Boubacar Kamara: a West Ham star in the making

In the latest of our series of transfer window studies of players who could be considered potential signings for David Moyes and West Ham United during January, Michael Hare takes a closer look at Olympique Marseille midfielder Boubacar Kamara who has been linked with a move to east London in recent days...

Boubacar Kamara (#4) made his Ligue 1 debut for Marseille (OM) in 2017 as a sub against LOSC. OM’s #4 went on to feature a further five times over the season in the league and made 14 first team appearances in total across all competitions. The following season (2018/19) Kamara broke through as a first team regular being utilised predominantly as a centre back. Due to his versatility, defensive awareness and comfort in possession over the course of the 2019/20 campaign, Kamara was deployed as a defensive midfielder 11 times in his 24 Ligue 1 appearances. The performances at defensive midfield during those 11 performances became the catalyst to utilise the #4 as the midfield anchor point over the past one-and-a-half seasons.




Since Kamara’s debut he has featured 146 times for Olympique Marseille, competing in the Champions League and Europa League too. At this point, it would appear that Kamara is destined to move on from OM either in the remaining days of the winter window or in the summer, with him in the final six months of his contract and free to discuss a pre-contract agreement with teams across Europe. There are many interested parties in his services with the #4 providing tactical flexibility, being able to function in multiple positions.

OM is currently performing strongly in Ligue 1 under Jorge Sampaoli who demands his team to operate within a highly-flexible, possession-based style utilising rotational positional play. Sampaoli has been flexible tactically switching between a 3-4-3 with a false nine in Dimitri Payet and a 4-3-3. When adopting the 4-3-3 Sampaoli looks to split his centre backs wide, with Kamara dropping into the middle forming a back three in an advanced role to support the midfield if necessary. This feature of their players is to create overloads in attack, as both full backs push high in the flanks and the inverted wingers move inside for Marseille to narrow the opposition and yet make full use of the width of the pitch.

Whilst others are provided freedom to roam within Sampaoli’s flexible set-up, the #4 role is more disciplined and concentrated on securing the central space. As the anchor point, he is often utilised as the starting point of the attack or as the lynchpin to recycle position through midfield as they probe the opposition. As we can see in the following heatmap, Kamara is concentrated predominantly in the middle third moving from side to side to provide an outlet in possession and cover to the defence.





Defensive Contribution

Kamara’s defensive contribution to OM has been an important factor in their desire to play an expansive and rotational system, providing protection to the defence. His defensive awareness and anticipation enables the #4 to read the game quickly to make decisive actions at important moments. Whilst his position as a defensive midfielder explains his above average defensive duels per 90 (7.07 - WyScout data), his understanding of when to press and technique when tackling (3.1 per 90, 60% win rate - Instat data) ensure an above average success rate.

His high performance in winning his defensive duels places him in the >80th percentile across centre midfielders in the top five European leagues. As we can see in the metric’s chart across the board OM’s #4 is performing to an above average level against his contemporaries in Europe’s top five Leagues. Additionally, Kamara ranks 33rd in least fouls per 90 (1.23 - WyScout data) across 291 centre midfielders with >800 minutes played. When Kamara does commit to a foul, these are largely as a countermeasure to block a counter and rarely in a position that would pose an additional threat to the defence via an advantageous set piece position.




An example of Kamara’s flexibility and defensive understanding was evident against RC Lens where the #4 was deployed as a defensive midfielder, but had alternate roles in or out of possession. In the example below, RC Lens are bringing the ball out of defence to build an attack with Marseille's midfield three compact in the central space. Kamara drops into a centre back position preventing an overload on the right flank, allowing #15 (Caleta-Car) to move across.

Both in and out of possession Kamara is consistently scanning the pitch to assess the state of play. In the instance below #4 moves with the attacker, but smartly provides himself space as the movement of the referee would otherwise block him. By providing the space he not only creates the ability to avoid a collision with the referee, but he also sets the trap for RC Lens to play into his marked attacker. When the ball is played towards the central attacker, Kamara’s reactions are quick and incisive as he anticipates the placement of the pass. His strength is another vital attribute in being successful within the duels and regains possession for Marseille to transition quickly into attack.




Kamara demonstrates a high level of concentration and leadership skills which often belies his young age. Out of possession, as previously stated, he will continually scan the pitch to assess the state of play looking to orchestrate his teammate’s movements or taking personal responsibility. As per the below, Kamara is in the anchor position of the midfield three providing deep cover and ensuring a third centre back centrally. As RC Lens #8 (Fofana) gains possession heading the ball into the path of his teammate #28 (Doucoure), a space between the OM midfield widens which #8 is aware of. In his deep position, the OM #4 points to the danger to encourage #6 (Guendouzi) to move across to close the space for RC Lens #8.

