How much is Aaron Wan-Bissaka worth?

There are multiple ways that one could analyze the failings of Manchester United over the past six to seven years. Whether it’s the rotating cast of managers or the lack of direction in player recruitment, Manchester United have operated at a level that’s nowhere close to optimal efficiency given the incredible resources at their disposal. One area that shows a lack of forethought in their planning is the number of individuals who have played minutes as a right-back during this down period for the club. That list includes Rafael, Antonio Valencia, Matteo Darmian, and Ashley Young. The lack of a very good-great RB whose could hold his own at the highest level has been one of several reasons why Manchester United have been stuck in the wilderness for the greater part of the past decade.

There’s little doubt that Aaron Wan-Bissaka had a great individual season and ranked as one of the best fullbacks in the Premier League. It’s very likely that he was the best defender from the fullback position, and was a major reason why Crystal Palace once again held their head comfortably above the relegation waters. Many of the plaudits he’s been given for his performances last season are deserved, and it’s mightily impressive that he did that at his age. So it’s been no surprise to see him being heavily linked with Manchester United given their long standing hole at RB. On the face of it, it’s not hard to put two and two together to make four: Wan-Bissaka is good, United have needed a long-term right back for ages, and he’s English. Sure, the reported transfer fee that could land as high as £50 million is a large figure, but United would rationalize it by this move being one that represents both present and future value.

 

 

Well it’s not quite as straightforward as that. While Wan-Bissaka is undoubtedly a talented defender with a bright future, it’s fair to wonder whether it’s smart of United to spend so much money for his services given the questions that surround him on the attacking end. Manchester United’s end goal as a club is to get back to being a very good, maybe evengreat team, and envisioning the next good United side would involve concocting a squad that will be able to dictate play in possession with regularity. Doing so would involve have minimal weak links during ball progression. This is especially true with fullbacks given that they have a major part to play in creating chances as auxiliary wingers.

That’s the issue that surrounds Wan-Bissaka. Very few are questioning whether his defensive capabilities will translate at a bigger club, because he’s shown enough this season to suggest that’s a rather safe bet. Rather, will he be able to exist as a functional cog in the wheel offensively? Furthermore, just how good is Wan-Bissaka currently offensively? Is there enough upside that he could grow into a net positive as a play-driver? These are some of the questions to ask when evaluating Wan-Bissaka as a talent, and whether it’s a smart idea for United to allocate major resources (not just the transfer fee but wages as well) towards him. Certainly, that mystery on Wan-Bissaka’s offensive ceiling is in part due to playing on a decent but unspectacular attacking side in Crystal Palace last season. They ranked 12th in expected goals from open play and 8th in shots. If he had played on a more expansive attack, perhaps we would’ve had more of an idea on his upside as a play-driver.

If one was to concoct an argument in favor of Wan-Bissaka’s offensive ceiling, a major component would be his dribbling abilities and the luxuries it affords him that not a lot of fullbacks possess. As part of the responsibilities that modern day fullbacks have, being able to beat their marker off the dribble in the middle and final third has become much more of a necessity. Wan-Bissaka certainly has that in his skill-set, his 2.01 dribbles per 90 is nearly three times the league average rate for fullbacks in the Premier League, and his dribbling map below shows a very healthy amount of dribbles into more advanced areas along with the actions that followed.

 

 

The ease with which Wan-Bissaka can get himself out of tight situations on the flanks is quite remarkable. He could use his dribbling as an escape valve to merely continue recycling possession to a nearby teammate, or cover ground once he gains separation from his marker and progress play. As the ball is slowly moving towards his vicinity, he’s great at being able to quickly shift the ball from one foot and making his marker miss. He’s also able to use misdirection through body feints and quick changes of direction when he’s luring his opponent into a false sense of security before hitting the afterburners. He’s also quite good at general ball carrying duties.

 

 

When Wan-Bissaka is able to leverage his dribbling into more impact plays post-dribble he’s at his best and displays the kind of offensive upside you would want from a high priced fullback. Though, admittedly, he’s still at the beginning stages of combining high level dribbling with passing so he shows brief flashes rather than anything sustained. In terms of his passing in isolation, it would be a stretch to call him a dynamic passer or perhaps even a good one. Rather, he’s shown more to have a baseline of functionality in the passes he can make. The most complex pass he has in his repertoire are little reverse/lead passes into the right wing area near the box so teammates can then launch balls into the box, which is nice but not necessarily the most value-added type of pass to have in your arsenal given that the end result are crosses.

 

 

While I believe that there’s a functional level to his passing, there are moments where Wan-Bissaka shows discomfort on-ball when trying to make decisions, especially when attempting to make dangerous passes as he doesn’t quite have the touch to connect on them. There are also times when he opts for conservatism over something grander. He can look indecisive and give opponents an opportunity to seize on him telegraphing his passes and create turnovers in play. His abilities as a crosser and chance creator to this point are nothing much to write home about, though how much of it is due to system constraints and surrounding talent is up for debate. Wan-Bissaka’s passing to this point is somewhere between average to below-average.

 

 

There’s one play in particular that I go back to when evaluating Wan-Bissaka’s ability to drive play and some of the surrounding skepticism. As Wan-Bissaka is carrying the ball towards the final third, Cheikhou Kouyate is making a looping run to his right and there’s the slight opening to make a pass into the right wide area of the box. Instead, Wan-Bissaka shifts the ball to the wings, which eventually leads to a corner and represents a missed opportunity at something greater. Now, the slip pass into the right side of the box is not an easy play to pull off and there’s no guarantee that a successful pass would lead to something grand, but paying £45-50 million for a fullback would come with the expectations that these opportunities to help create scoring chances would not be left on the table.

 

 

Manchester United potentially spending up to £50 million on Wan-Bissaka represents a bet on him eventually becoming one of the better fullbacks in the world two to three years from now. For that to occur, his offensive value will have to get to a high enough level through ironing out some of the kinks. Given how good he projects to be defensively over the next few years, it might be that he merely needs to be a slight net-positive offensively rather than an no-doubt stud in attack. It’s not impossible to imagine that being the case for Wan-Bissaka: his dribbling abilities are outstanding and that alone brings value. His passing isn’t a lost cause, though it’s not a strength yet. The hope is that his dribbling abilities continue to translate and create passing opportunities for him that it wouldn’t exist for others, and with more reps in advanced areas as well as playing with talented teammates at United, he becomes a better offensive player. That version of Wan-Bissaka would be more than worth the high price tag that United will reportedly paid for his services. The more pessimistic angle would be that Wan-Bissaka’s passing never appreciably develops from its current state, and as a result, his game doesn’t quite scale up to the highest level of competition and makes him less of an asset.

One question that could be asked regarding this move is whether United would’ve been better off going with another option. Perhaps that would’ve been trusting Diego Dalot with a starting position with Ashley Young and Matteo Darmian providing backup. Maybe United could’ve gone for a considerably cheaper option in the market instead of Wan-Bissaka and split duties between that player and Dalot. Those are fair critiques when accounting for the holes that exist in United’s midfield, especially if Paul Pogba departs this summer. Getting Aaron Wan-Bissaka at his reported price is a gamble on some level and doesn’t necessarily represent the cleanest approach to squad building, but one that could still pay major dividends if he grows into an all around force once he approaches his prime.

James Maddison and the Tantalizing Potential of Leicester City

Rebuilding a Premier League squad isn’t easy, especially when the memories of achieving such great heights are still so fresh, as it was for Leicester City with their Premier League title win in 2016. One of the dangers that Leicester faced was that because of the extraordinary feat that they accomplished, it would be hard to exist as a normal PL club afterwards. The next couple of years were filled with shaky transfers and the slow disassembling of their title winning squad, all the while there was the gradual accumulation of young talent that was sorely needed.

As we approach the end of the 2018-19 season, and with the growing pains that have occurred, Leicester have finally moved onto a new era and remodeled their squad in a way that’s more optimum for a club outside the big six. They’ve assembled a collection of young talent that not only ranks favorably with the non traditional powers in the PL, but also within some of the big players higher up the table. Players like Harvey Barnes, Wilfred Ndidi, Kelechi Ihenacho, Çağlar Söyüncü, Ben Chilwell are young and thread the needle between providing solid current value and still having future upside. A major reason why it’s smart to load up on young talent as a mid-table PL club is that any opportunities to break into the top tier will likely come through one of the young talents breaking out and becoming a star. Having more tickets to the lottery is a better strategy for upward mobility as a smaller club.

The headliner of those young talents is James Maddison, who’s transitioned quite seamlessly from the Championship. Maddison didn’t come cheap, with his fee in the region of £22m, but it looked a sensible deal given that he was one of the best players in the Championship last season. It was easy to see the appeal with Maddison coming in: he was a high volume shot contributor as a central midfielder for both himself and teammates at Norwich along with being a capable passer, and that player archetype is something that Leicester have not had over the past few years. For the most part he’s been as advertised, which is an encouraging return on Leicester’s investment.

 

 

Maddison’s role with Leicester has changed as the season has progressed. Under Claude Puel, Maddison played more like a traditional #10, playing high up the pitch and constantly hunting for space between the opposition midfield and defensive lines to receive passes. He would maneuver himself to be able to progress the ball upon receiving. If buildup was done properly, the defense would either put emphasis on his positioning and open space elsewhere, or Maddison would free himself in dangerous areas towards the final third. This was largely effective for Maddison, though there were times where there was a disconnect between his positioning and the double pivot behind him.

When Brendan Rodgers took over in late February he changed Maddison’s role. While you still see plenty of moments where he functions like a #10, you’re also seeing him more often collect the ball from deeper areas and trying to dictate play during buildup through recycling possession. Under Rodgers, Leicester have more often used a midfield three featuring Maddison, Ndidi, and Youri Tielemans. Of the three, Maddison has the most free rein to change his positioning depending on the situation.
On a team level, the early returns under Rodgers have been promising, though it’s important to note that Leicester have played seven out of their eight Premier League matches with Rodgers at the helm against clubs outside the big six.

In this role as a free roaming central midfielder, a lot of what makes Maddison an intriguing player is still on display but in slightly deeper areas. He’s just constantly on his toes trying to get himself into open space for teammates to get him the ball. Whether it be moving a couple of yards diagonally to be between two opposition players, or making in-out cuts on the blindside of his marker to lose him, he’s got a lot of tricks in the bag. Because of how much he’s on the move, there’ll be times where he’s open for a couple of seconds but he doesn’t receive the ball in the middle third. As a result, it’s not uncommon to see Maddison visibly show frustration when this happens.

