Transfer window special, Day 25: Duje Caleta-Car

This January Callum Goodall and Jack Elderton have gotten together to profile one player a day from a list of players that West Ham could sign throughout the transfer window.

Callum Goodall is a data and recruitment specialist who you may know from his radar charts and megathreads on Twitter where he has produced an excellent scouting series taking a look at players that West Ham could, or should, invest in. We’re lucky to have him for now before he’s snapped up by the club itself.

Jack Elderton is a player performance analyst specialising in roles and tactics who has taken over production of the recently renewed KUMB Podcast. Here you can find Cal and Jack talking in more depth about West Ham’s form, tactics and transfers each week alongside our match reporter Chris “Wilko1304” Wilkerson.

Listen back to the latest episode here.


Duje Caleta-Car is a Croatian centre-back currently playing for Olympique Marseille in Ligue 1. He has appeared 15 times in all competitions this season scoring one goal.

Duje Caleta-Car is another product of the Red Bull model. Originally from HNK Sibenik’s academy in Croatia, Caleta-Car was poached by FC Liefering, RB Salzburg’s feeder club, at the age of 20 and the Croat’s rise since then has been astoundingly quick.

Caleta-Car lasted just one year at Liefering before being deemed good enough for the step up to RB Salzburg. And after winning three consecutive league titles in Austria, Marseille came in with a big money offer of £17.1m that would make Caleta-Car Salzburg’s third biggest sale at the time, behind only Liverpool duo Sadio Mane and Naby Keita.

Despite the huge fee, Caleta-Car’s first season in Marseille started slowly with the Croat struggling to dislodge one of Rolando or Adil Rami from Rudi Garcia’s team. But things would eventually pick up when Rami suffered a muscle injury midway through the season. And once Caleta-Car got his chance, he would make the first team spot his own; quickly becoming a key member of a defence that went on to secure 30 points from the final 15 games.

And despite Garcia heading to Lyon that summer to be replaced by Andre Villas-Boas, Caleta-Car retained his spot as Marseille charged to a second-placed finish in a season ultimately curtailed by Covid-19. L’OM only lost four games that campaign largely thanks to the performances of Caleta-Car alongside other key players like Boubacar Kamara, Steve Mandanda and ex-West Ham sensation Dimitri Payet.

The following season was Caleta-Car’s first full term as a first team player in Ligue 1 but off-field chaos would take hold as Villas-Boas found himself at odds with Marseille President Pablo Longoria over the club’s recruitment policy. Celtic player Olivier Ntcham had been signed as a replacement for Morgan Sanson despite Ntcham having previously been rejected by Villas-Boas. The outraged Portuguese immediately offered his resignation which in turn, rather pathetically, led to his sacking and the beginning of the Jorge Sampaoli era.

This should offer some insight into the general style of ownership at Marseille and it should therefore come as no surprise that the club considered disciplinary action against Caleta-Car when he decided he’d rather fight for his place in Sampaoli’s side than join West Ham or Wolves in the summer.

We’re not entirely sure whether it’s that Sampaoli doesn’t like him or that Longoria is still furious about the summer but despite being one of the bigger names at Marseille, Caleta-Car has struggled to nail down a spot this season. It seems clear that Marseille have continued to plan for the future as though Caleta-Car won’t be there. Three centre-backs arrived in the last transfer window and both William Saliba and Luan Peres have moved ahead of Caleta-Car in the pecking order with Leonardo Balerdi, another new arrival, seemingly selected just as often.

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Sampaoli has often opted for a three-at-the-back system this season and Caleta-Car rarely plays when the Argentine takes this approach with Saliba, Peres and Balerdi usually preferred. Though Caleta-Car has been more involved when Sampaoli has used a defensive four where the Croat would normally slot in alongside Saliba. And it’s in this role that he had previously earned all the attention that he was receiving last summer.

Sometimes it can be difficult to know where to start the analysis in these articles because there isn’t always an obvious outlying stat or area of a player’s game to hone in on. With Duje Caleta-Car this is not the case; his passing is hugely impressive, so to start anywhere else would seem a little silly. Caleta-Car’s pass completion rate over the course of the last 18 months has been an impressive 91.2%. This is 2.3% better than Angelo Ogbonna, a player who we all recognise as being an accomplished if unadventurous and infrequent distributor of the ball. Caleta-Car has attempted considerably more passes per 90 than Ogbonna (59.7>35.6) in this time and when he has played this season his passing output has been even higher (75 passes per 90).

Even more valuable, particularly in the context of West Ham’s defence, is the important progressive contribution that Caleta-Car is able to make. The Croatian centre-back is a forward-thinking player, with 38% of his 60 passes being played forward, equating to approximately 23 forward passes per 90 which is almost double the number that Ogbonna attempts (11.6). A quick look at his underlying numbers would further support the claim that Caleta-Car is a real asset in possession: 82.7% of his 22.6 forward passes (18.7 per 90), 81.5% of his 8.6 progressive passes (7 per 90) and 60% of his 7 long balls (4.2 per 90) find their intended target. To put this into context this season, Caleta-Car has completed at least three more progressive passes per 90 (7.4) than Ogbonna (4.2), Craig Dawson (3.4), Kurt Zouma (3.2), and Issa Diop (3.2). Cleary, bringing in Caleta-Car would go some way to solving our recent struggles playing out from the back.

One point worth noting is that whilst Caleta-Car is a left-sided centre-back, he isn’t actually left-footed which is something we’ve spoken about as being of the utmost importance in this recruitment process. Having watched a very right-footed Diop struggle at left-centre-back in recent months, despite this being his preferred side of the pitch, the thought of signing another right-footer should fill us with fear. However, Caleta-Car is much more ambidextrous and this is a huge help when he is passing the ball out from the back. The range of passes that he has in his locker also contribute to him being an elite ball-player and it’s Caleta-Car’s trademark outside of the boot passes that are the most memorable, largely because they can cut open opposition defences but also because they’re just so pleasing on the eye.

