Young Talent Reflections Part 2: Midfielders and Fullbacks
In part 1, we took a deep dive into the winger position and how different skills relate to scalability at the highest level. In part 2, we’ll be turning our attention to midfielders and fullbacks
What is needed from the central midfield position has evolved tremendously over the past 10 to 15 years, with greater credence and appreciation given to midfielders who can combine both a high level of functional athleticism along with on-ball coordination. This has made the term "press-resistant" become frequently used within football's lexicon. With where European football is in 2019 at the highest level, finding a midfielder who can possess both qualities ensures that a club has a better chance of solving a greater variety of equations during matches. Obviously finding a midfielder who has close to elite press resistance is easier said than done and it’s why someone like Mousa Dembélé, specifically his peak form from 2015–17, is held in such reverence because he embodied the best of both worlds.
Of course before being able to produce on-ball actions, having smart spatial awareness is key and is a common trait among the best ball movers in Europe. Knowing where they are and whether there’s open space around them dictates whether a player could be aggressive in searching for a high value play or better off recycling possession to a nearby teammate. Everyone’s favorite golden boy, Frenkie De Jong, is an obvious example of someone who exhibits the right balance of understanding of these characteristics. He is one of the best midfielders in his age group at scanning his surroundings before receiving a pass. When he scans and deems a scenario where he can be aggressive, his abilities as a dual threat allow him to puncture the opposition and progress play. This is one of several reasons Barcelona shelled out £65 million for his services, because he has the smarts to best accentuate his extensive on-ball gifts.
A common sight during matches is the deepest midfielder retreating close to the centerback, allowing the fullbacks to push on higher up the pitch. From there, the midfielder has to have the requisite ability to make ground passes between the lines into the middle third and even beyond, transitioning past the earlier stages of buildup. It is a must as well for teams wanting to compete at a high level that the deep midfielder tasked with this is comfortable making these passes. Amadou Diawara is a great example of someone who has performed this task at a high level in his limited game time at Napoli, it is no doubt one of the reasons why Roma acquired his services this summer. Ibrahim Sangaré is another example of a player who can perform this role at a solid level (though not quite as proficient as Diawara), and while I have genuine questions about his ability to consistently hit more difficult aerial or ground passes through the midfield into dangerous areas in the final third, there’s a level of functionality to his passing in earlier phases of buildup.
Of course, a deep midfielder must be able to be press-resistant if dribbling, which can manifest itself in different ways. Perhaps it’s dragging the team forward through awe-inspiring runs from their own third into the middle third and beyond, or it’s a more subtle type of resistance which involves little shifts of the body to move horizontally to get open space and continue the possession, or perhaps a combination of both lateral elusiveness and eventual forward progress. Lucas Torreira during his time at Sampdoria and for stretches at Arsenal last season would be an example of someone who was more of the elusive type of midfielder that would pick and choose when to gain considerable forward yardage.
Tanguy NDombèlé gets a special mention here, because he possesses a lot of the skills needed to succeed at the highest level. At a young age, he already is one of the better midfielders in Europe at progressing play in a positive manner off the dribble. He showed that at lower levels with Amiens while playing in a multitude of positions, and continued to do so at Olympique Lyonnais. We can see aspects of his elite athleticism where he combines both the initial burst and speed needed to gain ground moving vertically, with the fluidity to maneuver within tight spaces. While NDombèlé’s overall skillset is different in ways compared to Dembélé, they do share a similar dominant trait, that of being able to get from point A -> point B.
To go along with his ball progression via dribbling, NDombèlé’s passing has shown to be at a high level in both Ligue 1 and the Champions League, particularly his passing into the final third and beyond. This was something I was initially a bit skeptical of, but with a greater sample size, it’s abundantly clear that he’s a very good passer and should project to continue so in the Premier League. He can hit a variety of passes into dangerous areas in a number of scenarios: off the dribble, during counter attacks or broken transition plays or against deeper blocks when Lyon had a clear talent advantage.
All of that is to say that Spurs are quite lucky to get someone of NDombèlé’s talent level, even at his price tag. There are two other players to highlight when it comes to ball carrying and forward passing for midfielders. One of them is Hamed Junior Traorè, who proved to be a fun under the radar prospect in Serie A during his half season at Empoli. While he’s a bit raw at his current stage of development, he had the outlines of a intriguing midfielder given his ability to drive play off the dribble and his aggressive nature, shown by attempting to turn any situation into something potentially advantageous (with mixed success). He’s still at the start of putting the entire package together, particularly his passing, but he’s someone to keep tabs on moving forward.
The other player of interest is Houssem Aouar. Unlike Traore, Aouar is arguably ready now to help a major Champions League club may well be another sell high prospect for Lyon now or in the future. For stretches over the past two seasons, it’s arguable that he was near the same caliber of prospect as NDombèlé, and he’ll be gifted more responsibilities this upcoming season with his teammate departed. The appeal with Aouar is obvious: a technically gifted midfielder who can operate within tight spaces in the middle or final third. His overall skillset has a high level of scalability given he also possesses ample athleticism to elude defensive pressure. It’s not too hard to imagine him assuming a role as an elite free roaming #8 in the not too distant future if or when he makes the step up to a super club.
One final note on free roaming #8's: in a similar manner to deeper midfielders, positioning is a huge thing to focus on when analyzing them. How are they stationed during buildup play, and as the ball progresses further up the field? How much do they move in search for space between the opposition's midfield and defensive lines? From there, you can analyze how cleanly they receive the ball once they're open between the lines, and whether they can immediately receive and create enough space from the nearest marker to plan out their next on-ball action. Being able to do this at a relatively high level should correspond favorably to putting up solid metrics such as chance creation and passes into the box in open play.
