April Mailbag: First Memories of Football, Fekir vs Thauvin, Rebuilding Southampton + Arsenal, and more

We’re nearing the end of the season, so I thought that it was a good time to do a mailbag where I tried my best answering some of the questions that were sent my way. Very appreciative of everyone who’s sent in Q’s, and apologies to questions that didn’t get answered.

The first vivid memory I have of watching football was being glued to my TV screen as Zinedine Zidane unleashed his famous headbutt in the 2006 World Cup Final as an 11 year old, but even with that, I was still mostly a periphery fan who only tuned in during the major tournaments. Funny enough, the match that got me hooked as a fan of domestic football was this:

It’s like going back to a time machine and watching a different era of football: Christian Benteke in an Aston Villa shirt and trucking dudes, Rio Ferdinand still barking as a centerback and not being an uninspiring pundit on BT Sport, squeaky bum time in full bloom. If you told me after that game that Chicharito was one of the best strikers in the world, I would’ve believed you. There was something about seeing those Aston Villa fans get their hopes up only to have it taken away from them as the match went on that appealed to my dark soul. From there, I started to watch Premier League football on a regular basis, which has now transitioned into European football in general.

Both of these guys are having awesome seasons: Nabil Fekir as a #10 with license to come deep to receive passes, Thauvin as your prototypical heavy usage inverted winger who’s being used more to stretch out opposition with his wide positions during build up play. They’re both around the same age (24 vs 25), but Fekir has a longer track record of being a very good-great attacker, whereas Thauvin has had one good season and one great one. It’s also fair to argue that Fekir is a considerably bigger injury risk because of the torn ACL in the past along with past spells on the injury list, his style of play + low center of gravity has allowed for opponents to literally kick him whenever he’s in possession of the ball.

It’s kind of a cop out answer, but it really depends on what you need from your attacking positions. Both of these guys have proven to be able to operate efficiently as high usage attackers. Thauvin’s work under Rudi Garcia this season has shown that his most optimal environment would be in a possession based attack that stresses connectivity between teammates, while Fekir has excelled under Hubert Fournier and Bruno Genesio, two average-below average managers that basically relied on their players to hide their shortcomings as manager via freelance attacks.

Put a gun to my head, I would pick Thauvin only because Fekir’s injury history with his knees scares me enough that I would feel queasy about paying potentially £60M + wages, which is sad because I’ve been a Fekir fan for years and still think that ACL injury in 2015 robbed us of something special.

I‘m a big fan of his game. I don’t think he’s going to be anything more than an average player if constantly played in an attacking position, but I think Aouar has a lot of what you want from a dynamite central midfielder for where football is going in 2018: diverse passing abilities along with being able to maneuver himself in tight areas on a consistent basis. He’s probably good enough to start at a club with realistic aspirations to qualify for the Champions League, and his ceiling could end up with him being an integral part at a super club with further maturation to his game as he gets older. Lyon’s midfield trio are ridiculous.

Sadly, I’m not in a position to talk about Ligue 2 prospects because Ligue 2 match footage is basically impossible to get on the internet without wyscout/instat membership, and the same can be said about Ligue 2 data. But considering some of the successes that have come from Ligue 2 talents in recent years (Lenglet, Tousart, Ndombele to name some recent ones), I think that Ligue 2 is one of the newer inefficiencies in transfer recruitment. It used to be that Ligue 1 held that distinction, but we’ve all come to the realization that the league has an insane amount of young talents so the prices have been priced a bit more accordingly. Ligue 2 is where the party’s at.

We’re going to have to make a couple of assumptions when doing this:

  1. Southampton figure out a way to stay up, which is becoming more and more unlikely as the nerds at FiveThirtyEight have basically given them a 50–50 shot of staying up.
  2. We have to at least be a tiny bit realistic when suggesting players that they can get. So no, we can’t be out here suggesting that they should be targeting Leon Bailey from Bayer Leverkusen, because he’s ridiculous and can book his ticket to a lot of major clubs in Europe. There’s dreaming big, and then there’s flying too close to the sun.

With that said, here are three suggestions for high upside talents that aren’t entirely pie in the sky selections:

  1. Ismaila Sarr: We already covered this in a previous article, and it could very well be the case that his play of late has elevated him to where he’s a bit above Southampton’s pay grade, but Sarr has the athleticism that should translate to the PL along with a greater understanding of how to leverage it to his advantage. I know that Southampton got burned with buying a winger from Ligue 1 in Sofiane Boufal, but Sarr’s athleticism offers him more margin for error along with potential for performing as a second striker of sorts. It wouldn’t be surprising if Sarr turned out to be a better version of Wilfried Zaha.
  2. Nordi Mukiele: Another guy that we’ve taken a look at recently. I’m just intrigued by the potential positional versatility to his game where he could function as both a right back and center back, to go along with the passing abilities that he’s flashed.
  3. Jann-Fiete Arp: Southampton haven’t had good center forward play since… Graziano Pelle? It’s been a while, so why not invest some resources on an 18 year old kid from Germany who’s been labeled as Germany’s answer to Harry Kane. The odds of that actually happening are pretty damn low considering how much of a freak that Harry Kane has turned out to be, but the fact that Arp hasn’t been an outright catastrophe as an 18 year old kid at Hamburger SV should say something positive about his future, somewhat akin to what happened with Marcus Rashford when he was playing regular minutes at Man United as an 18 year old.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

All of these players suggested are 23 or under, because good lord Arsenal need a big injection of youth into that aging squad they’ve got on their hands. I’m also skeptical that this is going to exactly come out to £100M, but it should be in the ballpark.

