It has been another quiet week for incoming transfers at Aston Villa as much of the discussion has turned towards Jack Grealish’s future. A Villa target whose future looks a bit more certain is Emile Smith Rowe’s. The Arsenal play-maker is still yet to sign his new contract, but pressure is building on him to do so, with manager Mikel Arteta stating that he is staying at the North London outfit and Arsenal’s social media team revealing his new number 10 squad number.
All-round forward Julián Álvarez is another who has been strongly linked to Villa for a fee of £8 to 15 million in the Argentinian press, but his recent appearances for club River Plate suggest that the move is not imminent. With talk of AC Milan’s interest, it’s possible that River Plate hope to hold on for a bid that meets the player’s rumored £21.5 million release clause. With neither target imminently about to appear on Villa’s social media, it’s time to take up the role of Aston Villa’s data scout to highlight players for Villa’s number 10 position.
Creative Attacking Midfielders
Villa’s primary target for this position was Emile Smith Rowe, implying they want to add to their creative output as well and stop attacks breaking down in the final third. This would put more pressure on the opposition and the increased possession with such a player would take pressure off Villa’s defense too.
Last season’s loan signing of Ross Barkley did this well at the beginning of the season, but after an injury layoff, he failed to drive Villa up the pitch, hold possession, and his lack of defensive work began to show.
Villa have already looked to solve this problem with Emi Buendia, who can play as a 10 —Grealish too can play there. Both players like to get on the ball in between the lines and attack the half space between the centre and full-back.
Therefore, to avoid Villa’s attack from becoming one dimensional, any player coming into the 10 role must then be intelligent from a positional aspect to sidestep to these spaces; possibly by moving to the wings in which something Smith Rowe does for Arsenal. They need to be able to drop deep to collect the ball and move it up field to maximize the winger’s abilities, as well as effectively press the opposition with Watkins when Villa fall back into their 4-4-2 defensive shape.
Our first player highlighted is Daichi Kamada of Eintracht Frankfurt. The 24-year-old Japanese international provided five goals and 12 assists last season as a creative attacking midfielder in Frankfurt’s 3-4-1-2 system. He offers excellent link-up play between the attack and defense, fulfilling the number eight and 10 role described earlier, but is tactically intelligent and flexible enough to fill in on the left wing; being utilized as a right wing-back.
The chart below profiles some of the player’s attributes.
The profile shows Kamada is adept at finding space to receive progressive passes from the defensive midfielders. He can then progress the ball into the attacking third through his promising pass capabilities (81st percentile), while his numbers show he is not dribbling often (10th percentile), his close dribbling ability does pass the eye test.
Creatively, Kamada makes a high number of SCAs (84th) and key passes (83rd), leading to his high expected assists (90th) in which he turned into 12 assists last season. Kamada is above average for the amount of npxG he gets (53rd), so is considered a moderate goal threat, but his profile shows his game is more about creation through passing then finishing — his dribbling numbers could be improved to make him a duel creative threat for Villa. Kamada also works hard defensively, making a high number of pressures (83rd), tackles (89th), and interceptions (73rd).
Frankfurt’s selling position is difficult to judge; they were around the Champions League places last season, but dropped out to a resurgent Dortmund. Most of the top management of the club, including manager Adi Hütter, left at the end of the season and so it feels like the culmination of Frankfurt’s project rather than a jumping off point.
The player is contracted to Frankfurt through to 2023, but reportedly makes less than £10,000 per week, so could be made available as Frankfurt look to build for a new management team. Kamada could represent an astute signing that would fit in at Villa with little adjustment, helping Villa in and out of possession, as well as raising the player’s profile.
A rawer, but probably cheaper option would be 20-year-old Bordeaux number eight, Yacine Adli. The Frenchman hails from PSG’s academy and the Paris suburbs, a hotbed for talent; most often used as an eight for Bordeaux last season, however, has played further forward, out on the wing, and in deeper central positions. Adli has also scored goals from free-kicks under 30 yards — something Villa do not have outside of Conor Hourihane.
Adli’s profile shows that compared to other midfielders in Europe's top five leagues, he stands out for his passing ability. An 82.6% completion rate would seem fairly average, but his profile he shows that he is producing elite levels of passes into the final third (78th), progressive passes (78th), and as well as key passes (95th). His dribbling too is notable, often beating players (96th) and dribbling into the final third (76th), making him a dual threat.
His number of SCAs (93rd) and xA (93rd) shows his creative abilities around the box too. The lower number of progressive passes received (29th) can be attributed to his deeper central starting position, which could fit in at Villa should they return to a 4-3-3 formation; though at 20, he can develop into an attacking threat further forward.
Another aspect of his game that needs improvement is goal threat — only getting two goals this campaign and having a lower than average npxG (46th), with his few shots coming from an average distance of 19.9 yards; though he provides some threat with 37.5% of those shots on target. Defensively, he is solid, using his 6’2 frame well in which has helped him in his deeper positioning and he could bring that ability higher up the pitch to support Villa’s press if he were to be targeted.
Adli could be a opportune signing as Bordeaux are one of two clubs threatened with relegation as a result of their finances in the wake of the league’s collapse in TV revenue. Where other clubs are holding firm to their player valuations, Bordeaux need cash quickly in order to balance the books, so Adli could be one of a number of players sold below their market value. While there is more adaptation risk to him than Smith Rowe or Kamada, being from a league with a lot of pressing, playing in a deeper position, and his physical attributes (i.e., Height and youthful age), he could translate well to the English game with time.
