Featured

Arsenal: Signing Zinchenko will take pressure off Tierney and Xhaka

Man On Monday 009

You can feel that Arsenal are moving in the right direction. 

Despite their failure to qualify for the Champions League, Edu and Arteta have already managed to secure the signatures of players that address immediate issues. Gabriel Jesus, Fabio Vieira, and now Oleksandr Zinchenko each bring something the club specifically needed.

Jesus offers mobility and penalty-box quality in a way they didn’t have before. Vieira provides creativity and versatility the moment Martin Odegaard’s ideas begin to go stale. Even American backup goalkeeper Matt Turner brings a determined personality to this still very young dressing room. 

The signing of Zinchenko, however, will add an extra dimension to this Arsenal side — a player that allows for flexibility in team shape, provides positional versatility, and gives Arteta multiple tactical options in various roles across the pitch.

Video originally tweeted by Sam Dean (@SamJDean). Zinchenko playing on the left of a midfield three for Ukraine in June.

The left-back that doesn’t have to overlap

It became quite clear – particularly two seasons ago – that Arsenal could and should not rely on Tierney as their primary source of attack. At the time, the Scotsman was the club’s most consistent player and looked poised to become the next captain. But due primarily to his injuries and the continued development of other players, Kieran Tierney is no longer as indispensable as he once was. His bombarding runs down the left flank remain effective but have become more predictable. 

Tierney’s injury woes have been consistent since he joined Arsenal

Arsenal addressed this issue by bringing right-back Takehiro Tomiyasu in on deadline day last summer. Despite not being the prototypical marauding full-back that is so typical of today’s game, Tomiyasu made an immediate difference. He defended exceptionally and served as a pressure relief valve in possession (when the ball started on the left) by tucking inside alongside Partey. This not only meant that Odegaard could venture further forward, but that the outlet pass from, say, Gabriel or Xhaka, was much shorter, hence reducing the time it took for the side to escape pressure and move up the pitch. 

The next step in developing the team’s shape is to provide that same option on the left. Oleksandr Zinchenko, who has been playing in that exact role for Manchester City, is now an Arsenal player.

Arsenal were reportedly determined to land Lisandro Martinez from Ajax, but it seems the player has chosen to reunite with Erik ten Hag for a fee that Edu Gaspar probably wasn’t prepared to pay. Zinchenko, while not as robust as Martinez (who is also able to play center back), brings similar qualities as a natural midfielder that plays as a left-back for a possession-dominant side. He captains and plays as a number eight for Ukraine, but has consistently acted as deputy over the course of his Manchester City career. But make no mistake, usurping Joao Cancelo would be difficult for anyone…

Signing a player from Manchester City reaffirms both Arteta’s affinity for Guardiola’s set up and players, and his determination to get Arsenal to play like his mentor’s side. 

Pep’s usage of Joao Cancelo has shown his desire to prevent transitions while gaining numerical superiority in midfield, but has primarily been a success due to his quality in the final third. Zinchenko doesn’t provide the same knack for decisive actions in attack, but he does offer the same fluidity in build-up play and defensive positioning. 

Zinchenko tucking in allows Gundogan to push up into the final third. These movements led to the title-winning goal.

That profile is lacking in the current Arsenal squad. Tierney has done it before, but isn’t necessarily convincing, and his lack of permanent availability means he can’t always be relied upon. Nuno Tavares is still a work in progress, and the fact that Cedric occasionally plays off the left should be telling. (Arteta even went so far as trying Xhaka there.) Zinchenko is needed.

Tucking inside to create more options for the lone defensive midfielder

Zinchenko’s immediate impact may well be mitigated, as it would be unwise to drop Tierney from a squad dynamics standpoint. Yet having the option of playing Zinchenko at left-back would help Granit Xhaka, who has been ever so crucial for Arsenal under Arteta.

At the start of last season, Arsenal’s shape looked most like a 4-2-3-1. Odegaard pushed into the final third, but Xhaka did not. He was there to aid Partey in build-up and shift wide to cover for Tierney. From deeper pockets on the left, he would dictate play and act as a conductor in possession.

In the build-up, Xhaka had license to pick up pockets just behind or around Partey to serve as an outlet. Xhaka was always ready to turn the other way and escape the press. Of all players who started 20+ games, he took the most touches (aside from the aforementioned Tomiyasu) of any Arsenal player with 68.2 per ninety (FBref). Up to now, Arteta has desperately needed Xhaka to get the ball from back to front.

Xhaka peeling wide in Tierney’s position became commonplace two seasons ago. Despite suiting the skillsets of both players, the rotation is now a bit more predictable than it once was.

But as Arsenal’s shape evolved into a clearer 4-3-3, Xhaka’s role did too. He found himself in and around the box more often. He was positionally sound and didn’t look out of place, but it did feel odd to see Xhaka so high up the pitch. Both he and Arteta said it wasn’t necessarily comfortable.

Xhaka gradually moved higher up the pitch last season as Arsenal’s formation evolved into more of a 4-3-3. He looked fluid, but not entirely comfortable in his final actions.

Enter a player like Zinchenko, whose ease when tucking inside from left-back, alongside a lone pivot (Rodri and now Partey), takes some of that responsibility away from Xhaka. That allows Arsenal to play with an additional attacking player — potentially in Xhaka’s place. It allows a left-winger like Martinelli to stay wider and specialize in one-on-one duels, something Guardiola and (in turn) Arteta have always had a soft spot for (think of Leroy Sané). It allows for close-to-perfect symmetry, making Arsenal a more balanced and unpredictable attacking force.

Pushing up into the box from midfield is not Granit Xhaka’s strength, but Arteta’s will to give him that responsibility is a clear sign of his tactical plans. Zinchenko’s arrival relieves Xhaka of many organizational responsibilities week-in and week-out, even if he’s playing left-back.

What it really means is Arteta now has more tactical choices to make. Tierney will still be the biggest threat in certain games. The two-striker system that has been flashed in pre-season could prove to be very effective against weaker teams. Saliba returning makes you wonder about the possibility of a back-three system.

