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January 16, 2019

Oussama Idrissi and the Difficulties of Scouting Eredivisie Talent

By Mohamed Mohamed

Football Twitter is often skeptical of Eredivisie talents. Recent high profile players have left the Netherlands and struggled elsewhere, and it’s raised questions about how players will translate outside the Eredivisie cocoon. To be fair, there have also been recent success stories. Sebastien Haller has been very productive at Eintracht Frankfurt, Davinson Sanchez has generally been solid with Tottenham, and Justin Kluivert has shown flashes of his immense potential at Roma. All of that has left the Eredivisie in something of a weird state despite its reputation as a development league: there are still gems to be found if you look hard enough, but you’re not provided with the same level of certainty that you do in a league like Ligue 1.

That brings us to Oussama Idrissi, who has filled the shoes of Alireza Jahanbakhsh as AZ Alkmaar’s vibrant winger. On the surface, Idrissi’s production is on the higher end of what you would want from a 22 year old attacker. He’s taking a lot of shots from decent areas, he’s creating chances for others, and his high dribble numbers would signal that he some burst with the ball at his feet. The turnover numbers are a bit concerning, but there’s a lot to like with what Idrissi has done this season, particularly given that he’s not getting the talent bump from playing on one of the two Dutch super teams, Ajax or PSV.

But again, you see that he’s doing this in the Eredivisie and the antennas start to go up. There are genuine challenges when trying to scout young talents in Holland: there’s both anecdotal and data-led evidence to suggest it’s a more wide open league, which makes it an optimal environment for attackers to do well. Defending is not exactly the greatest, both from an individual and team aspect. The distribution in talent from the likes of PSV and Ajax (and to a lesser extent Feyenoord and AZ Alkmaar) to the lower end of the table is more pronounced than it is in other leagues, so higher end talents can really lay down the wood on lower end clubs and boost their individual numbers.

Given all those factors, when it comes to projecting future production, the bar for younger talents within Holland to be worth allocating resources for from bigger clubs around Europe is a bit higher than in other leagues. There are examples of those who’ve done that: Kluivert did so as a teenager with his ability to create separation off the dribble, and Steven Bergwijn himself showed a high level of athleticism and was a diverse chance creator. Those two were good enough that you wouldn’t be worried about them at least becoming solid players, and Kluivert is now plying his trade in Roma while Bergwijn will almost certainly get a move abroad in the next six to eight months.

Back to Idrissi, there are two question that can be asked about him:

  • Has Idrissi produced at a high enough level to warrant further scouting?
  • Does Idrissi pass the eye test?

The answer to the first question is yes. Even with what was said before about the Eredivisie, having individual shot volume and xG numbers that approaches the top 5% of attacking midfielders/wingers, while having notable chance creation numbers, still means something. His statistical profile is of a high usage wide player that produces tangible results in terms of individual shot statistics, and if that’s even moderately translatable elsewhere, he becomes a valuable player who’s not even of peak age yet.

Does Idrissi pass the eye test? That’s where things get a little bit tricky.

Let’s start off with the good, and there’s a fair amount of things to like about Idrissi’s game. One of Idrissi’s greatest strengths is something that actually doesn’t have to do with him doing anything on-ball, but rather what he does off-ball. He is very fast when it comes to running in a straight line or even making a looping run. When there’s space behind the opposition defense, Idrissi will make a run towards the open space and try to be a target for a long ball over the top. During counter attacks where the ball is on the opposite side, Idrissi would use his speed to present himself as an option for a possible tap-in on the far post. You could see on a team with good passers how Idrissi could use his speed as a vehicle towards good scoring chances.

An interesting part of Idrissi’s game is that he has a tendency to involve a teammate in combination play to help maneuver himself into the box for shooting chances. In particular, he’ll make a grounded pass into a teammate for them to lay it off for Idrissi to use his quickness off the mark and get on the receiving end of the lay-off. It’s in these instances that you see his skill on the ball in conjunction with his athleticism off of it, because he can also perform dribble moves before or after the lay-off from his teammate. There are times when this doesn’t work: the lay-off is not placed properly for Idrissi to run onto or the spacing around the box is congested and they’re too many bodies to navigate. But, on the whole, Idrissi can be quite clever in using combinations to generate shots.

Something that’s interesting with Idrissi is that a lot of his shots this season have come from the wide left area of the penalty box. It’s not hard to explain why this is the case: playing as an inverted left winger means you’ll be prone to taking a fair amount of shots from the wide left channels when cutting inside. With Idrissi’s tendency to use combination play to get into the box, particularly with his starting position being closer to the left touchline, that also would lead to him entering the box from the left side with few other options than to shoot. However you slice it, this could be a bit of a worry down the road because it’s hard to convert chances against higher level competition from the wide areas of the box (it’s one of the many things that made Sergio Aguero one of the greatest players in the PL era).