Kamara, who is consistently in motion positions his body so that he is able to track back with the defence should possession be pushed wide by #28, or close the space centrally. As per the previous example, OM's #4 reads the intentions of the opponent in possession and makes the decision to accelerate into the space to challenge RC Lens' #8. The resulting actions ensure Kamara is able to intercept the pass and stifle the threat which would have been posed by #8, who had a passing option behind the defence with an attacker on Kamara’s blindside making a promising run. Ultimately, Kamara’s momentum made controlling the ball difficult. His desire to press for the loose ball applied pressure to #28 who misplaces his first time pass behind the defence, allowing them to relieve pressure and recycle possession.




To further illustrate Kamara’s defensive awareness, positional sense and anticipation, by reviewing his contribution with interceptions, possession-adjusting interceptions and shots blocked per 90, there is further evidence of above average performances. At the base of the midfield his screening of the defence is vital and hinders the opposition from gaining a foothold in possession or time to shoot against goal. His spatial awareness and positioning can be attributed to his >80th percentile achievement in shots blocked per 90 (top 50 across other CMs). Additionally, Kamara makes good decisions defensively, reading the state of play to assess potential danger and opportunities to challenge for possession.

As per the below, Kamara’s ability to adjust possession (6.82, per 90) through interceptions is above the median along with shots blocked per 90. When you factor in his interception rate (4.49, per 90) as well he is a highly effective screen with a combined 11.31, per 90 interception rate which ranks him 14th in Ligue 1.




The final point and example of Kamara’s ability to provide a defensive screen is below. RC Lens drive forward into the right channel with an overload against #15 (Caleta-Car) with an attacker in space on his blindside. Kamara, as ever, scans the pitch to assess where the danger is as he moves across from his central anchor role. He is aware that there is space and runner on OM's #15's blindside. Kamara sprints into a position to position himself in the gap left by #15 tracking the run into the right channel. Fortunately, the pass into space is slightly underhit, but Kamara’s ability to read the situation and decision to sprint into the vacated area removes the danger. Rather than simply controlling the ball, OM’s #4 - whilst being defensively minded - plays first time into #8 (Gerson) to transition into attack with the potential to exploit the central space.





Possession Contribution

In possession, Kamara is equally as strong in possession and operates as the orchestrator from a deep-lying position for OM. He often prefers to play shorter passes to recycle possession in order to draw the opposition out of their defensive shape. His importance to possession is epitomised by him being ranked the fifth-highest centre midfield passer (69.84, per 90) in Ligue 1. His level of accuracy at 90.58% puts him in the 86th percentile across the top five European leagues centre midfielders, punctuating the point on his composure in possession.

Although Kamara is a key figure in recycling possession with a high number of back or lateral passes (10.64 and 26.25, per 90 respectively), he is forward thinking and progressive. In possession, OM’s #4 regularly drives the team forward with line-breaking passes or forward passes into team mates in space. As per the below, we can see that in the upper quadrant and above the median across both forward passes plus passes into the final third. His desire to progress play places him in the >86th percentile across the metrics set out within the chart below.




His influence in possession was aptly demonstrated against RC Lens where he was able to retain possession, through smart movement and combinations in midfield. As per the below, from a deep position Kamara takes receipt of possession with RC Lens in a low block with five spread across the defence and four in midfield. As there is time and space, the #4 travels briefly with the ball but continually scans the pitch whilst looking to create additional openings.

Gerson (#8) drops into space drawing out a RC Lens defender with Kamara utilising his movement to pass forward into space. Kamara anticipates the intentions of #8 for a quick interchange, identifying the space to his left with his movement losing his marker. When in possession the #4 is calm, composed and resistant to an opposition press and physically strong whilst spatially aware of his surroundings. He utilises this awareness to draw in the opposition in which to open up space for teammates to either exploit themselves or create space by moving the placement of the opponent. Upon receiving possession back from #8 he draws RC Lens into a compact press before using #14 (Peres) in space to once again reposition the defence.




The pass from Kamara into #14 draws RC Lens towards the byline, pulling four players into a compact area before receiving possession once again. Rather than remain static, Kamara moves into a slightly deep position in the inside left channel to support #14. As he prepares to take possession he takes a quick scan before opening up his body to move the ball out of his feet quickly and deliver into #8 who is available in space centrally. Ultimately the move fails to develop further once #8 takes possession and the promising opportunity to attack the central space is not taken up. However, the sequence demonstrates how Kamara utilises his mobility along the ball to orchestrate OM in possession and consistently reposition the opposition defensively.




