Aron Donnum Scout Report: One of the best-value deals of the summer heading to Standard Liege
I am lucky enough to be in a position to consume a lot of football. As part of the consultancy that we offer to clubs and agencies I am exposed to football at all levels and from every continent and one of my favourite leagues from a scouting and player development perspective is the Belgian Pro League. This summer has seen one of the more interesting Belgian sides, Standard Liege, lose one of their more talented attacking players as they sold Michel-Ange Balikwisha to one of their domestic rivals in Royal Antwerp. This move was surprising in that they were willing to sell to a rival but less surprising as their coach Mbaye Leye has been clear in his belief that the club would have to sell to balance their finances.
In the end, the deal for Balikwisha was a reported £5.4M but it severely weakened the wide options that Leye would have at his disposal coming into the 2021/22 season.
In the last week, however, the club has moved to redress this weakness with the signing, for a reported £1.35M, of the 23-year-old Norwegian international winger Aron Donnum from Valerenga. Donnum is a fascinating signing and a player that I have recommended to clubs previously because of his raw attacking output. A pacy and direct wide attacker with the ability to change the game for his team Donnum is likely to be a significant success in the Belgian top-flight.
In this article, we will examine his player profile and show how he might fit into this Standard Liege side.
The above profile shows Donnum’s performance from a data perspective so far in the 2021 season (the Norwegian top-flight runs out of sync to the majority of Europe) and with 682 minutes played at the time of his move his tendencies are already showing clearly. The bar charts down the left-hand side of our chart are percentile charts that compare Dommun to all other wingers who have played at least 200 minutes in the Norwegian top-flight so far this season. The tables on the right-hand side give the raw per 90 metrics for each category.
As you can see Donnum is a direct and creative attacking player. Averaging 15.18 dribbles per 90 with a success rate of 51.30% he is also averaging 3.30 shots per 90 and 5.67 touches in the opposition area per 90. This leads to a goal output of 0.53 goals per 90 from an xG of 0.80 per 90. Now consider his passing output with 5.28 passes into the penalty area per 90 and 0.26 assists per 90 from an xA of 0.31. From a pure data perspective, Donnum is a player who was more than ready for a move to a league that would offer a higher level of competition.
Donnum is listed at 179cm | 5’9″ and he is predominantly left-footed. He displays a clear preference for playing from the right-wing from where he can cut inside and drive into the half-space or the central areas when in possession of the ball. You can see from his heatmap for this season, on the right side of the player profile that although most of his actions are in the wide areas he also occupies a large amount of space in the final third.
Whenever signing a player or assessing the signing of a player it pays to think about the role that player played for his old team and where he is likely to play for his new team. His preference is absolutely to play as a right-sided winger, but is that something that will likely happen for him in Belgium?
Firstly we will consider the tactical systems used by Valerenga so far this season and the role that Donnum played within that system. For the most part, they played in a 4-3-3 system with Donnum positioned on the right-hand side. They did occasionally alter their structure into what Wyscout would consider to be a 4-1-4-1, although this is just a 4-3-3 with the wingers slightly deeper. Again, Donnum preferred to play from the right-hand side of the attack.
Now, a slightly more diverse set of structures from Standard Liege in the 2020/21 season. Once again they had a slight preference for a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, both of which are essentially slight variants of one another. In these systems, Michel-Ange Balikwisha tended to play either from the right-hand side or as the ’10’ behind the striker. The slight issue would be if Leye decides to play with a three at the back system. Indeed, Standard have already started their league campaign with a 1-1 draw at home to Genk in a match that they played a 5-3-2 system. In this system, there is little in terms of a natural position for Donnum as his direct threat is negated somewhat if you play him as a striker from the highest line and his defensive output is not enough to suggest that he can play as a wingback.
I expect the signing of Donnum will see Standard Liege resort to a 4-3-3 or even 4-4-2 system.
Carrying the ball
It will perhaps come as no surprise that one of the biggest strengths of Donnum’s game is his ability to receive the ball before immediately driving his team forward. This shows in his output in terms of dribbles per 90. It is notable, however, that Donnum does not limit himself to receiving the ball in the final third and in the wide areas where he can isolate the opposition defender in a 1v1 situation. He is equally comfortable when dropping back towards the ball carrier and offering a passing option. This movement profile enables his side to progress the ball effectively through the thirds as Donnum will look to drop into pockets of space before turning and driving his team forward.
We see a clear example of this here in the match between Valegrena and Sandjeford. The ball is on the right-hand side but neither team has a particularly strong organisation or structure. Donnum drops back from his advanced position and receives the forward pass while facing his own goal. He does not receive and then immediately look to offload possession into the central areas, as we tend to see a lot of wingers do in these positions, instead, he turns and drives inside and then forward to access the central space.
As soon as he carries the ball into these advanced central positions he is able to push his team forward into space with the opposition poorly structured to effectively stop his progression.
