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The unmatched versatility of Bernardo Silva

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Last season, Guardiola unearthed a gem in Joao Cancelo, who played a variety of roles in his Man City side, most notably as an inverted left back. This move saw him regularly move into midfield in possession, alongside Rodri or Fernandinho. It gave Ilkay Gundogan license to move further forward, leading to a club-high 13 goals for the German. 

City’s fluidity in attack seemed to be at its peak, as it felt like all of their attack-minded players were comfortable in a multitude of roles. 

But, ultimately, they failed. They were beaten by Chelsea in the Champions League Final, and despite winning the league, they lost the most games by a Premier League champion (6) since 2013-14 (Pellegrini’s Manchester City).

Two things are different this season. 

The first is City’s shape in possession. Rather than just have Cancelo tuck into midfield to form a 3-2-5 shape in possession, Guardiola now has both Cancelo and Walker tuck in alongside Rodri, forming a 2-3-5 shape (below). Besides providing better passing lanes thanks to more bodies in the middle of the park, the 2-3-5 shape makes it easier to counterpress. By moving Cancelo and Walker more centrally and higher up, City now has a better chance to win the ball back in advanced areas when they lose it. That alone, conceptually, directly addresses their main weakness from last season: being susceptible to counter attacks. 

The second new development, and the reason for this piece, is the re-emergence of Bernardo Silva. The Portuguese midfielder has 7 goals and an assist in 15 Premier League games this season. He has been so good that people (or just tweeters) have actually debated who has been the best player in the Premier League so far this season. After City’s victory against Villa, Guardiola settled it for all of us, calling Silva “the  best” [player on form]. 

I’m not here to weigh in on Pep’s PR antics, nor am I here to settle any sort of debate. 

What I will do is highlight every role Bernardo Silva has played this season, and show you that he can play any midfield or attacking role at a world class level.

Bernardo Silva as a central midfielder one of the “roaming eights”

Most of Bernardo’s minutes this season have been played on the right side of City’s three-man midfield. From this sort of position, he’s been eye-catchingly effective at timing his late runs into the box, beyond just his ability to find pockets of space off the ball.

Last season saw Gundogan epitomize this sort of midfield role, with De Bruyne, Foden, or Silva playing alongside him and Rodri. The fact that Cancelo tucked in so often gave him the freedom to make runs from deep, between the lines and beyond the defense. De Bruyne spent more time out wide, giving himself space to find a pass, while giving whoever was playing forward space to drop in his place.   

With Walker now also inverting (as opposed to tucking in as the third center back), Gundogan and Silva’s roles are essentially identical. Both spend most of their time rotating with the wingers and full-backs to create overloads out wide, and pick the right times to get forward into the box. They are both constantly moving to manipulate the opposition’s structure, therefore creating space for teammates. They often both get into the box (below), further proving the symmetrical nature of the new system. 

Gundogan specializes in smart movement and quick interplay, but there is a clear relaxed nature to the way he plays. He doesn’t move the quickest, but rather uses his footballing brain to pick up good positions and facilitate controlled possession. 

Bernardo does those same things, but at a much faster pace. He has this high-energy motor that he can turn on whenever he wants, as if he was flipping a switch. The beauty of a switch is that you can flip it on and off as you please, but not all footballers are able to do that. 

Guardiola calls this La Pausa: the ability to understand the tempo of the game, mixing up the directness and speed of your movements. It’s something Xavi and Iniesta embodied (no surprise), and that Phil Foden is still learning

Bernardo Silva has it. While many of his best moments come from being able to play quickly and carry the ball upfield (he ranks in the 99th percentile for progressive carries against all top five league midfielders, wingers, and forwards), he has a distinct ability to wait for openings and deliver measured passes (below). 

The weighted and incisive pass is one we associate with Kevin De Bruyne, who has been out injured for a majority of the season. When he plays, I can’t help but notice that the City players often defer creative responsibility to him. He shoulders this burden to make the perfect pass every time. That doesn’t occur when Bernardo plays the role. He is far more workmanlike. If something isn’t on, he vacates space and waits for his turn to touch the ball (below). 

In Pep’s new setup with symmetrical 8s, Kevin De Bruyne won’t always play ahead of Bernardo Silva – something we may have assumed prior to this season. There has to be room for Bernardo.

Bernardo Silva as a right winger – an outlet that brings others into play

At Monaco, Bernardo was a typical modern-day right winger that would cut inside onto his stronger left foot. When he moved to City, he still fulfilled that role for the first season or two. At some point, Pep realized what sort of talent he had his hands on, and moved him into midfield. 

