By now, it should be a known fact that the integration of data analytics has been a positive for football. Data plays a crucial role in analyzing team performances, scouting opponents, and, most importantly, seeking out potential transfer targets.
Basically, everything that you see happen on a football pitch can be ticked off and recorded as data. From pass locations and directions, to progressive carries and passes, to the amount of times a player applied pressure on an opponent, everything is jotted down by a set of humans watching a game.
The manipulation and presentation of these statistics have come a long way. More analytics work is being done than ever before. Scroll through the infamous Football Twitter for about 8 seconds and you’ll come across some sort of graph denoting a player or team’s performance in a specific facet of the game. These graphs, whether they come in the form of scatter plots or pizza charts, tell a story. Their creators present the data in such a way that appeals to the human eye. They draw us in.
What is most important, though, is what we do with the information. Many statistics get taken out of context, or are too shallow in that they only scratch the surface of a larger trend. Take the possession statistic, which was once tokenized as the ultimate indicator of an attacking team. Once you dig a little deeper, however, you can see how much a team is actually doing with that possession. (Shoutout to Klopp, Rangnick, and German football as a whole.)
Furthermore, even though a given statistic tells a story worth listening to, interpretations can and will differ.
For example, last season, there was much talk about Heung-Min Son’s drastic xG (expected goals) over-performance. He ended up scoring 17 goals in the Premier League despite only accumulating 10.3 expected goals. The discrepancy between the expected value and the true value caused much controversy.
The fact that he was scoring more than he was “supposed to” was being understood in two very different ways: Son’s ability to score shots that the xG model perceives as low percentage chances can be accredited to the fact that Son is simply better than most attackers. If he’s outperforming his xG that much, he is just better at scoring more difficult chances than the average forward is.
On the other hand, this level of over-production can be perceived as unsustainable, as lucky, even. He isn’t “supposed to” be scoring these chances. Theoretically, at some point, he’ll stop scoring at such a high rate.
The fact of the matter is both are probably correct analyses.
Recently, the Athletic’s Ali Maxwell and famed football data guru Tom Worville (who we had the pleasure of having on our podcast) went to visit MK Dons’ sporting Director Liam Sweeting. MK Dons have been making waves in the English lower leagues, pairing an innovative brand of football with astute data-driven transfer business.
In the interview, Sweeting made a point to discuss one of his player’s xG over-performance. Scott Twine has scored far more goals than his xG tally suggests he should have, potentially worrying the coaches of an impending dip in output. Sweeting made it clear that Twine has historically always outperformed his xG numbers, leading him to remain unconcerned. He went on to say this is the sort of player a club wants in the side, because they can guarantee a certain level of quality.
The same goes for Heung-Min Son. This season, despite Spurs’ early struggles, he is already outperforming his xG (below). In fact, since xG data has been recorded, Heung-Min Son has NEVER underperformed his xG. You can be wary of regression to the mean, naturally, but you can also sit back and admire the South Korean’s talents. You’re allowed to.
You see, stats tell a story because they are a true reflection of what’s happening on the pitch. When watching a player that catches your eye, look up some of his stats on Fbref — a public data site that automatically generates a percentile graph comparing a player to his peers. Delve deeper to decide whether a certain stat is a result of the player’s tendencies and skill or a coached pattern.
By combining your football viewing with some form of statistical education, you’re making yourself a better spectator. If you like the way someone plays, research their stats a bit to create a well-rounded opinion. It isn’t because player X has 10 key passes per game that you have to like them. Remember that all people view football differently.
Stats don’t have to intimidate you. They are just there to keep track of everything that is happening. Pair them with what you actually see, and you’ll be better at watching football.
In a time where society seems to have forgotten (or has a strong desire to forget) about the coronavirus, Eddie Howe oversaw his first match as Newcastle manager from a hotel room. The coach had received a positive COVID-19 test in the buildup to the game against Brentford, leaving assistant Jason Tindall in charge on the sideline.
Despite his absence, Newcastle looked up for it. St. James’ Park was rocking, the players appeared motivated, and the spectators were treated to an enthralling game. Things didn’t feel that way under Steve Bruce. Eddie Howe’s men looked to play on the front foot, pressing high and aggressively in a new, more progressive 3-4-3 (below). There was a clear attacking intent.
We were treated to a chaotic 3-3 draw that Newcastle probably deserved to win. In the end, a terrible mistake and an unfortunate deflection cost them three valuable points.
Yet what I took from the game wasn’t that Newcastle still hadn’t won a game this year, nor that they seemed destined for relegation. I realized that Eddie Howe feels like the right man for this job, and he wasn’t even there yet.
Prior to accepting the position on November 9th, Eddie Howe had been away from football for a year. Newcastle could have probably appointed a plethora of “better” managers in the public’s eye — Unai Emery, or any of the other recently appointed coaches — but they chose Howe, and for good reason.
We’re talking about a man who guided Bournemouth, a club who had never been in the English top flight, from League One to the Premier League. Once there, Eddie Howe guided them to four seasons of safety, including both a 9th and 12th place finish. It was only after 8 seasons in charge, and after receiving a tremendous amount of respect from his Premier League constituents, that Eddie Howe was sacked. His Bournemouth side, known for playing a more expansive, possession style system, crumbled in the year they were relegated.
First, let’s address the task at hand: catalyzing a team that sits bottom of the Premier League. The side had looked directionless under Steve Bruce. Sitting back and playing on the counter usually seems like a strategy deployed by sides scrapping at the bottom of the league, but it felt like Bruce’s trademark style. Newcastle’s defense simply isn’t good enough to hold up against sustained dominance from opponents, and opportunities in transitions can be so fickle.
Jonjo Shelvey has already come out and said the level of training has risen. Eddie Howe has apparently “galvanised training, and everyone has bought into what he wants to do.” Shelvey also claimed that it has been so intense that, during the last international break, he was in bed by 8PM every night.
This is because Eddie Howe wants to press. He doesn’t want to simply sit back and have to rely on the pace of Allan Saint-Maximin on the break. Or rather, he realizes they can’t afford to.
During Howe’s best times at Bournemouth, the Cherries attacking underlying numbers were at a level just behind the “big six.” Literally, 7th in key passes and 8th in total completed passes in 2017-18 (data from FBref). On the other hand, in the same season, Bournemouth were 19th in expected goals allowed.
These stats aren’t necessarily conclusive in determining how his teams played, but they do indicate a will to create (and concede) a plethora of opportunities at either end.
Howe also altered his setup frequently (pie chart below), proving to be tactically malleable in response to the different challenges opposing teams offered. You’ll notice he opted for a variation of a 4-4-2 (or a 4-4-1-1) in over half of Bournemouth’s matches in the Premier League. That is most likely down to personnel, given that his squad boasted the talented pair of Callum Wilson and Josh King, with Ryan Fraser and Junior Stanislas on the wings.
Howe’s first Newcastle teamsheet saw his new side set up in a 3-4-3, a system he hasn’t deployed so often, but did so for perhaps his most famous victory as a manager.
On January 31st, 2018, Bournemouth went to Stamford Bridge to face Antonio Conte’s Chelsea. Howe decided he’d set his side up to match Conte’s back three. This was a bold decision given injuries to several players, and the fact that they pressed in a man-to-man setup (below). However, it paid off as they constantly forced Chelsea into mistakes and defeated the Blues 3-0.
Last Saturday, it was clear that he wanted to match up with Brentford’s 3-4-3, the same way he had done against Chelsea. Although this time around, the players didn’t seem as well drilled as his ex-Bournemouth players. He had only been with the players for ten days.
The team lacked discipline at the back and were often caught in transition, leading to an extremely open game. Neither of the two midfielders (Willock and Shelvey) were necessarily defensive-minded. This was a tell-tale sign that Newcastle were heavily reliant on their press from the front, rather than shoring up spaces in and around their midfield.
The game plan would have worked better if Newcastle had better players at the back. Lascelles and Schar took turns getting bullied by Ivan Toney, and the wingbacks, Murphy and Ritchie (both wingers by trade), were constantly being caught out. Mbuemo and Toney found joy in slightly wider areas (below), and punished the Newcastle backline for positional errors.
Despite not winning the match and remaining winless on the season, Newcastle fans gave the players a standing ovation after the final whistle. The attack-intended performance gave them hope, something they didn’t feel under Steve Bruce.
This was a performance to build upon. Notably, Joelinton seemed to come to life. Beyond just having scored a crucial equalizing goal, he was as involved as anyone had ever seen. The Brazilian played as a right forward and took 61 touches of the ball against Brentford — his most ever in a Newcastle shirt. His pressing and defensive efforts caught the eye, leading me to believe that Eddie Howe may enjoy working with him.
