Ollie Watkins is quite good, isn’t he?

By Philippe Stengel and Max Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thiago and Liverpool: this was supposed to be perfect…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bruno Fernandes: high-risk, high-reward

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

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

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

James Maddison: the between-the-lines roamer

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

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

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

Emile Smith Rowe: the wide drifter

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

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

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

Ilkay Gündogan: the space invader

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phase 1: The emergency left back and the teasing cross

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

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

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

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

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

Phase 3: The reverse pass from central areas

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

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

Phase 4: The inswinging delivery from wide right

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

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

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

Rodrigo De Paul: A Scouting Report

By Philippe Stengel and Max Taylor

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

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

The Lowdown on Udinese

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

De Paul’s Profile

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

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

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

De Paul’s Qualities

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Areas to Improve On

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

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

On the Verge of a Move?

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

Finding Arsenal’s Next Number Nine

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

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

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

What is the ideal number 9 profile for Arsenal?

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

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

Alexander Isak

Real Sociedad, 21 years old

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

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

Darwin Nuñez

Benfica, 21 years old

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

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

Donyell Malen

PSV Eindhoven, 22

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

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

Rafael Leão

AC Milan, 21

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

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

Why we believe Darwin Nuñez is the best option for Arsenal

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

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

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

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

Ruben Loftus-Cheek: A Scouting Report

Profile

A player who was once touted as one of the next best English midfielders, Ruben Loftus-Cheek has had awful luck with injuries in the first few years of his career. Despite a largely positive spell at Crystal Palace in 2017/18 and a promising breakthrough at Chelsea in 2018/19, the 24-year-old still has never managed more than 24 Premier League appearances in a season.

Now on loan at Fulham, Loftus-Cheek has the chance to bulk his own resume by impressing for the Whites. Frank Lampard has repeatedly stated that he has a future at Chelsea, and despite frustration from both Fulham and Chelsea supporters this season, Scott Parker has made it clear that he firmly believes Loftus-Cheek is getting closer to finding his best form and fulfilling his potential.

Tactical Analysis

Ruben Loftus-Cheek has historically played as the most advanced player in a midfield three, though he is very capable of playing a bit deeper. Whether he is deployed in the middle or out wide, he has a serious knack for finding pockets of space — the golden ticket to threatening one’s opponent. 

The 24-year-old has always received rave reviews for being a supremely intelligent footballer. He always recognizes cues to make himself available for teammates, and is constantly on the move in search of space. When the ball comes to him, he looks to play quick combinations with nearby teammates, often with one-twos or neat flicks.

This combination play is enabled by his impeccable first touch and close control, skills that are special assets for a player of his size. He uses his body well to fend defenders off in tight spaces. He is equally as effective at using his body defensively, as he is capable of winning his fair share of duels.

In the first and second phases of play, his high positional awareness enables him to feel the opposition’s press, and his strength and speed allow him to carry the ball into the next phase of attack (below). In this aspect of his game, it is difficult not to compare him to Yaya Touré, who was known for his long runs from deep in his own half. However, when Loftus-Cheek doesn’t have the space, he has no problem giving up the ball and moving into space.

Loftus-Cheek’s best qualities come into play when the ball approaches the final third. He is always eager to find pockets in half spaces in order to create danger. He makes acute movements towards and then away from the ball in order to create windows of space, making himself available in areas where he poses the biggest threat.

At Chelsea in 2018/19, he combined very well with Eden Hazard, who drew defenders to him before finding Loftus-Cheek in between the lines or in behind (below). This was largely due to the midfielder’s ability to anticipate and time his runs almost perfectly. These diagonal runs in behind repeatedly proved lethal, as the defenders were always facing the wrong way at the time of the entry pass. He showed a real eye for goal too, notably with late runs into the box.