Pep also recently admitted his love for traditional wingers who stay wide and get to the byline, something Bernardo does not necessarily provide. 

That being said, whereas you might imagine the likes of Riyad Mahrez or Raheem sterling would better meet his criteria for the role, they haven’t featured that often this season. Pep has opted for Gabriel Jesus as that touchline winger frequently, who plays on the same side as Bernardo. 

Jesus knows that Bernardo will drift wide to create an overload (below). He is coached to move inside and occupy the left back, making room for Bernardo. More often than not, Bernardo finds himself in space to either make a final third entry, or to simply recycle the ball to the other side. The situation dictates the outcome. 

As City attack with their front five, Bernardo occupies the space between the center back and left back. When he drops back and out, he drags the defender out with him. That opens a clear passing lane to Jesus in behind, one that Walker found against Norwich (below) for Sterling’s goal. 

In this City system that encourages so many rotations, Bernardo’s low center of gravity and disguised dribbling ability (dare I say it, Messi-esque) allows him to be effective out wide. THAT dribble against Liverpool must be popping in your head right about now. If not, here it is. He can wriggle his way out of tight spaces before releasing a teammate who is in more space, as he did for Foden on that occasion.

His minutes at right wing have been lessened this season due to his importance in midfield and the emergence of Jesus as a wide option, but Pep relies on him out there when City are holding onto a lead.

Against Leicester, in early September, Pep subbed on Fernandinho for Jesus, and pushed Bernardo wide. Bernardo’s job was to basically make sure City retained possession of the ball when they got it to him. He was a safety valve that his teammates could rely on while Leicester were pressing incessantly. Here’s what that looked like: 

He pinned Bertrand and sent Fernandinho through towards the byline. Had that been any other City attacker, that situation turns into a chance. 

Bernardo Silva as a pseudo forward (I won’t dare call it a false nine)

Against Manchester United, Bernardo lined up as the lone forward on the team sheet, as City welcomed De Bruyne back from injury. United sat back and defended with a back five, offering very little threat to City’s setup.

De Bruyne moved into space in wide areas quite frequently (the same ones Bernardo gets into when he plays there), and continuously found Bernardo through the lines. From just around the penalty area, he would find a way to turn and face the United defenders up, before aggressively entering the box (below).

These types of moments kept United on the back foot, and enabled City to keep up sustained pressure. It eventually led to Bailly’s own goal (which Silva probably would have scored had Bailly missed the ball).  

Bernardo was a pest. That’s how I described his performance. It wasn’t this majestic masterclass where he didn’t miss a single pass, but he played the forward role in a way that no other City attacker could have. His high energy and pressure caused danger, and he eventually scored a goal because of it (below). It wasn’t the prettiest, but it personified his will to make the United defenders uncomfortable. 

A player that small, who isn’t necessarily known for his shooting, shouldn’t be that effective as a forward – but I guess I was wrong for assuming so.

Bernardo Silva as a tenacious defensive midfielder

Against Chelsea, in late September, City appeared to set up in their usual setup, with De Bruyne and Bernardo either side of Rodri. But it didn’t play out like that. 

Chelsea played a different formation than they usually do, with two strikers and three midfielders, as opposed to three attackers (two behind Lukaku) and two midfielders. They looked to go man-to-man on City’s midfield. 

Bernardo dropped deeper (below), and De Bruyne ended up playing as more of a traditional ten. Bernardo drifted wide like he usually would further up the pitch, but instead of rotating with the winger, he rotated with Walker. This gave him time and space to the side of Chelsea’s narrow three-man midfield. He used Rodri as a wall for one-twos as he conducted the build-up play from side to side.  

The pest-like performance we saw against United was mirrored, this time in midfield, as he constantly broke up Chelsea’s moves. He poked the ball away from Lukaku (I would say tackled but it felt more gentle than that) on several occasions, and pressed both Jorginho and Kovacic relentlessly. He headed the ball away to relieve City of pressure, and spearheaded attacks the other way.

Post match, Guardiola said this about his performance: “He’s so intuitive, it’s not his role as a holding midfielder but he knows perfectly (and) anticipates what is going to happen, with and without the ball.” Pep was full of praise for Bernardo, but sounded so exasperated that the reporter was surprised by his performances.

