The general perception of players who move to Russia in their prime has been that they have done so for the money. However, this is not necessarily true, as the Russian league has been able to nurture and improve a number of players in the last few years, who have then moved back to some of the bigger European leagues. Willian and Salomón Rondón are just two of the names that come to mind, and thus it would be wise to look at the Russian league to find the next ‘big’ player to emerge from there.
Our call for this month’s magazine in this regard is Mathias Normann, a 24-year-old Norwegian midfielder at FK Rostov. He was once on the books of Brighton, back in 2017, but did not get a chance in the Premier League, and following some impressive performances in the Eliteserien for Bodø/Glimt previously, and then at Molde on loan from Brighton, he was picked up for €1.70m in 2019 by Rostov.
Around two years later, Normann has developed into an all-round player while playing as a holding midfielder for Rostov. There have been rumours about Manchester United and Southampton showing interest in signing him, but Rostov are sure to demand a considerable fee for this talented player.
In this tactical analysis piece, we will look at Normann’s qualities and traits which have piqued the interest of several of Europe’s leading clubs. This analysis combines the use of data and in-game situations to showcase his abilities. All stats have been taken from Wyscout.
Normann is a very good passer, and also understands the game well enough to play as the single pivot for Rostov. The chart compares him with other Russian Premier League midfielders. Even though Normann’s overall passing accuracy is low at 78.2%, this does not mean that he is a poor passer. We can gain more context into his passing and the role he plays in Rostov’s attacks by looking at some specific metrics.
A good way to judge a player’s ability to influence proceedings in the final third of the pitch is to look at passes to the final third and through passes per 90, as we have done.
In the first chart, Normann features in the top right-hand quadrant, making him one of the best midfielders in the league for both these types of passes. He ranked third for passes to the final third per 90 (10.89) and had the highest through passes per 90 (2.59).
Even when looking at players who play in the same position, we can see the different ways in which they interpret the role, based on their abilities as well as that of their teammates. For example, Fernandinho at Manchester City and Wilfred Ndidi at Leicester City offer two very different qualities as a midfielder, but both of them have rightly been among the best in the role in the Premier League over the last few years. In terms of comparison, Normann is perhaps similar to the Manchester City man, as he plays a big part in Rostov’s ball progression.
We have evaluated this by looking at progressive runs per 90 and progressive passes per 90 in the second scatter plot. Once again, Normann is in the top-right quadrant – above the average for both metrics. The 24-year-old midfielder has made 9.51 progressive passes per 90, which is in the top-ten for the league, with 1.9 progressive runs per 90 ranking him second among our shortlist. This shows his ability to move the ball upfield and towards the opposition’s penalty area in more than one way.
Normann’s is a competent passer, which allows him to play several different types of passes with ease. His vision and passing range are also excellent, which complements this technical ability, and allows him to pass to any area of the pitch when he is on the ball.
The first in-game example shows Normann’s forward-thinking mindset in the second phase of possession. He is able to play a through pass behind the opposition defence to reach a forward runner, which makes him an excellent provider for quick players in the team’s attack. Normann can be extremely dangerous when given the time and space to play such passes, as in the example shown, which is why opponents must look to close him down in such areas.
Normann has several impressive individual attributes which make him a special player. For example, he often combines the use of a body feint with his ability to play through passes. The body feint helps disguise the direction of his passes, which helps catch opponents off-guard.
In the second example, Normann is facing the touchline, which might suggest that the coming pass will be a lateral one. However, the defence was caught unprepared when he lofted the ball to the highlighted player, who was able to run through on goal and score. His verticality when passing is essential for a team that emphasizes attacking spaces behind the defence and creating openings to face the keeper 1v1.
Apart from playing the passes vertically in the first phase, Normann also contributes to the build-up through his ability to switch the play via diagonal passes to the flanks. As mentioned earlier, his passing range is good enough for him to hit almost every area of the pitch, and this means that he is adept at playing this kind of passes as well, which helps Rostov to exploit space on the flanks.
For a team having aggressive and quick wide players, Normann could be the key to unlock their potential. He also likes to switch the ball from one vertical half to another, releasing teammates who are able to then isolate defenders in 1v1s. Therefore, if teams give him time and space, Normann has the ability to punish them through such quick and vertical passes.