 

 

Upon receiving the ball, Maddison does a very good job of maintaining balance if he’s pressured by the opponent. Maddison isn’t a physically imposing midfielder, he has more of a wiry frame, but he is able to use a quick burst to get the initial step on his opponent, and from there position his body so that all his marker can do is pull him down to draw fouls. This can be seen in Maddison’s near elite rate in drawing fouls, making up for his own individual dribbling numbers not necessarily standing out.

 

 

This play is illustrative of the multitude of skills that Maddison has in his locker. As he retreats back to help with buildup, the littlest of sidesteps helps confuse his marker and create enough space for a passing angle. When he’s about to receive the pass, he opens his body positioning so that once the ball is played to him from the CB, he’s able to immediately move forward in one motion instead of turning beforehand. With the littlest of bursts, he gets initial separation from his opponent and baits him to committing a foul by being in front of him and leveraging the threat of leaving him in the dust.

 

 

Given his intelligent positioning, ball progression into the final third and overall chance creation (in addition to everything else Maddison adds value with set piece creation) along with the ability to sporadically produce individual moments of ball carrying, the Ndidi/Maddison/Tielemans midfield has been quite harmonious in the limited sample size. Ndidi handles the brunt of the defensive work, while Maddison and Tielemans are positioned in the halfspaces, tasked with unlocking defenses. Maddison’s move to a deeper role hasn’t had an effect on his individual shot volume, as he’s taken more shots under Rodgers than Puel, 2.86 per 90 minutes as opposed to 2.41. His positional change has meant that he’s been starting his runs from deeper, being able to sneakily get into the edge of the box for shooting opportunities. It’s not the most optimal marriage of shot volume and location, but you’ll live with it given what else Maddison brings.

 

The most encouraging thing that can be said about James Maddison’s debut season at Leicester is that he’s largely been the same player that he was at Norwich, which is impressive given the jump up in league quality. His positioning and ability to interpret space is arguably his greatest strength, constantly hunting for openings within the opposition. His ability to pass into tight windows in the middle third has been solid, along with his capacity to either be the initiator of combination plays or act as the link-man. I’m interested to see if under Rodgers, his open play expected goal assisted rate increases next season given that he already ranks in the top three among Leicester players in either open play key passes or passes into the box. Maddison’s skillset is quite favorable to a permanet switch to the free roaming eight role, though there are the concerns with potential injuries because he gets kicked around a lot.

Next season will be fascinating for both Maddison individually and Leicester as a whole. With a smart transfer window (which should include keeping Tielemans on a permanent basis), Leicester should have a squad capable of contending for a top six spot if one or two of the giants has an off season, and it’s not entirely unreasonable to think that could happen. Manchester United and Chelsea are facing turbulent near futures for different reasons, while Arsenal have the unenviable task of having to massively retool an aging squad on limited funds. The door is ever so slightly open for some upward mobility by non-big six clubs, and for Leicester to take advantage, one or two of their young talents has to make the leap. Maddison is a good candidate given that he’s already got the rough outlines of an very good-perhaps-even-great center midfielder, and the limited sample size has been promising. If Maddison could even slightly increase his xG contribution in open play, not only will that take him to a higher level as a player, but it could be the jolt needed for Leicester to do big things next season.

In Lyon, Is Talent Alone Enough?

Ligue 1 has been home to some fascinating attacking units over the past few years. Set aside the death star known as PSG and there’s still the Marseille team from 2014–15 that produced 2.0 goal per game, an average that was only bettered within the big five leagues by 5 teams that season. And, of course, there was the 2016–17 Monaco side that scored 107 league goals, one of the great one season outliers in recent memory.

Last season Lyon piled up 87 goals and a 2.29 goals per game rate, a rate bettered by only six teams. It’s no surprise that a team featuring Nabil Fekir, Memphis Depay, and Bertrand Traore would be able to put up a fair number of goals. Each of these players are extremely talented in their own ways, and their combined speed turned lots of broken sequences into shooting opportunities. They made Lyon a team with a good blend of shot volume, locations. That. combined with some blessing from the variance gods allowed them to lay waste to most opponent in their way.

 

 

While it was highly unlikely that Lyon would rise to the same heights as last season, this was a really fun team that had healthy numbers in attack even if you strip out the variance that they benefited from. The fact that they brought back the majority of their core talent along with the same manager should’ve meant that business would go on as usual, but so far this season things haven’t been quite that smooth. Lyon are on pace for around 63 goals, which would be a pretty solid goal total but not quite as awe inspiring as last season. The team has also change tactically; through their first few games this season they’ve doubled down on shot volume at the expense of shot locations. That’s an interesting quirk given that football over the past few years has generally become smarter with teams looking to take better, higher percentage shots.

 

 

It gets even more stark when looking at their distribution of shots from last season versus this season in open play. Lyon shot a lot last season, but their shot locations on average were good enough to more than tilt the numbers in their favor. What’s gone on this season is that the balance between shot volume and locations has been off as they’ve settled for a lot of bad shots, with over 60% of their shots having an expected goal output of 0.05 or less.

 

 

Even with their attacking success last season, there’s always been a feeling that Lyon win more with their massive amounts of talent rather than a detailed approach in possession, that they’re a younger and more athletic version of Arsenal during Arsene Wenger’s later years right down to having similar structural problems. It’s not the worst thing in the world to be a team with loads of attacking talent that freelances. Over the course of a season you’ll still be able to cobble something worthwhile offensively by having ample firepower, but it can leave you susceptible to weird stretches like what Lyon have gone through so far this year.

A major theme with Lyon when building attacks is that there always seems to be noticeable gaps that exist during buildup. In general, Lyon have a hard time gaining access to the middle as and they settle for circulating the ball across their back line to a fullback. This gets amplified when only one midfielder comes back to receive the ball, which makes it easier for the opposition to defend by having a lone forward up top positioning himself to block passing lanes. This sequence against Caen is an example of the problems that Lyon has with presenting passing options for the man on the ball. Multiple times the player who receives the pass has no option to pass it in between the line and has to pass it either horizontally or backwards. With no forward options, Caen’s defense sniffs that play out and forces a throw in.

 

 

Those noticeable gaps occur higher up the pitch as well. When Lyon try to create overloads and triangles on the pitch, they don’t do it particularly well. Their attempts at trying to distort the opposition can sometimes even lead to numerical disadvantages leaving them facing four defends with only three attackers trying to play through or something to that effect. The players will be stationed in something of a circle when they have possession of the ball, with no one being in the middle to help connect play. Lyon’s tendency to have their front line be on the shoulders of the opposition back line and try to find openings amplifies the problem and creates a disconnect between the man on the ball and the players making runs in behind the defense.

 

 

Another issue with Lyon is that they’ll often have odd player alignments. When the ball is near the flanks, they’ll have multiple players occupying the same space which doesn’t really do much to confuse the opposition. In particular, at least once or twice times a game, a Lyon player will end up with the ball and two of his teammates are positioned in a straight line. Without the proper spacing needed, it’s hard to build successful attacks as passing options become limited as attackers get in the way of each other.

 

 

Lacking proper structure, Lyon will often try to switch up the play to get one of their wide players isolated against a defender. This isn’t the worst backup plan. Having someone like Traore sizing up most fullbacks in Ligue 1 is something you don’t mind trying. Lyon have been able to spring him free on the right wing for advantageous scenarios and create something worthwhile. His production so far this season has been noteworthy despite the structural problems of the team around him. It’s actually a credit to the talent base that Lyon have built up over the past few years that even with some noticeable deficiencies in their gameplan, they’ve still got enough to produce offensively.

What’s impressive about Lyon is that they have a really good blend of athleticism and passing skills across numerous positions, which makes it possible to freelance and create eye pleasing goals. Their performance against Marseille over the weekend was illustrative of just how overpowering their collective talent level can be. Sometimes the spacing being all messed up just doesn’t matter.

 

 

All of this paints a picture of a team that has to work harder than it perhaps should to generate good looks, which can make it a bit annoying for some considering that Lyon have a ludicrous amount of talent to work with. Through their ability to manufacture star talents from their famous academy along with smart player acquisition, Lyon have created a squad that can hold its own with a lot of clubs in Europe. It’s just that when they have to play as a possession side against an opponent that’s willing to suck up pressure, the lack of a gameplan can be exposed. For all the good things that can be said about Bruno Genesio as a coach, including his willingness to put faith in the young talents coming through the academy, Lyon having problems during possession has not been a new criticism that people have levied against him.

In the grand scheme of things Lyon should largely be fine, at least within Ligue 1. Despite the surprising starts that teams like Lille and Montpellier have had this season, Lyon are probably not in much danger of missing out on qualifying for the Champions League. It should also be acknowledge that we’re dealing with a small sample size, a small enough total to where volatility in the numbers is a real thing. But these issues that Lyon are dealing with aren’t new and have been bubbling under the surface for quite awhile now. Maybe it won’t matter and by the latter stages of the season Lyon’s league numbers will bounce back to a healthier place place of their own accord. But this is a team could truly be something special if they were able to fix some of the structural problems they have in place, but as more times passes and the same problems remain, it becomes more reasonable to wonder if Genesio is the man to do it.

Leicester City: 2018-19 Season Preview

Leicester have had a weird existence as a Premier League side over the past 4 seasons. They were facing certain relegation for large parts of 2014–15 until they pulled off the great escape, parlayed that into the most shocking title victory in modern English football history, and then finished 12th and 9th in consecutive seasons, with murmurs going on last season in particular about the style of play not being to the fans liking. In a vacuum, had you told Leicester fans in August 2014 that in 2018 they would be looked upon as a mid-table club, they would’ve gladly taken that. Of course, we aren’t in a vacuum and, for better or worse, the 2016 title changed things for the club. Without the glories that came from that season, 2017–18 would’ve been much more palatable season than it turned out to be.

On the surface, Leicester seem to be heading for another mid-table finish. They lost their best attacking player in Riyad Mahrez after multiple transfer requests and even a mini-strike after the January window, but their summer signings offer promise and could cushion the blow of Mahrez’s departure. There’s still some talent left on the squad from previous years, but it’s a squad that’s continuing to undergo a transition from the highs of 2016.

