- by Jack Elderton
- Filed: Tuesday, 12th July 2022
The Summer 2022 transfer window is upon us and with Qatar looming in the background every club wants to move quickly for their top targets.The Premier League season is set to start earlier than usual and slotting in the key pieces before those first games will be the focus across the division. As such, it was pleasing to see West Ham conclude a deal for Moroccan centre-back Nayef Aguerd three weeks ago. The 26 year-old is especially talented on the ball and his introduction to the first team in east London could go some way to alleviating the issues David Moyes' side have had in build-up.
Shortly after Aguerd's transfer was confirmed, news broke that Armando Broja had emerged as the new top target in Head of Recruitment Rob Newman's sights. The Slough-born Albanian striker returned to parent club Chelsea this summer after a relatively successful loan with Ralph Hasenhuttl's Southampton where he scored nine goals in all competitions.
Despite being just 20 and only entering his second season in senior football, Broja showed a level of preparedness for the speed and physicality of the game at Premier League level rarely seen in such young strikers. At times, he looked like a seasoned international while brushing aside far more experienced centre-backs. Yet he failed to nail down a starting spot with total consistency and went goalless in the last third of the season, last scoring in a 3-2 away win over Spurs in early February.
Broja burst onto the Premier League scene in October last year with back-to-back goals against Leeds United and Burnley but his senior career had begun one year earlier in the Dutch Eredivisie with Vitesse Arnhem. A rite of passage for Chelsea's youth products during the Abramovich era, Vitesse has proven a crucial early stop on many ex and current Chelsea players' path to stardom. Mason Mount, Bertrand Traore and Nemanja Matic all passed through on their way to Premier League careers.
Arriving in The Netherlands having played just four senior minutes of football, Broja quickly established himself as a key member of Thomas Letsch's side, scoring a brace on his full debut against ADO Den Haag after netting as a substitute against Sparta Rotterdam. While his first two goals had been instinctive finishes from rebounds, his third was a goal that we have come to know as typical of his playstyle.
Stepping out into the right channel, Broja exploits the space in behind the opposition full-back with the centre-back uncomfortable tracking him out wide.
After initially doing well to stay onside, he then uses his pace to burst down the flank before chopping inside two recovering players and slotting the ball home into the near post. This is something we've seen time and time again throughout Broja's career so far. In fact, he scored a carbon copy of this goal in Southampton's game against Brighton in December.
During his time with Vitesse, Broja developed a strong relationship with fellow young striker Lois Openda at the top end of Letsch's 352 system, with the two eventually combining to score 24 goals. Tasked with offering a direct threat in behind and stretching opposition defences by attacking the channels, both were able to rely on the creative ability of Oussama Tannane to provide the chances.
How Thomas Letsch's system looks on the tactics board.
And how it looks in real match footage.
This approach plays to the strengths of the two forwards. Broja's key talent is his ability to time runs in behind before using his physical profile of combined strength and speed to fend off opposition centre-backs when running through on goal. Freeing him up to constantly attack the channels with a creative midfield fulcrum behind him allows him to focus on what he's best at. And by using another striker alongside him to act similarly on the other side of the pitch, the centre-backs are stretched and Broja is provided with more 1v1s where he can maximise his physical dominance.
This is something we see reflected at Southampton under Hasenhuttl, with the Austrian coach utilising a two-striker system with an inverted winger stepping into central areas to play passes in behind the opposition defence. Although the balance here is slightly different with one of the strikers often being more involved in linking up play while the other focuses on attacking the space, a necessity given that Southampton use a four-at-the-back shape which therefore denies the presence of that creative fulcrum in midfield, the outcomes for Broja are similar; he remains free to attack the channels at will and drag the centre-backs into wide spaces where he can use his strength, speed and dribbling ability to his advantage.
We can see this balancing of roles at Southampton reflected clearly in the data with Broja taking a high number of shots but offering few progressive passes.
Using an example from Southampton's game against Manchester City in January, we can see a similar situation to that which we saw regularly with Letsch's Vitesse on counter-attacking transitions. Both strikers split wide to attack the spaces in the channels while the inverted winger, performing a similar role to Tannane, carries the ball forward before attempting to release one of the strikers through on goal.