The image shows Normann coming deep to receive the ball and then quickly releasing the wide player on the right. Rostov manage to skip the second phase here, simplifying the build-up when Normann is able to pull off such passes.
The Norwegian’s positioning during the offensive phase is another attribute which can help teams which try to attack with positional plays. One example is when the full-back is positioned high and wide, but does not have too many offensive passing options, Normann often drops wide and offers himself as a passing outlet to keep the ball moving.
This image from a game for Norway is a good example. Most midfielders would stay in the red highlighted zone, but Normann knows the importance of supporting the full-back by offering a backward passing option. He is able to pick up positions away from markers, giving him more time to assess his options.
While holding players may usually be static in their positioning to guard against counter-attacks, Normann is much more dynamic in this regard, always looking to create a passing option for teammates on the ball. In this particular example, Normann suddenly accelerates to allow his right-back to lay the ball off to him, from where he played a pass over the top to his teammate making a run in behind. This shows his intelligence and appreciation of space, as well as the quick-thinking, allied with his technical ability, which allowed him to play that pass over the top first time.
However, we have also seen some minor issues with this player which may hinder him from stepping up to the next level. Sometimes he drops deep with a closed body shape when supporting teammates from a higher starting position. Just as with any other player, this habit limits the perceivable visual information that he can take in, and has an impact on the next decision. For example, in this image, he would not know which direction to turn to because of his body orientation, which means that he cannot see his opponent.
Secondly, Normann could also upgrade himself by improving body coordination and balancing that supports continuous change of directions. This would be vital to any great holding midfielder to control the rhythm of the game by taking an optimal number of touches. If he also has this skill, the dynamism could be extremely strong.
Maturity during transitions
The 24-year-old is still learning, and he has made only 110 senior appearances, highlighting how there is still a lot that he can add to his game. However, another area where Normann has impressed already is his control of transitions.
During offensive transitions, Normann’s greatest strength is his passing. He is able to send attackers into space with his excellent passing, and we have already seen his decision-making and passing skill earlier on in this report. However, one thing he cannot do is run with the ball at his feet from one box to the other – he is not that type of midfielder.
In defensive transitions, any team would be pleased to have Normann as a part of their rest defence, especially for those playing with a high line to try and commit numbers in the offensive phase.
The pitch map shows his recoveries all over the pitch, and demonstrates his ability to regain possession no matter the circumstances. He has made 11.5 recoveries per 90 , while averaging 7.8 counter-pressing recoveries per 90, which is much higher than the average for the league. His pitch coverage is considerable, with most of his defensive actions occurring in the central third (52.52%). This shows the player’s ability to win the ball back before the attack advances into dangerous areas.
Normann shows excellent awareness to cover the correct spaces during turnovers. This is vital as he is usually the only holding midfielder in the team, and therefore a mistake can often leave the centre-backs exposed.
As a part of the rest defence, Normann knows exactly which spaces should be covered. This example from a game for Norway is one where the opponent was attacking the space behind the right-back, but Normann’s discipline ensured that this did not become a dangerous situation.
Another common issue with young players is their recklessness during defensive transitions, as they often overcommit and leave their team exposed. Normann does well in this aspect too, as he is usually able to delay opposition counter-attacks through his positioning, to allow his team to regroup and get back in position. He knows when to commit and when not to.
The first image shows a Khimki player driving forward with the ball into the right-back’s zone, with Normann going across to cover in his teammate’s absence. Rather than running towards the ball, Normann opts to fall back and block space for the Khimki player to run into, thus helping delay the move.
Normann never attacks the ball until he is certain that the situation is in control. As the Khimki player tried to dribble, he was forced out wide because of Normann’s positioning. This meant that he was up against the touchline, which created a natural barrier and allowed Normann to get tight and try to regain the ball, while also maintaining enough distance to recover if the player was able to dribble past him into space.
These delay tactics meant that his winger and right-back were able to recover and win the ball back. This whole incident took up 10 seconds, which shows how long Normann was able to control the situation.
