Jerome Roussillon: The Wolfsburg man challenging Benjamin Mendy and Lucas Hernandez as France's first-choice left-back
Wolfsburg's summer signing Jerome Roussillon has already made his home in the Wolves' den, and if the flying Frenchman continues to shine, he can expect to challenge Benjamin Mendy of Manchester City and Atletico Madrid's Lucas Hernandez for the title of France's first-choice left-back.
We have all practised our autographs during an idle moment at school, most probably during algebra, but there is one teacher in France who must cherish one of his pupil's dream-filled doodles.
"It was for my Italian teacher. It was to joke with him, he said he would have the oldest autograph of a football star," explained Jerome Roussillon of his very first signature. "I learned Italian after English, but not because I was already thinking about a career in Serie A, just that I thought it might come in handy."
The 26-year-old might now regret he did not opt instead for German after a more significant autograph, the one he penned on the four-year deal he agreed with Wolfsburg last summer.
Watch: Roussillon was on target in Wolfsburg's recent six-goal thriller with Freiburg
Not that the language barrier has been nothing the athletic defender cannot hurdle. Though neither can speak the other's language, personal charisma and body language mean he and fellow full-back William "have a lot of fun". On the pitch, he has little other choice than to let his feet do the talking, and they clearly speak fluently to Josip Brekalo, who has flourished on the left flank with Roussillon to back him up.
"He's very important for my game. I have more options with him. We have played very well together. It's good for me to have him behind me," said the Croat, whose broken German and English help Wolfsburg captain Josuha Guilavogui serve as the duo's translator-in-chief when necessary.
"We understand each other just like that, it's about football intelligence. You know at every moment where your teammate is."
While Bayern Munich have David and Franck, Wolfsburg have Jerome and Josip, and like Alaba's empathy with Ribery, perhaps Roussillon understands Brekalo's position so well because he used to play there. Everyone wants to score goals, and the new Wolf was no different, growing up in Paris' northern suburbs.
Though a born Paris Saint-Germain fan, he flew under the radar of the French capital's premier club, and following a spell alongside the likes of PSG goalkeeper Alphonse Areola and Borussia Dortmund's Raphael Guerreiro at the esteemed Clairefontaine academy, Roussillon rejected Rennes to join Sochaux.
"Honestly, between Rennes and Sochaux, it was two clubs who give youngsters their chance," he explained. "So, it was close."
Climbing the ladder
Sochaux?! The choice may seem a strange one, but while the modest now second-tier club may be little known beyond the confines of France's borders, it is revered within them as one of the high priests of that precious football art: turning youthful potential into a professional player.
With 30 goals in his first season in the yellow-and-blue of his new club playing on the left wing, Roussillon certainly suggested he had the ability to step up. After helping the club's U17 team win their national title and the U19 side reach the Gambardella Cup final — France's biggest youth football competition — the cloud of Sochaux's decline that led to relegation from Ligue 1 in 2013 had the silver lining of forcing them to exploit their homegrown resources. Roussillon's chance had come.
He seized it — as a left-back now — earning himself a return to the top flight with Montpellier in 2015 where — as part of one of Ligue 1's stingiest defences — he struck the required balance between making an impact going forward and ensuring that did not have the negative side-effect of him neglecting his day job at the back.
"He understands he has to keep on running, and when he attacks he makes great runs, he's explosive and uses the ball well. He loves to get forward — and he can defend now as well," explained Montpellier coach Michel Der Zakarian, a former defender who considered stopping opposing forwards his raison d'être. "He didn't used to like defending, but it's something he's worked on and that was a necessary step for him." Roussillon concurred: "We love getting forward but we have to defend as well, and that's tough but we're doing it."
After two impressive seasons and a 2017/18 campaign that sparkled in between spells on the treatment table, Wolfsburg were not the only ones to have taken notice with English Premier League sides Leicester City and Crystal Palace as well as the Wolves' northern neighbours Hamburg all linked to the pacy defender.
Enthusiastic at the idea of finally filling a gap in their side that had to be patched up with makeshift solutions last season and spotting a worthy successor to Ricardo Rodriguez, Wolfsburg snared their man and Roussillon has heard the same message from coach Bruno Labbadia as he did his old boss: defend AND attack.
"He expects me to set the tempo and put in good crosses, because we have big forwards," explained Roussillon, who gave Labbadia exactly what he wanted in sending over the ball for Wout Weghorst to score in the 3-1 win against Bayer Leverkusen on Matchday 2.
The 26-year-old has continued to go from strength to strength, adding another two assists and two goals since the back end of November. He recently confided to kicker – who rate him as one of the Bundesliga's best players this term – that he is in "the best form of [his] career. This is the best league for me," he added. "The game here is very attacking, that's my strength."
Add in a solid 56 per cent 'challenges won' ratio, the fact that he has beaten his man with one of every two dribbles attempted, and been clocked at a breakneck 21mph, and it's easy to see why Wolfsburg fans are buckling up for a thrilling ride as long as Roussillon's in town. And should the Wolves return to Europe for the first time in four years, he will be helping to spearhead their continental charge: "Why should I leave if we're playing in Europe?"
VfL sporting director Marcel Schäfer has certainly been won over. "He's already very good. He's made a great impression, his speed stands out," admitted the 34-year-old, who should know a quality left-back when he sees one. He fulfilled that role supremely in 256 Bundesliga matches for the club, notably as part of the thrilling 2008/09 title-winning side.
Schäfer was only capped eight times at senior level by Germany, while Roussillon has yet to pull on the shirt — freshly embossed with a second star — of his country's senior side. Jeremy Menez, Jeremy Mathieu and Benoit Pedretti are just three of the full-blown France internationals who have emerged from Sochaux's youth academy in recent years, and Roussillon may yet become an alumnus if he makes the ultimate football graduation.
Les Bleus next?
He last played for France in March 2013, with an U20 squad that featured Paul Pogba and Florian Thauvin. A few months later, the pair would help the team lift the U20 World Cup. Just as he did this summer as his former teammates scaled the summit of world football in Russia, he had watched their triumph on TV. Injury sidelined him in 2013, but his contribution to the cause in qualifying meant "I still put 'world champion' on my Facebook page."
Five years later, though he was mentioned as a potential candidate, he had not done quite enough to convince France boss Didier Deschamps he was worthy of a place in his 23-man squad for Russia, ahead of Manchester City's Benjamin Mendy and Lucas Hernandez.
But his sparkling recent form for the Wolves is likely to be giving Deschamps food for thought, especially with Mendy only just returning from a lengthy knee injury and Hernandez sidelined by a knee problem of his own. Could their loss be Roussillon's gain for the upcoming UEFA Euro 2020 qualifiers against Moldova and Iceland?
"If Didier Deschamps calls, I'll be there," Roussillon pledged. "But that road is still a long one." Perhaps not, Jerome. Benjamin Pavard's breakthrough season at Stuttgart took him from first cap to World Cup in a matter of months. And there is well over a year to go until the Euro…
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