After all, this is a player who showcased loads of potential at Hoffenheim under Julian Naglesmann — a manager famed for his emphasis on pressing. Joelinton looked to have that in his locker against Brentford. Combine that with Saint-Maximin’s ingenuity and Wilson’s goals, and Newcastle could be a danger going forward.
Howe’s Newcastle will only improve with time, although they don’t have much of it. The club will likely invest in players in January. It would be wise to address the defense centrally and out wide. A midfielder comfortable with covering lots of ground and breaking up play would also do them the world of good, as I expect their matches to be quite chaotic, like the one against Brentford. The only two players in the first-team squad aged 23 and under are Joe Willock and Jamal Lewis. Ideally, they would target younger players to revamp an aging squad, but time — and instant success — are of the essence.
The style of football Eddie Howe will implement is exciting — and feels like the purest way to play the sport. I expect them to score a lot of goals, and I expect them to concede a lot of goals.
They may still go down, but they’ll be worth watching on a weekly basis.
Despite my original interest in the Europa Conference League when it was first announced, I must admit that I haven’t tuned in to its matches that often. But a few weeks ago, I decided to open up a Tottenham-Vitesse stream as I was doing some busy work. That decision paid off. I was treated to a young Dutch side — famed for providing Chelsea academy prospects with valuable first-team experience — totally outplaying a struggling Spurs side (yes, Nuno’s 4th-to-last game in charge), and eventually defeating them 1-0.
What has stayed with me from the match, bar the surprising outcome, is a lone quirk in Vitesse’s tactical setup. Their best and most technical player was wearing the number 10, unsurprisingly enough. Yet of all positions he could possibly play in their fluid 3-4-3, he was playing as the central center-back. He spent his night picking out passes at all angles and gliding past Spurs attackers as if they weren’t there.
That player is Riechedly Bazoer. Many of you will probably know the name. Once a highly touted midfield prospect from the PSV and then Ajax academies, he has failed to find a home due to a series of injuries and “attitude incidents” — until now. Having just turned 25, Bazoer is in the midst of a career renaissance at Vitesse.
The select few that have used a variation of the role at the top level in recent times have done so to make the most of transitions and counter-attacks, rather than being overly concerned with possession. Antonio Conte’s use of David Luiz at Chelsea and Tuchel’s current use of Thiago Silva are two examples that come to mind immediately. Luiz’s and Silva’s responsibilities are diminished relative to Bazoer, however. They have less of a license to roam and get forward.
In Bazoer’s case, he doesn’t play at that very top level. Vitesse competes in the Eredivisie, and doesn’t qualify for European competition every year. They are by no means this fabulous, free-flowing side. That being said, they do adhere to principles of the “Dutch way,” attempting to play positive, or dare I say, total, football.
And Bazoer is at the heart of it all. From center back, he attempts an incredible 10 progressive passes per 90 minutes, (data courtesy of Wyscout). Not only does this demonstrate a reliance on him in buildup play, but it shows Bazoer’s willingness to thread the needle. His influence is further reflected in where he pops up on the pitch — everywhere (see heatmap and touchmap below). He is given license to roam forward as a threatening playmaker from deep, often combining for one-twos with teammates around the area.
Within the first few minutes against Spurs, it was clear that Bazoer was going to be the star of the show. He won back possession off a Spurs clearance by heading the ball calmly to himself, while simultaneously holding off Dane Scarlett (below)…
… He then carried the ball into midfield, where he ran into Dele Alli. Bazoer dropped his shoulder and accelerated upfield…
… Before zipping a ball between the lines to Loïs Openda, giving him space and time to turn and attack.
These situations kept occurring. Vitesse would constantly recycle possession back to Bazoer, who would prance his way forward and completely unlock the Spurs press. Spurs’ narrow set up left them vulnerable out wide, in those half spaces just in front of the full backs. Seven minutes later, the same pattern repeated itself…
…Although this time, as Winks and Lo Celso adjusted to cover the wide pockets Bazoer had just unlocked, the Dutchman fizzed a ball into his striker’s feet.
Spurs found it impossible to mitigate Bazoer’s influence on proceedings. He demonstrated such ease and composure that it didn’t necessarily matter whether there was pressure on him or not.
The positions he took up to find space didn’t seem so deceptive or confusing, but they utterly bewildered Nuno’s men. When Vitesse built from the back, Bazoer would push into midfield, leaving the goalkeeper to act as the sweeper (below). Bazoer constantly found space when moving forward into these pockets (ones we usually associate with a lone defensive midfielder, such as Busquets or Jorginho) just in front of the defensive line. Spurs’ attacking midfielder (Dele Alli) couldn’t predict where Vitesse’s number ten would be.
In the second half, when Spurs finally started to adjust, Bazoer would float to the right side, swapping positions with right-sided center back Danilho Doekhi (below). From this position, he could find the striker to feet, the wing-back down the line, or the holding midfielder just to his left.
It had been a while since I’d seen a player dictate the first two phases of play for 90 minutes the way Bazoer did against Spurs. It had been even longer since I’d seen someone do it from the central center back position.
This is what makes Riechedly Bazoer’s role so distinctly unique.
This role as the “free man” isn’t as simple as it sounds. The player must possess a certain level of tactical and positional understanding in order to avoid ever getting caught out of possession. Frankly, it would scare most players off. Bazoer’s sheer quality has resulted in being afforded a longer leash by his coaches. He’s allowed to make mistakes, because – really – no one is perfect. For a “center back,” he only completes 86% of those progressive passes (wyscout) I mentioned earlier. Bazoer spends every game taking risks and trying things.
Bazoer’s teammates visibly deferred responsibility to him in possession. Even when afforded time, space, and potential passing lanes, they would lay the ball off to him – knowing he would do more with the ball. This also occurred in transition, most notably when the side wanted to take a quick free kick (below: you’ll notice Bazoer switch on immediately and race over to take the kick). It was clear Vitesse wanted to make good use of Bazoer’s excellent passing range.
The role of libero is one that originates from close to 100 years ago, and owes its popularity to the rise of the Italian catenaccio and West Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer. Both of these expressions of the libero were founded in providing solidity in defense – as a sweeper. The player gracing the role was often the best and smartest player on the team. He would collect loose balls and quickly kickstart counters through surging runs and long balls.
Below is a clip of Franz Beckenbauer vs. the Soviet Union in the 1972 Euro Final (captioned with some advanced stats football fans were definitely paying attention to back then). I may be jumping the gun and making myself look a fool here, but I felt the same emotions watching this clip as I did watching Bazoer conduct possession— bar the quality of the Soviet pressing.
As football has continued to evolve tactically, many sides are adopting the back five. It gives extra stability at the back, while providing natural width and verticality. But not all back fives are the same. Some are inherently more defensive than others. Personnel and principles matter far more than just a teamsheet formation. Two players playing in the same position can (and often do) fulfill two entirely different roles. This also applies to the center backs. David Luiz and Thiago Silva are smooth operators more than anything else, while Riechedly Bazoer has far more attacking tendencies and responsibility.
The reality is that there are so many ways to execute a back five and to find advantages on the pitch to create danger for the opposition. Vitesse, and Bazoer, are simply doing so in a way that nobody else is.
By Breaking Down Each of His Goal Contributions So Far This Season
There’s an incredibly exciting group of young center forwards across European football progressively developing their game and rapidly growing in stature. The two obvious names are Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappe, who have rightly been mentioned alongside some of the world’s best for quite some time. After that is a rather extensive list — including Real Sociedad’s Alexander Isak, Roma’s Tammy Abraham, and Lille’s Jonathan David, among others — who are now scoring goals consistently at the top tier of club level football. Very few young forwards, however, have been as impressive as Napoli’s Victor Osimhen in 2021/22.
From 2015 U-17 World Cup top scorer with champions Nigeria, to a disappointing and injury-ridden spell at Wolfsburg, a revival at Belgian side Charleroi, and an 18 goal single-season at Lille before an €80m move to Napoli in 2020/21 (making him the most expensive African player of all time); the 22-year-old’s rise to ascension has been rapid, even with some setbacks.
His first season in Naples was not without struggles, either. Injury issues and the aftereffects of COVID led to inconsistent form, as he scored just 10 goals in all competitions. This season, however, he and Napoli are flying. The club are joint-top of the table through 13 games while the Nigerian has scored 5 in Serie A and 4 in the Europa League already.
And it’s not just the volume of goals he’s producing that’s notable, but the variety in the way he scores and fashions these opportunities is too. So here is every goal contribution from Osimhen in 2021/22, broken down, to give an insight into the multifaceted skillset he possesses and why he’s primed to be one of the prominent center forwards in football in the very near future:
Involvement in build-up & clever penalty-area movement
There’s two aspects of Osimhen’s involvement in this goal that I really like, so I’ve decided to pinpoint both. He’s often influential in the actions preceding him actually scoring — either by pressing from the front (more on this later), dragging defenders out of position with his movement, or playing a role in the build-up, as we see here.
