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Data Analysis: Four players who are similar to PSG’s Marco Verratti

This is the third part in a series of articles looking at the use of data profiles in identifying potential recruitment targets within football. You can read part one here and part two here. In part one we looked at potential matches for Trent Alexander-Arnold of Liverpool and in part two I looked at players who profile in a similar manner to Jack Grealish of Manchester City. This time we move away from the English Premier League to look at one of my favourite midfielders, Marco Verratti of PSG.

I should start by being absolutely clear that this article is not intended as a means to find a group of players who are an ideal fit as potential replacements for Marco Verratti. Instead, the intention is to show that we can use data to build profiles and then find similar players to our target player or initial profile. The use of data in this manner is part of the recruitment process but only a part. Data lets us cut through the noise of all of the available players out there and to create shortlists of players quickly that suit our needs or the profile that we are looking for. After this stage, I would look to implement a series of checks on the players on our list including video scouting and live scouting.

As a part of Total Football Analysis we offer clubs, players and agencies a consultancy service and a large part of that is built around the use of data and video scouting to provide shortlists of players that fit a specific profile. To do this we make use of a tool that we know as xGOLD. This has been custom-built in-house to streamline the use of data in the identification of talented players. In order to create the shortlist for this article, I have used xGold to identify four players that best meet the profile of Grealish. From there I have created the profiles that you will see in this piece using my own bespoke dashboards in Tableau. Given that we are still at the early stage of the European season, if any games have been played at all!, we will be using data from the 2020/21 season with all data found in Wyscout.

When Marco Verratti moved to France to sign for PSG  from Pescara in 2012 he did so to much surprise in his homeland. The assumption was that Verratti would follow in the footsteps of so many other talented young Italian players and sign for Juventus. Instead, Verratti chose to move to France to join a team, in PSG, that were very much at the start of their transition into becoming a footballing superpower. Now, of course, PSG are a very different proposition and at the time of writing, they have recruited a certain Lionel Messi to supplement an attack that already contains Neymar and Kylian Mbappe. While the attack is frightening, however, the midfield unit at PSG is ruthlessly efficient and that midfield is run effortlessly by a now 28-year-old Marco Verratti, a midfielder who is very much in the prime of his career.

Verratti has a data profile that shows that he is the perfect modern midfielder and that he is comfortable in all phases of the game. The only downside for Verratti is that he has a history of injury problems that tend to see him miss matches season upon season. If he were able to stay fit then, for me, he would be right up there in the conversation around the best players in World football.

In the 2020/21 season, we saw Verratti play 1580 minutes in Ligue 1. Of all areas of his game, it is his ability in terms of passing and ball progression that really stands out. He averaged an incredible 14.58 passes to the final third per 90 and 3.30 passes to the penalty area per 90. Given that PSG were extremely possession dominant in almost every match domestically this starts to show the importance of Verratti to their overall tactical structure. The Italian midfielder had a key role last season for PSG and is likely to continue to have a key role going into the 2021/22 season. He was so often the metronome in the midfield who would receive the ball centrally before finding ways to progress the ball through defences that were often compact in nature.

With that said then, it is time to move on to our shortlist of interesting profiles. First of all, we have to travel to the Netherlands.

#1 Ryan Gravenberch, 19-years-old, Ajax and the Netherlands

When using data as a part of the recruitment process within football it is important to keep in mind questions around team style and the level of domestic competition. We already know that PSG are typically possession dominant as opposed to being transitional in their nature and we know that they dominate the domestic landscape in France. Those simple facts will have to be considered when viewing Verratti’s data profile. His metrics will be naturally skewed as a result of simply playing for the best team in France.

The same can be said, if only just, of the first player on our shortlist as Ryan Gravenberch plays for Ajax as well as internationally for the Netherlands. Ajax are still largely dominant domestically, although PSV might have something to say about that this season, and as you can see from his data profile he is as dominant in terms of passing and progressing the ball through the thirds as Verratti was.

In 2763 minutes in the Eredivisie last season we saw Gravenberch average 9.54 progressive passes per 90 9.74 passes to the final third per 90 and 3.75 passes to the penalty area per 90. The young Dutch midfielder was also more effective in terms of his attacking metrics than Marco Verratti as he averaged 1.50 shots per 90 and 1.17 touches in the opposition area per 90, impressive metrics for a central midfielder.

