Make no mistake about it, when the news finally broke of Mario Lemina’s arrival at around 9pm on Sunday evening, the vast majority of our fan base knew we had a fairly effective midfielder on our hands but for those that don’t know much about the Gabon international, we’ve got you covered.
Ralph Hasenhuttl ultimately saw the 27-year-old’s future away from Southampton and, after spending last season on loan at Turkish Super Lig outfit Galatasaray SK, Fulham were more than happy to take him off the Austrian’s hands on a season-long loan with an option to buy at a later date, of course.
Rising through the ranks at FC Lorient, Lemina rapidly made a name for himself and soon became an Olympique de Marseille representative in 2013. He’s never been a gifted goal scorer, an architect in the final third, but his hard-hitting, dynamic disposition in the centre of the park eventually earned him a move to Juventus from the Orange Velodrome two years later and it’s there, in Turin, where he manufactured a higher level to his burgeoning game.
Joining the Bianconeri initially on loan for the 2015/16 campaign, Lemina’s temporary stint became permanent a year later but it was short lived. In August 2017, he was rendered surplus to requirement at the Allianz Stadium and that’s when the Saints came knocking. Swapping a midfield of Miralem Pjanic and Claudio Marchisio for James Ward-Prowse and Steven Davis, the robust anchorman’s introduction to Premier League football was enlightening as well as turbulent, to some degree.
Over the course of two seasons on the south coast, Lemina made 52 appearances, scoring two and assisting two. For a defensive midfielder, this may not seem like an inefficient record but Lemina’s deceptive qualities on the ball suggests he could add more firepower and creation to his repertoire. In 190 first-team games spanning over his career to date, he’s only netted 8 goals and, by all accounts, that’s one of the main reasons why the Saints decided to show him the back door at St. Mary’s.
Needless to say, some of the goals he’s scored are absolute, rip-roaring bangers but in truth, we really shouldn’t be looking for that in him, not regularly, anyway. When he turns up, alive to the occasion, he’s a forceful athlete that fits the Champions League-gracing contender he once was, we just haven’t seen it for a while. Last season at Cimbom, he simply couldn’t acclimatise to the nomadic narrative of Turkish top-flight but the Premier League is a very different strategic environment indeed.
Lemina is capable of morphing his direct opponent into stone with fleet footed escape sequences and his sharp turn of pace makes him an exceedingly troublesome character to shake off but, amid his energetic attributes, his touch-and-go temperament is slightly perturbing. Stories of disinterest, slouched shoulders, they featured intermittently whilst he was on Southampton’s books but every player possesses an arrogance in some shape or form and, if we can channel his enthusiasm correctly, he’ll thrive in our ballsy engine room.
He brings grit, an almost unpolished majesty to our midfield department and, though he’s not a leading marksman, he can act as a vigorous makeweight between attack and defence, an interlinking mediator between Harrison Reed and Tom Cairney and above all, he’ll be a nuisance to his opposite numbers. For me, in terms of a starting spot, it’s a toss up between our African newcomer and Joshua Onomah, although I quite like the idea of upsetting the apple cart if it gets the best out of every available member at every given opportunity. An hour before kick-off, 11:45am on a Wednesday at Motspur Park, Lemina will push his teammates and ask constructive questions of their credentials.
Bolstering the standard? Possibly. Instilling a well-rounded competitive edge? Indefinitely. What we have in Lemina is a resourceful component with the potential for more. More goals, more assists, more panache and trickery, he can restore his reputation on English soil if he’s willing to adapt to Scott Parker’s system and, critically, if he’s genuinely ready to fight tooth and nail for survival and supremacy both against our opponents and, in the friendliest of terms, his new teammates.