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The Talent Factory, Part III: Assembling a Forward Line


In the third and final installment of The Talent Factory for 2020, Stats Perform’s AI Innovation Manager Tom Reynolds completes his personal eleven of emerging global prospects, with the support of AI-derived insights.


By: Stats Perform

Having applied Role Discovery to assemble a back four in part one, followed by a midfield trio in part two, today I’ll be focusing on players operating in the most advanced areas of the pitch as I choose a front three of emerging players, all under the age of 23, who are currently excelling for their clubs around Europe.

If you have read the first two parts of The Talent factory, you’ll be aware that I am assembling a team by identifying players possessing the necessary attributes to fulfil key outfield roles across the pitch, instead of filling traditional positions. This is an approach which sits right at the heart of Role Discovery: assigning each player a role based on their on-field characteristics and key contributions in possession, which can then be applied to compare their performance to other players who profile in the same role for other teams.

By structuring my eleven in this way, I am creating a team featuring players in roles who possess the traits which compliment those in others – notably in central areas of the pitch, where the defenders and deeper lying midfielders profile in roles with very similar passing tendencies. This will also be evident when I reveal my attacking three, whose interaction with other players on the pitch will be important in providing the balance required to operate successfully in and around the box.

So let me not leave you in suspense any longer – here are the remaining players making up the Tom Reynolds XI, beginning with a young Brazilian who has enjoyed a breakthrough 2020 in one of the top five European leagues.

Wing, Left: Matheus Cunha (21) – Hertha BSC 

This is one selection which I couldn’t resist! Since arriving in Germany from Swiss side FC Sion two and a half years ago, Matheus Cunha has already turned out for two different Bundesliga clubs.

After seeing limited on-field action with RB Leipzig, Cunha joined Hertha BSC on a permanent basis in January and since starting his third season in the German top-flight, he has really started to thrive. Still only 21, the Brazilian has been asked to fulfil various roles this season, seeing him move from a more advanced central position to one on the left hand side. However, one of the benefits of utilising the Role Discovery model is that we can still see the tendencies of his play in central positions appearing in the matches he has played in since being been pushed onto the wing – characteristics which see him labelled as an Advanced Forward.

An Advanced Forward tends to take up positions centrally and also in the half spaces, which in part describes the crossover you often find between certain types of striker and winger, who often both find themselves in these types of location in and around the final third. These players tend to adopt a high-risk passing profile, with the end location of their ball progression typically being inside the penalty area and the half spaces. Advanced Forwards also have a tendency to travel with the ball at their feet and look to get off shots from inside the opposition’s penalty area.

I’m going to focus on Cunha’s ability to carry the ball, because he is soooo good at manipulating it.

The graphic above plots all the wingers and wide midfielders, based in the top five European leagues, who have attempted at least 80 ball carries so far this season. Cunha has a high carry rate and is averaging 15 carries per 90, which ranks him eighth, and he is carrying the ball over large distances. Given that 44% of his touches are in the attacking third, it is clear that a key part of his game is based on outmanoeuvring defenders with the ball at his feet.

If we then take a closer look at what Cubha does whilst carrying the ball, what stands out is his ability to get past opposition defenders. He has completed 24 take-ons this season, ranking him eighth of the players plotted above. Instead of running down the line, the trajectory of his carries indicate he looks to come inside towards the opponent’s goal and get into more central positions to get a shot away. The numbers also suggest he is a high-volume shooter following a carry – his total of 12 shots ranks him fourth of the players plotted.

If we look beyond Cubha’s eight goal involvements this season (his goals + assists total combined) and study his net Possession Value output, we can see that his contributions in possession are frequently increasing the probability of Hertha scoring during the next ten seconds of play. His net PV output of 0.46 ranks him fifth in Bundesliga during 2020/21, which equates to possession contributions worth almost half a goal per game.

Like many creative Brazilian players, Cubha possesses a flair in possession which makes it difficult for opposition defenders to anticipate what he is likely to do next. In terms of potential, he is clearly operating with a pretty high ceiling and as I sit down to watch him play, I am always waiting with anticipation to see if he is able to blow the roof down. He is certainly a player to keep your eye on going into 2021.

Role Discovery Player Comparison, Advanced Forward: Heung Min Son (Tottenham Hotspur) and Dani Olmo (RB Leipzig)

Wing, Right: Krépin Diatta (21) – Club Brugge KV

To fill our position on the opposite side of the advanced three we are going to travel across the border from Germany into Belgium, a country which during the past decade has consistently developed and honed emerging talent from various parts of the world.

