Danny Hall: Sheffield United could have a world-beater on their hands in Lys Mousset - but the penny must drop soon to avoid any regrets
Anyone who witnessed his six-week-or-so purple patch in late 2019, as Sheffield United attacked the Premier League with refreshing vigour, should be able to testify to his incredible ability.
The winner at home to Arsenal. A smart, snap-shot finish to equalise at West Ham. A hat-trick of assists against Burnley – two of which would, if they were from the boot of a more popular player, still probably be played on repeat to this day.
A stunning long-range finish against Manchester United and then a sublime first touch before scoring at Wolves made it four goals and three assists in six games for Lys Mousset in Blades colours.
The only issue, for player and club, is that the 33 competitive games he has played since have yielded just one goal, an almost criminal return considering the talent and potential that Mousset possesses.
A string of off-field demeanours and some below-par performances have led to a section of Blades fans writing off the Frenchman, who seems to make a mockery of his reported £10m fee every time he steps on to the pitch. The trouble for United is that that can go either way.
At his best, like when he terrorised Manchester City’s defence at the Etihad and was denied a memorable goal by a marginal VAR call, he looks like a player worth many times that. At his worst, it looks like they massively overpaid. And, in his short Bramall Lane career to date, there seem to have been precious few moments between those two extremes.
As The Star revealed recently, Mousset could be handed one last chance to make a real success of his Blades career by new manager Slavisa Jokanović, if the Serb is convinced that his striker is fully committed to the Blades.
He did his chances no harm with a goal in the club’s first and only pre-season game to date, a 3-0 win over Europa Point in Spain, and looked noticeably trimmer when he returned for pre-season than one suspects he was when his summer began.
Although Mousset’s fitness has long been the subject of debate at United – he is still to complete 90 minutes for the club since arriving, being withdrawn with a few minutes left on a couple of occasions in his first season – there has previously been a suspicion amongst senior figures behind the scenes that Mousset’s up-and-down time of things at Bramall Lane is more a question of mentality than physicality.
The striker alluded as such in an interview last year, when he admitted he was “not well in my head” after some undisclosed family issues back in France. A freak toe injury in the pre-season that followed put him further behind schedule and he featured just 11 times as the Blades slid out of the Premier League.
“Twelve clubs in 11 years and only 98 appearances, I don’t know why any club bothers anymore,” Paul Devlin, the former Blades favourite, wrote on Twitter of Mousset earlier today. “The ‘they might get a tune out of him’ quote gets used a lot but ultimately it’s a failure for player and club. He’ll look back on a wasted career.”
Judging by social media this summer, few tears would be shed amongst supporters if he was cut loose. But it says a lot that, despite the off-field issues, the injuries and the general frustration, Mousset generally remained involved under the man who brought him to United, Chris Wilder, and then started the first game of the Jokanović era in Spain.
They both knew that the reward, if it came, was worth the risk, and it comes as no surprise to learn that Jokanović is prepared to exercise patience when it comes to the striker. Coaxing consistent performances out of him, together with his newly-appointed coaches, will not be easy task for the manager. But, having studied footage of his squad intensely before officially starting work at Bramall Lane earlier this month, he will also know that a player with Mousset’s best attributes would ordinarily be out of United’s reach, both divisionally and financially.
It probably helps his cause that, behind the scenes, Mousset is a popular player and, although crashing his supercar and being banned from driving cannot be condoned, a decent lad. But that alone would not have made him into a Premier League player and it is his on-field attributes – pace, power, explosiveness and an eye for goal – that have led to him receiving more chances than many possibly would say he deserves.
But those chances will not be infinite and there also comes a time when the player himself has to grasp them firmly, and not let go. Mousset is 25 years old, no longer a promising youngster in the Le Havre academy. Of the six senior strikers currently on United’s books, plus a number of promising youngsters, Mousset is the third oldest and has only a season left on the initial three-year deal he signed when he arrived in 2019.
Where does he want things to go from here? It may be dramatising the situation a little to say that Mousset’s career is at something of a crossroads, but it can certainly go two very distinct ways. If the penny drops, he gets it right and delivers on that undoubted potential, and Mousset could easily find himself at a club at the top end of the Premier League or beyond. The risk is that, in a few years, he looks back and wonders what might have been.