2017–18 Attack

Last season was a odd one for Leicester. Claude Puel clearly tried to steer the club into more of a possession based system compared to how they had played during previous seasons. No longer would they solely be dependent on creating scoring chances from blistering counter attacks, but rather they would have the capacity to create longer sequences of possession that ended in shots. It seemed like there were two dependable ways that Leicester could build something interesting from the back. Harry Maguire provided worth because of his adventurous ball carrying as a center back. He would dribble into midfield areas, draw players to him, and then pass it onto an open teammate. If that didn’t work, Leicester would use Mahrez as almost another central midfielder, to compensate for some of the passing deficiencies and creativity elsewhere in the squad. He was shifty on the ball and had the passing acumen to get the ball to  teammates in dangerous positions. Having Mahrez in this position gave Leicester a greater opportunity to create quick hitting plays that scrambled the opposition defense.

 

 

Overall there were some growing pains, as Leicester were in the bottom 10 in shots created from open play, and the bottom five in cross completion percentag which is a problem since they were also top five in percentage of penalty box entries coming from crosses. In general, Leicester’s crossing came from quite static situations where they were pumping it into the box without much movement before hand. Wide players were consistently isolated against a defender and swinging crosses into the box for the likes of Jamie Vardy to get on the end of. Being a heavy usage crossing side who can’t actually connect on crosses is a recipe for disaster in open play.

 

 

 

The one saving grace for Leicester in attack was that they got a lot of mileage out of their corner kick routines. Most of them were just small alterations to a single central  plan of having one man within the six yard box to cause some commotion for the opposing goalkeeper. No team created more expected goals from set pieces than Leicester, so it’ll be interesting to see whether they rank even in the top 5 once again this season. Maybe they could even incorporate some of the pet plays that England drew up for the likes of Harry Maguire during the World Cup to maintain their strong set piece play.

Without further reinforcements, it’s hard to see how Leicester’s overall attack improves on what they did last season, and it could frankly become worst as they no longer have the luxury of having Mahrez. The best case scenario is that another season under Puel helps with continuity, added reinforcements soften the blow of losing Mahrez and players like Demarai Gray and Kelechi Ihenacho develop to help round out the attacking corps. It’s a bet that could come good, and one that Leicester desperately need to.

2017–18 Defense

It’s hard to find something that Leicester were good at last season on the defensive side. At just over 13 shots a game, they conceded more shots than the league average. That would be fine if this were a Burnley situation, where the team was willingly giving up territory in order to force opponents to take bad shots. It wasn’t. Leicester were around average in quality per shot conceded. In addition, they were also average in deep completions allowed per game. The technical term for this statistical profile is, a whole lot of meh. And sure, that’s better than being a raging tire fire, but it’s still nothing to write home about.

Leicester defended in a passive 4–4–2 shape. They didn’t put too much pressure on the ball from the back line, but do try and press further up the field. Vardy would hound opposing center backs, supported by pressure from the midfielders to not allow the opposition to turn and play forward. When it worked, Leicester would deny middle penetration with their man-marking scheme and allow the opposition to circulate the ball across the backline, eventually forcing the ball back to the keeper to go long.

 

 

When it didn’t work, and more times than not it didn’t, there wasn’t much resistance once the opposition got into advantageous areas. Just by stringing together a few passes teams could my Leicester’s shape look disorganized.

 

 

One of the other problems that Leicester had was that once a turnover happened, they didn’t have the structure in place to put out any potential fires. Leicester were 6th worst in shots conceded within 20 seconds of an incomplete pass or dribble. Leicester didn’t tend to counterpress much after losing the ball in the opposition half, which would be fine if they remained in something resembling a compact shape, but they were all over the place once a turnover occurred and teams were able to take advantage of it to create shooting opportunities.

 

 

If you wanted to take a glass half full approach, the place to look is Puel’s 2016-17 Southampton side, which were one of the best defensive sides from open play. That team was able to function well defensively while still pressuring opponents at a higher intensity than what we saw from Leicester this past season. While Leicester don’t have someone on the level of Virgil Van Dijk at the back, perhaps with another season of Puel at the helm they improve on the margins defensively and go from an uninspiring defensive side to a decent one.

Transfers

Here are two true things about Leicester’s recruitment since coming to the Premier League in 2014:

  • They pulled off one of the better transfers you’ll find this decade in N’Golo Kante
  • Before this summer, their recruitment outside signing Kante was all over the place.

For proof of how disorganized Leicester’s transfers have been, just look at the glut of forwards that they still have on the roster: Ahmed Musa, Jamie Vardy, Kelechi Ihenacho, Shinji Okazaki, Islam Slimani, and Leonardo Ulloa. The glut of forwards that Leicester have accumulated has blocked Ihenacho from having a bigger role on the squad, which hurts his development and on a selfish level, it denies people like myself who have wondered how Ihenacho would fare if he played 2000+ minutes in a season. He’s been an analytics darling going back to his days at Manchester City, and his transfer to Leicester was intriguing from the standpoint of just how much could his bonkers numbers translate under a heavier minutes burden.

With all that belly aching out of the way, Leicester’s summer business has looked quite sound. Johnny Evans isn’t the world’s greatest CB, but at £3.5 million for three years, it’s hard to quibble too hard with the price. Though he is 30 years old, he plays in perhaps the position most forgiving to the aging process and should help bolster Leicester’s CB rotation. Danny Ward at £12.5 million is a bet at the goalkeeper position that I’m not sure will work out, but maybe it does and at a reasonable cost there are worse mistakes to make. The bigger fanfare comes from the acquisition of James Maddison and Ricardo Pereira, two players with the potential to contribute big things very soon.

Maddison was one of the best players in the Championship in 2017–18. He offers Leicester a type of player that they haven’t had over the past few years, a shifty playmaking central midfielder who is comfortable breaking the lines of opposition with his passing along with the potential to contribute over 15 goals if he plays a 2500 minute season. Ricardo Pereira has been one of the better fullbacks in European football, someone who frankly could’ve easily been signed at one of the big six clubs and started for them right away. He was arguably the best fullback in France during his time at Nice and he continued his solid play in Portugal. Both Maddison and Pereira are genuine coups for a Leicester recruitment department that’s had a pretty spotty record over the past few years. Some of the excitement over Leicester’s transfer recruitment this summer gets shoved aside because of the departure of Riyad Mahrez, but that was a long time coming and the club should’ve been prepared to ease the blow by now, especially considering that they got a lot of money from Manchester City.

 

Conclusion

Leicester may very well end up being the best club outside of England’s top six despite losing Mahrez. Their summer acquisitions shows a level of foresight that had been missing by them for a while, and there’s still some intriguing pieces left in the current squad. If Maddison and Pereira hit the ground running and become two of the better players in the PL at their respective positions, that could allow them to restructure their attack in open play in a positive manner. On the other hand, it’s also conceivable that Leicester go from having an average attack to one that is below average through a decline in set piece play along while not fixing their open play problems. If the defense continues to be a whole pile of meh, now you’re going from a team that was just above even in expected goals difference to one that would be below it, and that decline if it also ran into bad variance through conversion rates could lead to trouble.

All things being equal, Leicester will be probably be fine and it’d be hard to envision them being dragged into any potential relegation scrap. That’s not necessarily the most exciting prognosis. It would be nice to see Leicester use the fact that they’re unlikely to be relegated to take more calculated risks like acquiring more young talents to try and reduce the gap between themselves and the top six, but having another season as one of the seven to 10 best teams in the league and further consolidating your status as a mid-tier PL side is something of note.

 


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Fulham’s Seri-ous Transfer Coup

There wasn’t much doubt that Jean Michaël Seri would leave OGC Nice this summer. The club failing to qualify for European football, a year after finishing third in 2016–17. On a team level, it was hard for Nice to duplicate that kind of success. They’re fighting upstream in resources available to them, and their statistical profile in 16-17 wasn’t what you would expect from a top three side in France. Seri’s performance this past season weren’t quite up to the standards that he showed during that special season when he was one of the best players in the league, but he was still solidly above average.

All of that should’ve equated to a fairly robust market for Seri’s services, and yet it was a promoted side in Fulham that ended up with a player that frankly could’ve played for clubs that had Champions League football to look forward to in 2018-19. It’s a genuine coup for Fulham that they were able to snag someone of Seri’s quality, and offers further proof as to the sheer financial power that the PL operates at where a newly promoted club could get a player that would help almost every club in the league.

If we assume that Slaviša Jokanović continues to have Fulham operate in a similar manner that they did at the Championship, a possession-based system that produced the second highest goals in the league, tied for third in shots and second in open play shots, Seri will be a solid acquisition considering his experiences with Nice. Seri’s style of play should help Fulham’s transition into the PL as he should project as an upgrade over what they already have in the midfield department.

What made Seri such a hot name, particularly after 2016-17, was his quality as a passer. He’s someone who can break defensive lines with regularity, and not even look like he’s breaking a sweat while doing so. He’s such a good passer during buildup play and in the middle third that even if he only tops out at producing 6-8 non-penalty goals + assists over 2500+ minutes, he’ll still be an asset because he’s very helpful in getting from one zone to another before even approaching the final third. The versatility in his passing range is legitimate, and it doesn’t feel as if the ball gets stuck to his feet for longer than it should. It’s in and out in no time.

 

In addition to his work on the ball, he’s helpful with his off-ball movements. Sometimes, he’d be the deepest of Nice’s three-man midfield, supporting the center backs, and other times he’ll run into space further up the pitch in more dangerous areas. When he was further back, Seri helped in combination play and creating overloads so there would be an open player in proximity who could receive a pass and dribble forwards, with Adrien Tameze’s mobility in particular helping with the ball carrier duties if he was the one open for the pass. Seri’s very intelligent in general when it came to finding enough space to where he can receive the ball and make his next move.

One way that I think Seri could fit in well would be incorporating plays like this to help get him into advance areas so he can work his magic. At times Fulham will have their wingers, particularly Ryan Sessegnon, come inwards while the fullbacks maintain the width. This could allow for quick combination play that allows Seri to dribble the ball into the final third uninterrupted if an opponent is sticking close to Sessegnon. Seri isn’t an amazing dribbler and he doesn’t possess an elite level burst, but he’s got enough mobility to have him progress play in this manner.

 

 

If Fulham continue with having Sessegnon play more of his minutes as an attacking player versus at fullback, he’ll benefit from how Seri can help get him the ball in advantageous scenarios. While many people have been excited with Sessegnon’s speed and overall athletic gifts, he also has a very good understanding of when to migrate into the penalty area to be at the receiving end of cutbacks or just scooping up the loose ball for a shooting opportunity. It’s why his shooting locations last season were so pristine for a 17-year-old attacking player. Having a midfielder behind him who is a quality passer should help with the step-up in competition, as Seri’s presence was one reason why someone like Alassane Plea turned into a solid goal scorer and shot taker over the past two seasons at Nice. Alexsander Mitrovic should also be someone that benefits for Seri’s presence if he returns to Fulham, as he’ll have someone who can set him up well whenever he tries to seal off his defender in the final third for layoffs or creating his own shooting opportunities.