In a similar manner to how midfielder responsibilities have evolved over time, fullbacks have had a similar progression. What used to be a position that was perhaps more of an afterthought has become one of the most important cogs in the machine. Transfer prices for fullbacks are slowly starting to reflect the massive importance that they have, but they still lag behind other positions. It actually brings up an interesting discussion on whether we’ve reached the upper limit on what could realistically be asked from them given their two-way responsibilities, and if there’s another shift for the position on the horizon.
For now, it’s clear that elite fullbacks are burdened with not only having to be defensively responsible, but also being adept in attack. Those defensive responsibilities include having to be astute in knowing when to gamble with defensive actions to snuff out potential dangers. Get it wrong, and it could lead to chaos behind you. This is an area in which Youcef Atal, an electric a prospect as he is, still has some room for improvement. Though he shows good moments in correctly utilizing his athleticism into effective pressuring of the opponent, he has his moments where he completely whiffs on gambles and leaves teammates to clean up his mess.
Fullbacks in general must possess good off-ball awareness when defending in multiple scenarios, whether it be acting as a central player to help nullify counter attacks or pushing up to help counterpress following changes in possession from their already high positioning. When defending in their own third, they must be cognizant of off-ball runs and tracking their marker. Otherwise, they’re having to bank on their recovery speed to make up for the initial mistake. Fullbacks can at times get away with not being totally locked in off-ball, but it's not something that should be a regular occurrence.
In attack, to a large extent, fullbacks have assumed the roles that more nominally attacking wide players used to have: running up and down the touchline and creating chances from the wide areas. There’s a high demand for fullbacks who can create separation off the dribble and get into the final third with regularity. Athleticism, and in particular functional athleticism, are becoming more of a must to assume a starting spot at a major club. Going back to Atal, it is here that he shines brighter than arguably any other fullback prospect in Europe. It can’t be stated enough just how much of an elite athlete he is, so much so that Nice experimented with him playing as a winger (to varying degrees of success) towards the end of the season. What makes Atal special is that not only is he a threat towards the touchline to beat his marker, but also to make runs from outside to inside and getting into the penalty box for potential passes within the box.
Another example of a young fullback with an appealing intersection of athleticism and playmaking is Angeliño. Compared to Atal, Angeliño isn't quite the nuclear athlete but would still rank as comfortably above average. It is his passing, and in particular his diversity in creating chances, that makes him a fascinating prospect. Despite playing as a left-back, his expected goal assisted rate of 0.21 per 90 minutes ranked third among PSV players that played at least 900 minutes in the Eredivisie. He also ranked 3rd among PSV players in open play key passes per 90 and 1st in open play passes into the box with a monstrous per 90 rate of 3.91. Simply put, he produced playmaking numbers that are much more associated with upper tier wingers, let alone fullbacks. One could poke holes at his production being a byproduct of playing for a super club, and while there's some truth to that, the eye test with Angeliño has been encouraging both at the lower end in the Eredivisie (NAC Breda) and at the higher end (PSV). The main question with him is how much of his playmaking could be translated if you put him in a big 5 league, especially for a club that doesn't have such a pronounced talent advantage. Perhaps we'll get to see that question answered if Manchester City decide to sell Angeliño before the summer window closes.
Finally, an interesting test case for a fullback who differs slightly from the current template would be Ferland Mendy. What makes Mendy fascinating is his high level of comfort operating within the inside channels and ability to conduct play from there. Though there are other fullbacks who can perform this task, Mendy is on the higher end of the scale. He’s a dual threat to either make passes into or from the left halfspace or progress play individually. Of course, he also can perform the traditional parts of the fullback position as well with overlaps and passes into the box from the wing. Having a fullback who can perform inside or outside potentially makes for great diversity in deciding how buildup would occur on the left side, and choosing the type of left winger to pair with Mendy.
The general idea over the past two seasons of examining wingers, midfielders, and fullbacks was to have a better idea of what skills truly mattered, and which player archetypes would scale well against elite competition. In that respect, I would say that I'm better off now compared to where I was when beginning the project. Having said that, this type of contextualizing is still far from being an exact science for myself, with there being obvious room for error. It’s not an easy task to forecast what the next trends in football will become, and the best clubs in Europe are generally able to see where the wind is blowing in terms of evolution and adjust accordingly at a better level than someone like myself who is analyzing this from the outside.
As it currently stands, it's more likely for young central midfielders to thrive if they possess a potent blend of athleticism and passing. From there, you can break down those whose athleticism revolve more around north -> south movements than east -> west, and different types of passing acumen. Moving down the pecking order in European football is when you'll start to see young central midfielders lean more towards either robust athleticism or incisive passes. The fullback position is similar in some ways, especially there being a high demand of both athleticism and passing, though there's more needed of fullbacks to be able to cover ground moving north -> south. Though there's some variation in the categorization of fullbacks, the general trend at major clubs is for them to ably overlap in the wide areas and deliver passes into the box.
For both midfielders and fullbacks, the ideal is to find a young player who can be hyper athletic and technically astute, but that's not an easy task for lots of clubs and even ones with incredible resources at their disposal. You'll find cases like Aaron Wan-Bissaka who is elite in one area but has question marks in others. There are only a finite amount of elite young talents, and it's imperative for clubs to identify which ones are the best of the best, most likely through a combination of scouting processes along with rigorous statistical analysis. Getting it right at an earlier stage than others could make a huge impact both in the league table and future player transfers and there are still clubs that do it better than others and consistently. Ideally you want to be the club spending £15m and selling for £40m, not the opposite.