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.

Ritsu Doan, Stefano Sensi and Enock Kwateng: Scouting Europe's Less Heralded Prospects

Around this time last year I looked at five Ligue 1 prospects outside of the four traditional big clubs in France, as a way of illustrating the deep talent pool that exists in Ligue 1. Looking back a year later and it’s interesting to see where each prospect stands. Both Nordi Mukiele and Yves Bissouma made moves to clubs outside of Ligue 1 in RB Leipzig and Brighton respectively, Jonathan Bamba was signed by Lille, while Wylan Cyprien and Ismaila Sarr stayed at their respective clubs.

With Mukiele, his sample size of 711 minutes in the Bundesliga makes it rather hard to have strong opinions on his season either way. In the case of Bissouma, it’s fair to say that Brighton haven’t gotten their full value in season one. That’s not to say that Bissouma hasn’t shown signs of the upside that he has but the totality of his season has been shaky (though there’s also something to be said about how tough it can be for new players to transition their play style into a Chris Hughton led side).

Both Cyprien and Bamba have more or less been at the same level that they were the season prior, but at least Bamba moved to a club that has a very good chance of playing in the Champions League next season. Sarr is arguably the only player to have their stock rise a year later, as he’s added more functional playmaking to complement his direct style of play and become a more well-rounded threat, setting himself up for a potential noteworthy transfer this summer.

In the spirit of last year’s iteration, this article will follow a somewhat similar format. Instead of focusing solely on Ligue 1 young talents, we’ll be looking more at Europe as a whole. None of the three players profiled currently ply their trade in one of the big clubs in their respective leagues. As well, each player is 23 or under as of March 29, 2019. It follows the same idea where we’re trying to profile players that at the very least will have several prominent years ahead of them.

Without further ado, let’s get to it:

Ritsu Doan (Groningen, 20)

As the modern game has continued to evolve, it’s become more apparent that to succeed at the highest level, wide players must have a requisite level of passing skills to go along with high level athleticism.

Though it's not uniform across the board, as you’ll find wingers who don’t necessarily fit that combination and still perform at a top level, more and more of the best teams employ wingers that have that combination of on-ball skills and upper tier athletic gifts.

That’s what makes someone like Ritsu Doan an interesting winger to profile. On the surface, Doan’s statistical production doesn’t necessarily jump off the screen as both his shot and xG contribution is rather ordinary.

Yet, when watching tape of him, it’s hard not to get intrigued. Sure, playing in the Eredivisie can make it a bit tough to judge young attackers, but given that Doan plays for a smaller Eredivisie side in Groningen, those worries get alleviated to some extent especially given that they rank below average in both shot generation and expected goals for.

In particular, Doan's awareness to attempt high value passes is cause for some optimism. He's first among Groningen players in both throughball passes created and open play passes into the box on a per 90 basis. He's got half of what you would want from a young attacking talent: when he sees an opening to try a high value pass, he's not afraid to take his shot.

As well as his passing, Doan's dribbling abilities are quite pronounced. He's able to apply his skills on the ball to a number of situations, giving himself some versatility. If he's covered in tight areas, he can maneuver himself into some open space to ponder his next action.

He can beat people off the dribble in one on one situations on the flanks, and he has the sudden explosion to pounce on an opening and put an opponent on their heels. Combine that with good balance and some shiftiness when on-ball, and you've got yourself a wide player with some dynamism.

That dribbling ability can also act as a bit of a curse for Doan, as he's prone to having tunnel vision and not picking out an open teammate while he's in full stride. As well, it's not uncommon to see him running into people when he's carrying the ball forward.

But these things are forgivable for a young wide player who isn't on a good team, given that the upside he flashes is tantalizing. Ritsu Doan seems like a good candidate for a bigger Eredivisie club to take a chance on, perhaps not quite yet for the likes of Ajax or PSV, but more so clubs on the next level.

Stefano Sensi (Sassuolo, 23)

Of the three players listed, Stefano Sensi is the one most likely to make the jump to a major European club. At age 23, it makes sense given that he's close enough to his prime years that bigger clubs can envision him coming into their midfield and making an immediate impact.