Broja and Adams attack the channels to stretch the two City centre-backs wide while Armstrong carries the ball through the centre.
This should help to build a picture of what Armando Broja can do in transitional phases of the game. The Albanian clearly has a developed ability to identify optimal positions to take up when turnovers or counter-attacks look possible before attacking the spaces at speed as the ball moves forward.
Not limited to his ability in transition, Broja is also a talented presser. Vitesse pressed with an intensity well above the Eredivisie league average in the 2020-21 season (9.45 PPDA > 13.45 PPDA), while Hasenhuttl's Southampton are well known for their intensity out of possession; Broja has thrived in these environments.
Recording 17.2 pressures per 90 with 30% success, Broja was one of the better pressing strikers in the Premier League last season. Managing to maintain such a high level of efficiency while committing to so many pressures is rare at the top level. Only Phil Foden, Patson Daka and Roberto Firmino managed to be more efficient while committing to an above average number of pressures (amongst fellow Premier League strikers) – though Foden's numbers may be somewhat swayed by his appearances in midfield.
Broja appears in the top right quadrant – Premier League strikers who are recording an above average number of attempted pressures while maintaining a level of pressing success that is also above the average.
At Southampton, Broja has operated within an intense counterpressing structure designed to force high turnovers by cutting the pitch in half. The strikers are used to effect pressure on opposition centre-backs while the ball-side central midfielder, winger and full-back push up to cut off options for the ball-carrier.
Looking at how Southampton press when the ball is in wide areas and when the opposition are in the first phase of build-up, we can see that Broja is capable of operating successfully as both a zonal and player-orientated presser. In the first example, Broja's primary function is to position himself between the ball-carrier and screen press-relieving options. Whereas, in the second example, he is tasked with chasing down the opposition centre-back on his side of the pitch.
Further to this, we can also see that Broja has a clear understanding of how to angle his approach runs to cut off press-relieving options. This means that the negative consequences of failed pressures are less volatile as the opposition centre-back is left with no choice but to play into further pressure from Broja's supporting teammates.
Not as polished as his movement or pressing, Broja's finishing ranked averagely against other Premier League strikers last season. Despite mostly taking high value shots, Broja underperformed his xG and missed a handful of presentable opportunities.
Four match rolling average of Broja's npxG performance (non-penalty goals - non-penalty expected goals).
Looking at Broja's finishing performance as per npXG versus npG (non-penalty expected goals versus non-penalty goals), we can see that things went relatively well in the first half of the season before a significant drop-off in the second half. To interrogate this further, we can look at Broja's post-shot xG to see how much xG value Broja added per shot. This can help us to establish whether Broja was improving or worsening chance quality through his shot attempts and remove potential bias inserted by opposition goalkeeping performance. Here we can see that Broja's shot quality didn't drop off as significantly as the first graphic would've indicated.
Four match rolling average of Broja's PSxG performance (expected goals on target - expected goals).
In comparison, although Michail Antonio performed marginally better than Broja when looking at npxG performance, when adding post-shot xG data we can see that Antonio generally worsened chance quality with his finishing.
Despite being one of the taller strikers in the division and contesting the third most aerial duels of all Premier League strikers last season (269), Broja failed to score a single headed goal. His effectiveness in those aerial duels was also significantly inferior to other high-volume recipients of lofted balls with Broja managing to win just 35%, 24% less than league-leader Christian Benteke (59%) and 17% less than Ivan Toney (52%).
Despite being the target of almost as many high balls as Toney, Broja's 35% win rate ranks him alongside strikers like Che Adams, Jamie Vardy and Antonio.
When looking at why Broja didn't score a single header last season, it's important to consider the number of crosses provided by his teammates. Southampton managed fewer successful crosses than most Premier League teams, ranking fourth from bottom with just 1.58 completed crosses per 90. Should Broja make the switch to West Ham this summer, he would see that supply from wide increase greatly – Moyes' team completed the most crosses in the league last season (2.58 per 90).
Premier League teams ranked by completed crosses per 90.