It’s hard to see too much fault with the thinking behind Fulham’s move to get Jean Michaël Seri. Of all the teams who realistically had a shot of acquiring him, you could argue that someone like Fulham benefit the most from getting prime aged talents of Seri’s caliber. With the ridiculous amount of money that’s available in the Premier League, just staying up is so financially viable for teams that it’s worth it for them to push their chips on a singular talent they believe is good enough to make a difference. If Seri had gone to Arsenal for example, he certainly would’ve helped but it’s unclear how much he would’ve truly pushed the needle, and he would’ve been another player added to the long list of guys they have who are either nearing the end of their prime years or already past it.  Seri’s presence at Fulham, on the other hand, should swing the percentages in a more meaningful way in terms of avoiding relegation.

Seri’s move to Fulham is reminiscent of Dimitri Payet’s transfer from Marseille to West Ham in 2015. Payet was 28 years old and had come off what was the best season of his career up to that point. He was one of the best players in Ligue 1 during 2014–15, but Marseille missing out on the Champions League meant that they had to sell him at a discount. Marseille’s loss was West Ham’s gain and Payet helped them to their best season in nearly two decades. Of course, Payet left soon after in a blaze of glory, but he did help West Ham pocket two seasons of that delicious PL TV money while the club turned a profit on Payet’s return to Marseille.

You can see how something similar could apply to Seri and Fulham. The club now have a player who most would’ve figured had the talent to play for a Champions League side.  This year will be Seri’s age 27 season so he probably has roughly three seasons left of peak production in him. If perhaps Fulham keep him for two of them while and in the process maintain in the PL, there should be enough interest with Seri at 29 years old to allow them to potentially make a profit on a future transfer given how the football food chain works regarding player movement. They would’ve gotten quality midfield production while not having to worry about a major decline in performance by selling him at the right time.

Seri’s move to Fulham has the potential to be one of the more astute signings you’ll find from a Premier League club this summer. He’s a wonderful passer who should fit in with how Fulham operate in attack in deeper areas. He’ll feed their fullbacks when they make blindside runs into open space for potential crossing/cut-back opportunities, as well as directly contribute to some goals as well. His age profile also fits well with Fulham’s objective of maintaining Premier League survival, and he should still carry re-sale value if Fulham are cognizant of the general aging curve and when it’s time to sell. If things go according to plan, Seri and Fulham will probably be a short but fruitful marriage for both club and player.

Header image courtesy of the Press Association

2018 World Cup Trends, June 14–18: England’s Set-Pieces, French Ennui, and So Much More

The World Cup is here, and with that comes those glorious couple of weeks to kick off the tournament where each matchday consists of three to four group stage matches. We’ve already had the defending champs lose their first match, the implementation of VAR, Russia putting up five in the tournament opener, a Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick, and other delectable goodness from the first five days. Despite only having an average of 2.29 goals per match so far, the 2018 iteration hasn’t been uneventful in the least, so let’s dive into some of what’s already gone on in Russia.

England’s Corner Kick Routines

England were very good for large parts of the first half against Tunisia and on the whole deserved their 2-1 victory. What was interesting to see in particular was just how much mileage they were getting off of their set piece routines. Over 72% of their 18 shots came from dead ball situations. With the lack of time available for international sides to create the level of sophistication from open play that we see during the domestic football season, one of the best ways to get ahead of the game in international football is dedicating time to developing set piece routines. It seemed clear that Gareth Southgate went over specific corner kick movements which paid huge dividends.

Tunisia started with something resembling a zonal marking approach to defend England’s corners, which left England with a four against three opportunity at the top of the 18 yard area. As soon as the corner is delivered, three of the England players, Harry Kane, John Stones, and Jordan Henderson, would sprint in different directions and attract one of the three Tunisia players defending that space. That would leave one of the England players with enough room to rise up and create a headed chance, which was how they engineered their first goal.

 

 

Tunisia changed things up in the second half, matching England’s four up top with four of their own. While this did lead to less wide open headed attempts, you still saw the likes of Deli Alli and Harry McGuire muscle their way and create a few half-chances. England’s second goal was also from a corner kick routine. and was quite a nice counter to Tunisia man marking the top of the penalty box. Kane was able to peel off his marker and find himself wide open in the six yard area, prime real estate for a high quality chance if someone could win the first header, which McGuire did.

 

 

If England proved anything in their victory over Tunisia, dedicating real time towards set pieces works.

Goncalo Guedes Role as Second Striker

In Portugal’s final tune up match vs Algeria, Goncalo Guedes played as a second striker, a departure from the inverted winger role he was used in at Valencia. It worked to great effect, so much so that his two goals and general ability to create chaos with his speed were enough for him to supplant Andre Silva for the starting spot alongside Cristiano Ronaldo.

Guedes didn’t achieve those same heights against Spain, which is understandable on some level. Going from Algeria to Spain is like going from Glass Joe to Mike Tyson in Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out. He was used as an outlet for counter attacks as Spain weren’t able to counter-press nearly as aggressive as they’ve been renowned for after losing possession. In one sense, Guedes did his job successfully, with his first touch and subsequent assist for Ronaldo’s second goal being the highlight of his 80 minutes of action. But, he was largely uninspiring on the whole and you couldn’t help but wonder what might’ve been for Portugal had he not had the yips during some of Portugal’s promising fast breaks.

 

Defensively, it was clear that Guedes was following Ronaldo in Portugal’s 4–4–2 medium block, allowing Sergio Busquets and the Spanish CBs to create 3v2s during buildup play, instead just trying to deny passes into the central areas. This worked fine until Spain shifted into their left sided focus attack which bypassed the central areas and targeted the left half-space in Portugal’s own third, to near devastating effects. It’ll be interesting to see if Guedes gets another shot at playing that central position or will Fernando Santos instead turn to Andre Silva.

France’s Attacking Struggles

Didier Deschamps hasn’t been immune to criticism with his role as manager of the French national team, especially with the talent boom that’s gone on within French football over the past World Cup cycle. His job is to get the most out of what might be the most talented squad at the World Cup. He has the football equivalent of a Ferrari and has the responsibility of not screwing it up. Meek performances like ones against Australia won’t quiet down the masses who are convinced that Deschamps isn’t good enough to lead France to glory.

France were largely fine for the first 20 minutes or so, highlighted by the half chance from Kylian Mbappe less than two minutes in. Mbappe functioned as the central attacker of the three up front and was finding openings in Australia’s back-line to run into, just without that home-run pass from one of his teammates to really create those top level chances. The main tactical feature of France during buildup is that whenever they play Mbappe along with Ousmane Dembele and Antoine Griezmann, they’re pretty close together and the fullbacks are pushed higher up to provide width while also at times function as an outlet for switches of play.

 

 

As the first half wore on, things got worse. France became extremely static during possession. There were less and less dynamic runs being made from the likes of Paul Pogba and Corentin Tolisso. Fullback Benjamin Pavard was being used as an outlet to switch up play but he wasn’t interested in trying to take on his individual marker in 1v1s and just recycled possession. France were just slow, compounded by the fact that they weren’t even all that interested in trying to create transition opportunities or even applying loads of pressure on Australia’s backline when they were circulating the ball during buildup play.

The second half wasn’t anymore inspiring, with only moments of individual brilliance from Pogba and a shaky penalty call given by VAR saving France from dropping points against Australia. It’s concerning that France picked what was about as close to a maximum fun lineup as possible, and their overall performance was the furthest thing from fun. If not for Germany, this would’ve been the most disappointing performance from a big nation so far.

Mexico’s Blistering Counter Attacks

You’ll be hard pressed this entire tournament to find a better display of counter attacking football than what Mexico did to Germany, including the splendid goal by burgeoning star Hirving Lozano. Some of this was undoubtedly helped by the fact that Germany played a double pivot of Ton Kroos and Sami Khedira: midfielders that for all their gifts on the ball aren’t exactly blessed with the mobility needed to cover ground defensively.

Germany faced similar problems to Spain, but on a grander scale. Because of the lack of mobility in their midfield along with Khedira’s penchant for migrating forward even when deployed as a #6, it left giant acres of space for Mexico to run into. Joshua Kimmich was bombing up and down the pitch, but that left the entirety of his side unoccupied for Lozano to gather the ball or even just run unopposed, and Kimmich is not fast enough to catch someone like Lozano when spotting him 10 to 15 yards. Combine all of that with a lack of aggression in winning the ball back in higher areas and Mexico having a number of players who are good and fast on the ball, and you get a match that descends into chaos. There were at least 5 instances in the first half alone where Mexico offered the promise of creating a high quality shot during fast break scenarios.

Lozano was a key figure during these counter attacks, with his starting position usually around the left-half space at the beginning of these sequences, which helped a lot when he was on the ball and facing an unsettled Germany defense. One of his best features during his season at PSV was how much fear he inflicted on opponents with his combination of speed and awareness on how to time his runs off the ball. He would look at the opposing fullback, see when he’s on his blindside and time his run to get in goal for a shooting opportunity, which he did against Germany on multiple occasions.

If Mexico had any shot of finishing first in the group, they had to get something against Germany, and more likely beat them. They smartly pushed all their chips in with an athletic starting XI that tore Germany to bits by applying pressure on the Germans from their own half and immediately getting men forward for the first 45 or so minutes. Though that did slow down as the match progressed, it was still good enough for a massive victory that completely changed the complexion of Group F.

Is Nabil Fekir Good Enough for Liverpool?

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.

How Good Is Malcom?

Ah yes, we’ve approached the silly season that is the January transfer window, where the rumors are hot and heavy. One of the most talked about names this time around has been Malcom, the audacious winger who has been scoring golazos left and right this season. I talked a little bit about Malcom in late September when Bordeaux started the league strong and looked like a potential surprise package in Ligue 1 this season. Since then, both he and his team have slowed up somewhat.

Despite those issues, Malcom has had a solid season on a flawed team. His non-penalty goals + assists rate is 0.61 per 90, and his shot contribution (shots + key passes) per 90 rate of 5.14 is good too, especially for a 20 year old wide player in his 2nd full season in European football. Compare that to other wide players not from PSG (cause you know, playing on a super team can distort your numbers if you’re good enough), and he stacks up relatively well.