Sensi is a fascinating figure within Italian football given that he's been looked at as a potential dynamic midfielder for the future. As for this season, he's been part of a Sassuolo side that's had some success playing an adventurous possession game in attack, doing a little bit of everything from the midfield and linking things together.

It isn't hard to see the appeal of Sensi's game. He has decent mobility and the shiftiness to carry the ball on occasion, especially during transition opportunities. On-ball, he's a smooth operator with an array of passes in his arsenal.

He's constantly aware of his surroundings because of his scanning, and in situations where he feels that he's going to be pressured by the opponent, he's happy to recycle the ball and continue possession via one touch passing. Sensi's scanning gets to another part of his game that's quite effective, because of his awareness, he's able to position himself during buildup play where he presents himself as an option for the CB in possession.

If the oppostion tries to take him out as a possible passing option during buildup, he'll try to shift a little bit in one direction to get himself into open space and receive a pass. When you add in the recognition and awareness to attempt difficult long passes, you have the type of midfielder that should fit well at larger Serie A clubs.

One area that will be interesting to monitor is how Sensi would fit defensively at a new club. Sassuolo have not been good on defense this season as they're 5th from the bottom in Serie A in xG conceded. Sensi's defensive output is decent when accounting for Sassuolo's defensive style.

In metrics that try to analyze how much a club presses, like passes allowed per defensive action or how far away from their own goal a team perform's defensive action, Sassuolo rank at the lower end of the table. Even within Sassuolo's defensive inadequacies, you'll see moments where Sensi's defensive awareness is present, whether it be shutting off passing lanes or making timely gambles on defensive actions.

The reported links to Milan make sense given that Milan have similar pressing metrics to Sassuolo, but they've done what Sassuolo haven't been able to in ably suppressing shot volume and location, so transitioning could be smoother there than at other clubs.

Enock Kwateng (Nantes, 21)

Ligue 1 is always fascinating to analyze when it comes to young talents, as the league offers the best balance of high upside prospects at affordable pricing. This upcoming summer will be of particular interest because there are three right-backs who don't play for major French clubs that have relatively high ceilings: Enock Kwateng, Valentin Rosier, and Youcef Atal.

Atal has the highest ceiling of the three, and it's been interesting seeing him play further up the pitch as the season has progressed, but Rosier and Kwateng aren't slouches in their own right. Kwateng in particular has had a productive season with Nantes at age 21.

The defensive output is what stands out here, but I'm more fascinated with what Kwateng can do during possession. He's a decent dribbler but I wouldn't necessarily call him a very good one as a full-back. Where he's particularly good is when he collects a loose ball and immediately makes a snap decision to try and beat the initial man before laying it off to a teammate.

When he's positioned high on the right side, he'll try to make an off-ball run behind the backline to receive the ball in space for potential crosses into the box, though his crossing to this point is fine but nothing special. Kwateng's passing outside of crosses is where I'm most intrigued. It can look a bit awkward at times, but he's shown some decent passing abilities.

If a teammate makes a run to the right wing near the box, he'll attempt lob passes to that area. He also has some comfort attempting passes into the right halfspace if someone is open.

Kwateng's defensive work is a bit of a mixed bag despite the high defensive output. His high positioning during possession means that a quick turnover in play would leave him exposed when play goes the other way. Kwateng has a penchant for gambling when trying to pressure opponents and that leads to him playing a part in unraveling the team's defensive structure.

His awareness off-ball can be lacking as there'll be times where the opposition gets on his blindside and makes runs to the edge of the box. However, his recovery speed is quite good so more times than not, he's able to compensate that with applying late pressure on the opponent to make up for earlier mistakes. When he has to defend in isolation situations on his side where he's not had to move much previously, he's disciplined in not overextending himself.

It's certainly encouraging that in his first full season in a top five league, Enock Kwateng has held his own, though that doesn't necessarily mean that he's tipped for future stardom. What makes him intriguing is that reports suggest that his contract will be expiring after this season, making him a candidate for a free transfer in the summer.