GK: Timo Horn (FC Koln)

Arsenal could probably do with a goalkeeper who actually is able to stop shots, and Timo Horn seems to fit the bill. The fact that Koln might get relegated means that his price would get cheaper. Also, he’s apparently an admirer of Arsenal, so that’s worth something.

CB: Malang Sarr

If you’re an athletic centerback with legitimate passing chops, you have my attention. It’s almost an impossible task for any centerback to play under Arsene Wenger, as you’re going to be left on an island more times than not. Sarr is so young though at 19, and appears to have a good understanding of how to defend in space that I think he could be someone that turns out to be a positive signing for Arsenal, especially if the manager to replace Wenger is someone who stresses some form of structured play.

CM: Lucas Torreira

Covered in depth here.

Winger: Steven Bergwijn

Another player that’s been written about in this space, because if this mailbag has proven anything, I’m shameless when it comes to plugging my own work. We all know the deal by now when it comes to Eredivisie players and the volatility that comes with scouting the league, but Bergwijn is that tantalizing a prospect that I would forgo those concerns and contemplate putting in an offer to acquire his services. I just think he’s got a certain level of functional athleticism that should translate against higher level competition.

Zinedine Machach has played a grant total of 1504 minutes in Ligue 1 since 2014, so your guess is as good as mine as to how good he’ll turn out to be. The rare moments where I caught him in action, I never felt as if I was watching a guy who was going to be signed by arguably the best team in Italy. Adam Ounas was someone that I was actually quite high on nearly two years ago when he was at Bordeaux, I thought that he could be a dynamite player if his shot location could be fine tuned because his athleticism was so overpowering.

I don’t think either of those moves were awful: Machach came on a free and Ounas’ transfer fee was in the region of €10M. Perhaps you could argue that €10M for Napoli is still a decent amount of money so paying that to an unproven French kid seems dubious, but I’m higher on Ounas than most so I’m hopeful he could make that transfer worthwhile.

As someone who’s written analysis pieces that have gone over 2500 words on multiple occasions, I can sympathize with websites like Spielverlagerung who put out high quality content in large dosages. For me personally, I think that unless we’re talking season preview/review kind of material, the optimum word count for long form football writing would be in the 2000–3000 word area. Anything appreciably above that, you better be a captivating writer or else you’d probably be better off just splitting it into multiple parts for clarity sake, but that’s just one man’s opinion.

I think Thom Lawrence said it best that the analytics community in football should take a break from fine tuning expected goal models and focus on other things. While being able to marry publicly available tracking data with the Opta x/y data would bring about a new dimension in how we do expected goal modelling, there’s still a considerable space to be done with what we got via Opta or Stratabet. For example, Euan Dewar has been doing terrific work when it comes to finding deeper value from dribbling. Just try and find shit that isn’t explicitly related to expected goals, and see where you can go with it (and for the love of god, write about your findings in public so it can lead to constructive criticism + potential improvements going forward)

I would also suggest that if you’re able to combine this level of work with some form of video analysis on players/teams, you’re going to be way ahead of the game.

I must admit that I basically watch none of the Championship, so sadly this would be better answered by someone with better knowledge of that division, but a 0.56 Non Penalty Goals + Assist per 90 rate is pretty intriguing considering the rugged nature of Championship football. God help us all if Adama Traore puts it all together, because it’s game over.

Ah yes, the good ole nature vs nurture debate. This is something where I wish that I knew more of the development setups that go on in Ligue 1, with articles like this being the closest that we’ll get. Certainly, I think that a fair amount of success for the absurd depth in quality young French talents goes to the fact that these kids are allowed to grow and make mistakes in Ligue 1, whereas the Premier League is such a behemoth that young English talents are travelling abroad to get their footballing fix.

Almost all of Ligue 1 teams have to rely on youth talents both in the micro sense (giving themselves the best chance of winning), and the macro sense (selling these kids to help the club keep at a functional rate). Obviously this doesn’t explain everything, street football being prominent in France must also play a big part in how ridiculously skilled some of the players are when they get into the academies and how they function within them, but I just think that there’s something invaluable about knowing that your next mistake doesn’t mean that your playing time will disappear. Put me down ever so slightly for the nurture side.

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Mohamed

Mohamed

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Previously wrote about current football, now I focus on producing historical football pieces to help fill the gaps