Having a player like Zinchenko gives the opponent even more to think about on a weekly basis. Arteta hasn’t had that luxury since becoming the Arsenal manager.

Featured

Chelsea’s summer will be busy. But expect more change than just new faces.

Since the turn of the year, the discourse surrounding Chelsea has been troubling and odd. Most Chelsea fans will admit to mixed feelings in regards to the Abramovich situation, but even more so towards the drab second half of the season. Sure, they reached two domestic cup finals, but the club’s entire ethos champions winning at all costs and winning now. In that respect, they failed. 

They are no longer the reigning champions of Europe, and once again finished miles off Manchester City and Liverpool. (I had actually predicted them to win the league this year. Shame on me, really)

They’re set to lose the core of their defense in Antonio Rudiger, Andreas Christensen, Marcos Alonso, and Cesar Azpilicueta, and still haven’t figured out how to get anything out of Romelu Lukaku (although I thought he looked relatively promising towards the end of the season). It’s now looking likely that be going back on loan to Inter.

Yet life has given Chelsea one of the biggest lemons possible: a new American owner who has already promised Thomas Tuchel a “war chest” for the summer. Links to new players may not feel as concrete as they do with their Premier League rivals, but they will come. They have to.

Defensive outgoings and the need for depth

While it’d be safe to assume Chelsea have a massive budget every summer, it’s especially crucial this year. The squad has looked fairly similar for the last two years, and certain players are either aging or looking like they’ve run their course at the club. 

The big-name outgoings – notably Rudiger and Azpilicueta – need immediate, starting-quality replacements. Sevilla’s Jules Koundé has been linked for over a year and makes perfect sense given his versatility and CV. Comfortable and bold on the ball for a possession-based side, he has all but solidified his place in the France XI as the right-sided center-back in a back five or right-back in a four. He ranks in the 95+ percentile amongst center-backs across the five major European leagues in metrics such as progressive passes received (is always an outlet), dribbles completed (nice), and shot-creating actions (wow). Given the reported interest and quoted asking price (give-or-take £60 million), I’d be shocked if this isn’t confirmed soon. The fit is that good.

Many other names will be thrown into the hat in the coming weeks, most likely at lower prices. Nico Schlotterbeck – who has just moved to Dortmund from Freiburg – would have felt ideal, but the club’s financial limbo was probably an impassable hurdle at that point. It’s a shame Marc Guéhi and Fikayo Tomori are no longer around…

One of the best things that will happen to Chelsea this summer is the return of Levi Colwill, who spent last season on loan at Huddersfield Town in the Championship. Colwill was a star in the second tier this season and should fight for a starting place come next season. Tall, courageous, and – most notably – left-footed, the 19-year-old should get chances given that his current primary competition is… Malang Sarr. Twitter chatter is saying he may be loaned out once more, but bar several star signings in his position, I bet he sticks around (and plays a role like Chalobah did last season).

Just to his left, Chilwell will hopefully be returning from his ACL injury for good. The partnership he shared with Reece James in the early stages of last season looked really, really promising. 

With Marcos Alonso gone (sigh of relief for Chelsea fans?), Chilwell’s deputies will comprise of Kenedy (?) and a pair of returning loanees in Emerson (who looks like he’s leaving) and Ian Maatsen. Maatsen is particularly interesting: a Dutch academy product who, like Colwill, spent last season in the Championship with Coventry City. Slight in stature but clearly technical, he managed three goals from left-wing-back. I expect Chelsea to sign someone, but it’d be nice to see him get a chance. 

On the right, Reece James is already one of the best right-backs in the world, but he’ll need a backup. Djed Spence of Middlesbrough would be a cool option, but Spurs seem to already be in advanced talks with him. 

Conor Gallagher and the Declan Rice profile

I’ll start this section by saying that I think the Chelsea hierarchy is devastated they weren’t able to lure Aurélien Tchouaméni to Stamford Bridge. It’s possible his transfer to Madrid had been in place for a while, but I’m sure he was originally a top priority for Chelsea. The main reason for that is West Ham’s current asking price for Declan Rice (who boasts a comparable 6ish-8ish profile with supreme defensive stability) sits at £150 million-plus. Tchouaméni’s eventual cost was around £85 million, but that’s still close to half the price. 

Chelsea’s long-standing interest in a player of that mold says more about the direction they want to take the midfield than their opinions of their current personnel, but it’s still worth contemplating each player’s current situation.

Jorginho played the majority of games last season, while Kanté and Kovacic took turns as his partner due to the Frenchman’s injuries and the Croat’s impressive form. Loftus-Cheek looked promising as he was given more minutes than expected, but doesn’t seem to be at the level Chelsea require from that role. Maybe that will change.

While it shouldn’t be surprising considering the club’s tokenized nickname of the “Loan Army,” Conor Gallagher’s return should give the club a massive boost. Already known for his relentless engine, he demonstrated an innate ability to arrive late in the box for Patrick Vieira’s Crystal Palace and finished the season with eight goals. I think he’ll have an immediate impact (albeit minor at first) and further enable Tuchel to press high up the pitch. In their usual 3-4-2-1 setup, he’d probably be best suited as a replacement for Kanté, alongside Jorginho. 

A carousel of attackers and Lukaku’s future

Tuchel usually selects his forwards based on form and availability rather than specific tactical requirements for a certain opposition. Werner and Havertz especially have both taken turns as center-forwards, second strikers, and wide forwards. Pulisic and Ziyech are often second-choice but are more than adequate enough to fulfill the current roles that are asked of them.  Callum Hudson-Odoi remains in the picture but should continue to play the same role if the system remains the same.

That still leaves a Lukaku-shaped hole as the focal point up front, something Tuchel seems to require except for in big games against Liverpool and City – who play with much higher lines. It’s a massive shame Lukaku hasn’t worked out thus far, as last summer it felt like he was the missing piece to their jigsaw. It remains to be seen whether he’ll be allowed to go back to Inter. History has shown that has worked for him before (West Brom and Everton). 

