In July of this year, after helping Lille to win their first Ligue 1 title in a decade, Boubakary Soumaré moved to Leicester City in the English Premier League for a fee believed to be in the region of £17 million.
Soumaré was an integral part of Lille’s team in the midfield over the past few seasons, particularly in the previous campaign, and so the former Paris Saint-Germain academy player will be very difficult to replace.
However, as calculated as ever, the French champions have already managed to secure his replacement in the form of Amadou Onana who signed for €6 million from Hamburger SV in the 2. Bundesliga.
The Belgian U21s captain is a very astute signing for Lille and, given the right environment and coaching, can develop in Soumaré’s role and potentially become a vital player for Les Drogues over the coming few seasons.
The midfielder plays a very similar role to his predecessor, but still has a long way to go before reaching the quality that Soumaré brought to the table.
This tactical analysis article will be a scout report of Amadou Onana. It will be an analysis of the player’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as a look at how the Belgian fits into Lille’s tactics and replaces Soumaré.
Player profile and positioning
Onana is a central midfield player. The Belgian can play in a number of positions in the centre of the park but has mainly been used on either the left of a double-pivot or else as a single pivot.
What makes the midfielder stand out when watching him play is his physical build. Onana stands at 6’4” (192 cm) and weighs 167 pounds (11 stone and 13 pounds) or, more specifically, 76kg.
The right-footer is also quite solid as an ‘8’, playing in a more advanced role in a midfield three or potentially even a diamond depending on the team’s choice of formation.
The following image is a data visualisation that shows the positions that Onana has been deployed in the most throughout his professional career for both club and country.
As can be seen from the graphic, Onana is the definition of a central midfielder. The Lille man’s heat map portrays this too as most of the player’s actions, including touches, take place around the centre circle on the pitch.
The player is very much involved in the deeper areas of the pitch, taking the ball from the backline and looking to circulate play with the defenders and other midfield players, sometimes even driving forward with possession.
This heat map shows that the player has a tendency to drop out to the halfspaces too, either to receive possession in space or else when he is defending. Onana covers quite a lot of ground in and out of possession, although he is not that heavily active in the wide areas.
In terms of trying to provide some clarity as to what type of player Onana is, the best way to describe him would be that he is a very all-rounded type of player. The Belgian is good at everything but great at nothing, which is not a bad thing of course.
The 20-year-old could be classified as a box-to-box midfielder with a tendency to spend more time around his own box as opposed to the opposition’s penalty area.
Interview with Jonas Boldt
For this scout report, Total Football Analysis completed an interview with Hamburger SV’s Head of Sport, Jonas Boldt, and asked the director a series of questions about Onana who, of course, spent the 2020/21 season at the German club before being sold to Lille.
TFA writer Adam Scully asked Boldt a series of questions about the Belgium U21s captain:
During his time at Hamburger SV, what would you say were the best qualities that Amadou Onana brought to the team from a technical and tactical perspective?
“Technically, Amadou has almost perfect prerequisites. He is fast, technically skilled, tall and strong in tackling. On a tactical level, he still has to develop. That’s why he was planned more as one of two defensive midfielders, as he was not yet able to reliably close the spaces on his own.”
Are you surprised with how rapid his development has been over the past year, moving from Hamburger SV in the 2. Bundesliga to Ligue 1 champions and current UEFA Champions League team Lille?
“No we were not surprised, but of course with such a young player you never have the guarantee that he will adapt so quickly in professional football. We deliberately kept the ball low with Amadou because it’s always difficult to send a youth player directly into the professional team.
“And he was also frequently injured. This is shown, for example, by the fact that he has only played a few games over the full distance. But we were sure that a player with such prerequisites would quickly improve and take on the higher level, because he was simply underchallenged with the Under 19‘s.”
At Hamburger, he was mainly used in a two-man central midfield but has also played a more advanced role in a three-man midfield and even as an attacking midfielder. Which position in the midfield do you feel Onana is best at playing?
