Patson Daka – Player Profile

Dominic Wells (@DominicWells_SJ) provides the lowdown on Leicester’s new center forward:

In his only season with RB Salzburg (2019/20), Erling Haaland averaged a goal every 61.25 minutes in the Austrian Bundesliga. The man who replaced him, Patson Daka, performed similarly (albeit at a slightly lower rate), by scoring a goal every 72.29 minutes in 2020/21. The Zambian international’s goalscoring prowess has caught the attention of a number of sides across Europe, and today Leicester announced his signature on a five-year contract. Here’s why the 22-year-old certainly has the pedigree to translate his performances in Austria to the top flight in England:

StrengthsWeaknesses
Intelligent and high-energy presser from the frontNot hugely involved in build-up
Pace to threaten in behind1 v 1 dribbling ability
High-volume shooterAerial duel success
Experience in a front two

Within RB Salzburg’s system, and setup, Jesse Marsch demands that his side presses high. To facilitate this, Daka is one of the two initiators of the press – alongside one of his strike partners; Mergim Berisha or Sekou Koita. But, it’s difficult to attest this quality to the exciting forward, or whether it’s a byproduct of the Marsch system. Regardless, Daka’s tenacity out of possession – intrinsically aided by his quick bursts of acceleration (reaching his max speed quickly) – creates chaos in the opposition defensive third. Within this, he’s also exceptional in these manic scenarios and frequently exploits errors from defenders once under pressure. 

Having a tactically developed coach (like he has with Marsch at Salzburg) during the “formative” years of Daka’s growth is already highlighting some excellent net positives. His understanding of the protocols in the press are good; shifting well to cover the “spare man” out of possession (i.e. the holding midfielder/centre-back) and also utilising cover shadows when pressing the defender in possession. Inside of the structure, he maintains his position in the block astutely, recognising when to press out of the shape and when to hold. Because of this knowledge, but also good execution of application, Daka is often successful when aiming to turnover possession – with an obvious caveat being the quality of opposition – potentially inflating his success rate.

Daka’s application is primarily within a front two. This season, RB Salzburg have utilised a formation with two strikers for 88% (37/42) of their domestic league games this season – with Daka often being partnered with Berisha. If the formations Rodgers has resorted tothis campaign (in absence of goal-scoring wingers) that are constructed to maximise the skillsets of both Vardy and Iheanacho are the future of the Northern Irishman’s reign at Leicester City, then Daka would be an excellent acquisition – while still being one within a single striker setup. 

Initially, Daka’s scoring metrics – and just overall shooting metrics – are exceptional. The forward is averaging a goal every 0.54 shots on target, with a staggering 47.5% of his shots being on target. This isn’t a case of scoring a lot of goals due to an excessive quantity of chances, albeit that still slightly rings true, but Daka is incredibly efficient as a striker – and this always translates well to a “top” league. Occasionally, forwards playing in Europe, but outside of the elite leagues, will accumulate high goal-scoring tallies and thus attract suitors from these “top” leagues, by having a plethora of goal-scoring chances (missing lots of them) and eventually overcoming the skill deficit of the league. This truly isn’t the case for the young Zambian striker – his ability is unquestionable. He’s capable of receiving possession from all angles, manipulating space to allow easier chances on goal – and also his body to score with either foot or head – which correlates into a threatening array of assets from a “poacher-esque” forward.

When looking at both Vardy and Daka’s impact in the penalty area, there’s a lot of similarities in how they both operate. Potently, the two individuals both benefit – and are also hindered – by their gravity (essentially attracting opposing defenders) in the box, which is a knock-on effect of their goal-scoring prowess and danger in these areas. It’s perhaps due to this that both forwards are limited with their touches in the box, with Daka (6.5) having a slightly more involved role than Vardy – 5.76. As has been mentioned earlier, players can achieve similar results in metrics in different ways, but again, I think Daka approaches the spaces in the box similarly to Vardy. The Zambian is instinctive in the box, thus requiring limited touches to convert chances into goals, and he’s also adept at drifting into channels to help provide vertical passing lanes – which is seemingly redundant for penalty area entries, but it actually provides different angles for Daka to utilise.

I’d suggest that neither of the two forwards would be referred to as a “focal point” striker, as their usage in buildup is limited – despite Daka dropping into half-spaces and between the lines in tandem with his strike partners movements. Instead of being overly involved prior to chance creation, they’re crucial to translating possession in the final third into goals, as they’re surrounded by creators. This overlap in roles would make the transition to the Foxes’ style of play much easier for Daka, even if he had to adjust his positioning from a two striker structure – where he’d hold wider natural positions and gradually drift centrally during a passage of play – to holding this central positioning inside of a single forward formation (4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3). 

One of the other metrics we’ve evaluated is xG and xA per 90 – which, again, Daka performs admirably in. As expected from a forward, Daka’s xG (0.88) per 90 is a lot higher than his xA (0.16) per 90 – but his scoring in both metrics is above the average of Europe’s top five leagues. Utilising his xG numbers, you can understand just how frequently the Zambian forward is finding high percentage goal scoring opportunities – which is also backed up by video scouting. This ability to consistently find spaces in the penalty area, and also convert them into shots – at a good rate (like we explored earlier), isn’t restrictive to the Austrian Bundesliga. It’s of course an “easier” division to find pockets and allude defenders, but that intuition should translate fairly flawlessly into the Premier League.

As for his xA, Daka is creating chances for his teammates at an above average rate – even if it’s just slight. It’s difficult to overlook the quality of the league, as RB Salzburg ended the season with 94 goals – 2.94 per game, so accumulating xG and xA is fairly routine, and should be contextualised. Regardless, the value of Daka also having 0.16 xA per 90 shows that albeit with a preference for goal-scoring, he’s an astute creator for his side – he doesn’t suffer from having tunnel-vision in the final third (bombarding the goal with shots and eventually scoring), he’s capable of scanning the surroundings and making optimal decisions. This is probably a by-product of functioning inside of a front two for a couple of seasons. 

There’s a lot of similarities between Patson Daka and Jamie Vardy, both incredibly quick across the ground, exceptional finishers of chances – regardless of the difficulty of opportunity – and smart and effective pressers. Vardy’s first few seasons in the East Midlands were inside a front two, and he was able to translate that muscle memory into a fully-functional solo forward – perhaps Daka’s implementation at RB Salzburg (also inside a two) could have a similar effect. 

Leicester’s Search for a New Striker: Four Possible Options, Using Data and Video Scouting

By Dominic Wells, Max Taylor, Brice Koval, and Phil Stengel


There’s no player that encapsulates Leicester City’s 5000/1 Premier League title quite like Jamie Vardy. He battled adversity in the early stages of his career – juggling working a full-time job with his passion for football, before Fleetwood Town offered him a contract that could blend the two together at 24 years of age. Keen to ensure this opportunity wasn’t wasted, Vardy scored 31 goals in 36 games in his only season for The Cod Army – attracting the interest of his current club, Leicester City. Fast forward just under ten years and he’s a Premier League and FA Cup winner, a full England-international, and has joined the prestigious 100-club for goals in the Premier League.

In terms of what he brings to the Foxes, Vardy is quite literally their “fox in the box” – practically unplayable in the final third. His variety of blindside runs, awareness to chance creation, positioning in the box, and consistent quality of finishing are the reasons he’s succeeded at the highest level of English football. All of these aspects are crucial to Leicester City’s style of play – they focus their pressing around Vardy’s energy from the front – but also the initiation and controlling of the other forwards whilst pressing. His well-rounding goal-scoring profile allows the Foxes to create a plethora of different scoring chances – not limiting them to a certain way of playing in the attacking third. Vardy’s gravity is crucial to the deep-block Brendan Rodgers has implemented versus the “better” opposition in the league, as he creates space for other advancing runners due to defenders worrying about his own presence. 

There’s also the running behind the defensive line, something the Foxes coined during their title-winning season. Nowadays, they’ve drifted into a possession-based system, but on their day, can counter with the same devastation because of Vardy’s athleticism and direct nature – not to mention his exquisite conversion rate. It’s this blend of attributes that have caused chaos for opposition since his arrival in the Premier League. 

In many senses, Vardy’s journey is like a 5000/1 fairytale, except had you attempted to predict his career when he joined Fleetwood Town in 2011, I think you would’ve made millions off a single pound. It’s for that reason that replacing him is of the utmost importance to Leicester City and Brendan Rodgers.

As Leicester look to build off an FA Cup win and a Europa League place, signing a new center forward is high on the list of priorities. Whether it’s Vardy’s potential replacement or a different option than the current forwards, one will be bought this summer. Recent links to Odsonne Edouard have gained traction, but there are a number of other options who would suit Leicester well. Using data and video scouting, we have profiled four possible players the Foxes may consider:

Odsonne Edouard, Celtic, 23

Celtic and French U21 international Odsonne Edouard has earned many suitors since making the move to the Scottish Premiership before the 2017/18 season, and at 23, it feels like the perfect time for him to make a step up to a bigger league.

It’s no surprise that Edouard has gained such attention in recent years. Not only has he proven to be a consistent and reliable goal threat, but other aspects of his game are really well-refined – traits that are quite rare for center forwards, especially those his age.

Edouard’s recent links to Leicester are particularly interesting when you consider the type of forward he is compared to Vardy. While both possess considerable pace, their primary qualities are actually fairly dissimilar – suggesting Brendan Rodgers is targeting a different profile as a separate option to his current strikers. Like Vardy’s role this season, Edouard spends much of his time in the left half-space – but the way he looks to receive the ball and his strengths once in possession differ.