  • Memphis Depay: Minutes = 1295, NPG+A per 90= 0.83, Shot Contribution per 90= 5.07
  • Lucas Ocampos: Minutes = 960, NPG+A per 90 = 0.66, Shot Contribution per 90 = 3.94
  • Florian Thauvin: Minutes = 1606, NPG+A per 90 = 0.79, Shot Contribution per 90 = 6.61
  • Thomas Lemar: Minutes = 1020, NPG+A per 90 = 0.53, Shot Contribution per 90 = 4.50
  • Rony Lopes: Minutes = 1236, NPG+A per 90 = 0.44, Shot Contribution per 90 = 3.57
  • Malcom: Minutes = 1472, NPG+A per 90 = 0.61, Shot Contribution per 90 = 5.14

Considering that every other player mentioned here is at least a year older, it makes sense not to talk about Malcom on the level of Kylian Mbappe or Ousmane Dembele, but perhaps the level below alongside the likes of Yannick Carrasco during his 14–15 season or Bernardo Silva. That still equates to a very tantalizing prospect.

So we know that Malcom has been quantitatively good this year, but what about qualitatively? What are his strengths and weaknesses as a player?

Strengths:

If I were a team that was scouting Malcom, I would look at this sequence and get a little excited.

 

The ability to effortlessly beat his opponent in a 1v1 situation, and having the coordination to hit a fairly difficult pass while at top speed is not commonly seen. And this isn’t just a one-off, there’s evidence to suggest that Malcom does a pretty decent job at finding teammates with these type of passes, whether it be in transition or against a set defense.

Obviously, you’d have to construct a plan where this type of talent would be used for the good for the team, but having such a dynamic playmaker in transition with players making runs off the ball would be a fun sight. He also profiles as a potentially good crosser, with his ability to hit passes both to the back post and the near side. Considering how dominant he is with his left foot when it comes to shooting, supplementing that with crosses from either foot adds value too.

One other thing that’s fun about Malcom is how he gets the ball from one zone on the pitch to another

 

 

It’s fair to wonder how much value this would hold on a better team because there would be less opportunities for this type of sequence to occur, but even if so, there’s enough evidence to suggest that Malcom is good at beating his opponent in 1v1 situations in higher positions.

 

It’s easy to see why so many people are enamored with Malcom. Speed demons who flash the ability to be high level playmakers don’t exactly grow on trees, and when harnessed in the correct manner, you can see how he would be a genuine asset.

Flaws:

With inverted wingers, you’re always running the chance that the added freedom to cut inside will result in shots being taken from ineffective areas. There will be times where taking a 3–4% shot is the best option because there’s not even an option to recycle the ball to a nearby teammate and keep probing for another shot. As much as one can loathe the idea of settling for bad shots, there is a level of sympathy to be had for situations where you got nothing else but to take a bad shot and hope for the best.

But when your xG/shot is in the single digits, that excuse runs thin. To put it frankly, Malcom has bad shot discipline. The only reason why it’s not been talked about more often is because he’s converted 15% of his shots from outside the penalty area (4/27). And while people remember the goals, the misses stack up too:

Again, this is a little bit of a two way street. Bordeaux aren’t great in terms of presenting options for a player in possession, and with the burden that’s placed on him in attack, It’s understandable that he’s going to probably be on the low end of shot quality on average. However, he could stand to cut around ~0.5 shots per 90 and perhaps redistribute it to someone else or even just improve his own shot selection. He faces the same problem that plagued Adam Ounas during his days at Bordeaux, where you felt that he was leaving stuff on the table by settling for bad shots.

With being fairly left footed dominant when it comes to his shooting, there might be situations where he can be shaded into less advantageous areas on the pitch. That’s easier said than done because his speed is overwhelming, and even if that does happen, he’s shown to be able to deliver passes on his right foot. Also, as much fun as it is to see Malcom drop deep and tries to advance the ball by himself, one could question how much he’ll get to do it on a team that has something resembling structure. That level of freelancing isn’t all that prevalent, so it’d be curious to see how a soloist would adjust to those situation. Perhaps leveraging his speed into more off-ball runs into the penalty box.

And then there’s obviously the question of whether Malcom would be able to do his defensive duties at a more demanding level if given a lesser role in attack. Nobody knows if that’s the case, but it’s something to keep an eye out on.

Valuation Discussion

We’ve already gone through what he can and can’t do at his current state. He’s an exciting player but has flaws too, and it could very well be that his solid results are masking the actual problems in the process. Saying that though, it wasn’t totally surprising to see that Bordeaux are asking for as much as £50M considering that he’s their crown jewel and his contract doesn’t end until 2021.

To some extent, there’s a comparison to be made with Sofiane Boufal when he was at Lille. Both were pass first wingers, with an excellent first step + dribbling abilities to go along with their questionable shot selection. They both had to do the bulk of creation on the team because no one else was good enough to help out in that department. And the statistical comparison sort of makes sense.

  • Sofiane Boufal 2015–16: Minutes = 2351, NPG+A per 90 = 0.50, Shot Contribution per 90 = 4.67
  • Malcom 2017–18: Minutes = 1472, NPG+A per 90 = 0.61, Shot Contribution per 90 = 5.14

The comparison isn’t foolproof. Boufal was compared to Eden Hazard when he broke through because of the vague similarities in playing style and the way they moved on the pitch, while Malcom’s pure speed and athleticism is on a higher level to go along with his ability to get the ball from one zone to another. Also, as bad as Malcom’s shot selection has been, Boufal’s was even worse back in the day. Add to it that Boufal was 22–23 when he had his full season at Lille, whereas Malcom isn’t turning 21 until February. Perhaps by this time in 2019, there have been incremental growths in his game and he’s a better rounded player. Malcom’s season so far has been better than Boufal, and Boufal went for a base fee around £16M. That was also in a climate that was far less silly than what we have currently. If 2015–16 Boufal was in today’s market, even with Lille’s awful financial situation at the time, he could’ve fetched more than he did.

Given all the information already provided, along with Bordeaux not being the strongest financially as a club, I would feel somewhat comfortable paying in the region of £25M. I would probably begrudgingly accept paying up to £30M if that included add ons or an agreement to keep him in Ligue 1 until the end of the season. Anything appreciably above that, and I would start looking at other options. Malcom has some special gifts with the effortlessness he has in getting by his marker, the fact that he is a left footed shooter in attack makes him something of a rarity in European football. and he’s still young enough to teach the value of shot discipline before it’s too late (Memphis at Lyon is the poster child for shot selection reclamation). While I’d be hesitant to say that he’s a potential world beater, there’s reason to think that there’s high upside and he’s young enough to learn and improve.

Where would the best place be for him? The likes of Arsenal, Manchester United, and Tottenham have been linked over the past week or so. Arsenal do have potential openings with Sanchez/Ozil being 6 months away from leaving on frees, but he’s nowhere near the playmaker that Ozil is, nor the high usage inside forward that Sanchez has been. Manchester United need a creative type on the wing and just as you get yourself excited at the idea of Malcom joining the attacking talent already in place, you remind yourself that Jose Mourinho is their manager and all those good vibes drift away.

Tottenham would probably be the best place out of the three clubs. It’s not the cleanest fit, and a fully functional Tottenham means that he would be a rotation member rather than a starter over the next year or so, but he’s someone who would represent one of their better chances at finding a high upside attacking player without having to guarantee him starter minutes or wages that would unbalance their current structure. There’ll be some who look at the likes of Georges-Kévin Nkoudou and Clinton N’Jie and do a reflexive gag at the idea of buying another Ligue 1 attacker, but that train of thought doesn’t hold much water in this case. There wasn’t anything to suggest that Nkoudou was more than a tricky dribbler at Marseille, and N’Jie was an inside forward/second striker having to masquerade as a wide player at the time. N’Jie was in some way’s a poor man’s Son Heung-Min, but that role wasn’t available. Even with the flaws in his game, there’s more evidence to suggest that Malcom would fit in better than either of those two did at the time, with his profile as a dynamic playmaker.

Malcom has been a productive wide player, and there are certain things he can do that get you excited about his potential. He is incredibly quick and at best can leverage his gravity as a threat into finding teammates with dangerous passes. He also probably needs to be coached even harder about the value of shooting in better areas, and being more efficient as a player. While not the absolute top tier prospect that Ligue 1 has seen over the past few years, he’s in the discussion at the next level, and is definitely one of the more intriguing ones.

Identifying Ligue 1’s Next Breakout Talent: Houssem Aouar

The summer of 2017 was when big named players from Olympique Lyonnais left for greener pastures. Alexandre Lacazette finally made his long-awaited move to Arsenal, Corentin Tolisso left for Bayern Munich, Maxime Gonalons took his talents to Italy and signed for Roma. Even Rachid Ghezzal, a player who was equally as frustrating as he was brilliant, left for Monaco on a free transfer. While it might be a bit much to claim that this was going to be a new era, it was clear that there was a distinctly youthful approach occurring, with the club once again tapping into its famous academy along with the  youthful players they bought as replacements for the departed.

So far, it’s worked about as well as one could hope for. Lyon were never going to challenge for the title, but they sit 3rd in Ligue 1 with a massive goal differential at +21 and underlying numbers that for the most part look like what you would expect from a top three side in Ligue 1. It’s fair to say that they won’t continue shooting at a clip of 16.1% in open play (only PSG has a higher conversion clip) but they mostly project as a good side even if the goals start drying up. Nabil Fekir is back to his best and is doing the business, Mariano is shooting first and asking questions later, and their midfield has arguably been the best in Ligue 1 despite their main three contributors being 20 and under, which makes that even more impressive.

One of the members in that midfield is Houssem Aouar. While mainly a central midfielder, he’s shown versatility as to where he can play. He can be used as a deep midfielder in a double pivot, as the furthest forward midfielder in a trio, or even giving width as a wide man who can drift inside to help overlapping fullbacks. In a sense, his positional versatility is reminiscent of Tolisso, who was also able to play basically anywhere on the pitch and not be a hindrance to the team. Considering the circumstances he’s dealing with and who he’s replacing, Aouar has been as good as you could realistically expect from a 19 year old who’s logging regular minutes in a major league for the first time.

 

 

One thing that has helped Aouar is that whenever he’s part of a midfield trio, there’s a nice blend of talents for him to work with. Lucas Toussart has replaced Gonalons as the steady hand who can act as a water carrier if required, while Tanguy Ndombele does a little bit of everything. More importantly is that both of those players aren’t terrible with the ball at their feet, which helps considering that Lyon give off the feel of a club who win by talent more so than with a cohesive structure.