It’s probably true that he has been this sort of player for a long time. His underlying numbers this year aren’t necessarily that much better than they have been in the past. It just feels so rare to have a player that can fulfill such a multitude of roles at such a high level. 

It makes it all the more confusing that City were reportedly willing to sell him in the summer. But then again, Pep’s comments make it seem like that was never the case. Bernardo Silva has been their most important player this season.

Strengthening Southampton’s Frontline — Using Data and Video Scouting

In the modern era of the Premier League, Southampton have often been seen as the blueprint for how smaller clubs can establish themselves as midtable teams through an innovative transfer policy. They frequently take risks on less established players, usually between the ages of 22 and 26, allowing them to compete with clubs that would otherwise financially outmuscle them. Although this approach doesn’t always produce players of the requisite quality, they rarely ever make big losses, and when it works, the profit generated allows them to reinvest, thus repeating the cycle. This summer, the club will no doubt be looking to improve their first team again, more specifically up front, where poor performances and expiring contracts have made their options look threadbare to end the season. In this article, we will analyse Southampton’s current striking options and identify some potential targets that fit their transfer strategy.

The Saints’ Set-Up

We will start by looking at the team’s general game plan, and therefore what profile of striker would best suit them. Southampton most commonly play a variant of the classic Red Bull philosophy that manager Ralph Hasenhüttl helped to establish during his spell at RB Leipzig. The standard shape is a 4-2-2-2, with the attacking midfielders drifting inside to create central overloads and the strikers often drifting out wide to support the fullbacks, who occupy advanced positions in possession. This horizontal rotation helps pull defenders out of position, which creates space for Southampton’s attackers to exploit. When the ball is lost, they counterpress in order to recover possession high up the pitch, although this is not as intense as it was during Hasenhüttl’s first full season in charge (Saints averaged a PPDA of 8.88 in 19/20, but this has since dropped to 10.15 this season). This change has somewhat set the tone for Southampton in recent seasons, as they have tried alternative systems to their usual shape, instead playing something of an asymmetric 3-4-3 with Yan Valery operating as a hybrid fullback/centreback.

This set-up has been fairly successful, especially from an attacking point of view, as Southampton currently sit 8th in the league for non-penalty xG created per 90 minutes. However, they are the 3rd worst in the league at taking these chances, with a non-penalty goal minus npxG of -6.8, only bettering Brighton and Norwich.

Current Striking Options

So, what do Saints’ current options look like? They have 5 players that have played Premier League minutes as part of the front two this season, with the profiles and partnerships varying depending on availability and form:

The most frequent starter in the front line has been Ché Adams, who has played 1,938 minutes across 27 games. Having been bought for £15 million from Birmingham City before the 2019/20 season, Adams is Saints’ highest scorer from open play and arguably their best attacking facilitator, offering a lot of threat with his back to defenders — often pinning his marker before sliding in his team-mates. The nature of his skillset means he’ll never generate a lot of shots off the dribble, as he struggles to beat defenders 1v1, but his movement in the box compensates for this, consistently arriving in dangerous areas from deep and gambling on the ball arriving in that space.

To start the season, Adams’ most common partner was Adam Armstrong, bought from Blackburn Rovers last summer for £15 million. As a willing runner and high volume shooter, albeit from fairly poor locations, Armstrong seemed like a natural fit to play alongside Adams due to their complementary skillsets. However, he has struggled in his debut Premier League season, only scoring twice in 1,261 minutes, and has barely featured since February.

Instead, Hasenhüttl has given a lot of chances (1,778 minutes across 29 matches) to Chelsea loanee Armando Broja, who is also experiencing his first season at Premier League level. Broja has scored 6 goals from open-play, and shown an ability to beat players with the ball and create chances for himself, making him difficult to defend. Although clearly very talented, Broja is still quite raw, and there are questions about whether he’ll be able to return on loan due to Chelsea’s current transfer embargo. Therefore, Saints should look elsewhere for striking options next season.

The other two players that have featured up front are Shane Long and Nathan Redmond. Long is 35, out of contract this summer, and not expected to renew, having only played 236 minutes so far this season. Redmond has played a fair bit more, featuring in 23 games for 1,481 minutes. However, this has been split between striker and attacking midfield, and therefore it feels unfair to count him as a consistent option as the former.