Despite a ~slight~ drop-off in form in the first half of this past season, Edouard’s league goalscoring numbers have been incredibly consistent since joining Celtic; with 15 in 2018/19, 21 in 2019/20, and 18 in 2020/21. But it’s his creative ability that gives him that extra layer as a multi-functional CF. His expected assist numbers are noteworthy: averaging 0.25 xA per 90 in 2019/20 (league best) and 0.13 in 2020/21. His composure in front of goal is not limited to his shooting, as he consistently shows an impressive ability to find a teammate in a better position than him to convert a higher-quality chance. His creative instincts could be helpful in forming a partnership with one or both of Vardy and Iheanacho – who themselves did so to great effect in the 2nd half of 2020/21.

Edouard’s heatmap in the below graphic illustrates his tendency to drop deep in the left half-space during the build-up – the Frenchman is a natural at drifting into smart areas, and he’s extremely comfortable moving into pockets to receive the ball. His first touch is usually superb, often in the direction he’s looking to move and the right distance from his body to transition into his next action quickly.

His role once retrieving possession, however, isn’t limited to back-to-goal actions. While he is capable of making simple layoffs, he more-often-than-not looks to receive on the half-turn, before taking the ball in his stride and driving upfield to initiate attacks. His ball-carrying ability is one of his biggest strengths, as he combines excellent close control with sharp, agile movements to beat defenders and drive his team forward.

Edouard’s finishing (demonstrated by his goal tallies) is also notable. Like much of his game, he shoots with composure and accuracy – often opting to place his shots rather than hitting them with power, as we have become so accustomed to seeing from Vardy. He’s been a high-volume shooter throughout his career at Celtic (averaging over 4.0 shots p/90 in the past two seasons), which says as much about his tendency to shoot as it does the side and league he plays for and in. Unlike Vardy, Edouard’s initial instinct isn’t always to shoot – he’s more varied in his decision-making in the final third – sometimes opting for a pass instead.

The best way to describe Edouard’s style is calm. Everything he does on the pitch is done with a real sense of nonchalance – which proves to be both a strength and weakness. He’s often a step ahead in his decision-making, assured and thoughtful in his choice of action, but at the same time, you’re often left wishing he made that extra burst to get into the box or in a high-quality position – for all his work during the build-up, an average of just over 5.0 penalty box touches p/90 is low for a player on a side as possession-dominant as Celtic in the SPL.

Edouard’s speed is more notable on the ball than off it – he’s less eager to use his pace to trouble defences in behind than Vardy. He’s a player that prefers the ball to feet, even in the penalty area, as he tends to look for cutbacks rather than making a darting run to escape his marker. His movement to create separation from defenders can improve and is something that could massively help in adding to his array of finishes, as he has the height and frame to be more of a threat in the 18-yard-box. Despite this room for improvement, the Frenchman’s qualities as a center forward make him primed to be a ready-made addition to the Premier League – and the perfect complimentary piece to Vardy and Iheanacho. He would add an extra dynamic to Leicester’s frontline, and his qualities away from his goal-contribution abilities makes him that much more valuable. If the rumored £15m fee is true, he’s a bargain.

Tammy Abraham, Chelsea, 23

Tammy Abraham’s time at Chelsea seems to be drawing to a close, with the out of favour forward being subject to a lot of speculation ahead of a busy summer transfer window. The majority of the interested parties reside in the Premier League, as such, Leicester City have reportedly enquired about his services – potentially as a long-term replacement to Jamie Vardy. 

Stylistically, there’s some similarities between the forwards. This might come as a shock considering the disparity in stature, with Abraham standing at 6ft3 tall – and Vardy only being 5ft10. But, there’s a shared tenacity out of possession that creates chaos for opposition defenders when they press. Individually this season, Tammy Abraham (14.49) has a higher pressures per 90 than Jamie Vardy (9.56) – which is impressive given the latter’s prevalence in this given metric (although under Brendan Rodgers, Vardy’s pressuring numbers have steadily dropped – with this season being his lowest ever; with 19.3 in 2018/19, and 14.7 in 2019/20). 

Two players can quantifiably perform to a similar standard in a metric, but achieve their results in drastically different fashions. That’s not the case for the pressing numbers, as both Abraham and Vardy relentlessly chase lost balls, give little space to centre-backs in possession, and often are rewarded for the efforts by effectively turning over possession. Abraham’s stature is one of the facilitators of this, as his 6ft3 frame allows him to intercept and block passing lanes with his long legs – they’re also impactful in his running technique (long strides) which means he covers a lot of ground quickly. 

Throughout his time at Chelsea, Abraham has been utilised as the “lone” striker, often being fielded as the central forward in a front three. Within the Chelsea front three, Abraham’s role is simplistic – hold a central position to occupy opposition defenders, but also to connect play from the wings/finish any chances that develop from the width. Without dissecting Thomas Tuchel’s tactical setup too vigorously, nor Brendan Rodgers’, the two have fairly similar roles when operating as the only striker. 

The obligatory comparison for two strikers is within their goal-scoring. Despite ending the 2020/21 Premier League season with 15 goals, Vardy endured a baron-run of form, with only one goal from 19 games (all competitions) prior to his brace against Tottenham Hotspur on the final day of the season. For this reason, Vardy’s conversion rate – we’ve calculated as goals per shot on target – is the lowest (0.1) it’s been since the data collecting process began at fbref (2016-17 season). Ordinarily, the prolific striker is averaging a goal every 4-5 shots on target, unlike the 10 shots on target this season. 

Abraham’s “conversion rate” is a lot higher, even with the English striker only ending the 2020/21 Premier League campaign with six goals. On average, Abraham has a goal per shot on target of 0.46 (essentially scoring one of every two shots on target) – and this is relatively stable for the last four to five years of his career; with a high of 0.53 with Bristol City (2016-17). Even more impressively, Abraham has a higher percentage of shots on target than Vardy does (40.6% to 37%) – outlining that the 23-year-old takes high quality shots and converts with a high percentage.

The types of goals these two forwards score are very different. Vardy has highlighted his unpredictability and lethality throughout his Premier League career with goals on both his left and right foot, from a wide array of angles and ranges, whilst Abraham could be considered a bit more of a predatory finisher inside the box. Abraham’s reactionary and instinctive movement in the final third has a direct impact on his goal involvements – as he’s often the quickest to react to any goalkeeper saves or rebounds, and a smart occupier of space for teammates to find in the six-yard box. It’s difficult to attest Abraham’s fairly limited scoring profile to any limitations in his ability, but perhaps speaks volumes of the chance creation the clubs he’s played for – cut-backs and crosses – to optimally utilise Abraham as a forward. This also illustrates his smart tactical awareness, as his positioning enables the attacking creators to consistently find simple routes to goal. 

Within the current Leicester City setup, Vardy’s adaptability has ensured Brendan Rodgers can implement a possession-orientated system that can be fluid in the final third. If the Foxes were to pursue the signature of Abraham, perhaps they’d have to change their approach in attacking sequences – to create chances such as crosses, cut-backs, and even employ tactics surrounding a “focal point” forward. It’s difficult to suggest whether or not this would be successful, despite having a lot of talent in wide areas.  

Intriguingly, Abraham has an almost identical amount of touches in the penalty area (5.69 per 90) when compared with Vardy (5.76) – the fox in the box. This resembles similarities towards their involvement in the final phases of play – often being the receptor of the final pass in the shot, or goal, creation. I’d suggest Abraham offers more in the midfield progression than his counterpart, either through receiving vertically or dropping deep – supported by Abraham having 30 touches per 90, and Vardy only managing 22 (with both playing in possession focused sides). I don’t think it’s essential that the 23-year-old is involved during build-up, it merely highlights a slightly more well-rounded attacking profile.

However, an area of Abraham’s game that would inherently help Leicester City is his ability to win aerial duals – 58.2% of them in the 2020/21 Premier League season to be precise. Currently, the Foxes play a style centred around building from the back, but under pressure they often resort to a singular passing lane. Kasper Schmeichel is the predominant passer when under pressure, as the ball slowly retreats to his position as the intensity of the opposition press increases, and he primarily attempts a “medium risk-low reward” lofted pass into one of the wing-backs – Timothy Castagne or Luke Thomas. The idea is to maintain possession behind the first line, or two, of the opposition press – but there’s difficulties in playing this pass and doing so unsuccessfully has added unnecessary pressure to the Foxes in a lot of games this season.

That’s where Abraham comes in, a specialist in the air – aided, again, by his 6ft3 frame – as a pressure reliever. Instead of attempting the clipped pass towards one of the wing-backs, Schmeichel could utilise Abraham in a similar vein to how Edouard Mendy has for Chelsea this season. If the dual is unsuccessful, the possession has been surrendered in the middle/attacking third, instead of inside the defensive third – and his success rate is over 50%, so all outcomes are a net positive when compared to the current proposition of negotiating a high press. 

The final cross-referencing metric we’re using is the xG (expected goals) and xA (expected assists) per 90, to understand the preferences of the forward – i.e. creator or finisher. Unfortunately, Abraham has a lower xG (0.56) and xA (0.07) than Vardy this season – but this slight differential could be due to the quality of personnel in either side – especially when addressing the xA. With Vardy having a higher xG (0.62), it could be suggested that he finds “optimal” shooting chances more frequently than Abraham does, or perhaps he’s found in those spaces with a higher frequency. But, with the amount of attacking quality in Chelsea’s squad – when specifically looking at chance creation – it’s to be expected that Abraham’s xA is significantly lower than Vardy’s (0.17), as so many of their attacking players are capable of providing chances. Without a stellar end of season run – involving a lot of assists for Kelechi Iheanacho, Vardy would’ve ended the season with a similar xA per 90. 

