On the 28th of November 2015, Toulouse welcomed OGC Nice to the Stade Municipal. The home side were in 19th position, with just nine points in 14 games. Le Téfécé had won just once, conceded 12 goals and it looked like they would be facing the drop.
Dominique Arribagé, before he was sacked, decided that game he would hand a debut to 16-year-old goalkeeper Alban Lafont. It seemed like a kamikaze move…it worked. Wearing the #40 shirt, he became Ligue 1’s youngest ever ‘keeper, beating Nice’s Anthony Mandréa’s record – but he was only a substitute.
He had fellow teenager Issa Diop ahead of him at centre-back, it what was perhaps the youngest defensive duo in Ligue 1 history. Goals from Martin Braithwaite and a Wissam Ben Yedder penalty sealed a 2-0 home victory and Lafont had his very first clean sheet. A star was born. He followed it up with another in the 3-0 win over Troyes.
“It was a bold move but it gave me the opportunity to wake up a squad that needed waking up,” said Arribagé. “He had struggled in a friendly against Eibar, but that made him realise what was required to play at the highest level.”
Respected coach, Pascal Dupraz, would step in to save the club, but a huge part of their success, winning their Ligue 1 place with a 3-2 win over SCO Angers, was down to the teenage goalkeeper. He picked up another seven clean sheets during the campaign, making that nine in just 24 games. Impressive for a team that were down in the bottom three of the table for the majority of the campaign.
Don't know why, but hate the phrase "French Donnarumma" when talking about Alban Lafont. Can't he just be himself? He's amazing. #TFC
— Andrew Gibney / The Gib Show (@Gibney_A) October 16, 2016
That established him as not just TFC’s No.1, but as one of the best goalkeeping prodigies in Europe. Now mentioned in the same breath as 17-year-old Gianluigi Donnarumma, the Italian has flourished on the grand stage, looking like the successor to Gianluigi Buffon's crown. However, the AC Milan shot-stopper has had to do it all in the eyes of the vicious Italian media. Not just in Milan, but as a part of the Azzurri national team.
Lafont has still gone somewhat under the radar and although recently linked with a move to Arsenal, he’s been allowed to continue to develop and it’s Dupraz and Toulouse who are reaping all the benefits.
The biggest and best of French football goalkeeping royalty have had their say on the teenager: “He is a smart goalkeeper who reads the game well,” said former Lyon goalkeeper Gregory Coupet. “He brings a lot of confidence despite his young age.”
oh cool, you did a Career Mode video where you signed Alban Lafont. pic.twitter.com/lqg5C9ocZM
— olly (@sewadyllo) October 14, 2016
Then, Mickael Landreau, who played for Nantes, PSG and won the league double with Lille in 2011, added: “I like his calmness. Alban makes quality decisions and his positioning is surprisingly good. A great career is ahead of him.”
Tall, lanky legs, you can see why he was first used as a midfielder and a forward. However, his large frame makes him a dominant figure in the air. He is confident coming for catches, he’s strong enough to hold off most aerial challenges. Unlike the players he replaced, Ali Ahamada and Mauro Goicoechea, he is able to command his area and make catches without the same silly mistakes that cost that duo their place in the team.
“I am naturally calm and don't get carried away easily,” Lafont told journalists in an early interview. “[Making my debut so young] is not an end in itself. I need to keep working, have fun and train well.”
Lafont’s strongest area is his cat-like reflexes. Getting down quickly, or diving to get in front of a powerful shot, he is excellent. This season, he has recorded five clean sheets in 15 games, however, his highlight came in the 2-0 home win over PSG.
Edinson Cavani was struggling and Lafont wasn’t going to gift him anything. Two world class saves from point blank range denying the Uruguayan. Even the international striker seemed bamboozled when he realised his efforts hadn’t found the net.
They seemed almost impossible at the time, but they are becoming a regular occurrence when you are watching Lafont in goal.
“This is the reward for what we do in training,” Lafont revealed after the victory. “I managed to get to them (Cavani’s attempts). It’s my job and hard work pays off, as they say.”
‘It’s a collective victory and that’s the most important thing to remember. It is a wonderful moment for a young player, we all dream of winning games like that.”
There is a ceiling when playing for Toulouse, but that time shouldn’t be coming soon for the young goalkeeper. Arsenal have Petr Cech, so any move to the Emirates would only be to play as a back-up.
In most Ligue 1 teams, he’d probably still be playing that role, but like Donnarumma, he has now broken through and is playing as a starter. It would be a huge mistake to leave now. There could be a chance that another French club could make the move for the 17-year-old, but the stark reality is that the local clubs wouldn’t be able to offer Toulouse a substantial amount of money that would prize the future France international away from the Stade Municipal.
France's U18 squad (coached by Bernard Diomede) has been announced. Two L1 regulars included – GK Alban Lafont and defender Malang Sarr.
— Jeremy Smith (@jeremysmith98) November 3, 2016
Lafont’s future, unless someone bids crazy money, is set to continue at Toulouse for the foreseeable future. That is the best place for him and with Dupraz pushing his buttons and helping him evolve and gain a huge amount of playing time, he could become world class.
However, it won’t be until he makes that next step, that we find out just how far he can go. Arsene Wenger will continue to monitor, and perhaps, in two or three years, someone will be acquiring an incredible young goalkeeper.