When he does pick up possession in more advanced positions his first thought tends to be to attack from outside to in on his left foot. He is a quick and effective dribbler of the ball who understands how to manipulate the ball and how to hold the ball away from the defender as he moves past players. It is not unusual to see Donnum drive inside past two or three defensive players. This essentially creates chaos in the opposition defensive block and has the effect of pulling opposition players towards him and the ball. This action then serves to create space in the final third for his teammates.
We see an example of this here as Donnum receives the ball, initially on the right-hand side, before driving past the first defender and then cutting inside the two covering defenders in order to access the penalty area. From these positions, Donnum will shoot, if he has the angle and space, or look to create a shooting opportunity for a teammate. In this example, he cuts the ball across goal for a teammate to run on to.
Linking the play
For all of Donnum’s impressive ball carrying and single-minded approach to ball progression, he is not a player who I would classify as being particularly greedy or ball orientated in possession. Instead, he will look for opportunities to link the play and to find the best passing option as he progresses the ball forward. If driving forward himself is his best option he will take the ball forward but if a teammate has the opportunity to play from a more advantageous position then Donnum will look to access this passing option.
We see an example of this here as Donnum is initially in possession in the right half-space with room to move forward into. In these situations, we would expect a wide player with such an extreme profile in terms of ball carrying to drive into the space and try to access the penalty area. Instead, Donnum understands that he has a teammate making a diagonal movement ahead of him to access that space. He plays the simple pass to access that run.
From that point, Donnum does not slow but cuts across and makes a dangerous run of his own into the penalty area.
This time we see Donnum in possession of the ball wide on the right where he has been pinned in by two opposition defenders. His fullback does him no favours in this position as he has moved high but ended up crowding the space and cutting off the option to drop back with the ball. Donnum, however, rarely panics in these situations and he retains the ball and pauses as he waits for the play to develop around him.
Eventually, there is a run from a deeper position into the space that has been created by two defensive players being drawn into the ball. Donnum identifies this run and slips the ball through to release the runner into the penalty area.
Donnum carries a significant goal threat with his ability to come inside onto his favoured left foot. He also has a variety of finishes with the ability to drive the ball or put some curl on his shots. He also, however, displays very good attacking instincts when positioning himself in the penalty area and creating separation from defensive players. Indeed, over the last three seasons, we have seen Donnum be very consistent in terms of his goalscoring metrics.
2019 – 0.29 goals per 90 from 0.30 xG per 90
2020 – 0.30 goals per 90 from 0.38 xG per 90
2021 – 0.53 goals per 90 from 0.80 xG
While this season his data is only from 682 minutes I would expect his output to not drop below 0.30 goals per 90 across the whole season.
Here, we see his attacking instincts in full flow as Donnum arrives unmarked at the back post to finish a clipped pass into the area. Look at his starting position though, he is positioned on the far corner of the penalty area with the opposition in a relatively settled defensive block. The fullback, however, has been dragged too far inside and Donnum has held his position slightly to create even more separation and to ensure that he is positioned in space.
With a teammate in possession on the opposite side of the area, Donnum is then able to time his run and attack diagonally on the blind side of the fullback. The winger arrives in time to finish the chance at the far post.
Donnum is, of course, equally comfortable when driving inside in possession from the wide area before creating his own goalscoring opportunities. We see this here, although again Donnum has a teammate who has crowded his space and taken away one of the options that the winger might have wanted to use. Instead, Donnum utilises his ability to slow down in possession as he pauses and waits for the nearest defender to over-commit and get too close. Once this happens Donnum is able to accelerate through the gap between the two defenders before breaking into the penalty area and looking for a goalscoring opportunity.
Areas to improve
It is difficult to be too critical of Donnum from the perspective of a wide player as his attacking and ball progression metrics have been so impressive so far this season. He does still, however, have to get used to a higher level of competition in the Belgian top-flight and there will undoubtedly be a period of adjustment that will also see his metrics drop. Once Donnum is settled and used to his new teammates and the tactical style of his coach I fully expect him to become one of the more dominant wide players in Belgium.
His defensive metrics and output need some development and this is the one area in which I feel you can be truly critical of Donnum. For a player with the pace and acceleration to cover large areas of the field, his pressing can leave a lot to be desired. He can be a little straight with his angle of approach and this can lead to him being played around by intelligent teams. He is more effective when acting as the secondary or tertiary pressing player where he can be more flexible in his positioning and his ability to use his pace to make up for mistakes of spacing and positioning can be effective. The same can be said when Donnum has to drop back to support his fullback. He has the capacity to fill in and be an effective part of a deep defensive block but he can lose concentration and become a little too ball orientated in his focus with runners able to create separation.
I firmly believe that the transfer of Aron Donnum from Valerenga to Standard Liege will prove to be one of the best value deals of the summer transfer window. The winger has the dynamic profile and attacking instincts to become one of the most effective attacking players in the Belgian top-flight. Donnum is more than ready to move and play at a higher level of competition. The only slight concern is that Standard Liege suffer something of a transitional season with a lot of other clubs in the Belgian Pro League looking very strong coming into the 2021/22 season.
If this transfer goes as well as I expect then don’t be surprised to see Donnum gaining interest from the top five leagues before too long.