We’re in the home stretch on the attacking transfer dossiers, with Serie A the last major league I am expecting to cover this summer*. For those who are new to this series, the point is to try and unearth interesting and valuable players that are probably not household names… yet. And the conceit is that I try and do it via statistical analysis, as opposed to listening to expert opinion, or just following along with what the media says.
As of this past weekend, noted expert and Match of the Day pundit Mark Lawrenson hadn’t even seen Isco play. That sort of stance on young players isn’t just avant garde, it’s bleeding edge. It takes a special kind of expert to say, “Fah, so what if he’s been in the Champions’ League. I only care when he starts playing in the Premier League.” There will be none of that here, let me assure you.
*Unless someone decides to ship me a raft of data from any other Euro countries, in which case I will happily continue the journey of the S.S. Moneyball.
The Quirks of Serie A
I have mentioned that Serie A is a bit of a statistical anomaly both on Twitter and in slightly longer form. Most of Serie A’s leaders in Key Passes for the last two seasons were 29 or older, so I had some concern that the league might be a wasteland for young talent that we would be interested in. It turns out I needn’t have worried – Serie A is packed with some younger studs, provided you know where to look.
Let’s start with the most talked-about young transfer target of the summer.
Name: Stevan Jovetic
Position: Wide Forward (Left)
Potential Buyers: Juventus, Arsenal, sundry other interested clubs
Looking for a young player who played a lot smarter at age 23 than he did at age 22? Look no further
Passing percentage up. Turnover numbers (Disp+Trn) waaaaay down. Often you’d think that would come at the cost of dribbling stats and key passes, but dribbling only dropped a touch, while key pass numbers went up. This is exactly the type of improvement you want to see from precocious young talents. Basically, Jovetic got quite a bit better at doing the important good things, and better and not doing the important bad things (like giving the ball away).
The only worrying thing about Jovetic for potential buyers is that he only gets 38% of his shots on target. This is somewhat understandable for players who play on teams with lesser talent, as they are often not in great positions for shooting, but Fiorentina were actually quite good. I find myself wondering what his shot position chart looks like. That said, this seasons’s non-penalty goal rate is at the edge of elite at age 23, and Jovetic has a ton of stuff going for him. Even clubs at the top levels of the Champions’ League would benefit from having Jovetic around, especially if he keeps getting better.
Update: Thanks to the miracle of the internet, Colin Trainor immediately provided me with Jovetic’s shot chart. BAM!
What you see there are waaaaay too many shots outside the good shooting areas. Speculative shots from range have terrible expected value, and Jovetic takes a ton of them. Get him with a good manager who can correct his shooting areas, and teams will have a real gem on their hands.
Likely cost: £25M
Name: Marco Sau
Potential Buyers: Newcastle, Everton
Now we go from a player just about everyone has heard of to a player basically no one has heard of. Sau is both a massive statistical outlier and a really interesting prospect at forward who just entered his prime.
Those numbers are good, and the goals per 90 number is outstanding. The huge outlier, however, is the last one. 71% of Shots on Target is the best of any player in the top 5 leagues with 20+ shots, and Sau had 42 total shots this season. (Thanks to Duncan Alexander at Opta for confirmation and a link to the Scottish Sun, who apparently who apparently scooped me on the Sau story by a good two months.)
Well sure, but anybody can get lucky in one season, right?
What if I mentioned he scored 20 goals in 33 matches (age 23), followed by 21 goals in 36 matches (age 24) in Serie B the two seasons before this? Now are you interested? You should be.
Some guys just score goals. Marco Sau is one of those, regardless of whether you have heard his name before or not. This guy is special and could be a good goalscorer pretty much anywhere.
Likely Price: £6-8M
Name: Adem Ljajic
Position: Forward/Wide Forward/Att Mid (Left)
Potential Buyers: Manchester United, Arsenal, Inter Milan, AC Milan, Liverpool also rumoured (but via Bleacher Report)
Jovetic is the Fiorentina youngster that gets all the press, but check this out.
Those stats, at that age, make you a superstar. In Ljajic’s case, he is a budding superstar and allegedly an enfant terrible. Should teams be willing to work with an attitude for production like this?
Look, I only work with the numbers. Those numbers are jaw-droppers across the board. Only 2 turnovers a game and an 88.1% passing rate (27ppg – he’s involved) for a forward. Non-penalty goals per 90 of .55 and 1.6 key passes per game. HE’S 21!!!
He’s cultured and nearly impossible to dispossess, despite the fact that he gets the ball in the most contested area of the pitch. He almost never misses a pass, and is amazing at setting up teammates. Watch video and you also see a good free kick taker who is well-balanced and incredibly strong against defenders. He’s still 21!
And he’s allegedly a huge pain in the ass to deal with. So basically, he’s a young Nic Anelka, with similar issues.
My opinion is that Ljajic, along with Roma’s Erik Lamela, is probably the top U23 forward in Europe. I look forward to seeing where Ljajic is at age 25. If he channels his desire, he will be one of the best players in Europe, period.
Likely price: It’s rare that you get impressed by someone so young, but Ljajic is the real deal. £15M for those stats would be cheap, even with only one year left on his contract. If Arsenal don’t sign Higuain, I hope they jump for Ljajic.
Name: Alejandro Gomez
Position: Att Mid(Left)/Forward(Left, Center)
Potential Buyers: Inter Milan, plus some low-key Italian rumors like Catania
Gomez occupies one of those interesting tweener spots in the stats model, in that he shows up as an interesting player because he does a lot of stuff well, but none of it so well that teams should feel the need to rush right out and buy him. In that, he’s a little like Iago Aspas, who Liverpool just bought, except I think Aspas is quite a bit better.
For teams that need better production on the wing and an occasional goalscorer, Gomez is probably fine, provided you get him cheap. Overpaying for a 25-year-old with these stats is a mistake, but if you are a lower or middle-tier club in Serie A, France, etc, Gomez is likely a good addition to your attack. Watching video, it looks like he has good balance and excellent close control, but the goal rate as a forward just doesn’t impress.
Given where Inter Milan were just a couple of years ago, I can only assume they either like Gomez as a squad player to add depth or are having serious problems finding recruits who want to come there. He’s pretty good, but he’s not starting-at-Inter good.
Likely price: £3-4M
Name: Luca Cigarini
Position: Midfield/Att Mid (Center)
Potential Buyers: ???
Sometimes I get confused about why I’m supposed to review certain players. I ran the initial data a month ago looking for standouts, but I don’t always remember what or why they were flagged at the time. There were a lot of just attacking players, and some like Ljajic are really obvious. But why would a 26-year-old midfielder show up?
In this case, PlayerB is Cigarini, with some really strong numbers for a midfielder, especially in long balls, tackles, and key passes. The passing numbers aren’t as good as PlayerA, but that guy plays for a much better team than PlayerB did this season. The rest of the numbers are in the neighbourhood though, and certainly signify a valuable contributor.
PlayerA… is Andrea Pirlo.
Cigarini is a poor man’s Andrea Pirlo?? Ohhhhh. That certainly sounds like something you would want to know, right?
Napoli bought him for £9.7M back when he was 22, so they clearly thought he was something special at the time. The statistical comparison suggests they were probably right. I don’t know if he’s for sale or anything, but he certainly stands out as a guy teams might want to make an offer for if they need a good midfielder this season.
Note: Special thanks to Donnie Noland for mocking up silly SS Moneyballs for this whole series.
Update: This article originally stated Gomez played for Cagliari. He in fact played for Catania and did not play with Sau. Thank you to Juventini_1897 for the correction.