His lay-off is fairly simple, yet effective, and a frequent element of his game. Osimhen’s overall number of touches throughout matches isn’t huge, but his decision-making when he does receive the ball is usually calculated, and sharp. His presence on the edge of the area attracts defenders and the first-time pass helps the move progress quickly to his teammate in space. His movement, however, is the best part about this goal. The delay in his run is deliberate, creating the separation needed to make himself available and allowing him to run onto the pullback and finish from close-range.
The variation in his penalty-area movement has been apparent in many of his goals this season. The clip below displays not only his ability to generate speed quickly over short distances, but also his smart positioning when marked. Situating himself between two center backs — on the blindside of one, in front of the other — makes him very difficult to track and this, combined with his sheer pace, gets him on the receiving end of many crosses.
His late consolation goal vs Spartak Moscow in the Europa League is largely due to fairly poor defending, but it’s his run prior to the cross that’s important. He’s constantly gambling in the areas in front of goal, making sharp bursts towards the six-yard box or more subtle movements to escape his marker. This was ultimately rewarded, albeit delayed, but that initial action meant he was in space, unmarked, for the tap-in.
Persistent Pressing From the Front and Continued Movement
Osimhen’s work rate out of possession is integral to the way Napoli play and helps them consistently win the ball high up the pitch. The Nigerian has averaged 9.24 final third pressures p/90 in Serie A this season – which ranks 2nd in the league. This persistent press, combined with his speed and wiry strength, makes him a real nuisance when defenders are in possession. He competes, hassles, forces errors, and causes turnovers, yet also has the presence of mind to profit from such mistakes. We see that in the above goal: capitalizing on a misplaced pass, finding Insigne in space, then continuing his run to the defenders blindside, before bursting forward at the perfect moment to remain onside and latch onto the cross.
Relentless Dueler, Straight Line Speedster
His goal vs. Legia Warsaw in the Europa League emphasizes his relentless nature out of possession, battling (and succeeding) to win a loose ball before playing a give-and-go with Insigne. His straight line speed then becomes apparent; lengthy and rapid strides allows him to create separation in transition with ease. There’s also a very subtle delay in his run, once again showing off his crafty and thoughtful movement, to beat the offside trap before scoring from a very difficult angle.
Athletic Leap and Aerial Presence
Osimhen’s goal vs. Torino and his 2nd vs. Leicester fall under the same category, as they both emphasize his terrific aerial ability. It’s not just the power and placement of both headers, but the amount of time he hangs in the air is also striking. His leaps can begin early and linger: either freezing, outjumping, or outlasting defensive efforts to stop him. It’s actually an area of his skillset I believe he can use to his advantage more often, in all areas of the pitch — from bringing others into play to winning duels in the opposition penalty area. If he does, that combination of intelligent movement and leaping ability could result in an abundance of headed goals.
Ingenuity, Flair, and a Powerful Burst of Pace
The first thing you notice when watching this goal is Osimhen’s first touch. The neat flick over Vestegaard’s head is executed brilliantly, especially considering where he received the ball (at hip height) and how many bodies are in close proximity to him. It’s made even better by his instantaneous change in speed, leaving the Dane behind in just a couple strides. The nudge from behind doesn’t impair him, instead forcing a split-second readjustment as the Nigerian lofts the ball over Schmeichel’s head, despite being unbalanced. It’s a real moment of ingenuity that’s aided by his ability to build-up speed in rapid fashion.
Proactivity and Awareness
Whether or not Insigne’s lob would have gone in without Osimhen’s touch is a question we’ll never know the answer to, but it’s the center forward’s actions in the build-up to this goal that guarantees he’s there in the first place. Osimhen is constantly active, on-the-move, and looking to make himself available when Napoli are in possession. His run beyond Udinese’s line begins as soon as Marco Rui feeds the pass in behind, even though the ball isn’t intended for him. He’s then ahead of their backline, level with Insigne, and quickest to the ball on the goal line. Being in the right areas at the right time isn’t a coincidence, but a reward for his foresight — a common theme in Osimhen’s game.
Drawing Contact, Winning Penalties
I want to make clear that there is an important distinction between feigning contact vs. knowing how to draw contact, by either inviting a tackle before getting body between ball and man or quickly shifting the ball away from the defender’s reach at the opportune moment.
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Osimhen has proven to really effective at the latter in 2021/22, winning three penalties already so far this season, all in different ways: getting to the ball first in the area and drawing contact from behind, latching onto a pass beyond the backline and cutting across the last defender, and showing strength and skill to deceive his marker and prompt a late sliding challenge. His movement is unrelenting and his presence, especially in and around the final third, causes real issues and forces defensive mistakes.
A Ton of Qualities, But What Can Improve?
There is, of course, still a number of facets of Osimhen’s game that must improve for him to truly reach the elite level in his position. He’s yet to register an assist this season (although the below video does highlight some of the opportunities he’s fashioned for teammates). There’s still the feeling he can do more from a creative standpoint. He excels in the sharp, dynamic transitions from quick lay-off to forward run, but it doesn’t happen enough. His 30.91 touches p/90 ranks in just the 25th percentile among Serie A forwards. Osimhen can be an outlet in transition, a threat in the penalty area, an option in wide positions, or a strong hold-up player, so learning to involve himself more often and more effectively will add another important layer to his skillset.
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I’ve spoken in length about how dangerous his off-ball movement is, but moving with the ball is another area of his game that needs work. Osimhen will almost always win sprints (both with and without the ball) over long distances, but just 0.68 dribbles completed p/90 this season highlights his lack of confidence in more congested areas. His tendency to drift into wide spaces could result in more threatening attacking scenarios if he learns to carry the ball with greater assurance and composure.
What Does the Future Hold for Victor Osimhen?
Osimhen’s form thus far in 2021/22 is a much greater indication of his center forward capabilities than what we saw last season, and it still feels as though he can reach much higher levels. Building upon and continuing to add extra elements to what is already a highly impressive skillet will be key to his development. If this rich vein of form can be sustained for a longer period of time, some huge suitors will appear, probably as early as the summer of 2022. The next generation of center forwards may be truly taking off very soon, and there’s no doubt Osimhen will be at the forefront.
At the end of the 2020/21 Premier League season, Crystal Palace were in a precarious position. Back-to-back 14th place positions, the departure of long-serving manager Roy Hodgson, and the loss of 9 first-team players to expiring contracts (including Andros Townsend, Gary Cahill, and Patrick Van Aanholt) forced Palace to hit the reset button – and in doing so alter the philosophy of their recruitment. Over the summer, the squad was given a new burst of life with the signing of several exciting, albeit inexperienced, players, building on the summer 2020 signings of Eberechi Eze and Nathan Ferguson. In came the likes of Marc Guéhi from Chelsea, Odsonne Edouard from Celtic and Michael Olise from Reading, alongside the appointment of Arsenal legend Patrick Viera as Head Coach, who promised to move away from the often turgid, counter-attacking football that Palace had played under Hodgson.
However, it’s fair to say that the squad still has some major holes, and that’s understandable – it would be a difficult task for any team to replace so many regular starters in one summer transfer window. In this article, I identify three areas of weakness in Palace’s current squad and profile possible targets who could fill these gaps, while maintaining their recruitment strategy by looking exclusively at players that are 24 years old or younger at a realistic transfer value.
The first area that needs improvement, and probably the most immediate concern, is at right-back. Palace have three players who have spent time there in Joel Ward, Nathaniel Clyne and Martin Kelly, all over the age of 30 and with less than two years on their deal (Ward was one of the 9 players with their contracts expiring last season, but signed a 2-year extension just after he was initially released). Although the aforementioned Nathan Ferguson is also a capable fullback, his successive long-term injuries makes an additional right-back signing a sensible deal.
From watching Viera’s team play, it would be fair to say that the right-back position is probably the least well-defined role, so there’s more freedom in identifying a plausible transfer target. Palace often build in a 3-2-5/2-3-5 shape that switches to a 4-3-3/4-4-2 shape when they lose possession, with the RB responsible for providing an outlet on the right-flank to progress the ball and creating triangles with the RCB and the DM. However, Viera has shown a preference towards playing a RW that tends to drift inside, leaving the RB with a lot of space and, therefore, the team needs a player who can both progress the ball effectively and contribute in the final third. Additionally, in some games this season, the RB has received very little support in defensive situations, and therefore any replacement would need to be comfortable defending their flank on their own. With all of this being taken into account, the player I would bring in is Watford’s 21-year-old right back Jeremy Ngakia.