Despite the goal-creating threat he provides, Fulham fans have moaned about his inability to make a genuine impact this season. He doesn’t look to assert himself as often as he could, potentially due to a lack of confidence. Despite getting himself in good positions, he hasn’t always shown consistent quality, particularly with his end product.

Role at Fulham

Despite his slow start to the season, Ruben Loftus-Cheek has drastically improved his performances of late, which have directly coincided with Fulham’s recent upturn in form. By pairing him with Ademola Lookman just behind the striker, Scott Parker has been able to create a solid defensive foundation in his 3-4-2-1, preventing the relegation candidates from being so porous at the back. As Fulham usually have less possession than their opponents, Loftus-Cheek’s positional awareness is pivotal in cutting passing lanes and in providing an outlet in transition. 

When Fulham do have the ball, he works tirelessly to find space in half-spaces and out wide to get on the ball. From these positions, he can combine with Cavaleiro/Mitrovic inside (below), or with Decordova-Reid/Tete out wide. His forward-thinking has helped Fulham become a much more dangerous side as of late. 

He and Ademola Lookman have frequently shown good chemistry as they usually run the break together. When Lookman beats his man on the wing, Loftus-Cheek is almost always in space, ready for the ball to be played across or pulled back.

Loftus-Cheek’s versatility makes him a threat on both ends on the pitch, as his new manager has quickly realized. As he and Fulham grow in confidence in the second half of the season, there is no doubt that Frank Lampard will be checking in on his progress. The Chelsea boss has tinkered with multiple systems this term, and Loftus-Cheek may very well prove to be an answer when he returns to Chelsea next season.

Noni Madueke: A Scouting Report

When 17-year-old Jadon Sancho left Man City for Borussia Dortmund in 2017, it was viewed as an immensely brave move; a leap of faith not generally made by English youngsters. In the three years since, however, it’s become clear that Sancho truly paved the way for this movement. Over the last few seasons, a flurry of young, exciting English talents have done the same, leaving their comfort zones for a new club abroad. Marcus Edwards left Spurs for Portuguese side Vitória; Jude Bellingham switched from Birmingham to Dortmund; Josh Maja went from Sunderland to Bordeaux; and Noni Madueke packed his bags at Tottenham in the summer of 2018, moving to Dutch side PSV on a free transfer, seeking a more attainable route to first-team football and a club that would cultivate his bright talent. Fast-forward two and a half years, and the Englishman is one of the Eredivisie’s most promising youngsters.

Upon his arrival at PSV, Madueke joined the U17 side for the beginning of the 2018/19 season, but was quickly promoted to the U19 side after 3 goals in as many games. Midway through the next season, he had scored 9 goals in 11 games, prompting a call-up to the Jong PSV squad (who play in the 2nd division). 4 goals in 6 games there prompted his call-up as an official member of the first-team squad in March 2020. He hasn’t looked back since.

The Lowdown on PSV

PSV are one of the youngest and most exciting sides in Europe. Led by former RB Salzburg and Bayer Leverkusen manager Roger Schmidt, the German encourages an aggressive, high-energy pressing system very much in the mould of Jurgen Klopp. The squad is built up by a number of talented young players and some experienced, proven pros. Last summer, their recruitment saw the arrival of potential stars like Ibrahim Sanagre, and smart, affordable older players such as Mario Gotze and Eran Zahavi. The gems already at the club, however, is really what makes the Dutch side stand out. Aside from Madueke, the likes of Donyell Malen, Cody Gakpo, and Mohamed Ihattaren look set for big futures at the top level.

Madueke’s Profile 

Roger Schmidt has been very calculated in his use of Madueke, primarily introducing him off the bench to trouble tired legs in the 2nd half of matches. Madueke’s explosive burst of pace, directness, and ability to use both feet make him an invaluable asset for the Eredivisie side that sit just one point behind league-leaders Ajax. The young Englishman’s goals and assists per 90 record (he’s played 6.6 90s this season) is extremely impressive — he ranks 4th in the league in both categories.