It can be argued that Aouar’s greatest trait is his dribbling and how he can make opponents look silly with little shakes and changes of direction. He is one of the better dribblers you’ll find in Ligue 1 when it comes to being able to maneuver in tight situations. In an era of football where space is becoming less and less available, players who can be hard to nudge off the ball are assets. Aouar profiles as someone who can potentially become something of a needle player: someone who can maintain the ball in dangerous areas despite being pressured by opponents.

 

I wouldn’t say that Aouar is fast but he can be intelligent with how he maneuvers himself and find space to work with. He’s someone who glides on the pitch more than he would zoom past people. When he plays with NDombele and Tousart, there are situations where he will try to break in through opposition lines and get himself into the penalty area. They don’t happen too often, but you see it here and there. When it does happen, he seems to be more comfortable making cutbacks towards open teammates and looking to set them up for solid opportunities.

 

 

If Aouar’s dribbling is his best attribute, not far behind is his ability to play defense splitting passes and he has been in an ideal situation for this development. Lyon constantly play 3 or 4 attackers with pace that have a solid first touch once they receive the ball. Whenever he’s played in a double pivot or part of a midfield three, the pitch is stretched out it’s allowing him options on the ball. In particular, he’s developed a nice little chemistry with Memphis and Mariano where he will look for an audacious pass whenever either of them loses their marker.

 

For being only 5’7, he’s also a surprisingly decent tackler. He’s dogged and to borrow a tired cliche, “gets stuck in”.  You could imagine that in a team where there was more cohesion in terms of how to press with specific triggers, he would fit in. Considering how good is he with the ball at his feet, in a counter pressing system that prioritized transitions, he would be able to create scenarios both for himself and others.

 

 

With the way Aouar moves around and constantly tries to find space to work with, he can do a decent job in being part of scenarios where Lyon will have a man advantage so the ball could be progressed into dangerous areas.

 

 

I’m not sure Aouar profiles as a guy who will produce high expected goals per season when he’s in his prime, and that could potentially leave his contributions underrated. With how much he loves being on the ball and presenting himself as an outlet in deeper areas, his importance comes more so in progressing plays rather than finishing them with a shot for himself or others. He doesn’t shoot at high volume, and his locations haven’t been inspiring either. Even though his chance creation numbers are pretty good considering how many different positions he’s played, they’re not spell binding. It’s possible all this will improve over time and with more coaching but I also think that with him being 5’7, potential recruiters might try to stick him as a #10 and I’m not convinced he would be great in that role.

Houssem Aouar is only 19 years old, but he’s hit the ground running already at a decent team in a big league. At his best, he’s a magician with the ball and he’s not afraid to try and create big chances from deeper areas. The fact that he’s this young and is already looking like an above average midfielder says a lot about his possible upside once he hits his prime years.  Despite my apprehensions towards Bruno Genesio as a manager, he’s at a club that does like to promote youth at a steady pace and he’ll stand a better chance at being a consistent starter at Lyon over the next couple of years. The best compliment that could be given to him is that Lyon sold a great midfielder in Corentin Tolisso over the summer, and haven’t seemed to have missed him.

Bordeaux and the Chase for the Champions League

2017-18 in Ligue 1 was never going to be about a title race in France, because that was sewn up the minute PSG bought Neymar from Barcelona (and just to rub it in, they got maybe the best prospect in world football as well). Rather, where the intrigue in Ligue 1 came from was the cluster of six or so teams below PSG fighting for two Champions League spots. At least for this writer, there was a genuine curiosity about how the standings would shake out in positions 2 to 7 considering the massive changes that had gone on. After seven games where are we? Monaco have been fine despite selling the majority of their title winning squad, Lyon have produced attacking numbers that are quite middling compared to the talent at their disposal, while Marcelo Bielsa and Lille are Ligue 1’s travelling circus act.

Bordeaux were one of the teams that were mentioned in that block of six, an intriguing side that could have a high ceiling because of the attacking talent gathered over the past few windows. They are led by a respectable manager in Jocelyn Gourvennec, and on a mandate of sustainability by buying unheralded talents either inside the league or elsewhere. It’s allowed them to get a player like Nicolas De Preville, one of Ligue 1’s most underrated attackers over the past 3-4 years. Younousse Sankhare is a talented midfielder who can press individuals with his athleticism while providing off ball runs in the final third. Alexandre Mendy came in the summer for under €1M despite putting up relatively monster xG numbers at Guingamp (albeit nearly 50% of those minutes came as a substitute). This has been a carefully built squad on a tighter budget than others in Ligue 1.

It should be emphasized just how deep this team is in attack for a club that’s not having to play European football. Malcom and Kamano are givens in the 4-3-3 setup, but they have a rotating cast of characters that they could play in between them at striker with De Preville and Mendy. That’s not to mention Gaetan Laborde who was solid last year, and Jonatan Cafu who has been frisky in the limited minutes he’s played this year. That very well might be six competent to great players to work with over a full season.

The results so far have been largely impressive. Only PSG has a better total shot and expected goal ratio in the league, and there’s nothing exceedingly alarming with the performances put in. Sure, over the long term they’re probably not going to convert goals to shots on target at just over 37%. At the very least however, they have decent enough shot location to go along with healthy shot volume in a league that isn’t exactly renown for teams shooting over 14 times a match. There are worse foundations to have in attack than what Bordeaux have done so far this year.

While perhaps simplistic, one could say that the basis of Bordeaux’s attack is based on transition football. It’s a bit weird considering that this wouldn’t be considered a counter pressing team that uses pressure to create high quality chances the other way, and they don’t give you the feeling that they’re playing fast football, but it does seem like they’re able to capitalize on individual mistakes.

 

Bordeaux make this work by always having people commit on the counter, having as many or even more players going forward than the opposition have defending. This is where things like pushing Jeremy Toulalan into a CB position works great, because now you can have more mobile players who can catch up in the play along with the front three. It also takes advantage of Toulalan’s passing sometimes being an outlet to get the pace quickened.

One thing I’m still wondering with Bordeaux is what is their best lineup within their 4-3-3 setup. On the one hand, De Preville is the best talent that they could put in striker considering his ability to both create for others and himself during his time at Reims and Lille. A slight worry is that considering how much he loves having the ball on his feet, and the same could be said for Malcom and Kamano, it could lead to possessions where it just ends up with them taking really bad shots with little movement to work with. I think having Mendy in there makes for a better fit because then you have a playmaker, an inside shooting forward, and a poacher (to go along with Mendy’s ability to hold off the ball and let teammates come to the ball). There’s a higher ceiling with De Preville in the lineup, but there’s a higher floor with Mendy. It’ll be interesting to see where this goes because Mendy has been a killer super sub so far.

A problem that could be made with how Bordeaux set up defensively is while they do have the ability to press in certain situations from a medium block, they are still quite susceptible to passes that break their defensive structure. Considering how much they rely on Sankhare to hurry opponents and get play going the other way, sometimes the opposition will drag him out and find openings in the midfield to pass into space and create semi dangerous opportunities.

Now the good news is that despite those concerns, there’s maybe only three teams in Ligue 1 who can really punish Bordeaux for these problems. And considering the issues Lyon have had so far in attack, it very well might be that only Monaco and PSG could punish a defensive system like the one Bordeaux have implemented. And in the context of merely just trying to finish in the top 3, that might well be good enough. So far this season, the results have been resolute. Only PSG, Montpellier, and Caen concede fewer shots per game and Bordeaux rank in the top three in quality of chances conceded. While the flaws of the system are evident, it might not mean much by season’s end.

We highlighted Francois Kamano as a player to watch coming into this season, someone who in a broad sense had a fine season last year. He shot a lot, and produced enough to make the math work in his favor. What I also found interesting about Kamano’s game last year was he created high quality chances on average compared to the overall low amount of overall chances he put up. It was a poor man’s version of what Ousmane Dembele did last year, and they both share a similar trait in which passing models don’t exactly portray them in the greatest light because of their penchant for gambling on passes.

The real curiosity with Kamano was with better attacking talent to play with, would he be able to trade maybe 0.5-1 bad shots a game for something better, because while he’s shown he is able to create premium chances for others, better shot selection from him could enable him to take the next step as a player. Good news: he’s taking around 1 less shot per 90 minutes. Bad news: that hasn’t exactly made his shot selection appreciably better.

Now I get it, he’s 21 and there’s time for him to figure this out. And it’s still early in the season, but we’re looking at just over 5000 minutes of game time in his Ligue 1 career and the evidence is showing that on average, the shots he takes are speculative at best. If this aspect of his game doesn’t improve, it could very well be that we’re already seeing the best of Francois Kamano as a player, and that would be a shame.

And then there’s Malcom, who’s arguably the crown jewel on this Bordeaux side. The yin to Kamano’s yang, he’s much more of a creator for others while probably having more functional athleticism than his teammate. He can shift and juke to beat defenders, use his acceleration when needing to get on the end of passes. Whereas Kamano is of the “shoot first and ask questions later” mentality, it’s almost frightening how much Malcom will try and create dangerous opportunities with his dribbling and passing. So far though, the results have been splendid as he’s been able to make something out of nothing with some of his solo runs:

Now you don’t need me to tell you about the problems that come with analyzing seven games without a considerable grain of salt, but it has to be said that so far into the season, Malcom has performed like one of the better creative wide men in Europe. If there ever was a “Leap in Progress” alarm, it would be ringing loud right now with what the kid is doing:

 

Again, it’s a small number of games and this could very well be just a nice run of form and not truly representative of his true talent level as a player. But even if he’s somewhere between this current form and what he did previously, we’re still talking about a very talented creative winger who is still be three or so years away from hitting his prime. It could very well be that even a lesser version of Malcom would be good enough to help Bordeaux to make a genuine run at the top three.

In a similar manner to Nice last season, teams like Bordeaux need things to go their way if they’re to make a run at the top three in Ligue 1. The difference of budget compared to the likes of Lyon, Monaco and Marseille will always make it tough. In Nice’s case, it was a combination of breakout performances from the likes of Alassane Plea and Jean Micheal Seri and benefiting from the skills of Lucien Favre. With Bordeaux, it might need to be that Malcom in his second full season in France turns into a top 5-10 attacker in the league and incremental growth from players like Kamano and Mendy help bridge the gap for this season. Seven games in doesn’t make a season, and Bordeaux’s numbers will take a hit once they play the likes of PSG and Monaco. Even their first seven games could be nitpicked if needed; while holding Lyon to 8 shots and coming back from 3-1 was impressive, it was done while up a man for the majority of the match. And they were largely unimpressive against Lille when they were once again up a man. I’m also a bit skeptical of whether the front three can click long term, for all that they are talented. Even so, they potentially have six capable attackers, a mobile midfield that can assist in the transition football that they work best in, and a manager who smartly turned a static 4-4-2 setup last year into something greater.

