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Gabriel Slonina 2022 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics

Gabriel Slonina: The hyped 18-year-old Chicago Fire goalkeeper with links to Chelsea – scout report

Chelsea’s recent takeover by Todd Boehly marks the end of the Roman Abramovich era. But he may not be the only American to join the club this summer.

According to multiple sources, USA youth international goalkeeper, Gabriel Slonina, is heading to London. The deal is seen as imminent with the 18-year-old remaining at his current club, MLS’s Chicago Fire, at least through the end of the 2022 season.

Perhaps the most lauded goalkeeper to come out of America in recent years, Slonina is a dynamic young talent with tremendous upside. This scout report will break down his top qualities, as well as use data to identify his key strengths, and then represent them relative to MLS and EPL goalkeepers. Through tactical analysis, we will look closely at his goalkeeping profile, especially looking at the technical side of his play.

He’s young and a bit raw, but this young American is tabbed for a big career. What does Chelsea have in store? Let’s find out.

Slonina in the data

Before looking at in-game images, let’s start with his data.

The data profile below gives us his percentile rank relative to other MLS goalkeepers. In the goalkeeping actions section, we get a glimpse of both the raw talent and a young goalkeeper who is still learning the craft. Though he ranks below average in prevented goals this season, his organizational qualities and leadership at the back have greatly benefited the Chicago Fire. He’s among the league leaders in clean sheets which comes down to some of his intangible qualities at the position.

Gabriel Slonina 2022 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics

His passing and progression statistics are equally interesting. The Guardian’s analysis praises the 18-year-old for his talent with the ball at his feet. When you look specifically at his efficiency numbers, he’s one of the top goalkeepers in the league. Interestingly, the Chicago Fire tactics don’t place much of an attacking burden on him. Slonina rates below the median in terms of his passing usage on a P90 basis. Certainly odd given his talent with his feet.

On film, he doesn’t give an Ederson-type impression with unlimited range and pinpoint accuracy. Instead, his range is slightly above average and his accuracy is the top feature at his disposal.

Comparing his data to the broader pool of MLS and EPL players, Slonina rates fairly average in terms of his goalkeeper actions. You’ll find him almost exactly in the middle of the chart, the circle surrounded by crosses. A comparable performer in the goals prevented, conceded and save rate is Everton’s Jordan Pickford.

Gabriel Slonina 2022 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics

Looking at his long past data, he finds himself in much better company. He’s there in orange, near the top of the long pass accuracy statistics with a mark of 72.41%, remarkable for any position.

Given the quality of his passing data and his lesser influence in Chicago’s attacking tactics, this scout report will focus primarily on his goalkeeper actions. The data does flag some areas of concern, so we want to use video analysis to identify his technical and decision-making strengths and weaknesses. Let’s move in that direction.

Coming off his line

Watching Chicago, they certainly have a willing sweeper-keeper at the back. Slonina is accustomed to playing high off his line to limit the space between himself and the backline. His coverage of that gap is typically very good and that decreased distance allows him to use his voice to continuously communicate with his backline. This is a Fire team that does not score many goals, so Slonina’s influence at the back is critical to the club’s success.

Going with the principle that a goalie should cover 2/3 of the distance between themselves and the backline, which was discussed in a previous TFA tactical analysis on the intelligent movements of elite goalkeepers, we want to see that Slonina is both brave enough and tactically astute to cover that ground.

That is precisely what we find through film analysis. In a match against DC United, who recently hired former Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney as their manager, DC attempted to play through the backline. With a runner moving behind the backline, a well-placed pass would get them into the Chicago box. One thing to note in the image below is Slonina’s positioning. Standing on the penalty spot, he’s well-positioned to cover the goal or, more likely, make his move forward to sweep up for his backline.

Gabriel Slonina 2022 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics

As the ball is played forward, Slonina’s first step is backward as he anticipates his Rafael Czichos will deal with the through pass. However, the ball trickles behind his sliding teammate. Slonina is quick to respond and claims the loose ball ahead of Ola Kamara.

