It was in the summer of 2017 that French teenager Michaël Cuisance made a decision that would shape his future as a professional footballer.
Regarded as one of the brightest midfield talents in Europe, the then 17-year-old had two offers on the table. The first was from Manchester City, the Premier League powerhouse managed by Pep Guardiola, one of the most successful coaches in the game. The second was from Borussia Mönchengladbach, who had finished ninth in the Bundesliga the previous season.
Cuisance, who had yet to play a senior game for AS Nancy, opted for the latter and joined the German side for €250,000. His desire to play first-team football trumped the financial package on offer from City.
It was a wise choice. Cuisance was handed his senior debut shortly after his 18th birthday and soon became a regular for Gladbach. His vision in possession, creativity and technique could only be rivalled by the Bundesliga’s best – think Thiago Alcântara – and his influence was recognised by Die Fohlen supporters, who voted the youngster Player of the Month for September, December and January.
“It’s unbelievable how well trained young players are nowadays,” fellow midfielder Christoph Kramer said at the start of that season. “At 17 he’s as far along as I was when I was 22.”
At the end of his freshman campaign, Cuisance collected the club’s Player of the Year award. He was also handed a new five-year contract, reward for his impact in his 26 senior appearances.
Cuisance’s path looked set: another year at Gladbach and then a big-money transfer to a side with ambitions of winning the Champions League. And this summer the France Under-20 international has been linked with a move away from the Borussia-Park.
Yet it isn’t because he is coming off the back of another stellar season. Far from it. The 2018/19 campaign was one of frustration for Cuisance, a lost year almost.
He made just 13 appearances in all competitions, only one of which was a start. A natural risk taker with the ball, the midfielder perhaps tried too much in his limited game time and often surrendered possession cheaply. Head coach Dieter Hecking, somewhat understandably, decided that wasn’t needed as Gladbach pushed for a Champions League spot.
“It’s not how I imagined the season, it was personally disappointing for me,” Cuisance admitted in an interview with Bild prior to this summer’s Under-20 World Cup, at which the youngster impressed for France.
Hecking left Gladbach at the end of the 2018/19 campaign, after the club’s poor form in the second half of the season cost them a place in the top four.
Former RB Salzburg coach Marco Rose has taken charge and has used a 4-4-2 diamond formation in pre-season. It’s a system in which the 19-year-old can fill several roles; either as the No.10 behind the two forwards or on either side of the midfield.
Cuisance has impressed in the club’s friendly matches and is determined not to repeat the mistakes of the previous season. He has hired a personal chef, set up an at-home gym and even bought special shoes which are designed to aid recovery after matches.
“It will be a new beginning for me,” he told Bild this month. “However, I can not forget what happened last year. We have to wait. A departure? Maybe. We must see what will happen. My situation is clear: I want to play.”
Gladbach sporting director Max Eberl is unlikely to allow Cuisance to leave the club, which was the case in January when a loan move was mooted in the German press. The midfielder has too much potential, too much of an upside. He has the raw talent to become one of Europe’s best.
“We do not want to give him up, we want him to grow with us,” Eberl told RP. “He had a difficult season, that’s clear. He’s disappointed about that as well. We want him to make the big breakthrough with us, but he has to feel that too.”
Watch Cuisance and it’s hard not to be seduced by his talent. He is beautifully balanced on the ball – a trait he shares with his idol Zinedine Zidane – and can manoeuvre himself out of the tightest of spaces.
That ability to resist an opposition press is a valuable commodity in the modern game. Yet give Cuisance space and time on the ball and he has a signature pass that can unlock the tightest of defences.
This pass is akin to an approach shot in golf; a delicate inside-of-the-boot chip with just enough fade to land perfectly at the foot of a team-mate. It’s difficult for opponents to judge the flight of the ball simply because they rarely face anything like it.
What helps is the disguise Cuisance can achieve on the ball. He will often shape to hit a crossfield pass only to reverse the ball down the line. It’s another rare skill, one designed to misdirect an entire defence.
The big challenge for the youngster is to use all these talents to influence games on a consistent basis. There also has to be more final output; he has yet to score for Gladbach and only has three assists to his name.
The latter metric is more dependent on team-mates finishing chances – his expected goals assisted of 0.22 in the 2017/18 season was within the top 20 for midfielders – but as a creator it’s what Cuisance will be judged on.
The 2019/20 season is one in which Cuisance must once again establish himself as one of Europe’s most promising midfielders. The big question is whether he does that at Gladbach or elsewhere.