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Kelvin John: Why Genk’s newest signing is dubbed the ‘Tanzanian Mbappe’

There are many ways for young players to get into the professional game. Going through a pro academy is the most common one, while others transition to senior football at a low level and then grow from there. In the case of Kelvin Pius John, the path has been different.

The 2003-born forward, dubbed as the ‘Tanzanian Mbappé’ in his analysis by The Guardian, chose to leave his country to study and develop as a footballer Brooke House College Football Academy in Leicestershire, UK. Away from the spotlight, he has grown into one of the most promising African players and, having just turned 18, has just signed his first professional contract with Genk in the Belgian Pro League. In this tactical analysis, we’ll see what he can bring to his new club.

Player profile

John is a right-footed forward who’s usually used as the centre-forward in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 formation. Standing at 179cm / 5’10’’ and with an athletic and slim build, John’s main attributes are his lighting pace and explosiveness.

Despite being theoretically the lone forward in his team, John tends to move all around the final third and benefits from playing with other forwards who can occupy central positions or midfielders who arrive at the box. His speed is very valuable when drifting wide and he can also be used on either wing, from where he can dribble, create and get into scoring positions too.

In his heatmap, we see that John participates a lot in the second line and tends to drift left more than right. Like Mbappé, he’s intelligent to play in tight spaces and benefits from dropping deep to then use his pace to get ahead of defenders with runs from those deeper positions.

Kelvin John 2020/21 - scout report tactical analysis tactics

Apart from his mobility and speed, John has proven so far that he has an eye for goal and the football IQ needed to create things for his teammates. When combining all these traits, we start understanding why he’s being compared to the France and PSG star.

Lightning pace

As mentioned in the first section of this tactical analysis, John’s best attribute and the one that makes him stand out from the crowd is his pace. Even when playing against players up to 2.5 years older than him in the 2021 Africa U-20 Cup of Nations, he still showed his pace is almost unmatched at that level. An effortless and elegant runner, John seems to easily outpace rivals to gain an advantage of balls that would be impossible for most players.

The next two examples show how impressive his speed is and the difference with players of similar age. In the first one, we see John running for a ball that has been played to the right side. He’s 4-5 yards behind his rival but in the end, he gets to the ball first and leaves the defender behind.

Kelvin John 2020/21 - scout report tactical analysis tactics

In the second one, a long ball is played to the head of his teammate and John starts his run despite being very far from the rival defenders. The second part of the sequence shows the first touch after the head flick. John has recovered the disadvantage he had and got to the ball before both defenders despite them being well ahead at the beginning of the play. 

Kelvin John 2020/21 - scout report tactical analysis tactics

Kelvin John 2020/21 - scout report tactical analysis tactics

John’s movements couldn’t happen without his excellent pace but he has much more than it. In the next section of this scout report, we’ll focus on the movements he makes and what they bring to his team’s tactics.

Creating and attacking spaces

John is gifted with a great football IQ and seems to be a well-educated player overall. He’s intelligent to spot free spaces and uses his pace to take advantage of them whenever he can. With these intelligent movements, he also creates spaces for his teammates to play in and gives them solutions when they don’t know what to do with the ball.

Starting his movements from a slightly deep position, he creates the separation he needs to be unmarked but knowing he can recover that distance in a race with the defender. This allows him to receive to his feet with some space to turn, as we’ll cover in the next section of the analysis, and gives him a good overview of where spaces are running into them.

When his team is progressing through central areas, John often runs the channels between the centre-back and the full-back or between both centre-backs, offering a good solution for his teammate on the ball to make a through pass. His pace also allows him to still get to passes that are slightly overhit, making it even easier for the passer to succeed.

Kelvin John 2020/21 - scout report tactical analysis tactics

The previous image is a good example of these runs. With a teammate reaching the final third with the ball under control, John first offers a good option to play it to his feet as he’s a couple of yards away from the defensive line. But as soon as a rival steps out to mark him, he quickly turns and attacks the space between centre-backs with a diagonal run. The pass is played to the left side of the box and John gets it while also attracting both centre-backs and leaving his teammate unmarked.

John is always the easy option to create something during the buildup or when deep teammates are under pressure. Playing off the shoulder of the last defender, he’s always an option to play long balls over the defensive line and there are also good chances that he can get at the end of his team’s clearances if they’re good and powerful enough.

The next sequence shows what’s just been said. In the first picture, the ball has just been cleared away by Tanzania U20 and John is conscious of the chance he has and immediately starts his run despite his rivals having some advantage. The second picture shows the moment John gets to the ball, leaving behind the defenders and scoring with his left foot. With his pace and sense of opportunity, John transformed a clearance into an assist.

Kelvin John 2020/21 - scout report tactical analysis tactics

Kelvin John 2020/21 - scout report tactical analysis tactics

John’s movements aren’t only aimed at spaces behind the defensive line. Being a striker, he shows a good understanding of creating and attacking, free spaces inside the box and uses his speed to gain the extra advantage he needs to receive the ball in good scoring positions. He’s usually positioned in the blind spot of the defender and chooses the exact moment to make his run, leaving no time to react and anticipating lots of times. Let’s see some examples.