While I don't necessarily think that Kwateng has star-level upside, it's certainly reasonable to think that he can be a solid right-back for years to come. Getting young fullbacks of that caliber for cheap represents massive value for the club, especially for mid-level Premier League clubs in the market for right-backs who are trying to find value in the transfer market while the rest of Europe uses them as an ATM machine. For clubs in Europe, Kwateng represents an opportunity to secure an affordable first XI caliber fullback and reap the rewards in the future.

Taking the Temperature on Nicolo Zaniolo

The swap deal last summer that saw Radja Nainggolan move from Roma to Inter, with Nicolo Zaniolo and Davide Santon (along with piles of cash) going the other way, is the type of transaction that will remain fascinating for years to come. Players with the type of stature that Nainggolan has, who move from one Champions League side to another, will generate a certain amount of fanfare.

Only focusing on Nainggolan’s involvement in the deal is intriguing enough, as Roma likely did a good job in timing the transfer given that Nainggolan was 30 years old and was susceptible to the aging process that many players around that age suffer. To this point, Nainggolan has had a decent season with a 0.42 scoring contribution (goals + assists) per 90 rate, but you rather be one year early than one year late with older players (especially someone like Nainggolan with questions surrounding his conditioning).

It’s Nicolo Zaniolo who has made that deal go from a mildly curious transaction, to one that has Roma fans jumping for joy and Inter fans looking over with envy. Fans take notice whenever young players show some signs of breaking out, and Zaniolo is no exception. Young attackers who show enough in their debut season to suggest they already belong against grown men are often positive indicators for their future in themselves (Marcus Rashford in 2015–16 as an example), and given Zaniolo’s decent shot volume + xG contribution, stardom may well be his long term outcome down the line.

However, there are some who aren’t convinced that Zaniolo has star-level upside to his game, specifically that his passing lacks a forward emphasis. These are fair criticisms and they put a strain both individually and on a team context. For the team, it means that you’re having to manoeuvre the squad with an extra constraint to work with. From an individual standpoint, it means that Zaniolo will have to be close to special in other areas to compensate for deficiencies elsewhere.

He can be quite conservative with his pass selection and has a tendency to recycle possession when opportunities arise for him to be more daring and attempt difficult passes. Even for the best attackers, it’s unfair to suggest that they complete these passes with great regularity, but you would hope that at times, at least they would attempt the pass.

With young players in particular, there’s greater leniency in terms of execution on home-run passes, but it’s important that they have the awareness to see these situations. Recycling the ball to a teammate is not the worst thing as a outcome, but you’re leaving potential value on the table by constantly opting for the safe option rather than trying to find something more advantageous. What makes this even weirder is that Zaniolo doesn’t necessarily have bad touch with his passes, so perhaps an optimist would say that with better coaching he could be coaxed into spreading his wings with his passing.

Where else does Zaniolo contribute?  While he’s good in other aspects to his game beyond passing, it’s hard to say that he’s elite in any of them. His recognition off-ball is solid for a 19 year old. He can sense space that he can attack into with the hope of gaining the ball for shooting opportunities. The problem is that while he’s got the instincts, he doesn’t have elite speed off-ball to truly wreck teams with his runs and be a dynamic threat. To this point it hasn’t been a problem in Serie A, in part because of the different style of play that the league has, but I’m more hesitant to say that he’d be able to attack space in the same manner in other leagues.

Zaniolo’s dribbling is probably his best asset as a player, but not necessarily in the manner that you would think. His dribbling is quite impressive in congested areas whether he’s closer to the center of the pitch or hugging the touchline. He’s got impressive balance and guile in manoeuvring tight areas to execute dribbling sequences and evading multiple defenders. Given that he’s just over 6 feet tall, he can also use his size in certain situations to hold up play and seal his opponents, along with the ability to not get nudged off the ball as easily as others.

These traits have been valuable to Roma because he’s been able to keep possessions alive in situations where others would be more susceptible to dispossession. Where it’s fair to have some skepticism is that with his lack of elite burst, Zaniolo has a harder time using his dribbling abilities to unlock defenses during 1v1 situations higher up the pitch for shot opportunities in the same manner that players like Jadon Sancho or Leon Bailey (last season) have shown.