Gabriel Slonina 2022 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics

Coming off his line is one of Slonina’s top strengths. With his aggressive starting positions and attentiveness to his body orientation, he’s prepared to step forward to claim passes played behind his backline.

This goes for early crosses as well. In addition to using his size well to claim crosses out of the air, the image below shows his talent for reading and claiming ground passes. As the Columbus Crew looked for an early cross to the penalty spot, the Polish-American keeper was quick to step forward and intercept the cross near the penalty spot.

Gabriel Slonina 2022 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics

There’s a confidence to his game that will serve him well as he experiences the ups and downs of professional football. He’s not afraid to play aggressively, especially with respect to his positioning and leaving his line. As Slonina adds the in-game reps, testing his decision-making and learning what he’s capable of versus top opposition, maintaining this aggressive approach will serve him well, allowing him to command his box and better support his backline.

Shot stopping

Slonina has phenomenal reflexes. Pull up any Chicago Fire match and you’re bound to see an impressive, last-ditch save. His hand-eye coordination is excellent and he moves his hands very well, and quickly.

You may recall that his prevented goals and save percentage statistics were disconcerting. The data seems to fly in the face of this section’s opening paragraph. As this tactical analysis progresses, you’ll want to keep this section and the next tightly connected. While Slonina has tremendous upside and is capable of moments of brilliance, there are the inevitable growing pains of being an 18-year-old professional footballer.

For now, let’s focus on the positives. One of the tricky aspects of this scout report is definitely the inconsistency between Slonina’s capability and his overall performances, especially with regards to his shot-stopping. Mistakes along the backline have tested the young keeper throughout the year, calling upon him to make difficult saves.

We have an example of this in the image below. As Chicago pushed numbers forward to cut the deficit in half, Carlos Ferreira of the Houston Dynamo slipped behind the backline. Caught in a 1v1, Slonina cut off his opponent’s angle to goal, entering the duel from a position of strength. With his feet step, reading his opponent’s body mechanics and timing his action were Slonina’s next actions.

Gabriel Slonina 2022 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics

Using his length, the youngster made a brilliant kick-save to keep Chicago in the match.

One noticeable talent is that Slonina covers the low areas very well despite his 193cm frame. Skillfully cutting down angles to goal, he then uses his length to cover even more ground without leaving the five-hole exposed.

In another 1v1 duel versus the Columbus Crew, he was left in even worse shape for this encounter. The shading on the image below shows the angle to the goal that he’s covering. Even though he’s defending from a position of weakness, with no support and far from his line, Slonina does well to make the play more predictable. It’s a clever approach from the teenager. Taking away the far post and centre of the goal, he leaves his opponent with one option…attack the near post.

Gabriel Slonina 2022 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics

In the image above, you can see him in his set position. Notice however that he’s already cheating to his near post. From a body mechanics perspective, his decision to force his opponent to the near post seems intentional. Once his opponent takes the shot, Slonina is there to make the save, pushing the ball wide but not out (more on this momentarily).

Gabriel Slonina 2022 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics

One of the difficulties in goalkeeper analysis is that it can be difficult to appreciate the complexity of an action without showing multiple frames. That’s certainly the case with reflex saves. There’s often a deflection, close-range finish or defensive breakdown that leads to the goalkeeper’s heroics.

With many impressive saves on the season, this section has given a glimpse of his talent. But there is another topic to address, and that’s the inconsistencies of his game.

Consistency needed

You don’t find many young goalkeepers in starting elevens. It’s a difficult position with little to no margin for error. Physical ability and technical skills aren’t enough. Decision-making and consistency are such critical pieces to the goalkeeping puzzle.

And that’s exactly where we find Slonina. He’s a top-end talent learning to improve his decision-making and consistency. That’s precisely where those red flags in the data profile come to the forefront.

Take the example below for example. The cross comes from the wings and a glancing header by Andrew Gutman puts the ball inches from Slonina’s left foot. It’s an awkward position for a catch, but one he needs to make. One note on the image below is the poor timing of his set position. The header is off, but Slonina is still upright. His feet aren’t set, leaving him unprepared to move.