Seven games in and so far so good. It might just end with Bordeaux’s first trip back to the Champions League since 2010.

2017-18 Ligue 1 Season Preview

It’s kind of odd to write a season preview where PSG aren’t the defending champions. A lot of things had to fall in place for this to happen, mainly a certain Principality side scoring at a rate that we’ve almost never seen in the near decade’s worth of Opta data accumulated, but here we are, with Monaco having finally ended the stranglehold that PSG had for the past few seasons. They’ve fittingly spent the summer getting English teams to spend exorbitant amounts of money on their players, while the Kylian Mbappe saga rolls into August.

This season has the makings of something very interesting, in a somewhat similar way to how Premier League was looking like going into last season. While I don’t think there’s going to be a title race happening in France (unless Monaco have found the secret sauce to replicate their conversion rate, the likelihood of that being the case is zero), the other two Champions League spots could feature as much as five teams fighting for it. The five teams in question are:

  • Nice
  • Monaco
  • Lyon
  • Marseille
  • Bordeaux

I can’t remember the last time Ligue 1 had potentially six teams (PSG, obviously) go into a season where the idea of making the Champions League was at the very least not preposterous. Monaco and Lyon are probably in the boat where making the Champions League is their target, and anything else is disappointing. Marseille are itching to get themselves back into the top three for the first time since 2012-13, and have spent decent amounts of money in the process (who they’ve spent it on is a whole other story). Nice and Bordeaux would like to make the top 3, but getting into the Europa League wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world either.

So this is going to be your Ligue 1 Season Preview fix for the upcoming 2017-18 season; where the five teams mentioned above get dissected along with three players to watch for during the season, and an overall wrap up on what could be an exciting season in Ligue 1.

5 into 2 won’t go:

Monaco

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but Monaco spent their summer selling their players for a shit ton of cash. Benjamin Mendy, Tiemoue Bakayoko, and Bernardo Silva left for ridiculous sums, and there’s still a chance of Kylian Mbappe leaving for a world record fee over the next few weeks. What Monaco have done is straight out of the Football Manager playbook: overachieve during the season and let the bids pile on for players on the squad.

Perhaps the greatest compliment that could be had for Monaco is that despite the departures, there’s still a lot of talent here, including Boschilla who produced great in the limited number of minutes he had in the league last year for all that it is fair to wonder how he’ll do after coming back from an ACL injury. Allan Saint-Maxamin could be good, and the fact he wasn’t utterly rudderless at Bastia is a good sign (he is the poster boy for fine tuning shot locations among wide forwards). Thomas Lemar is still there, and he could improve with more responsibilities too. Youri Tielemans is the perfect kind of player for Monaco to buy and potentially sell off for 3x the price. If Mbappe stays, Monaco should still finish no worse than 3rd. Things get considerably more dicey if he does leave during the window.

Nice

It’s our old friend Lucien Favre, who once again told expected goal models to go kick rocks as he led Nice to a surprising 3rd place finish last season. They were aesthetically pleasing and featured one of Ligue 1’s best strikers (when healthy) in Alassane Plea, a surprisingly frisky Mario Balotelli, one of the better creative midfielders in Jean Micheal Seri, exciting fullbacks and more. And it wouldn’t be a Favre led club if they didn’t massively overachieve relative to what models projected them based on xG or even basic shot metrics.

There’s still some things to like about Nice going into this season: Seri is at the peak of his powers as a midfielder and despite massive amount of rumors, he’s still at the club. Plea is also embarking on his prime years, though after a second major knee injury, it’s fair to wonder how bad his knees are and whether he could crack 2000+ minutes in a season again. Wylian Cyprien is a big time talent, though he also has major questions since he’s returning from a torn ACL. Nice won’t have Ricardo Pereira, as he’s back at Porto after a widely successful two-year loan spell in France. Dalbert could also be gone if the rumors of Inter sniffing him out turn out to be true. Not having one of the best fullback combos is a big blow for the club.

Going into last season, I thought that Nice would struggle quite heavily and finish in mid-table. While I don’t think that’ll happen this time if Seri stays, I would still be shocked if they finish in the top 3 for a second straight season. But hey, Favre’s consistently told shot metrics to piss off in the past, so I could be wrong again.

Lyon:

Alexandre Lacazette is finally gone after summers of rumors, they sold one of the great young midfielders in Europe to Bayern in Corentin Tolisso, and veterans like Mathieu Valbuena and Maxime Gonalons are gone too. In their place are several high upside bets like Bertrand Traore, Mariano Diaz and Ferland Mendy, to go along with some players who are much closer.

Lyon are starting in a worse off position than at the same time last year, but they still have Memphis Depay and Nabil Fekir who are two of the best attackers in Ligue 1. If one of Traore or Diaz hit, you got yourself a very dynamic attack that could hold its own with anyone outside PSG. I’m not a big fan of their manager Bruno Genesio, but there’s still enough parts remaining to be cautiously optimistic.

Marseille:

If gambling is your thing, you’ve probably noticed that Marseille in some places have the third best odds to make the top 3 in France. Name cache + new owners + money spent in the summer + top 5 finish last year; those variables in some form explain the odds trickling out in the way that they have.

The argument in favor for Marseille doing well this season goes as follow:

  • Dimitri Payet will be there for a full season, and the Veledrome was where he arguably had his best season in 2014-15
  • Florian Thauvin had his best season as a pro last season, and unlike Hatem Ben Arfa in 2015-16, he’s only 24 so he has a better chance of replicating that form once again
  • Rudi Garcia will also be there for the start of the season, and the upgrade to him from Franck Passi is real.

Even with all those things taken into consideration, I’m very skeptical of what the club looks like. Dimitri Payet is 30 years old and there’s a good chance Marseille already had his best year as a player in 2014-15. Valere Germain is a nice enough forward although he’s turning 28. Luis Gustavo is 30, Adil Rami is turning 32 in December, Patrice Evra is 36. Marseille have created a squad where they are relying on a lot of old players doing the job for them, with youngsters like Morgan Sanson and Maxime Lopez giving them the young dynamism as a supplement. It’s not the greatest way of spending resources.

Bordeaux

I’m not saying that this will definitely be the case, but there’s a chance that Alexandre Mendy becomes one of the best value plays of the summer window across Europe. One thing to monitor with Mendy is that 47% of his minutes last season came as a sub which puts his monster shot and xG numbers into some question. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Michy Batshuayi’s first year at Marseille when he was second in command behind Andre Pierre Gignac. But even if (and probably when) his numbers take a hit, 700K for potentially a solid striker at age 23 is marvelous stuff.

I quite like this team. I liked them last year to possibly finish in the top 4, and their second half run that was influenced by changes in the makeup of their squad showed the potential that they had. Assuming reasonable health, they have the fire power to contend with players like Mendy, Francois Kamano, Diego Rolan, Gaetan Laborde. Recent history in Ligue 1 suggests that a team like Bordeaux will have it hard to finish in the top 3 unless something goes right for them (overperformance, one of their young players make the leap), but Nice did it last season and of all the teams to make a shock top 3 finish, Bordeaux probably have the squad best equipped to do so.

Bonus: Lille

I wouldn’t be doing my job here if I didn’t mention Lille, who are embarking on one of the great projects in European football. They’re bankrolled by new owner Gerard Lopez (who nearly became Marseille’s owner) who has lots of money and owns a Formula 1 team. They brought over Luis Campos, who’s the new sporting director and helped get talents like Bernardo Silva and Tiemoué Bakayoko to Monaco, and the club have spent the summer spending ~£30M on Brazilian talent. Perhaps the real story though is them hiring Marcelo Bielsa as their manager. Bielsa’s record is well known; a genius who makes teams considerably better initially, but burns bridges and leaves his clubs in a blaze of glory. Considering how much input he’s having here, this might be the one place where he doesn’t set the place on fire by year two.

It’s such a weird squad that they have currently but one that has potential to do something of note. No European football is a bonus, and Marseille in 2014-15 nearly made the top 3 that year because of that advantage. There is attacking talent there with the likes of Nicolas Pepe, Anwar El Ghazi, Nicolas De Preville. If the Brazilian contingent of Thiago Maia, Thiago Mendes and Luiz Araujo work out in some form, you’ve got the makings of something really cool happening. All things being equal, this team need a bunch of things to go their way for them to finish in the top 3 this year, and the club themselves have targeted 2018-19 as the season to finish in the CL. But exciting times are happening there, and you should make out some time in your schedule for potential Bielsa madness (both good and bad).

Three Players to Watch: Yann Karamoh:

You don’t find a lot of 18-year-old players who finish in the top 25 in a good league when it comes to xG contribution, especially when said player is reportedly available to be had at ~€10M. Karamoh wasn’t Mbappe or Ousmane Dembele; the type of supernova talent that made big clubs take notice with their wallets, but he produced decently enough on a below average side at Caen.

His contract runs out next year and there’s almost zero chance Caen don’t cash in on a transfer fee for him in some shape or form, whether it be now or having him sign a deal with an agreement for him to leave at a future transfer window. Regardless, the kid’s promising and it would be interesting if he did move up the division to a team like Monaco, who do have a track record of playing young players recently. He could be the next one in a long line of exciting French talents

Allan Saint-Maxamin:

I have a working theory with attacking players who play for Bastia: If you can at least not be awful, you’re probably going to grade out as a decent Ligue 1 player, and perhaps even better than that. Over the past few years, the list has been growing:

  • Florian Thauvin
  • Ryad Boudebouz
  • Anthony Modeste
  • Francois Kamano
  • Wahbi Khazri
  • Giovanni Sio
  • Claudio Beauvue

On raw ability alone, Saint-Maxamin oozes potential. He’s got speed to burn, can dribble past anyone, and has great hair. His numbers weren’t great last year, in fact they were quite grizzly. But Bastia were terrible last year and have been bad for a while, so he could easily have just been in a bad situation for himself. Plus, at least for now he looks to be sticking with Monaco for the season and with some of the departures, he stands to get some minutes. With talented teammates and a good manager, perhaps he might create more of these opportunities on a regular basis.

