Window Shopping: Nice's Youcef Atal, a Potential Star Fullback in the Making
The fullback position has never been more important.
At the highest level, fullbacks have the unenviable task of moonlighting as another attacking player during possession, stretching the opposition, knowing when to attack the space behind the opposition defense, all the while having enough spark off the dribble to beat his marker and get into the final third with speed for crossing opportunities. In addition, these fullbacks must have the ability to track back and cover lots of ground or else risk being labeled a liability defensively. Different clubs have taken different approaches to addressing the fullback position: some have spent top dollar on premium options, others have looked to more cost effective measures to get close to equal value. Either way you slice it, it’s become almost impossible to compete at the top of the game without high level fullbacks.
That’s what makes Youcef Atal such an intriguing prospect, and one who’s been gaining some steam within niche parts of Football Twitter. At 22, Atal is at the right age to target for higher level clubs abroad. The fullback position is arguably the one that demands the highest level of athleticism, so the peak years in their hypothetical aging curve is perhaps a bit earlier than elsewhere on the pitch. Combine his young age with the impressive production, and you got yourself quite the tantalizing option.
The thing that sticks out with Atal’s production is the high volume of dribbles and turnovers he’s piled up. While there’s an expectation that fullbacks who fly up and down the pitch will have noteworthy self creation numbers, Atal is on the extreme end of things and has dribbling and turnover numbers that more resembles what you would expect from high usage attackers like Eden Hazard or Allan Saint-Maxamin. When Atal gets older and probably gets himself onto a better team with better surrounding talent, those numbers will go down, but it is noteworthy that his statistical resume includes those outliers.
Atal’s positioning is what you would expect from the modern day fullback. During buildup he's very high, allowing the wingers to cut inside into the halfspace and occupy that part of the pitch. When the opposition brings their line higher up, Atal will get himself almost aligned with the defensive line to try and take advantage of long passes.
Off-ball awareness in terms of trying to exploit space is something that Atal shows the capabilities of doing. When there's an opportunity to attack the opposition in semi-transition, he'll make the standard fullback play of overlapping the ball carrier to the outside and be an option to dump the ball off for an incoming cross. If a player on Nice is occupying the right half space, he'll move up to receive the ball and drag his marker with him, opening up space for Atal to be open for either the direct lob from the CB or having the player in the halfspace one touch a pass for Atal to receive. Atal is constantly on his toes trying to run into space whenever possible, trying to creep forward from the blindside of his marker.
Having awareness off the ball is valuable, and any assessment of Atal's ability as a fullback should mention this aspect to his game. Having said that, the meat and potatoes with Atal's skillset lies in his ability on-ball. At his best, he can be electric. With his combination of burst and ability use his body to shield the ball from opponents once he gets a step on his marker, he can be a handful for opponents to deal with. He takes his fair share of crosses, though he's not at the point where he could be considered a high end crosser as a fullback. Atal's passing is better shown when he's attempting to create short lead passes for the wide player to receive and run into the penalty box. If he's not beating his man off the dribble, he'll try to use his teammate and initiate combinations where a short pass is made and a one touch lob pass is attempted that Atal tries to get on the end of.
One of the things that Atal does quite well is that he leverages his ability off the dribble to get himself in the right wide areas of the box for cross-box passes instead of settling for crosses. While not all crosses are equal in terms of value, crosses aren't the most efficient way of building an attack, especially crosses from further away. With Atal's burst, he's not shy about trying to get an advantage and hunt for a more dangerous pass. Sometimes this doesn't end well and he gets knocked off the ball, or even the first dribble attempt around midfield goes nowhere, but there's value to be had in having a fullback who's flashed the ability to create the kind of chaos in the penalty box that is more associated with wingers.
It's clear that Atal has been a net positive going forward, albeit the manner in which he's done it has been in some ways atypical. That does makes you wonder a little bit if his performance would translate on a different team. Atal's defensive work has been a bit more questionable, even while his defensive numbers which are about as good as you could reasonably expect from a fullback. Atal has been used as a rightback and right wingback in different formations this season, and that's helped make his defensive activity standout because he's quite active from one end of the pitch to the other.
One of the things that's noticeable with Atal is that he is not afraid to take chances defensively. When he recognizes that there's an awkward first touch for an opponent to the right wing and that forces him to have his back towards goal with his first touch, he'll charge ahead and immediately put pressure on him. That's a good thing when taking into account where football is currently with very good-elite teams using a bad first touch as a pressing trigger to try and force turnovers. What's a bit more worrying is that Atal gets himself into situations where he gambles for a tackle/interception and completely whiffs on it, which can lead to possible counter attacks going the other way.
In terms of off-ball awareness defensively, Atal is generally aware of where he is and where his marker is, so he doesn't lose track of someone creeping on his blindside and springing open to receive a pass in an advantageous position. Even when that does happen though, Atal has shown the requisite speed to make up for it and snuff out any further danger. Though, it's an open question whether that will continue against higher level competition.
There’s a lot to like with Youcef Atal, especially considering he’s already producing at a high level in his first season in a top five league. His skill set fits with the modern game and the demands put on fullbacks, and his dribbling and high value chance creation go beyond what even most modern fullbacks are capable of as he uses his athleticism in a functional way to create havoc in the final third. It's fair to point out that he's been giving up an exceedingly high volume of turnovers this season, and that puts a strain on the rest of the squad to put out potential fires defensively, but the pluses have outweighed the minuses. His defensive numbers have been elite, albeit there are a couple chinks in the armor when you dive a bit deeper into the film, though there's not much there that's terribly worrying for his future development.
To some extent, it's useful to think of Atal and his optimum utilization like a modern day defenseman in hockey. Like with a defenseman in hockey who wants to bring the puck into the opposition zone, Atal will not hesitate to drive the ball forward into the final third and penalty box. The key is that there's the defensive structure in place to mitigate his high position when a change of play occurs, because that will happen a noticeable amount of times if he plays close to his natural game. If there's not a strategy to mitigate potential transition opportunities, then the balance between what's being put on the table vs what's being taken off isn't as clean. Atal would still remain a net positive, just not necessarily an overpowering one.
With all that said, there are several clubs that should investigate Youcef Atal as a long term option, particularly given that Nice aren't a huge club and don't have great odds for attaining European football for 2019-20 so that should make a future transfer fee pretty affordable. Everton would be a smart landing spot, particularly given that Seamus Coleman is 30 years old and his best days are behind him. For a club like Everton who have aspirations of trying to build something more sustainable than what's gone on over the past few seasons and break into the top six, Atal provides them the option of someone who can contribute in the immediate present and for the foreseeable future. If a bigger club within the PL took a similar line of reasoning and wanted both present and future value, than Tottenham could be a logical destination. While Keiran Trippier has his positives, the offense/defense balance has always been a question with him, and he's at the latter end of his prime years as a fullback at age 28. Atal's ceiling is higher than Trippier's present peak, and even his present value is comparable to Trippier's. Within Ligue 1, Lyon would be a good fit as he would compliment the exciting Ferland Mendy as a fullback duo and add another fun player to a squad full of them.
Youcef Atal is an exciting fullback and has a diverse range of abilities that you don't see everyday. At the current stage of his career, Atal is tantalizing but has a couple areas of improvement, one being his ability to recognize when and where to gamble with defensive actions. The upside is that with greater maturation to his game (which isn't a guarantee), those areas get ironed out and what you then have is a complete monster who ranks among the elite of the elite in his position and perhaps stretches the boundaries of what the modern day fullback should provide. That upside makes Atal one of the most fascinating young talents in European football, and one that will gain more notoriety as the season goes on.