And, when there isn’t a pass on, we wouldn’t necessarily have to punt it long because Caleta-Car is a decent ball-carrier too. So far this season, Caleta-Car has recorded 1.12 progressive runs per 90, considerably more than Ogbonna’s zero – a player who simply does not carry the ball. Interestingly, despite pulling off a healthy number of progressive carries, Caleta-Car hasn’t actually registered a single dribble attempt this season. This suggests that he, unlike Diop in recent weeks, chooses his carrying moments wisely, waiting for gaps to open in front of him before committing to a surge up the pitch.

The other department that Caleta-Car truly excels in is in his aerial ability and given that he is an absolute unit and stands at 6’4” tall, perhaps this shouldn’t come as any real surprise. Nonetheless, his 68.5% success rate in aerial duels across the 18 months is seriously impressive and is only topped by one West Ham player, his potential centre-back partner, Kurt Zouma (70.9%). A defensive pairing of these two imperious aerial figures would surely mean that we wouldn’t concede another goal from a cross for the next five seasons at least, and when you chuck Soucek into the mix, our corner routines would be more frightening than ever.

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Whilst there are clearly huge positives within Caleta-Car’s game, there are also some pitfalls and the biggest of these is probably around his success in the tackle. Although his duel success rate of 68.9% from defensive duels across the last 18 months looks promising and is stronger than Ogbonna’s 64.6% success across the same period, digging deeper into his tackling against dribblers reveals some issues. In the 2020-21 season, where Caleta-Car played 33 league games, the Croat only managed to tackle 42.9% of opposition dribblers and was dribbled past 0.64 times per 90. This would be acceptable if he were the kind of defender that presses high and commits to duels early but this isn’t really Caleta-Car’s game. He recorded just 7.49 pressures per 90 in the 20-21 season and has since gone on to record a ridiculously low 4.4 pressures per 90 so far this term, making him the least aggressive centre-back in Ligue 1. And if you consider that Zouma is also much happier retreating towards his own goal and covering for his defensive partner – Zouma has recorded just 5.3 pressures per 90 this season placing him in the bottom 3% in the Premier League for this metric – it’s hard to imagine the two together.

One of the most successful centre-back partnerships in the Premier League of late has been Virgil van Dijk and Joel Matip and part of the reason the two combine so well is that while van Dijk retreats, Matip pushes up. This season van Dijk is recording the lowest number of pressures per 90 of any centre-back in the Premier League (3.22) but Matip compensates for this lack of aggression by recording 0.71 pressures in the attacking third per 90, enough to place him in the top 25% of aggressive centre-backs in the league. And when Matip goes forward he’s largely successful; the Cameroonian centre-back has recorded a 43.2% success rate from pressures (top 4%) and a 70% success rate against dribblers (top 3%) this season. And should he not be successful, van Dijk will be sure to mop up anything that gets through with his 90% success against opposition dribblers.

Zouma is much like our version of van Dijk; his low number of pressures combined with his 75% success from defensive duels and the fact that he has only been dribbled past 0.23 times per 90 this season (top 4% in the Premier League) make him a good stylistic match. And he has a similar athleticism to be able to cover on his own when his defensive partner is beaten, you only have to think back to Dawson’s misplaced pass straight to Bruno Fernandes last weekend for a good example of this. And as a result, it would seem best to place Zouma with a defender who is happy to press a little more aggressively and with a little more success than Caleta-Car. How does it work if both of our centre-backs retreat and one of them has no success in the tackle?

Though we should counterbalance all of this with the fact that the original plan at West Ham would have been to combine Zouma with Ogbonna. And Ogbonna’s paltry 28.6% success against opposition dribblers before his injury this season is bettered significantly by Caleta-Car even when he was at his worst in 2020-21. It would also be remiss of us not to mention the improvements Caleta-Car has made in this area so far this season. Despite his limited involvement making for a small sample size that we feel reluctant to use, Caleta-Car has recorded a much improved 66.7% success rate against dribblers so far this term and his combined tackles and interceptions per 90 have gone up from 2.24 to 2.74. Although this is a marginal change, it suggests that the Croat is at least being slightly more proactive than previous.

Undoubtedly, the most important thing to add to our defence right now is press-resistance and passing ability and as explained above, Caleta-Car really does excel in this area. This in combination with his monstrous success from aerial duels make him seem a good fit on paper and a promising option to add to our struggling backline. With just a few months left on his contract, his continually limited game-time and Marseille’s keenness to sell with an incoming transfer ban, perhaps this would be the best time to move for the Rolls Royce of Dawsons.

Jack’s Rating: B
Caleta-Car is a huge upgrade on Dawson but may be a player we’d be keen to rotate with Zouma rather than partner with the Frenchman in the future. Although I have no doubt that Caleta-Car would make a positive impact and the two would be able to develop a good relationship, I do think that we could find better ways to maximise Zouma’s potential as I have real hopes that he could be one of the top Premier League centre-backs for many years to come.

Callum’s Rating: B-
I’ve spent the best part of two seasons saying we need to sign a progressive left-sided centre-back to succeed Ogbonna, so seeing us consistently linked with Caleta-Car has been exciting. That said, I’m not convinced by his defending and worry that he is too similar to Zouma to ever be a truly complementary partner. You want your centre-backs to offset one another’s weaknesses, and the fact that neither of them seem to have heard about pressing is a bit of a sticking point for me.

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