Analysis on Zaniolo should be grounded with the knowledge that this is his age 19 season, so in theory, he’s got a handful of years before he reaches the beginning of his prime. It could very well be that the current flaws in his game get ironed out by the time he gets to age 22–23, which would raise his value by an appreciable amount. As well, that in his debut season he’s putting up roughly league average shot metrics should allow for some level of optimism.

Yet it’s hard not to be skeptical of certain parts of Zaniolo’s game in the present. He’s not an overwhelming athlete, which wouldn’t be a major problem if he was a good to great passer, but to this point it’s hard to make that case. If you envision him moving forward as more of a conventional #10, the tunnel vision he exhibits is worrisome. If you envision him as a wide player, his conservative pass selection is slightly less of a concern but you’re still dealing with the worries regarding his athleticism.

While it’s entirely possible that Zaniolo gains greater awareness when in possession through more reps, along with having incremental athletic growth, if that doesn’t happen it will make it hard to see him in a great team as a key figure. Maybe with his size and ability to hold off opponents, there’s the slight chance that he’s able to transition into more of a striker as he gets closer to his prime years, which would change the equation and would make most of these points moot. As a more conventional attacking midfielder/winger, you’d almost have to compensate his lack of passing value by having close to exceptional passers elsewhere if he doesn’t improve, which isn’t impossible but given that Roma aren’t ludicrously flushed with cash, it’d certainly be a hard task.

The good news is that Roma are a long way away from having to worry about how Zaniolo would fit on a title contender, so this is the type of conversation that can wait for another day. Roma’s squad is an odd one: they’ve tried to simultaneously build a quality side that can compete in the present with numerous veteran players (Dzeko/Kolarov/Nzonzi/Florenzi), while covering their bases with young players that can both contribute in the present and have future upside (Kluivert/Schick/Pellegrini/Under). The arrangement hasn’t quite worked out yet, but the young players by and large have ably performed which is encouraging for the future outlook of the club.

It’s not hard to construct an argument that Nicolo Zaniolo is a solid prospect. One could take the optimist viewpoint and believe that with a more innovative coach at the helm, the concerns about his passing would dissipate and make it easier to project future stardom. To some extent, I am sympathetic to this argument given the effects that coaching can have on young attacking talent. Zaniolo is a fun example of thinking about young talents and their ceiling outcomes as a player, but as it stands now, there's reason to be hesitant about the hype that's surrounded his maiden voyage in Serie A.

Ligue 1 Talent Hunting: Ibrahim Sangaré

For a club that hasn’t finished with more than 50 points in a season since 2012–13, Toulouse have given minutes to some interesting young talents over the years. Serge Aurier was a highly promising defender with his combination of athleticism and ability on the ball before his move to PSG in 2014. Issa Diop was logging huge minutes as a center-back when he was only 18 years, and while there were (and still are) questions about his ability as a passer, it was clear that he was going to make a move to a bigger club sooner than later. He's now at West Ham. Alban Lafont had even more hype. He was thought of by some as a goalkeeping prodigy when he started for Toulouse at just 16 years old. The fact all three of these players plied their trade at Toulouse emphasizes Ligue 1’s greatest selling point. No matter how far down the table you go, you’re going to find young talents that peak your curiosity.

All of that brings us to Ibrahim Sangaré, who’s going to be next on the list of intriguing talents from Toulouse to make a move to a bigger club. Sangare already has a reputation as someone who could be a high upside bet from France worth targeting in the near future, and the likes of Atalanta and Brighton & Hove Albion reportedly logged transfer offers during the summer for his services. Sangare‘s improved performances this season in a deeper role (before his toe injury halted his momentum) turned him from a niche Ligue 1 prospect into one who's likely heading to greener pastures in the near future.

It should be noted that Toulouse have been one of the worst teams in Ligue 1. They’ve been out shot by nearly eight shots per match (9.5 to 17.4), no other team in Ligue 1 comes close to having such a disparity in shot share from either the positive or negative end of the spectrum. Toulouse are in the bottom three in expected goal difference per match at -0.57. The fact that this team is four points above 18th place despite being out shot and out created to such a massive degree is a bit of a minor miracle. Having an anemic attack with a defense that’s constantly on their heels means that analyzing Sangare means taking some of his numbers and properly contextualizing them. His on-ball contribution, for example, is stymied be the relatively low likelihood of racking up deep progressions for a team that rarely had the ball.