Potential Transfer Targets

Based on his usage this season, I am filtering my search to find a player similar to Armando Broja in skillset, specifically looking for a forward that frequently dribbles, competes in offensive duels, and presses willingly, all while being a fairly consistent goal threat. After analysing a dataset of strikers across Europe, we have identified 4 players that fit this mould:

Viktor Gyökeres, 23, Coventry City

The first player we identified is Coventry City’s 23-year-old striker Viktor Gyökeres. The Swede has scored 15 goals across 42 Championship appearances this season, playing as part of a front two in City’s 3-4-1-2; a role and system which makes him a good option for the Saints. His best attribute is his off-the-ball work – he presses very well, frequently curving his runs to block off passing lanes and working very hard to counterpress when he loses the ball. Coventry also play with a similar pressing intensity and structure to Southampton, which is shown by their PPDA of 10.23 and their focus on forcing the opposition out wide in build-up.

In possession, Gyökeres looks to receive with his back to defenders and spin in behind, especially in wide areas, which explains his high offensive duel and dribble numbers. He wants to beat defenders himself, which he does very well thanks to his close control and ability to twist his body away from opponents, but he has a strong awareness of his team-mates and can lay off the ball to others to springboard attacks. In the final third, he can be more selfish, always looking to receive wide on the left-hand side before driving inside to shoot – this explains his high shot volume but fairly low xG per shot. This might mean that he wouldn’t work well with another high-shot volume striker like Adam Armstrong, but he does create a lot of chances for teammates as his physicality and ball carrying draws a lot of defenders towards him.

Although he’s strong when on the move, he struggles to hold his ground against big centre backs, meaning he’s not brilliant at winning balls in the air. He does do better with crosses however as he can use his good penalty box movement to pull away from defenders into space. He also isn’t particularly quick, so a lot of his attempts to stretch the back line vertically are covered by defenders, something that likely won’t improve in an even greater physically demanding league. 

With his contract not up for another 2 years, and Coventry likely desperate to keep hold of him, Gyökeres might not be available on the cheap this summer which, given he’s inexperienced outside of second tier competitions (having never made a PL appearance for Brighton), might make him a big risk. However, given his very strong stylistic fit, Southampton could definitely be tempted to bring the Swede back to the south coast.

Breel Embolo, 25, Borussia Mönchengladbach

The next player that stood out is Borussia Mönchengladbach and Switzerland’s 25-year-old striker, Breel Embolo. Embolo has scored 7 goals in 25 league games this season, having frequently played as the sole striker in either a 4-2-3-1 or a 3-4-3. This role is very similar to that played by Ché Adams, more of a supporting striker than a goalscorer, and it’s easy to see why Embolo fits this mould well. He is fantastic with his back to defenders, thanks to his great body positioning and stocky build that allows him to keep himself between his opponents and the ball. This constant shielding makes him particularly adept at drawing fouls which not only helps relieve pressure when his team are defending deep, but also creates dead-ball situations in the opposition’s final third – something that James Ward-Prowse will particularly appreciate. 

It would be wrong to characterise him as a purely physical player however, as his movement is very clever, frequently dropping into the hole to receive, turn, and then lay off to onrushing teammates. His strong first touch allows him to receive and release very efficiently, and his weight of pass in tight situations is always very good, making him capable of deft little touches past pinned defenders. Off the ball, he’s active and robust in the press and counter-press, although the defensive shape would likely be slightly different from what he is used to at Gladbach.  

The main drawback of signing Embolo is his fairly limited presence in the opposition box. His deep starting positions means that he struggles to maintain a consistent goal-threat, and he lacks Adams’ penchant for driving to the six-yard area, instead preferring to hang back and attack the edge of the box. This is likely due to his lack of speed. Although not a slow player once he gets moving, he doesn’t really have the explosive burst necessary to get away from defenders, and this can limit his threat in behind, even if his initial movement is good.

Having played in the Champions League as recently as the 2020/21 season, Embolo could be something of a real coup for Southampton and, given that his contract expires in 2023, he would be unlikely to command a significant fee. The only question would be whether he offers enough variation from Adams to allow them to work together up front.

Keinan Davis, 24, Nottingham Forest (on loan from Aston Villa)

Another potential target is Keinan Davis – Aston Villa’s 24-year-old forward, on loan at Nottingham Forest until the end of the season. After barely seeing any Premier League playing time in the first half of the season, Davis was loaned to the City Ground in January and has made a strong impression, scoring 5 times in 15 league games as part of Steve Cooper’s flexible 3-4-3/3-4-1-2. Playing on the left-hand side of the front two, alongside Brennan Johnson, Davis is given license to drift into the half-space on his stronger left foot and drive at defenders, something he does very well.