It was already fairly apparent, but Abraham’s presence in the frontline is that of a focal point finisher. Within the clubs he’s played for; Bristol City, Aston Villa, and Chelsea, the attacking creators focus on fashioning chances via cutbacks, crosses, or tap-ins for the 23-year-old. His involvement in possession is minimal, but unsurprisingly outdoes that of Vardy. It would require some stylistic adaptations from Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester City side, but signing Abraham for around £35 million prior to his “prime” years is definitely an astute piece of business – something the East Midlands outfit are becoming renowned for. 

Patson Daka, RB Salzburg, 22

In his only season with RB Salzburg (2019/20), Haaland averaged a goal every 61.25 minutes in the Austrian Bundesliga. The man who replaced him, Patson Daka, has a goal every 72.29 minutes in 2020/21 – meaning he’s scoring at a marginally lower rate than the Norweigan’s exceptional season, outlining a denominator of goal-scoring prowess between the two players. The Zambian international will also be a fraction of Haaland’s price tag – if he’s to leave the club this summer – hence why the Foxes could make a move for the RB Salzburg finisher. However, the 22-year-old certainly has the pedigree to translate his performances in Austria to the top flight in England. 

Within RB Salzburg’s system, and setup, Jesse Marsch demands that his side presses high. To facilitate this, Daka is one of the two initiators of the press – alongside one of his strike partners; Mergim Berisha or Sekou Koita. But, it’s difficult to attest this quality to the exciting forward, or whether it’s a byproduct of the Marsch system. Regardless, Daka’s tenacity out of possession – intrinsically aided by his quick bursts of acceleration (reaching his max speed quickly) – creates chaos in the opposition defensive third. Within this, he’s also exceptional in these manic scenarios and frequently exploits errors from defenders once under pressure. 

Having a tactically developed coach (like he has with Marsch at Salzburg) during the “formative” years of Daka’s growth is already highlighting some excellent net positives. His understanding of the protocols in the press are good; shifting well to cover the “spare man” out of possession (i.e. the holding midfielder/centre-back) and also utilising cover shadows when pressing the defender in possession. Inside of the structure, he maintains his position in the block astutely, recognising when to press out of the shape and when to hold. Because of this knowledge, but also good execution of application, Daka is often successful when aiming to turnover possession – with an obvious caveat being the quality of opposition – potentially inflating his success rate.

Unlike the other players shortlisted, Daka’s application is primarily within a front two. This season, RB Salzburg have utilised a formation with two strikers for 88% (37/42) of their domestic league games this season – often being partnered with Berisha. For this reason, Brendan Rodgers might be reluctant to target the Zambian forward. If the formations he’s resorted to this campaign (in absence of goal-scoring wingers) that are constructed to maximise the skillsets of both Vardy and Iheanacho are the future of the Northern Irishman’s reign at Leicester City, then Daka would be an excellent acquisition – while still being one within a single striker setup. 

Initially, Daka’s scoring metrics – and just overall shooting metrics – are exceptional. The forward is averaging a goal every 0.54 shots on target, with a staggering 47.5% of his shots being on target. This isn’t a case of scoring a lot of goals due to an excessive quantity of chances, albeit that still slightly rings true, but Daka is incredibly efficient as a striker – and this always translates well to a “top” league. Occasionally, forwards playing in Europe, but outside of the elite leagues, will accumulate high goal-scoring tallies and thus attract suitors from these “top” leagues, by having a plethora of goal-scoring chances (missing lots of them) and eventually overcoming the skill deficit of the league. This truly isn’t the case for the young Zambian striker – his ability is unquestionable. He’s capable of receiving possession from all angles, manipulating space to allow easier chances on goal – and also his body to score with either foot or head – which correlates into a threatening array of assets from a “poacher-esque” forward. 

When looking at both Vardy and Daka’s impact in the penalty area, there’s a lot of similarities in how they both operate. Potently, the two individuals both benefit – and are also hindered – by their gravity (essentially attracting opposing defenders) in the box, which is a knock-on effect of their goal-scoring prowess and danger in these areas. It’s perhaps due to this that both forwards are limited with their touches in the box, with Daka (6.5) having a slightly more involved role than Vardy – 5.76. As has been mentioned earlier, players can achieve similar results in metrics in different ways, but again, I think Daka approaches the spaces in the box similarly to Vardy. The Zambian is instinctive in the box, thus requiring limited touches to convert chances into goals, and he’s also adept at drifting into channels to help provide vertical passing lanes – which is seemingly redundant for penalty area entries, but it actually provides different angles for Daka to utilise.

I’d suggest that neither of the two forwards would be referred to as a “focal point” striker, as they’re usage in buildup is limited – despite Daka dropping into half-spaces and between the lines in tandem with his strike partners movements. Instead of being overly involved prior to chance creation, they’re crucial to translating possession in the final third into goals, as they’re surrounded by creators. This overlap in roles would make the transition to the Foxes’ style of play much easier for Daka, even if he had to adjust his positioning from a two striker structure – where he’d hold wider natural positions and gradually drift centrally during a passage of play – to holding this central positioning inside of a single forward formation (4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3). 

One of the other metrics we’ve evaluated is xG and xA per 90 – which, again, Daka performs admirably in. As expected from a forward, Daka’s xG (0.88) per 90 is a lot higher than his xA (0.16) per 90 – but his scoring in both metrics is above the average of Europe’s top five leagues. Utilising his xG numbers, you can understand just how frequently the Zambian forward is finding high percentage goal scoring opportunities – which is also backed up immeasurably by video scouting. This ability to consistently find spaces in the penalty area, and also convert them into shots – at a good rate (like we explored earlier), isn’t restrictive to the Austrian Bundesliga. It’s of course an “easier” division to find pockets and allude defenders, but that intuition should translate fairly flawlessly into the Premier League.

As for his xA, Daka is creating chances for his teammates at an above average rate – even if it’s just slight. It’s difficult to overlook the quality of the league, as RB Salzburg ended the season with 94 goals – 2.94 per game, so accumulating xG and xA is fairly routine, and should be contextualised. Regardless, the value of Daka also having 0.16 xA per 90 shows that albeit with a preference for goal-scoring, he’s an astute creator for his side – he doesn’t suffer from having tunnel-vision in the final third (bombarding the goal with shots and eventually scoring), he’s capable of scanning the surroundings and making optimal decisions. This is probably a by-product of functioning inside of a front two for a couple of seasons. 

There’s a lot of similarities between Patson Daka and Jamie Vardy, both incredibly quick across the ground, exceptional finishers of chances – regardless of the difficulty of opportunity – and smart and effective pressers. Vardy’s first few seasons in the East Midlands were inside a front two, and he was able to translate that muscle memory into a fully-functional solo forward – perhaps Daka’s implementation at RB Salzburg (also inside a two) could have a similar effect. Ultimately, he’s one of the best young forwards in Europe and it’s unsurprising that he’s already on the radar of a few Premier League clubs; Liverpool and West Ham United, for a fee in the region of £20million. If the Foxes wanted to secure his services, they’d not only have to fight off other suitors, but they’ll have to offer significantly more money than the quoted price. All of the data suggests that Daka’s worth that extra fee – and some.

Adam Armstrong, Blackburn, 24

Out of all these potential options, Adam Armstrong feels like the biggest project. After finally securing a permanent move away from Newcastle in 2018, the now-24-year-old truly announced himself this season in the Championship with 28 goals for Blackburn. Second only to Premier League bound Ivan Toney, Armstrong will be looking to test himself again in the top flight after failing to make his mark on Toonside.   

In regards to stature and play style, he probably comes closest to Vardy in our list of possible Leicester acquisitions. Armstrong is quick, very quick – a trait that Vardy has become renowned for over recent years. Active off the shoulder of defenders and always looking to cause problems in behind, he’s a nightmare for defensive setups holding a high line. His pace often forces defences to retreat, subsequently opening up space in middle sections of the field for teammates to exploit.

With the injury to Harvey Barnes and the introduction of Kelechi Iheanacho, we saw Vardy operating on the left for large portions of games this season. This is a space that Armstrong naturally gravitates towards in his role at Blackurn, and he’d be a perfect option for the Foxes as they look to ease the responsibilities of the veteran Vardy. Linking up and interchanging with Harvey Barnes would form a dangerous duo with direct and high-paced tendencies that push opponents onto the back foot. Armstrong’s mixture of vertical threat and ability to uncover and exploit small pockets of space make him an effective option in a number of game scenarios – pushing for a goal in an open game or breaking down a team in a low block.       

Armstrong’s two-footedness is one of the biggest strengths of his game and he’s ambidextrous to the point that sometimes it’s hard to even tell which foot he prefers. As of late April, when he had eclipsed the 20-goal mark, 9 of those were scored with his left, 9 with his right, and 3 with his head. Armstrong’ wide-ranging finishing abilities is similar to Vardy, who has showcased that throughout his Premier League career.