“As already mentioned, it was important for Amadou to have a player next to him at the beginning. But in the long term, I think he can lead a midfield as a central player.
“Overall, though, you’d certainly be well advised to use him as a box-to-box player with a more defensive midfielder behind him.”
What do you feel Onana can bring to Lille following his recent move, and do you think that this was the right move for his career?
“If you put an experienced player next to him, then he will certainly be able to take on the level in France and in the Champions League.
“A French first division club that works seriously and quietly is certainly more conducive to Amadou’s next career step than a direct move to a top international club, where he may not get as much playing time.
“Therefore, it was of course also important for us to include a clause in the contract that would secure us additional income if Amadou were to be sold on. We are convinced that Amadou will be an even better player in Lille and will take the next step in his development.”
Incredible defensive work-rate
Onana is very solid defensively and is extremely combative in the middle of the park, winning the vast majority of his defensive duels.
Comparing Onana to all of the U24 midfielders in 2. Bundesliga last season, who have played at least 500 minutes of league football, the big Belgian has the highest percentage of his defensive duels won. Onana was averaging 7.02 defensive duels per 90, winning 63.71 percent of them.
What is more impressive is Onana’s possession-adjusted (PAdj) interceptions and sliding tackles per 90. For readers who may not be aware of what possession-adjusted stats are, Wyscout has clarified them on their website:
“The defenders of possession-based teams are naturally making less actions (than those playing a more defensive style of play). Adjusting these values to the possession (as if the match was played with a 50%/50% possession) gives further insight to the frequency of defensive actions.”
Using the same criteria as the previous graph regarding the players’ ages and minutes on the field in 2020/21, Onana is the second highest-performing player on the graph, behind Afeez Aremu from FC St. Pauli.
Lille’s new signing averaged 7.39 PAdj interceptions per 90 which is the third-highest on the graph on this metric. He also averaged 1.74 PAdj sliding tackles per 90 in the 2. Bundesliga, the highest performer on this metric by quite a margin.
The reason why his metrics were so good last season is because of the intensity he presses an opponent with. As stated before, Onana is very combative and is quite quick too with his long legs so he likes to pressure his opponents from behind a lot in order to prevent them from taking the ball on the turn and playing forward.
In this image, Onana has left the initial space he was covering in order to quickly jump on an opponent from behind so that they are unable to turn on the ball and play forward. The opposition player also cannot try and dribble around him because his wide frame when defending would make it too easy for the Belgian to regain possession.
The only issue with Onana’s high-intensity style when out of possession is that he tends to give away a lot of fouls per game. Last season in 2. Bundesliga, Onana was committing 2.09 fouls per 90.
Regarding his ability in the air, Onana performs solidly in his aerial duels. Of course, the midfielder’s physical build helps with this. Lille could utilise his ability in the air in a similar fashion to how Hamburger would use him.
Regardless of the team’s structure out of possession when pressing in a high block, managers tend to leave one player back in front of the defensive line in order to challenge for long balls and win the second balls.
In the previous image, Hamburger have pushed one of their pivot players, and the wingers, up to press the opposition high. However, Onana has been instructed to stay back and protect the backline in case the team in possession went long.
Onana is really good in this role and last season, the midfielder competed in 4.75 aerial duels per 90 in 2. Bundesliga, winning 63.71 percent of them.
Work in-possession needed
As Onana mostly plays as a pivot, a single-pivot, or mostly in a two-man midfield, his role is to move around the opposition’s first line of pressure and find space to receive from the backline. Sometimes this space is directly behind the opponent’s first line, but it can also be out in the halfspaces or on the flanks too.
Onana does an excellent job at finding this space and making himself available for a pass which helps the backline circulate possession and begin the process of breaking down their opponent’s defensive block.