More than anything, we’re looking to see if there have been enough moments to justify a bigger club allocating resources for a potential transfer in the future. Is Sangare good enough that, if you put him on a team with a higher collective talent base, he won't take things off the table and perhaps even add some delectable dishes of his own. The biggest question is Sangare’s passing acumen. The standard of passing needed at the midfield position for good to great clubs is quite high. If Sangare’s going to truly pop as a young talent, he’ll need, at the very least, to be slightly above average as a passer and possibly significantly better than that.

The good news is that Sangare has shown enough glimpses to suggest that he's already a decent passer with room for upside in the near future. As a deeper midfielder in Toulouse's double pivot, he'll often times come and collect the ball near the center backs, even forming a back three on occasion. If there's no immediate pressure, Sangare has no qualms dribbling the ball forward until he gets approached by a marker. There are a couple of things that I appreciate about Sangare: more times than not he's going to try and attempt a pass that bypasses the defensive structure of the opponent, and that he doesn't seem to stutter with his passing when he makes his mind up. There's no proverbial hitch in Sangare's passing golf swing.

His match against Monaco was probably the best example of Sangare's upside as a deep midfielder. Granted, Monaco haven't been good this season, so it's not as if he was playing against elite opposition, but he was totally in his element making short-ish passes that found teammates in space between the lines. None of these passes were super difficult, but the fact he was making them with regularity was noteworthy.

Sangare isn't a game-breaking caliber of passer as it stands now, which is fine considering that he's only 20 years old. He's shown flashes of being able to make really difficult passes on the move, and the fact that he has the awareness to at least attempt them means something. It's just that his hit rate on these type of passes is not quite good enough yet. Perhaps in a couple of years as he matures and gets even more game experience under his belt, he'll become better in this department, which would be a scary proposition. A man at his size that could combine athleticism with a feathery touch in the passing department would eat people alive.

It is hard to ignore that Sangare is a large human being, standing at around 6'3. That becomes even more apparent when he decides to take on players and dribble by them. For a player as tall as he is, he doesn't look clumsy when he tries to beat his man off the dribble. He has pretty good coordination on the ball even when he's pressured. There are times when Sangare bites off a little more than he can chew and loses possession in the middle third, but it's fun watching him rumble. On the play below, Sangare has the ball near the touchlines and is being pressured quickly, but a simple shift to his right and he's gone.

He's even broken some ankles with his change of direction.

It's a little harder to figure out how good of a defender Sangare is, in part because quantifying defense is hard and he plays on a team that bleeds shots and scoring chances. A lot of his defensive work, whether it's pressures or tackles and interceptions, comes in his own third while Toulouse are hemmed in. Sangare's defensive output even when adjusting for Toulouse being a sub 50% possession side is impressive, and I just come back to the fact that the guy is just an imposing figure who also happens to have really solid mobility, which should allow clubs that play possession based football options on how to best use Sangare defensively once they lose the ball. Here, he is mirroring Allan Saint-Maximin, one of the most athletically gifted wide players that Ligue 1 has seen over the years, step for step before he dispossesses the ball from him. That's no easy feat.

There are a number of things to like about Sangare's game. He's a comfortable passer from deeper areas who has at least shown the willingness to try high level passes. He's an imposing figure because of his size and functional athleticism, and he's able to carry the ball off the dribble because it's really hard to take the ball away from a 6'3 dude who isn't a stiff. There are the flaws to his game that I've already touched on, and one major one that I haven't. His positioning off the ball in attack can leave a little bit to be desired. When a teammate has the ball, he'll get into a position between the man on the ball and another teammate close to him which eliminates a potential passing angle. He could also stand to be a bit more aggressive sometimes in stepping out 5-7 yards from his original starting point to receive passes and move the ball forward when in his own third. But it's fair to point out that Toulouse's attack stinks, and that most of these tendencies could very well be eliminated if he plays on a team with better talent and coaching.