Batshuayi will be returning from his loan spell at Besiktas, which only means he should prepare himself to leave once again. More importantly, Armando Broja will be back from his season at Southampton, which wasn’t necessarily as lethal as it was promising. He only scored six goals but ranked really well among all top five league forwards in aerials won (always nice for a striker) and dribbles completed (Chelsea’s attackers are tasked with a lot of carrying). 

Like Colwill and Maatsen, he should get opportunities if he sticks around, but that could hinge on a potential marquee signing.

If Ousmane Dembele signs, expect a back four

That headline singing may well be free agent Ousmane Dembélé, who looks unlikely as ever to re-sign with Barcelona despite a marvelous comeback campaign in which he recorded 13 assists. A classic winger with a unique ambidextrous quality, Dembélé broke out under Tuchel at Dortmund where he was also sending in crosses and cutbacks for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. His injury record and reported lack of professionalism have been his downfall at Barcelona, making his original expensive move a failure, but he remains one of the more gifted footballers on the planet. This is a guy who was once regarded as the future of France alongside Kylian Mbappé. 

If he does indeed sign for Chelsea, the club will immediately improve. Not because he slots in as a starter as one of those withdrawn forwards – a role he can fulfill – but because he’ll fully enable Tuchel to move away from a back five to a more expansive back four. 

While it has arguably been the pillar for their success under Tuchel, Chelsea’s back five naturally inhibits attacking potency. Top possession-oriented teams in the league and across Europe attack with five across the top of the pitch in order to occupy all the channels. City attack with a winger – midfielder – forward – midfielder – winger combination; Liverpool attack with a full-back – inside forward – forward – midfielder – inside forward combination. Chelsea attack with both wing-backs high with three attackers in between. There was indeed more variation this season as Tuchel asked both Chilwell and James to come inside more often, but that plan was derailed when Chilwell got injured. Marcos Alonso was nowhere near as competent despite scoring several crucial goals. Chelsea’s attacking options don’t currently suit a more conventional front three, as nobody serves as a like-for-like replacement for another.

They may have created the third-best amount and quality of chances in the Premier League (1.77 expected goals per game this year, only behind Liverpool with 2.34 and City with 2.35), but those chances were falling to – in essence – the wrong players. If the ball is wide right and is quickly shifted to the left to a player in open space, there is no doubt that you’d rather that player be a forward rather than a wing-back. 

Tuchel actually tinkered with a back four in the middle of the campaign but didn’t have the right players for it to stick. He occasionally played Malang Sarr at left-back and Loftus-Cheek at right-wing-back. Astute from a tactical standpoint, but not optimal.

The signing of Dembélé unlocks Chelsea tactically from the get-go and creates a ripple effect throughout the squad. First, it gives the side natural width, as he reminded us this year that he was unbearable in 1v1 situations and in space. His two-footedness enables him to swiftly shift inside in order to combine with the center-forward. That width, in turn, allows Reece James to play in the half-space just behind him. There is an argument to be had on whether his deliveries are better than Alexander-Arnold’s. I’ll leave that there for now.

Balanced attacks demand some level of symmetry. The Dembélé-James relationship could have so much potential that it would require something comparable on the opposite flank, potentially meaning a shift to a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, Tuchel’s most used systems during his time at Dortmund. Pulisic and Werner could effectively fulfill roles as inside forwards as Chilwell overlaps. More interestingly, however, given that Chilwell showed an ability to tuck inside as Reece James does so well, it could allow Hudson-Odoi to play his most suitable role as a classic winger, tasked with carrying the ball and attacking full-backs in one-on-one scenarios. That would create an aesthetically pleasing symmetry à la Manchester City. But it doesn’t mean it’s the best option.

While Mount could potentially serve as a good inside forward, I do think he’ll eventually settle as the most attacking player in a midfield three. He’s fantastic at receiving the ball in between the lines and connects play really well. He’d probably look best in a trio with Jorginho and Kanté, but that leaves out Kovacic, who arguably had the best campaign out of the four. That could mean phasing out Jorginho for a Declan Rice-like player. Mount may have been Chelsea’s top scorer this season, but that isn’t normal, and his skill set isn’t necessarily suited to being that guy that you rely on for goals. 

That’s an argument to move away from a back five on its own.

Switching to a back four would mean trouble for Thiago Silva, who has apparently had conversations with Tuchel about no longer being comfortable with a single center-back partner. The brother will be 38 in September, and while he’s still performing at a very high level, that should only mean Chelsea need to find a long-term replacement quickly. 

Tuchel has always been a student of Pep. During his sabbatical year in between his jobs at Mainz and Dortmund, the German had multiple dinners with Guardiola discussing how to master positional play and to attack as efficiently as possible. They share very similar footballing ideas and philosophies, to the point where Pep considers Tuchel his successor as the face of positional play in the game. Tuchel wants to dominate games in the same way Pep does. Yet his Chelsea side can often look sluggish, laboring in possession and failing to create good opportunities. 

If he reunites with Dembélé, he’ll unlock a new dimension within the squad. Expect dominos to fall. Expect a back four sooner rather than later.

Featured

The unmatched versatility of Bernardo Silva

ManOnMonday004

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.

System Adaptability is Great, Player Versatility is the Key — Graham Potter’s Brighton

If you’re a regular watcher of the Premier League, you are likely familiar with Graham Potter’s Brighton & Hove Albion. Now in their sixth consecutive season in the top flight (and their fourth under Potter), the club have become renowned for their savvy recruitment and innovative style of football — a style that has garnered many admirers of their head coach.

Potter’s willingness (and ability) to make both subtle and unsubtle modifications to his side’s shape, structure, and approach on such a regular basis underpins this unique brand of play. Brighton’s shape in possession, structure out of possession, and the ways they attempt to exploit the opposition often change drastically, sometimes on a week-to-week basis.

