Aged just 16 years and 140 days old, the next great hope to come out of Lyon’s esteemed academy, Rayan Cherki, became the youngest player to score for Les Gones’ first team. Cherki netted for the first time as his side romped to a 7-0 Coupe de France win on 4th January.
That first goal appears to have only been the start for the promising young attacker. Since that goal, Cherki has netted twice more for Lyon. In addition to that, Cherki has already notched up two first-team assists. He has earned five direct goal contributions in just 289 first-team minutes. This impressively averages out to Cherki providing a goal contribution every 57.8 minutes so far.
The exciting young talent’s performances have drawn plenty of attention. He has predictably already earned countless comparisons to some of the world’s best players. While it may be too soon to go overboard, Cherki’s undeniable talent at such a young age is reminiscent of the impressive output of Hatem Ben Arfa and Karim Benzema when they first made their way into Lyon’s first team as promising young teenagers.
In this piece, we will analyse Cherki’s key attributes and dissect what the player specifically brings to his team.
Intelligent off the ball movement and Cherki’s preferred positioning
One of Cherki’s most important attributes is his intelligent off the ball movement. It is evident that Cherki has already been able to showcase his ability on the senior stage. One of the key reasons for Cherki’s ability to seamlessly transition to first-team football and already play a significant role is his ability to read the game.
Cherki often manages to put himself in positions where it appears as though the ball simply finds him. This desirable ability allows the player to frequently find himself in space to benefit from comfortable goal-scoring opportunities. Cherki’s reading of the game and excellent offensive positional awareness are the key to creating these opportunities.
This image provides an example of Cherki positioning himself in optimal space to benefit from a clear shot at goal. This image is captured from only his second full 90-minute, first-team game. Moments prior to this image, Cherki drifts into the Nantes box. We can see here how he positions himself in the perfect pocket of space between Nantes’ defenders.
Cherki’s excellent reading of the game allows him to get onto the end of Bertrand Traoré’s cutback. He is subsequently able to benefit from his positioning with a clear-cut chance which he slots away.
This intelligent positional awareness has been a clear trait of Cherki’s throughout his young career. He is excellent at positioning himself in intelligent pockets of space between defenders to enjoy goal-scoring opportunities. This has clearly translated well into Cherki’s first-team football and is one of the key reasons for his bright start.
This second image provides us with another example of Cherki positioning himself in a clever pocket of space. On this occasion, Cherki finds room in the right half-space as Lyon attempt to break down the opposition defensive block. This image provides us with an example of the kind of position which Cherki loves to take up in the attack.
In the majority of Cherki’s youth games, he enjoyed the positional freedom to roam around Lyon’s offensive third. In the defensive shape, Cherki has occupied a variety of different positions at times, such as the right-wing or a more central position. However, in attack, Cherki generally likes to position himself in the half-spaces.
This is where Cherki can generally find the tight pockets of space between defenders which he enjoys operating in. You generally will not see Cherki position himself out wide. Cherki thrives in these tight, central areas due to his excellent close control dribbling ability and quick decision making quality.
This image shows us a different example of Cherki’s off the ball movement as Lyon have possession. In this image, we can see Cherki dropping into a much deeper zone than he usually occupies. This is a movement Cherki makes often in games when his side struggles to build out from the back.
Here we can see Cherki vacating his central attacking position to try and make himself an option for his defenders. As Cherki drops deeper, he also scans more often, which we can see an example of here. One negative you might point out about Cherki is that he sometimes is too casual when receiving the ball. When winning comfortably and positioned in the attack, he can be prone to allowing preventable turnovers.
However, as we can see here, in a tight game and in a more dangerous area, he generally scans frequently. Cherki is valuable in these types of scenarios due to his ability to progress the ball from defence to attack. He is excellent at progressing the ball up the pitch due to his passing and dribbling quality.
Excellent ball control and skilful dribbling ability
Cherki is extremely skilful with the ball. He is very difficult to dispossess when he is able to carry the ball towards the opposition goal. Cherki possesses excellent ball control, an obvious touch of flair, and the ability to accelerate with pace, all of which combine to make him a major threat on the ball.
This image provides us with an example of how Cherki’s threat on the ball can create space for his teammates. Cherki received possession on the left-wing just prior to this image. As he received the ball, the opposition right-back began to press him.
Cherki proceeded to carry the ball infield, threatening the opposition defence. Cherki is an excellent attacker to have in a one vs one situation. His skill and threat on the ball subsequently attracts two more opposition defenders towards him, in order to prevent him from getting through on goal.
However, as the opposition press Cherki, this creates space for his teammates elsewhere in the attacking third. Cherki skillfully backheels the ball to his nearest teammate, who subsequently picks out another teammate in space. This creates a shooting opportunity for this player, who finds the net.
Cherki’s one vs one dribbling ability is clearly an asset in forging out opportunities for his teammates. However, Cherki is very comfortable with using his dribbling skill to take on multiple men and create a chance for himself. In this image above, we can see Cherki in possession carrying the ball towards an opposition player.
At this moment, Cherki is approaching the defensive player while carrying the ball away from the opposition box. We can see two clear potential passing options for Cherki, one on his left and one on his right. We can also see two opposition players pressing Cherki, both from behind and ahead of him. Meanwhile, one other opposition player moves to cover the passing option to Cherki’s right.