When trying to project how good Sangare can be, I came back to Andre Zambo Anguissa. Granted, Anguissa has had his rough moments at Fulham from a defensive standpoint (who hasn't on that club), but he was really good last season on a very good Marseille side. On a team with Florian Thauvin, Dimitri Payet and Morgan Sanson, Anguissa wasn't tasked with having to unlock defenses. Rather, he could just maintain the flow of possession, and make short but incisive passes to one of the attackers to work their magic. It's easy to see that Sangare could operate in a similar role when he makes the step up to a bigger club, and do what Anguissa did defensively which was putting out fires immediately off of live ball turnovers. There's even a little bit of similarities from their respective statistical outputs, which is impressive on Sangare's end considering he's on an inferior squad and is over two years younger than Anguissa.

I am on the Ibrahim Sangare bandwagon. I just think that there's legitimate untapped potential to his game that could see him go to another level. If he's able to hone in on his passing, he could play on a very good club in the next 2-3 years. Even if Sangare doesn't make an appreciable jump in performance and this is more or less what he is throughout the next 6-8 years, he's still shown enough to where I'd feel comfortable having him on decent-good teams like Marseille or RB Leipzig in a supporting role offensively. The 90th percentile outcome for Ibrahim Sangare as a player is tantalizing enough to where I am really fascinated with his development and just how many souls he can destroy on his path to potential greatness.

Examining Chelsea's Set Piece Routines

The major question surrounding Chelsea this season was how long it would take Maurizio Sarri to have Chelsea play the type of attacking football that helped Napoli turn into Serie A contenders under his watch. Could he successfully translate his possession based style, based on synchronized movements and a manipulation of space, to the Premier League? The early returns have been promising. There have been moments where Chelsea have approached Napoli's level of automation in attack, faithfully copying the patterns of one of the more exciting sides in recent memory. Chelsea have only gotten to that peak version of themselves in spurts though. While they've been able to generate shots at a high level, their expected goals per shot from open play is less than 0.10 through nine games is indicative that their attack isn’t quite humming at its peak.

While what’s gone on with Chelsea in open play will ultimately decide whether they're a solid team or something closer to great, an interesting subplot has been what's gone on with their set pieces on the attacking front. On the surface, scoring two goals through nine games from dead ball situations isn’t anything special, but a closer inspection shows that Chelsea have been really productive in this department and to this point, that's been their best avenue in creating high quality chances.

It's fair to be skeptical of Chelsea's ability to maintain this level of production for the rest of the season. Not a lot of teams in general are able to go an entire season taking 125 or more shots with an xG per shot at 0.12 or higher. Sarri teams haven't been this good at generating scoring chances over the past few years, and in only two of his five seasons in Serie A (2014-15 with Empoli, 2017-18 with Napoli) did a Sarri led side produce an ample amount of goals from set pieces. But the fact that we've basically reached the quarter pole of the league campaign and Chelsea have been prolific in chance creation from set pieces should warrant a further investigation as to how they've been able to do it this season and the mechanisms behind their early season success.

A lot of Chelsea's work during corner kicks involves setting picks for teammates to lose their marker and get them open for headers, especially when there's a looping run from the far post to the center of the box. The usage of picks during corners isn't a novel concept and we're starting to see more and more sides use pick plays to help a teammate generate momentum during their runs and attack open space. England, for example, relied heavily on this tactic during the World Cup. Of course, you also need proper spacing so there isn't a jumbled mess in the middle of the box once the corner is delivered.

You can see below two examples of Chelsea corners from the right side where they have a pick being set for a runner to get into the center of the box for a header. The second example versus Manchester United was especially good because the other elements in their routine worked considerably better than it did in the example against West Ham. Mateo Kovacic makes a run to the near post to occupy two United players. Alvaro Morato drags his marker with him to the center-right area along with Marcus Alonso making a run to the far post and taking his man with him. That opens the middle for Antonio Rüdiger to get into the open space because of miscommunication between Paul Pogba and Victor Lindelöf on potentially switching the assignments following the pick, and a headed goal is the result.