One aspect of recent Brighton sides that has not altered drastically, however, is their personnel. Nine of their starting XI vs Manchester United on the opening day of the campaign started the final fixture of last season against West Ham (Cucurella and Bissouma have since moved on for large fees). Of those nine, just one (Caicedo) made his Premier League debut for Brighton in 2021/22. The rest have been with the club, and regular fixtures in the side, since the beginning of 2020/21 or earlier.

How then, with a style that relies so heavily on constant change, have Brighton sustained such a consistent first-team squad? I believe that, in large part, it is due to Graham Potter’s ability to repeatedly mould players into new and unfamiliar roles. And while the widespread praise and admiration for his adaptability is overwhelmingly deserved, the way he has developed so many members of his side into multi-functional cogs has played a significant role in Brighton’s success, and deserves far more attention.

System adaptability is far easier to accomplish with players capable of fulfilling multiple roles. This approach, and Graham Potter’s success with it, shows that having tactically flexible players at a team’s disposal is becoming increasingly important in the modern game. The role and positional development of Pascal Gross, Alexis Mac Allister, and Marc Cucurella shows exactly why.

Pascal Gross

Signed from FC Ingolstadt 04 in the summer of 2017 for just £2.5m, Pascal Gross has been with Brighton since the start of their Premier League journey and is widely considered their greatest ever bargain. His role prior to joining the club was that of a traditional no. 10 — primarily tasked with creating chances from central areas behind the center forward.

And that’s exactly how he was deployed under Chris Hughton in his first two season’s with the club. Hughton rarely (if ever) deviated from his rigid 4-2-3-1 formation, and Gross was the central focal point. His influence was significant — he led the team in goal contributions in 2017/18 (7G/8A) and played nearly 5,000 league minutes across his first two campaigns.

Since Potter’s appointment, Gross has remained a consistent starter in the side but his role has not. As Potter has tinkered with different systems, Gross’ position has often changed with it: from wing-back (on either side) to wide forward and more natural central midfield roles. The below pictures highlight a particular role he played in vs. Newcastle in 2020/21 — as a hybrid right wing-back that would make runs inside of Brighton’s two center forwards when they approached the final third.

Since the second half of last season, Gross has almost exclusively played on the right-hand side in an advanced central midfield role, often combining with the right winger/wing-back but also with the positional freedom to allow his intelligence to prosper — constantly moving into dangerous areas to feed through forward passes or making well-timed late runs into the box.

And perhaps most surprisingly, Gross’ chance creation numbers have not faltered with these positional moves. Since joining the club, his xA per 90 minutes has always been between 0.20 and 0.26 each season while he’s recorded over 3 shot-creating actions (SCA) per 90 in every Premier League campaign so far. As Brighton’s set-up has evolved and altered Gross’ overall influence has only increased, all while allowing his primary quality to remain consistent.

Alexis Mac Allister

It’s interesting to look back on Graham Potter’s evaluation of Alexis Mac Allister when he first returned from his loan spell at Boca Juniors in January of 2020:

“He’s an intelligent footballer, plays in space well, likes to attack the box, and he adds (probably) goals to the group”.

This was, at the time, a very fair assessment of a player that was brought in as an exciting, young advanced midfielder from Argentina. His role at Boca Juniors and initially at Brighton was exactly that, but his influence was minimal, and he struggled to hold down a consistent spot in the side.

Mac Allister became regularly involved as a starter under Potter for the first time last season, but his role in the team changed more regularly than anybody else. The pictures below are from two separate matches, just a week apart: one where Mac Allister was deployed as a center forward, and the other as the deepest lying midfielder. Different strengths within his skillset were utilized in two separate game approaches from Potter. As a CF, his movement and close control helped to retain possession after sustained periods of pressure, while in a midfield role, he was able to dictate the tempo from deep.

Since then, Mac Allister has found a home as Brighton’s holding midfielder, starting each of their first four games of the new season in that position. It’s a role he’s flourished in, and his relationship with Moises Caicedo has been a large factor in Brighton’s success. Mac Allister’s passing range and positional discipline paired with Caicedo’s more natural ball-winning and ball-carrying ability has been really effective — sparking attacks and helping to overturn possession on numerous occasions (see below):

Shifting Mac Allister into a deeper-lying and more defensive role would likely not have been considered by other managers (and maybe even seen as an unnatural move), but Brighton’s structure has adjusted with it. Potter has deployed a box midfield shape out of possession, adding extra numbers centrally and helping Brighton dominate these areas. The benefit of system adjustments that coincide with role changes is clear — Brighton didn’t add extra personnel, but were still able to completely adapt their approach.

Marc Cucurella

Perhaps the clearest example of the benefits of player role development is Marc Cucurella’s transformation under Potter’s tutelage. Before his move to Brighton in the summer of 2021, Cucurella was part of a Getafe side that deployed an extremely direct, narrow 4-2-2 shape, with the Spaniard predominantly on the left of midfield. His role out of possession usually involved closing down the opposition right back, while in possession he was often situated high-and-wide near the touchline.

Potter’s variety in structure meant that Cucurella gained experience in a number of different left-sided roles last season, all dissimilar to the position he played in at Getafe. His initial introduction into the team saw him play as a natural left back in a four (as well as in a more advanced wing-back role), and he was entrusted with far more responsibility in the build-up phase, tasked with helping Brighton progress the ball into more advanced areas from their own half.

The role he particularly shined in was when Brighton shifted into a hybrid back five/back four shape in the second half of last season — which saw Cucurella at left-center back out of possession before moving to a more traditional left back role with the ball. This really allowed Cucurella’s defensive nous and ball progression abilities to shine without limiting his threat going forward, all while enabling Brighton to remain flexible and unpredictable in shape and structure.

The numerous positions Cucurella played in last season and the way his role adapted both in/out of possession provided a far deeper insight into his qualities. In the span of 12 months, Cucurella ~ the left midfielder ~ signed for Brighton for £15m before Chelsea recruited Cucurella ~ the left back/left-center back/left-wing back ~ for £60m. A £45m profit gained in just one season, with Chelsea largely attracted to his positionally and tactically flexible traits.

