Lemar's talent now obvious to see, after tough start at Caen
Patrice Garande gets defensive when asked questions about Monaco midfielder Thomas Lemar these days.
How, soccer observers ask him, could he possibly have left such a talented player on the team bench?
That was three years ago, when Lemar was playing for modest French club Caen.
Small in stature at 1.70 meters (5-foot-6) and rather frail, Lemar was overlooked by Garande, the coach. He preferred players with a stronger physique more suitable — he believed — to scrapping for survival points with Caen near the bottom end of the table.
Fast forward to last week, and the Stade de France rose to applaud Lemar's man-of-the match performance as France routed the Netherlands 4-0 in a World Cup qualifier that took place on the last day of the transfer window.
Lemar's first of two goals that night was a superbly-timed volley from the edge of the penalty area, struck so sweetly and with such velocity that it whizzed into the top corner like a bullet from a rifle.
On the same day Lemar got his first goals for Les Bleus, the red-and-whites of Monaco turned down offers of 100 million euros (US$120 million) for Lemar from English Premier League clubs Arsenal and Liverpool.
Had they sold, Monaco would have made an astonishing profit, considering Lemar joined from Caen for only 4 million euros two years ago.
No wonder Garande, who is still coach at Caen, gets touchy when reporters remind him of the player he snubbed. Not only did he hardly pick him — Lemar started only six games — he sold him for a risibly low fee for a player of such talent.
When watching the skillful Lemar play, his multiple abilities are evident.
He is quick, elusive, technically gifted and has a wonderful eye for both passing and shooting — scoring some superb goals during Monaco's title-winning campaign last year.
Aside from his goals, something else stood out against the Dutch: Lemar made 54 of 55 passes for a completion rate of 98.2 percent.
Sometimes defensive midfielders, like N'Golo Kante, reach very high numbers, too. But they play shorter, easier passes whereas it is much more complex for an attack-minded player — often under intense pressure from opposing players — to be so relentlessly accurate.
Lemar often has to gather the ball, quickly turn toward the opposing area and pick out a teammate making a quick run, rather than make a more routine sideways pass.
Furthermore, Lemar's link-up play last season down the left flank with fullback Bernard Mendy was among the most dangerous in Europe. A mix of speed, strength and rapid one-two passing, it helped Monaco launch devastating attacks and cut through defenses.
Yet despite taking position on the flank, Lemar is so much more than a wide midfielder.
As he has shown with Monaco, and now France, he is comfortable stepping inside to create the extra man in central midfield. That he does so with little fuss is testimony to his outstanding reading of the game, tactical awareness and composure.
Lemar is clearly not afraid to take calculated risks that pay off.
One was leaving his home in Guadeloupe in the Leeward Islands when he was 15 to try his luck with Normandy-based Caen.
He wasn't much to Garande's liking there, but Monaco saw something in him that is now blatantly obvious to everyone else.
Meanwhile, Paris Saint-Germain coach Unai Emery must think he's dreaming.
First, he kept his job despite losing the title and going out of the UEFA Champions League after a 1-6 loss to Barcelona. Then, PSG gave him the world's two most expensive players in Neymar and Kylian Mbappe.
"It's a privilege for me to be able to count on players of this standing," Emery said ahead of Friday's trip to last-place Metz. "We've made a big effort on attacking players, because we think it will be decisive in improving our results."
It also means Emery has no excuses left.