Forward-Thinking From the Middle: Four young midfielders that emphasize the importance of ball progression

Building moves from deeper areas, zipping passes between the lines, driving through gaps and breaking the press, feeding runs into space, springing counter attacks, carrying into the attacking third — progressing the ball is an extremely important aspect of football. After all, the ultimate aim of the game is to move the ball closer towards the opponents goal. Central midfielders are often those that are relied upon for ball progression – so often the link between defence and attack, they are integral as the base from which to build moves, and usually the focal point in the center of the pitch to help progress the ball into dangerous areas.

It’s no surprise that the most progressive midfielders are some of the most renowned players in world football. The scatterplot below emphasizes this point — Real Madrid’s midfield pair of Toni Kroos and Luka Modric, PSG’s Marco Veratti, Bayern’s ever-improving Joshua Kimmich, Serie A stars Rodrigo De Paul and Luis Alberto, and Kevin De Bruyne are just a handful of those that top the charts. Their ability to move the ball forward both through progressive passes and carries are invaluable traits to possess.

*According to fbref, a progressive carry is a carry that moves the ball towards the opponent’s goal at least 5 yards, or any carry into the penalty area. Excludes carries from the defending 40% of the pitch; while a progressive pass is a completed pass that moves the ball towards the opponent’s goal at least 10 yards from its furthest point in the last six passes, or any completed pass into the penalty area. Excludes passes from the defending 40% of the pitch*

The majority of those that trend towards the top of the above graph are either in their late 20s or early 30s, and are already at some of the elite clubs in Europe. Finding the next set of central midfielders that are producing or showing signs of replicating such impressive progressive numbers will undoubtedly be at the top of many sides’ wishlists this summer. Using data and video scouting, we’ve picked out four ‘24 and under’ midfielders (in red in the below scatterplot) that, in different ways, excel as ball carriers/progressive passers, and explain exactly why they’re such an intriguing option for so many sides in the coming transfer window.

Manuel Locatelli: Sassuolo, 23

When 18-year-old Manuel Locatelli struck a rocket into the top corner for AC Milan vs. Juventus in 2016, all signs pointed towards him being the future of their midfield. A number of managerial changes, however, meant he struggled to hold down a regular spot, and he was subsequently sent to Sassuolo in the summer of 2018.

That decision surely still haunts the Rossoneri. His development since has been astounding – now 22, he’s one of Serie A’s finest midfielders and a regular at international level. Most often deployed on the left of a midfield pivot in Sassuolo’s 4-2-3-1 system, Locatelli is an exceptional distributor of possession. He seems to always have proceedings under a spell – with an uncanny ability to dictate the tempo to his desired pace – before switching play from left to right or fizzing a pass between the lines. His ability to progress the ball into the next phase of play is right up there with the best in Europe (only five players average more than his 7.90 progressive passes p/90). He often baits opposition players into pressing, before bypassing them and kickstarting forward moves.

But he’s so much more than an accomplished passer from deep. He isn’t restricted to the zone in front of the backline, but is instead an important contributor in advanced areas and a regular thorn in opposition attacks. The above pizza plot is impressively well-rounded, highlighting his comfort in carrying the ball forward, winning challenges and intercepting passes, and creating goalscoring opportunities – 2.26 shot-creating actions and .12 xA per 90 emphasizes his influence as a deeper-lying playmaker. He’s not the quickest, especially in defensive transition, but his positioning and reading of the game often hides those flaws.

A midfielder with the dual ability to progress the ball in possession and thwart attacks without it is a rare, but invaluable trait. The below slideshow provides further visuals of his skillset. Locatelli will have been disappointed his career at Milan didn’t work out, but he’s used that as motivation, and matured into one of the finer young midfielders in world football.

Nicolo Barella: Inter, 24

It felt appropriate to write about Nicolò Barella directly after Locatelli – two Italian midfielders who, although both progressive in nature, are very contrasting in their playing styles and compliment each other excellently as international teammates. 24-year-old Barella joined Inter on loan in 2019, before making the deal permanent a year later. He’s fit in like a glove in Antonio Conte’s 3-5-2 system, lining up on the right of the midfield three. He fits the mold of a well-known role coined as the ‘mezzala’ in Italian perfectly – a central midfield player who consistently influences the game from wide areas – and in Barella’s case, his role is all-action, to say the least. 