The final area of Broja's game to look at before making a full assessment is his passing and creative output. Unfortunately, this is an area in which Broja is really lacking. Whilst his movement and ball-carrying are strong elements of his game, he is much less successful when finding teammates in advanced positions and attempts high value passes at an incredibly low rate. Although selfishness could be seen as an attractive trait in a young striker, as it may suggest that Broja has a high level of confidence in his ability to finish opportunities himself, his near-total lack of higher value pass attempts would point more in the direction that this is not a skill that Broja has much confidence in.
Broja has attempted just six through passes in his entire senior career to date. Three with Vitesse and three with Southampton. Only two of these found a teammate and just one could be called successful with Openda rescuing a poor through pass in one of the two completed examples.
An example from Southampton's 0-3 loss at Arsenal in December 2021: With Ben White racing out of the defensive line, Adam Armstrong is able to exploit the space in behind and Broja just has to play a simple through pass to create an excellent opportunity.
Having failed to get enough pace on the pass, Kieran Tierney is comfortably able to intercept.
This is a serious limiter on Broja's ability to convert transitional opportunities into goals as he finds it difficult to pick out better placed teammates when he is unable to bear down on goal himself. And taking a broader look at Broja's xA (expected assists) output we can see that this ranks poorly when compared to other Premier League strikers; unsurprisingly tracking alongside his low number of progressive passes per 90 (a pass that advances the ball 10 yards up the pitch, or any completed pass into the penalty area, excluding passes from 40% of the defensive half).
Premier League strikers ranked as per their progressive passes and xA per 90. All wide forwards removed.
Only Callum Wilson produced less xA for his teammates than Broja did last season while just Teemu Pukki, Wilson and Jean-Philippe Mateta played fewer progressive passes - a clear indication that Broja's creativity remains underdeveloped at this stage.
Data visualisation by Callum Goodall.
Looking for a striker to alleviate pressure from Antonio whilst fitting into Moyes' counter-attacking style, Broja would appear, in some respects, to be the perfect target for West Ham. It's been 18 months since Sebastien Haller, the last striker West Ham signed, left in a cut-price deal to Ajax and Antonio has covered the role alone since then. Several players have been deployed to deputise in the position but, with little success forthcoming, it has become increasingly apparent that Moyes' side need a striker to provide cover and competition, especially with the rigours of European football likely to return again next season.
Although Broja would be well suited to the transition-focused style, Moyes' general preference for a single striker system would present a new challenge for the young forward. As covered, Broja has generally played in two-striker systems where he is free to vacate the centre and attack the channels, relieved of creative responsibility, and allowed to focus on his productivity in the final third.
In Moyes' 4231, we generally see Antonio used in two ways on counter-attacks.
In this example, from West Ham's 2-2 draw against Manchester City in May 2022, Antonio carries the ball upfield alone to relieve pressure and attempt to create an opportunity in the final third.
And in this example, from West Ham's 3-2 win over Chelsea in July 2020, Antonio is used as a deeper pivot in the counter-attack. He receives and draws a defender out before passing backwards to allow the ball to go beyond him to an advancing runner and, in this case, he plays that pass himself.
While in the first example we can see that Antonio is used to relieve pressure through his ball-carrying ability, the second example evidences the importance of his awareness of teammates and his creative ability. Over the course of the 2022-23 season, Jarrod Bowen equalled Antonio's xG per 90 (0.34) and outscored the Jamaican striker by two, returning 12 goals. This variance of threats has been crucial to the potency of West Ham's counter-attacking style.
Generating 0.2 xA per 90, Antonio created more than any other West Ham player last season and the third most of all Premier League strikers (removing Phil Foden and Gabriel Jesus from the sample due to minutes played in midfield or on the flanks). Transposing Broja's numbers from last season into the same system would see an enormous depreciation in the creative output from this position that would undoubtedly affect goal output gained from the flanks.
Broja created 1.69 shots per 90 (13% of Southampton's shots) last season while Antonio created 3.13 shots per 90 (27% of West Ham's shots). It's clear that Antonio was far more productive in the final third and although Broja would be able to improve slightly on Antonio's pressing and finishing, his lack of awareness and connectivity with teammates would represent an overall step backwards.