Normann’s understanding of the game is also seen through his awareness to make tactical fouls when needed during defensive transitions.
Defensive phase, coverage and aggressiveness
We will now look at some more of Normann’s defensive attributes, this time during the defensive phase. He has been able to use his strengths to fit into various styles of play, and the defensive side of things is no exception to this.
Before looking at in-game examples, we will once again compare his performance on certain defensive metrics with other midfielders in the Russian Premier League this season.
This scatter plot looks at possession-adjusted (PAdj) interceptions and sliding tackles. Possession-adjusted metrics are used to account for the fact that more defensive sides will invariably have more opportunities to win the ball back, thereby inflating their defensive numbers. Thus, these metrics help adjust these defensive statistics by the amount of possession the team has had, creating a more balanced comparison between players.
Normann is in the top-left quadrant, which indicates players who rarely tackle but make many interceptions. This is the case for Normann, who had only 0.25 PAdj sliding tackles, one of the lowest values in this comparison. However, he has made 8.64 PAdj interceptions per 90, putting him in eighth place for this metric, showing his ability to cut out opposition passes.
Another area where defensive midfielders need to be proficient is in aerial duels, which is why our second scatter plot in this section looks at aerial duels per 90 and the success rate for such duels.
The 24-year-old has been proficient in this area as well, with 4.41 aerial duels per 90, and a success rate of 66.7% suggesting that he is good at winning the ball in the air.
As with his performance in the other three phases, Normann is good at reading the game and making good decisions when defending as well.
In a press, it is very common for teams to set traps when they are pressing high. Due to his position on the pitch, he rarely joins the first layer but his presence in the second layer helps in setting these traps.
In Rostov’s pressing system, central passes are the triggers for the press. To bait those passes, they allow players in that region to have more space as “fake options”. When the opposition falls into the trap and passes to those players, Rostov quickly press from both directions to ‘sandwich’ the player on the ball and regain possession in a dangerous area.
Normann is extremely good at carrying out this tactic. His positioning is good enough to bait the opposition, while managing to remain close enough to the ball. In this instance against UFA, Normann double-pressed the central receiver with his teammate from the first layer, showing intensity by sprinting upfield to close him down.
Normann also has good lower body strengths to bump the opposition away. The Norwegian midfielder is also physical enough to hold off opponents when needed, and he does not shirk from a physical duel. This can be seen in this example for Norway, where he was able to win the ball back in midfield by engaging in a physical duel with his opponent. Normann is good at pressing from the blind side, which means that opponents are unable to see him and thus end up being pressed aggressively.
Not only did Normann performs well in the high press, but he is also a good defender in a deeper block. Normann has decent interception stats because of good at defending spaces in front of him. He reads the intention of the opponents well, which allows him to think earlier, act quicker. When intercepting, the 24-year-old midfielder is agile enough as well.
Serbia trying to play through the centre in this example, Normann is covering zone 14, easily identified the receiver. Therefore, he managed to jump onto the passing lane and reach the ball in advance.
When defending crosses, Normann shows excellent awareness to cover horizontal gaps in the backline. Since Rostov’s full-backs and even the centre-backs, at times, defend the wide spaces, the backline is always stretched, and this shows the importance of Normann’s defensive efforts.
For example, here, Khimki were attacking down the right flank, pulling the left-back and left-sided centre-back out. Now, the right-back and the far side is undermanned as a result. To avoid this unfavourable situation turning into a dangerous opportunity, Normann quickly retreated and was in the position to cover those spaces. He was alert to this situation, which shows his awareness to scan the pitch when defending. Normann was not ball-watching, but rather kept looking around to be aware of his surroundings. This is another example of his footballing IQ, and why he has been good while playing as a sole holding midfielder for Rostov this season.
As we have shown in this scout report, not only does Normann possess good technique on the ball, but he also has an excellent understanding of the game. This quality will definitely help him fit into different positions and tactics, allowing him to play in a double-pivot, as a lone holding midfielder, or even potentially as a centre-back.
While Rostov are unlikely to let the 24-year-old leave cheaply, this summer may see him move on to bigger challenges in one of the top European leagues.