Saying that Armstrong has an eye for goal would be an understatement. He practically has a ‘shoot on sight’ philosophy, and while his efficiency could improve, he has clearly been given the greenlight by Tony Mowbray in this Blackburn setup. The Englishman is somewhat of an activity factory when it comes to making things happen in and around the box. The above dot plot highlights Armstrong’s involvement in the penalty area (he averaged 5.28 touches per 90 in 20/21) – while you may expect that to be higher, Armstrong is similar to Daka and Vardy in that he’s often instinctive in the 18-yard-box, requiring limited touches and instead getting a multitude of shots off when in those positions. That’s highlighted here, as he tops the charts by a significant margin in the Championship in shots per 90 with 4.92, with the next closest being Teemu Pukki at 3.62. This mirrors Kelechi Iheanacho, another high-volume shooter, who averaged 3.58. Armstrong will undoubtedly find it hard to keep up this level in a Leicester team in the Premier League, but Iheanacho’s resurgence this year shows that he’d still be in a team creating plenty of opportunities.

The key will be whether he can improve his efficiency – perhaps one of his biggest faults. After all, he put in 23 non-penalty goals on 189 shots (12%) compared to Ivan Toney who converted 22 of his 135 (16%). Compare this to the conversion rates of Kelechi Iheanacho at 21% and Tammy Abraham at 19%, you can see that Armstrong can work on his shot selection. In a sense though, one of his downfalls is directly related to one of his strengths – high volume, less efficient shooters inherently creates chaos and disturb defenses because of their tendency to shoot so often but simultaneously frustrate because they consistently take low quality shots. After an unproductive year for Jamie Vardy’s standards that saw him underperform his non-penalty expected goals by 5.8, Leicester will be looking to add goals no matter how they come.

For all that he does when his team has the ball, he’s also a very active presser and ball winner for this team – a trait that Leicester will value. Armstrong matched Vardy this campaign for tackles in which the tackler’s team won possession of the ball (8). Playing 83.6% of possible minutes for Blackburn, Armstrong shows similarities to Vardy in his tenaciousness, ability to press high and win the ball, and reliability in selection. 

The biggest question mark surrounding Armstrong will be whether or not he can come close to replicating his goalscoring numbers in the top flight. Perhaps more assured options such as Daka, Edouard, or Abraham will turn their head, but one thing is for sure – Armstrong deserves a shot at Premier League football wherever that may be.      

Ones to Watch at Euro 2020: Federico Chiesa

This summer, Top Bins Talk is partnering with FIVEYARDS for their Euro 2020 game. To enter, visit their site here – where you will see their list of Golden 50 – before picking 5 players who you think will increase in value the most over the tournament. You can then compete in the leaderboard to win a share of £1,000! Entries open on 1st June.

To help, we are creating player profiles on a number of the individuals available for selection. Our first piece is on the young Juventus and Italy winger, Federico Chiesa:

A leading light for Italy’s next generation

It was a difficult season for Juventus. After winning nine Serie A title’s in a row, I Bianconeri stumbled to a 4th place finish as Inter were crowned champions. There was, however, some reason for optimism for Juve fans – namely in the mould of 23-year-old Federico Chiesa – who in his first year at the club was directly involved in 26 goals (15 G / 11 A) across all competitions.

Signed from Fiorentina at the beginning of the season for a deal that could rise to €60m, the young wide player has recently taken massive strides in his game. Prior to signing for the club, Chiesa’s immense potential was always obvious, yet he was often guilty of suffering runs of inconsistency and an inability to truly stamp his authority on matches. He’s added a real sense of responsibility to his game – quickly becoming an integral member of Juventus’ side and so often the key player in the big moments – scoring the winner in the Coppa Italia and the first goal in the game to secure Champions League qualification.

This summer, he’ll look to build on a strong domestic campaign by playing a role in Italy’s quest for continental success. The squad has a nice blend of experience and youth, yet it feels like it’s the latter group’s turn to take over – and Chiesa will want to be a big part of that.

Player Profile
StrengthsWeaknesses
• Ability to find and create space in the final third
• Strong direct 1 v 1 dribbling and can play on either wing
• High energy and press out of possession
• A tendency to shoot in unfavorable situations and from poor positions

In a season of underperformance for Juventus, Chiesa proved to be a beacon of hope. In Andrea Pirlo’s malleable setup, we saw the Italian shift from a wingback in defense to a wide forward in attack quite seamlessly. In fact, he ranked in the 93rd percentile for tackles (2.09) among wingers/attacking mids in Europe’s top five leagues, and in the 90th percentile for non-penalty goals (0.41) per 90. It is rare to see a typically advanced wide player be so active, and so successful, on both sides of the ball. His high energy and press saw him turn an abundance of defensive actions into swift counter attacks. 

This high motor is paired with a good sense of composure, especially in 1v1 duels. He has a knack for identifying space and applying the right technique to get there, whether that be through a nutmeg, a body-feint, or a Zidane-like pirouette. His direct dribbling ability and tendency to do everything at full speed makes him very difficult to stop. That being said, he does occasionally lose the ball after a long run, leaving his team exposed defensively. His versatility in forward positions could be hugely important for Italy this summer – he’s capable of playing on the left, the right, or even centrally as he did at times for Fiorentina.

In the final third, he times his runs well, often positioned well for a cutback or found waiting at the back post. We saw this in great effect against Porto in this season’s Champions League, where he one-timed a bouncing cross into the far corner. This season, he had more penalty area touches (5.74 per 90) than 86 percent of wingers in Europe’s top five leagues, despite primarily arriving from deeper positions. This ability to make smart movements is also crucial in creating space for his teammates, most notably Alvaro Morata and Cristiano Ronaldo. His propensity to exploit dangerous positions in the final phase of play, paired with his high volume shooting, has made him one of Juventus’ leading marksman – scoring 15 goals in his debut season at the club. Chiesa has also shown a clear improvement in his shot selection, taking a lower volume of shots per 90 but remaining consistent in his goal return.

Chiesa was once a raw and primarily technical talent, but he’s taken giant leaps forward in his development this season, especially in his ball retention and decision making. He does still occasionally take shots where he retrospectively should have passed, but it feels like that can be forgiven when his movement, on-the-ball ability, and direct and relentless speed means he’s constantly a nuisance in the final third.

After missing out on the World Cup in 2018, the Italians have all the incentive necessary to make a strong push for silverware this summer. The squad has an intriguing balance of experience, youth, and flair – and it really feels as though Chiesa can play a massive role. He’ll face stiff competition for a starting spot, but if he can force his way into the lineup, expect him to build on his strong season at Juventus – and catch the attention of football fans worldwide.

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.

Ollie Watkins is quite good, isn’t he?

By Philippe Stengel and Max Taylor

Before we start, we just want to say a big thank you to Victor Renaud (@victorrenaud5) for creating a graphic for the piece and Twenty3 (@twenty3sport) for allowing us to use two of theirs. Both create really insightful data visuals, and we highly encourage you to check out more of their work.

For as long as we can remember, the Premier League has attracted stars from all over world football. But these days, the English Football League is producing top-level players at a rate that hasn’t been seen before. 

The likes of Harry Maguire, James Maddison, and Dele Alli are all examples of individuals who made the jump from the lower leagues to the Premier League, while even lesser-renowned names like James Justin, Lewis Dunk, and Michail Antonio have made the step-up seamlessly, and are now established Premier League players.

Ollie Watkins has fought his way to the top, climbing the ladder of English football tiers. Signed from Brentford last summer for £28 million, he made his professional debut at just 18 in League Two for Exeter City. He then moved to Brentford for £1.6 million, in 2017, having been scouted and subsequently signed by current Villa manager Dean Smith. He went on to have back-to-back 10 goal seasons from left-wing, leading to a transition to center-forward once Neal Maupay left Brentford for Brighton. In the 19/20 Championship season, Watkins proved to be up to the task by scoring 25 goals.

Despite question marks over a hefty transfer fee, Ollie Watkins has taken his opportunity once again. With 10 goals and 3 assists through 26 games, his influence in this Villa side has been massive. But what makes him so effective?

Watkins has found his feet quickly in the Premier League — something Dean Smith claims he knew would happen all along, stating his game was “Premier League ready, so I knew he was ready to come in.”

While there is no one blueprint for how a modern striker should play, Ollie Watkins boasts many of the attributes associated with a complete center-forward. He drops deep and links play, combines tireless running and smart movement to get in-behind and into the channels, and uses his strength and aerial ability in hold up play.

His intelligent movement and understanding of space is arguably his biggest strength, and has been key to Villa’s success this season. Last year, both Wesley and Samatta struggled in front of goal and were also extremely static in their movement, unable to provide a reliable platform to build around at the center of Villa’s attack.

Watkins, on the other hand, has helped elevate Villa. His ability to anticipate and exploit space, run channels, and drag defenders out of position to open gaps for teammates is outstanding. This has been most apparent in his relationship with Jack Grealish – who was desperate for players around him capable of taking advantage of his elite ball-carrying ability. Watkins both combines with Grealish (by moving towards him), provides him with a passing option in behind (by making movements off the last man), and opens up space for him to exploit (by making sharp movements away from him). Watkins receives an average of 9.54 progressive passes per game (73rd percentile), and also ranks in the 89th percentile or above in carries into the penalty area and shot creating actions (for all forwards in Europe’s top five leagues). Watkins not only makes himself available with intelligent runs, but has the ability to impact the game considerably once in possession, too.

His movement is clever, but unselfish – he’s happy to make himself the decoy in order to drag defenders out of position – but he’s equally comfortable receiving the ball by forming combinations or exploiting gaps beyond the backline.

Watkins’ ball reception map (created by @victorrenaud5) highlights just how thorough his movement is. Beyond drifting into wide-areas and making movements in behind, the map also illustrates his comfort dropping deep and linking play with his back to goal. Watkins constantly makes himself available during Villa’s build-up, finding space between the lines before receiving a punched pass from the midfielders and shifting the ball to wide areas. He also possesses deceptively good strength and aerial ability: despite standing at 5’11, he uses his body exceptionally well to hold off defenders, and often gets to the ball ahead of bigger defenders to knock it down to a teammate. This season, he ranks in the 80th percentile for aerials won p/90 (3.96) and the 63rd for percentage of aerials won (43.3%) across all forwards in Europe’s top five leagues.