Originally from Senegal, 21-year-old Krépin Diatta is now in his fourth season with Club Brugge, who over the years have seen the likes of Thomas Meunier and Ivan Perišić grace their first team. Diatta is part of a talented squad which regained the Pro League title last season under Philippe Clement, which also features Hans Vanaken, Charles de Ketelaere and loanee Noa Lang – yet another product of my favourite European talent factory: Ajax.

Before moving to Belgium, Diatta enjoyed one season of first team football in Norway, sporting the blue and white colours of Sarpsborg 08. Like Belgium, Norway is a huge breeding ground for talent, with the Eliteserien boasting a production line including Erling Haaland, Martin Ødegaard, Kristoffer Ajer, Jens Petter Hauge and Patrick Berg, to name just five.

According to Role Discovery, Krépin profiles as an Attacking Wide Dribbler, which means (yep, you’ve guessed it) he has a tendency to carry the ball forward. A lot of Diatta’s involvements come within the transition – according to the Stats Perform Playing Styles framework, the counter attack phase is where he is the most heavily involved, followed by the sustained threat phase, where he looks to dictate how Brugge attack from within the final third of the pitch. Attacking Wide Dribblers also tend to be high-volume shooters, from both within the penalty area and from long range.

At international level, Senegal have some notable players at their disposal including Sadio Mané, Idrissa Gueye and Kalidou Koulibaly. Let’s compare Krépin’s outputs to those of Mané and another highly regarded Senegalese player, Watford’s Ismaïla Sarr, who also profiles as an Attacking Wide Dribbler.

Of this trio, Diatta has the lowest expected goals output this season but has scored the most goals, demonstrating an ability to convert shots from low quality locations. You could argue that this output could be difficult to maintain across an entire campaign, but if we look at his goal scoring record across his last two seasons, he has outperformed his xG by a margin of 5.9, which reinforces the quality of his finishing.

Of all the players under the age of 23 to have played more than 3000 minutes across the last two seasons in domestic competitions covered by Stats Perform, Diatta ranks 12th for xG over performance, alongside some very highly regarded performers on the global stage.

Krépin Diatta is proving to be one of the most entertaining players to watch in Belgium. He is not yet the finished article, and like many players with a tendency to dribble he can be guilty of taking a touch too many when in a dangerous position, however one thing which he isn’t is a player who relies on the same trick to beat an opponent. If his plan A to beat a defender has failed a couple of times, he has the ability to utilise a plan B, which is one of the things which makes him stand out from other players in his role. He is another player who we will be hearing more about in the years to come, so keep your eyes peeled for how his career develops.

Role Discovery player comparison, Attacking Wide Dribbler: Antony (Ajax) and Samuel Chukwueze (Villarreal CF)

Forward: Patson Daka (22) – Red Bull Salzburg 

It is always difficult to choose a central attacker to play in an eleven made up solely of emerging players, because if they are scoring goals for a leading European team at young age then it is inevitable that a good number of people will have heard of them.

For my team, I have chosen a player who I first saw live as a 19-year-old back in October 2017, when he was playing for Red Bull Salzburg’s feeder team, FC Liefering, in a second tier match against FC Wacker Innsbruck: Patson Daka.

Despite his prolific goal scoring record, I don’t think Daka gets enough plaudits for his craft at Salzburg. This may be due to him first operating in the shadow of Erling Haaland and then playing second fiddle to the hype around the future of Dominik Szoboszlai prior to the announcement of his move to Liepzig. Missing a month of action following a thigh injury hasn’t helped either, with Sékou Koïta and Karim Adeyemi performing really well whilst he has been out of the team. Like Cunha, both Koïta and Adeyemi profile as Advanced Forwards, which has made me reach the conclusion that despite Szoboszlai’s impending departure, Jesse Marsch’s squad remains packed with attacking options.

Anyway, I have digressed – lets get back to Daka. The Zambian international profiles as an Attacking Creative Threat, which is the role both Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar fit into. Players in this role are heavily involved in various phases of play, including counter attacks, build-up and sustained threat and unsurprisingly are high-volume shooters from every location. In addition to his goalscoring prowess, Daka is also a very creative player and players who profile as Attacking Creative Threats are able to progress the ball into central areas whilst operating in similar locations.

