Though the pandemic means attending games is still largely impossible for most European scouts, they remain busy with seemingly endless TV coverage. And while most territories are closely covered -- especially with the transfer window closing on Feb. 1 -- France's Ligue 2 is attracting extra attention.
French football is producing arguably more top-level players than ever and its second tier offers not just value, but a plethora of modern players boasting skillsets compatible with any style of football.
Few would switch on a Ligue 2 game for the style and finesse associated with teams like Paris Saint-Germain or Lyon, but the physical and competitive nature of the football being played in places like Caen, Le Havre and Valenciennes can be equally gripping. You often find rigid organisation and relentless work rate when without the ball and quick transitions of play when it is won back, although top teams such as Troyes, Toulouse and Clermont prefer to keep possession and control the game.
French players moving to foreign leagues is not a new thing. Since Arsene Wenger turned the likes of Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry into world-class superstars with Arsenal in the mid-to-late 1990s, the country's impact -- on the Premier League especially -- has continued, but in recent years clubs have had to look lower down the pyramid as awareness of the market grew.
Arsenal again led the way by scouting centre-back Laurent Koscielny at Tours before he made the step up to Ligue 1 side Lorient, with the Gunners signing him a year later in 2010 for around €11m. The defender went on to make over 350 appearances in English football. Arsenal returned to Lorient for young midfielder Matteo Guendouzi in 2018 and signed him for around €10m, though he is now out on loan at Hertha Berlin after falling out with manager Mikel Arteta.
However, Leicester have been arguably the best at figuring out what Ligue 2 has to offer. Algerian winger Riyad Mahrez was plucked from Le Havre in 2014 for around €500,000 and went on to become one of the best players in the world before making a €70m move to Manchester City, while French midfielder N'Golo Kante helped Caen to promotion before joining Leicester in 2015 for around €8m, then moving to Chelsea for €35m a year (and one incredible Premier League title winning season) later.
Top teams in Italy and Spain have had success with former Ligue 2 players and the Bundesliga has now taken note. The majority of Frenchmen plying their trade in Germany's top tier were signed from Ligue 1, but some of the best young players were picked up lower down.
RB Leipzig's central defensive partnership of Ibrahima Konate (Sochaux) and Dayot Upamecano (Valenciennes) did not play in the top flight before moving abroad. Stuttgart's top scorer, Silas Wamangituka, arrived from Paris FC, a small club tucked away in the 13th arrondissement.
Wolfsburg's Maxence Lacroix was a summer signing from Sochaux, the same club that developed the talents of Borussia Moenchengladbach's much-coveted winger, Marcus Thuram, who made a Ligue 1 detour via Guingamp before to moving to Germany. Lucien Agoume, the Inter defensive midfielder who plays on loan at fellow Serie A side Spezia, also began at Sochaux.
Ilja Kaenzig, who spent nearly three years as the general manager of Sochaux before taking up a similar role at German 2.Bundesliga club Bochum, explains the club's success in developing top talent.
"The club has a long-standing tradition of developing youth, which entails substantial investment in facilities, good coaches and know-how plus a strong scouting network across the country," he told ESPN. "In that way, the reputation of the academy attracts the top teenagers from all over France and they often choose Sochaux ahead of more famous clubs. Due to the club's geographical location right in the east of the country, we often saw visits from travelling scouts from neighbouring lands."
For the experienced Swiss football executive, the emergence of Ligue 2 as a vibrant scene for player development and a lucrative transfer business does not come as a surprise.
"Whereas German and Spanish clubs headed player development at academy level for many years, the French are again arguably the best at bringing through youth," he added. "Even smaller clubs like Sochaux really make talent development a priority, strongly backing it in their annual budgets. The payoff is a steady stream of talent coming through.
"Perhaps the tendency in Germany over the past decade has been to develop very neat and technical players. The French players are also technically and tactically able, but in addition have pace, power and the physical aspect. It's hard to find players with all those characteristics in other European countries -- or in the world, for that matter."
Here are three Ligue 2 players to look out for in 2021:
Mohamed Bayo, 22, Clermont, ST: He replaced top scorer Adrian Grbic, who joined Lorient for €9m last summer, and is an opportunistic finisher with the pace and power to outrun centre-backs.
Bafode Diakite, 20, Toulouse, CB: His no-nonsense style of defending, strength and timing in the tackle, as well as his decent distribution, has attracted interest from abroad, with reports suggesting Liverpool have followed him.
Kouadio Kone, 19, Toulouse, MID: The France U-19 midfielder covers a lot of ground, wins challenges and is safe in possession. He has been linked with a move to Leeds but looks set to sign for Borussia Monchengladbach.
Kaenzig also mentions another factor to help explain why Ligue 2 is a favoured hunting ground among scouts: "The second division is often ideal for 18- to 19-year-olds who didn't quite make the step into the first team from the academies of the big clubs. The second teams playing at the fourth level are rarely seen as a valid match arena for upcoming talents and National, the third level of the league ladder, usually favours more experienced players."
With the abundance of talent being produced, inevitably there's not room for all of it to break through at Ligue 1 clubs and Ligue 2 has reaped the benefit, picking up those who have not quite succeeded at the level above, or indeed made the grade at top academies.
Ligue 2 has never been considered as an arena for expensive signings -- wages are generally much lower than in the English Championship, 2. Bundesliga or Serie B -- so if travelling scouts do manage to spot the next big star then clubs have generally been open for business.
This may soon change, however. The value of holding a Ligue 2 club as a hub for player development has not gone unnoticed among international investors; Sochaux and Auxerre are under Chinese ownership; Troyes were recently taken over by the ever-expanding City Football Group; Toulouse are headed by the American private equity firm RedBird Capital Partners; Clermont are owned by Swiss investors.
As the level of the players continues to improve, standards and demand will keep on rising. However, the days of lower-tier talent heading to the UK are seemingly over; now Brexit has finally kicked in, only signings from the top league qualify.