Another big reason he’s made such an impression is his selflessness and hard-yards out of possession. 14 clean sheets in 26 Premier League games proves just how good Villa have been defensively, but it’s important to note that Watkins is the initiator for the press from the front. He leads the club in “successful pressures” (a metric that quantifies how many times a team wins the ball back within 5 seconds of losing it after player X applies pressure) by 29, reinforcing how active he is off the ball. Rather than constantly making tackles, Watkins’ tireless energy often forces mistakes and sideways/backwards passes from the opposition defenders.

In the final third, this translates directly to his aggressiveness when attacking the ball and open space. This, combined with incredibly intelligent movement, means Watkins consistently gets himself into favorable attacking positions. Dangerous runs beyond the back-line, smart movements out-to-in to latch onto through balls, or anticipative runs between defenders in the box — Watkins’ wide array of movements matches the versatility of his finishing. Out of his 10 goals this season, he’s scored five with his right, two with his left, and three with his head. Watkins’ shot map (by @twenty3sport) illustrates the areas he exploits in front of goal: fairly ineffectual from distance, but a constant threat in all positions in the 18-yard-box, and consistently placing himself in areas where he can get high quality shots off.

But despite this impressive aspect of his game, he is still underperforming his non-penalty expected goals by 1.4. This may not be a huge underperformance, but it does tell us he isn’t yet as clinical as he should be. This is also highlighted by the fact that he has hit the woodwork 7 times this season, twice more than anyone in the Premier League (Heung-Min Son, 5). 10 goals is an impressive return in his first season in the PL – his movement and understanding of how to exploit attacking areas means he will always have opportunities – but his output could markedly improve if his finishing does too.

The keys to Watkins’ success have been his reliability and consistency, as he has started every league match for the last season and a half (46 last year, 26 games so far this year). 

With several key additions to the squad, Aston Villa have completely revamped this year. Achieving consistency has been key, and Ollie Watkins exemplifies this perfectly. Having played every league minute this season, Watkins has not only proven to be Premier League quality — but has shown that humility and hard work go a long way.

Despite moving from the Championship to the Premier League, his overall play and output have carried over smoothly (@twenty3sport graphic below). By putting creative players behind Watkins, Dean Smith has attempted (and succeeded) to replicate the fluidity Brentford played with last season. Due to his intelligent movement and hard work, Watkins has been able to adapt seamlessly to Premier League football.

But this is nothing new. The EFL has long been a valuable resource for Premier League clubs, seeking homegrown talent or loan moves for youngsters. Ollie Watkins’ path to the Premier League may feel like an anomaly, but the truth is that he’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Thiago and Liverpool: this was supposed to be perfect…

Just over half a year ago, Thiago Alcantara was rightfully hailed as one of the game’s finest technicians, playing for Europe’s best team. With his contract running out, the Spaniard then decided to leave Bavaria behind and take on a new challenge, in order to “develop himself as a player.” At the time, swapping the champions of Germany for the champions of England seemed like a no-brainer.

But as we all know, it hasn’t been so simple. A handful of injuries has obviously made Liverpool’s season more difficult, overshadowing Thiago’s potential glorious introduction to English football. Van Dijk, Gomez, Matip, Keita, Jota, Fabinho, Henderson, Matip again, the list really goes on and on. Pandemic-induced pains have smashed Liverpool’s title defense.

In the midst of a hellish debut season, Thiago hasn’t showcased his world-class ability. While much of that can be attributed to Liverpool’s injury crisis and subsequent underperformance, I do believe Jurgen Klopp has a few questions to answer. 

Hansi Flick adapted his tactics for Thiago, and in turn won them the famed Treble.

At Bayern, Hansi Flick deployed Thiago in a “quarterback” role as the deepest midfielder in a three or in a pivot, sitting in front of the back four. This enabled Flick to play two stronger and faster midfielders in Goretzka and Muller ahead of Thiago to carry out their extremely high press, while still retaining the technical ability he brings (below). Bayern dominated the Bundesliga with their counter-pressing, as they led the division with 103 tackles won in the attacking third over the course of the 19/20 season. If anyone was under the impression that having Thiago on the pitch was a potential weak point, Thiago finished the season with 77 tackles and interceptions, third to only Alphonso Davies and Joshua Kimmich (both were inducted into FIFA’s Team of the Year). Thiago’s positioning made him effective defensively.

Flick trusted his defenders enough to have Thiago alone in the middle of the park, although they looked a bit on the ropes when the opposition broke their press (and still do to this day, even without Thiago). Thiago’s best assets — his range of passing and press resistance — were constantly on full display, as he dictated tempo and played line-breaking passes from all angles. In the 19/20 Bundesliga season, Thiago attempted the most passes (1777) by any non-defender.

Jurgen Klopp has been adamant that Liverpool don’t play the same way as Bayern do, and that Thiago’s role must be adapted.

Fast forward to this pandemic-ridden Premier League season, and it’s clear Thiago hasn’t enjoyed the success he envisioned. His full debut came in a 2-2 draw with Everton on October 17th, 2020, and although the game was overshadowed by Jordan Pickford’s rash challenge on Virgil Van Dijk, Thiago played very well alongside Jordan Henderson and Fabinho. Their pressing and defensive capabilities were crucial in letting Thiago play the way he wanted, dropping deeper into pockets across the midfield to dictate play. The balance the trio provided seemed to resemble exactly what Klopp was looking for.

Since then, however, Liverpool’s available midfield and defensive options have played hot potato with the treatment tables. But despite their injuries, Liverpool are losing games they simply shouldn’t. Some say the team has lost the belief that once made them so great. Tactically, in an effort to protect his depleted back-line, Klopp has played Wijnaldum as his deepest midfielder (below). The Dutchman is far more athletic than Thiago, and is consistent in his ability to make up ground quickly and to make tackles effectively. Thiago has either slid in alongside Wijnaldum in a pivot or alongside Jones as side-by-side eights. 

Klopp’s ideal style of play differs ever so slightly from Flick’s. While Flick’s main ball progressors are his center-backs, Klopp’s are his full-backs. Van Dijk is exceptional in this realm, and his absence has made ball progression that much more difficult. This detail is crucial in respect to where the respective managers have placed Thiago. Instead of playing him deeper as Flick did at Bayern, Klopp is instructing the Spaniard to get further up the pitch, in an effort to get him involved once Trent and Robertson have progressed the ball substantially. Klopp has needed added creativity in the final third, as Mané and Firmino’s (and the full-backs’) numbers have dropped off this season. But it isn’t necessarily playing out that way. Their attacks often stagnate as their Premier League opponents know the danger their full-backs possess, and Thiago can’t always produce closer to the opposition’s goal.

While Thiago’s eye for a pass and control in tight spaces are world class, it is evident that he isn’t at his best around the opposition area, especially against teams that press Liverpool. In these instances where the game becomes more chaotic (as Klopp loves it), Thiago becomes ineffectual altogether. Robertson, Trent, Jones, and Firmino look for Mané and Salah, often bypassing Thiago.

When attacking against a low-block, the fullbacks provide the main source of chance creation, forcing Thiago to make surging Gundogan-like runs into the box, which aren’t his forte (below). Curiously enough, despite being more comfortable as a deeper midfielder, Thiago still often finishes games with a higher average position than Curtis Jones.

On the flip side of the ball, Thiago’s lack of physicality and mobility make it difficult for him to excel in Klopp’s gegenpress. He often mistimes his tackles and isn’t nearly as adept defensively as, say, every other Liverpool midfielder. Klopp’s style is renowned for his high-octane pressing and counter-pressing, so it feels puzzling that he’s choosing to put Thiago there (especially when Flick basically gave him the perfect blueprint in last season’s Champions League knockout stages), making him a bit vulnerable. Perhaps this will improve with more time under Klopp’s tutelage.

This WhoScored graphic highlights the Premier League’s best and worst tacklers from this season, in terms of success and timing. Thiago ranks very, very low.

If Liverpool want to best utilize Thiago, Klopp should consider getting him on the ball as much as possible — by playing him deeper — while giving him passing options everywhere.

Over the course of his career, Thiago has shown to be at his best when operating with as many options as possible around and in front of him. At Barça, Guardiola realized exactly that, but couldn’t bring himself to play him ahead of Busquets (hence why he was sold to Bayern).

There are several ways Klopp could reduce the risk of being caught out when losing possession, while still getting the best out of Thiago. Here’s my take.

As Robertson is so effective when going forward, he will always have free license to do so. When the ball is on the left, Trent should drop into midfield or alongside the right-sided central defender., adding an additional player to the ‘layer of protection.’ His excellent deliveries from deep can still be used to great effect. When the ball is out right, Jones should cover for Robertson (as he’ll always get forward), keeping the same shape as in the prior scenario. These will create two banks of two (Thiago-TAA + Kabak-Phillips; Jones-Thiago +Kabak-Phillips) players along the halfway line, providing Klopp with the comfort he so desperately desires (below).

Playing Wijnaldum ahead of Thiago would improve the Reds’ fluidity and unlock the best version of the Spaniard — sitting deep and playing line-breaking passes. Last Sunday against Sheffield United, there was a moment (gif below) in the first half where Wijnaldum surged ahead of Thiago, and the Spaniard slipped the ball in between the lines to him. Gini then beat a man and came close to scoring. This passage of play exemplified exactly what is possible when the two swap roles.

