EPL 2021/22: Is Demarai Gray finally reaching his potential? – scout report
Demarai Gray burst onto the scene at Birmingham at 17 years of age, to much fanfare, gaining his first start in November of 2013. Yet Gray’s ascension wasn’t rushed, remaining with Birmingham until January of 2016, leaving for Leicester City after making 72 appearances for the Blues.
Gray found it difficult to break into the starting line-up at Leicester, given their famous title run in that season, but even after the title-winning campaign, Gray never quite pushed on with the Foxes. He certainly made a respectable amount of appearances, but never solidified himself as a starter, making 133 appearances in 5 years at the club with game-time significantly dropping off in his last 18 months at the club.
He followed this move by going slightly under the radar with a move to the Bundesliga with Bayer Leverkusen last season, making 10 appearances and scoring once, before moving back to the Premier League this season with Everton. Perhaps the biggest challenge he has faced so far in his young career (he is still only 25), is being part of a club where he is certainly good enough to be there, but perhaps not good enough to always get into the starting line-up and consistently contribute. This move to Everton initially seemed to be part of this theme too. However, Gray has thus far shown he is perhaps on the verge of turning a corner and realising his undoubted potential.
It is obviously early days, but Gray has scored twice in his first three league games and has looked bright and at home in a Toffees side that is already looking far more promising than the same iteration from last season.
He has predominantly played on the left-wing, although interestingly in his first Premier League appearance for Everton he started in the 10 role. We can take a glimpse at some of his favoured positioning so far in the heat map from these fixtures, shown below.
This tactical analysis and scout report will break down some of Gray’s key actions in his fledgling Everton career, and providing an analysis of the tactics that have allowed him to flourish thus far.
Speed of decision making
Gray has always been a quick and direct winger. However, the overall speed of his play in possession in terms of making decisions has been impressive. He regularly plays passes off of one or two touches, so moves possession on quickly. He is difficult to dispossess as a result, but can also see the opportunity for a smart pass into space in behind, receiving with an open body position and playing the pass behind the pressing defender.
Gray will take wider positions at times, particularly if he wants to isolate the full-back and dribble, but he varies his positioning too, and will drift into the half-space to get in possession, allowing Lucas Digne to push high and threaten down the left-wing. Again he can receive on the half-turn and play in behind quickly as a result.
He shows excellent awareness of his surroundings, constantly scanning as he looks to receive possession. Whilst he looks to play passes like the one in the previous image, his first intention is to dribble, and this is obvious as soon as he receives the ball. Gray will even look to manipulate his body positioning where his first touch can take the ball past a defender. He will look to do this as the defender is approaching, using their forward momentum to catch them cold and accelerate away.
Threat on transition
Gray’s acceleration and outstanding top speed make him a valuable asset in counter-attacks. His overall reaction time to a regain of possession is highly impressive, and he looks to immediately push forward and provide an outlet for a through pass.
He is difficult for most defenders to track as he does this, and is a legitimate option for a ball over the top in this moment. He stays wide as he pushes forward, and this gives the ball-carrier two options. Firstly, he can simply thread Gray through with a through pass, but what Gray’s positioning does is prevent the opposition full-back or centre-back from being able to be too aggressive in stepping forward to engage the ball-carrier. We can see this pattern occurring in the image shown below, with a fast ball-carrier like Richarlison thriving with the space afforded to him in front of him.
Once again, Gray shows an impressive ability to play quickly off of one-touch, and if he is already in a higher position upon the occurrence of the transition, he may well drop deep to provide a passing option, quickly combining, before spinning off back into the space behind him, once again providing a forward passing option. His speed on the turn is exceptional and he is effective in shaking his marker with this tactic.
Finally, Gray is a dribbler of the highest standard, attempting 5.48 dribbles per 90 so far in his Everton career, completing 41.2% of these. He is able to receive possession, and drive forward himself, showing a confidence in taking on an opponent when there is space behind them to attack. He can carry the ball towards the opposition box, but remains wide and will look to drill the ball across goal in these opportunities. Whilst he is yet to notch an assist for Everton, he has shown promise with his crossing ability, and will no doubt contribute in this way at some stage this season.
Gray poses a threat with his directness in possession, which we have seen throughout this report so far. As a dribbler, he has a few tendencies which allow him to not only succeed in 1v1 duels but also create interesting attacking options. Firstly, Gray will delay his acceleration and will seek to draw the defender towards him before attacking. As he receives possession, his first touch keeps the ball very close and he will gently press forward, waiting for the forward lunge from the full-back before bursting away.
He will look to leave the acceleration away to the last possible moment, and if there is a chance to either get a shot away on goal, or make a through pass, Gray will drive inside slightly with the ball, creating the angle outside defender. As he gets close enough he will then take that aggressive touch away from the defender, creating enough space to get the shot away.
He scored against Brighton by doing exactly this, finishing well across goal with his left after bursting away from the defender on the quick break.
Gray doesn’t look to exclusively move inside before accelerating away down the outside of a defender either. He understands how to create passing angles for himself, and does a good job of recognising if his centre-forward inside of him is positioned well enough where he can potentially find them with a through pass. Below we see him cut inside with his centre-forward on the far-side centre-back, creating an option for the forward to make a diagonal run across the defenders if Gray is successful in cutting inside.
Gray’s 2.58 crosses per 90 is respectable enough, but his 62.5% completion on these so far for Everton is outstanding. If anything, if a player is making such a high completion on their crosses, they could potentially afford to make a few more. However, Gray consistently strikes the ball into outstanding attacking areas, and it is highly surprising, and unfortunate he hasn’t registered an assist yet. Whilst earlier we saw him strike the ball across goal on a fast break, Gray otherwise prefers to whip the ball across goal at head height in more developed attacks.
He does a phenomenal job of quickly shifting the ball onto either foot, away from the defender to give himself enough space to make these crosses. With Dominic Calvert-Lewin prowling in the area these are the exact type of crosses Rafa Benitez would want from his wingers.
Gray can cross with either foot and from either flank, and most frequently looks to hit the space just beyond the first centre-back. Calvert-Lewin often makes an initial movement toward the front post, expecting the ball to be played a touch behind him, before changing direction and moving into the space he has now created, having drawn the defender over with the initial movement.
Finally, Gray has already shown an ability to finish, and to do so from tight angles, even with traffic between himself and the keeper. He can be a touch erratic when dribbling inside the area in some moments, but nevertheless showed outstanding composure as he took both of his goals for Everton this season. He finished both with his left, and played both to the far-side, striking the ball with power, but maintaining a low placement on his shot.
It’s too early to say, but we could be witnessing a breakout season from Gray, a player who has threatened to realise his potential for so long. He is currently playing with supreme confidence in his game, and is truly a threat as a creator and as a goalscorer. His ability to play on either wing or even as a 10 provides Benitez with some tactical flexibility and his directness and speed in and out of possession make him a quality option on counter-attacks alongside Richarlison. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Gray add to his goal tally in the not too distant future, although with four shots in total over his three Premier League games so far, he may need to increase his output to maintain a steady return. However, where Gray should contribute is with assists, and if he continues to deliver crosses into the areas he has been, it is only a matter of time.