Despite globalization in football and the almost global presence of big clubs, African football is still a rather unexploited market. Players leave the continent when they are very young to pursue a career in Europe, Asia or America, and finding gems still playing in Africa is always refreshing and exciting. Abdul Fatawu Issahaku is the latest example.
Fatawu plays for the Ghaninan second-division team Steadfast FC and aged just 17 (he was born in 2004), he has won the gold medal and the Golden Ball award in the recent Africa U-20 Cup of Nations despite playing against older players. With two goals and one assist in the tournament, Fatawu has presented himself to the world as one of the next great African talents.
In this tactical analysis, we’ll look at what sets Fatawu apart from the rest of the young players, how his abilities would adapt to a higher standard of football and the aspects he needs to improve to become a star in top-level football.
Data analysis and profile
Let’s start with a quick overview of Fatawu’s abilities so we have some background for the rest of the analysis. We’ve compared Fatawu’s stats in the U20 African Cup of Nations to those of every winger in the top-5 leagues. This won’t tell us anything about his level but yes about his playing style and it can help us paint a picture of the player before going into more detail. His heatmap from the tournament is also shown, usually playing on the right side in different tactics.
As mentioned, the profile shows how Fatawu would rank against wingers in the top 5 leagues if he had the stats he achieved in the African youth tournament. Data is taken from Wyscout and percent rank means the percentage of players who are below him in the given metric.
We see Fatawu is a right-winger who attempts lots of dribbles (10.57 per 90), completing a fair 50% of them. His dribbling numbers are very close to those of Newcastle’s Allan Saint-Maximin in the EPL (10.37 dribbles per 90, 50.83% completion). This suggests he has the skill and confidence to dribble but also that his decision-making is not always the best.
When it comes to progressing the ball, he’s ok but not excellent. With 2.4 progressive runs and 4.64 progressive passes per 90, he ranks above 57.6% and 56.6% of the top-5 leagues’ wingers. AC Milan’s Samu Castillejo has similar numbers in Serie A (4.18 progressive passes and 2.25 progressive runs per 90) and he’s not a player who stands out for his ability to take the ball forward.
What’s unique in Fatawu’s game is his shooting. With a shooting accuracy of 47.62%, he would rank over 80.8% of wingers. But his xG per 90 are low as he takes lots of speculative shots. Anyway, he possesses a top-level shooting ability which we will see in this scout report. The sample is small but he has scored 0.32 shots per 90 from just 0.07 xG thanks to the power and accuracy of his finishing. This is even more impressive when we consider he takes 3.36 shots per 90 (just four wingers in the big leagues shoot more).
As seen in the stats, Fatawu is a winger who likes to dribble and shoot every time he has the chance to do it. His passing isn’t especially creative except for his long balls (4.48 long passes per 90, top 1.8%). This is another product of his excellent strike of the ball and we’ll delve into it too later on in this tactical analysis.
Playing style and positioning
Fatawu is a right-winger who likes to receive the ball close to the touchlines and create from there, either by cutting inside to use his dominant left foot or advancing by dribbling or quick combinations by the touchline.
In the next picture, we see Fatawu receiving the ball in his most natural zone, close to the right touchline and ready to advance. This time, he controls and then plays a good pass down the wing and makes a diagonal run afterwards. He can play in one or two touches and is dynamic when he intervenes but needs to do it more consistently.
His positioning on the pitch is quite basic as he usually wants to receive to his feet and his movements are mostly towards the ball possessor. He would benefit from some more movements in behind or between the lines to create progressive passing options, especially as he isn’t a great ball progressor apart from his long passes.
Also, when the attacks come from the left flank, he usually gets himself around the edge of the box to take advantage of his shooting ability but by doing this he misses chances to poach goals in the six-yard box or the far post. Of course, at 17 and playing for a Ghanian second division team, he still has a lot of room for improvement if coached correctly.
When he receives the ball, Fatawu usually tries to get forward, normally by dribbling by the wing or with direct long passes. He’s slightly better at running with the ball than at breaking lines with his passes being a decent ball progressor but not standing out in this department.
As we’ll see later in this analysis, his long passes are very interesting so he often gets into deep positions around the midfield line where he can receive free and launch passes to the opposite flank. In the next example, we see how he receives with his back to the goal in midfield, gets away from his marker and switches the play to the left flank. This is one of his trademark moves.
As we have seen in this section of the analysis, Fatawu is an inverted winger who wants the ball to his feet in order to dribble, pass and shoot from there. We’ll see what he can bring to the team with his individual ability in the next sections.
Dribbling and assisting ability
Fatawu has the explosiveness and pace we all expect from a winger. Despite his relatively small size and young age, he’s very difficult to stop once he starts running and uses his low centre of gravity to his advantage to turn with the ball and dribble past opponents.
Despite being left-footed, Fatawu can also use his right foot for simple actions as controls and passes and what’s more important, he feels comfortable doing so. This means he dribbles to both sides using his acceleration and is very difficult to stop by defenders.
He also uses the rivals movements very well in his favour, attracting them and accelerating to catch them on the wrong foot and beat them even when they have some space to react. By accelerating and stopping repeatedly, Fatawu can dribble the same rival several times in the same play and always create space to shoot or cross.
In the following picture, we see the exact moment when Fatawu uses this acceleration from a steady position to beat a rival. He has just controlled the ball and when the Ugandan defender steps out to mark him, Fatawu takes a long touch forward and catches him on the wrong foot, beating him easily despite starting with some disadvantage.