Liverpool’s woes this season have provoked many fierce accusations of Klopp’s tactics and moaning antics, and it’s clear the side hasn’t been at its best with Thiago on the pitch. There are obviously several issues Klopp has to address to manage a drastic change of narrative, but I do believe it’s possible. Players are beginning to return from injury, and Liverpool are in a strong position in the Champions League. And as well know all too well by now, football is a game of fine margins.

The Ever-Evolving No. 10 Position: Four Premier League players redefining our understanding of the role

The Playmaker. The Trequartista. The Enganche. The Creator. The Number 10. 

It’s a position as elusive as those that play it. A role that has birthed some of the greatest footballers in history. An area on the pitch so vital, so involved, and often where the magic happens: the slide-rule pass, the fancy flick, the assist nobody else foresees but he who executed it.

Yet in the last few years, a misconception has arisen: many now believe that the no 10 position is no longer a big part of the modern game. The influence of managers like Pep Guardiola, the increasing use of systems like a 4-3-3, and the emphasis on creativity from all areas and positions on a pitch has led many to proclaim that the iconic role is dead.

But we’re here to tell you that’s wrong. Just like the game of football itself, roles and positions are always adapting and evolving. Systems and formations are becoming increasingly more trivial as teams are no longer defined by a single structure: players constantly rotate and interchange depending on the game-state. Creators, inventors, and playmakers are still very much alive, but just perform the role differently than many of us have come to know it.

In this Premier League season, we’ve seen multiple sides utilize their creative outlets in a number of different ways. Each have unique methods of finding space, exploiting areas in the attacking third, and producing opportunities for teammates. We explain how four specific players are redefining our understanding of the no. 10 position:

*For each player covered in this piece, we have a data visual that provides an insight into both what areas these players receive the ball on the pitch, and how and where they use it once in possession. These visuals have been created by @victorrenaud5 – a must follow on twitter and a really accomplished football data analyst! We can’t thank him enough for his help.*

Bruno Fernandes: high-risk, high-reward

We start with a player relatively new to the Premier League, one whose playstyle divides opinion, but an individual that has had an impact nobody can ignore or deny. Creative players are inherently risk takers and Bruno Fernandes takes this sentiment to an entirely new level. The Portuguese midfielder takes risks in possession, is often over-ambitious in his passing, but sacrifices ball retention in order to generate chances for his teammates and himself, oftentimes out of nothing.

Bruno is unique in that he’s both the primary chance creator and goalscorer in his side – meaning the majority of attacking moves flow through him, while he finishes a large portion of them too. His numbers speak for themselves: 15 goals and 10 assists means he has 25 goal contributions in 27 Premier League games. Bruno’s average position is often just behind the CF in the mould of a second striker, but he drifts everywhere to receive the ball. The ball reception map (the left-sided graphic), emphasizes the variety of positions Bruno picks up possession, but also highlights his tendency to drift to the left-hand side. United are a team often most effective in transition, and primarily use the side of their attack containing Shaw, Rashford, and the drifting Bruno to kickstart forward moves.

The right-sided graphic provides an insight into how Bruno passes the ball: both the direction and length of his passes and the frequency at which he plays them. Bruno’s appetite for attempting difficult and longer progressive and sideways passes is essentially unmatched – he looks to move the ball forward regardless of how obvious and easy the attempt is. To quantify Fernandes’ unique role as a creative outlet for his side we can look at a variety of different parameters. For example, as far as risk taking goes, his pass completion percentage (71.9%) ranks in the 31st percentile amongst attacking midfielders in Europe’s top 5 leagues, which is significantly lower than our other three 10’s. However, he sits in the >95th percentile for progressive passes (7.09), xA (0.35), and shot-creating actions (4.94) per 90. In fact, Bruno’s xA of 9.1 is the highest in the Premier League this season. Bruno, however, has struggled to replicate this attacking productivity in games against the “big-six” sides. Much of this is not his fault as United tend to sit in and soak up pressure; they’ve drawn 0-0 in their last four Premier League games against “big-six” opposition. Bruno is unique because of his playstyle: a risk-taker, turnover prone, not necessarily efficient, but unbelievably consistent in his continued output, and that’s exactly what makes him so valuable to United.

James Maddison: the between-the-lines roamer

Out of the four players in this article, Maddison is most similar to what we generally perceive as a typical no. 10, but there’s elements of his game that make him unique, too. Leicester primarily line up in a 4-2-3-1 system, with Maddison occupying the traditional no. 10 role in the central space behind the striker. The Englishman is most dangerous in pockets between the lines – constantly receiving the ball on the half-turn in the blind-side area behind the opposition holding midfielders. The positions he picks up and his tendency to drift is reminiscent of Bruno, but how he uses the ball is entirely different.

Maddison’s ball reception map illustrates the wide range of areas he covers in the attacking third, while the pass sonar shows how his playstyle differs from the more erratic Bruno — Maddison’s actions in possession are more calculated, less-risky, and the variety of his passes are different. He prefers shorter layoffs to onrushing midfielders and wide players, and incisive and threaded through balls to Vardy ahead of him. He also looks to switch and progress play horizontally, capable of the long diagonal or long pass to his wide teammates. When drifting wide, he also aims to form overloads with his fullback and winger, relying on neat combination play to create chances.

But it’s Maddison’s improvement in front of goal that emphasizes the recent development of his game. Jamie Carragher has said that Maddison needs to improve his goal involvement if he wants to get in the England side and he’s done just that. Maddison referenced Carragher’s analysis in a post-match interview on January 19th, and has gone on to record an impressive 7 G/A in the last 9 matches. He has been remarkably efficient in front of goal this season and has outperformed his xG by 4.6, meaning he’s scored 8 goals on 3.4 xG, the second best margin in the league behind Heung-Min Son. Calculated in possession, best between the lines, but quickly becoming a complete advanced midfielder by refining his ability to finish chances, rather than just creating them.

Emile Smith Rowe: the wide drifter

Arsenal were in a really poor position in December. 15th place, on 14 points, and winless in seven Premier League games, they needed a short-term boost. Surprisingly, they found it in the form of 20-year-old Emile Smith Rowe. A switch in system and the introduction of ESR behind the striker gave Arsenal midfield and attacking balance, provided options between the lines, and allowed for rotation and interchange between their front four.

In the majority of his PL starts, Smith Rowe has been deployed on the teamsheet as a conventional no. 10, but the areas he drifts towards, the spaces he infiltrates, and the manner in which he manipulates the ball makes him so unique. The ball reception graphic emphasizes exactly this – he predominantly receives possession on either flank, while his actions in the middle of the pitch are fairly limited. His tendency to drift wide is vital for multiple reasons – 1) his inside-out movement opens central pockets for teammates to exploit, and 2) it enables him to form combinations and overloads vs. an isolated fullback.

When on the ball, Smith Rowe’s quick and decisive decision-making stands out. The pass sonar highlights his tendency to play both short backwards and progressive passes. His one or two-touch combination play is so impressive – smart layoffs, neat flicks, and one-twos are a massive part of his game. He’s also excellent on the dribble, and unafraid to drive at opposition defenses before executing cutbacks from the half spaces. There’s a beautiful simplicity to ESR’s playstyle, and it’s his huge impact in wide areas, and lack thereof centrally, that makes him such a unique no. 10.

Ilkay Gündogan: the space invader

Man City’s unstoppable form has been very well documented in recent times. They’ve undergone somewhat of a rebrand in system: one that’s almost positionless, constantly adapting and re-shaping, and unbelievably fluid. For large portions of the season, they’ve been strikerless, but one individual has suddenly evolved into a marauding, goalscoring midfielder. Ilkay Gundogan has scored 11 in 15 PL games since December 15th – and while his starting position is nothing like that of a 10, it’s the spaces he infiltrates, the intelligence in his movement, and his advanced position in possession that led to us including him in this article.

Man City’s current system is the perfect example of why all positions in football (not just the no.10 role) are no longer refined to a certain area on the pitch. Gundogan’s starting position is closer to Rodri, but as the ball progresses, the midfielder makes the left half-space his own. His ball reception map shows just that – he’s a constant in that area, but the majority of his touches are in the attacking third. When on the ball, he’s always so deliberate in his decision-making: producing beautiful left-to-right switches, combining on the edge of the area, or playing slide-rule passes across the box to onrushing finishers.

It’s his actions off the ball, however, that make him so unbelievably impressive. The timing of his runs, the spacial awareness, and the repeatability of his movement means he’s always a step ahead of anyone else. He locates and penetrates gaps in the opposition backline with such ease – and even if he doesn’t receive the ball, he simultaneously creates space for others. Gundogan’s newfound advanced position means he’s always involved and a constant influential figure in the final third for Man City – and it’s his off-ball movement that has made him the side’s primary creative and attacking force.

No. 10’s are still very much prevalent in today’s game

As football evolves, it’s become increasingly more obvious that players, and teams, are no longer restricted and refined by a single shape or structure. Players constantly move, rotate, switch, and interchange. Many have exclaimed that the no. 10 position is fading from the modern game – but we believe that’s not true at all.

The main creative outlet is no longer simply the individual behind the CF. Players can now be the primary creative influence in a number of different ways, and the four examples above show exactly how that’s possible. The number 10 position isn’t dead – but has adapted, evolved, and reinvented itself in a multitude of different ways – and is still very much alive in the Premier League.

