on 1 July.
Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said the “young and interesting player” was “Carlo Ancelotti’s wish for our midfield”. With Arturo Vidal, Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry all in their 30s, and Philipp Lahm and Xabi Alonso enjoying their first few weeks of retirement, Tolisso looks like a good bet to rejuvenate the club’s fortunes in midfield. The €41.5m fee makes him the most expensive player in Bundesliga history, with Bayern now responsible for the league’s top five fees. Tolisso tops that list above Javi Martínez (€40m), Mats Hummels (€38m), Mario Götze (€37m) and Vidal (€37m).
Tolisso joined Lyon’s academy as a 13-year-old a decade ago and has now earned the club the biggest transfer fee they have ever received. He showed some promise as a teenager and earned a handful of caps for France’s various youth squads, but didn’t make much of an impact internationally until he was called up to the U21s towards the end of their qualifying campaign for the 2015 European Championship.
France failed to qualify for that tournament – they lost a play-off to eventual champions Sweden – but when the squad re-convened to begin qualification for the 2017 tournament, Tolisso had been promoted. His consistent displays for Lyon earned him the captaincy for a number of the qualifiers but was ultimately left disappointed as France again failed to qualify, this time finishing a point behind Macedonia in their group..
Tolisso made his first appearance for Lyon in a 4-0 win over Nice in August 2013 and enjoyed a stunning debut season at the club under Rémi Garde, who used him as a right-back. Garde stepped down at the end of the 2013-14 season for personal reasons and his replacement, Bruno Génésio, shifted Tolisso to the centre of midfield where he played alongside the more prosaic and combative Jordan Ferri in a diamond 4-4-2.
Lyon were one of Ligue 1’s best sides to watch that season and only let their title chase slip in the final few weeks of the campaign. Alexandre Lacazette and Nabil Fékir received many of the plaudits for their goalscoring exploits – Lacazette hit 27 goals in 33 games, with Fékir chipping in with 13 goals and nine assists – but the ever-present Tolisso was also instrumental, scoring seven goals from midfield at the age of 20.
The following season was more difficult for Tolisso and Lyon. They held on to second place in Ligue 1 but suffered an embarrassing elimination from the Champions League, finishing bottom of a group that contained Zenit St Petersburg, Gent and Valencia. Tolisso missed some matches with a thigh injury and, due to injuries at centre-back and disciplinary problems within the squad, he was also used as a more orthodox defensive midfielder at the base of a 4-3-3, which limited his attacking contributions. While good in the air, Tolisso lacks the upper-body strength and physicality needed to operate effectively in a midfield duo and sometimes dwindled in this deeper role.
To the chagrin of many fans, Lyon persisted with Génésio last summer and he kept experimenting with Tolisso’s position. Played as a right-sided wing-back, a second striker and a No10, as well as in his more normal midfield positions, Tolisso’s attacking numbers improved greatly over the season as he scored 14 goals in all competitions.
Lyon enjoyed a better campaign in Europe, with Tolisso coming into his own as a set-piece threat as they came within a whisker of reaching the Europa League final. He was even given the captain’s armband when Maxime Gonalons, another Lyon youth team graduate, was suspended. Tolisso’s only black mark this season was the foolish red card he picked up in the dying stages against Saint-Étienne but the highlight was making his first senior cap against Spain at the Stade de France in March.
From his early days as a tentative right-back unable to dislodge Mehdi Zeffane from the Lyon team to becoming a France international, Tolisso’s evolution has been impressive, and it is far from complete. It is not without some pang of regret that we see Tolisso leave for the Bundesliga, but we should be thankful for the time he had in Ligue 1 – not so we can tell stories to our grandchildren, but as a representation of the remarkable level of young talent France has produced over the past five seasons.
The hype around Ousmane Dembélé and Kylian Mbappé has been justifiable but most players do not have such meteoric rises. Many, such as Tolisso, only reveal their gifts over time. The spark that comes when a teenager bursts on to the scene is truly special but, for those of us willing to show a little patience, the joy of watching a player develop over time provides an even greater reward.