While Villa’s primary target was a creative attacking midfielder, there is a risk of such a player making the attack one dimensional unless the club’s use of positional play develops to a Pep Guardiola standard. A simpler solution to avoid dull attacking play would be to employ another goal threat to compliment Watkins, most often a second striker, a role Barkley played at times during his loan spell.
A creative winger such as Julián Álvarez could also be a viable option to fulfill this role as the Argentine played in multiple attacking positions, offering some creative interplay, but also possessing the pace to get beyond the lone striker and be a goal threat. Should Villa not manage to land their man then there are several available players in Europe who could fulfill the role.
What’s better than one Ollie Watkins? Two of them...well, at least the closest player to him statistically. Our next notable mention is none other than Borussia Mönchengladbach’s Breel Embolo, who is coming off the back of a solid Euros campaign for Switzerland. He has been used across Gladbach’s 4-2-3-1, scoring three and assisting five.
While these are down from last season’s eight goals, and eight assists, Embolo has been under performing with his xG by 2.8. This suggests that his poor return is simply a downturn in form, coinciding with Gladbach’s own poor form this season, as well as his limited minutes. Stylistically, Gladbach’s system is similar to Villa’s as they look to break quickly, using the dribbling ability of their players to ease the transition process.
As previously stated, Embolo’s profile is similar to that of Ollie Watkins. with both sharing a similar npxG (76th). Embolo’s xA (17th), however, is slightly lower, making him more of pure goal threat. This bares out too in other creative metrics, as well as defensive stats.
Where the two differ is Embolo’s tendency to drop deeper to get the ball, receiving progressive passes (67th) and moving it up the pitch with his dribbling, providing a high number of dribbles into the attacking third (71st) and beating his man often compared to other forwards (95th). This particular aspect of his profile would make him a useful second striker, collecting the ball and drawing defenders to give the front three more time & space before running into the box to provide a threat.
It is that threat though, as well as his creative ability that need to improve if Embolo is to move to the next level. Embolo hasn’t yet produced more than eight goals in a season against comparatively weaker Bundesliga defenses. On the other hand, his profile shows promise in this area and he would offer great like-for-like cover for Watkins, utilizing his differences in a slightly deeper role.
A move for Embolo probably would not come cheap, but Gladbach are reportedly open to offers after failing to reach the European spots. Additionally, the club will be aiming for Europe next year under new coach Adi Hütter and the player may wish to stay for that reason alone. However, with only two years left on a £62,000 per week contract, Gladbach could look to profit from their original €11 million investment in the now 24-year-old in order to fund future transfers.
Our final notable mention in the utility forward position is Canadian export and Lille forward, Jonathan David. Prior to helping Lille win the Ligue 1 title last season, David played in the Belgium Jupiter Pro League for Gent, playing in a variety of forward positions and in attacking midfield. For Lille, Davis has most often been used as a centre-forward in a two-man strike team, though often dropping into a second striker position.
David’s numbers may not initially stand out, with the exception of the number pressures he places on opposition centre-backs (93rd). There are plenty of good attributes, however, as David drops off to receive progressive passes (74th) and makes a good number of key passes (76th), which contributes to his above average SCAs (64th) and xA (48th) when compared to other forwards.
In the eye test, however, his pace stands out as well as his finishing ability. From an average distance of 15 yards, David puts 60% of his shots on target. So, while his npxG looks fairly average (48th), he has used it to score 13 goals for the French champions — outperforming his xG by 3.2.
The fact that David has outperformed his xG for several seasons implies his finishing ability is well above average. At 21, David is a prospect that can still improve in many of these areas, but he looks to be a good all-rounder that has the potential to be great.
David would certainly be a statement signing, having won the Ligue 1 championship with Lille after his €27 million move. However, the aforementioned TV rights collapse in the league means that even with added Champions League money, certain players who would usually not be made available, may be put on the market.
This is not to say David would be cheap as he moved for a lot of money just last season, is contracted until 2025, and Lille’s sale of Boubakary Soumaré to Leicester City will have already plugged some of that financial gap. The opportunity to play Champions League football will have it draw as well, but if that is the goal of Villa’s owners, then Villa will need to compete for Champions League quality players and David is certainly on his way to becoming just that.
All of these players offer something a bit different to Villa’s forward line and all are great potential candidates. Comparing their profiles with their raw stats rather than the percentiles above makes it clear that all show a good level of defensive work; something missing in Ross Barkley last season.
Adli in particular, is making the most pressures, tackles, block, and clearances with his deeper position, but could maintain high numbers if moved further forward. For creativity, Kamada stands out amongst the group with the highest SCAs, key passes, and xA; if Villa want another chance creator that can take advantage of the space created by Grealish, the 24-year-old is the standout pick.
Embolo’s high dribbling ability could be of interest as well as his ability to create goal scoring opportunities, having the highest number of players dribbled past and npxG. However, on he other hand, David is more of an all-round presence, offering some creativity, good defensive work, and goal scoring — the latter could be particularly lethal with his finishing ability.
Out standout here, however, is Daichi Kamada. Emile Smith Rowe was Villa’s number one target to add creative link-ups in which is an aspect Kamada excels at. He is understated, but has the ability to raise his profile and Villa’s game.
The player’s intelligent use of space would allow him to quickly adapt to Grealish and Buendia, while dropping deep and moving wide to link-up play. He would have to make the least amount of changes to his game of any of the players highlighted and offers a different profile to Adli, who could block progression for youth talent like Carney Chukwuemeka. As a Japanese national team player, he could also be prove to be a good commercial opportunity in a big market as well.