Jhon Lucumí: The modern-day centre-back ready to dominate Serie A – scout report
Colombian centre-back Jhon Lucumí has an eye for clubs with an impressive record of developing defenders. After breaking into the Deportivo Cali first team at the age of 17 in 2015, Lucumí made 40 appearances in just under three years. Only becoming a regular starter at the beginning of 2018, he made an early move to Europe in the summer.
Joining Belgian side KRC Genk for just under £2.5m, Lucumí would always be another player on the conveyor belt of profit for De Smurfen. Arriving in Genk as Omar Colley’s replacement, who joined Sampdoria for over £8m, the Colombian joined a club who have brought in over £40m by selling defenders since Kalidou Koulibaly moved to Napoli. Developing as a well-rounded defender with experience in the Champions League and Europa League, he also won the Belgian Pro League, Cup and Super Cup. His time at Genk earned Lucumí his first Colombian national team call-up, alongside club teammates and compatriots Carlos Cuesta and Daniel Muñoz.
After four full seasons in Belgium, the 24-year-old centre-back has joined Italian side Bologna, another club well-versed at profiting from defenders. Since the summer of 2018, Bologna have made over £65m from defenders. This includes Arsenal defender Takehiro Tomiyasu, Brentford’s Aaron Hickey and Rennes’ recent signing Arthur Theate, all in deals worth over £15m. The Colombian will be looking to further his development in one of Europe’s top five leagues, aiming to become a starter for the national team. He is a good signing for I Rossoblù under manager Siniša Mihajlović, with the potential of bringing in a large fee in the future.
Jhon Lucumí (187cm/6’2”, 82kg/180lbs) is a left-footed centre-back with the attributes required of a typical modern-day defender. He has the pace needed to operate in a high line whilst having defensive awareness for a low block. Physically very strong and comfortable with the ball at his feet, his precision passing is ideal for possession-heavy sides. The Colombian looks to always be in control of his actions, from settled states of possession to last-ditch tackles in recovery.
The figure below displays Lucumí’s heatmap at Genk from the 2021/22 season. Under managers John van den Brom and Bernd Storck, Genk played a back four formation for over 90% of their games. Lucumí was exclusively deployed as the left-sided centre-back by both managers in a disappointing campaign with De Smurfen failing to qualify for Europe. He was Genk’s most used centre-back last season, owing to his ability and valuable left-footed profile, but the Colombian lacked a consistent partner.
His compatriot Carlos Cuesta has been Lucumí’s most frequent partner in Belgium, but Cuesta had long spells out of the team last season. American Mark McKenzie complements Lucumí well, with former Spanish youth international Mujaid Sadick the remaining option.
At his new club, Lucumí will have to adapt to Bologna’s different shape. Siniša Mihaljović had I Rossoblù lined up in variations of a back five for the majority of last season. This has continued so far at the start of the 2022/23 season. Lucumí is joining Bologna as the replacement of Arthur Theate as the left-sided centre-back of the three. Theate’s brilliant performances last season earned the Belgian his first national team call-ups alongside a €20m transfer to Rennes, after also making the move from Belgium in the previous summer.
As a result, Lucumí is a much-needed arrival at the exceptional Stadio Renato Dall’Ara. His potential centre-back combination involving Adama Soumaoro and Kevin Bonifazi has the aerial prowess to overcome Lucumí’s weakest area, with Bonifazi also providing a more direct passing option.
Last season, Genk ranked top of the Belgian Pro League for average possession with 58.4%. Their style of play during Jhon Lucumí’s time at the club has accelerated his confidence and proficiency on the ball. Only Anderlecht’s Wesley Hoedt and Genk teammate Mark McKenzie made more passes per 90 than Lucumí’s 65.4 for centre-backs in the league. The Colombian’s passing accuracy of 91.72% ranked 5th out of the 98 centre-backs to play over 500 minutes in the Belgian Pro League. The technical consistency required from players in possession-based teams, especially centre-backs with high pass frequency, demands persistent concentration.
