Cengiz Ünder: Rodgers’ Newest Weapon

After three years in Rome, Cengiz Ünder has traded the Italian capital for Leicester and the project Brendan Rodgers is currently in charge of. With the Turkish-international’s profile (a right-footed left-winger) matching a previous star for the Foxes, the comparisons have already begun between the two players – with Ünder yet to even kick a ball for Leicester City.

The deal is an initial loan fee of £2.7m, with the Foxes recruitment able to negotiate an option-to-buy at the end of the season in the region of £22m, rather than an obligation-to-buy (which was the original deal). This clause can become “mandatory” if Leicester City decide they want Ünder, an intriguing nuance meaning it’s dependent on Rodgers decision rather than an agreement with Roma. 

For what it’s worth, there’s every chance Ünder becomes an exceptional talent for Leicester City, but by removing the obligation-to-buy you’re eradicating the unpredictability of whether or not he “flops” in England. Simply put, it’s clever and safe business from Lee Congerton (Head of Senior Recruitment at the King Power Stadium) and the Foxes. So, what does Ünder offer that Leicester City are currently missing, and how will he fit into Rodgers’ system?

First and foremost, exceptional ball-carrying. Undeniably, Harvey Barnes is an exciting talent but his progressive nature when on-the-ball comes from exploiting his dynamism and space behind the opposition full-backs. Ünder does this as well, whilst also being an elite one-versus-one player and an adept dribbler, which unfortunately Barnes and every other Leicester City winger lack in their profile. 

Cengiz Ünder may not be as progressive of a dribbler as some of the best in the world, but stands alone as the player with the highest dribble success % across Europe’s top five leagues.
Cengiz Ünder adds a new threat to Leicester’s already diverse artillery of wingers, the sort of profile the Foxes haven’t been able to boast since the departure of Riyad Mahrez.

When compared with the best “progressive players” in Europe’s top five league’s last season, Ünder is slightly below the elite level. However, for dribbles completed, he’s in a league of his own. It’s worth noting, there’s players with higher dribble success rate in the aforementioned leagues, but none of them pair this with as good progressive ball-carrying. 

He also achieved these numbers playing as a high right-winger in Roma’s 4-2-3-1. Paulo Fonseca deploys both Ünder and Justin Kluivert in a high attacking-line, with either Edin Džeko or Nikola Kalinić as the forward. It feels more like a 4-3-3 in transition. Considering the high position, he receives the ball in, to have good progressive ball-carrying numbers is very impressive. 

What should excite Leicester City fans is his decisive, imaginative, and jaw-dropping ability on-the-ball. Rodgers stated this was an integral reason into bringing Ünder to the King Power Stadium, as his entire profile isn’t subsidised by a single player at the club. 

Ünder also partners his on-the-ball game with an excellent reading of teammates movements. Interchangeable positioning with either former full-back partner, Davide Santon or Bruno Peres, allowed him to play free in the right-half space or adopting the width for I Giallorossi (The Yellow and Reds). Comfortable in either scenario, due to him being left-footed operating on the right, makes him a fluid winger. 

These movements also benefit the players around him, as they have extra space to receive the ball, with the shift of the defensive unit Ünder’s movement has created. This translates well to Premier League life and with Rodgers’ system. His right-back partner will be either Timothy Castagne or Ricardo Pereira, of whom neither are known for their defensive positioning, both create chances in the final third and Ünder will complement this. An internal movement will facilitate frequent overlaps, and neither will pass on that opportunity. 

I don’t want this to become purely about his ball-carrying though, as easy as that would be to do, because Ünder is also a superb line-breaking passer. It seems to me, that almost every action he takes in possession, be it passing or dribbling, he is always looking to progress play and move the ball forwards. A by-product of this instinct is an understanding of timing and weight of pass that makes Ünder dangerous in the final third. 

These line-breaking passes arise momentarily after Ünder has cut inside the opposing full-back, and the striker has made a run behind the defensive line. A combination Leicester City fans will be all too familiar with, as Riyad Mahrez continually beat his defender on the inside before releasing Jamie Vardy one-on-one. Of course, since his move to Manchester City in 2018, the Foxes have lacked a penetrative wide-player like the Algerian, despite numerous attempts to replace him.

I’m not going to say Ünder is that player, it adds a monumental level of pressure when being compared to one of the top wingers in the world. But, stylistically, I see so many similarities. From the way both players shape up against a defender one-on-one, to the stepover fakes inside and out, to an adept passing range through the lines – their profiles do match, but there at different stages of their respective careers.

At 23-years-old, Ünder should be considered a “rising talent”, whereas Mahrez is an established, elite winger at the age of 28. I also want to mention the disparity in consistency between the two, which puts Mahrez comfortably ahead of the Turkish-international. To show this, let’s look at last season’s statistics and compare.

For shooting chances created per 90, Mahrez had a very impressive 6.34, whereas Ünder managed 4.85 – still good. The most ridiculous statistic from Mahrez’s last season…

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