He’s very quick across the ground and has good feet, able to pivot away from his man quickly after receiving the ball. In more settled phases of play, he will look to drift into more central areas and hold up the ball. This allows him to be used as an attacking focal point for Forest, laying off the ball to team-mates before spinning away and looking for a return pass. His aforementioned speed is also an asset in defense, allowing him to press defenders with speed, often forcing errors or rushed decision-making. Although Forest are not as high-pressing as Southampton, with most of their turnovers occurring in the middle-third of the pitch, Davis is still adept at covering passing lanes, as part of a settled defensive unit, and counterpressing, albeit sporadically. 

Part of what makes him such a threat is his height and frame, helping him keep defenders at arms length. Not only does this make him fantastic at pinning defenders and receiving the ball under pressure, but also allows him to generate his own space and shooting opportunities. It’s also an asset in the penalty area, as he will frequently drift to the back post and look to outjump opposing fullbacks.

Due to his preference for receiving the ball to feet, his off the ball attacking threat does suffer somewhat. He can be fairly static in the box, relying on this physicality to beat opponents, which can obviously be an issue against defenders of a similar stature. He has also never played consistent minutes at senior level and, at the age of 24, his signature may be viewed as too significant of a risk. However, as a player with a tremendous number of assets that Aston Villa are unlikely to want to keep hold of, Southampton should definitely be keeping a keen eye on Keinan.

Noah Okafor, 21, Red Bull Salzburg

The last player we identified is 21-year-old Red Bull Salzburg and Switzerland striker Noah Okafor. Despite only playing 952 minutes in the league this season, thanks to Salzburg’s rotating door of exciting attacking depth, Okafor has scored 9 goals, behind only Karim Adeyemi, who he has most commonly played next to in their 4-Diamond-2 formation. The lack of natural width in this system means that Okafor is very comfortable operating in wide areas to create space for his teammates centrally. Not only is he confident in these spaces, he’s also extremely effective in them, thanks to his ability to beat players frequently on the dribble.. He has fantastic ball control that, when paired with his ability to shift his body weight quickly and his lightning bursts of pace, makes him a menace to defend against 1v1. Preferring to recieve on the left-hand side, Okafor will frequently look to drive inside onto his stronger right foot to shoot or create chances for others. 

He is also a very dangerous player off the ball. He thrives in transition situations, looking to attack the backline with speed and latch onto the direct, vertical passes that Salzburg like to play. He can also drop to receive in deeper positions, using his size to hold his position when backing into defenders, and his dribbling ability in tight spaces to retain possession very effectively. When the ball goes wide, especially near the byline, he will drive into the box, looking to beat his marker to the front post, and arrive into high-quality shooting areas, backed by his very high xG per shot. That being said, he does struggle with more lofted crosses, due to his poor ability in the air.

In defense, there are obvious comparisons between Southampton and Salzburg, with both teams starting very narrow before triggering the press when the ball goes wide. This would certainly make Okafor’s transition to Hasenhüttl’s defensive system a natural one, especially since Salzburg’s PPDA in the Austrian Bundesliga is only 5.7 (although it does fall much more in line with Southampton’s when they’ve played in Europe, at 10.65). 

If they could persuade him to join, signing Okafor would be a fantastic piece of business for Southampton. Not only would he improve the first team now, but his ceiling is such that he could net them a tidy profit, should he impress in the Premier League. However, with his contract still having 2 years left to run, and Salzburg being unlikely to want to sell two of their strikers in one transfer window (given Adeyemi is likely to leave), Southampton may find this difficult, even with the strong links between the two clubs.

Ones to Watch at The Africa Cup of Nations

Written by Max Taylor and Philippe Stengel, Data Visualizations by Jamie Kirke

Over the next few weeks, 24 countries will compete for the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations, seven months after its initial delay. The likes of Mohamed Salah and Riyad Mahrez will headline this year’s tournament, but who are some other names to keep a close eye on? We’ve shortlisted 10 players, complete with data visualizations, that we believe you should look out for over the next few weeks:

Joe Aribo – Nigeria/Rangers

Joe Aribo’s route to international football has been rather unconventional, starting in non-league football before moving to Charlton at 19 and Rangers four years later, where he’s quickly established himself as one of the best players in the SPL. He’s expected to play a large role for the Super Eagles, especially with Victor Osimhen ruled out.