The system adaptability that has been the bedrock of Brighton’s success is, in large part, due to the versatility Graham Potter instills in so many of his players. Potter’s tactics not only make his side unpredictable and exciting to watch, but in doing so he helps create tactically malleable individuals, suitable for multiple roles and increasingly desired at the top level of football. Maybe this approach is the way forward in the modern game.

Written by Max Taylor, @MTaylor1_

Cool players in cool roles that you should pay attention to this Premier League season

ManOnMonday010

We are so used to textbook roles that players are supposed to fulfill when they play in specific positions. Most would inherently prefer their wingers to play on their weaker-footed side so that they can cut inside. Our ideas of full-backs and wing-backs dictate that they should constantly overlap those wingers. But there is no longer an ideal archetype for each position on the pitch. The game has evolved.

Players have unique skill sets and distinct zones where they are most effective. Coaches (the good ones, at least) put their players in areas and situations where they can succeed. This naturally has ties to the Pep-esque positional play that so many teams today are implementing to control games, but it also applies to those teams who don’t. 

Carlo Ancelotti’s use of Federico Valverde is a prime example. A natural ball winner and powerful carrier, the Uruguayan would classically be expected to play in a box-to-box role. Except he doesn’t. Carlo astutely plays him in a wide role from which, in possession, he charges down the right flank, and out of possession, he tucks inside and acts as an additional central midfielder. Valverde really favors his right – so it may be that Ancelotti doesn’t trust him in the middle just yet. 

Think of why the game’s assist kings like Trent Alexander-Arnold and Keven de Bruyne do their most dangerous work in the same areas on the pitch – despite being very different players. Teams’ systems are designed to put their players’ best attributes forward.

As we welcome the Premier League and its stars back into our lives, there are players who play unique roles for their respective sides – different to anything we’re generally accustomed to. 

Here are three players playing in cool roles that you should monitor over the course of this Premier League season.

Alex Iwobi, Everton: The Metamorphosis

It feels like a consensus that people aren’t high on Everton this year – neither am I. They lost their best player this summer in Richarlison; the squad feels littered with older and overpaid veterans (although some of the new signings seem quite promising); Frank Lampard hasn’t actually proven to be a great coach so far. 

Lampard does deserve at least some credit for his setup so far this season. Everton’s new back-five look may not be that sexy, or that good, but his usage of Alex Iwobi has been pleasantly surprising. 

Iwobi’s intelligence and close control always made it seem like he would be a great attacking midfielder. Yet he had the bad luck of teams moving away from 4-2-3-1s to 4-3-3s, and was then transferred to a club that played a 4-4-2. Everton fans have moaned about his lack of end product for three seasons. In that respect, his best season came in 18/19 in his last year at Arsenal, where he managed 3 goals and 6 assists. 

His profile has constantly proved difficult to place across the front line. 

Yet in the first few games, Lampard has deployed him as a number six, next to box-to-box midfielder Doucouré. And the result has been good! He drops deeper in possession to keep the ball ticking (when it seems like his teammates can’t), and orchestrates play well, managing a handful of one-time reverse passes (like the one below) between the lines. He feels pressure well and knows when to occupy or vacate specific spaces.

Higher up the pitch, he pushes ahead of Doucouré and towards the left to form overloads and combine in halfspaces (below). This was arguably the only true threat Everton posed to Chelsea on the opening weekend. Look at how disoriented and out of position Azpilicueta is.

Everton may fail to inspire this season, but watching Iwobi play as a defensive midfielder may prove to be a silver lining. Teams will press them intensively, and Iwobi really makes an effort to play his way out of pressure – especially forward. 

Lampard may become the first coach to get the best out of him.

Pedro Neto, Wolves: The Motor

In all ten matches on the opening weekend, Pedro Neto was one of just two recognized left-footers playing on the left wing (excluding wing-backs), along with Leeds’ Jack Harrison. Since match-day one, the only other player to do so is City’s Phil Foden – who has repeatedly featured there over the last few seasons. 

But whereas Harrison feels like a wide specialist who thrives on high-volume crossing, and Foden a natural 10 who can provide good passing angles thanks to his wonderful left foot, Neto offers unique dynamism and fluidity.

Part of that fluidity has been on show in the first few weeks of the season. Against both Leeds and Fulham, in which Bruno Lage surprised us with back-four systems, he started wide left, constantly carrying the ball forwards in both wide and central areas. In the opening five minutes at Leeds, he tracked down a long ball before shrugging Rasmus Kristensen off of him. He then drove inside (below) and found Hwang Hee-Chan with a delightful chip to the far post, who nodded it down for Daniel Podence to finish. 

The angle for the scooped cross would not have been as apparent if Neto had been right footed. The Portuguese winger is a specialist of creating the right spaces for himself to get around defenders or to get into dangerous areas. 

That being said, when Wolves faced Antonio Conte’s dangerous Spurs side, Lage used Neto a little differently. Rather than commit to a back-four or back-five system, Lage entrusted Neto with the entire right flank. That meant dropping back out-of-possession to form a back-five alongside right-back Johnny (below), and jetting forwards with the ball to become a classic right-winger. 

This sort of tactical ploy isn’t uncommon anymore. Mikel Arteta has done something similar with Bukayo Saka in the past, and Thomas Tuchel has his own variation with Ruben Loftus-Cheek. 

Pedro Neto can be the most dangerous player on the field from several different areas. He’s a relentless asset. 

Eberechi Eze, Crystal Palace: The Enabler

Crystal Palace had a clear game plan against Liverpool: sit deep in a back-five and hit them on the break. Liverpool’s back-line stayed high — as expected — and Zaha found a lot of joy in behind (and should have found more!). 

That being said, the key player in enabling this game plan was Eberechi Eze, who played off the left in Palace’s 5-4-1 (below). The side defended brilliantly, and if they could get the ball to Eze, it was almost a guarantee that he would take space, beat a man, and look for the final ball to Zaha. That worked especially well given that his direct opponent was Trent Alexander-Arnold, who is famous for pushing high up the pitch. 