Chelsea have an alternative plan during corner kicks which involves crowding the goalkeeper by sending a bunch of players to the near post and creating havoc. David Luiz will peel off to the far post and take his man with him. At times, Rüdiger will start at the far post and come all the way to the near post to add to the number of Chelsea players trying to make it hard on the opposition keeper. This hasn't been as successful a routine as the one above, but you can see the logic, you can either get a header at the near post and the keeper has next to no chance of saving it, or a headed flick for the back post if Luiz wins his individual duel.

Chelsea will also go short on occasion, and they had this nice play against Bournemouth that caught them napping and nearly ended in a goal. Hazard retreats quickly to Willian, the corner taker, and does a quick 1-2 with him to give him a better opportunity at delivering a hard pass into the six yard box. Luiz darts into the six yard box from the top of the penalty area and goes near the post. While that's going on, Morata peels off to the far post just in case the ball gets there and he can tap it in. While this ultimately led to nothing, it's the type of play you might be able to get away with using again later on in the season.

The video drives home just how reliant Chelsea are on picks for their set pieces. It's not just for corner routines, but you'll see this as well during free kicks. The example below is probably the most explicit example of a pick being set. David Luiz makes a curling run from the far post to the center of the box and his marker gets held up, a lot like what happens during corners. If the ball by Willian was better, it could've led to a half-decent shot attempt.

It's interesting looking at what Chelsea do during free kicks that are further away from the box. They like to have a player start his positioning just a bit further back from the initial line, and then dart to the wide areas of the box. While that's going on, one of the players within the line will get to the other side of the net for potential close range shots. The tap in for Ross Barkley against Southampton was notable because it once again showed the value of using picks during set piece routines. As Giroud starts his run, his marker is late to recognize it and when he tries to catch up, he runs right into Luiz and Giroud is wide open in the box.

Chelsea probably won't end up finishing the season with the over 20 xG and more than 150 shots that they're currently on pace to achieve. That would be a ridiculous level of output from set pieces in a single season. Leicester City were perhaps the best Premier League side last season in generating chances from set pieces and their xG output of 16.38 on 127 shots would look small in comparison to what Chelsea are doing.

It could very well be that teams get smarter and snuff out the things that Chelsea are doing during their routines, particularly with better communication and switching during man-marking alignments if teams continue to set-up their defense in that fashion. But even with the likely decline in production, Chelsea stand a real chance of finishing as one of the best three to five clubs in the league  this season in generating chances from set pieces.

That would be a real bonus for a team that's been dealing with the struggles of having to adjust to a style of play that's different from previous managers. It'll be interesting to see if set pieces remain Chelsea's best avenue to creating high quality chances.

Header image courtesy of the Press Association

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.


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.



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.


Thank you for reading.

More information about StatsBomb, and the rest of our season previews can be found here.

Header image courtesy of the Press Association

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.

Identifying Ligue 1’s Next Breakout Talent: Tanguy Ndombele


This feels like an annual thing I do with Lyon, where at least one of these type of posts is dedicated to their young starlets. It’s a credit to them that even though they’re having a mildly turbulent season, you can’t help but be excited at the young talent at their disposal. A lot of that is due to them having one of the best youth academies in European football. When the club was in a dire financial situation earlier this decade, they relied on their kids coming through and some of the academy graduates included Alexandre Lacazette, Nabil Fekir, and Corentin Tolisso. Their academy has been ridiculous for quite some time in churning out elite young talents, and they’ve got even more talent coming up with Willem Guebels and Amine Gouiri.

This isn’t to say that Lyon haven’t had their successes in the transfer market as well. The past few windows have netter them Bertrand Traore, Memphis Depay, Mariano, Lucas Tousart; and all of these guys have been successful to varying degrees. Another to add to the list is Tanguy Ndombele, a press resistant midfielder who has made his trademark with galloping runs in the middle of the pitch. Ligue 1 has been home to numerous athletic midfielders of different shades of grey. N’Golo Kante at Caen, Mario Lemina at Marseille, Tiémoué Bakayoko and Geoffrey Kondogbia plying their trades at Monaco, with the former being a key member of their title push in 2017. All of these guys made their name in Ligue 1, and Ndombele’s work within a frantic Lyon side certainly deserves mention alongside them. He’s been a steady ship within Lyon’s midfield, showcasing a tantalizing skill set that could make him in-demand within Europe in the not too distant future.