The 25 year-old has had a superb season thus far, scoring six and providing another three in 20 league games, often from the right of a midfield three. At 6’0, Aribo’s lengthy strides help him cover distance really quickly, and he uses a combination of his stature and technicality well to constantly drift into dangerous attacking areas. The above pizza plot emphasizes his tendency to carry the ball on the dribble and how often he aims to impact games in the final third. Full of flair, inventiveness, and a wonderful left foot, this could be Aribo’s time to announce himself to a wider football audience.

Kamaldeen Sulemana – Ghana/Rennes

Over the last year or so, Kamaldeen Sulemana has truly broken through as a promising talent for everyone to see. A product of Ghana’s famed Right to Dream Academy, which notably produced the Boateng brothers, he spent two seasons at Nordsjaelland in Denmark, drawing the attention of a number of larger clubs. Last summer, he joined Rennes in Ligue 1 and has made a promising start, scoring four league goals at the midway point of the season.

Sulemana, as he does, has shown flashes of brilliance throughout the campaign. Despite standing at just 5’8”, he plays a lot bigger, combining masterful ball control and intricate dribbling with long strides to create separation and space to operate. Only Neymar has completed more dribbles per 90 than Sulemana in Ligue 1 this season. He’s able to play one-twos to get in behind, rotate positionally in half spaces and out wide, and, most importantly, keep the ball when on the move (a crucial skill when making the step up in competition level). Most of the goals he has scored and created have been measured and well-fashioned. His take-ons are relentless, but often combined with mature decision-making — a really important combination.

Despite his relatively recent emergence in international football (just 7 caps), this could be his moment to shine. With several other top-flight players in the Ghana team, Sulemana has a platform to thrive at AFCON. Tournament football is built for exciting players and moments. Sulemana could wow everyone.

Ilias Chair – Morocco/QPR

Ilias Chair was born in Belgium, moved to QPR at 19, had a notable loan spell at League Two Stevenage in 2018-19, and ended 2021 with seven caps (and a goal) for Morocco. It’s been some journey.

The diminutive, skillful advanced midfielder has enjoyed a productive campaign at QPR this season, scoring six goals, creating another five, and forming a blossoming partnership with fellow Championship standout Chris Willock. Chair stands at just 5’6 but uses his low centre of gravity to his advantage, shifting into and out of tight spaces with the ball before looking to progress closer to goal. He has an eye for the spectacular, attempting a large number of shots (2.49 per 90) and scoring a huge proportion of his goals from outside the box, but also persistently looks to create danger inside the area — averaging 3.18 touches per 90 in the opposition box.

The Moroccan squad is filled with attacking talent (including En-Nesyri, Achraf Hakimi and Sofyan Amrabat), but if given ample opportunity, Chair could impress massively this month.

Mohamed Bayo – Guinea/Clermont

Growing up to be the striker for your hometown team feels like the dream we all once had, but it’s reality for Mohamed Bayo. After notching 22 goals in Clermont’s promotion campaign last season, he’s now doing so at a very consistent rate in Ligue 1 (only two players have scored more than him in Ligue 1 this season). He has eight non-penalty goals from 7.3 non-penalty expected goals, a rate that should make all data enthusiasts smile devilishly.

Perceived as a target man, Bayo can do much more. Most of his goals seem to result from positioning and “right place right time” factors (all 31 of his goals since the beginning of 2021-21 have come from inside the box), but it’s the way he moves that interests me. His game revolves around the element of deception: feints and fakes before shooting, agile turns around defenders, and reverse passes to teammates running beyond him. Bayo is extremely comfortable hanging between the lines, allowing midfielders to run beyond him to connect and progress play towards the opposition area. When in the penalty area, however, he’s ruthless — he averages just 3.26 touches in the box per 90, but no Ligue 1 player has scored more in the six-yard box this season (4). Don’t leave Bayo unmarked.

In tournament play, Bayo’s presence will play a massive factor in Guinea’s fortunes. His ability to score reliably while combining with the likes of Naby Keita, Ilaix Moriba, and Aguibou Camara will pose a serious threat to any side they face.

Jordan Zemura – Zimbabwe/Bournemouth

Jordan Zemura’s journey over the past six months has been remarkable. The left back had played just three minutes of Championship football before this season, but has quickly established himself as first-choice under Scott Parker, consequently earning a spot in Zimbabwe’s squad for this tournament.