At just 20 though, there is huge room for Broja to progress and signing him now could turn out to be value for money if he is able to return on the potential that his early form last season promised. So, in order to assess potential and the equitability of a transfer fee, we can break down Broja's profile into three departments: Developed skills, developing skills and undeveloped skills.
Developed skills: Pressing and defending, movement, ball-carrying
Developing skills: Heading, shooting
Undeveloped skills: Passing
The reason for doing this is to specify the areas in which Broja is already capable and developed enough to be of significant value in the Premier League, versus areas that require further development, versus areas where Broja has shown no capability as yet. Undeveloped skills should mitigate value inflation from developing skills on the basis of future potential.
Potential cannot be simplified to the point at which any player under the age of 23 is capable of developing any skill to the elite level. When looking at potential through a recruitment-focused lens, it's important for us to clarify the differences between skills where a player has already shown some aptitude for developing and skills where a player is yet to show promise. Although a selling club might want to package a player around their ability to develop in the future, it is crucial that the buying club draws out these differences in order to accurately assess the equitability of any proposed fee.
This is increasingly relevant in a market where Sadio Mane can move from Liverpool to Bayern Munich for £28m while Karim Adeyemi moves from RB Salzburg to Borussia Dortmund for £32m. While the fact that Mane was entering the final year of his contract with Liverpool remains key to understanding these figures, values attributed to older attackers are beginning to stagnate while values attributed to younger forwards continue to rapidly increase.
Covering three areas of value inflation (a Premier League striker under the age of 23), the margin for error on Broja is minimal. As such, it's vitally important to interrogate every area of his game carefully and to have a clear road-map set out for his development. One of the questions that must be asked is how West Ham would plan to give him the minutes to continue his development given that it is unlikely that he would be able to secure regular first team starts as long as Antonio is fit. Though this logic can be extended to suggest any young forward in this position would see their development inhibited, some of those forwards would come with less risk attached.
Attempting to find value in the market is a unifying goal for every football club around the world and with growing international focus on analytics and insights through data, it is becoming increasingly hard to find those untapped corners and secure deals for undervalued talent. Those challenges do not justify inaction though and while dealing through agent relationships can have its upsides, recent signing Flynn Downes being a good example, it's certainly a little limited for striking deals further afield.
In 2015, West Ham began a partnership with Dutch second-tier club VVV-Venlo thanks to negotiations carried out by then academy manager Terry Westley but since then, only Martin Samuelsen and Sam Westley, Terry Westley's son, have been dispatched on loan to the Netherlands; Samuelsen featured 12 times for VVV while Westley appeared just once. There's virtually no information as to whether the partnership is still in existence and given that Terry Westley has since moved on, it wouldn't be hugely surprising if it no longer was.
The only other West Ham club partnership mentioned anywhere online is with Ifeanyi Ubah FC, a lower-league Nigerian football club named after its owner, the West Ham supporting Nigerian senator Ifeanyi Ubah. Unable to find any fixture information for the club online and with the club's Twitter account not tweeting since May 2021, one wonders if the club is even currently active…
Hello, is anyone there?
Maybe FC Ifeanyi Ubah ceased activities, footballing or otherwise, after opposition General Manager, Bashir Badawiy of Kwara United, was beaten and held hostage by his own former goalkeeper Chidiebere Eze and thirty armed men at the FC Ifeanyi Ubah International Stadium in Anambra State over claims of unpaid wages. 200,000 Nigerian naira, or £400, was enough to resolve the situation back then but it's difficult to find anything on the football club since. Whichever way you look at it, I'm not sure it's the best place for Conor Coventry's next loan.
Looking at more successful stories of club partnerships, Manchester City have ties with New York City, Melbourne City, Yokohama F. Marinos, Montevideo City Torque, Girona FC, Sichuan Jiuniu, Mumbai City FC, Lommel SK, ESTAC Troyes and Club Bolivar through City Football Group, while Brighton have their own partner club in Belgian outfit Union Saint-Gilloise. The usefulness of these partnerships can clearly be seen through Yangel Herrera and Issa Kabore's development with Manchester City and Deniz Undav's progress with Brighton.
