The Greek wonderkid with 17 goals this season who is destined for a big money move
In the mainstream media, a lot of limelight is shed on top young players who rapidly rise through the academy system and make it in the first team of their respective clubs, particularly in the biggest European teams.
Players such as Ansu Fati at Barcelona, Mason Greenwood at Manchester United, and Bukayo Saka at Arsenal have all experienced meteoric rises, which have been highly publicised within the press, however, there are players at teams in European leagues on the outskirts of the typical top five that have also experienced similar rises.
One of these players is Christos Tzolis who currently plays for PAOK in the Greek Super League 1. On June 7, following the return from football after the COVID-19 outbreak, Tzolis was handed his debut by the manager at the time, Abel Ferreira, who now manages this season’s Copa Libertadores winners Palmeiras.
Since making his debut roughly 9 months ago, the youngster has scored 18 goals, 17 of which have come this season, and gotten four assists. Tzolis has also managed to get himself four caps for the Greek national team due to his incredible talent and impressive form, scoring in one of the games.
The 19-year-old has been heavily scouted by some top European clubs including United, Borussia Dortmund, and even Barcelona from a very young age, with a big move likely to happen in the summer.
This will be a tactical analysis article in the form of a scout report. It will be an analysis of how Tzolis fits into the tactics applied by PAOK as well as an overall look at the player’s style of play and greatest qualities.
Positioning and style of play
Tzolis is a right-footed wide player, who generally plays on the left for his club and country. According to PAOK’s official website, Tzolis is 179cm tall, which equates to approximately 5 ft 10 inches, whilst he weighs 73kg, meaning the Greek international is a decent build for a wide player. His physical attributes mean he does not get shrugged off the ball easily and has good balance when running with the ball at his feet, while also being rather strong aerially.
Tzolis is quite versatile and can play any position across the frontline, although playing on the left is his strongest position. In all competitions this season, the youngster has started on the left in 64 percent of his games, playing as an inside-forward 29 percent of the time, which is the most in one position.
This is mainly in a 4-2-3-1 formation, which PAOK’s manager Pablo Garcia has deployed in 34 percent of their games all season, whilst the 5-4-1 and the 4-3-3 are the second and third most used systems.
When on the left, Tzolis likes to drift between the left flank and the halfspace, constantly creating combinations and positional interchanges with the fullback as well as position himself in the box quite a lot, which can be seen from his heat map this season.
Tzolis plays more of a second-striker at times rather than a winger, making intelligent runs into the box and getting himself into excellent goalscoring positions just as a striker would. In terms of creating chances for others, the Greek star is rather lacklustre, boasting an expected assists rate (xA) of just 0.13 per game this season.
Play in and around the box
However, Tzolis is utterly ruthless in front of goal, hence why his goal tally has been so astronomical in such a short period of time, with an expected goals rate (xG) of 16.83 in all competitions this season including internationals, as well as taking an average of 2.73 shots on goal per 90 in the league.
As we can see from the table above, Tzolis currently has the sixth-highest expected goals (xG) tally in Greece’s top-flight division with 6.94. He also has a goals per 90 record of 0.55, which is an average of a goal every two games.
His goal conversion (GC%) rate this season has been 20.25 percent, and he currently has the second-highest conversion rate for players in the Greek Super League under the age of 20. He also has the seventh-highest touches in the box per 90 (TIB/90) in the league with 5.22.
When looking at the areas in which his shots are taken, it is very clear that most of his attempts on goal as well as his goals themselves are mainly inside the box, on the left side in particular.
This is a data visual of all Tzolis’ shots on goal this season, which shows an extremely high volume of shots inside the penalty, especially shots that led to goals, whilst he has scored merely three from outside the area.
Again, Tzolis’ stats show that he is not an out-and-out winger. He currently only attempts an average of 4.46 dribbles per 90 (D/90), completing (DR%) 51.94 percent, however, as more of an inside forward, his statistics shown in the data visuals above speak for themselves.
It is not just his incredible knack of getting goals, the positions that Tzolis takes up in the penalty area are very impressive, giving himself the best possible opportunity to score rather than waiting for the opposition to find him with a pass.
This is an example of Tzolis using some intelligent movement and taking up a good goalscoring position inside the box. The PAOK fullback has driven into the box towards the by-line which has incidentally caused the opposition’s defence to collapse at the six-yard box in order to protect the goal.
Tzolis watches this happen and drops to the blindside of the defending players in order to receive an easy cut-back from the fullback, putting him in an excellent position to score. Unfortunately for the youngster, this strike did not hit the back of the net but is a perfect example of the forward’s instincts to get himself into a great goalscoring opportunity.
However, the next image portrays a very similar scenario to the previous one except the right-back has made a run to the by-line instead. Tzolis once again has peeled away from the defender to receive a cut-back in space before hitting a wonderful strike into the top corner.
Halfspace play and receiving in pockets of space
As already stated in this scout report, Tzolis often inverts to allow the fullback on his side, typically the left-back, to push high up the pitch and overlap. When he inverts, he moves into the halfspace, playing in front of the opposition’s fullback and centre-back.