Bukayo Saka belongs at RW – but the search for his best position has proven exactly why he’s so special

It’s hard to believe that it’s been less than 18 months since Bukayo Saka scored his first Arsenal goal: a lovely left-footed strike in the Europa League group stage vs. Frankfurt was his 2nd of three goal involvements on the night, with one first-half assist before a slide-rule pass to Pierre-Emerick Aubemeyang in the closing stages wrapped up a convincing 3-0 win.

Fast forward to last night, and it was much of the same. No goal this time, but two fantastic assists to his captain on a European night.

Except, it’s not the same. In fact, the changes between now and then are drastic. Saka is no longer the budding youngster with no. 77 on his back, nor is he still considered ‘one for the future.’ At that point 18 months ago, he had just seven Premier League minutes to his name; in 2020, Saka was Arsenal’s 4th most used player in the competition. He’s now very much Arsenal’s present – arguably their most reliable performer, most dangerous attacker, and like last night, often the man to produce the magic when needed most. And he’s still just 19.

It’s been a meteoric rise, and one that’s seen him play in a variety of positions. Initially at left wing, then an emergency left back, then tried all across the midfield before recently finding a home on the right – and he hasn’t looked back since.

I think it’s pretty clear that he’s now found his long-term position, but I also believe every role he’s played has given us a new insight into his wide-ranging capabilities, specifically through the variety of his final action in possession. Here’s why the search for Saka’s best position has proven exactly why he’s so special:

Phase 1: The emergency left back and the teasing cross

‘This is like ordering your striker to move into the danger zone. It’s actually world-class. Really, really good. Ryan Giggs used to give those passes, Dennis Bergkamp, Paul Scholes,’ said Robin Van Persie after Saka’s assist as makeshift left back at the beginning of Arteta’s reign. Saka receives a pass from Aubameyang, takes one touch towards the byline, and then fizzes in a cross begging to be finished, so Lacazette obliges. During this time, the youngster developed the first of his final actions in possession: the teasing cross from wide left.

We’ve become accustomed to Saka’s excellent and mature decision-making in the final-third, but at this point, it was still very much new to us. Yet it felt so instinctual, so natural, and so easy for him. A cross between the goalkeeper and the center back is a nightmare to defend, nearly impossible to stop, and unbelievably difficult to execute — but Saka’s final ball was, as RVP said, delivered like a seasoned pro.

Phase 2: At left wing, on the dribble, and splitting back lines

Kieran Tierney returned, so Saka moved further forward in a more advanced position on the left-hand side. As Arsenal’s form improved, their attacking movements did too, and Saka ultimately became more involved in the final third. He became more comfortable in possession, more willing to take on defenders, and more capable of spotting movement ahead of him.

This move vs. West Ham was the perfect example: he beat Antonio on the dribble, bypassed Noble with ease, and then split the backline with a neat pass into Nketiah’s stride. Not just adept from wide areas, but also able to carry the ball centrally before feeding runners in behind.

Phase 3: The reverse pass from central areas

Saka’s positional rotation continued throughout the rest of last season and into the current campaign. In recent times, Arsenal’s front four have become far more fluid than earlier in Arteta’s reign – with every advanced midfielder comfortable interchanging throughout the final third. Although Saka’s starting position is now on the right, he often drifts centrally into dangerous pockets of space.

His two assists last night illustrate how his final action in possession has developed even further. The first showcased his vision and ability to execute a deceiving, perfectly-weighted reverse pass between the lines. Quick feet to evade his marker, a glance up to spot Aubameyang, and a slide-rule pass that takes four defenders out of the game.

Phase 4: The inswinging delivery from wide right

Saka has been deployed on the right-wing ever since Arsenal’s 3-1 win over Chelsea on Boxing Day. The move has paid dividends: the Englishman now has 13 goals/assists in 15 starts in that role. He’s such a danger when he isolates his marker on the dribble, often taking a sharp touch inside before whipping an inswinging cross into the six-yard box.

Last night’s winner was the perfect example. Saka engaged the defender and performed a few stepovers before taking a touch to his left and curling a cross to the back post. Like the assist from left-back last season, it felt instinctual and intuitive – only this time, it was from the other side. Saka excelled in his delivery from the left, yet has adapted to be even more effective on the right, despite the position still being relatively unfamiliar to him.

There’s a lot of reasons to love Bukayo Saka. The youthful spirit and clear love for the game. The mentality to perform consistently in a struggling side. The professionalism at which he performs his role, no matter what it is. But perhaps the most exciting aspect of this 19-year-old is just how far he’s come in so little time. From left back, to left wing, to a central position, to wide right, his skillset has developed and matured everywhere he’s played. And he’s only going to get better.

Rodrigo De Paul: A Scouting Report

By Philippe Stengel and Max Taylor

Football is a simple game. Silverware-winning sides have a multitude of players that contribute to their success, struggling sides don’t, and on the rare occasion, a team can attribute a large portion of their accomplishments to a single individual — a one-man-team, a carry job, a Jack Grealish at Aston Villa last season, or in this case, a Rodrigo De Paul at Udinese.

Rodrigo De Paul has a very interesting CV. Although he’s now played 21 times for the Argentinian senior side, the 26-year-old is still at the Serie A strugglers. His recent performances, however, have caught the attention of a number of clubs and fans alike. An all-action and versatile midfielder, progressive and creative chart topper, and on the verge of entering his prime, we believe he’s more than ready for a big move. We explain exactly why below: 

The Lowdown on Udinese

Led by Sarri’s former Chelsea assistant Luca Gotti, Udinese have been wildly uninspiring this year. They almost exclusively line up in a 3-5-2 system, and despite a solid defensive foundation (they have conceded the third-least expected goals allowed in Serie A) and a fantastic creator in De Paul, Udinese have failed to convert chances into goals and points this season. As a result, captain and striker Kevin Lasagna (who has underperformed his xG this season by -5.9, the worst rate in Europe’s Top Five League’s) was recently sent out on loan until the end of the season.

De Paul’s Profile

Since joining Udinese before the 2015/2016 season, De Paul has become an ever-increasingly important member of the Serie A side, from budding young midfielder to senior Argentinian international and club captain. De Paul predominantly lines up on the right of the midfield three in Udinese’s 3-5-2 system, tasked with progressing the ball from deep into the final third, and relied upon as the primary chance creator in the side. The radar below, created by @Edvin_TH, highlights just how effective he is in his ball progression and creation, while also providing an insight into the qualities he lacks – which we’ll take a closer look at later on. He does his best work when drifting between central positions and the right half-space, picking up smart pockets and relentlessly advancing the ball into dangerous areas via dribbles or passes.

Give @Edvin_TH a follow for more quality work like the radar above. Click the photo to view the tweet!

De Paul has generated attention this season for his excellent, chart-topping ball progression and creative numbers. As mentioned earlier, his role in this Udinese side reminds us of Jack Grealish’s at Aston Villa last season; we hate to use the phrase, but he’s star-figure in a one-man team. Every Udinese move seems to run through the Argentinian; at times, his teammates look devoid of ideas and resort to finding De Paul – regardless of his position on the pitch. 

De Paul’s Qualities

His most impressive trait is his ball progression. Both on the dribble and by way of crisp, vertical passes, De Paul is so effective at making himself an option in the build-up or in transition, before receiving the ball and driving his side forward from deep into attacking areas. The Argentinian has averaged 9.8 progressive carries and 4.49 carries into the final third per 90 this season, which both rank in the top five in Serie A. The slideshows below portray two scenarios in which De Paul receives and then progresses the ball from deep: he exhibits a positive, purposeful first-touch, the speed and gait to beat his marker, and the awareness of space to identify gaps to drive into. 


De Paul also chooses the right moments to release sooner, receiving the ball in smart areas before executing incisive forward passes for teammates. His 7.42 progressive passes p/90 rank 6th in Serie A this season, while he’s also equally effective further up the pitch – averaging 5.61 passes into the final third and 2.58 into the penalty area. The Argentinian is relentless in his intent to progress the ball quickly up the field – and is constantly the influential figure in moving his side into dangerous areas. In doing so, he often attracts a multitude of defenders, opening up space for teammates in the process. Sides are aware of the ability he possesses, are forced to over-compensate in an attempt to slow him down, and are subsequently out of position when De Paul finds his teammates in space with a penetrative vertical pass.

De Paul has also displayed an ability to dictate and progress play against deeper blocks, and is comfortable receiving the ball from his center backs before executing dangerous lofted balls in-behind the opposition backline. His range of passing is impressive, and as the key figure in Udinese’s side, he fulfills a number of midfield roles — that of an 8 when progressing play, that of a 6 when spraying measured passes from deep, and that of a 10 when creating chances in the final-third.

With just one recorded assist this season, De Paul’s creative stats, from afar, don’t exactly jump off the screen. When delving deeper, however, it’s quite clear that De Paul is a fantastic chance creator that has been criminally let down by teammates. 5.9 expected assists (2nd in Serie A), 4.99 shot-creating actions p/90 (5th), and 2.68 key passes p/90 (4th) suggests he’s one of the outstanding creative players in the league. Sam/@GoalAnalysis (a must-follow) backed up this perception with his recent scatter plot, which highlighted that De Paul is one of the unluckiest creators in Europe. Constantly providing, constantly let down.

Click the photo to take you to @GoalAnalysis ‘s tweet

The slideshows below show exactly why De Paul is so effective in advanced areas. A mix of great spacial awareness and intelligence in possession means he picks up smart pockets between the lines before finding teammates with intricate, disguised through balls. He also often showcases great ability in tighter areas of space, combining neatly with teammates with lovely moments of combination play. His set-piece expertise is also a notable aspect of his game – his ability from corners, free-kicks, and penalties would come in handy for most sides.

