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Francisco Conceição: Antony’s potential replacement at Ajax? – scout report

It has been a summer of change for Eredivisie champions Ajax. Argentine international defender Lisandro Martínez followed manager Erik ten Hag to Manchester United meanwhile German giants Bayern Munich picked up right-back Noussair Mazraoui and promising midfielder Ryan Gravenberch. Top scorer Sébastien Haller also went to the Bundesliga, joining Borussia Dortmund in another big-money move, with defender Nicolás Tagliafico departing for Olympique Lyon and goalkeeper André Onana becoming one of Inter Milan’s annual free transfer bargains.

With such a loss of talent, new head coach Alfred Schreuder has spent a large chunk of the incoming fees in an attempt to recover the quality of the departures. Young striker Brian Brobbey has returned on a permanent deal with league-leading left-back Owen Wijndal arriving from AZ Alkmaar. Two transfers from the British Isles worth over £20m each in versatile defender Calvin Bassey of Scotland’s Rangers and Tottenham Hotspur’s attacker Steven Bergwijn bolster the Ajax squad. However, their newest arrival is Portugal under-21 international Francisco Conceição from FC Porto.

Conceição, also known as Chico, is taking a bold move by departing the Primeira Liga champions managed by his father Sérgio. Amassing 916 minutes across 39 appearances for club and country in the 2021/22 season, the bulk of Chico’s playing time came as a substitute. With the superstar duo of Vitinha and Fábio Vieira leaving Porto for nearly £40m each, there was potential for Chico’s minutes to increase. But the youngster has decided that his career progression lies in Amsterdam, at a club known for talent development. A starting role will not be guaranteed at Ajax, with highly rated Brazilian international Antony in direct competition for his preferred right winger role. The two players have similarities, and with Antony reportedly edging closer to a move to ten Hag’s Manchester United, Chico could be considered as the Brazilian’s replacement whether his transfer is fulfilled this summer or the next.

In this tactical analysis in the form of a scout report, we will take a look at Francisco Conceição’s style of play that could torment Eredivisie defences at Ajax.

Positioning

Francisco Conceição (170cm/5’7”, 64kg/141lbs) is a left-footed right winger with naturally gifted agility and tricky ball manipulation. Conceição’s heatmap from the 2021/22 season is displayed below, showing the youngster was exclusively deployed on the right wing for Dragões and the Portuguese Esperanças. Chico is most effective operating in the vicinity of the right flank in comparison to the left, with his familiarity in these spaces off the right moulding his attacking habits which are better suited to angles from the right wing.

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FC Porto lined up in a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1 for the vast majority of last season, whilst occasionally playing a 4-3-3. During Schreuder’s six-month spell at Club Brugge, he led the Blauw-Zwart to the Belgian First Division A title by deploying five at the back formations. However, in his opening few friendlies with Ajax, the former FC Barcelona assistant has set up his new team in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3.

Regardless of the system, wingers must be comfortable operating as the width holder and in more central areas after inverting. Chico has displayed the qualities required to act as a width holder, capable of drawing full-backs and support out of the opposition’s defensive structure. This is because of the qualitative superiority he can possess in 1v1 situations due to his nimble dribbling. In deeper phases, he can help sustain possession when under pressure, but in the final third Chico looks to be more forward-thinking and ambitious.

In the figure below, Chico receives a pass from now Marseille centre-back Chancel Mbemba on the touchline, attracting Portimonense left wing back Sana Gomes. A supporting Portimonense midfielder has effectively doubled up on Chico with Sana Gomes, but created space for Fábio Vieira to exploit. Chico attempts a give-and-go with Arsenal’s new signing, running in behind to penetrate the defensive line, but Fábio Vieira could not complete the pass. Ajax’s latest recruit is always looking to get in behind the opposition defence, usually by dribbling or playing a pass but he has shown the movement to penetrate dynamically.

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Although he has some strong physical attributes regarding agility, balance and short burst of acceleration, Chico doesn’t quite have the blistering pace of wingers such as former teammate Luis Díaz or Ajax teammate Mohamed Daramy. However, the Portuguese has shown glimpses of his potential technical and tactical efficacy that define him as a top-level winger in years to come. Combining this with his most prominent physical attributes, Conceição has shown to be most effective when given the freedom to invert off the right wing.

The image below exemplifies Chico occupying spaces that opposition defenders don’t want to be in. Perfectly between the lines, he is positioned halfway between the left-back and left-sided centre-back. With Porto going 4vs4 against the Vizela defence, Chico’s positioning will allow him to receive free or force one of the defenders out of position for either another attacker or João Mário to exploit. With João Mário being the right-width-holder, the right-back is enabling Chico to invert into his effective areas.

