PROFILE: City new boy went from non-league to Champions League
- Credit: Imago/PA Images
Described as a “match-winner” by Patrick Vieira after going from non-league to the Champions League in a little over two years, Norwich City new boy Pierre Lees-Melou enjoyed a rapid rise to stardom in France.
Originally from Langon, a town near Bordeaux in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region of south-west France, Lees-Melou played junior football for his hometown club.
He started in men’s football with local club Union sportive de Lège-Cap-Ferret and was still playing in the fifth tier in his early 20s, before earning a move to Ligue 2 side Dijon in 2015.
Patience was required though, making nine mostly brief appearances as a substitute during the first half of 2015-16 as his new club chased promotion to the top flight, also continuing to play in the fifth tier for the B team.
His big chance arrived with seven games remaining and Dijon top of the table, playing 87 minutes of a 0-0 home draw with Nancy and then really making his impact – with two goals in two games.
Playing alongside teammates including current Celtic defender Christopher Julien, Lees-Melou was on target in a 3-2 win away to fellow promotion chasers Clermont and the 3-0 home win over lowly Paris FC which followed. He had arrived.
Three successive defeats saw Nancy pip Dijon to the title but Lees-Melou set up the early opener which settled nerves as mid-table Ajaccio were beaten on the final day to make sure of second place and promotion.
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After just nine starts in the second tier, the midfielder was popping Champagne corks and preparing to face the likes of Paris Saint-Germain, Monaco and Lyon. It was an opportunity he would grasp with both hands.
Lees-Melou scored seven goals in 32 top-flight matches to help steer Dijon to 16th place and safety.
Mostly continuing as a right-winger initially, as the season progressed he started to establish himself centrally as tactics were tweaked to a 4-3-3.
The campaign began with back-to-back defeats but burst into life with a famous victory for the newly-promoted side, with Lees-Melou coming off the bench and scoring to seal a 4-2 home win over Lyon.
That alerted the big boys to Dijon’s danger and proved to be the only real headline grabber but results against direct rivals were enough to scrape to survival in 2017, with the Canaries new boy approaching his 24th birthday.
He scored in wins over Toulouse, Lorient and Angers and his form proved to be enough to earn a big move to the French Riviera and the Mediterranean coast.
Four-time champions Nice made their move, signing Lees-Melou in a deal reportedly worth around £3million, after being steered to third place and Champions League qualification during Lucien Favre’s first season in charge, who would later move on to Borussia Dortmund.
It meant that in two seasons he had progressed from non-league to the Champions League, with Favre praising his “intelligence” and “great quality” as he was unveiled at a press conference in June 2017.
“To become a pro, I never thought it would happen,” said Lees-Melou. “I was enjoying myself, but I thought that the step up was too high.
“Afterwards, when the opportunity presents itself, you don’t hesitate though and you go for it!”
It was a significant step up. Dijon’s stadium has a capacity of around 16,000 but the Allianz Riviera can hold 36,000, being used at Euro 2016 – hosting England’s disaster against Iceland in the last 16.
His debut came in Champions League qualification, starting a 1-1 home draw with Ajax and a 2-2 away draw which sealed progress on away goals. Napoli would prove too strong though as Nice fell at the final qualification hurdle after a 4-0 aggregate defeat.
That meant Europa League football instead, with Lees-Melou starting all but one match as victories over Zulte Waregem and Vitesse Arnhem earned progress to the knockout stage, where a 4-2 aggregate loss to Lokomotiv Moscow brought the adventure to an end.
Five goals and six assists from 34 league games ensured he was established at the heart of midfield though as Les Aiglons finished eighth, with former and future Premier League stars in the thick of the action. Mario Balotelli was top scorer with 28 goals and Allan Saint-Maximin emerged with the form that would eventually take him to Newcastle.
Vieira came in after Favre’s departure for Dortmund in the summer of 2018 and the World Cup winner steered Nice to seventh, with Lees-Melou remaining a regular starter with two goals in 30 games.
It proved a more productive season, personally, during a 2019-20 campaign shortened by the Covid-19 pandemic and ending in sixth place. Six goals and six assists in 29 games ensured he remained a key player after Adrian Ursea had succeeded Vieira mid-season.
Shortly before leaving, however, the Arsenal legend had ensured Lees-Melou would get a new contract, after a series of Man of the Match displays, telling the club’s website: “He is a player that has become a match-winner, his stats last season were very positive. He is progressing.
“He now needs to show more leadership on the pitch because he is one of the team’s technical leaders. He needs to get on the ball more, make the difference more often, and be more involved in the middle of the park. I am counting a lot on him.”
Sixth place brought a return to the Europa League last season but it proved disappointing, with Lees-Melou only featuring in defeats at Bayer Leverkusen and Slavia Prague as Nice bowed out before the knockout stages.
Four goals and two assists from 29 games ensured he remained a Ligue 1 regular, missing around a month through injury from the start of December but returning and often wearing the captain’s armband when former Manchester United midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin was unavailable.
However, ninth place has seen Christophe Galtier arrive at Nice as head coach after impressively winning the title with Lille last season, due to a change of ownership at his former club.
So after 18 goals and 140 appearances at Nice, Lees-Melou begins a new adventure in England, taking his talents to the Premier League having turned 28 in May.