Madueke has made quite an impact of the bench for PSV this season. Despite these short cameos in the Eredivisie and the Europa League, he has been able to drastically make his mark.
Madueke has stamped the Eredivisie with sheer output, better than almost all attackers in the division.

Madueke’s Qualities

The first thing you’ll notice when watching Madueke is the supreme confidence he boasts when on the ball. This, paired with good close control and dribbling, makes him lethal in 1v1 situations. Explosive from a standing start and lengthy in his strides, his ability in progressing the ball is very much in the mould of some of the best around, and strikes us as the left-footed version of Crystal Palace’s Eberechi Eze, due to the way he carries the ball with such gait and confidence.

Beyond a knack for beating his man, Madueke has proven this season that he can be a constant threat, no matter what position he plays. Most often deployed on the right of the front four, he’s also filled in as one of the two forwards. His influence in primarily cameo appearances shows just how special he is, and his ability to find holes between the opposition midfield and backline, receive the ball on the half turn, and notice the right moments to take space in pockets or run in-behind is quite impressive.

Madueke finds pockets of space between the opposition’s midfield and defensive lines, almost exclusively on the right side.

Once he gets himself in dangerous positions, he’s showcased real individual ability and confidence in front of goal. 6 goals and 6 assists in 19 games (Eredivisie and Europa League) this season speaks for itself — he’s incredibly efficient both in his chance creation and finishing. Madueke has shown his ability with both feet in his finishing, often beating a man to create space for himself or latching onto the end of cutbacks or short passes after picking up smart positions in the area. His shots are often assertive, confident, and hit with real conviction; and although he can sometimes rush when presented with chances, his shooting ability is really encouraging for an 18-year-old in his first full season in senior football.

His assists, however, catch our eye the most. He’s got great spatial awareness, times his runs very well, and Noni has now made it routine to play extremely quickly once receiving the ball. This results in nicely weighted through balls, effective one-touch passes, smart layoffs, and fizzed balls across the six-yard box.

Madueke does not yet involve himself much in the first and second phases of play, instead preferring to receive the ball in more advanced areas of the pitch or picking it up in transition and driving from deep. He averages 34 passes per game, but as you can see from his touch map, they’re predominantly in the final third and largely short or medium length passes.

Areas to Improve On

Now, despite all our praise for Madueke’s output this season, there are areas he needs to work on. His actual combination play isn’t consistently good, and relies on individuality to create chances more often than not. He frequently tries to dribble when a pass is the answer. When looking at his chance creation, his assists usually come from moments where he makes a point to play simply.

As Roger Schmidt’s system is founded in the gegenpress, Madueke thrives in situations where he can pick the ball up and drive into vacated space in transition. However, as PSV often dominate possession (56.5%), the chaos-ridden transition phase comes along less often than usual. Madueke’s direct attacking isn’t always needed, potentially hence why he doesn’t start every game (aside from his age, of course). His dribbling may be fantastic, but patience and possession are virtues, especially in the Dutch game.

It is also important to note that his defensive contribution isn’t as meaningful as his manager may like. This means his appearances come in the form of impact substitutions, when his attacking output can exploit tired defences. His positional awareness when tracking back isn’t up to par yet, and he fails to read defensive transitional cues.

It must be stated that he is still only 18, and one can expect that these areas of his game will improve, especially under Roger Schmidt. His weaknesses are typical for a player of his experience (or lack thereof). Nevertheless, Madueke’s path to the Eredivisie has given him an opportunity, one he may not have gotten in England. PSV have a great chance at qualifying for the Champions League next season, giving him an even bigger platform to showcase his ability. Making waves in the Eredivisie and the Europa League, Noni Madueke has announced himself as one to watch.