Knowing his ability to move in tight spaces and his change of pace, Fatawu attempts lots of dribbles, up to 10.57 per 90, and completes a decent 50% of them. While these numbers are very good, we must consider he’s achieving them in youth football so he still has room for improvement if he wants to reach that level in senior football. Decision-making will be key here as he needs to understand when and where to dribble to maximize his options instead of trying to do it every time he faces a rival.
The next graph shows us his dribble attempts during the U20 African Nations Cup. Red spots represent failed dribbles and we see they are more frequent in central areas and near the box on the right side of the pitch. This is where those dribbles would’ve been more dangerous considering Fatawu’s strong foot. On the other side, successful dribbles concentrate in deeper positions on the right, where he has the space to beat defenders using his pace, and near the box on the left, where defenders may cover central positions and leave more space for him to dribble into his left and cross.
When it comes to passing the ball, Fatawu possesses the technical ability and the vision but he’s still inconsistent. His passes can be fast and tense, advancing in tight spaces and combining very well with his teammates. However, sometimes he just puts the wrong weight and misses easy passes. Those mistakes usually come after a dribble so that’s something he needs to work on.
When he has more space and time, especially in attacking transitions, he shows his quality to assist using his great passing range, be it with low or high passes. He still needs to show he’s capable of assisting against low blocks but the signs he’s given so far are promising.
In the next example, Fatawu recovers the ball in the middle circle and immediately spots the run of the striker and plays a good pass to leave him one on one against the goalkeeper. Apart from the good execution, this example also shows how quickly Fatawu thinks about going forward and trying to create a chance.
Another example of his ability to spot assisting options as soon as he faces the goal is shown in the following picture. We see the moment in which Fatawu plays a perfect pass from midfield between several defenders and into the run of the striker but right before that, he had received the ball on the right side with his back to the goal and a rival marking him and turned to get a good angle.
Fatawu has everything to become a dangerous winger with his dribbles and passes. He’s quick, wants to get forward and spots the movements of his teammates quite well. However, he’s still very inconsistent, alternating great quality plays with unforced mistakes. He’s very young and he’ll surely improve his consistency.
Elite striker of the ball
Despite a very good dribbling ability and some quality to assist, if we had to choose a feature that sets Fatawu apart from other players it would be his strike of the ball. His long passes, crosses and especially his shots from distance are absolutely fantastic and he knows it, using that to make a difference. As Alan Partridge would put it, Fatawu has a left foot like a traction engine.
As we have already mentioned in this scout report, Fatawu likes to drop deep to launch long passes from there using his fantastic left foot. This is a quite rare feature in a quick winger like him and makes his potential even more unique. The power and accuracy he possesses in his left foot set him apart from most of the players, especially from players of his age.
Below, we can see his long passes from the U20 African Cup of Nations (blue means accurate). He prefers to make these passes from the right flank in the middle third and to the other side of the pitch, so him and his teammates have space to make the most out of them. With a left-back that understands him, Fatawu could create a great connection à la Alba-Messi at Barcelona.
Finally, his elite-level strike translates into a very rare and exciting shooting ability. If Fatawu earned the Golden Ball award at the U20 African Cup of Nations it was largely because of the two fantastic goals he scored in the tournament and both of them were a product of the power and accuracy he puts into his shots.
Conscious of this ability that makes a difference even against older players, Fatawu takes lots of speculative shots both from open play and set-pieces. His shots are usually very powerful but he manages to keep them on target with 47.62% of them finding the goal. As a comparison, 80.8% of the wingers in the top 5 leagues have a lower shooting accuracy, even if they usually take easier shots.
His shooting profile and ability are better understood in the map shown next, showing all his shots from the recent tournament and also from his game with the senior national team against Uzbekistan in which he also scored a free-kick goal (yellow dots are goals, blue are shots on target and red are shots off target).
First, we see that Fatawu mostly takes his shots from the right side of the pitch, which is logical considering he’s left-footed. Rivals don’t press as much when he has the ball at the start of the final third so from there he has the space and time he needs to shoot too. Despite the small sample, there are three shots from almost the midfield line and one of them was his first goal of the tournament, from 50.7 meters.
Let’s see a couple of match examples of his shooting technique and locations.
The next moment is from his second goal of the tournament. Fatawu has just dribbled past a Gambian player and found the space to shoot from 22.8 meters, which is close-range to his standards. This time, Fatawu uses the inside-top part of his left foot to give power and curve to the ball, placing it in the top corner and giving the goalkeeper no options.
In this second example, we see him shooting from an unfamiliar position in a free-kick on the left side of the pitch. Showing his range of shooting techniques, Fatawu goes for a Roberto-Carlesque shot with the outside-top of his left foot, avoiding the wall using the curve of the ball and forcing the goalkeeper to make a great save.
With a shooting technique like his, Fatawu will always be a player who tries to shoot from any position. However, he needs to improve his decision-making process as shooting is not always the best option, especially from more than 30 meters as he usually does. When he understands this and also works on how to get into the best positions to find space to shoot, he will threaten any goalkeeper in the world.
Being crowned the best U20 talent in Africa is a great honour but it does not mean an automatic career in elite football. Patson Daka won the award in 2017 and seems on his way to the top but others like Saleh Gomaa or Yaw Yeboah, the winners in 2015 and 2013 respectively, haven’t reached the highest peaks in football.
Fatawu is the next big hope of African football. He possesses three of the most valuable characteristics in a player nowadays: youth, shooting ability and pace. These are valued all around the world and easily adapted to any level of football. If he manages to continue his growth, especially his understanding of the game, he will surely become an important player for a good club in Europe. He won’t turn 18 until March 2022 so anyone who signs him should make sure he receives the best possible coaching until then. Natural talent is definitely present here, and now it is a question of whether it can be harnessed effectively.