In the halfspaces, Tzolis plays with his back turned to goal and looks to receive passes in pockets of space. The 19-year-old has a dribble success rate of almost 52 percent and is very adept at allowing defenders to come at him from behind before quickly turning them and driving forward, or else he acts as a wall pass, attracting pressure before springing the ball out to the fullback or a ball-near midfielder.
This disorientates the opponent’s defensive block as it drags people out of position to close him down before he quickly escapes pressure by dribbling through it or bouncing the ball back out to a ball-near player, which of course creates gaps in defensive blocks for PAOK to capitalise on.
In this instance, Tzolis has received the ball in a pocket of space between three midfield players. Due to his quick feet, he is able to turn rapidly on the ball before driving forward or play to a ball-near player.
Here, he attracts the three midfield players to close him down which disorientates the opponent’s midfield structure in their defensive block, before playing to a ball-near midfielder who has a free run at the AEK Athens defence to play a line-breaking pass.
Tzolis also likes to underlap his fullback when in the final third of the pitch in order to break through the opposition’s defensive line. One of the easiest ways to get in behind a team’s defensive block is for the winger to underlap the fullback in the halfspace or for the fullback to overlap the winger on the flanks.
When a fullback has the ball high up the pitch in the final third, he is normally closed down by the opposition’s fullback on that side. When this happens, the ball-near winger makes a run on the defending fullback’s blindside for the player on the ball to slip him in and exploit the space left.
Tzolis makes these kinds of underlapping runs constantly and provides his team with an option to break down a defensive unit when sitting in a low block.
Here, we can see an example of these underlapping runs that he makes throughout a game, stretching the opposition and acting as a line-breaking passing option.
Former Chelsea left-back Baba Rahman had the ball out on the left flank. Asteras Tripolis’ wingback in their 5-4-1 defensive low block pushed out to close him down and while he moved out of position, Tzolis instantly made a run on his blind-side for Rahman into the space left behind the player pressing him. This gave PAOK a solution to get in behind the well-structured backline.
Tzolis persistently makes these kinds of runs which are extremely vital when a team are struggling to break down a low block.
Improvement to his crossing game needed
Building off the last sentence, unfortunately for PAOK and Tzolis, he is very ineffective in the wide areas due to the nature of his game. As stated repeatedly in this article, Tzolis excels as more of an inside-forward but in terms of crossing the ball and creating chances for others, he needs to massively improve this side of his game.
On average per 90 this season, the forward has completed just 0.71 crosses, which is quite low considering he plays in a possession-oriented system under Garcia, with PAOK averaging 59.41 percent possession in the league in the current campaign, which has just come to an end.
The Greek future star also only manages to play 2.87 passes to the penalty area per 90, whilst owning an expected assists per 90 rate of 0.13 as already mentioned.
The reason he is so ineffective from crossing the ball is that teams find it very easy to defend against him. Almost every defender forces Tzolis down the line onto his weaker left-foot on the left flank. Since he is not as strong on his left-foot, the crosses are often cut out or don’t reach their intended target.
Here, the Lamia fullback showed Tzolis onto his left-foot by forcing him to the by-line where the youngster fluffed his cross, leading to a breakdown in the attack. It can be far too easy at times for defenders to do this, so this is an area where the PAOK winger needs to heavily invest some time and training into in order to become a stronger crosser of the ball on his weaker foot.
From a defensive point of view, Tzolis is quite useful for PAOK. As they generally lineup in a 4-2-3-1, their shape is a 4-4-2 out of possession with the Greek winger on the left side of midfield. As they press rather high, Tzolis is usually tasked with pressing the opposition’s right-back although the instructions do change depending on the opponent.
However, if the opposition gets to the final third, Tzolis is instructed to track the fullback/wingback all the way back, which sometimes creates a back five, but the 19-year-old does this well and is very willing to help his team in the defensive phases.
Tzolis is quite fast, which is very useful in an attacking sense, however, it also aids himself and his team when PAOK transition from attack to defence. Due to his speed, he is able to get back and make recovery tackles while the opposition are counterattacking. This season, in all competitions, Tzolis has averaged 3.8 ball recoveries per 90, with 68.6 percent coming in the opponent’s half.
He also averages 2.32 interceptions per 90 as well as 5.25 defensive duels per 90, with a success rate of 49.7 percent.
Tzolis is still very rough around the edges and will potentially need to go to a more challenging league to help him to iron out these inefficiencies in his game, but there is no doubting his raw ability. To score 17 goals in 9 months of professional football is incredible for a player who is only 19.
Tzolis certainly one to watch for and according to TransferMarkt, if a top club does want to secure his signature, they will need to pay a minimum of over €10 million in compensation, potentially a lot more.
If he does leave PAOK, Tzolis needs to go to a team that suits his style of play and one that are not overly reliant on their wingers to be a creative outlet. Liverpool are certainly a club that would suit Tzolis’ style but since he may not be quite ready for such a big challenge as of yet, perhaps a club in the Bundesliga like RB Leipzig or even Stuttgart might be a better option.