A Big 2021 Ahead: Eight Players We Believe Will Explode This Year

Think back to the beginning of 2020. Fans were in stadiums, Erling Haaland hadn’t yet played a game at Dortmund, Bruno Fernandes was still in Portugal, Liverpool were completely running away with the Premier League, and you had no idea Tariq Lamptey was THIS good. A lot can change in a year, especially in football.

A new year also means a new batch of football stars. A number of others followed in Lamptey’s footsteps in 2020, with the likes of Alphonso Davies, Bukayo Saka, Eduardo Camavinga, and Mason Greenwood announcing themselves to the world. So as 2021 just begins, we present to you eight players we believe you’ll know a lot, lot more about by this time next year.

1. Mohammed Kudus, Attacking Midfielder, Ajax, 20

Ajax have quite the reputation for spotting and developing young stars, so when they make a move, it’s worth taking notice. After a hugely impressive season at Danish side Nordsjælland (scoring 11 goals from midfield), Ajax signed Kudus for around £8m last summer.

His 2020/21 season has been disrupted by a knee injury suffered in November, but the Ghanaian looks set to return very soon. Kudus is comfortable in a number of positions, but most suited to a central attacking midfield role. Always looking to receive between the lines, he’s got an impressive passing range, smart and explosive movement, and excellent dribbling ability.

2. Emile Smith Rowe, Midfielder, Arsenal, 20

After a topsy-turvy start to Arsenal’s season, Mikel Arteta has decided to trust the youth in recent weeks, and 20-year-old Smith Rowe has been at the center of the revival. A successful loan spell at Championship side Huddersfield in 2019/20 earned his manager’s trust this season, and while he’s had to bide his time, he’s taken his opportunity with both hands (and feet).

The young Englishman has already created 11 chances in just 374 minutes this season. Best in the #10 role, he excels in picking up pockets of space in the final third, makes intricate combinations with his forwards, locates space smartly, and is clever in picking his pass.

3. Nuno Mendes, Left Back, Sporting CP, 18

Sporting CP, sitting atop Liga NOS, have a wave of young talent currently making their mark, but it’s 18-year-old left back Nuno Mendes that has impressed the most. At a time where the full-back market is relatively lacking, yet a position becoming increasingly more important in the modern game, Mendes will be highly sought after very, very soon.

Previously a more attacking player in his youth, it’s an understatement to say Mendes is unbelievably technical. Skillful, inventive, and nonchalant in possession, he loves bombing forward, and interestingly prefers making runs inside the opposition fullback, making him very difficult to mark. Just check out the goal in this clip…

4. Karim Adeyemi, Forward, RB Salzburg, 18

RB Salzburg might have the best recruitment team in Europe (they’ve developed a reputation for unearthing impressive young talents) and Karim Adeyemi is a prime example of that.

The 18-year-old became the youngest German to ever score in the Champions League in December, netting in Salzburg’s 3-1 win over Lokomotiv Moscow. He still often lacks the final ball, but he’s blessed with blistering pace, impressive dribbling ability, and an eye for goal. The next to shine from Salzburg’s talent factory.

5. Noni Madueke, Winger, PSV, 18

When Jadon Sancho left Man City for Dortmund, it was viewed as an immensely brave move; a leap of faith not generally made by English youngsters. Since then, however, a flurry of players have done the same. Noni Madueke left Tottenham in the summer of 2018, seeking a more attainable route to first-team football. He found that at Dutch side PSV, and hasn’t looked back since.

Although he predominantly starts on the right wing, Madueke loves to drift throughout the final third and uses his stronger left-foot to create mayhem for opposition defenders. A mazy, elegant dribbler with a real burst of pace and a serious eye for goal, he’s formed an exciting partnership with other members of PSV’s young side. Don’t be surprised if he’s back in the Premier League soon.

6. Marc Guehi, Center Back, Chelsea (on loan at Swansea), 20

It’s never been easy for Chelsea’s youth players to break into their first-team, but under Frank Lampard, a number of academy graduates have made their mark, and we expect Marc Guehi to be the next to do so.