The 22-year-old has developed an exciting partnership with fellow youngster Jaidon Anthony on Bournemouth’s left-hand side, making constant dangerous attacking runs and combining effectively in final-third areas. This is aided by an explosive and directional first-touch, setting him up for his consistent carries from deep (he’s averaging 2.97 progressive runs per 90). He’s excellent at maneuvering away from markers on the byline, rotating into the half-spaces, or creating separation with powerful bursts to springboard forward moves.

Zimbabwe face a tough task in a group involving Senegal and Guinea, but Zemura will be extra-motivated for his first international tournament and especially confident after a terrific start to his domestic campaign. Watch him if you can.

Odilon Kossounou – Ivory Coast/Leverkusen

When Odilon Kossonou moved to Leverkusen last summer, he became the most expensive Jupiler Pro League (Belgian top flight) export ever, a record previously held by Jonathan David. Since moving to Germany, he has hit the ground running. Both Jonathan Tah and Edmond Tapsoba were out for the start of the season, so Kossonou was immediately chucked into the deep-end, but has shown a level of maturity and quality that proves he belongs.

There’s a real elegance to Kossonou’s ability in possession. He looks at ease when bringing the ball out of defense, while line-breaking and diagonal passes are a key component to his game. He’s an accurate but risky passer, often kickstarting forward moves for Leverkusen. Despite standing at 6’2”, he doesn’t often use his height to his advantage, occasionally getting himself into the wrong challenges or appearing weaker than he presumably should be in the air. He does time his ground challenges much better, however, using his frame and reading of the game to make important interventions and recoveries.

Kossonou looks poised to start for the Ivory Coast at AFCON. If my words on his talent above weren’t persuasive enough, he wears the number seven for his country. With calculated positioning and comfort in defending in open space, he looks a fantastic prospect.

Ismael Bennacer – Algeria/Milan

Many of you may already be aware of Bennacer, especially considering his exploits in the previous Africa Cup of Nations (he won Player of the Tournament in 2019). Such is his talent (and progression over the past few seasons), we felt we couldn’t leave him out.

Diminutive but robust, all-action, and extremely gifted in possession, Bennacer has oddly had less game-time than he has probably deserved at Milan this season. His ability to facilitate possession in midfield but also combine that with consistent, accurate forward passes is excellent. No player in Serie A has averaged more progressive passes than Bennacer this season. The 24-year-old couples clever body positioning to receive in ideal areas with a diverse passing range, often operating under pressure in tight areas with comfort, but also able to stretch opponents with accurate long passes or carries into open space.

Algeria, with a squad containing Riyad Mahrez, Saïd Benrahma, and Bennacer, are arguably favourites once again. Don’t be shocked if he’s the standout this year, too.

Musa Barrow – Gambia/Bologna

Musa Barrow is set to lead Gambia into their first ever Africa Cup of Nations, and if they’re to make any sort of run, he will have to play a big part.

The 23-year-old wide forward is into his 3rd season of regular first team football at Bologna and had a very productive 2020/21 campaign, with 16 non-penalty goal contributions in 34 league starts. Comfortable carrying the ball from wide areas but also a consistent threat in behind, Barrow regularly uses his sharp burst of pace to find space beyond backlines and shooting opportunities for himself. The combination of this speed and clever movement means he creates separation very quickly, and tends to drift into areas between the opposition right back and center back. He’s also a high volume shooter (averaging 2.67 per game this season), but doesn’t always pick the most opportune moments to try his luck. He is, however, capable of the unexpected and has shown an ability to score difficult shots from distance.

That tendency to shoot often, and in all areas, may be exactly what Gambia need if they are to stage any sort of shock tournament run. They’ll need moments of surprise and quality — something Barrow could certainly provide.

Mohamed Camara – Mali/RB Salzburg

The 22-year old is halfway through his third season of Austrian top-flight football, establishing himself as a key member of Salzburg’s midfield with a number of impressive domestic and Champions League performances.

Camara has the ability to dictate the tempo from a deeper midfield position with some very clever passes, but he’s also extremely active defensively – making tackles, intercepting loose balls, and disrupting opposition moves. Although quite slight in frame (5’9), he uses his body excellently to make challenges off the ball and position himself with it. The volume of his defensive actions are aided by his smart positioning, knowing when to drop or press at the right times.