Although none of those players have played a single minute of Premier League football, they could all command a decent fee after positive seasons with partner clubs. Herrera's next move is uncertain but Kabore has OGC Nice and newly promoted club Nottingham Forest vying for his signature and Brighton will be hoping that Undav can have a positive impact on their fortunes this season after scoring 26 goals in Belgium last term.
Brighton also present strong evidence as to how excellent recruitment in undervalued markets can be manageable and make short-term impacts on success without use of a partner club. Moises Caicedo is a perfect example.
Playing in Ecuador with Independiente del Valle, Caicedo, a relative unknown to most fans, was generating interest from around the world. This is because of the Independiente model. Originally a third tier club when they were bought by an ownership group led by Michel Deller, the club had a vision for growth based on youth development. By targeting the most productive areas for generating footballers in Ecuador and building training bases in each of them, Independiente would be able to corner that talent before relocating the best of it to the main hub in Sangolqui. This model for growth has been of such success that Independiente can now regularly be found in the latter stages of South America's premier competition, the Copa Libertadores, and their reputation has led them to hold an annual international under-18 tournament that attracts the world's scouts. In 2021, Caicedo was fresh off the conveyor belt and Brighton beat Manchester United, AC Milan, Chelsea and a myriad of other clubs, including West Ham, to the young Ecuadorian's signature. And perhaps that's because they had a clear plan for his development and ultimate introduction to the first team.
After signing for Graham Potter's team, Caicedo initially appeared for Brighton's youth side before spending four months out on loan with Beerschot VA in the Belgian first division. His performances were so strong that he earned a recall in January and following that, it didn't take long for Caicedo to nail down a spot in Brighton's first choice midfield. With Yves Bissouma having recently moved to Spurs in a £25m deal, it isn't hard to see who might take his place.
This summer, Brighton have already signed two highly rated young forwards in Simon Adingra and Julio Enciso for a combined fee of £18m. Adingra was signed from FC Nordsjaelland in Denmark and will spend next season with Union Saint-Gilloise while Enciso was poached from Libertad in Paraguay – his future is yet to be revealed. What is clear though is that Brighton are committed to identifying talent in those undervalued markets – Denmark, Paraguay, Ecuador, Poland, Japan and the Czech Republic have all been explored in the last year. And it works. Brighton finished ninth last season in the Premier League on 51 points, five points off the European places, but when looking at the “Table of Justice” as Rasmus Ankersen, co-founder of new Southampton ownership group Sport Republic, calls it, they finished seventh.
The “Table of Justice” – a table designed to strip out luck and randomness by focusing purely on teams' expected goal difference (expected goals for – expected goals conceded).
Ankersen's Sport Republic have invested heavily at Southampton in their first summer transfer window with Romeo Lavia and Gavin Bazunu arriving from Manchester City, Armel Bella-Kotchap joining from VFL Bochum and Joe Aribo moving from Rangers. Targeting players in Manchester City's academy before they can grow their value through loans, the lower reaches of the Bundesliga and Scotland show that the revolution is already underway a little further along the south coast. And this comes after Ankersen previously used these ideas of analytics-driven recruitment with Midtjylland and Brentford, eventually elevating Brentford from just a bus stop in Hounslow to a Premier League football club.
A quick scan of Brentford's starting strikeforce reveals the fruitfulness of this approach. Bryan Mbeumo was recruited from then Ligue 2 club Troyes in 2019 for £5.85m while Ivan Toney arrived a year later, moving from Peterborough for a £5.04m fee. Just a few years later and both are excellent Premier League strikers. Elsewhere in the squad there is Vitaly Janelt, a £504k signing from VFL Bochum, Ethan Pinnock, a £3.02m recruit from Barnsley and Rico Henry who was signed for just £1.62m from Walsall. Part of the point here is that it's not just about finding hidden gems in South America, Asia or the far reaches of Eastern Europe, it's just as much about looking in the lower leagues closer to home and across the less reputable teams in stronger European divisions.
As Ankersen propounds, the key question is this: “Is it possible to not outspend but outthink the competition by using the weapons of a gambler – data and analytics?”. His exploits since would suggest that it absolutely is and perhaps it's time we adopt this thinking a little more in east London.
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