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The Talent Factory, Part II: Applying AI Insights to Identify European Prospects

 

Having assembled his defensive line, Stats Perform’s AI Innovation Manager Tom Reynolds selects his midfield in part two of The Talent Factory, as he creates his own personal eleven of leading prospects with the support of AI-derived insights.

 

By: Tom Reynolds

If you missed the first instalment of The Talent factory last week, here is a quick recap of how I am taking a different approach to assembling my own personal eleven of emerging prospects using a new profiling method: Role Discovery.

Role Discovery does away with outdated positional labels, such as a right back, right midfielder or striker, and instead uses data to assign a specific role to an outfield player, based on their actual on-field characteristics. A more detailed breakdown of how each of these roles have been created and assigned can be found here.

So far, I have selected my goalkeeper and the defensive line, fitting a 4-3-3 shape. All of my selections are players aged 23 and under who are excelling for their clubs in their prescribed roles, but who may not necessarily be the first names you think of when it comes to listing emerging prospects. What they do possess though are similar on-field traits to a number of standout players who share the same role at leading European clubs, which provides a useful benchmark to what they are doing on the field.

My team so far comprises a left-sided defender whose role profile includes getting high into the opposition half to create opportunities from wide areas; two Defensive Progressors at the heart of the back line who step up into space and break opposition lines with penetrative passes; and a right-sided defender to provide a balance by anticipating danger to intercept opposition passes and then, in possession, progressing the ball safely.

Now it is time to unveil the midfield three, starting with two exciting 22-year-olds who are plying their trade in the Eredivisie.

Midfield, Central Holding: Teun Koopmeiners (22) – AZ Alkmaar 

Midfield, Central: Joey Veerman (22) – sc Heerenveen

If you’ve read part one of the Talent Factory I bet you would have seen the word ‘Eredivise’ and immediately come to the conclusion that I had packed my midfield with players who had come through the Ajax Academy. However, despite my huge admiration for them, you would be wrong. My two selections were in fact schooled at the academies of AZ and Volendam.

Teun Koopmeiners progressed through the AZ system and became the club’s vice-captain at the age of just 21, before being made captain following the departure of another academy product, Guus Til, to Spartak last summer. He will be partnered in midfield by Joey Veerman, who is now in his second season with Heerenveen.

Like many Dutch clubs, AZ has a club-wide playing philosophy instilled from the Academy to the first team, which is outlined in this case study.  As with many technical players, Koopmeiners’ schooling has given him plenty of versatility: he has the composure and intelligence to play at the heart of the defence as well as in midfield. For this reason, he will be sitting a little deeper within my midfield.

Joey Veerman is part of a youthful Heerenveen squad which boasts talent in the shape of Mitchell van Bergen, Arjen van der Heide and the Swede Benjamin Nygren, who is currently on loan from KRC Genk.

The former Volendam man enjoyed a strong 19/20 campaign, where he played 1,869 minutes, created 54 chances (2.4 per 90), contributed five assists and scored four goals. He has continued this form into 20/21 and is already on course to surpass his numbers from the previous campaign. From 931 minutes on the field, he ranks third in Eredivisie for chances created (24), with four assists. He has also hit the back of the net three times.

Based on their on-field tendencies, both of these Dutchmen profile in the same role, Midfield Distributor, which shares similarities in terms of the traits seen in Defensive Progressors, the role assigned to both of my central defenders, Maxence Lacroix and Perr Schuurs. There is a logic to this, as a player’s involvement to a team’s playing style, including the start and end location of their passes, is one of the elements which contribute to their role assignment in Role Discovery.

In the case of Schuurs, he is part of an Ajax team that enjoys a high volume of possession and who frequently comes up against opponents who adopt a low block. This means the Ajax central defenders step up a lot higher than defenders who play for low possession teams. This is something we see a lot at Liverpool and Bayern too, where the average touch location of their central defenders is closer to the halfway line, similar to what we would normally expect from midfielders operating in central areas.

Koopmeiners and Veerman also share Schuurs’ ability to step into free space in front of them when in possession, with both players ranking in the league’s top 15 players for attempted ball carries (Koopmeiners 131, Veerman 139). With Koopmeiners sitting a bit deeper in AZ’s shape, he tends to pick up the ball from his central defenders and this results in him having an average carry distance of 10.7 metres.

Click on image to expand

If we compare the directness of their carries, defined as the total distance covered per carry up field towards their opponents’ goal, Koopmeiners is the more direct of the two, which is clear from the carry maps below. Despite the differences in their carry trajectories, both players have created the same number of chances following a carry this season (two).