Eze’s movements are extremely pleasing on the eye and he never seems to get out of second gear. I’m sure many of you will remember this goal he scored from two seasons ago. Balance, composure, and subtle touches into space – that’s Eberechi Eze. 

But I expect him to play in that role exclusively against the biggest of boys – like Liverpool and Manchester City – who seek to dominate possession and pin Palace deep. Against Arsenal (and then against Villa), Eze played as a ten and searched for pockets of space around Thomas Partey. His carrying was also on display then, as he constantly drove into space when Palace plucked the ball from Arsenal. He drew several key fouls and should have scored the equalizer early in the second half. 

Patrick Vieira’s 4-2-3-1 on that night demonstrated his ability to make Crystal Palace more flexible and progressive than we’ve ever seen. In preseason, the midfield three looked more symmetrical, with Schlupp and Eze flanking Cheick Doucouré. In this setup, their number 10 operated in the right half-space and often drifted wide as Jordan Ayew (a natural striker) tucked inside (below). The subtlety in Eze’s touches and body movements make him grueling to defend against. His direct dribbles and carries through the middle can be so, so dangerous. 

Now picture Eze overlapping Michael Olise around the box. That alone will not only draw attention from Wilfried Zaha, but also potentially become one of the league’s most promising partnerships. 

There’s no telling where Eze will be deployed on a weekly basis, but he will always create danger with his penetrative dribbling.

Christophe Galtier will do what many international sides are doing to win major cup competitions: implement a back-three

Man On Monday 008

Things had to change. PSG simply have too much money and talent on their hands to still have nothing to show for it in the Champions League. But this summer, rather than continuing to accept the outcomes of the last few years, PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi shook things up. He first secured Mbappé’s signature, which at one point felt impossible after they lost to Real Madrid in the Champions League quarter-final. He fired their technical director, Leonardo, and replaced him with the famed Luis Campos — the “football advisor” who was responsible for building that Monaco team and the most recent title-winning Lille side. 

Most crucially, Al-Khelaifi has now taken a giant leap by appointing Christophe Galtier – who worked with Campos at Lille. Galtier now becomes the club’s first French manager since Laurent Blanc (2013-2016). For a club that has fostered a globalized, super-brand-like culture that boasts superstars from all over, PSG is attempting to change its ethos. In Galtier’s presentation last Tuesday, the club’s president was adamant that the hire signified a new era. He said it four times.

Part of this decision comes down to Galtier’s nationality and image; most of it has to do with his career trajectory and style of play. This is the man who got the best out of his players at Lille and unexpectedly triumphed over his new employers. His football has historically played into the underdog-esque mentality, based upon gritty high-pressure and high-tempo play, most commonly in a 4-4-2. 

But in his first press conference, Galtier was insistent that he understands the challenge that awaits him. He hasn’t coached superstars like Messi, Neymar, and Mbappé before. Managing their efforts and finding the right balance may be the toughest task of his career. And while it would be fair to assume he’ll begin with his typical 4-4-2 setup, Galtier interestingly told us what he planned to do – something coaches don’t usually do when they first meet the press. 

Galtier said he would look to implement a back-three from the start. 

What would a back-three setup look like?

Working Neymar, Messi, and Mbappé into a cohesive XI proved too difficult last season for Pochettino. I mean, it’s objectively difficult. The only one who actually defends is Neymar, and at this point in each of their respective careers, none are true forwards that can play alone through the middle. The trident may be golden, but it’s a bit deformed. That’s why links to young strikers like Sassuolo’s Gianluca Scamacca make so much sense. Yet in each prong of the trident, you have either the best dribbler in the world, the best player in the world at running in behind, and the best in the world at finding pockets of space in between the lines.

There must be something there. There just has to be. 

Flashes of both chemistry and lack thereof were on display last season. Pochettino afforded his stars so much freedom that they frequently looked disjointed from the rest of the team. A back-three system would keep them on the pedestal they require but provide natural width and balance that can often be taken for granted. 

In midfield, the only player that you could argue is guaranteed to start is Marco Verratti, who is still playing at a world-class level and can operate in just about any system. New signing Vitinha feels like Verratti’s successor more than anything else, at least until we see him in action anyway. Assuming Galtier sets them up in a back three and the “MNM” trio starts, Verratti will have just one partner. As of now, that’s Vitinha, Leandro Paredes, Ander Herrera, Gini Wijnaldum, Danilo Pereira, or Idrissa Gueye. Not ideal, but you’d expect at least one of them to have some sort of revival under Christophe Galtier. This is the coach who brought Renato Sanches back to life.

The biggest reason to give the back-three a go is the quality of the wing-backs at his disposal. Off the right, Achraf Hakimi established himself as one of the best in the world at Dortmund and then at Inter in similar setups. He serves as the perfect wide outlet to drive the team up the pitch and even get into the box and finish off moves. Pushing him back up into his natural wingback position should get the best out of him, especially if he’s overlapping Messi. 

On the opposite flank, Nuno Mendes has already proven to be astute business. He brings a level of dynamism and technical ability that can still be molded into just about anything at such a young age. 

Hakimi and Mendes’ attacking qualities also alleviate the need to purchase a box-to-box midfield world-beater. PSG should only have to attack with five across the front.

The central defenders and goalkeepers are probably the least worrisome groups of the squad, as Galtier really just has a few decisions to make. Marquinhos and Kimpembe have both shown penchants for carrying the ball up the pitch, making them suitable for wider center-back roles. A fit Sergio Ramos is still a fine anchoring option. 

This system is well-suited for a team that wants to win the Champions League

After romantically running through the reasons why managing PSG would be such a joyous challenge, Galtier ended his press conference emphatically by saying he’d lean on a back-three defense. The Parisian press was audibly surprised.

Playing with an extra center-back often feels like a more cautious choice; it’s typically adopted by teams that expect to concede possession and defend the penalty area from central penetration and crosses. That being said, managers like Antonio Conte have continuously shown that it can be successful at the elite club level. It all depends on the players you have available and your footballing education. Inter’s 2021 title-winning side featured rampaging wing-backs like the aforementioned Achraf Hakimi and aggressive forwards that ran into space like Romelu Lukaku. A match made in heaven. Yet the back-three (or -five depending on player roles) doesn’t merely serve as the antithesis to possession-based play, it can also be a substitute.