Fantastic close control
Slight lack of speed means he can be beaten easily in 1v1s and transition
Frequently wins defensive duels
Often looks to play progressive passes and can do so accurately with both feet
Ngakia’s technical quality in possession is his most notable strength, particularly his dribbling ability which, combined with a strong first-touch, allows him to beat players 1v1, particularly in tight situations. He’s not the quickest, but the speed of his decision-making often allows him to break out of pressing traps – a key skill given Palace frequently look to play out from the back under Vieira. His quality in this area is backed up by the data, as he attempted the 5th most dribbles out of Championship RB’s last season, completing 60.5% of them.
Ngakia’s passing is also very strong, both in execution and his decision-making. Ngakia’s progressive nature is enforced by last season’s numbers, in which he averaged 7.3 progressive passes and 2.2 progressive carries per 90. He often looks to play down the line into space for Ismaïla Sarr, Watford’s RW, although he has also shown the ability to play more diagonal balls into the striker’s feet, and I’m sure with specific instruction he could do this more regularly. Over shorter distances, he’s more than capable of quick interplay, particularly with other wide players — largely facilitated by a deliberate first touch and neat, close control that allows him to receive and release the ball in fluid motions.
Ngakia’s main strength defensively is his ability to win duels – being tall and strong allows him to shield the ball excellently and he is often able to jostle opponents out of position in order to win challenges in the air. The timing of his tackle is also fantastic and this, alongside his willingness to step up and engage with players receiving with their backs to goal, allows him to win the ball high up the pitch, thus maintaining Watford’s attacking pressure. He also exhibits a good understanding of when to tuck in vs. when to step out into wide areas, and his positioning allows him to intercept the ball frequently, doing so 7.7 times a match once adjusted for possession.
Ngakia does, however, have flaws in his game that need ironing out. The first is his lack of athleticism, especially in defensive situations. Although he isn’t slow by any means, he often struggles when coming up against particularly explosive wide players in transitional or 1v1 situations. Sharp changes of direction and acceleration are movements he tends to struggle with — especially if he overcommits and attempts to steal the ball from a loose touch.
Although he shows willingness to get forward, his runs aren’t always effective, sometimes moving into bodies rather than space and rendering himself useless to effectively receive a pass. His crossing is often poor, either failing to beat the first man or sometimes going far over the heads of everyone in the area. The stats back this up as well – Ngakia completed 1.6 passes into the penalty area per 90 last season, but only registered 0.06 xA per 90. It’s fair to say that crossing is a difficult thing to do consistently well, but this isn’t helped by the fact that Ngakia looks to cross from deeper positions, rather than attacking the byline.
Overall, Ngakia should at least be on Palace’s radar if they want to sign a new RB in the next couple of transfer windows. A potentially fairly inexpensive transfer with a high potential upside and, at only 21, he has time to improve his game and iron out any weaknesses. Should Watford get relegated again this season, Crystal Palace could provide an alluring option to maintain his Premier League status.
Central Midfielder: ‘The Gallagher Role’
The next area I think that Crystal Palace should look to strengthen is the right-hand side of their midfield three. So far this season, this role has been taken up almost entirely by Chelsea loanee Conor Gallagher. His loan status means there are no guarantees of retaining his services into next season and Palace don’t really have any other player who can replicate his impact in central midfield — so a potential replacement should be on their radar.
Gallagher is an overwhelmingly active midfielder, constantly looking to make himself available in the box for crosses and cut-backs whilst also helping to lead Palace’s press from the front. Gallagher isn’t an exceptional ball progressor, but he does offer enough technical quality to operate in tight, congested areas around the box. After looking at the data, the best fit for this role I have found is Giulio Maggiore, a 23-year-old central midfielder who currently plays for Spezia Calcio in Serie A.
Makes frequent attacking runs into the penalty area
Effective presser of the ball
Gives away a lot of cheap fouls
Fantastic ability to receive in space and lay off to team mates
Maggiore’s standout trait is his ability to make well-timed and dangerous attacking runs into the box. Starting from deep makes it difficult for teams to defend, especially if he isn’t tracked by an opposing midfielder. The frequency of Maggiore’s runs is shown in the data as he registered 2.5 touches in the box per 90 last season – 2nd out of all Serie A midfielders with over 1000 minutes played. This willingness to push forward allows Spezia to be a threat in transition as they always have bodies in support of counter attacks. Although he doesn’t frequently register shots from these positions, only taking 1.3 per 90, the positions he moves into means he often has high-quality chances, giving him an xG per shot of 0.17 – the 5th best in the dataset. Another positive of his movement is that he frequently draws fouls, doing so 1.6 times per 90, giving his team the opportunity to punish opponents from a dead-ball situation.
Maggiore is a very effective and constant presser when out of possession. So far this season, Palace’s PPDA has been very similar to Spezia’s (13.2 to 13.4), and therefore his level of pressing is likely to translate under Vieira. Once he gets in positions to win the ball, he is extremely aggressive which, in combination with his decent size, allows him to bully smaller players off of the ball, winning just over half of the duels he competes in. He can be somewhat rash in these positions, often diving in and giving away cheap fouls (2.3 per 90), but this comes as a natural side-effect of his combativeness.
Although not a prolific progressor of the ball, Maggiore regularly shows the ability to play passes that help manoeuvre his side out of difficult areas. His strong first touch allows him to receive high up the pitch, from which he’ll either look to turn into space or lay off a pass first time to a teammate. Maggiore has shown a particular ability to play first time passes around an opponent, taking them out of the game and opening up space for Spezia to attack into. He doesn’t dribble frequently, but instead picks moments to do so in more advanced areas, averaging 1.2 progressive runs per 90. He isn’t particularly quick, similarly to Ngakia, so he relies on his close control and directness to beat players in tight spaces.
Although he does mainly shoot from good positions, he sometimes takes slightly more questionable shots – my theory being that he is under instruction to shoot as much as possible, given that Spezia don’t have the quality to create many chances – which often wastes good positions from which Spezia could potentially create better opportunities. On top of this, he is also a poor finisher, as seen in the clip of his attacking run above. Despite registering 5.5 xG in the league last season, he only scored 3 times and, although some of this comes down to variance (meaning it’s unlikely that he’ll be so unsustainably bad forever), his technique doesn’t help. He often slashes at chances, just trying to connect with the ball rather than composing himself and guiding the ball away from the keeper.
Additionally, Maggiore’s single-mindedness in front of goal means he doesn’t create as many chances for his teammates as you’d expect from someone who occupies space in the box as frequently as he does. He only creates 0.06 xA per 90 and, because his job is more to attack the box rather than receive outside of it, he makes just 0.69 passes into the penalty area p/90. Learning to impact matches from a creative standpoint should be the next evolution of Maggiore’s game, and one he should be capable of based on his skillset.
Similarly to the right-back role, Crystal Palace have a lot of largely aging options in defensive midfield, with both Kouyaté and Milivojević under contracts expiring in 2022 and 2023 respectively and Riedewald who, in my opinion, has never really impressed since joining in 2017. Therefore, I would look to bring in someone that could establish themselves as a starter at the base of the team’s midfield.
Under Hodgson especially, Palace’s deepest-lying midfielder was very rarely effective as a ball progressor from deep — instead, the centre backs were expected to progress the ball by firing risky line-breaking passes up to the striker. A replacement should be capable of receiving under pressure and look to aid in build-up. In defence, their role should involve protecting the team from transition attacks and blocking passing lanes into the channels, whilst also being capable of stepping up to deal with attackers dropping into the space vacated by the RCM when they push forward. A player who fits a lot of these criteria is Genk’s 24-year-old midfielder Bryan Heynen.
Able to receive to feet under pressure
Can be caught out of position due to lack of athleticism
Adept at dictating the tempo of games
Doesn’t look to carry the ball
Strong in duels, particularly in the air
Heynen’s main strength is his ability to receive passes from deep positions into midfield, particularly under pressure, becoming an outlet when Genk are looking to build from the back. The combination of constant scanning and a great first touch enables him to get the ball out from his feet quickly and release passes before his man gets too close. His 6’0” stature allows him to hold players off, often getting his body between the opponent and the ball, giving him the room to recycle possession back to safety.
Heynen’s passing is crisp and accurate – he consistently judges the weight of his passes well and often fires the ball into his teammate’s feet, making it difficult for it to be intercepted. He is really smart at playing short, one-touch passes to players around him, before gliding into space for the return ball. He is also able to play longer, drilled passes into the feet of a striker, although he doesn’t do this as often. Last season, Heynen made 6.3 passes into the final 3rd per 90, as well as 0.68 through passes, both of which stack up well against other Jupiler Pro League midfielders. On top of that, despite not being the most progressive player (this is something he could add to his game), he still makes averaged 6.0 progressive passes per, helping Genk move the ball up the pitch. He does this all whilst retaining possession very well, receiving the ball 43.4 times per 90 and completing 87% of his passes.
