Empoli have been one of the most interesting sides in Europe so far this season. At the time of writing, they sit 14th in Serie A but there is rarely a dull day at the Carlo Castellani stadium, as Gli Azzurri combine an attacking and open style of play with one of the worst defensive performances in the league.
The fact that they are still sitting 14th in the table shows how proficient they’ve been going forward this season behind some impressive recruitment and individual player development. One of the key players in the attacking phase for them this season has been the 23-year-old midfielder Nedim Bajrami. The Albania international is actually Swiss-born and started his career with the Swiss side Grasshoppers before moving in 2019, initially on loan, to join Empoli. His international career actually started with the Swiss youth teams, and he played internationally for Switzerland all the way to U21 level before deciding, in 2021, to change allegiances internationally to represent Albania.
Bajrami is an attack-minded midfielder who is comfortable as an ‘8’ or a ‘10’ or even from the wide spaces. At Empoli where coach Aurelio Andreazzoli prefers to play with a 4-3-1-2 system, Bajrami plays as a ‘10’ with the freedom to drift into the half-spaces or wide areas — or to get forward and break the line in support of the strikers. His ability to play dangerous passes or crosses into the area, to dribble creatively in the final third and to progress the ball effectively for his team stand out as strengths of his playing style.
In this article, we will look more closely at the playing style and tendencies that have made Bajrami a player in demand.
Let’s start by looking at Bajrami’s data so far this season for Empoli. This pizza chart shows his percentile ranking in certain key areas of the game compared to all other midfield players in Serie A.
The pizza chart splits the game into three distinct sections: attacking, possession and defending. As you can see with a quick glance, Bajrami stands out in the attacking and then in part of the possession sections. He has been exceptionally impressive in terms of goal contributions, expected goal contributions and shots per 90. In the possession section, he impresses with carries, area entries and progressive actions.
Next, we can look at the heat map for Bajrami so far this season and it is clear to see that he displays a tendency to drift out to either wing. He is naturally right-footed but he can perform actions cleanly with his left. As such he can drift to the wing and then look to either access the opposition penalty area through crosses or angles passes or cut inside to drive into and through the half-spaces.
Bajrami is a creative and flexible attacking player who provides a real threat with the ball in the wide areas. His balance and agility combine to make him extremely difficult to defend against, as he’s capable of taking the ball outside or cutting back inside from either side of the pitch. In these spaces, as we have already seen, he has a strong output from a data perspective in terms of carries and area entries. This means that if defenders sit off and give him too much space, he will pick a creative passing option into the area and if they get too tight he is liable to engage and attack them 1v1 in an attempt to outplay them on the dribble.
His strength in this area leads to opposition defenders being attracted to him when he is in possession of the ball. He will regularly be doubled-up on with two defenders looking to engage and close him down and this leads to space being created elsewhere for teammates.
This season has seen Bajrami’s usage and importance increase to such an extent that whenever he is in possession of the ball in or around the final third, his teammates know to make runs off the ball to gain separation as they are expecting an accurate cross or pass.
In this example, we see Bajrami in possession just on the far edge of the penalty area, with one defender facing him up and another trying to get back to recover and double-up on the ball. In these areas, the Albanian midfielder is a real threat to cut and drive into the area. He has great technique in possession and this comes with the ability to play with real levels of deception in terms of making quick cuts and changing the direction of his movements.
When in possession in these areas, however, the attackers will look to use double movements or runs off the shoulder of the defender on the blind side in order to gain some separation.
We see this here as the forward times his break and is found by a curled low cross from Bajrami.
His technical ability on the ball means that when he is in possession of the ball in wide areas his delivery is typically extremely dangerous with good pace, whip and dip on the ball. In this example, we see a situation where playing for Albania, Bajrami has possession of the ball wide in the far corner of the area. This time, there is limited space in the area as the opposition has crashed back into a defensive shape. As such, the delivery and trajectory of the cross has to be perfect.
The Albanian international drops the ball perfectly into the space between the crowded area and the opposition goalkeeper.
Deception on the ball
Nedim Bajrami is an intelligent and dynamic player who displays the willingness to drift into pockets of space in and around the middle and final third of the pitch. He scans effectively and understands how to find space on the pitch. This means that we often see Bajrami receiving passes from teammates when he is positioned between the lines either vertically or horizontally.
This spatial understanding from Bajrami means that he can receive the ball in dangerous positions on the half-turn with the ability to then try and quickly take a positive touch inside to attack space and threaten the opposition penalty area.
Here, we see an example of the positioning when Bajrami receives the ball just outside the area in a little pocket of space between opposition players. As he receives in this position, he is extremely creative with the way that he feints and turns without taking a touch to attack the space behind the two defenders. He is then able to cut inside and shoot at goal from a dangerous angle.
Here, we see another example of Bajrami providing danger in the final third. He had initially received the ball in a pocket of space centrally in the final third. He was able to get turned and attack the half-space on the near side of the pitch.
You can see that there are three opposition players looking to cut his route into the area. Bajrami, however, is able to drop his shoulder and shift his weight quickly to attack into the space between two defenders before getting a shot at goal.
Ball progression and line breaking
As well as providing threat in the final third and around the penalty area, Bajrami helps his team to progress the ball either in moments of transition or in the more established attacking phase. His ability, as discussed previously, to receive the ball in pockets of space allows the ball to be progressed effectively. He can also, however, take the ball in deeper areas before either driving forward in possession or looking for passes that progress the ball and break a line with passes into the final third.
First of all, we have an example as Bajrami progresses the ball into the penalty area through his creative line-breaking passes. Once again, we see him in possession of the ball in the final third but this time, he does not look for an opportunity to either cross the ball or look to drive inside and into the penalty area.
Instead, he lets the play develop and plays a low and driven through ball into the player who makes a delayed movement into the penalty area. In this instance, the player who receives possession can take his first touch into space and into the area.
Now this time, we see Bajrami in possession of the ball in transition as he breaks into the opposition half. He has picked the ball up initially in deeper positions before getting turned and driving forward with the ball.
As he breaks into the opposition half, you see him cut between opposition players before then outplaying the final two players who are looking to get back into something approaching a defensive structure. When moving through traffic, and at pace, Bajrami plays with his head up, which helps him to find opportunities for these line-breaking passes that release teammates in behind the defence.
At the time of writing, the likes of Lazio and Milan are being heavily linked with a move for the Albanian midfielder and the financial reality of Empoli is such that they are likely to be forced to sell and cash in at the end of the season.
Whichever side wins the battle for Bajrami will be getting a creative and industrious midfielder who can affect the game in several different ways. There is no doubt in my mind that Bajrami has the quality to play for a regular Champions League side.