As a new player, earning a start in the first match of the league season is always a positive sign, and for young American speedster Tim Weah, earning a starting nod in Lille’s Ligue 1 opener was one of the weekend’s most promising developments involving Americans Abroad.
Lille’s 2-1 victory over Nantes on Sunday helped Weah enjoy a winning debut, but his performance, and the role he was deployed in raised some interesting questions.
Manager Christophe Galtier played Weah in an central attacking midfield role, behind lead striker Victor Osimhen. Weah played 68 minutes, and finished with the fewest total passes among Lille’s midfielders. He drew a yellow card shortly before being replaced with the match tied 1-1. Osimhen scored his second of two goals in the 80th minute to cap his own unforgettable debut.
Galtier’s decision to deploy Weah centrally was an intriguing one considering it meant playing Jonathan Ikone on the right wing rather than in the central midfield role he is more adept at playing. The setup may not have led to standout day for Weah, but Ikone enjoyed a strong showing on the right wing.
Weah has played both as a winger and a lead striker before, rarely seeing time in a central midfield role. PSG used him as a striker at times, but over the years, most recently at the Under-20 World Cup with the United States, Weah has shown himself to be most comfortable playing on the wing.
On Sunday, Weah was ostensibly serving as an attacking midfielder in a central role, but the majority of his touches came on the right side of the field, with many of them coming close to the right sideline.
In other words, no, Weah wasn’t chained to a central role he was unfamiliar with, and while he didn’t have as active a part in proceedings as you would like to see, he did appear to have the freedom to shift into areas of the field where he felt more comfortable.
It wasn’t the most active performance, at least in terms of total touches and passes — he completed 17 of 19 passes and took 31 total touches —but that had to be expected from a player in a largely unfamiliar role.
So why play Weah in that role? Galtier could have been hoping to use Weah’s speed to help Lille’s counter punish Nantes’ 4-3-3 setup on the break, while also having Weah’s quickness in a position to help with Nantes press in midfield.
Whatever the reason, it helped earn Weah a start, so it’s a safe bet the 19-year-old isn’t about to complain, especially not when he watched fellow American Christian Pulisic begin his league season on the bench for Chelsea.
U.S. national team fans will have an eye on Weah’s role, especially considering how it could impact his preparation for an expected return to the USMNT setup this fall. On one hand it might be seen as worrisome that Weah might be used out of position at Lille, but the positive of Weah being in the lineup far outweighs any immediate concerns about role. It will take a few matches to really get a sense of where Galtier sees Weah, and learning a new position wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for a young player like Weah.
Could an improved familiarity with a central role help Weah in Gregg Berhalter’s setup, which employs dual attacking midfielders behind a lead striker? In theory it could, though the USMNT’s lack of wing options will almost guarantee that Weah is used as a winger when Berhalter gives him a call.
It will be up to Weah to maintain his starting role with a Lille side that will be looking to repeat its impressive second-place finish last season. Given the versatility of players like Ikone and Jonathan Bamba, and the impressive debut of Osimhen, the Lille attack should be formidable this season, even after the departure of Nicolas Pepe. We should also probably wait a few matches before assuming Galtier sees Weah in a central role in the long term.
Overall, Weah’s season-opening performance remains a positive because he earned a start in what wound up being a victory, but he will need to improve to maintain his place in the lineup, be it in a central role or in the wide midfield role he is better suited to play.