That’s the good with Idrissi, and these are things in his game that you could envision translating elsewhere in the event that he makes a move to a tougher league. However, there are deficiencies that make you skeptical. Idrissi has shown some bounce off the dribble, as it’d be hard to average nearly 4 dribbles per 90 minutes without showing signs of being able to beat his marker on-ball. He’s shown the ability to make multiple opponents miss during a sequence, and then follow it up with a positive event either individually with a shot or passing it elsewhere. Once in a while, he’ll evade defenders from deeper areas and help progress play a bit further up the pitch. However, there are definitely times where he looks mortal. Idrissi doesn’t have a lot of tricks or use a lot of feints to get separation in isolation situations when there’s a switch of play. If he’s on the left wing and he receives the ball, he’ll size up his defender and push the ball to a certain spot in the hopes that he can use his speed to get to the ball first. Idrissi is fast, but he doesn’t possess such outlier levels of speed that he can get to that ball consistently, so it can look bad at times.

Idrissi’s passing hasn’t shown to be a big worry against Eredivisie competition this season. He can create chances for others, as evident by his decent xA per 90 rate. He can make passes that start from the left wing and eventually land in the left halfspace if a teammate is open in that area of the pitch, and that’s not an insignificant type of pass to have in your repertoire. When it comes to high difficulty passing, that’s where I’m more skeptical of Idrissi’s capabilities. He’s cognizant of teammates making runs into advantageous areas, so he’ll try to get them the ball so they have a chance to get isolated with the keeper, but he’s not great with the delivery. It’s somewhat similar to what Memphis Depay showed during his days at PSV where he had the awareness to attempt difficult passes, but not necessarily the execution. The worrying thing would be that if he’s not able to make these passes in the Eredivisie, which has the environment that benefits attackers, one can’t help but be a bit skeptical that he develops into a high level passer.

I’m not sure what to make of Oussama Idrissi as a prospect. His statistical resume is right up there with a lot of attackers around his age group across Europe, and some of the things he does when looking at the film make you want to believe that he should be with the likes of Bergwijn and Hector Lozano where you’re not too worried about them moving abroad and being successful. But there are also times where the film makes it worrying to project high level production abroad with the lack of juice he can exhibit off the dribble, and the decent but not great passing he’s shown. And maybe that’s not fair to Idrissi. Maybe that’s judging him too harshly through the lens of the Premier League and not giving enough weight to any potential successes in Serie A or Ligue 1 or even the Bundesliga given Germany doesn’t have quite the daunting level of domestic competition that it had a few years back. It could just be that he goes to another league abroad other than England and more than holds his own.

I think there are two player comparisons that can be made with Oussama Idrissi. The first one would be Alireza Jahanbakhsh, that one being more of a comparison between what each did as AZ’s starting in the same position this season and last. What made Jahanbakhsh so dynamic within the Eredivisie last season was in addition to his gaudy goals and assist totals, he was such a versatile chance creator and overall playmaker that you couldn’t help but believe that his passing abilities would help him survive in the Premier League even with the questions surrounding his athleticism. It’s fair to say that Idrissi and Jahanbakhsh have some differences in their skillset, but Jahanbakhsh represents an example of a talented wide attacker leaving Holland, and it’s not been pretty for him even with the small sample size caveat.

The second player comparison would be with Lozano. Both Lozano and Idrissi skew towards the older range of prominent young talents in Holland, and that matters to some extent because the Eredivisie is a younger league and it’s a bit easier to dominate as a fully formed 22–23 year old. They also have somewhat similar roles as high usage wide forwards and use their off-ball speed to their advantage, albeit Lozano’s speed is probably a notch or two better than Idrissi. From a statistical standpoint, what the two have done is comparable and Idrissi actually outshines Lozano in a couple of areas, which should in theory assuage some fears with Idrissi.

Despite that, there are multiple reasons why Lozano is a safer option than Idrissi. For one, Lozano has been playing at this level for multiple seasons now as a high shot volume attacker for PSV. Another reason is that between the World Cup and PSV’s group stage matches in the Champions League, Lozano’s skillset has been for the most part translatable against higher end competition, whereas Idrissi doesn’t have that same benefit of the doubt to this point as he was largely held in check against PSV, Ajax and Feyenoord. Lozano’s ability to create separation off the dribble was something I was a bit skeptical of last season, but the World Cup exists as a data point in Lozano’s favor because he was electric in the tournament and that matters on some level, even with international football being a more simple style of play compared to domestic football.

I am prepared for all types of scenarios with Idrissi. He could make this analysis look silly and absolutely kill it for his next club, becoming more of a household name in the process. He could also struggle a fair bit moving abroad and bring some of these issues to the forefront. Idrissi is an example of the mental exercises that talent evaluators should do when examining Eredivisie talents, and the complexities that come with hypothesizing how they’ll do elsewhere. This isn’t to say that clubs should be entirely skeptical of the Eredivisie when mining young talents, because you would be doing yourself a disservice and not be investigating all options to make yourself better on the pitch, but rather accepting the reality that there’s some downside risk in doing so.

Article by Mohamed Mohamed