This next image shows us Cherki taking on the opposition defenders as this passage of play continues. Firstly, these two images provide us with a clear example of another one of Cherki’s most valuable assets, his ability to change direction at pace.
In the first image, Cherki had been facing away from the opposition goal. However, in this second image, we can see Cherki quickly changing direction to charge towards the opposition goal. Cherki’s ability to change direction at pace is valuable as it makes him an unpredictable dribbler. As this passage continues to play out, Cherki probes into the space circled in this image, creating a shooting opportunity.
One physical asset of Cherki’s which helps him to carry out quick changes of direction is his two-footedness. Cherki is extremely two-footed. He himself has stated he doesn’t know which foot exactly is his stronger one. This helps him even more to be an unpredictable dribbler.
Another important result of Cherki’s impressive ball control is his ability to receive the ball on the half-turn in dangerous areas. Cherki can often be seen receiving the ball with his back to goal, or even with an opponent tight to him as we can see here. However, he is generally well capable of turning towards goal quickly and driving towards goal.
In addition to his impressive ball control, this image provides an example of Cherki’s ability to use his body well. Cherki is not the most physical player in the world. At just 16 years old, he naturally has a lot of room to improve in that regard. However, despite that, he is very good at using his body well to hold off defenders and ride opposition challenges.
Cherki can often be seen simply shaking off opposition challenges, despite physical disparity. This is another valuable trait of his, which makes him a quality dribbler and a difficult man to defend against.
Commanding passing ability
Cherki’s dribbling quality is arguably his most evident and impressive asset in-possession. However, he is also an impressive passer of the ball. Depending on his positioning at the time, Cherki can influence the game in a multitude of ways with his passing quality.
This image shows us an example of Cherki’s ability to pick out an influential pass, through a narrow gap in the opposition defence. On this particular occasion, Cherki has received possession as Lyon counterattack. We can see that the Nantes backline is retreating from a high position at this moment.
Centre-forward Moussa Dembélé has got the pace required to beat the Nantes backline. As he times his run, Cherki picks out a perfectly weighted pass through the tight gap between the left-back and Dembélé, circled here. As the pass is played, Dembélé can break into the increased space behind the defensive line. This subsequently results in a Lyon goal.
Cherki’s quality at playing the final ball is evident from this image. We can clearly see that Cherki provides a quality asset in a counterattack from this image. His positioning, his ability to make quick decisions and his technical ability are all on show here.
This next image provides us with an example of the effectiveness of Cherki’s passing versus a deep block. Cherki is capable of finding dangerous pockets of space to influence both on the counterattack as well as when playing in front of a deep block. This image shows us an example of the latter.
Cherki is circled in this image, we can see that the opposition are set up to effectively prevent Lyon from playing through the lines here. Cherki picks up a central position to receive the ball. His vision and long-passing ability are evident in this passage of play.
As Cherki receives the ball from the packed right-wing, he is able to quickly switch the play to the left-wing, where his teammate has found some space. This shows us how Cherki can control the game and move the opposition defensive shape around to create gaps.
His pinpoint passing ability, his vision, as well as his quick decision making are on show here.
Calmness in front of goal
Another one of Cherki’s most important attributes is his calmness and quality in front of goal. Cherki has shown himself to have very solid nerves in front of goal. Cherki’s finishing provides us with clear examples of his quality in front of goal, as well as his undeniable confidence. His calmness in front of goal is another trait which will help Cherki make the seamless transition from youth football to the first team.
This image above shows us an example of Cherki casually pulling off a quality finish from a tight angle. Prior to this image, Cherki carried the ball from his attacking midfield position into the box. As we can see Cherki has left himself with a tight shooting angle here. He is not helped by the on-rushing goalkeeper.
However, Cherki’s coolness is exemplified by his ability to pick out the gap over the goalkeeper’s right shoulder. He calmly chips the ball over the keeper’s shoulder from the right angle, placing it into the net.
This kind of finish is a favourite of Cherki’s. The talented youngster even managed to pull off a Panenka penalty in one UEFA Youth League game versus RB Leipzig this season. His confidence is evidently a big asset to his ability to finish in such a calm manner. He is a player who can consistently take advantage of the clear-cut opportunities that his movement creates.
To conclude, Cherki’s rise from youth football to Lyon’s first team has been meteoric. However, he has already shown a lot of ability to influence the game at a higher level. Cherki will be an interesting one to watch develop as time moves on. At present, it appears as though Cherki is destined for big things.
A player is never finished developing at 16 years old however. He has developed in a much quicker manner than many 16-year-olds ever have, however, we have seen similar cases of young players progressing quickly with Lyon alone, who fail to reach the heights projected of them.
Cherki is a quality youngster, and undeniably one to watch for the future. He is an influential playmaker whose dribbling and passing make him a major threat. He appears as though he could develop into a player similar in style to Philippe Coutinho. Both players are skilful dribblers and dominant passers and he can forge similar goalscoring opportunities for himself through intelligent movement.
Cherki has still got plenty of room to improve, which is scary in some regards. His casual nature on the pitch at times can be both a positive and a negative, depending on the situation. He could also heavily increase his defensive contribution and obviously, his physicality can develop further with time. However, his talent is incredible at just 16 years old and he has undeniable world-class potential.