Sunday afternoon’s early kick off for Wolverhampton Wanderers against Burnley could be pivotal in determining Rayan Ait-Nouri’s future.
Ait-Nouri, 19, arrived in October on loan from Ligue 1 side Angers with Wolves having the option to make it permanent for approximately £18 million.
After a dream debut where he scored against Crystal Palace, the rest of his season has been mixed.
Due to the absence of the first-choice left back, Jonny Castro Otto, Ait-Nouri has had plenty of opportunities to feature in the old Gold and Black throughout the campaign.
The French Under 21 international has started 11 games whilst appearing off the bench five times, with only one assist since his debut coming in their January defeat to Everton.
Until Jonny’s recurrence of his knee injury during the most recent international break, that defeat to Everton was Ait-Nouri’s last 90 minutes for Wolves with concerns growing over his long-term future in the Black Country.
However, since being redeployed, Wolves fans have seen some Ait-Nouri’s best displays for the club, especially in their back-to-back victories over Fulham and Sheffield United, although he was lucky to escape a red card in the latter.
Sunday’s game against the Lancashire side poses a huge test for Ait-Nouri, who struggled with Burnley’s physical presence in their 2-1 defeat of Wolves back in December.
Although his attacking attributes are becoming increasingly clear, he still has a lot to prove defensively and as Wolves showed with the exit of Ruben Vinagre, there is little room for sentiment.
The other options for Nuno going forward are Marcal and Ki Jana Hoever. Hoever is a naturally right-sided player and is even less experienced than Ait-Nouri. Marcal has far more experience, but he is only just returning from his most recent injury that have plagued him this season.
Despite beating Fulham at Craven Cottage, following the return of Willy Boly, Nuno reverted to his trusted five at the back against Sheffield United. Following that win, it is likely that he will stick rather than twist against Burnley.
An interesting tactical tweak made by Nuno was to swap Boly and Romain Saiss over so that the Ivorian was playing just behind Ait-Nouri. Boly is regarded by many as the club’s best defender, and Ait-Nouri playing in front of him gives him more licence to go forward thanks to the better protection.
If Wolves are to provide attacking football with five at the back, then Ait-Nouri, alongside Nelson Semedo, will be key in moving them forward. Nuno will more likely place priority on the defence, and from Sunday onwards it will be interesting to see how the young Frenchman fares.