Genk’s 14.4 passes per minute of possession last season was the 3rd most in the Pro League, with their PPDA against of 12.32 also ranking 3rd. This displays De Smurfen’s ability to retain and recycle possession despite opposition pressure. There is a slight contrast to Lucumí’s new club Bologna’s statistics from last season’s Serie A campaign. With an average possession of 49.9%, Mihaljović’s side ranked 11th in Serie A. Their passing rate of 14.4 is identical to Genk’s, but the statistic ranked Bologna in 9th. Their PPDA against of 9.96 ranked 11th in Serie A. Alongside ranking above average for long passes attempted, there is an indication of a more direct approach in possession at Bologna than Lucumí experienced at Genk.
Two of Lucumí’s best attributes are his excellent weight of pass and passing precision to help the receiver. With Genk’s style of play and build-up tendencies typically drawing opposition pressure, their players must remain composed. Players involved in the build-up phase must be able to retain possession in risk areas. Lucumí is calm under pressure and is able to thread forward passes into midfielders or find defenders able to receive due to his accommodating weight of pass. This can also be seen with backwards passes to goalkeeper Maarten Vandevoordt, executing passes that the goalkeeper can receive with ease to prevent any errors leading to goals.
These passes have also displayed Lucumí’s ambipedal passing, running towards his own goal with pressure from behind but the Colombian is able to make the pass with his right foot. This will be especially useful at Bologna, with his responsibility of recovering balls down the left channel.
The figure above is an example of the 24-year-old’s precise passing into the midfield from the build-up phase. With pressure arriving from Noa Lang and Club Brugge limiting Genk’s passing options, Mike Trésor has dropped to create a vertical passing lane. With the run attracting Noah Mbamba over Trésor’s left shoulder, Lucumí fires a pass for Trésor to receive on his right side. As a result, the midfielder could turn away from Mbamba, getting ahead of the young midfielder and driving at an exposed defence.
Lucumí is a great passer but doesn’t necessarily force forward passes. Like Genk’s PPDA against dictates, the centre-back understands the value of recycling and circulating possession to find the free man, shifting the opposition to perturb their defensive structure to find an opening. Lucumí can do this during the build-up phase or the consolidation phase (second phase) of possession. However, when the opportunity arises, the Colombian is not afraid of attempting the penetrative passes to progress possession.
The figure above is an example of Lucumí accurately playing a penetrative pass against KAS Eupen. With Eupen’s static defending, Genk have time to move into space and play passes. Lucumí executes a firm pass towards Trésor, who can flick the ball first-time using the pace on the pass to find striker Cyriel Dessers. Dessers, who has also moved to Serie A joining newly promoted Cremonese, was able to release a shot which was saved by the goalkeeper.
Bologna’s new centre-back made 7.27 passes into the final third per 90 in the Pro League last season with 75.52% accuracy, ranked 11th and 10th for each statistic respectively out of the 98 centre-backs. The Colombian made 7.16 progressive passes per 90 with 73.97% accuracy, a quality that Theate provided I Rossoblù. Although Lucumí’s 6.51 long passes per 90 ranked 21st, relative to his high pass count, it is not a type of pass he consistently attempts. Nevertheless, his long pass accuracy of 61.05% suggests he could increase his long pass frequency to add more variety to his passing potency, and this might happen at Mihaljović’s Bologna.
The image above displays one of Lucumí’s brilliant diagonal long passes against Standard Liège. With Genk circulating possession and shifting Standard Liège from side to side, the centre-back quickly steps out to execute a left-to-right switch at the optimal time. By switching play to Joseph Paintsil, Lucumí has accessed Genk’s right-side overload, allowing them to create a crossing opportunity. The Colombian can continue to play these diagonal passes at Bologna, with wing-back Denso Kasius, Roberto Soriano and Riccardo Orsolini all tending to drift to the right channel.
Another situation centre-backs in a possession-based team regularly face is their role as the free man in possession. After progressing into the final third, the possession team will typically face a low block with ten opposition players between the goal and the ball. If the opposition leave one player forwards, then one of Genk’s centre-backs will be the free man in their rest defence structure. This results in the centre-backs having the initiative to find an opening.