Chelsea won the Champions League in 2021 with five recognized defenders on the pitch, and have consistently attained both good fluidity and defensive stability under ex-PSG coach Thomas Tuchel. Most of Europe’s best international sides are now leaning on the system to marry those two sides of the game. Deschamps’s France won the World Cup in a 4-2-3-1 of sorts, but have since made the switch. 

Given that PSG’s eventual goal is to win the Champions League – a cup competition – they should follow the example of international teams that boast global superstars. Having at least the flexibility to do will make them so much more dangerous while always keeping their head above water.

Galtier’s words on his first day serve as a clear statement of intent. This is a new era at PSG.  

Analyzing the reaction to the June Nations Lague games 

ManOnMonday007

In the recent international “break” that saw star players like Kevin De Bruyne and Virgil van Dijk complain about its purpose after a grueling season, several larger nations struggled. The two most notably poor performances came from England and France, arguably the two favorites for Qatar 2022. England looked stagnant and lost twice to Hungary, leading to the most extreme Southgate-out sentiments we’ve seen for a while. France fielded one of their most exciting squads of this current cycle, blending emerging talents with the experience of the 2018 World Cup winners, yet slumped to disappointing results against Denmark, Croatia, and Austria. 

While it would be foolish to make blanket statements about their performances in this window, it is fair to note that the performances were worrying. That’s logical. Concerns and criticism are always okay and should be encouraged in this sport. But the international game has become so finicky. Spain’s dominance at the start of the last decade probably clouded our judgment, but true victory is so hard to come by in today’s game. The margins that determine success and failure have become even finer than they already are at the club level. So many things have to go your way.

France’s 2018 World Cup win serves as a key example of why tournament football is treated differently from the club game by coaches, and should be viewed accordingly by us, the fans. The metrics that are used to measure and explain club and players’ performances rely on sample sizes that international tournaments simply can’t. They are short and every game has a heightened meaning. One mistake that you could otherwise correct later in the Premier League season can ruin years of work. The international game has to be managed to perfection, meaning managers mitigate risk at all costs.  

Given the amount of talent at France’s disposal, their setup in Russia was inherently negative, featuring a lower-block, with a defensive midfielder playing wide left (Matuidi) and two center-backs by trade (Hernandez and Pavard) at full-back. Deschamps trusted Pogba enough to form a double pivot alongside N’Golo Kanté and relied on 18-year-old Mbappé to provide a threat in behind. Thibault Courtois, the goalkeeper for arguably the most forward-thinking European national side in Belgium, famously slammed France for their (lack of) style of play when they were defeated 1-0 in the semi-final by a header off a corner.

France won the World Cup despite not blowing anyone away with their play, which shouldn’t surprise us at the international level anymore.

France won penalties in the right moments, made the most of set-pieces, and were lethal on the break. They were the beneficiaries of a fluke goal against Uruguay (Muslera’s parry into his own net) and produced that one moment of magic (Pavard’s goal vs. Argentina) that changed the dynamic of their tournament. Deschamps made a compromise by playing safer despite having the best squad on paper and won the World Cup.

Compare that to Euro 2016 where Portugal’s Eder sucker-punched France with a long-range effort that was essentially a winning lottery ticket and you will find something relatively similar. Portugal had barely survived in just about every round, yet managed to become champions for the first time in their history without Cristiano Ronaldo on the pitch. They played conservatively and did just enough. Everything came together. Since then, Portugal have continued to play defensively in tournaments, scoring some nice transition goals but consistently falling second-best to better opposition.

Eder gave Portuguese football fans the best day of their lives, even if the team didn’t necessarily “deserve” to win.

The difficulty with convincing fans that playing conservatively is sustainable in these competitions comes when you don’t win. In defeat, there is always the perception that the collective play and personnel can be improved upon, even when luck may be the biggest factor. 

Gareth Southgate has been vocal about analyzing the successes of France and Portugal in the modern international game, and why their more conservative approaches have proved successful. The amount of work and research Southgate and his staff do makes it impossible for them to be unaware of the alternative ways England could be playing. 

His entire philosophy as England coach has been based on meticulous analysis to improve the performance of the entire English FA. Prior to 2018, England had not been to a World Cup semi-final since 1990. Southgate has managed a fairly consistent group of players throughout with the aim to bring the group together. (Under previous management, England had given isolated caps to players like Gabby Agbonlahor and Bobby Zamora. You don’t see those one-offs anymore)

Southgate takes a lot of criticism for someone who has drastically improved the consistency of the England national side at major tournaments.

Whether you want Harry Maguire to rot or Jack Grealish to start every game, you must appreciate the progress England has made. Younger players are being successfully integrated, and most of them are not yet at their peak. The Nations League results were a wake-up call but were not the real thing. You can’t convince Southgate to play more expansively when he is preparing for a World Cup where he will likely play conservatively. England have shown real progress from where they were before he took over. They have a good chance of winning. 

As fans of the most exhilarating game in the world, it is healthy to temper expectations. It’s difficult and potentially less fun, but winning rarely occurs. The international game can’t provide you with the same experience the elite club game does; it is now built on defensive structure and set pieces. France, Portugal, and England now all favor back three systems, and they’re not the only ones. This is just what international football has become, for better or for worse.

You just have to hope one of your players can provide that moment of magic that sends you into euphoria. 

Is Salah a striker or a winger? It doesn’t actually matter

On April 19th, Thiago and Mo Salah were on press conference duties after Liverpool’s 4-0 thrashing of Man United. Many of you probably saw the interview when it circulated on social media, mainly because Salah had said “they made our lives easy” (He cleared this up afterwards by claiming he had been referring to his own defenders rather than United’s). 