De Paul has a tendency to drift towards the right half-space in possession, and often delivers inviting crosses into the six-yard box or smart cut backs to onrushing teammates. We’d argue he’s most dangerous in these areas, as he constantly locates really dangerous pockets of space between the opposition’s left-sided midfield and defensive line. It’s such a difficult area for teams to defend, and De Paul’s reliable end product makes him such a threat in these positions.

Speaking of end product, his goalscoring abilities are just as noteworthy. He not only possesses an intelligent knack for arriving into the box at the right moments, but has great range from distance, gets his shots off away quickly, and generates serious force with little backlift. Precise curlers, powerful drives, and inventive placements, he’s got a diverse selection of finishes in his skillset.

Areas to Improve On

When a player has the ball so often, it feels normal that the opposition will look to nullify him more so than anyone else. That being said, De Paul occasionally overcomplicates his decisions –  rather than a simple layoff, for example – and gets himself into trouble. While this would probably improve in a side where the over-reliance on him is diminished, this is a trait De Paul needs to remove from his game.

De Paul’s defensive effort should also rightfully be questioned. While he often presses high when the opposition builds from the back, he isn’t consistent and seems to lack the willingness to do the dirty work. In the GIF below, you’ll notice how easy his opponent goes around him before creating a goal-scoring chance. In the modern game, and at a higher level, this lackluster defending isn’t acceptable.

On the Verge of a Move?

Over the last few seasons, De Paul has consistently proven that he’s one of the better all-round, versatile midfielders in Europe. A creative presence, a dictator from deep, and a progressive monster, De Paul’s diverse profile makes him such an intriguing option for so many sides. We don’t know yet where he’ll end up, but whoever does sign him will be making an extremely smart purchase.

Finding Arsenal’s Next Number Nine

Things can change very quickly in football. On Christmas day, Arsenal sat in 15th place, on 14 points, 14 games into the season; they had just crashed out of the Carabao Cup, recorded their 7th winless Premier League game in a row, and question marks surrounding Arteta’s future began to surface.

Fast forward a month later, and Arsenal’s season looks significantly more promising. A switch to a 4-2-3-1 and the faith placed in the youthful trio of Martinelli, Smith Rowe, and Saka have proven to be especially decisive decisions: an energetic and intense performance vs. Chelsea on Boxing Day led to a 3-1 win. Saka and Smith Rowe were both involved in goals, Tierney was a far more influential figure as a natural LB, and Arsenal actually looked a threat going forward – the introduction of creative, technical, and intelligent players in the final third made such a difference.

The strong form has continued. Arsenal have won 6 of their last 8, the youngsters have continued to play their part, and there’s suddenly a foundation to build upon; but there’s still pieces of the side that need obvious improvement, and the center forward position is one of them. Although Lacazette has played an important role in Arsenal’s mini-resurgence, there’s still question marks surrounding his future. At 29, and with his contract expiring in 2022, it’s hard to see him in Arteta’s long-term plans. Eddie Nketiah has never quite shown the quality required to be Arsenal’s main man, and Folarin Balogun’s contract negotiations continue to stall.

What is the ideal number 9 profile for Arsenal?

The three pictures below provide an insight into Lacazette’s role in recent games, and exactly what Arteta expects from his center forward: involvement in the build-up, a key role in final-third play, and the kickstart for the press from the front.

Arteta will be looking for a player who can not only replicate these expectations, but perform them to a higher standard. Using statistical profiling and video scouting, we’ve created a shortlist of four center forwards we believe Arsenal should consider pursuing in the near future:

Alexander Isak

Real Sociedad, 21 years old

We begin with a tall, physically imposing, technical Swedish center forward – and no, it isn’t Ibrahimovic. The attention surrounding Alexander Isak has been huge ever since he signed for Dortmund as a 17-year-old. His time at the club proved difficult, but a fruitful loan spell at Eredivisie side Willem II prompted a move to Real Sociedad before the 2019/20 season.

A 16 goal debut campaign proved he was ready for the step-up, and although he’s suffered with inconsistency this season, three goals in his last four starts suggests he may have turned a corner. Despite his 6’4 frame, Isak offers more than your average target man: he possesses incredibly quick feet, a strong burst of pace, and excellent dribbling ability. He does, however, do most of his best work in and around the box, averaging 5.78 touches per 90 in the area – he can still improve on becoming more involved in the build-up. An imposing forward who can combine both physical and technical traits by linking play, offering an aerial threat, and making consistent runs in behind, Isak is a really intriguing option at CF.

Darwin Nuñez

Benfica, 21 years old

Darwin Nunez’ rise in the past two years has been outstanding, and it doesn’t look like he’s slowing down anytime soon. The 21-year-old Uruguayan became Benfica’s record transfer after a €22m move from Segunda División side Almeria last summer. Some may have seen the signing of an unproven, young forward for that fee as a gamble – but he’s already made any doubters eat their words.

His league goalscoring numbers don’t jump out at you (although he does have 5 in 5 in the Europa League), but it’s other aspects of his game that are so well-refined for a player of his age. Physical prowess, an ability to stretch defenders and run the channels, high IQ link-up play, two-footedness, and strength and control on the dribble are all traits that often develop over time, yet Nuñez already excels at them. His finishing can improve, but his impact in the build-up and creative numbers are seriously impressive. He ranks above the 90th percentile in assists, xA, and touches in the penalty box per 90 for all Liga NOS forwards who have played 600+ minutes this season. An incredibly well-rounded CF, and at 21, he’s only going to get better.

Donyell Malen

PSV Eindhoven, 22

A name Arsenal fans know all too well. The Dutch forward joined the club as a 16-year-old, but left two years later for PSV in search of more realistic first-team opportunities. It’s a move Arsenal have regretted ever since. Malen scored 17 in 25 games last season before a serious knee injury curtailed his campaign, but he’s returned like he never left with 24 goal involvements in 28 matches this year.

It’s obviously important to be mindful of the side he plays for (a largely possession dominant, free-scoring PSV) when looking at his goal-involvement numbers, but Malen’s ability to put himself in the right positions is excellent. A combination of blistering speed, intelligent movement, and a tendency to drift throughout the final third makes him so difficult to contain. He often anticipates passes towards him and gets a jump on his marker, making blindside runs and targeting gaps in the backline. Capable of a wide variety of finishes, comfortable dropping into the ‘number 10’ role, and a force when driving at the backline, you can see from his Eredivisie rankings just how proficient the Dutchman is in the final-third. Malen’s game has so many impressive dimensions.

Rafael Leão

AC Milan, 21

When Milan signed Leão from Lille for €30m in August 2019, it was a clear indication of just how highly they rated the young Portuguese forward. A period of adaptation last season resulted in inconsistent performances, but this year, he’s taken off – quite literally. The fastest goal in Serie A history and a total of 9 goal involvements in just 14 league games means he’s one of the top performing U21 players in Europe. He’s been deployed primarily as a left winger, but we believe his future is through the middle.

He often appears nonchalant in possession before suddenly exploding into space with long, elegant strides, bypassing his marker with ease. His dribbling success rate is fantastic, and he’s exceptional in 1 v 1 situations, attacking the box with purpose and power and often drifting from the left into more central positions to form a pairing with Milan’s CF Ibrahimovic. The improvement in his goalscoring numbers suggests he’s learning when and how to put himself in effective positions in the final third, and that should only increase if he moves centrally. Like Malen, his ability to infiltrate gaps and time his runs is one of his biggest strengths, and his ball-carrying ability makes him such a threat in transition, although his decision-making in the final third can get better. The recent development in his game has been profound, and he looks ready to be the main man at a big side.

Why we believe Darwin Nuñez is the best option for Arsenal

After assessing each players strengths, weaknesses, and potential fit, we concluded that Benfica’s Darwin Nuñez would be the most suitable option in this current Arsenal side. The addition of Martin Ødegaard and the recent form of Saka and Smith Rowe suggests that Arteta prefers a creative, technical trio behind a CF who can not only provide goals, but contribute to his side’s build-up and creative play in the final third.

Nuñez has adapted with ease to a significant jump in level after his move from Almería to Benfica, and although the goals have not yet come in abundance, his skillset is so multi-faceted that he fits the role Arteta desires from his CF perfectly. When needed, he’s a powerful and effective target man; in other scenarios, he has the pace and awareness of space to run the channels and exploit gaps in behind; in games against deep blocks, he’s comfortable dropping in and being the creator (he’s currently the assist leader in Portugal, with 6). Well-coordinated and incredibly clever in his movement, his blindside runs are often impossible to contain due to the combination of his speed and intelligence. If he’s not being provided by teammates, he’s capable of taking charge himself – collecting from deep and driving at the backline with purpose and precision. He recognizes moments his movement can open up space for others, dragging defenders out of pockets for teammates to exploit. Off the ball, he presses and harries constantly, and is happy to do the dirty work in tracking back for his side.

His goalscoring numbers and conversion rate must improve to reach the pinnacle of top-level center forwards, but his Europa League numbers (5 in 5) somewhat offset his relatively disappointing goal rate in the league. Strong with both feet, dangerous in the air (he stands at 6’2), and capable from distance (see the gifs below), he’s got a wide variety of finishes in his locker.

There’s obviously improvements in his game to be made, but there’s also not many better fits for this Arsenal team. A young, hugely talented side with a lot more to give, the addition of 21-year-old Nuñez may be the perfect next piece of an interesting puzzle. To make matters more interesting, Arsenal play Benfica in the Europa League on February 18th. You won’t want to miss that.