The Belgian youth international has a very good body shape too when he moves into space and is looking to receive a pass with his back turned to goal. Onana has a very good idea of space and scans over his shoulder constantly when he does not have possession of the ball. Because of this, he understands when he can and cannot turn on the ball after receiving a pass.
When there is a decent amount of space behind him, he positions his slightly turns his body to the side, looking to receive on his backfoot which allows him to take the ball on the half-turn.
However, Onana’s main problem when in possession of the ball is that he is far too negative with his passing despite having a positive body shape and first touch. What this means is that when the 20-year-old gets into a good position to play forward, he usually opts to play laterally or backward.
Last season, Onana had an 82.89 percent pass completion rate in the 2. Bundesliga which seems relatively decent, but pass completion is one of the most misleading statistics in football. Onana averaged 38.38 attempted passes per 90 but only 9.62 of those were forward. This means that 74.93 percent of the midfielder’s passes were either sideways or backward.
It can be quite frustrating to watch too because the young Lille star has the ability to play more forward and line-breaking passes than he does. It can especially be frustrating to watch in situations where the midfielder has an ideal opportunity to play forward but opts not to.
Playing safe on the ball is a good thing as it ensures that possession is kept moving and that turnovers do not occur frequently. But there are times when midfielders in deeper positions need to try to play a risky pass to aid progression up the pitch.
In the previous image, Hamburger’s right-winger has dropped to receive, as has one of the centre-forwards to allow for a quick passage of play out of Osnabrueck’s high press. Instead of using the movement of the winger to bypass the opposition’s second line of pressure, Onana turns back and plays safe to the defenders.
The young Belgian needs to start playing more line-breaking passes now that he has moved to Lille in order to replace Soumaré who is very solid in this aspect.
Comparing Onana and Soumaré’s passes to the final third per 90 with progressive passes per 90 stats from the past calendar year, one can see how superior the latter was in this respect. Onana is averaging 5.04 progressive passes per 90 and 6.1 passes to the final third per 90.
Putting this data visual into more context, Soumaré has averaged 9.91 progressive passes per 90 over the last calendar year while also averaging 13.04 passes to the final third.
Hopefully, with the right coaching at Lille, Onana will be plotted a lot closer to Soumaré on this graph but the 20-year-old still has quite some way to go.
Dribbles and final-third play
While being rather safe in possession and perhaps not risking as many line-breaking passes as he potentially could, Onana is certainly no stranger to dribbling his way through opposition lines.
This is quite a peculiar aspect to his game because Onana clearly backs himself to beat an opponent with a dribble as opposed to passing his way around them. Over the entirety of his professional career, the midfielder attempts 2.46 dribbles per 90 with an accuracy of 65.8 percent.
Quite often, instead of looking to make a progressive pass or circulate the ball around the backline, Onana will simply just burst through an opponent’s press and carry it to a more advanced area of the pitch.
Onana’s physique makes it very difficult for the opposition to take the ball off of him when he gets into his stride as the 20-year-old uses his arms very well to hold off oncoming defenders and brush them aside.
The Belgian has a tendency to make these bursting runs into the box as well which is a very effective way of breaking through a defensive line.
Despite playing in quite a deep role last season in Hamburger’s double-pivot, Onana still managed to average 0.69 touches in the box per 90. He also averaged 0.69 shots per 90 with an expected goals per game (xG90) of 0.09.
In terms of his offensive duels, Onana averaged 5.65 in all competitions in the 2020/21 season with a success rate of 57 percent – very high numbers.
Onana performed better in all four of these metrics than Soumaré did last season and so the Belgian will be bringing a better attacking prowess to Lille than his predecessor, interestingly enough.
Onana is not perfect. The young Belgian captain is very rough around the edges and some of his decision-making at times can be questionable, to say the least. But what he does have is an abundance of talent at his disposal and a football club that has gained a huge reputation in Europe over the past few seasons for turning rough stones into diamonds.
One thing is for sure, we have not seen the last of Amadou Onana just yet.