Heynen’s scanning ability also becomes very useful in defensive situations. His awareness allows him to intercept passes frequently, doing so 7.6 times per 90 (once adjusted for possession). On the ground, he wins well over half of the duels he enters, and is fairly averse to diving in. In the air he is even more dominant, using a combination of height and positioning ability to win 69.1% of the duels he enters, albeit only doing so 2.9 times per 90.
A very obvious weakness in Heynen’s game is his lack of pace, both in acceleration and top speed. Although he compensates for this with his smart positioning, learning to adapt to a higher speed of play in Premier League football will be a critical adjustment if he’s to succeed. This poor athleticism also becomes clear in situations where his passing options are limited. He doesn’t carry the ball often or effectively — making just 0.75 progressive carries per 90 and completing less than 50% of the dribbles he attempts. He’s occasionally flat-footed and static without movement ahead of him, which limits his options in possession. The potential fluid front three ahead of him at Palace would likely ease these issues.
Potential Lineup in 2022/23
It should go without saying that, whilst this would be a good starting XI, Palace are a long way off being a regular top-half team, let alone a team that could challenge for Europe, and there are still several aspects of the side I would look to improve further – Vicente Guaita is currently 34 and has underperformed in his last 2 seasons, whilst the squad is missing a lot of overall depth. However, not only do I think these players could improve the first team, but they could also provide opportunities to make profit, bringing in the money required to improve this side even further in the long term.
Luis Suarez, Sergio Aguero, Diego Forlan, Radamel Falcao and…Jackson Martinez?
When Atletico Madrid show interest in a South American striker, you know they’re normally going to be a success, so when the Spanish champions were linked with Matias Arezo earlier this year, heads started to turn.
Nicknamed ‘El Bufalo’, for reasons that’ll become apparent later, Matias Arezo made a name for himself at the 2019 U17 Sudamericano, where his five goals in seven games, including a hatrick against Ecuador, placed him second in the golden boot race for the tournament. That tournament was the start of Arezo’s rise, making his debut for River Plate de Montevideo later that year in July against Progreso and finishing his first campaign in senior football with 6 goals in 22 games in all competitions.
Since then, Arezo has featured prominently for Las Draseneros, with this season being his most prolific to date. Thirteen goals and four assists in twenty-one games so far is, in my opinion, pretty good. If the U17 Sudamericano was the flame to propel his career forward, then this season is the *googles synonyms for fire* inferno!
(Jackson if you’re reading this, you were very good at Porto and I just needed a joke for the intro. I’m sorry it was at your expense).
In his three professional seasons (2019, 2020 and 2021 so far), Arezo played 1059, 2869 and 2017 minutes respectively. His heatmaps vary slightly in density due to this (heatmaps work on overall touches per season rather than an average), but his style of play is a constant.
Arezo is a pressing bundle of annoyance for defenders. Whether it’s chasing after through balls, shrugging his marker off with his core strength or firing a shot from, albeit, hopeful areas, Arezo’s play style suits to frustrate and tire out the opposition from start to finish.
Many South American attackers are often synonymous with quick feet and excellent technical ability, and whilst Arezo does boast both of these skills, his game largely centres around his strength and physical prowess. His stocky, compact build and low centre of gravity makes protecting the ball and finding space after evasion a common theme of Arezo’s game.
Clinical from close range
Poor shooting choices, especially from distance
Wins a large number of fouls
Subpar link-up play
Strong in duels, both on the ground and aerially
Exceptional work rate
The young Uruguayan’s physicality, coupled with intelligence way beyond his years, makes dealing with him a much more difficult task than first presumed.
Arezo stalks the attacking third, often situating himself between the full back and centre half in hope of latching onto a through ball. With a quick touch away from his marker and a turn of pace, he’ll often create separation to run freely at the opponent’s net.
Playing this type of way requires quick bursts of acceleration, which Arezo has in abundance. Much of the opportunities he fashions for himself are a result of his sharp movements away from defenders and into space. An emphasis on pace over shorter distances is an aspect of his game reminiscent of South American CFs before him (think Aguero + Suarez), and a trait that intrinsically causes danger, especially in and around the penalty area.
Now, I hear you asking all the way in the back “but how does Arezo deal with situations where he can’t just turn and run?” Firstly, great question! Secondly, how did you get into my house??
Arezo’s strength is almost unparalleled for players of his height.
Picking up the ball with his back to goal? Not to worry, Arezo shields the ball with his life until the defender(s) are forced to hack him down, a skill that a lot of smaller frame forwards tend to struggle with. Arezo’s press resistance results in River Plate winning a lot of free kicks, often relieving pressure and allowing them to push higher up the pitch regularly.
Facing a particularly fast defender as he’s charging through on goal? Fear not, Arezo’s stocky shape causes opponents to bounce off him like a reflective shield has been activated.
Okay, all of this is great. But Arezo is a striker, so how is he at…well…striking?
With 13 goals from an xG of 10.1 in 2021, Arezo is scoring at an impressive rate. Now, is this sustainable? Probably not, but considering how many hopeful shots Arezo takes from far out and how accurate he is within the box; I’d still place him as an excellent finisher.
Despite using his physical attributes in his all-round play, Arezo typically opts for a gentler touch when in front of goal, often placing his shots rather than blasting them.
That’s not to say he won’t shoot with venom if the opportunity arises, especially from outside the box, because he most definitely will.
Arezo favours his right, but his choice of foot is decided more so on the angle and position he finds himself in, rather than favourability. If forced down the left channel by his marker, Arezo feels no objection to driving it low and hard across the keeper, aiming for the far corner.
If within 10 yards of the goal, Arezo shifts his body to face the opposing corner, favouring placed shots that fall out of the keepers reach. Further out than that, he’ll take a quick look up before striking the ball with as much power as he can muster, again, often across the keeper.
At only 5”10, Arezo is by no means the tallest on the pitch, but his aerial threat is impressive nonetheless. Winning 5.6 aerial duels per 90 (Higher than Ivan Toney, 5.25, and Ashley Barnes, 4.76, this season), the 18 year old poses a real threat in the air despite his disadvantage in height.
In fact, no type of shot is off the cards for El Bufalo, no angle is too tight and no distance is too far. He will quite literally shoot from anywhere (which is often to his detriment – more on that soon).
Arezo is by no means an elite presser, but his willingness to close down any opponent near him often causes a knock on effect or turnover further down the pitch. If his aim is to win the ball, he more often than not fails. But the domino effect of defenders pushing the ball forward faster than intended increases the chance of Arezo’s team winning the ball back in the midfield or defensive line, sparking counter attacks and longer periods of controlled possession.
Areas of Improvement
Remember when I said Arezo will happily shoot from anywhere? Of course you do, it’s two lines up from here. Well, that’s a slight problem.
Whilst he does already boast a collection of goals from impressive positions, Arezo can be very rash in his decision to shoot the ball. Considering how intelligent he’s proven to be with his decision making inside the box, with late minute runs to the back post and close quarter control to escape defenders, his judgement from 20, 30 even 50 yards is questionable to say the least. Hopefully this quirk can be ironed out, because at a higher level of football those all-too-common pop shots will become more of an issue.
Arezo’s link-up play is also something that can be worked on, as in situations where Arezo is marked out of the game or closed down too quickly, moves often die with him rather than being passed onto a teammate. When Arezo does manage to contribute to buildup in the final third, passes can often be over or under hit, resulting in moves slowing down. Learning to more consistently fashion opportunities for himself, either from clever movement or smart positioning in advanced areas, is another key next phase of his development.
Projecting Arezo’s future
As said in the intro, Matias Arezo attracted interest from Atletico Madrid this summer, but in the end the teenager stayed in Uruguay.
The consistent output that he’s added to his game has justified that decision, with more suitors likely to be interested in January and beyond.
Arezo is still young, and it’s important to remember that many clubs will be keeping an eye on him from leagues with a higher standard of play, and so output and performance may take some time to catch up.
Because of this, Portugal appears as a suitable choice for Arezo’s progression. A league in Europe that closes the gap between Europe’s top five and Uruguay’s top division, as well as already hosting fellow Uruguayan prospect, Darwin Nunez.
And how the two can help solve some of Arsenal’s most pressing issues
By Max Taylor and Jon Ollington
Arsenal and Mikel Arteta’s start to 2021/22 has been, to put it kindly, difficult. Three consecutive losses to start the Premier League season has piled the pressure on the Spaniard to quickly turn results around. Many very familiar themes have been all too apparent throughout Arsenal’s opening fixtures – most notably a lack of creativity in advanced areas and an overreliance on the left-hand-side (namely Kieran Tierney) to produce opportunities, which in turn results in an imbalanced and lopsided attacking shape.