 

 

Francois Kamano:

Perhaps the most intriguing of the three mentioned. Kamano took a lot of shots last season, especially from open play. In fact, the only wide players per 90 minutes to take more shots than him who played at least 900 minutes were Memphis Depay and Angel Di Maria. Unlike Memphis, whose overall statistical profile ranks him among the elite attackers in Europe, Kamano isn’t close to that. It’s not to say that he’s bad per se. His overall shot contribution (shots + key passes) rank him in the top 20 in France. Expected Goals + Assists rank him decently enough in the top 25-30 as well. He’s a fine winger who’s still young at 21 years old and probably is about two or so years from his peak.

Very much like Adam Ounas, who caught the eye well enough to land a transfer to Napoli, shot locations are what’s keeping him from getting to that next level. Simply put, Kamano takes a lot of bad shots, which hinders his overall impact as a player.

 

In some ways, it’s a bit reminiscent of Memphis Depay before his half season resurgence with Lyon, albeit Kamano is not nearly as all encompassing a force as Depay was at PSV. As it turned out, playing with a lot of talented attacking players was the best thing to happen for Depay, and since Bordeaux have some nice pieces in their squad, maybe Kamano could cut out some of these low-quality shots from his repertoire.

 

There’s potentially a very nice player here; not necessarily a world-beater, but one that could attract a serious offer from a bigger club in a future transfer window.

Final Thoughts:

2017-18 has the promise of being a fun season in Ligue 1. There’s not going to be a title race, especially if the rumors of Neymar going to PSG become finalized. However, everything below could be lots of fun: Bielsa’s back, we get a full year of Memphis + Fekir, the retirement home at Marseille trying to buck father time, the kids at Monaco that still remain.

Ligue 1 has become an attractive league over the past few years because of the volume of exciting young talents that are present and getting significant minutes, and this season doesn’t seem to be any different. Players like Houssem Aouar at Lyon, Martin Terrier at Lille, and Marcus Thuram at Guingamp could all shine and become bonafide prospects. And then there’s talents like Maxime Lopez at Marseille, who’s only 19 years old but already looks like a genuine talent and could become a dynamite creative midfielder in the not too distant future. The faith in youngster’s to make mistakes and grow from them is perhaps the greatest calling card that the league has. Find time in your schedule. Big talents of the future reside within and even if you just want to watch world stars doing their thing PSG have you covered there. It’s should be a good one.

Top 6 Prediction

  1. PSG
  2. Monaco
  3. Lyon
  4. Bordeaux
  5. Marseille
  6. Lille

Identifying Ligue 1’s Next Big Breakout Talents #4: Alassane Pléa

Here is Alasanne Pléa’s 2016-17 season:

  • Only Edinson Cavani and Memphis Depay this season attempted more open play shots per 90 minutes with at least 900 minutes played in Ligue 1
  • Depending on the model being used, Alassane Pléa was somewhere between the top 5-10 in xG per 90 minutes in Ligue 1
  • He was the only attacking player on Nice to have not overperformed or even met xG numbers

You can see why Premier League teams in January were considering bidding for Pléa. 24-year-old strikers who produce like that and aren’t already with super expensive clubs don’t exactly grow on trees. Add in that he passes the smell test in terms of athleticism and you’ve got yourself quite the tantalizing forward. Truth be told, I was somewhat skeptical of Alassane Pléa coming into this season. Some of why I was skeptical could be seen here. My main issue was having that nagging feeling that Ben Arfa’s one year renaissance + Germain’s unselfish movements made life for him considerably easier and that those two leaving him would have a knock-on effect. It wouldn’t mean that he’d suddenly fall off the face of the earth, but the most likely scenario would’ve been a slight decrease in his numbers from having to shoulder more of the burden in attack. I also wasn’t quite factoring in the chances of him becoming a much more centralized player, which would hide some of the lack of dynamism he had on-ball.

As it turned out I was wrong, in fact I was dead wrong. Jean Michael Seri had a really good season as a playmaking midfielder, with him and Pléa developing nice chemistry together. Mario Balotelli was fine in the minutes that he and Plea played together, which allowed him to develop even more. You combine that with his natural growth in the striker position–higher volume of shots along with better shot quality–and what you come up with is one of the best forwards in Ligue 1 who if you need him to, can also still play spot duty on the right-hand side.

Last year it could be argued that Alassane Pléa played like a wide forward who could interchange positions and play as a center forward, whereas this season Pléa’s movements and declined on-ball usage much more resembled your typical center forward. This was especially evident in the matches where he wasn’t playing with Balotelli. This isn’t to say his game last year resembled an all action inside forward like say Memphis Depay, but even looking at basic stuff like dribbles or throughballs shows a noticeable change as he was tasked more to create for others:

 

 

This year, it’s been different. With so much of the playmaking being tasked to Seri and others, he’s been allowed to be more of a predator, working off the shoulders of center backs and attacking openings with his speed. On the face of it it’s just a simple switch, but it’s one that turned him from a below average shot-maker who had a fairly pedestrian xG per shot of ~12%, to one where he much more resembled a shot-taker.

 

 

In a sense, what he’s done this year is somewhat reminiscent of the evolution that Alexandre Lacazette went through between 2014-17; both transitioned into being a centerback’s worst nightmare. Comparing the two today; Lacazette is a better player because he’s just a more fluid attacker in buildup and more adept at getting his own shot off. Particularly the thing that pushes Lacazette over the top in this comparison is his supreme ability to seal off defenders and either spin into open space after receiving the ball or lay it off for a teammate.

But the Lacazette we know today wasn’t the same one at age 24. Sure, he had some of the traits that would turn him into the player that Arsenal are reportedly set to pay a club record fee for, but it would take a couple of more seasons before it led to being a consistently top notch xG contributor. In that sense, one could argue that Pléa at 24 is a better prospect than Lacazette was at that age.

Judging by expected assists or key passes, Alassane Pléa would rank lower on the totem pole for strikers. And I’m not going to say that he’s a brilliant playmaker for a center/wide forward, but I do think he’s fine in the sense that he can make passes that can get his team into advantageous areas on the pitch. On a team with already established playmakers, having a striker who can at least do stuff like this is an asset.

 

 

 

If you had to put me on the spot and ask what is Alassane Pléa’s best spot in the pitch, I would say through the middle, which wasn’t something I would’ve said going into this season. I just think he’s more of an impactful player when he’s concentrating on getting on the end of throughballs and finishing chances. If you structured a team where as a wide forward, all he’d have to do is provide width and make runs, then that’s a different case and he would be a worthwhile gamble. I just think that asking him to be anything resembling high usage with the evidence we’ve seen of him is not getting the best out of him.

So how much will Alassane Pléa cost a club? Well that’s a bit hard to pin down. Technically, Ligue 1 doesn’t allow for release clauses to exist but more clubs are getting past that legality, and reports suggest that Pléa’s got one in the region of €50M. Nice just qualified for the Champions League and combine the funds they’ll get from that along with the probable sale of Seri for big money and the Chinese takeover in ownership, there isn’t the need for Nice to sell. Having said that, what could depreciate his value a bit is that he’s had two major knee injuries over the past two seasons, and he could well be at risk in the future to sustain another one. He had an ACL injury that knocked off four months in 2015-16, and lost the back end of 2016-17 to another knee injury. You don’t have to be a doctor to figure out that repeated trauma to your knees doesn’t exactly scream confidence of avoiding future injuries, but that’s just making an educated guess. Teams that are looking to buy him will get the medical reports and determine whether these two injuries are immediate red flags.

Let’s assume a world where Alassane Pléa has his age 24-29 year uninterrupted by serious knee injuries, what teams would be the best fit for him? One place that could’ve been fascinating was a return to Lyon as a potential replacement for Alexandre Lacazette, though the purchase of Bertrand Traore and the probable asking price from Nice makes the fit considerably more difficult. It’s kind of a shame because the prospects of an attacking core featuring Memphis, Pléa, Traore, and Nabil Fekir as a backup plan for Lacazette’s departure would’ve been grand. For now, we could probably label this as unlikely, even with the scattering of reports that had Bruno Genesio making him a priority this summer.

In England, Southampton could be an intriguing place for him because in many ways he’s the actualized version of what Claude Puel tried to do with Nathan Redmond when he tried to convert him into a secondary striker. The two could work very well together since they’re both capable passers who could interchange positions on the pitch because of their athleticism. He’d also alleviate the worries of what would happen if Gabbiadini got hurt for an extended period because the two aren’t dissimilar in playing style. Again, the worry here isn’t so much in terms of fit as much as whether he’s over their price range, even with them just raking in £122M in Premier League funds in 2016-17. It’d be much of a Southampton move if they instead targeted someone like Yann Karamoh from Caen; who’s only 18 years old, has one year left on his contract, and has shown signs of possibly being a very good forward soon.

There are other places for him to go to in England if it’s not Southampton. Arsenal need forwards and certainly have the money, though the increasing likelihood of Lacazette going there means if they still wanted to get him, it’d probably be more so as a wide forward more so than a striker. Pléa does fit some of the requirements that Arsenal look for: pace, shot location discipline, and not having two cinder-blocks for feet in the passing department, and they could use Pléa in a role not so dissimilar to what Theo Walcott was at his apex. Numerous jokes have been made about West Ham’s continued search for a center forward, and their interest in January probably indicates the search hasn’t ended. On strictly pure need this makes the most sense and West Ham certainly can pay the big money it would probably take to get him, but my level of trust in West Ham putting together a cohesive midfield to accentuate the best parts of Pléa’s game isn’t exactly high.

Alassane Pléa has turned himself into a very solid player in Ligue 1 despite being a late bloomer of sorts, having just completed only his third season of over 1000 league minutes at age 24. He’s increased his shot load from last year and simultaneously improved his shot location as well. His ability to operate in tight areas has improved, his passing is fine, and combined with his ample athleticism makes him a good player that’s embarking on the prime years of his career. We don’t know if the knee injury that ended his season took something out of him, and if anything, that’s the biggest worry. He’s certainly worth monitoring through next season, and with health, at 25 could still represent a good purchase. Once again, we find Ligue 1 to be housing high quality talent and the path from France to Europe’s bigger clubs is well trodden. Pléa could well be one of the next guys to make the switch.

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This is part four of a series, check out the first three parts:

#1 Corentin Tolisso

#2 Thomas Lemar

#3 Kylian Mbappe