Adel Taarabt 2019/20 – scout report
There are few players who have had as dichotomous a career as Adel Taarabt. The 30-year-old playmaker was once one of the brightest young stars in world football, with his jaw-dropping potential leading former teammates and managers to describe him as a genius on par even with the likes of Zinedine Zidane. But since bursting on the scene at Queens Park Rangers, Taarabt’s career has more closely resembled that of a modest European journeyman than France’s midfield maestro.
Attitude issues and fitness struggles led to a fall from grace at QPR and subsequent unsuccessful loans to Fulham and A.C. Milan. Benfica then purchased Taarabt in 2015 hoping they could finally unearth the talent of the Moroccan maverick. But after a further loan spell at Genoa and two seasons at Benfica that saw him earn more appearances for the reserves than the first team, it appeared Taarabt’s career was destined to be another sad story of wasted potential.
Everything changed, however, when Taarabt’s reserve team manager, Bruno Lage, was promoted to head coach of Benfica in early 2019. Since Lage’s appointment, Taarabt has undergone nothing short of a reincarnation. Key to this resurgence has been Lage’s tactics and insistence that Taarabt switch positions from a creative number 10 to the left side of a double pivot. In this new role, Taarabt has been one of Benfica’s best players this season, with his performances in Liga NOS and the Champions League drawing rave reviews throughout Europe.
Under the leadership of Bruno Lage, Benfica have primarily employed a 4-4-2 formation. From this structure, Lage typically prefers his men to press high up the pitch in their 4-4-2 shape as shown below.
In attack, Lage favours a flexible, possession-based style in which the full-backs push high, the left pivot player advances, the wingers invert centrally, and one forward drifts between the lines as illustrated below.
Within Lage’s system, the left pivot player is of particular importance. First and foremost, this player must cover great distances to both support the Benfica 4-4-2 press and shield the back four, a feat that is not easy considering most teams operate with three central midfielders to Benfica’s two. In addition, because this player occupies an advanced role from which they can be involved in the build-up as well as the attack, ideally this player can provide additional attacking quality. Finally, with the aggressive positioning of Benfica’s full-backs in their attacking structure, it is vital that the left pivot player works in tandem with the right pivot player to maintain balance as Benfica attack.
Over the course of the 2019-2020 season, Lage has come to view Taarabt as the most well-equipped player to occupy this role for three reasons. The first is that Taarabt is now dedicated to defending and is therefore no longer a weakness when Benfica do not have the ball. The second is that Taarabt has matured into a player who is committed to the transition phases of the game, and he is especially gifted in the transition from defence to attack. Thirdly, Lage prefers Taarabt because when Benfica are in possession, he can provide an attacking skill set that is unparalleled by other the other Benfica candidates for this position.
Throughout his career, Taarabt has been well-known for his aversion for defending, even famously declaring in 2014 that he is not the type of player who tackles. However, this season has seen Taarabt transform from a luxury number 10 into a defensive dog more akin to Gennaro Gattuso. He has developed an appetite for tackling and, with his imposing physical profile, Taarabt has been able to bring an added bite to Benfica’s midfield.
Surprisingly, in devoting himself to defending, Taarabt has found that he has something of a knack for this side of the game. As it turns out, Taarabt is quite adept at reading context clues to shut down opposition attacks. A perfect example of this was seen in Benfica’s recent match against Belenenses. In this instance, a Belenenses player received the ball off a throw-in and penetrated down the left flank. As the Belenenses player drove forward, Taarabt noticed that both Pizzi and Weigl had taken vertical pressuring angles with neither player protecting the centre of the pitch.
Taarabt also realized that based on the pressure of his teammates and the location of the ball near the sideline, the best option for the attacker was to split the defence and penetrate centrally onto his right foot. Therefore, Taarabt patiently waited for the attacker to cut inside, and when he did, Taarabt stepped hard to the ball to snuff out the threat.
In this particular match, Taarabt won a staggering 80% of his defensive duels on the way to being named Man of the Match. This statistic is highly impressive for any pivot player, let alone one who has never played the position in his entire career.
In addition to his defensive prowess, Taarabt has also developed into a key component of Benfica’s transition phases. Beginning with attack to defence, Taarabt is often positioned behind the ball as Benfica advance into the final third. When possession is lost, Taarabt is responsible for immediately counter-pressing to force play negative as demonstrated below versus Famalicao.
Taarabt has shown no limit this season in his willingness to contribute to this aspect of the game, and he has even led Benfica in distance covered in various matches.
On top of aiding Benfica’s transition from attack to defence, Taarabt has enhanced Benfica’s ability to go from defence to attack. Having spent most of his career playing between the lines, Taarabt is accustomed to receiving the ball in tight spaces under high pressure. Moreover, he has the technique, composure, and vision to be effective in these circumstances, even when numbers-down. Consequently, in situations like the one shown below, Taarabt is more capable of maintaining possession and launching Benfica counter-attacks than many of his peers, and this ability has bolstered Benfica’s attack.
On top of elevating Benfica’s defensive strength and effectiveness in transition, Taarabt gives Benfica an added dimension in attack for several reasons. First of all, he has a cleverness and close control that is more common for a street footballer than a typical pivot player. As follows, Taarabt is able to resist and evade pressure in situations where others cannot. A perfect example of this is shown below from Benfica’s recent encounter with Porto where Taarabt skated past an aggressively pressing Soares with a classy, right-footed stepover.
The result of Taarabt’s press resistance is that Benfica increase in the number of attacks they can generate each game.
Another way in which Taarabt has improved Benfica’s attack is through his passing. Similar to many of his peers, Taarabt boasts a notable pass completion rate of 93.3%. What separates Taarabt from others, though, is his ability to play-make from his left pivot position. Evidence of this is seen in how Taarabt generates 2.7 smart passes and 0.6 key passes per game compared to Florentino Luis’ 0.3 smart passes and 0.1 key passes. Thus, as Taarabt gets forward, he has the vision and quality to produce a final pass as shown below, which is a rare trait for a pivot player.
A final way in which Taarabt adds to the Benfica attack is through his penetration off the dribble. As Benfica circulate the ball and the opposition defence becomes stretched, unlike most pivot players, Taarabt has the ability to drive forward off the dribble, beat defenders, and set up his teammates as demonstrated by his knifing run below.
Impressively, Taarabt wins 81.5% of his 1 v 1 duels and completes 4 dribbles per game.
Adel Taarabt’s reinvention as a box to box midfielder has been a revelation for Benfica this season. With his size, technique, and intelligence, his skillset is unrivalled at this position. And now that he has finally matured and fostered a strong work ethic, he is truly a complete footballer whose only weakness is his fiery personality that can at times get him into trouble with referees. Therefore, if Taarabt can maintain the form he is displaying this season at Benfica, it will not be surprising if he is on the move to a bigger club come summertime.