The need to resolve these problematic themes is clear. How Arteta can accomplish that, however, is far less obvious.
Arsenal’s best run of form in 2020/21 transpired shortly after the introduction of Emile Smith Rowe to the first-team and the loan signing of Martin Odegaard – who has now arrived on a permanent deal from Real Madrid. Questions surrounding what Odegaard’s signing meant for Smith Rowe came up then, and they’ve returned now. Does this mean Smith Rowe is shifted out wide, to his hindrance? How do you fit both in the same side? Does Odegaard’s signing actually fix any of Arsenal’s current issues?
Perhaps there is reason for Arteta’s persistent pursuit of the Norwegian midfielder. Pinning the creative issues on a 21-year-old in his first full season of top-flight football felt very naive, so adding Odegaard to the mix makes sense. But why has Arteta gone for him when other options were available?
Throughout this article – using words, data visuals, and video – we explain why Smith Rowe and Odegaard’s stylistic differences as ‘no. 10s’ make them complementary pieces in Arsenal’s midfield, and how pairing them together will go a long way in solving Arsenal’s most pressing problems.
Part 1: Striking a balance, both in shape and stylistically
There have been fears about how Emile Smith Rowe and Martin Odegaard can fit effectively into the same side, with both primarily seen as ‘no 10s’ – but the positions they move to receive the ball, the areas they play into, and the types of passes they attempt differ quite substantially:
Emile Smith Rowe
In the majority of his Premier League starts, especially without Odegaard in the side, Smith Rowe has been deployed on the teamsheet as a conventional no. 10 – but the areas he drifts towards and the spaces he infiltrates are very different to that of a traditional central playmaker.
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 with other wide players and overloads vs. an isolated fullback.
Rather than aiming to impact games in central areas, Smith Rowe is best when he moves into the half-spaces, or even closer to the touchline. He thrives in tight, highly occupied pockets of space. The combination of a really purposeful first touch and a strong initial burst of pace allows him to consistently play short layoffs before quickly moving into open space. This is illustrated by his pass sonar (bottom right visual) which highlights his tendency to play short backwards 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.
These quick, dynamic, sharp passages of interplay is shown in the open play pass cluster (the top right visual), which displays the most frequent passes Smith Rowe plays. Smith Rowe rarely holds onto the ball for long (unless receiving on the half-turn and driving at the opposition), but instead has the ability to set the game tempo to his preference – picking the right moments to offload quickly and consistently executing the basics well – often doing so with simpler passes in the half-spaces.
There’s potential for a real balance to be struck in Arsenal’s midfield when you consider how Martin Odegaard compares to the Englishman. His ball reception map illustrates his propensity to receive possession in the right-half space in forward areas.
However, unlike Smith Rowe, Odegaard also spends much of his time in more central areas, often moving into pockets of space between the opposition midfield and defence to make himself available. This, combined with how he uses the ball and the types of passes he attempts, is what really differentiates the two. Odegaard’s passing range (shown via the pass radar) is more varied than Smith Rowe’s and highlights a tendency to try longer and more difficult passes, specifically diagonal from left-to-right. Odegaard’s tempo is also far more relaxed, often waiting for the more incisive pass rather than offloading quickly and moving away sharply.
Odegaard excels at moving into dangerous areas between the lines, and he’s great at a variety of actions when the ball reaches him. While he often opts for the simpler shorter layoff, he’s fantastic at receiving on the half turn and advancing possession with forward passes. Smith Rowe’s ability to speed tempo through his sharp movement is his strength, while Odegaard is superb at timing his actions – consistently drawing in defenders before finding a teammate in the space vacated by the opposition.
His most common passes highlights his proneness to drifting to the right half-space and attempting a wide range of pass types: lots towards the right touchline into the wide player’s path, some more shorter combinations, and others into more central areas of the pitch.
Part 2: Creativity and xThreat – how do the two differ in their creative tendencies?
Much like the two differ in the ways they receive and pass the ball, Smith Rowe and Odegaard also vary in how they create chances.
Smith Rowe’s actions in advanced areas are more so in the mould of a facilitator than an outright creator. His creativity comes in two forms: first, in his penetrative and sharp movements that unlocks space for teammates in dangerous areas, and secondly, through his powerful progressive ball carrying ability.
The second is illustrated in the below visual, which shows both players’ progressive carries during the 2020/21 season. Not only did Smith Rowe complete far more than Odegaard, but his were often over longer distances and into more advanced areas. Smith Rowe has shown a growing ability to open his body and receive on the half turn and drive forward in one motion, often allowing him to escape markers with ease. This, mixed with the ability to carry the ball with real power, allows him to constantly commit defenders before finding teammates in profitable areas.
Understandably (considering where he receives the ball) these carries usually take place in wide areas, most often when he forms overloads on the left with Tierney and drives at the opposition fullback. And this too is where he regularly creates opportunities – often in the form of slide-rule passes or cutbacks from the byline after a driving run into the final third.
(press play button to start video)
And where Smith Rowe lacks in his chance creation is where Odegaard excels. While not nearly as powerful of a ball carrier, the Norwegian’s ability to identify and execute incisive passes is far more refined. Odegaard tends to create opportunities in more central areas, and often knows his next step before he even receives the ball, constantly scanning the space beyond him to locate a pass that can unlock rigid backlines and deep blocks. He’s also excellent at concealing the angle of his pass, angling his body to trick defenders into misinterpreting the direction it will go. He’s comfortable dropping deeper, too, getting the ball off center backs before progressing possession with well-weighted passes into stride.
His ability to break lines on the dribble isn’t a primary aspect of his game, but nobody else in this Arsenal side offers the vision, especially in the final third, that Odegaard does. The combination of Smith Rowe’s movement, ability on the half turn, and powerful ball-carrying paired with Odegaard’s understanding of space and final ball makes for an exciting and potentially effective attacking pair.
(press play button to start video)
Their contrasting creative tendencies are depicted in the below Expected Threat visual – a metric that shows how significantly players increase the chances of scoring based on their actions in possession.
Odegaard’s ability to play both dangerous final balls and set up teammates to play threatening passes is fantastic – he ranked 1st at the club in his total xT involvement last season. Smith Rowe, on the other hand, is not as relentless in his overall involvement, but it is interesting that his highest was ‘xT facilitated,’ proving that his driving forward runs are effective before playing the ‘pass before the final pass.’
This is further emphasized by the below xT heatmap – which shows where both players are most threatening through either open play passes or carrying. These results align with what we’ve seen previously: Smith Rowe is most prolific in his chance creation from the half spaces (predominantly on the left), while Odegaard does so from central areas and the right-half space. Smith Rowe’s actions generally begin slightly deeper too, highlighting the danger he possesses when carrying the ball from deep.
Why does this benefit Arsenal?
When comparing the two midfielders, it makes sense that Smith Rowe was not entrusted to be Arsenal’s sole midfield creative force. While much of his best qualities are key in progressing play forward, opening space for teammates, and linking play in advanced areas, his ability to unlock defences with incisive final passes is not close to the level of Odegaard’s. And not only do their differing qualities as creators complement each other, but using both Odegaard and Smith Rowe together gives Arsenal flexibility, added creativity, and allows Arteta to deploy the shape he desires.
And not only that, but it doesn’t mitigate the threat Tierney possesses as an attacking force. The signing of Tomisayu also helps achieve this balance, allowing Smith Rowe and Odegaard to play in their desired spaces while the width offered by Tierney and Saka still exists.
It will be interesting to see if Arteta can turn Arsenal fortunes around, but if he wants to do so, leaning on the duo of Smith Rowe and Odegaard would not be a terrible idea.
After an impressive journey to the World Cup final in Russia, followed by taking Euro 2020 semi-finalists Spain the distance in the round of 16, Croatia are nearing the end of a loosely dubbed ‘golden generation’ of international football.
This of course, was fuelled by the cohort of talent to have come through during this time, with the midfield trifecta of Brozovic, Kovacic and 2018 Ballon d’Or winner Luka Modric leading the nation’s charge.
But, as soon as a national team begins to take shape, so too does their regression. A new generation is ready to break through, and the Croatians will be hoping their future stars are enough to keep their position in the top 15 ranked countries in the world (a dream for all aspiring footballers, I’m sure).
The young Croatians knocking on the door certainly have fans excited. Josko Gvardiol, the pick of the bunch, joined Jesse Marsch at RB Leipzig this season after starting at the Euros. Domagoj Bradaric helped Lille in pipping PSG to the Ligue 1 title last season, and Rennes’ Lovro Majer, whilst yet to live up to his early hype, is clearly gifted with extreme talent.
