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Youri Tielemans: The new dimension in Aston Villa’s midfield

Villa’s first signing of the summer brings new attributes and more quality in depth.

Youri Tielemans celebrates for Leicester City
Youri Tielemans
Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

As of mid-June, Youri Tielemans’s barber might just be the biggest story of Aston Villa’s summer transfer window.

If you are an avid Reddit user, you’ll know there was a post in r/AVFC about potentially signing Tielemans a few days before he was ultimately announced. A comment was made by a user who supposedly already knew that Tielemans was on his way to Villa. The source? They knew someone who knew Tielemans’ barber in some comical game of Midlands telephone. As we now know, the barber came good and even beat the omnipresent Fabrizio Romano to the punch. Youri Tielemans is a Villan.

Last summer, Villa were keen to get their transfer business done early and they followed suit here with Tielemans, snapping him up amid reported interest from clubs around Europe. The signing wasn’t a complete surprise, but with a midfield triangle of John McGinn, Douglas Luiz, and Boubacar Kamara seemingly locked in place at the end of the season, many Villa fans did not see this part of the squad as an immediate area of concern. However, Tielemans was clearly a player Emery wanted, and snagging him on a free seems like a coup for the calibre of player he has shown he can be.

At 26 years old and in the prime of his career, what skills and attributes is the Belgian bringing to the squad?

Passing with attacking intent

Villa’s current midfield set-up has Kamara as the holding mid who protects the back four. McGinn plays closer to the attackers and moves side-to-side at the top of the box, providing passing options and using his bodacious curvature to shield the ball from defenders and find runners. Luiz is the one with the most freedom to oscillate between attack and defence and has the most ground to cover of the three. Of those midfield assignments Emery has employed, Tielemans fits best into Luiz’s role. And, as great as Luiz was last season, there are some areas where Tielemans was even better.

One of those areas was progressive passing; i.e. passing that moves the ball at least 10 yards closer to the opponent’s goal line or into the opponent’s penalty area. And then there’s progressive passing distance, which measures the total distance of the passes made which progress (key word here) the ball towards the goal. A good benchmark would be Kevin De Bruyne, who averages 7.7 progressive passes per 90 and 242 total yards of cumulative progressive passing distance.

Let’s see how Villa’s midfielders stack up:

Per 90 Progressive Passes 22/23 + Progressive Pass Yards
Tielemans: 7.0 – 287 yards
Luiz: 4.5 – 200 yards
McGinn: 4.7 – 162
Kamara: 4.3 – 198

Tielemans is in rarified air here for his position. Typically, goalkeepers and centre-backs have the longest range in progressive passing distance because of how often they play balls over the top. However, Tielemans is so good in this aspect of his game as a midfielder who wants to get forward and attack that he actually had the same number of yards per 90 as Villa’s own Ezri Konsa.

Youri Tielemans in possession in Leicester City v Wolverhampton Wanderers
Tielemans’ ability to both pass and drive forward will provide new impetus for Villa’s midfield.
Photo by Malcolm Couzens/Getty Images

Driving at defenders

So, Tielemans’ forward distribution is clearly an upgrade from our current midfield set, but he’s also no slouch with the ball at his feet. He is extremely good at picking the moments to drive at defenders and, usually, past them. In 2022-23, he took on defenders a total of 35 times and was successful on 26 for an impressive 74% success rate. That was better success rate than his teammate James Maddison, star boy Bukayo Saka, perennial crybaby Bruno Fernandes, deft Mo Salah, and *gasp* Jack Grealish. Had to do it, sorry.

The potential for Tielemans to put defenders on skates and open passing lanes into Ollie Watkins, Jacob Ramsey, and (hopefully) Villa’s new yet-to-be-confirmed right-winger is certainly an enticing prospect. This elite aspect of Tielemans’ game was not a statistical anomaly last season, either. He has never had a season in the Premier League with a take-on success rate below 60%. It indicates that he has a high footballing IQ and the ability to quickly assess the right moments to drive the ball at defenders rather than blindly dribble himself into trouble.

Here are the complete take on success stats for the Villa midfield:

Take-Ons and Success Rate 22/23
Tielemans: 26 of 35 – 74%
Luiz: 24 of 44 (54.5%)
McGinn: 45 of 70 – 64%
Kamara: 16 of 35 – 45%

Right-foot rocket

For years now, Villa have lacked the ability to score from distance.

In the Wolves game during the end-of-season run-in, Villa was unable to penetrate the Wolverhampton backline which parked the bus after jumping out to a 1-0 lead. Losing that game against the worst team on Villa’s final fixtures list made European qualification that much more difficult and resulted in a lost opportunity to grab a Europa League spot. Teams who know they can’t afford to come out of their shell against Emery are going to try and sit deep, counter, and look to get smash-and-grab wins or scrappy nil-nil draws.

Having a player like Tielemans who can score from distance either forces the backline to come out a bit to respect his shooting range or can punish them if they continue to sit off.

Tielemans has shown the ability to be a game-breaker from distance. If you haven’t already, go look at his goal highlights on YouTube. There are some absolute gems. Most famous among them was his 2021 FA Cup final-winning strike against Chelsea. Leicester City were in their claret third kit that day and hopefully, that’s a bit of a harbinger of things to come. While Villa weren’t woeful from distance in 2022/23, McGinn seemed like the only player to be a consistent threat from outside the box. Remember how good his banger against Chelsea felt? I want more of that, and Tielemans has it in his locker.

Youri Tielemans shoots in Leicester City v Brentford FC
Youri Tielemans loves a shot from long range.
Photo by James Holyoak/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

There is a massive caveat here: Tielemans is almost completely reliant on his right foot to score. He only had two left-footed goals in his entire tenure at Leicester. This is made more concerning by a left ankle ligament tear that he suffered last season. In terms of his ability to convert long-range shots, the injury to the ankle he needs to plant and generate power is a concern. Let’s hope those worries were put to rest during his evaluation by the medical staff before the signing.

Tielemans also brings plenty of intangibles.

Experience, for one. He’s helped Leicester to multiple top-six finishes including one while they were playing in Europe. As mentioned before, he’s scored the winner in a major cup final. There is no player on the Villa squad who can boast either of those accomplishments. When the adversity comes — and it will — Emery will be glad to have his composure in the locker room.

On top of that, he’s also captained Leicester before, so it’s not as if he is one to shirk responsibility. The fact that he’s chosen to come to Villa on a free when there were probably “Sky Six” clubs in for him shows he isn’t one to pass up a challenge and that he’s Midlands-loyal.

I didn’t mention anything about Tielemans’ defending as one of his key additions to the Villa midfield because he’s about the same level as the rest of our players there. He’s slightly above average at intercepting the ball and tackling but he’s not great at getting dribblers off the ball which is most likely due to his size (5’9”, 159 lbs).

Where does he fit?

I’m not expecting Tielemans to walk in as a day one nailed-on starter unless there are injuries during summer training. Our existing midfield should be tough to displace and were meshing incredibly well together by the end of the season. If Tielemans does get some starts early on, it would likely be to give Luiz or McGinn some rotation and keep them fresh. If Villa need to chase a goal in the second half of a game, he would make a more attack-oriented swap for Kamara and pair well with Luiz driving forward. Perhaps most importantly, he is going to create competition and raise the level of quality expected from the midfield because that’s what depth can do.

With a full summer of training ahead (and letting that ankle get back to 100%) under a world-class manager, there’s no reason to believe Tielemans can’t elevate his game in claret and blue and help drive Villa forward in 2023/24.