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May 15, 2018

Is Nabil Fekir Good Enough for Liverpool?

By Mohamed Mohamed

Nabil Fekir. You’ve probably heard of him.

Over the last two or three summers transfer rumors swirled around Fekir at Olympique Lyonnais. Recent reports suggest that this year might actually be the year they come to fruition. Not only will the club not stand in the way of a potential transfer, but that move could involve Liverpool splashing somewhere in the region of €70 million. Initially, it seems a bit odd that Liverpool would shell out that amount of money on an attacker, especially when other holes exist in the squad. It’s not that Liverpool don’t need depth behind their fabulous front three, but it’s possible that spending that much money on that position isn’t the smartest idea.

Conversely, if Fekir is a legitimate star talent, then a team should do almost everything it can to acquire him. He has about as a high a level of coordination on the ball as you’ll find in an attacking midfielder, whether with his ball striking, or how he handles himself in tight spaces. He might be one of the few players out there who can beat out post-shot expected goal models on a consistent basis. There’s a lot to like about Fekir, but there are also risks involved. Not just his injury history, but also how adaptable his style of play would be for a club like Liverpool, and whether he will continue to convert at a higher rate than what his shot quality on average would dictate.

Fekir’s clearly good, the question is how good of a fit would he be for Liverpool?

For most of the season, Lyon played a 4–2–3–1 formation with Fekir nominally as the #10, although he had the freedom to occupy many different spots on the pitch. Sometimes, during the start of buildup play, he’d be situated as far back as a halfspace central midfielder, similar to one of Thomas Lemar’s role for Monaco during 2016-17. Once in a while, when the ball was on the other side of the pitch, he’d try and make off the ball runs past the back line to find space in the penalty box. More times than not though, Fekir spent games lurking around and trying to find space in between the midfield and defensive line, positioning his body to best turn and immediately attack once he got the ball.

Over the last five or six games of the season Lyon switched to a diamond setup.  Fekir largely played the same freelancing role that he did previously. In general, the change worked quite well, creating a crisper attack, taking one of the team’s heavy volume shooters out of the equation and instead maintaining the midfield trio of Houssem Aouar, Lucas Tousart, and Tanguy Ndombele. That led to better structure during buildup play and better positioning of players within the final third. There was a bit more emphasis on Fekir maintaining width alongside Memphis Depay and Bertrand Traore, though there were still plenty of examples of Fekir finding space between the lines. Whenever one of the other two attackers moved between the centerbacks, Fekir drifted to the wide spots to occupy the space. He also featured prominently in interplay scenarios where he would be a passing option for quick hitting combinations as a method of progressing the ball and getting into dangerous areas in the halfspace or central areas.

That gif above could also function as an example as to how Liverpool could try and sandwich Fekir as a central midfielder within their 4-3-3 as a way of trying of have their cake and eating it too. In theory, Fekir could be the nominal midfielder that’s being given free reign to work alongside the fluid front three and still act at times as a #10 during possession. If Liverpool want to play him as part of the midfield band to have all their attackers at once, they’ll need Jurgen Klopp to work his Adam Lallana style midfield conversion magic once again. Otherwise, the side risks tipping the midfield’s delicate balance out of whack and becoming vulnerable to opponents’ transitions. His performance versus PSG in a 2-1 victory on January 21 represents perhaps the best case Fekir as a number 8 scenario. He provided ample value with his press resistance abilities as well as scoring in the opening two minutes.

There are other ways that Fekir could fit in at Liverpool as well. If the teams sees him as a Mohamed Salah type, then it would mean checking his tendency to always come deeper and get on the ball and replacing it with the type of runs inside the box that made Salah a household name this season. There’s a chance that Fekir can learn to make those runs with more regularity, but a lot of what makes him effective is he’s a multifaceted attacking player who loves to be involved in buildup play. Then there’s the fact that Fekir doesn’t possesses Salah’s level of speed and initial burst, mostly because nobody does. Perhaps Fekir could also be used as a Firmino like striker because of his ability to combine play and shield opponents from the ball, but, on the defensive side, Fekir isn’t the same level of worker as Firmino. Of course, if Fekir is a star level talent who’s on the same age timeline as Salah/Mane/Firmino then regardless of potential fit concerns, you just get him no matter what and rely on his talent to transcend those problems. But, if he’s not, then those issues could hamper his transition.

Fekir’s ball striking has always been fascinating, and it has contributed to his sky high conversion rate in open play relative to the rest of the league. Since 2014–15, Fekir has been converting around 18% of his shots in open play into goals, which is around double what the average rate is across Ligue 1. He does a good job in regards to shot placement when he has enough room to shoot, and at his best, he can get some mean dip and velocity on his shooting, flustering goalkeepers as he hits the low corners. How much of this can be replicated against tougher competition is anyone’s guess, but it’s definitely something to monitor moving forward.

The other key part of Fekir’s game  is the immense control and coordination he has, even when under pressure by the opponents back in his own half. That part of his game should largely translate just fine wherever he ends up. The skill level he boasts is quite impressive and his ability to use his lower center of gravity is remarkable when shifting his body around. I would normally worry about players who can’t create separation on a consistent basis and I still wonder if he lost just a tiny bit of acceleration from his catastrophic knee injury, but he’s still dangerous even when he has opponents draped all over him in deeper positions.

Of course, there are flaws to Fekir’s game too. In addition to the positional problems that could exist in putting him in Liverpool’s version of a 4–3–3 setup, there’s the chance that against tougher competition Fekir’s balance and close control don’t offset potential concerns with his ability to create separation from his marker. If that happens, he may end up not being good enough to accentuate his gifts. If he doesn’t continue to be an above average shooter, that also would chip away at some of the value he would bring. It would be a struggle similar to the one Alexandre Lacazette underwent this season at Arsenal, seeing his finishing success drop from Ligue 1. There are reasons to be skeptical about how good this move would be on Liverpool’s part.

Concerns notwithstanding, it’s easy to see why Fekir earned so much hype over the years. The guy has been a very productive attacking talent in a big five league going back to his 2014-15 season when he contributed 21 non penalty goals + assists as a 21 year old. The fact that he’s more or less looked like the same scintillating talent after an ACL tear is quite encouraging. Now he’s coming undoubtedly the best season of his career, and at age 24 he should just be hitting is prime. That said, even though he looks to be fully recovered, Fekir still does have that torn ACL in his injury record, and that he’s had spells over the past couple of seasons where flareups in his knees and lower body have forced him to miss time. Fekir’s ceiling is quite high, but the downside risk is real.

Despite the tantalizing skill set, signing Fekir for huge money isn’t a slam dunk. Every time Fekir winces on the ground or is slow to get up, everybody will hold their collective breath, and his style of play and low center of gravity means that he’s going to get kicked around a bunch. It’s also fair to question whether there would be too much of a trade-off between attack and defense if he’s shuttled into a central midfield role or if he’s quick enough to perform as a wide attacker for a Klopp managed side. But he’s also been a legitimate game breaker in France, and in the right environment could do similar things in England, a genuine star talent with probably 3–4 peak years ahead of him. Liverpool spending big on Fekir is a risky proposition and it might be better for them to diversify that sum of money to better round out the squad. But, he’s so damn talented that there’s a chance that even at the sky high level transfer figures being reported he could end up being worth the risk.

Article by Mohamed Mohamed