Seemingly out of the blue, reports emerged from France that Town were keen to sign Montpellier’s highly-rated winger Issac Mbenza. These reports were confirmed as the loan signing of the Belgian Under-21 international was announced by Huddersfield Town today.
This piece offers a well-rounded insight into who Isaac Mbenza is, his career up until now and what to expect from the new arrival.
Who is Isaac Mbenza?
Born and raised in the northern Parisian suburb of Saint-Maxim, Isaac Mbenza’s formative years were spent playing football on the streets.
As these peripheral Parisian suburbs have become a hotbed for young talented footballers, football clubs across Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 have begun branching out their scouting networks in search of the next diamond in the rough.
Mbenza didn’t take the typical route of most professional footballers. His journey took him through the youth system and numerous amateur sides. In spite of this, at the age of seventeen, Isaac Mbenza was on the radar of several clubs.
Valenciennes – The Beginning
Whilst a number of sides were showing an interest, it was Ligue 2 side Valenciennes who beat off the competition to offer Isaac Mbenza his first professional contract.
The talented young winger began in Valenciennes ‘B’ side. However, it took just a single season for Mbenza to breakthrough into the Ligue 2’s first team.
The return of three goals in thirty Valenciennes reserve side games may seem paltry but a series of impressive performances proved to David Le Frapper, then Valenciennes head coach that he was worthy of a chance in the first team.
Deployed on the right wing, the 2015-16 season was Mbenza’s break-out season as he featured thirty-five times for Les Atheniens.
As well as being an ever-present in the Ligue 2 side at the tender age of nineteen, it was Mbenza’s productivity which saw a return of six goals and three assists which begun to attract serious attention.
Standard Liege – A short stint in Belgium
After such an impressive season, it seemed it would always be beyond Valenciennes to keep hold of Mbenza. That ultimately proved to be the case as Standard Liege swooped to sign the highly coveted winger.
However, almost immediately it became that the move simply wasn’t the right fit for either the club or Isaac Mbenza.
Under the management of Aleksandar Jankovic, it appeared that the Serbian head coach never fully trusted Mbenza.
Struggling to make an impression or even get an opportunity, Mbenza had only two first team appearances to his name, meaning that Mbenza’s stint in Belgium was short-lived and at the first opportunity to leave, he did so.
Montpellier – Mbenza’s return to France
Like his footballing career as a whole up to this point, Mbenza hadn’t taken the typical route and the detour via Eastern Belgium before returning to France was a further example of this.
Whilst Mbenza had struggled in Belgium, his stock in France was relatively high. When the winter transfer window opened, Montpellier led then by veteran head coach Jean-Louis Gasset moved quickly to offer Issac Mbenza an escape.
Just like the Standard Liege move was undoubtedly the wrong one, Montpellier seemed to fit the perfect profile for Isaac Mbenza.
Deployed in various positions across the front life, Mbenza hit the ground running and returned to the form that had been so impressive in Valenciennes.
Mbenza finished the season strongly with three goals and an assist in just twelve starts for Montpellier.
Building upon this strong end to the season, last season proved to be Mbenza’s break-out season. Deployed in an auxiliary centre-forward role but one in which he drifts wide, Mbenza had his most productive season to date.
Eight Ligue 1 goals and a single goal in both the Coupe de France and Coupe de la Ligue meant that Mbenza finished the season having hit double figures in the goal tally chart for the first time in his career.
The Expert’s View
Amongst hearing the news that Town were interested in signing Isaac Mbenza, I spoke to journalist Philippa Booth of French Football Weekly to get her views on Isaac Mbenza, what to expect and her thoughts on the move in general:
“Isaac Mbenza began his senior professional career with Valenciennes in Ligue 2 whilst still a teenager, he was predominantly used on the right but he did hit a rich vein of form when moved centrally for the last four games of the 2015/16 season, scoring four goals in those games as a lone striker.
They took eight points from those games, including beating league-leaders Nancy 1-0 with a goal from Mbenza, which got VAFC up from a nervy 16th to a solid 12th place finish.
After that promising first full season, he went to Standard Liege, where he proved to be less of a success, with only one goal in the first half of the season. Although he did get the experience of the Europa League, before moving back to France to join Montpellier in January 2017.
Initially, he was again used on the right wing, picking up three goals in the second half of the season but in 2017/18 he was deployed in a front two and often used off the bench in a Montpellier team that was defensively solid but arguably overly conservative.
That doesn’t really describe Mbenza, however. He is fast and agile, dangerous on the counter-attack but a little too fond of long-balls and long-range shots. This was perhaps a function of the team set-up, which was not prolific and could have issues getting into the danger area.
However, with three at the back and the wingbacks tearing up and down, this perhaps pushed Mbenza into a space he wasn’t totally comfortable with and it’s noticeable that while he likes to get a cross in, he only chalked up one assist last season.
In terms of the move itself, the reported fee seems steep – although that’s par for the course in the Premier League, perhaps – and not one that Montpellier could easily afford to turn down. This has left MHSC fans a little concerned with the situation as those tearing wingbacks have already both been sold (Nordi Mukieli to RB Leipzig, Jerome Roussillon to Wolfsburg) so yet again, a rebuilding job is on the cards.
It is unclear if Mbenza would be a regular starter if he does move to Huddersfield but he could again be valuable as an impact sub, and his ability to play either on the wing or in a front two will also be useful, particularly in a more dynamic set-up”.
Will Isaac Mbenza be a success at Town?
Following the departure of Tom Ince to Stoke City, it always seemed that David Wagner had a replacement in mind. What may have come as a surprise is the fact that it took until Deadline Day for Town to get it over the line.
Like many of Town’s acquisitions this summer, at the age of twenty two, Issac Mbenza fits the profile as a young, hungry and ambitious with room for growth too.
Similarly, like many of Town’s forward-thinking players, Mbenza brings versatility and flexibility as a forward that is comfortable playing anywhere across the front-line.
This flexibility will be welcomed by David Wagner and it will be interesting to see which position and subsequently which role he asks Isaac Mbenza to take up.
We could see Mbenza deployed on the left in an inside forward role. This would allow him to cut inside onto his stronger right foot. Alternatively, we could see Mbenza take up a more orthodox role on the right-wing where his heels may be expected to touch the chalk and offer some genuine width.
That is where the similarities end and for the better. With pace and agility to match, he offers some entirely different to the rest of Town’s attacking options.
Whether it is making runs in behind to stretch defences and create space for others or the task of him is to be a counter-attacking threat, already it looks like Mbenza will add another dimension to Town’s attack.
Another major difference is Mbenza’s intentions. With poacher’s movement and eye for goal, we could see Mbenza have an impact similar to the one of Elias Kachunga during Town’s promotion-winning season.
Last season, Mbenza was at his best when he arrived late in the box from out wide and he often showed the confidence and composure to take chances when he was presented with them.
The final thing to consider is the relationship between Isaac Mbenza and Steve Mounié. Having already played with one and other at Montpellier, the almost telepathic connection between the two should already be there which should give Mbenza a good chance of hitting the ground running.
If Mbenza can translate the form that he showed last season where he was scoring once in every four matches and bring the best out of Steve Mounié like they did when they linked up at Montpellier, it could be one of David Wagner’s latest masterstrokes.