Yet what caught my attention occurred twenty seconds prior to Salah’s remark. Thiago was giving classic post-match praise to his teammates and made a point to say that such performances are possible because of the “three strikers,” which prompted Salah to interrupt and correct him, claiming that he was a winger. Rather than concede and move on, Thiago grimaced and replied, “striker more than winger, come on.” Salah chuckled.

Was one right and the other wrong? I’m actually not sure, but they both have a point.

Thiago’s education under Guardiola

At Barça, Thiago was one of many small but technical midfielders that helped make possession cool. In those years under Pep, Barcelona were so focused on possession that people eventually got bored. In Marti Perarnau’s Pep: The Evolution, Pep is quite transparent about his need to dominate every game by keeping the ball. Pep tirelessly worked on build-up play, and was less concerned with the final third, because “all we have to do is get it to Messi.”

Perarnau’s account of Pep’s development at Bayern is fascinating on a personal level, but is even more revealing from a tactical perspective. Without Messi, Pep had to become more complete. Sure, he still had world-class players at his disposal, but these players came from a different school of thought than those at Barça. In fact, Pep brought Thiago and Xabi Alonso in for his second season and claims that they – particularly Alonso – enabled Bayern to exert far more dominance over games. A Spanish deep-lying midfielder. Shock.

In his three years at Bayern, Pep reportedly used 23 different on-paper formations due to varying opposition setups or injuries in the squad. At several points, he had just one or two midfielders available and ended up deploying five forwards and wingers (not uncommon today, per se, but at this point it very much was). 

Ribery – Douglas Costa – Lewandowski – Muller – Robben

All five across the top of the pitch. Their jobs were to stretch then penetrate the defense leaving build-up duties to the defenders and midfielders. Pep says very clearly, “today we played with five strikers.” 

Now take Thiago’s point. Given that he played for such an extended period of time under Pep, it feels right that he would echo the sentiments of his old coach. All forwards whose primary role is to attack the goal are strikers. Not only was Salah the most lethal goalscorer in the Premier League last season, but many metrics back this claim up. He took more penalty box touches (333) and shots per 90 (4.37) than any other player in the division – despite not being a true center forward. 

Klopp’s gegenpress and Salah’s increased role in possession

On the other hand, it’s easy to see why Salah would argue he’s a winger. At Basel, Roma, and Fiorentina, Salah became renown for long and direct runs down the right flank. You may remember the several goals he scored in Italy for Fiorentina then Roma where he ran the entire length of the pitch. Upon his arrival at Liverpool, he had his doubters (myself included), but he immediately defied expectations as he scored 30 goals in his debut season. 

He obviously hasn’t stopped since, as he’s never scored less than twenty goals in the Premier League. Yet Salah has never quite overcome the critics in the back of the room who don’t like the way he plays (although I doubt he cares). He hasn’t really come close to winning a Ballon d’Or, and many fans dismiss his truly remarkable statistical output. This is astounding in and of itself given that the sport (and its fans) is becoming more and more accustomed to the championing of statistics.

It’s easy to claim Salah is a product of Klopp’s gegenpress style, which purposefully sets Salah (and Mané) up closer to the goal, rather than further out wide. But as Klopp has tweaked Liverpool’s tactics to exert more controlled dominance this season, Salah has evolved (and Thiago has flourished).

Rather than stay high and contribute solely through key actions around the box, Salah provided a lot more movement in possession this year. This coincided directly with Klopp’s decision to move Trent Alexander-Arnold further infield to make him more dangerous on the ball. The ever-important triangles required to keep the ball ticking were retained by the rotation of Salah, Trent, and Jordan Henderson, who often pushed up into Salah’s high and wide position. This meant Salah would drop off into a right-back-like position to act as a pressure valve and recycle possession to the other side. 

This was new. It meant positional rotations would pull opponents around and open space in the channels between center back and right back. It meant Trent could get more involved higher up the pitch. It meant Salah was more unpredictable given that he wasn’t simply lurking in his patented inside-right position around the penalty area.

Take this example against Chelsea in January.

As Trent crept inside to offer help in possession in order to switch the ball, Salah was already holding his width near the touchline, thereby pulling Rudiger towards him. Henderson sprinted into the channel to provide an option while capturing the attention of Kovacic and the retreating Alonso. Salah fired the ball back inside to Fabinho, who smartly laid it off to the side’s chief creator, Alexander Arnold. With Chelsea’s left-hand side left disorganized by Salah and Henderson’s movement, Salah smelled danger, sprinted in behind, and received an inch-perfect ball from Trent. One-on-one against Marcos Alonso, the outcome was inevitable. 

This was one of many instances in which Salah dropped deeper and wider to create space for others.

Yet despite the fact that these positional tweaks saw him play in a seemingly more controlled manner, he still finished with yet another golden boot. That’s just a testament to his ability. 

It doesn’t matter what we call him

Klopp’s tweaks in possession probably owe some credit to Guardiola, who originally re-popularized the inverted full-back last season. After Joao Cancelo had clearly become such an asset, both Klopp and Tuchel were quick to integrate their own inverted full-backs to provide an extra body in midfield while simultaneously pushing gifted players into more dangerous positions. Trent Alexander-Arnold, Reece James, and Joao Cancelo are now arguably their respective side’s most important players.

Yet aside from this tactical similarity, the principles that guide each of the coaches’ philosophies remain quite distinct. The right-sided channel that is occupied by the relentlessness of Salah at Liverpool is graced by the coolness of Mahrez at Manchester City. They’re both left-footed, but have very different skill sets suited to their current clubs.

Klopp’s Liverpool have made significant strides in terms of controllably dominating games (in the way that Manchester City does) rather than just energetically overwhelming the opposition. Their progression as a side highlighted a different side to Salah’s game this year. One that may foreshadow a different type of eventual replacement for him at Liverpool, and one that makes him suitable for just about any style of play.

Players don’t just fulfill classic (or stereotypical) functions anymore. The distinction between wingers and strikers isn’t always clear. Salah is a prime example. He can operate in various roles, which is part of what makes him one of the best in the world.

Thiago may be right, but Salah has earned the right to call himself whatever he wants.

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.