The player I’ve chosen to profile today is, barring unforeseen circumstances, destined to be Gvardiol’s partner at the back, and that is Hamburger SV’s Mario Vuskovic.
Born and raised in Split, the 19 year old rose through the Hadjuk Split academy teams before making his first team debut in 2019 against HNK Gorica, featuring in the final eight minutes of the match. Two weeks later, he came on against Dinamo Zagreb, taking his total first team minutes to NINE! (and people say Højbjerg gets overplayed).
Before this, Vuskovic made 17 appearances for Hadjuk Split’s reserve side in the second tier of Croatian football, scoring on his debut, as well as being a prominent feature in the U17 Croatian side at the age of 15.
The start of the 20/21 season is where Vuskovic really emerged, breaking into the first team and making 29 appearances for ‘The Bili’ under manager Igor Tudor (Sorry for replacing you on Football Manager, Igor, no hard feelings right?).
And on deadline day of the 2021 summer transfer window, Vuskovic made the move to 2. Bundesliga side Hamburger SV, on a two-year loan deal with an option to buy for the German club.
During his time in academy football, Vuskovic was typically played as a defensive midfielder, before being redeveloped into a right sided centre back as he broke into Split’s reserve team.
As shown above by his 20/21 heatmap, Vuskovic covers the right side of his half efficiently, pushing forward in possession to offer more use in progression when deployed in a back three. A huge benefit of playing three at the back is that one of the centre halves can vacate their position to offer help further up field or track an opposition runner, without having to worry about the space left behind them.
In a back four this isn’t a luxury you have, as venturing out of position will leave you terribly exposed (yes Mustafi I’m looking at you), but Vuskovic uses his other attributes to aid his team when deployed in a pair.
Expansive passing range
Progressive carrying ability
Physicality and strength in duels
Choosing right ‘moments’ to defend aggressively
Set piece threat
Choice of pass, especially when high-risk
The 19 year old’s most impressive trait is, without question, his passing. A common routine of Vuskovic’s is to take a touch that opens his body up and moves the ball into space, before scanning the field to find open teammates and attempting a pass down the line or across to the opposite winger. Vuskovic’s range of passing often leads to over the top switches of play, turning opposition backlines around and kickstarting forward moves. Ranking 13th for total progressive passes across the 20/21 HNL season and averaging 8.46 progressive passes per 90, the Split born defender racks up impressive numbers for a teenager.
For a 6’2 centre half, Vuskovic is very confident on the ball, with quick feet for his size and frame. In instances where he is being pressed, or recovering a poor pass, Vuskovic is quick to adjust himself away from the danger, where again, he’ll often use his expansive passing range to turn possession into something productive.
Averaging 51.54 passes per 90 last season and ranking fifth in the league for most passes altogether, Vuskovic is comfortable on the ball and unafraid to make things happen, a very promising attribute for the modern game.
The young Croatian, although predominantly right footed, avoids running into dead ends by using his ambipedal ability (this is apparently ambidextrous but for feet, my word of the day calendar is coming in handy at last). Used well with his sudden change of direction when under pressure, Vuskovic’s ability to quickly change direction, coupled with his comfort in receiving on his back foot or quickly shifting the ball onto his weaker side means he’s able to escape his marker and progress play up the pitch (or as shown below, find teammates in goal scoring opportunities).
Vuskovic is quick to danger and an aggressive defender, often vacating his backline, anticipating passes into the forward’s feet, and stepping in front to intercept a loose pass. I know some don’t like the analogy of Cats and Dogs as similes for centre backs, but think more German Shepard than a Tabby.
Vuskovic is certainly proactive, leaving his defensive line when necessary and making sure he’s always ahead of his attacker when danger comes in. In instances where he falls behind the attacker, Vuskovic will often use his tall frame to bully his opposite number, towering over them or shrugging them to the side.
Given his size and aggressive temperament when attacking aerial balls or knock downs, Vuskovic is a huge threat from attacking set-pieces — so much so that takers should actively look for him when delivering.
Okay I think I’ve finally gone through all his stren- wait a minute, did I mention his set piece ability?
With a scarily accurate free kick in his locker, as well as opting for placement rather than power on his penalties, Vuskovic adds goals from set pieces and provides yet another reason to like him (come on, who doesn’t like free kick taking defenders?).
Okay okay, I know the strengths just kept coming, but Vuskovic does have some concerns that need ironing out.
To start, the space he leaves behind could be exploited by higher level attackers. This, however, is definitely something that can be developed, starting by giving him a consistent run of games in a back four (Split varied last season with three and four back systems) and developing a greater concept of risk versus reward with his aggressive style – especially as opposition quality increases.
Despite being confident on the ball, and showing glimpses of it from time to time, Vuskovic carries the ball out of defence a lot less than you would expect from someone with his skillset, with the 19 year old only averaging 1.43 progressive runs per 90 last season, ranking him 77th in the league. Having a defender who can carry the ball out forces an opponent to commit to closing him down, opening space further forward for teammates to exploit.
I praised Vuskovic’s passing earlier on, and it really is laudable, but with his choice of often switching to the other winger, or at least trying to reach the attacking line, he can sometimes be over-ambitious and turnover possession when a simpler pass is more suitable. Picking the right moments to attempt difficult passes vs. when to play the simpler ball is an important balance to strike.
This ties into his tendency to play more high-risk progressive passes, which he did with great success last season (at an 80% success rate) — these types of passes are encouraged, and often kickstart forward moves, but it’s important that he learns to be selective in his decision-making when the quality around him improves.
On deadline day (and typically whilst I was writing this article) Vuskovic joined Hamburger SV on a two year loan with an option to buy.
For Split, this is an odd choice. To lose a starting defender for two years and the reported future fee to be so small is not what you’d call smart business.
For Vuskovic, however, the move looks promising. Hamburger will be aiming to push for promotion to the top flight once more, so a season in the second tier, a year in the top flight, and then a permanent move would be the ideal scenario for the young defender.
As long as he continues developing on a positive trajectory and continues to play regularly, Mario Vuskovic will be a mainstay of the new Croatian generation, and at club of good stature in a top five league. For now though, let’s go watch that free kick again.
As a mainstay in the midfield of both West Ham and the first English team to reach a major tournament final in 55 years, Declan Rice has been attracting plenty of suitors in recent times. He’s been linked to both Chelsea and Manchester United for fees that could reach upwards of £100 million, and it’s clear to see why he’s so high in demand. At just 22 years of age, he’s yet to reach his peak as a player, and could potentially be the fulcrum of a Premier League midfield for at least the next 10 years. On top of that, he is already the vice-captain of West Ham and frequently wears the armband due to Mark Noble’s limited game time, highlighting his clear leadership qualities. If he were to move, the Hammers would need an adequate replacement who can replicate the qualities that Rice brings to the team and, in this article, we will explore 4 possible options for this role, using both data and video scouting.
To start, let’s investigate what Rice brings to West Ham. Throughout 2020/21, Rice most frequently played in a midfield double-pivot alongside Tomáš Souček, sitting slightly deeper and screening the back four to allow the Czech international to push forward and attack the opposition penalty area. This required him to cover a lot of ground, especially in transition, and whilst not particularly athletic, he did this job comfortably. Once in shape, Rice was tasked with protecting the area in front of the defence, whilst still looking for opportunities to win the ball back so West Ham could then attack in transition. He made around 5.3 possession-adjusted interceptions per 90 minutes, and was also strong in ground duels, winning 54.8% of them. Also, as you would expect from a player in a David Moyes midfield, he was very strong in the air, winning 58.3% of his aerial duels, making him useful both defensively and when attacking set pieces.
Rice also showcased his on-ball abilities when West Ham were in possession. When playing out from the back, he looked to drop either side of the centre backs to help facilitate deep build-up, often tucking in to allow one of them to potentially carry the ball forwards. As the ball progresses up the field, Rice sits deep and looks to win loose balls, recycling play out wide to the full backs in order to maintain pressure and prevent counter attacks. His passing isn’t particularly progressive, but safe and accurate, and most often into feet. This is backed up by the data, which shows that Rice plays just 3.0 progressive passes per 90 – which ranked in the 25th percentile for all midfielders in Europe’s top five leagues. However, he is still able to progress the ball effectively through his ball-carrying, which enables West Ham to break the opposition press and kickstart forward moves — averaging 5.16 progressive carries per 90 (76th percentile) last season.
Overall, our replacement would have to be comfortable performing a similar deeper-lying midfield role to Rice – which means excel in their ability to cover ground and win back, facilitate and recycle possession, and advance the ball forward by way of ball-carrying. A more refined and confident progressive passer would be an added benefit, which still remains a weakness in Rice’s game.