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João Mário has been crucial to Chico’s development in the central spaces. As a winger-turned-right-back, Mário’s skill set is naturally better suited to the width holder role as opposed to a deeper full-back position. This Conceição-Mario width holder partnership was prevalent for both FC Porto and Portugal’s Under-21s, with Chico’s brother Rodrigo Conceição another width-holding right-back for the Under-21s. Familiar with operating between the lines, particularly in the right half-space, Chico is acquainted with the expected role he will occupy at Schreuder’s Ajax. With the right-back options of Devyne Rensch and Sean Klaiber, it is likely that Schreuder will continue to use his right-backs as width-holders, as he has shown in their recent friendlies.

Despite his lack of consistent game time in senior football, Chico has displayed strong tactical discipline and understanding. Although he can be more direct in and around the final third, as mentioned earlier, his play in deeper phases of possession has a likeness to all possession-dominant teams. When operating centrally in deeper phases, Chico will look to recycle possession quickly, taking minimal touches with constant off-the-ball movement to become a passing option. This fluidity of play can help dislodge defensive structure as the possession-dominant team patiently wait for an opening through quick ball circulation. These qualities are valuable for Ajax and are transferable from Chico’s experience at Porto, with both teams recording the highest average possession in their recent triumphant league campaigns.

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The figure above displays Chico’s tactical discipline to provide balance to Porto’s in possession shape of a 2-3-5. He has shown an understanding of when to drift into other areas to create overloads previously, but in this example, he is aware of his role to maintain shape and offer to progress through passing. Part of this comes from recognizing the qualities and tendencies his teammates have. In the example, right-back João Mário is occupying his common role as the right-width-holder with Fábio Vieira in the right half-space. Rotations between these three are frequent for club and country, with Vieira’s aptness to operate in similar areas to Chico as a high-quality left-footed technician.

With his brother Rodrigo Conceição a similar option to João Mário positionally, Chico has experience providing balance alongside a different type of midfielder than Fábio Vieira. Benfica’s Paulo Bernardo is deployed as more of a box-to-box shuttler that typically occupies deeper areas but can be seen between the lines causing Chico to either provide width or drop back. Once again, this is valuable for Chico’s development at Ajax alongside different profiles, with the Portuguese youth international familiar with right-back width holders and attacking midfielders drifting between the lines, like Davy Klaassen and Steven Berghuis do at Ajax.

Although his dropping into deeper areas is necessary for team balance, Chico’s effectiveness in possession has significantly decreased. Despite having an impressive switch of play, his passing from deep is largely short-distanced with a focus on ball retention and circulation. He has variety in his passing in the final third but from deep he will rarely attempt passes that can penetrate and probe defences. Although he can utilise his agility and ball manipulation to attract opposition, his attributes are more effective in more advanced areas with less risk of an opposition counter-attack.

Dribbling

Francisco Conceição’s standout attributes amalgamate to create a tricky dribbler set to terrorise the Eredivisie’s crop of left-back. His assortment of ball manipulation techniques can beguile opponents, despite his heavily left-footedness. Chico can combine his crafty footwork with his swift agility to further strengthen his 1vs1 qualitative superiority. However, his nimbleness can also help him manoeuvre out of tight spaces with his acceleration to burst away from defenders a back-up option after a bad touch. These qualities mean Chico can influence play through dribbling when being the width-holder or in narrower positions.

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The two images here against Belarus under-21s show a well-rounded example of Conceição’s dribbling efficacy in central areas. With Paulo Bernardo sitting deeper and João Mário holding width, Chico is free to invert and drop between the midfield and defensive line of the Belarusian 5-4-1 defensive shape. Controlling the line-breaking pass from André Almeida, Chico immediately receives pressure from behind.

Despite his slight stature, Chico is deceptively strong. His low centre of gravity helps him withstand pressure, but he seems to have developed his technique throughout his career of being one of the smallest players on the pitch. With his back to the goal, Chico keeps his body between the opponent and the ball, using his arms to help maintain separation from the opponent with his knees slightly bent.

In the example below, Chico remains strong to prevent the defender from tackling. As the central midfielder approaches, Chico applies his burst of acceleration to twist and turn between the two opponents. Now driving at the defence, Conceição slips a pass through for Lens’ David da Costa, whose attempted cutback to the arriving Chico is intercepted.

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When receiving between the lines, especially with his back to goal, Chico will be closed down by defenders behind him alongside the recovering back-tracking midfielders. In these situations, Chico can deploy his agile body feints and ball control to deceive opponents and create the extra space he needs to burst past the defender. He likes to fake his first touch wide, opening his hips, before manipulating the ball the other way. He can execute a similar technique at pace, utilising his agility to shift the ball in the opposite direction. This is typically used by Chico with his left foot to bring the ball inside.

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The image above displays Chico receiving between the lines before dribbling into a shooting position on the edge of the box. The pace Chico can build up during his dribble is extremely threatening for defences with his ability to quickly shift the ball into a shooting position. Positioned between the lines of the Liechtenstein 5-4-1 defensive shape, Chico does a sharp movement to drop and receive the disguised pass from Paulo Bernardo with Rodrigo Conceição holding width. The space between the lines allows Chico to receive on the half-turn with his right foot. He then carries the ball with his left foot, accelerating past the back-tracking midfielder before whipping a left-footed shot towards the bottom left corner, which is saved.