The 20-year-old center back is spending the season on loan at Swansea, and has been one of the standout defenders in the league thus far. An integral member of the Championship’s best defence, he’s showcased his passing range, aerial dominance, 1v1 ability, and progressive nature in possession. With 36-year-old Thiago Silva not getting any younger, the door may be open sooner than you think.

7. Rafael Leão, Forward, AC Milan, 21

Perhaps you’re wondering why we’ve selected a player who earned a move to a top European side in 2019, so let us explain our decision. We believe Leão will prove himself to be one of Europe’s best forwards in the next 12 months, thus taking his game to a completely new level.

With 4 goals and 3 assists in 11 Serie A games this season, he’s only just beginning to showcase what he’s truly capable of. A marauding and physical presence, neat and intricate dribbler, and powerful finisher, he’s dangerous both on the left and through the middle, and always a threat in behind. He now holds the record for the fastest goal in Serie A history. It won’t be the only record he breaks.

8. Tanguy Coulibaly, Winger, Stuttgart, 19

With Sven Mislintat pulling the transfer strings, Stuttgart have put together quite the youthful side, and are the surprise package of the Bundesliga thus far this season. We’ve expressed our admiration for Stuttgart’s wing-back/forward Silas Wamangituka in the past, but ex-PSG academy product Tanguy Coulibaly looks primed for a breakout year as well.

He’ll be hoping to kick on in the coming months after a fine solo goal vs. Dortmund in November, in which he also showcased his dribbling ability (6.93 dribbles p/90 this season), creative threat (1.07 key passes), driving force on the counter, and wand of a left foot (check out the video below).

Michael Olise: A Scouting Report

An £8m release clause, the Championship’s assist leader, and already an integral member of high-flying Reading, it’s easy to see why 19-year-old Michael Olise is garnering so much attention. In this report, we identify what exactly makes the youngster such an exciting prospect.

Olise is a French-born attacking midfielder, and was picked up by Reading in 2016 after youth spells at Chelsea and Manchester City. He made his first-team debut in March 2019, and is now a dominant fixture in Reading’s youthful side as they seek promotion to the Premier League.

Through 19 games, Olise already has 4 goals + 7 assists, and is part of a promising, fluid, dynamic attacking core that has emerged as one of the best in the division. He mainly plays behind the striker or on the right, but constantly drifts throughout the final third.

A real creative spark, Olise produces chances in a variety of ways. Prolific from set-pieces, a threat from wide areas, a smart mover off the ball, capable of intricate and neat through balls, Olise constantly feeds his teammates with opportunities in front of goal.

Although not yet a prolific scorer, Olise has showcased real shooting ability from a range of positions. Capable of generating power and whip off the dribble, he’s especially dangerous when cutting in from the right. He excels at free kicks and can hit one on the volley.

He generally looks to release the ball quickly, but when he does dribble, he is very efficient. He glides past defenders with his mazy runs and deceptive movement, and is incredibly creative on the ball, often getting out of tight spaces using inventive pieces of skill.

The aspect of Olise’s game that impresses us most is his intelligent movement and spacial awareness. Olise is always scanning his surroundings, finding space between the lines, and painting a picture before receiving the ball; all traits of a seasoned midfielder.

Not only does he look for pockets in the attacking third, but Olise is also comfortable dropping deep, receiving the ball, and showcasing his impressive range of passing.

Strong with both feet, Olise is capable of accurate switches of play and dangerous balls over the top.

For all his talent with the ball, Olise also works hard without it, pressing from the front, winning challenges, and intercepting passes before kickstarting counter-attacks. His energy forces opposition players into mistakes, often causing turnovers in possession.

Olise’s performances this season and his affordable release clause have left a number of big clubs enquiring about his signature. Far from the end-product, Olise’s confidence is growing every game and his development is evident. Don’t be surprised if he gets a big move soon.