In addition to his goal scoring ability, what stands out for me is Daka’s positioning and this may begin to explain why, since August 2019, he ranks in the top 3 for Big Chances per 90 across the leagues where Stats Perform collect event data. Only Kylian Mbappé and Erling Haaland have recorded higher outputs than Daka’s 1.65 per 90.

Of course we have to take Salzburg’s dominance of many matches into account when assessing these types of player outputs, however you still need intelligence and plenty of talent to be able to get into good positions in advanced areas – and Daka has both in abundance. His speed means that opposing defences tend to retreat closer to their own box, as they don’t want to give him the chance to latch onto balls played over the top. However this doesn’t phase him, as his off-the-ball movement is exceptional.

Daka often positions himself between the two opposing centre backs, and with the limited space resulting from their low back line, he looks to curve and arc his runs between the defenders and more often than not this serves as Salzburg’s best passing option close to goal.

With Salzburg averaging around 62% possession across the last four seasons, they tend to frequently penetrate the opposition’s penalty area and from Daka’s shot bins, we can see that the majority of his shots come from within the penalty area (83%). Once he receives a pass, he can beat his opponent 1v1 with a take on, or alternatively he can take the ball in his stride and penetrate the box with a carry.

Here are two examples.

In this first example, despite an opposing defender accelerating and having a head start, Daka receives the ball in his stride and is able to drive through the gap between the two central defenders with his close control, leading to a high xG chance and consequently scores with a tidy finish.

The other example, from a longer sequence in the Champions League match against Maccabi Tel-Aviv in September, shows his willingness to always be available as a passing option whilst dragging defenders away from dangerous areas, creating space and opportunities for others.

Andre Ramalho plays a cross-field pass to Andreas Ulmer, who knocks it quickly down the line first time to Masaya Okugawa, who is the player in possession in the image below. As this is happening Daka has positioned himself centrally between two defenders, where one of them is scanning and wary of his next movement.

As the momentum of the attack slows, more defenders have had time to retreat, creating more of a balance between the two teams. Whilst not being the primary passing option, Daka positions himself towards the centre of the goal and attaches himself to one defender side on.

As the ball gets played inside by Mo Camara, Daka comes deep to receive, dragging a defender out as a consequence. This then leaves space in behind, allowing Szoboszlai to make a diagonal run into the space created.

Enock Mwepu does not play into Daka’s feet, instead he opts to play the ball laterally. Daka turns and makes a dart into the penalty area, again making the defenders reposition themselves.

After the ball is bounced about a few more times, and a poor decision by one defender, Patson Daka ends up putting it into the back of the net from a cross delivered by Vallci.

This is just one of many examples of Daka’s clever off-the-ball running and his positioning. Whilst Salzburg will hope that Daka remains at the Red Bull Arena for many more seasons to come, if he does follow in the footsteps of Haaland and Szoboszlai and move on to pastures new, we can be pretty confident that, given the club’s record for nurturing talent, another Attacking Creative Threat is currently waiting in the wings for their own opportunity to stake their claim on the Salzburg first team.

Role Discovery Player Comparison, Attacking Creative Threat: Luis Alberto (Lazio)

So there you have it – the first team of emerging prospects to have ever been assembled using Role Discovery, powered by a wide range of AI-derived player insights.

My team comprises players possessing the traits which I would personally want to see in key areas of the pitch, fitting my own preference for how I like football to be played. It comprises plenty of ball playing defenders who have the ability to progress the team up the field and begin attacks; it has two deep-lying midfielders who share similar traits to the defenders behind them, with another midfielder in front who profiles as a Link Forward. We then have an Advanced Forward on the left of our attacking three, possessing an ability to carry the ball into central positions and increase the likelihood of the team scoring, complimented by a player on the right with the ability to beat a player and possessing strong finishing skills. The team is completed by a creative focal point for the attack, who can operate in front of the opposition defence and use intelligent movement to create space for others as well as getting onto balls played in behind.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading the first three instalments of the Talent Factory, featuring the applied use of Role Discovery. What is great about the concept is that it can be used to identify players for a wide range of different playing styles and football philosophies, so if we wanted to assemble a whole new team to fit a different approach to the game, we could easily do so within a relatively short timeframe. More Talent Factory articles, profiling prospects around the world, will be available from the Analyst next year.

In the meantime, if you would like to know a little bit more about Role Discovery, or have a general chat about the next big thing to come out of the Ajax Academy, then feel free to drop me a message on Twitter – I’d be delighted to hear from you!