His numbers highlight his all-action profile. He’s also an excellent progressor of the ball, averaging 8.43 progressive passes and 2.13 progressive runs per 90. This high-volume isn’t a huge shock in a possession-dominant Salzburg side, but it does highlight Camara’s ability to execute forward passes and break lines with his ball-carrying. Camara’s passing is calculated, but not overly safe — he often picks the right moments to attempt riskier balls into potentially dangerous areas. Mali have a number of gifted midfield options, but Camara should impress if he plays.

Pape Matar Sarr – Senegal/Metz (on loan from Spurs)

Pape Matar Sarr really broke out in 2020-21, earning a £14.6m move to Spurs in the summer before being loaned back to Metz for the 2021-22 season. Another Génération Foot product (like Sadio Mane and Ismaila Sarr), the 19-year-old will be hoping to make an impact in Senegal’s midfield this tournament.

A really rangy but dynamic midfield ball-winner, Sarr is incredibly active out of possession. He harries, presses, tracks back, intercepts loose passes, and disrupts opposition moves, using his lengthy strides to cover ground and intelligence to position himself for those actions. Sarr’s qualities in possession are improving with time/experience – his ball-carrying ability into space is his most notable strength – coupled with a positive first-touch that allows him to glide past opponents to give him ample space for his next action.

Learning to combine his frame with his technicality in a more effective manner is the next stage of development for Sarr, but he offers qualities that could be hugely beneficial to Senegal if they’re to make a deep run this AFCON. Whether from the start or off the bench, keep a close eye on Pape Matar Sarr.

There isn’t a binary answer for everything, but stats will help you become better at watching football.

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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.)

Ball Progression 20/21 scatterplot by my friend @MTaylor1_. It is important that you take away the right findings from this graph. Rather than thinking, “Oh, Verratti and Alberto are the best midfielders because they’re the best at doing what midfielders are supposed to do,” you should simply absorb the fact that these two are excellent at getting the ball forward.

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.

Son’s xG performance in his time at Tottenham

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. 

With rags or with riches, Eddie Howe will make Newcastle fun.

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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. 

These things happen. It’s close to impossible to remain the coach of a single team effectively for such a long period of time. Things go stale and players become less responsive. I know I (and probably many of you) have felt this at several points in life. It happened to Chris Wilder last year at Sheffield United; it happened to Arsene Wenger at Arsenal. In a sport that has become so inextricably linked with financial success, the leashes on managers have gotten much shorter. There is an instant need for results. In fact, only 12 football coaches (of any gender) have managed a single side for a longer period of time than Eddie Howe did at Bournemouth, ever.

So what should we expect from him at Newcastle? 

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.

Something cool is happening at Vitesse. You should know about it.

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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.

About a year ago, Vitesse’s then-assistant coach Joseph Oosting suggested that Bazoer be deployed as a center-back, and more specifically, as a libero. Though a skillful box-to-box midfielder by trade, his primary responsibilities became sweeping up in behind the rest of the team, and serving as the catalyst in attacking transitions. The Dutchman’s technical qualities, physical prowess, and high football intelligence saw him become a natural in the role, one that we rarely see in modern football. 

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.

Scouting Victor Osimhen

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
2nd goal vs. Sampdoria

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.

goal vs. Cagliari

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.

goal vs. Spartak Moscow

Persistent Pressing From the Front and Continued Movement
1st goal vs Sampdoria

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
goal vs Legia Warsaw

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
goal vs Torino
2nd goal vs Leicester

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
1st goal vs Leicester

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
goal vs Udinese

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.

Continuing Crystal Palace’s Summer Rebuild

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.

Right Back

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.

StrengthsWeaknesses
Fantastic close controlSlight lack of speed means he can be beaten easily in 1v1s and transition
Frequently wins defensive duelsCrossing ability
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.

StrengthsWeaknesses
Makes frequent attacking runs into the penalty areaPoor finisher
Effective presser of the ballGives 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.

Defensive Midfielder

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.

StrengthsWeaknesses
Able to receive to feet under pressureCan be caught out of position due to lack of athleticism
Adept at dictating the tempo of gamesDoesn’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.

(Data and clips taken from Wyscout)

Matías Arezo – Scouting Report

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).

Player Profile

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.

Scouting Arezo

StrengthsWeaknesses
Clinical from close rangePoor shooting choices, especially from distance
Wins a large number of foulsSubpar 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.

Emile Smith Rowe and Martin Odegaard: Contrasting no. 10s, Complementary Teammates

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.

Martin Odegaard

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.

Passed – most threatening passes played
Facilitated – setting up teammates to play threatening passes
Received – passes received in most threatening areas of the pitch

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.