‘A highly prized commodity’: Why Barca’s new signing Esmee Brugts is backed to set the world alight – scout report
Whilst the likes of Aitana Bonmatí and Lauren Hemp will be continually referred to as stars of the 2023 Women’s World Cup (and rightly so), there were plenty of other players who can be included in the same sentence and who deserve a mention for their efforts on the field. One who put on some dazzling displays was Netherlands utility player Esmee Brugts, who made a significant impact and attracted a great deal of fan attention. Many have her down as one of the stars of the tournament despite her nation exiting in the quarter-finals.
It is worth noting that Brugts is currently a free agent and has been since the end of last season, having announced her departure from PSV Vrouwen after helping them to fourth place in the Vrouwen Eredivisie, and it will not surprise anyone to learn that there has been a significant amount of interest in her services from some of the biggest names in the European women’s game.
To name just a few, she had been linked with PSG Féminine, Eintracht Frankfurt Frauen, Manchester City Women and Wolfsburg Frauen, whilst both Arsenal Women and Manchester United Women reportedly went one step further and spoke to her about a move to either London or the North West.
However, it was announced in the last day that Barcelona Femení have won the race for her signature, which has left many people licking their lips in anticipation of what this could do for her still-burgeoning career. To see just how she could fit into head coach Jonatan Giráldez’s tactics, this tactical analysis will look at her game in closer detail, both in attack for PSV last season and in defence for her country, before highlighting where the Liga F giants could best deploy her in 2023/24.
As a forward
As mentioned, Esmee Brugts was primarily utilised in the forward line during her time at PSV, with her usually seen in the wide areas as head coach Rick de Rooij tried to make the most of her creative qualities and her goalscoring capabilities.
With Brugts known for her composure on the ball and ability to occupy tight spaces, it was a role that really suited her, but what some might not have appreciated is just how wide she likes to get, with her often seen running along the paintwork of the sideline in her efforts to move the ball around opponents and into the areas behind them.
For many, this would be too risky as there is a significant chance that the ball could edge out of play, but that has never bothered Brugts. She has instead used it to her advantage, with her continually catching opponents off-guard with her determined runs and the decisive manner of her play. In this case, she notices a small gap outside of Isa Kardinaal. She takes the ball forward before the Ajax Vrouwen defender has had a chance to set herself, meaning that Kardinaal is unable to react in time and can only watch as Brugts races past her and sends the ball into the middle.
It is not only in tight spaces that Brugts offers a threat from wide, though, as she is just as difficult to contain when in open spaces. Again, it comes down to her composure on the ball and lack of hesitation, with her rarely taking too many touches when she has possession and always planning ahead regarding where her pass will go before the ball arrives at her feet.
In this case, she only takes one touch to control the ball, and the next is her delivery into the middle, with her recognising already that striker Joëlle Smits is in an excellent position to break through the Den Haag Vrouwen back line. Whilst Den Haag’s Daniëlle Noordermeer meets the ball on this occasion. The chance ends up being cut out, the back line did have to adjust their positions to win the ball before Smits could get to it, and that again shows how dangerous Brugts can be when allowed this kind of freedom and time on the ball.
However, Brugts doesn’t only look to cross the ball into the middle from the wings and does, on plenty of occasions, take it inside the field herself, with this graphic showing the number of successful dribbles that she made when in possession and, therefore another reason that opponents in the Eredivisie last season found her tricky to play against.
It is clear from the number of green dots that this is something she did a lot of, and it is a crucial aspect of her game and something that allows her to convert chances and set them up.
It also allows her to manipulate opposing defences into moving inside the field and to leave spaces open on either side of them, which then will enable teammates to run behind them and to offer passing options, so there are several reasons why having Brugts in the attacking line ensures that the team maintains a constant attacking threat.
However, there have been times when she has needed to play through the middle, and that might faze a player who is so used to operating in the wide channels and who is used to finding teammates rather than finishing chances off. Not Brugts, though, as she has never had trouble adjusting between the alternative demands of each role and instead provides a significant target for her teammates to find when asked to lead the line.
In this case, to provide midfielder Lisa Pechersky with a way to move the ball into the Fortuna Sittard Vrouwen goal area, Brugts has looked to make a run into the gap in front of her and to ensure that she is in the right place at the right time to meet the ball at the earliest opportunity.
However, her movement while doing so really needs highlighting, as she initially runs towards the gap behind defender Samantha van Diemen before changing direction at the last minute and moving in front of the Fortuna player. This decisiveness once again prevented the opponents from reacting in time and staying between her and the goal.
As a defender
Given what has been stated so far in this scout report, it would be easy for those who have not watched her before to assume that Esmee Brugts is purely an attacker who creates and scores goals. However, when breaking down her performances on the international stage, it becomes immediately apparent that there is another side to her game and one that some might not have expected to find.
In essence, when playing for the Netherlands, Brugts transforms into a defender, with her often being deployed as the left-sided wing-back in head coach Andries Jonker’s 3-1-4-2 system.
This was a shape that Jonker introduced predominantly to allow PSG forward Lieke Martens to play more centrally, as she does for the French side. Still, he knew that it would only work if he had players on either side of the midfield who had the pace to both support attacks and drop back once the ball had been lost.
Brugts was a very early candidate for that role, with Jonker’s first game in charge (a friendly against Scotland) giving her a chance to show what she could offer inside her own third regarding aiding her team’s attempts to play out from the back.