In the next image, we see Tanzania U20’s attack coming from the right side, with John starting the play on the opposite side. As soon as the ball is played to the right, he senses a cross could be coming and sprints towards the near post to anticipate the defender. Note how he starts his movement from a position that’s very difficult to control for the centre-back and once he realizes what John is doing it’s too late to react because of his pace.

Kelvin John 2020/21 - scout report tactical analysis tactics

As he starts his runs from deeper positions than a normal striker would, he has the best overview to decide if he has to accelerate to anticipate or stop and time his run to create separation from the defenders. This allows him to appear in a second wave and completely free when the ball reaches the goal line.

The next one is a good example of these late runs. Instead of trying to anticipate in the near post where there isn’t much space or attacking the far post, a position already occupied by his teammate, John slows down his run and lets the defenders get away from him. The lobbed cross finds him completely free and he heads it into the post.

Kelvin John 2020/21 - scout report tactical analysis tactics

All these intelligent movements lead John to register 0.67 xG per 90, a very good figure for a player who isn’t a pure 9 and not playing for a dominating team. His finishing is also great and he scores 0.75 goals per 90, using both legs to calmly place the ball near the posts but also showing some powerful long-range shots that can trouble goalkeepers. As we’ll see in the next section of the tactical analysis, he adds good assisting numbers to that.

Creativity: dribbling and assisting

John’s playing style involves a lot of dropping deep and playing in the second line. As we mentioned before in this scout report, he likes to create separation by coming to the second line and generating spaces for himself to attack afterwards.

But these movements are also aimed to receive the ball and combine with his teammates, using his good technique and body shape to receive between the lines, turn and try to create from there. 

When running towards the ball possessor. John keeps an open body shape and is always ready to receive on the half-turn, ready to face the goal and drive the ball forward. His speed and control mean he can break lines and carry the ball through central areas.

We see a good example in the next screenshot. John receives the ball almost in midfield and turns with just one touch. After that, he accelerates and rushes past three rival players to reach the edge of the box.

Kelvin John 2020/21 - scout report tactical analysis tactics

Once he’s around the box, John has good resources to attract players and assist his teammates. With 0.23 xA per 90, he’s capable of creating chances from the striker position, especially when given some space to run at defenders and drag them out of position.

In the next picture, we see a nice example of how John attracts players with the clear intention of freeing a teammate and assisting him. He drives the ball from left to right at the edge of the box and fakes a shot, attracting the attention of two defenders who try to block him. But instead of shooting, he plays a short pass to the right, where his teammate is in a much better position.

Kelvin John 2020/21 - scout report tactical analysis tactics

With his overview of the pitch and technical abilities, John can also create from crosses. He knows where his teammates are all the time and picks good locations when he crosses so he doesn’t need much space and time to create chances this way. Knowing where the players are, he just needs the necessary space to strike the ball without needing to raise his head and check the position of the players in the box. With his acceleration, it’s easy for him to create that minimal space he needs.

John is also a very good player in tight spaces, even in situations where his pace doesn’t make a difference. His touch is very good and combines quickly, creating danger in small pockets of space at the edge of the box. With good players around him, he would excel in these combinations.

The example shown next helps us understand how John spots the chance to create with quick combinations. Here, he receives the ball just inside the box. His body position is good and he’s already in a good position to control and shoot with his first touch. But the player who made the first pass makes a good run into the box and John knows the best option is to complete the one-two, creating a great chance after attracting the rival defenders.

Kelvin John 2020/21 - scout report tactical analysis tactics

Finally, and as we would expect for a player compared to Ligue 1 star Mbappé, John is also a great dribbler. When he has space, he just needs a touch to get the ball forward and use his speed to get past defenders. And in tight spaces, he’s skilled to create spaces and force defenders to commit to one side before dribbling to the other.

The example below is also one of his trademark moves. He likes to fake crosses from the left side to make a ‘Cruyff turn’ and leave the defender behind. With just that space and his acceleration, he manages to get away from rivals and get into even better positions, and if the rival decides not to block the cross, then he’s also capable of assisting without dribbling.

Kelvin John 2020/21 - scout report tactical analysis tactics

We’ve already mentioned some of John’s key stats in this scout report but it’s good to show the ones together. In his matches with Tanzania U20 and U17, he has managed to register 0.96 goal contributions per 90 – 0.75 goals and 0.21 assists – from 90 expected goal contributions – 0.67 xG and 0.23 xA. Being capable of translating all his good characteristics into goals is the key aspect that makes John stand out from other quick and skilled players.

Conclusion

John’s path into professional football hasn’t been the traditional one but seems to be paying off so far. Leaving Tanzania to play and study in the UK without being attached to a professional club has helped him to grow into a very good footballer without the pressure of progressing through the ranks at a club and all the stress that brings to young players.

Now, after turning 18 last month, John has decided to join Genk as his first step in professional football. There were strong rumours linking him to Anderlecht, coached by the former EPL and Man City star Vincent Kompany, but he has decided to join one of their rivals. Genk is also known as a great development club and he’ll have all the support he needs, especially after being recommended by the former Genk and Aston Villa striker Ally Samatta. If he’s capable of showing all his pace and skill in a league like the Belgian, he’ll be quickly linked to some of the best clubs in Europe.