Gabriel Slonina 2022 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics

He spills the rebound to his left and is fortunate that Miguel Navarro is there to cover for him, clearing the loose ball.

Gabriel Slonina 2022 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics

In that case, he should have held onto the shot, especially given that there wasn’t much power on it. In the three-image sequence below, we have a scenario with a great save, but the rebound comes back to hurt him. In the first image, he has the near post covered and is prepared for the far post shot. All is good thus far.

Gabriel Slonina 2022 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics

It’s in the second image that he runs into trouble. Though he does make a great save, he pushes the ball right into the goal-mouth. Wyatt Omsberg is partially to blame. For some reason, he leaves his mark in image one, darting towards the ball. Even with his mistake, this is a save Slonina has to push further wide. As cruel as it may be, it’s not enough to make the save. Goalkeepers have to make the save while removing the threat of a second shot. That doesn’t happen here and a simple finish starts the Atlanta United rout.

This is where consistency is needed. Though Slonina can make the great save or deal with a cross, he doesn’t always end the danger. The image below, much like the image above, is a mistake that produces a better chance than the preceding one.

In the first clip below, Slonina goes to punch the cross, but he puts it right to his opponent who’s all alone and nine metres out. As mentioned a couple of times, he’s a raw talent, capable of the extraordinary. That’s exactly what we find here. He’s down and supposedly out of the play in image two, then makes an absurd save from the ground, throwing his upper body into the air to block the shot. It’s a moment of brilliance, but one that was easily avoidable.

Gabriel Slonina 2022 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics

Don’t get the impression that he lacks the strength or technical quality to make these saves. He does just that below, pushing the ball over the net.

Gabriel Slonina 2022 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics

Rather than a lack of ability, it’s the difficulty of consistency at issue. This is part of being a young goalkeeper. Should Chelsea complete the transfer, Edouard Mendy’s form gives the American time to develop before pushing for the first-team role. A loan back to Chicago is in the player and club’s best interests, giving Slonina those valuable minutes that he wouldn’t get in London.

One other area Slonina will certainly work on is his footwork. He’s a big guy, so, naturally, he’s not as agile and quick as his smaller colleagues. However, there’s still an opportunity for growth here.

In the example below, his feet are set, showing he’s ready to move. The shot comes from the top of the box, so there’s not much time for a response, but let’s go through the sequence.

Set in image one, Slonina goes into his dive in image two. It’s really images two and three that are most important. In that final clip, he watches the ball fly past him into the net, but look at where he is relative to image two and the shot’s location as it passes him.

Gabriel Slonina 2022 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics

Even with his frame, that shot is too well placed to simply fall to his left. Another step is needed to properly start his dive. Quick footwork, momentum to his left, and a better push-off on his near foot were needed just to give him a chance at his save. Had he checked all those boxes, would he have made the save? Maybe not. It was an excellent shot.

The bigger picture though is that his poor footwork is a recurring issue. We can talk about whether his stance is too wide, preventing him from quickly shuffling his feet, but the overarching pattern is a dependency on his height to make saves. That likely worked at lower levels, but it will need attention as he transitions to life in the first team.

Conclusion

Raw but immensely talented, Slonina is one to watch for the future. Should Chelsea complete his signing, it would be a shrewd business move, especially if the deal comes with a six or 18-month loan to keep him in Chicago. He needs first-team action, and that’s what he’ll get if he stays with the club.

Looking at Gregg Berhalter’s game model and the need for a goalkeeper who can lead the build-out, there’s a small chance Slonina is on the plane to Qatar. He’ll have to put in an extraordinary 2nd half performance to make the squad, but his profile fits the US national team’s needs. In all likelihood, 2026 is when we’ll hear his name mentioned with regularity, but the talented youngster isn’t far off. If he can clean up a couple of aspects of his game and perform at a more consistent level, the sky is the limit.