France's World Cup hopes should get a boost from Benjamin Pavard
On Saturday, Bayern Munich lost a league match at Allianz Arena for the first time since March 2016. Granted, the Bavarian giants were not highly motivated after winning the title a long time ago, but getting thrashed 4-1 by VfB Stuttgart in Jupp Heynckes' final Bundesliga game was not in their plans, as they fielded a strong lineup.
However, Stuttgart turned in a superb performance -- finally earning public recognition for a phenomenal season. Having returned to the Bundesliga last summer, Stuttgart finished seventh, only four points adrift of Hoffenheim and Borussia Dortmund, who qualified for the Champions League. And arguably even more impressive, they had the second-best defensive record in Germany, with just 36 goals conceded in 34 fixtures.
At the heart of that remarkable effort stands Benjamin Pavard. The 22-year-old French centre-back, now widely considered one of the best defenders in the Bundesliga, hasn't missed a second, completing the full 90 minutes in all Stuttgart's games. Incredibly, no outfield Stuttgart player had achieved such a feat since the legendary Bulgarian playmaker Krasimir Balakov in the 1995-96 season.
Speaking of World Cup stars of the 1990s, Pavard recently mentioned himself in the same breath with Lilian Thuram. The youngster has been tried out as a right-back three times by France national team coach Didier Deschamps, and Pavard remarked: "Thuram played in central defence for his club and as a right-back for his country. Why shouldn't I have a career like him?"
Such a statement shows a sharp rise in self-confidence considering, as recently as November, Pavard couldn't believe his ears when told that Deschamps had called him up for the first time. It was a huge surprise for an inexperienced player who plies his trade for a relatively unfashionable club, but the decision made a lot of sense.
Pavard's versatility is extremely valuable for France, and it is even more crucial now that Laurent Koscielny has been ruled out of the World Cup. That makes the Stuttgart star's place on the plane to Russia almost certain, but ironically the very same versatility originally worked against him at his former club.
Pavard grew up at Lille since the age of nine, and the northern club is still very close to his heart, but he decided to leave in the summer of 2016 after being discarded by coach Frederic Antonetti.
"I didn't have the confidence of the coach. Even when I did play, it was in various positions but not as a centre-back," Pavard explained after starting just six matches for Lille in 2015-16 as a right-back and a defensive midfielder. The club didn't want to loan him to direct rivals in Ligue 1, and the €5 million offer from Stuttgart came as a handy solution for all involved.
Stuttgart had just been relegated at the time and not everyone in France understood Pavard's choice, but he was following in the footsteps of a very important predecessor: Matthieu Delpierre, another French centre-back who started his career at Lille, is a cult hero at Stuttgart, having played a crucial part in their stupendous title triumph in 2007.
It was Delpierre who recommended his former club sign Pavard, and he also persuaded the defender himself that the move could be the right step.
What great advice that was. Pavard was inconsistent during his first season in Germany, but he proved to be a quick learner and made speedy progress under the guidance of young coach Hannes Wolf. After Stuttgart won promotion, the Frenchman made a seamless transition to the Bundesliga and impressed everyone with top-quality contribution.
"Benjamin could develop into a perfect player because he has got everything," Kicker journalist George Moissidis told ESPN FC. £He is good in the air, his technical skills are brilliant, he is quick, his anticipation is magnificent and his passing range is outstanding.
"He likes to build the play from the back and sends superb passes to his teammates. Of course, he is still young, and could be careless at times, but he has matured over the last year. After some shaky performances in the second division, he has been fantastic this term."
Local journalist Stefan Rommel added: "Pavard's right foot is pure gold. He was even compared to Franz Beckenbauer because of his style of solving problems and going forward. We have a word in Germany for casual, smooth and smart play. It is called Lässigkeit. You cannot learn this -- you either have it or you don't. Beckenbauer was the godfather of Lässigkeit, and Benjamin most definitely has it."
Wolf was massively important for Pavard's development, but the Frenchman continued to play imperiously even after his mentor was sacked in January. Stuttgart's results improved under new coach Tayfun Korkut, mostly because Mario Gomez returned to lead the attack and all the injured forwards regained fitness, but the defence continued to be stable throughout the season. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the young star has been linked to a big move come summer.
Tottenham and Liverpool are reportedly interested, but Stuttgart claim they are not prepared to sell their prodigy. Pavard recently extended his contract until 2021, and sporting director Michael Reschke remarked: "If they want to sign him for €30m, they are wrong. We won't even pick up the phone."
And yet, there could be some significantly higher offers if Pavard makes a name for himself in Russia with some Thuram-esque performances.
Michael Yokhin is an experienced international football journalist who writes for ESPN, Blizzard, Guardian and FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @yokhin.