Veerman’s carry map demonstrates his ability to take on players in congested central areas and despite having fewer opportunities to do so, he also has the ability to isolate opposing defenders 1v1 and penetrate the penalty area at times. He has recorded seven take-ons so far this season.

In contrast, Koopmeiners shows a tendency to travel through central midfield areas. He tends to get on the ball just shy of the halfway line before carrying the ball into the opposition half towards areas on the left side of the pitch.

Of these two midfielders, I will be leaning more on Veerman to provide creativity in and around the final third. This is something he is certainly capable of – only Ajax’s Dusan Tadic (33) and Steven Berghuis of Feyenoord (25) have created more chances in the Eredivisie this season.

Veerman’s Expected Assists map plots the areas of the pitch where he is making open play passes, as well as highlighting those passes which carry either a high xA output or has resulted in an assist.  The majority of his passes come from the left-hand side of the pitch, however it is also evident that he is covering all areas in the opponent’s half.

Having Koopmeiners line up alongside Veerman will provide this team with much-needed balance, freeing up the Heerenveen man to roam around the pitch with a bit more freedom to encourage his creativity to flourish. Although Koopmeiners is not creating as many chances as Veerman, we can use our Possession Value metric to demonstrate how his actions on the ball are increasing the probability of AZ scoring during the next ten seconds of play.  His net PV score of 0.32 per 90 indicates he is contributing to almost a third of a goal per game, which is one of the highest outputs in the AZ squad this season.

For generations, the academies at the leading Dutch clubs have consistently maintained a pipeline of talent into the first team, with new graduates often taking the places of previous academy products who have been recruited by teams abroad for significant transfer fees. Koopmeiners and Veerman certainly have the ability to follow in the footsteps of those Dutch players who have gone on to play in other leagues – and if they were to do so you can be confident that another generation will be coming through to maintain the talent factory which has served Dutch clubs so well for so long.

Role Discovery Player Comparison, Defensive Distributor: Joshua Kimmich (Bayern Munich) and Emre Can (Borussia Dortmund).

Midfield, Central Attacking: Yusuf Yazıcı (23) – Lille OSC 

Completing the midfield is Yusuf Yazıcı, who at 23-years-old just about matches my self-set criteria (phew!).

Yazıcı made his move to France from hometown club Trabzonspor in 2019 following three seasons of regular football in the Süper Lig. He has already clocked up over 10,000 minutes of first team action during his career and this season he has really started to fulfil the potential he has shown glimpses of previously.

According to Role Discovery, the Turkish international profiles as a Link Forward, which indicates that he looks to take up positions in central areas high up the pitch and drift into the half spaces to get on the ball. Once in possession, Link Forwards tend to move the ball into wide areas or into central positions ahead of them.  According to Yazıcı’s passing risk/reward profile, he tends to attempt passes which from a probability perspective are difficult to complete, as he is looking to open up the opposition defence and penetrate the penalty area.

The Lille man is a very technical player with a talented left foot. He strikes a ball really well, which is demonstrated by his willingness to shoot from distance. Back-to-back hattricks in the Europa League, against Sparta Prague and AC Milan respectively, have also enhanced his reputation.

Yazıcı possesses a unique ability to create an extra yard of space by being able to manipulate the ball to one side quickly, enabling him to get a shot on goal. He is a high-volume shooter from all areas, with his average shot distance being 19.3 yards. His shot map from his Europa League matches this season demonstrates this – based on the goal probability of his shot locations, he has managed to outperform his xG by 4.6.

Despite lighting up Lille’s European nights, Yazıcı has not been heavily involved in Ligue 1 this year – he has only been involved in 27% of all available minutes – but the impact he has had when coming off the bench is significant. He is creating 4.4 chances per 90 this season, which is the most of any player in the French top-flight.

Having started to excel for his club, Yazıcı will now be hoping to replicate his domestic form for his country ahead of their 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign. The national team looks to have a solid, youthful backline comprising Merih Demiral, Çağlar Söyüncü and his Lille teammate, Zeki Çelik, and given they also boast some firepower in attacking areas, coach Şenol Güneş will be hoping that Yazıcı can help inspire Turkey to secure a place in the finals for the first time in twenty years.

Role Discovery Player Comparison, Link Forward: Lautaro Martinez (Inter Milan) and Darwin Núñez (Benfica).

Having completed the midfield, the team is starting to take shape, with two midfield distributors looking to carry the ball forward with a link forward operating in front of them, offering the dual threat of looking to play penetrative passes into the front three whilst looking for opportunities to shoot from distance.

In the final part of The Talent Factory, I will complete this eleven by revealing my attacking three. In the meantime, if you would like to know a bit more about Role Discovery feel free to drop me a message on social media.