Yet despite his constant and infectious energy, his recent improvement has come as he’s learned to pair this with his ever-developing understanding of the game. He’s relentless and measured at the same time – constantly moving into smart areas to receive possession before driving forward with intent. The above visual highlights his influence in the final-third (he ranks in the 85th percentile or above in final third carries, penalty area entries, open play SCAs, and xA). In finding an ideal role in Inter’s lineup, he’s become a more consistent and reliable attacking threat while working behind the dynamic and dangerous Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez.

The ways in which Barella influences proceedings morphs in different games and scenarios, too. If the deep-lying Brozovic is occupied, Barella makes himself an option in the buildup; if there’s an opportunity for an overload on the right, he and Hakimi combine, often to great effect; if there’s a gap to receive the ball in advanced areas, Barella’s usually occupying that space.

The Italian is inherently progressive, positive, and forward thinking. He’s developing the strong elements of his game while adding newer pieces to make him as well-refined as most in Europe – and he was a huge reason for Inter wrapping up the Scudetto last weekend.

Florian Neuhaus: Borussia Mönchengladbach, 24

After a loan spell at 2. Bundesliga side Fortuna Düsseldorf in 2017/18, Florian Neuhaus broke into the first-team setup at Gladbach the next season, and hasn’t looked back since. His progression, especially since current head coach Marco Rose took over, has been really encouraging. He’s played both in deeper midfield roles or as a more advanced no. 10, but the majority of his minutes (and where he looks most comfortable) is as one of the two in a pivot in Gladbach’s 4-2-3-1.

His role is similar to that of a traditional ‘8’ – a constant in his side’s buildup, but also an impactful presence in more advanced areas, often in the form of late runs into attacking spaces or lengthy carries into the final-third. His progressive numbers are noteworthy – 6.47 progressive carries and 5.77 progressive passes per 90 puts him among some of Europe’s elite. Neuhaus is a natural in possession, but the way he receives the ball is also impressive – usually on the half turn, always after checking his shoulder, and often in ideal locations – his understanding of space means he’s always in great positions to release the ball forwards to teammates.

The first clip in the below slideshow may be the pass of the season from any player in Europe. That technique, and execution, is a staple of Neuhaus’ game. His range, weight of pass, vision, and vertical tendencies are all fantastic, and the way he angles his body in possession means he can execute a wide array of passes – a quick one-two, a driven ball to feet, a lofted switch, or a curled pass in behind.

There is, as always, room for improvement. His defensive involvement can get better, and being consistent (and smart) regarding when to play quickly vs. when to carry the ball forward can too. But Neuhaus is a player who looks ready for a step-up, and he’ll have plenty of suitors this summer.

Boubakary Soumaré: Lille OSC, 22

As Lille inch closer towards a remarkable Ligue 1 title, much attention has been given to the fact that their squad is littered with ex-PSG academy products. While Mike Maignan and Jonathan Ikone might initially come to mind, Boubakary Soumare may be the player PSG will most regret letting go. Signed for free in 2017, Soumare rejected offers from both PSG and Juventus in favor of Lille. Now aged 22, he’s really coming into his own at the heart of the French side’s midfield. Lining up on the left of a double pivot in a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1, Soumare is so often the base from which forward moves begin.

Soumaré’s verticality in possession is outstanding, and the numbers back up what you see. His progressive passes (6.8), carries (6.01), and final third passes (8.34) per 90 are all at the elite level compared to the rest of Europe’s central midfielders – the combination of superb technicality and strong physical traits means he’s so effective at progressing the ball from deep into advanced areas. He spots and subsequently evades pressure really well – either by way of a quick release with a crisp pass into a teammates’ stride or through a strong burst into space with the ball at his feet.

His passing range and technique is arguably the greatest aspect of his game. His on-the-ground forward passes are zipped and struck with intent, while his long-range switches are somewhat effortless, and hit with precision and swagger. His qualities in possession are incredibly impressive, but the defensive side of his game can improve: he must learn to become a more significant influence off the ball by winning duels and recovering possession. You’ll notice that his attacking numbers are quite low, but that’s not necessarily his role. The pass before the final pass is what he’s best at – and some of the clips below emphasize that point.

Consistency, and regular gametime, have been Soumare’s biggest enemies in his short career. But he’s really begun to show both in recent months. The skillset he possesses is rare, yet so exciting. Whatever club gets him next will be very lucky.

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