VfB Stuttgart and France defender Benjamin Pavard: The next Lilian Thuram?
Barring injury, the 22-year-old VfB Stuttgart defender will travel to Russia and will do so as one of the most coveted young players in Europe. A slap in the face of his doubters, if ever there was one.
*Translation: “Over the moon [to be called up]. I don’t have the words to describe the nicest moment of my young career!!!”
At the end of the 2015/16 Ligue 1 campaign, Pavard stood at a career crossroads after managing just 21 league appearances across two seasons for Lille. He had two choices: make do with a bit-part role at his boyhood club or start over elsewhere. The then France U21 international plumped for option II, albeit with a twist.
Resisting offers to stay at France’s top table, Pavard took a cross-border leap of faith with Stuttgart, fallen Bundesliga giants who had just been relegated to the second tier for the first time in 41 years. Derided in his homeland as a sizable step back – an indicator of his true level even – the move turned out to be the springboard he had been searching for.
“Some people said my career would regress because Stuttgart were in the second division when I joined, but it worked out pretty well,” Pavard recalled in a recent interview with goal.com. “I’ve made great strides as a player. I’m playing regular football, playing for a top German club, in front of sold-out crowds. Everything’s going well.”
Very well, in fact. Stuttgart spent just one season in Bundesliga 2, pipping Hannover to the 2016/17 domestic title. Pavard played his part, operating at right-back, centre-back and even as a defensive midfielder in his 21 league outings. His versatility was as much a boon as it was a quandary, a pair of cameos on the right-hand side of midfield adding to the mystique – but all that changed for the better upon the appointment of Tayfun Korkut as head coach on 29 January 2018.
With Pavard deployed exclusively at centre-back, Stuttgart conceded just 10 goals in 14 matches from February through to the season’s end. Eight- and five-match unbeaten runs sandwiched their sole defeat under Korkut – to Borussia Dortmund – as Die Schwaben climbed from within three points of the relegation play-off spot to seventh in the final standings. Only Eintracht Frankfurt’s shock DFB Cup final win over Bayern Munich denied the three-time Bundesliga champions a place in the UEFA Europa League qualifying rounds.
An ever-present through thick and thin, Pavard was one of just four Bundesliga players not to miss a single second of the action all season – the bedrock of the third-meanest defence in the Bundesliga. If France coach Didier Deschamps felt he had to justify the Lille cast-off’s maiden international call-up in November 2017, he only had to point to the cold hard facts – namely 3,060 minutes played, 63 percent of challenges won and an 83 percent pass accuracy – when naming the February Bundesliga Rookie of the Month in his final World Cup squad.
Watch: A closer look at Benjamin Pavard, Stuttgart’s defensive all-rounder
“It’s crazy to be called up,” four-time France international Pavard said. “I wasn’t expecting it, but then I get the call. Obviously I’m delighted and I’ll make sure I repay the coach for the faith he has shown me. Right-back, centre-back, left-back – it’s all the same to me. You have to be able to defend. I’m happy in all positions.”
Football being the fickle sport it is the French media are now scrambling for comparisons for a player they had collectively written off two years ago. The legendary Lilian Thuram tops the list, having regularly, and seamlessly, transitioned between right- and centre-back during a storied career, winning – among others – the 1998 World Cup and UEFA Euro 2000.
Pavard has a long way to go to match the achievements of the most capped international in France history, but if the last two years have taught us anything it’s that Stuttgart’s Monsieur Versatile loves a challenge.