The Netherlands had not started using their wing-back system at this stage, and so Brugts, who came on as a substitute, was not required to drop back in the manner that she does now. However, she continually tried to support her side inside their own third. She was a key proponent of their ability to transfer the ball out of danger and catch Scotland with well-constructed counterattacks.
In this case, she used Birmingham City Women captain Christie Harrison-Murray’s early movement against her. Then she sent the ball between Real Madrid Femenino’s Caroline Weir and Chelsea Women’s Erin Cuthbert for Arsenal’s Victoria Pelova to get on the end of, and this brought the Netherlands out of a situation from which it initially looked like they would struggle to break free from.
From then on, Brugts became a first-choice player for her nation, and her composure and decision-making continued to give them ways out of potentially difficult situations. It has also led to some teams trying to remove her from games, with Costa Rica looking to drag her out of position here and to play the ball around her, knowing that it would be difficult for them to break their opponents down if she was still in the picture.
However, Brugts recognised this and so didn’t press Portland Thorns midfielder Raquel Rodríguez with as much intensity as some might in this situation, instead holding back and ensuring that the link between her and the rest of the defensive line was not severed.
As a result, when Rodríguez passed out to Gabriela Guillén, there was no inside option due to Brugts standing in the way, and that meant that Costa Rica’s only pass was a forward one into the spaces behind the back line towards former Glasgow City forward Priscila Chinchilla. However, because the Dutch back line knew that this pass would come, they were able to meet it early and bring the attack to a swift end, and that shows again just how vital Brugts’ decision-making and anticipation has been in a defensive capacity as well as when she is deployed further forward.
There have been times, though, when Brugts has needed to abandon this clever positioning and has instead needed to show the basics of being a good defender, and this might be where some expect her capabilities to end due to it not being her natural position.
On the contrary, though, this is when Brugts shows that she is as good a defender as an attacker, with her recognising threats early and moving to help her team out in any way she can. This situation against Poland is a perfect example, with Natalia Padilla making her way into the final third and looking to pass inside towards Wolfsburg striker Ewa Pajor whilst Dominique Janssen struggles to keep her back.
Janssen being out of position means there is now a gap for Pajor to exploit, but Brugts recognises this and quickly tracks back to position herself inside Janssen. By doing so, she ends Poland’s hopes of taking advantage of the spaces that had been available to them, with Brugts making an easy interception (something she has done 12 times for her country in the last year) and once again bringing an opposing attack to a premature end.
At Barcelona Femení
Having set out a basic outline of what Esmee Brugts offers both in attack and in defence, the analysis will now turn its attention towards what she could bring to Barcelona now that her switch to the Spanish side has been confirmed.
Giráldez’s side, while still boasting a plethora of talent, are short in a few areas following player departures, and one of those is left-back. Last season, they had both Nuria Rábano and Sweden international Fridolina Rolfö on their books, with Rolfö often their first choice in the role as Barcelona like to play wide forwards in wide defensive positions, and the fact that Brugts fits that profile might explain why Barcelona were so interested in gaining her services.
As the graphic shows, though, the full-backs are encouraged to push forwards at every available opportunity and to continually support attacks, with them taking responsibility for creating chances through their crosses whilst allowing the wide forwards, usually a combination of Caroline Graham Hansen, Mariona Caldentey, Salma Paralluelo and Ana-Maria Crnogorčević, to drift infield and into the areas where they are at their most threatening.
With Brugts used to playing in a team that uses their full-backs to create width, this is not something that she would have too much trouble adjusting to. The fact that she operates so close to the sidelines would help Barcelona to use even more of the pitch than they do already, so it might unlock new possibilities for them when they have the ball.
As soon as possession has been lost, Barcelona’s full-backs tend not to move all the way back and instead turn their focus instantaneously towards trying to regain the ball as high up the field as possible. That is highlighted in this graphic, which shows the average defensive engagements of both Rábano and Rolfö last season, and it immediately becomes clear that neither made many interceptions and tackles around their goal area.
Instead, most of them took place between the offensive and defensive third, which also suits Brugts well as it is the same style that she is used to playing in when with her national team, with these being the areas that she frequents the most. Therefore, again, she will fit right in with Barcelona’s tactics and is a good player to bring in as a replacement for Rábano, who left for Wolfsburg this summer, if Giráldez was looking at her as a potential new left-back option.
However, there is also a strong possibility that Barcelona might see her as another addition to their forward line, with them in need of additional cover at the top of the field following the departure of Geyse Ferreira to Manchester United.
If this was the case, then what might have caught Giráldez’s eye is Brugts’ decisiveness and mobility, and, whilst her eight goals last season for PSV do provide a clear indication of her goal threat, it is more likely that he could look to use her pace and decisiveness in the wide channels rather than restrict her to a central role.
Instead, what might happen is that Paralluelo could be used as a central option this season, especially given her impact on Spain in that position during their successful run to World Cup glory.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has taken a closer look at Dutch forward Esmee Brugts, providing analysis of what she offers her team in attacking and defensive situations and why so many clubs have been linked with signing her following her departure from PSV.
To those who have witnessed the 20-year-old’s performances for club and country over the last few years, a move to Barcelona is well-deserved, with her clearly capable of starring at the top table and living her dream of competing in the Champions League. From the Spanish side’s point of view, there is no doubt that she ticks all the boxes in terms of versatility, filling squad gaps and being the right age to develop further.
She is undoubtedly one of the most exciting up-and-coming talents in the European women’s game, with many keeping a close eye on her progress, and Barcelona is the perfect place for her evident skill to be nurtured and for her game to prosper.