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For the last two decades, the No.8 has held a special status in Lyon.

Since Juninho pulled on the shirt for OL and inspired them to a record-breaking seven successive Ligue 1 titles, it has been a revered number among fans of the Rhone giants.

The Brazilian, who is regarded as one of the greatest free-kick takers the game has ever known, now pulls the strings behind the scenes at the Groupama Stadium and is set to preside over a critical week in the transfer market.

Among the deals waiting to be done is the sale of hometown hero Houssem Aouar, a 22-year-old midfielder who so looked up to the Recife-born star that he elected to inherit his number when he established himself in the senior squad.

Juninho was no traditional No.8 – more of a graceful playmaker than a link to the forward line – but Aouar is better suited to the usual, multi-purpose requirements of the role. 

At Lyon, though, Aouar’s versatility has proven as much of a blessing as a curse. Happily willing to play anywhere across the centre or left of the pitch, he has at times sacrificed his personal betterment for that of the team.

His ability to play deeper than a typical creator has tempted Lyon to utilise him in a system that has curbed his natural attacking instincts, restricting him to a modest three goals and three assists in 25 Ligue 1 outings last season.

Such statistics reflect badly but unfairly on a player so technically gifted that he has been hailed by Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola as “incredible”.

Indeed, City have been just one of many clubs linked with Aouar since he first broke through in the Lyon first team proper in 2017 as a teenager before rapidly becoming a key component of the starting XI thanks to his graceful nature on the ball, his keen eye for a pass and his ability to wriggle out of tight spaces.

It is with good reason that Chelsea, Liverpool, Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus and Real Madrid have all been associated with the player at one time or another, but as the race to sign him draws to a conclusion, it is Arsenal who are leading the pack.

Lyon have already fielded what president Jean-Michel Aulas bluntly called a “timid” offer from the Gunners, and said the Ligue 1 club are holding out for more than €40 million (£36m/$47m).

Given Lucas Paqueta is already on his way from AC Milan, it seems that Aouar, whose contract is up in 2023, will be granted the exit he craves, with the Emirates Stadium still looking the likeliest destination. 

And it is at Arsenal where the greatest opportunity to unlock his enormous potential lies.

Mikel Arteta plans to use him in a 4-3-3 formation as the foremost central player, where Arsenal are crying out for a player capable of operating comfortably in between the lines of midfield and attack.

It would also offer Aouar the opportunity to play in a system and position tailor-made to his game.

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Aouar, who was only denied a first France cap earlier this month when he contracted Covid-19, has also already shown his ability to shine on the big occasion, positing a goal and six assists in just eight Champions League games, as OL made an unanticipated run to the semi-finals last season.

Lyon, as a whole, were better suited to playing counterattacking football than the monotony of breaking packed defences down, but by the time they made a decisive move to remedy that issue by signing Bruno Guimaraes in the winter window, the coronavirus crisis, which caused the Ligue 1 season to be aborted, was looming.

“When Houssem plays like a second striker, you lose him in the midfield,” Juninho explained in February. “We have to find balance and Bruno can give us that.”

They were on the field together for just 445 minutes last term, but during this time Aouar offered four assists and a goal – a decisive action every 89 minutes in comparison to his overall season figure of 171. 

This is all the more impressive given that among these fixtures were a 1-0 win over Juventus, a 3-1 defeat of Manchester City and a 3-0 Champions League semi-final loss to Bayern Munich in which Rudi Garcia’s side got far closer to the European champions than the scoreline suggested.

The evidence is clear: given the liberty to attack, Aouar will thrive.

Arsenal are ready to give him that freedom and if they can find a way to broker a deal, it promises to be the start of a special relationship.

Lyon’s beloved No.8 could become just as adored at Arsenal.

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September 30, 2020
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