There is a sense with Gravenberch that he is remaining in Amsterdam for one more season before his representatives start to look for a move to a top 5 league. The club that does eventually sign Gravenberch will be signing a true diamond of a midfielder.

#2 Nicolo Rovella, 19-years-old, Bologna and Italy

For our next player we are going back to Verratti’s homeland of Italy but this time to consider the profile of the 19-year-old Italian midfielder Nicolo Rovella. He is a product of the youth system at Genoa but his combative midfield performances in Serie A and with the Italian national youth teams led to interest intensifying around his transfer status. In this instance, in an interesting parallel to Verratti, we saw Juventus move more aggressively to secure the signing of a player who has the potential to be at the heart of the Italian midfield for years to come.

Juventus paid a reported 16.2M to secure the signature of Rovella but, crucially for the player’s development, Juventus agreed to leave him on loan at Genoa until the end of the upcoming season.

From a data perspective, Rovella has a profile that is inferior to that of Verratti but again we have to take into account the difficult question of team style and stature. Genoa are in no way a possession dominant side and that is reflected in the profile of Rovella. In 1267 minutes last season, he averaged 6.32 progressive passes per 90 and 7.32 passes to the final third per 90. While his passing metrics are lower than Verratti’s they are in proportion when you consider that Genoa are far less progressive in their approach than PSG. We should also note that Rovella has a different skew to his profile as well in his defensive metrics. Last season Rovella averaged an impressive 9.45 defensive duels per 90 with a success rate of 61.65% and 5.67 possession adjusted interceptions.

#3 Rodrigo Nestor, 21-years-old, Sao Paulo and Brazil

For the third player on our shortlist, we have to travel to South America and to Brazil where we find the 21-year-old Brazilian midfielder Rodrigo Nestor controlling the midfield of São Paulo. Interestingly, Rodrigo Nestor is less effective in terms of his passing and progression metrics than Verratti and initially, I may have discarded his profile in terms of being similar to that of the Italian maestro but when you look at the profile as a whole you start to see a midfield player that is arguably just as effective for his side as Verratti is for PSG.

Now, we have to acknowledge the fact that the sample size for Rodrigo Nestor is relatively small. In the 2021 season, he has played just 737 minutes in the Brazilian Serie A. In terms of his passing metrics, he is averaging 6.47 progressive passes per 90 and 5.62 passes to the final third per 90. He is, however, more effective in the attacking and defensive sections of our metrics. He is averaging 7.33 defensive duels per 90 with a success rate of 60% along with 5.03 possession adjusted interceptions. In the attacking section, he is averaging 1.10 shots per 90 and 1.34 touches in the opposition area per 90.

#4 Orkun Kokcu, 20-years-old, Feyenoord and Turkey

For the final player in our shortlist, we are going back to the Netherlands with the Turkish international Orkun Kokcu of Feyenoord. He is a product, originally, of the youth academy at Groningen but he moved to Feyenoord before he had made a first-team appearance for the club. Despite initially playing for the Dutch youth teams he has now declared officially to play for Turkey.

There has been a great deal of interest surrounding Kokcu in recent months with the likes of Arsenal and VfB Stuttgart being linked to moves for the midfielder, amongst others. While Kokcu is strong in terms of his passing and progression metrics it is his attacking output that is perhaps more impressive. Last season he played 1733 minutes in the Eredivisie and he averaged 7.84 progressive passes per 90 and 7.58 passes to the final third per 90. In terms of his attacking outputs, he averaged 2.65 shots per 90 and 1.40 touches in the opposition area per 90.

As a potential replacement of alternative to Verratti, I would say that Kokcu offers an interesting option.

Conclusion

Marco Verratti is one of the most complete midfield players in World football. He has a combative edge out of possession and the ability to progress the ball effectively when in possession. Essentially he knits the entire game together for his team.

Here we have identified four young players who share elements of their game with Verratti. It remains to be seen whether any of these players will develop their game as fully as the Italian player has. If I had to put my money on one player in this shortlist reaching his level then it would be Ryan Gravenberch.

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