Option 1: Alex Král, Spartak Moskow
Currently plying his trade in the Russian Premier League for Spartak Moskow, Alex Král has already been of interest to West Ham, being linked with a move for £14 million that reportedly collapsed earlier in the summer. However, he would still be a fantastic addition to West Ham’s midfield should talks recommence between the two clubs. At Spartak, Král frequently plays in a similar midfield two to West Ham’s, operating as the deeper, screening midfielder, tasked with winning the ball back to prevent transitions and progressing the ball up the field, both of which he does very effectively. He also plays this role for the Czech national team, alongside Souček, and should therefore already understand the midfield balance required to get the best out of his countryman.
Constantly scans to intercept passes
Could be stronger in the tackle
Frequent and effective ball-carrier
No experience in a Top 5 league
Quick and incisive passing
His main strength is his anticipation, or ‘reading of the game’, which he does through regular scanning of the area around him. This allows him to step up and pressure opponents before they can turn away from him, or even win the ball before it reaches its destination. This means Král makes an impressive 8.54 PAdj interceptions per 90, making him extremely effective at shielding his defence. To complement this, Král is physically gifted, being both tall and strong enough to hold his own in the air, winning 51.5% of his aerial duels. Furthermore, in situations where a player gets the wrong side of him, he usually has enough pace to get back and recover, making him very adept at protecting large areas of space as would be required at West Ham and in the Premier League as a whole.
On top of this, he is also a very technical footballer. Although he doesn’t tend to drop in with the centre backs, he is still comfortable when facing his own goal, often positioning his body to receive on the half-turn before carrying forward into space. He also doesn’t tend to hold onto the ball for very long, making him adept at both maintaining his team’s tempo and recycling possession effectively, just as Rice does for West Ham. Unlike Rice however, his passing isn’t always safe, and he often looks to play forwards, making 7.83 progressive passes per 90. This, alongside his ball-winning ability, could help create even more counter attacking chances for West Ham and improve their ball progression into the final third.
One thing to be concerned about Král is he isn’t the strongest in ground duels, despite competing in them frequently, only winning 49.6% of those that he competes in. Whilst this isn’t terrible, it’s a definite downgrade on Rice and a key skill that defensive-minded midfielders need to be strong at. There are also potential questions about the leap in skill required between the RPL and the EPL, and whether Král would be able to replicate his ball-carrying and progressive passing in a league that gives you less time on the ball, or his ability to read the game in a league where attacking movement is even more difficult to track. However, given that he is only 23 and would cost a modest sum, he is definitely worth taking a gamble on.
Option 2: Khéphren Thuram, Nice
Nice’s Khéphren Thuram is the youngest player on this list, and with just a season and a half of first team football under his belt, the 21-year-old seems like a big gamble for West Ham to make. However, his qualities and potential makes him a very intriguing prospect to replace Declan Rice. Last season, Thuram played most of his football as the deepest midfielder in a three, and also spent time as the deeper of two in a midfield pivot.
Powerful progressive dribbler
Poor in the air for his size
Strong in ground duels
Frequently commits fouls
Defensively active and reliable screener
Thuram’s stand-out quality is his exceptional ball-carrying. He looks to drive forward at every opportunity, making 4.62 progressive runs per 90, and once he gains momentum he’s incredibly difficult to stop. Due to his size and close control, he can force himself through tight spaces on the pitch, pulling players out of position as they move across to tackle him. He is also very composed on the ball, able to release passes to teammates both under pressure and/or on the move, helping to maintain tempo or create attacks. His ability to progress the ball from deep through his passing can improve – he’s capable of executing such passes, but he’s yet to find consistency in doing so – averaging just over four per game. He instead relies on simpler, easier-to-execute lateral passes in order to facilitate possession. In defence, Thuram reads the game very well, taking up good positions to protect important areas and potentially intercept the ball. His long legs allow him to cut out passes that others wouldn’t be able to and, whilst not particularly energetic, he can get up to a good speed when required, allowing him to cover significant ground.
Whilst Thuram’s defence can be a strength, he is occasionally a bit too aggressive, giving away cheap fouls by going through the back of players. He also tends to struggle in the air, especially for a player of his size, winning just 48% of his aerial duels. He’s a player that’s still clearly growing into his frame — but when he does, the combination of his size (6’4) and on-ball ability means he could develop into a really effective deeper lying midfielder.
Option 3: Denis Zakaria, Borussia Mönchengladbach
Similarly to Alex Král, Denis Zakaria has been the subject of frequent transfer rumours this summer, being linked to both Arsenal and Manchester City. However, should West Ham get the opportunity to sign him themselves, they should definitely consider the Borussia Mönchengladbach midfielder. Zakaria usually operates as the deeper of a pair in a double pivot, tasked primarily with screening and protecting the back-line before winning and recycling possession. Zakaria is not as active on the ball than other midfielders in Gladbach’s team, but his powerful ball-carrying is noteworthy, and often really effective in breaking a press or progressing play into more advanced areas.
Very effective ball-carrier
Not incredibly progressive with his passing
Capable in multiple midfield roles
His ability to manoeuvre around the pitch is vital to this. Although he looks leggy, he is able to cover ground extremely well, and will frequently use this to his advantage. He often looks to step up and challenge players before they can turn with the ball, using his frame and length to pressure opponents. He is fairly effective at this as well, winning 53.3% of his ground duels. On the ball, Zakaria isn’t massively involved, but will often show glimpses of his quality. He has nimble feet for his size, which he can use to move out of trouble, looking to turn and bring the ball forward into space whenever possible. He makes forward runs often, as is secure when doing so – completing 73.7% of his attempted dribbles. As Gladbach look to build from the back, Zakaria is very comfortable receiving in deeper positions, although he doesn’t often drop in with the centre backs. However, given that he has worked under such a tactically fluid coach in Marco Rose, it would be surprising if Zakaria couldn’t adapt and receive the ball in these areas more frequently if required. Once he has the ball, his passing is usually quite safe, but when allowed he will look to play more aggressive passes, executing 4.5 progressive passes per 90 last season.
The signing of Zakaria would be a real statement of intent from West Ham, with Zakaria having played in the Champions League as recently as last season, and, with Gladbach missing out on European football this year, West Ham could persuade the Swiss international that the club have ambitions further up the league.
TBT’s Pick: Ibrahim Sangaré, PSV Eindhoven
Our pick for West Ham’s Declan Rice replacement is PSV’s 23-year-old midfielder Ibramim Sangaré. Whilst he’s probably the least similar to Rice out of the players on this list, Sangaré’s obvious quality was just too difficult to ignore. Comfortable playing on the left-hand side of a double pivot, he operates as a deeper-lying midfielder, tasked with screening the back four for a team that like to control possession, making him very adept at playing out from the back whilst disrupting opposition attacks.
Frequently looks to pass the ball forwards
Prone to conceding free-kicks
Incredibly strong in both air and ground duels
Doesn’t consistently carry the ball
Capable of reading passes to intercept the ball
Sangaré’s game is the perfect blend of technique and defensive acumen. He’s consistent in his ability to progress play, dropping deep in between the centre backs to pick up the ball and dictate the tempo. His preferred way to do this is through passing, and he’s very effective at it, executing 9.7 progressive passes per 90. Even under significant opposition pressure, he consistently locates teammates, maintaining the flow of possession and effectively advancing play. Additionally, although not a recurrent part of his game, making just 1.1 progressive runs per 90, he has shown the ability to carry the ball forwards effectively and therefore could do this more frequently if required, in addition to his impressive passing.
On top of this, Sangaré has a very strong all-round defensive game. He predicts passes very well and, whilst not particularly mobile, he can cover a lot of ground, allowing him to make 9.13 pAdj interceptions per 90. When trying to win the ball off an opponent, he often tries to sweep the ball away using his long legs and, whilst this is effective, with Sangaré winning 57.8% of his ground duels, it can be more prone to conceding free kicks, something that he does 1.92 times per 90. He is, however, very useful at defending set pieces due to his aerial prowess, winning 62.7% of his duels in the air.
The only doubts about Sangaré would be whether he could make the step up to a more competitive league but given that he has previously played in Ligue 1, and the fact that PSV made it to the Europa League Round of 32 last season, it would be fair to say he has more than enough quality. It should be worth noting that, whilst Sangaré is our pick, all of these players would be fantastic additions, not only to replace Rice, but also, given Mark Noble’s decline, potential challengers for a first-team role to bulk out West Ham’s squad.
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:
Intelligent and high-energy presser from the front
Not hugely involved in build-up
Pace to threaten in behind
1 v 1 dribbling ability
Aerial 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.