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Ajax’s new signing has also demonstrated his dribbling ability whilst acting as the width holder on the right wing. As shown here, Chico can effortlessly beat an opponent in isolation. With David Da Costa spreading play out wide to Conceição, he brings the ball down with his left foot.

Occasionally, Chico’s first touch can get stuck under his feet, but as mentioned earlier, he can use his acceleration to recover and move the ball back into his stride. As a result, he can win lots of fouls after luring the opposition to lunge in for a tackle. In the example above, Chico dinks the ball over the oncoming defender’s challenge, skipping past him and remaining on his feet despite being fouled. In the example below, Chico uses his superior pace and balance to knock the ball past the covering defender, once again staying on his feet whilst being fouled. After getting to the by-line, he cuts inside but his right-foot cutback is intercepted.

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Despite being a left-footed right winger with the natural urge to carry possession infield, Conceição has displayed the ability to beat his man on the outside. This variety in his dribbling is especially valuable for a player whose opponents attempt to dictate his dribbling with their body shape. An example of this is shown below against Braga. Attacker Ricardo Horta is aware of Chico’s intentions in these positions, looking to cut inside and release a shot on goal. As a result, Horta overcompensates his positioning and body shape to prevent Chico from cutting inside. Chico was able to drop his shoulder and accelerate away from Horta to attempt a right-footed cross.

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End product

With four goals and five assists last season, his lack of output for the title winners fell victim to his substitution game time. However, as Chico’s game time and familiarity at Ajax increase, his overall effectiveness and output should improve as well. With Brian Brobbey’s box presence and the ball-striking and intelligent movement off the left wing of Steven Bergwijn, Dušan Tadić and Mohamed Daramy, Chico has teammates that can convert chances that he supplies. Cutting inside off the right wing, Conceição is not afraid of attempting a shot on goal.

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The image above displays the typical shot shape that Conceição executes coming off the right wing. Using the inside of his left foot, he looks to provide bend and pace to the ball to find the corners across goal. Although this is clearly his preferred shot technique, Chico’s ability on the dribble to shift the ball out of his feet at pace to create a shooting angle is nimble enough to trouble any defence. He rarely attempts right-footed shots, only inside the box after creating separation from a feint or fake shot from his left foot.

The Portugal under-21 international also lacks shot variation. Coming inside off the right wing, Chico clearly wants to shoot across the goal. If he can add the near post shot, hard and low through bodies and between legs, he would add another dimension to his goal-scoring.

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One of Chico’s biggest stumbling blocks in the final third is his right foot. At times, Ajax’s new signing looks unwilling to use his weaker foot, with his inconsistent and inaccurate ball-striking using it. His superb ball manipulation and agility can help him consistently shift the ball onto his left foot, but sometimes the optimal passing or shooting angle is on his right foot. Chico has also developed the outside of the boot pass, stabbing the ball with his left foot rather than with his right.

An example of this is seen above, displaying remarkable vision to assist David Da Costa instead of shooting from a tight angle. Meanwhile, the image below shows a cut-back to Otávio executed by Conceição with the outside of his foot to create a shooting opportunity. Cut-backs could be particularly effective for Chico at Ajax, with attacking midfielders Davy Klaassen and Steven Berghuis both having a knack for arriving in the box at the right time.

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In attacking transitions, Chico often remains in advanced areas on the right wing. Biding his time as the play progresses, the Portuguese can ghost inside off the wing to either run in behind or enter the penalty box into a goal-scoring position. The image below shows Chico making one of these runs in behind to stretch play, even though he prefers the ball to feet. Pointing in behind, Chico makes the penetrative run as centre-back Pepe scans the pitch ahead of him.

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Chico’s touch to control the lofted pass over the top of the Portimonense defence took him wide to the left. He was able to keep hold of possession before finding Iranian striker Mehdi Taremi. As Taremi’s shot cannons back off the post, Conceição is the first to react and assists an Evanilson tap-in from a low-drilled cross between multiple defenders. Although Chico is rarely seen operating on the left wing, his dribbling ability means he can create angles to create goal-scoring opportunities from this unfamiliar side.

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Conclusion

By departing the team managed by his father, Francisco Conceição is making a courageous move from FC Porto to Ajax Amsterdam for a reported £4.5 million. Struggling to earn a starting role with the Dragões, the 19-year-old will be looking for more consistent game time to develop in a league and club known for talent development. The left-footed right winger may struggle for game time initially, but with the rumoured departure of highly-rated Brazil international Antony to Manchester United, Chico could potentially be his replacement.

Either way, Conceição has displayed glimpses of superb agility and dribbling that will surely make his transfer fee a bargain, with Ajax making a profit in the coming years.

In this analysis, we have looked at Francisco Conceição’s style of play, identified the key components of his game, and looked at where he could fit in Ajax’s tactics, as he looks set to torment Eredivisie defences during the 2022/23 season.