The first thing you notice with Ndombele is his athleticism. It’s not the only thing he’s working with, and reducing him to merely an athletic midfielder would be doing him a disservice, but it’s clear that he has a higher ceiling because of it. Among the things that Ndombele is great at within open play, his ability to recover a misplaced touch and turn it into a dribble is quite remarkable. He’s got a lot of the tools you want from a modern day zone mover; speed relative to his position, ability to use quick body shifts to shake opponent markers. The numbers more than back up what you see with the eye test. This compilation is around ~2 minutes long, and it could’ve been much longer, his ball carrying library is extensive.

He’s also quite adept at doing similar things in more advanced positions, using his previously mentioned gifts to shield the ball from his opponent or working within tight confines and trying to create something out of nothing. I don’t think he holds as much value with his dribbling in the final third as he does progressing the ball from deeper areas, but he’s no slouch in this department either.

He’s been one of the best central midfielders in the league for progressing the ball this season into the final third area, and that should translate against tougher competition. There’s a high premium for midfielders who can do what Ndombele does consistently, and the fact he’s doing it at age 21 in his first season in Ligue 1 is quite impressive.

What’s perhaps more interesting to untangle is how good of a passer Ndombele is, because it’s all well and good to be a guy who progress play with his dribbling, but being a dual threat with both passing and dribbling is a rare thing to find in young midfielders. I think Ndombele is fine in this department; not necessarily brilliant and perhaps he looks a little clumsy at times, but it’s not a situation where he’s got cinder blocks for feet and the only thing he’s reduced to is simple passes. He can get passes into tight areas, though sometimes he puts a little too much mustard on them and leads to tough first touches for his teammates.

Ndombele isn’t a prolific chance creator, even if you’re grading him relative to other central midfielders. Both the quality of his chances on average and the volume of chances are fairly ordinary. A not insignificant portion of his created chances logged tend to be where he makes a pass to his teammate, and said teammate dribbles the ball a fair amount before taking a mediocre shot. This could well be a function of playing alongside numerous high usage attacking players in an mishmash system, but he’s not a special creator at his current stage of development.

Passing models like him and if push comes to shove, I would trust cold hard data versus the eye test because the eyes can lie, and that might be the case with Ndombele. Even then, I still don't think he would grade better than "solid".

Given that his passing isn’t otherworldly and he’s only taking about one shot per 90 mins of play with the majority of his shots being below average quality, I find it pretty hard to believe that Ndombele is going to be a notable goal contributor. That’s not necessarily a problem when performing other duties to a high level, as Mousa Dembele has proven over the past few years that you could be an insanely valuable player even without direct goal contribution, and perhaps you even get lucky and stumble into a few goals like Abdoulaye Decoure has done with Watford this season.

One thing that I was curious to see defensively was whether Ndombele was a type of midfielder who could turn a defensive action into potential transition opportunities. It would make sense that considering how proficient he is with his dribbling and his overall coordination with the ball and this was the thing that marked out N'Golo Kante even back at Caen. I didn't find nearly as many instances of it happening as I thought I would initially, which isn't a bad thing at all and i'm not sure how much this will translate against tougher competition

Ndombele is a decent prospect at this stage in his development. Just based on his ability to keep possession and drive play forward with his on-ball skills, he’s already close to being a net positive player. Combine that with his solid passing and defensive work, and what you have is someone who can progress towards being one of the more dynamic midfielders in European football. Considering his penchant for wanting to push the issue with his dribbling, it could be argued that Ndombele with his current skill set would be at his best playing within a three man midfield that would give him license to roam around and cause havoc. Obviously he's worked in a two man midfield for major parts of the season and done it well, so he at least brings positional equity to where he can function in a deeper position if needed.

I like Ndombele and I think he's got a high ceiling as a player. The fact that Lyon got him on a loan-to-buy transfer in the region of £10M is further proof that they generally know what they're doing in the transfer market, and Ndombele has transitioned from looking like a percentage gamble in the summer to being a core member of the first team. That's impressive for both him and his club.