Whilst Kamara is proficient in short and quick interchanges he also has the desire to progress play in the final third and attempt to penetrate the defence. He has good vision and technique when passing which, when combined with his positive decision making, can lead to exciting attacking opportunities. From a deep position, Kamara has an above average progressive passing rate (7.32, per 90) as he looks to positively influence possession, driving OM closer to goal. In an all-action first half performance against RC Lens, the desire to create through his passing ability was evident and in particular in the below sequence.

Kamara, who is consistently mobile in midfield identifies the opportunity to support the attack as #2 (Saliba) pass into the feet of #8 (Gerson) for OM. As the ball arrives at the feet of #8 he controls his marker and lays the ball into the path of Kamara and before spinning his marker to run into space. Kamara shapes to recycle position and to play short into the feet of #21 (Rongier) but instead, aware of #8 rolling his marker, attempts a progressive pass. With little time or space to make the pass Kamara demonstrates good vision, technique and ability to make positive split-second decisions. Unfortunately, for OM the pass is slightly overhit which results in the ball skidding off the surface as it bounces with RC Lens #1 able to retrieve the ball. The invention and ingenuity to attempt the pass demonstrates a positive approach in the final third to not simply retain possession, but to take chances to create scoring opportunities.





Comparison

With Kamara’s time likely coming to an end either in this January window or in the summer it would be beneficial, after benchmarking against top five European league centre midfielders to compare to someone he may replace or partner. With that in mind and the interest shown by West Ham United, Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek will be utilised as part of the comparison against multiple metrics (comparison image below).

When we review Kamara against the West Ham duo he tracks strongly across the board against both players, particularly in possession. This is an area that is often an issue for West Ham United when playing against the traditional top six teams or those which are effective in a high intense press. The benefit of a midfield three in those games with Kamara as the anchor would provide greater assurance in possession. He is also a player who is able to be more progressive than Soucek, not only in his progressive passing (7.32, per 90 > 4.37, per 90), but in ball carries too (dribbles, per 90 1.35 > 0.66). Additionally, Kamara’s astuteness tactically and defensive ability would provide Rice/Soucek greater licence to join the attack with Kamara providing support from deep.




Where West Ham look to utilise a double pivot in midfield, Kamara provides great flexibility in how they wish to set up with his strength defensively - and in possession, could provide greater control of the game pace. The disadvantage over Soucek is the loss of a goal threat (xG 0.65, per 90 < 4.02) with Kamara significantly less consistent in his accuracy too (16.67% < 28.57%). Additionally, in open play and at set pieces a key figure would be lost aerially with Soucek engaging consistently to aerial duels (8.44 per, 90), therefore would require both in a Rice/Kamara partnership to engage aerially more (Kamara: 3.01 per, 90, Rice: 2.3 per, 90). Whilst this would require a change in their involvement aerially, there is encouragement with both successful with above average win rates (Kamara: 59.18% and Rice: 49.09%).

Kamara would provide the defence with an outlet who is comfortable in tight spaces and able to withstand the opposition press, much like Declan Rice. This ability would provide assurances against the opposition press to retain possession. Furthermore, his mobility enables a consistent passing option to the player in possession, drawing the opposition to press and creating spaces to exploit. The attack would also benefit from Kamara’s desire to progress play positively in the final third, consistently probing the opposition for weaknesses.

Defensively West Ham United midfielders Rice and Soucek are strong and largely above the average across the defensive metrics. Kamara's signing would significantly help West Ham United to ensure high standards are continued when there is rotation, injuries, or suspensions. The extra defensive solidity would improve West Ham United’s robustness against the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea particularly in central areas.


Conclusion

Kamara is a strong, all-round midfielder who provides great flexibility tactically as he is comfortable operating in multiple roles. This would certainly suit a squad where there is a requirement for players to function not only in multiple roles, but also in different positions too. Interest is very strong in Kamara especially with him available on a free in the summer, and January could be the best time to move to get ahead of the competition which will be fierce.


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The ability to not only provide a defensive screen but to offer a dynamic orchestrator in possession makes Kamara a promising prospect and key midfield contributor. An area, which if improved would elevate Kamara to another dimension, would be improving his influence to the attack. In particular, this would be in the final contributions providing more shooting opportunities and being a goal threat.

He relies on his passing ability in possession which enables him to dictate the pace of the game, but if he could increase his carries and success there is an opportunity to create overloads on the defence. Kamara’s strength and ability to operate in a highly-demanding style at Olympique Marseille would likely see him well suited to the English Premier League. Should he arrive in England there would be a period of adjustment, but he is an intelligent operator and strong enough mentally to adjust.

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