An example of this can be seen above against Eupen. Lucumí receives as the free man away from Eupen striker Smail Prevljak and carries into the final third. Attracting pressure two Eupen players, his carry has also opened a passing lane for Bryan Heynen. The Colombian occasionally dribbles into the midfield from deeper areas, but he is generally successful with his dribbles. He only attempts 0.42 dribbles per 90, ranking 69th out of the 98 centre-backs, but his 2.04 progressive runs per 90 rank 10th, indicating his dribbles are beneficial for gaining Genk territory.
The centre-backs receiving as free men in possession-based teams can attempt to score themselves rather than remaining patient, with Manchester City centre-back Aymeric Laporte and former Chelsea defender Antonio Rüdiger often attempting shots from distance. This is not the case with Lucumí. Bologna’s new signing only attempted seven shots last season, with just one coming from distance in open play. He was never the target of set-pieces but managed to score two goals from 1.36 xG by remaining active in the second phase of set plays.
Out of possession
Jhon Lucumí is a strong defender with all the attributes and potential of a centre-back destined for a move to a top club. Physically, the 24-year-old is quite exceptional. His strength can deter the most combative strikers from contesting in duels against the Colombian. His ability to bulldoze his way past opposition strikers attempting to hold up the ball and pin Lucumí can be extremely effective.
An example of this can be seen below, against Ferran Jutglà of Club Brugge. The former Barcelona striker is trying to hold off Lucumí so he can bring down the aerial ball. However, the centre-back was able to power in front of Jutglà with ease to regain possession.
Lucumí adapts his defensive approach depending on the opponent he is facing. Against some strikers, the Colombian will stand off, but against most strikers, he will be more touch tight. For example, against Eupen’s Smail Prevljak, a more physical forward that wants the ball to his feet, Lucumí would be tight to the striker to engage in physical battles but would be able to utilise his superior pace and acceleration for passes in behind. In the Pro League last season, his 7.61 defensive duels per 90 ranked 39th out of the 98 centre-backs, with his 71.64% duel win rate ranking 20th.
At the weekend, Lucumí made his Bologna debut at the San Siro in a 2-0 loss against reigning Serie A champions AC Milan. Facing a versatile and talented attacking quartet of Rafael Leão, Charles De Ketelaere, Junior Messias, and Olivier Giroud, the centre-back still had a promising debut and displayed his defensive abilities despite the result.
However, there were moments where Lucumí was a bit too aggressive and rash when his opponent was receiving with their back to goal and dropping into the midfield. As a result, the Colombian was drawn out of position into deeper areas, unable to use his physical attributes. However, this will also be in part to his new role as the left-sided centre-back in a back-three system at Bologna.
This aggression was also on show at Genk. For possession-dominant sides, like Genk, rest defence is crucial for regaining possession after a turnover and sustaining pressure in the final third. In the Pro League, Lucumí was very aggressive in rest defence. The figure above is an example of KV Mechelen attempting to find striker Hugo Cuypers after regaining possession in their defensive third, but Lucumí was able to powerfully get a challenge in before Cuypers could receive. His 8.13 PAdj interceptions ranked 22nd last season. Bologna’s new signing also has a knack for his clearances finding teammates.
Lucumí rarely goes to the ground for challenges, with his 0.34 slide tackles per 90 ranking 50th out of the 98 centre-backs. Although, his slide tackles are typically very well timed to recover possession, pouncing on a heavy touch.
The Colombian is a strong 1vs1 defender and defends with patience in deeper areas, despite his aggression in physical duels. He also seems to be a good communicator with his teammates, particularly at Genk with his La Tricolor compatriots. Lucumí covers ground very well with his rapid pace. This is beneficial for his role at Bologna, where he will be defending wide areas more frequently. He smothers ground in wide areas to block crosses and his continuous small steps inside the penalty box help to block shooting angles.
His pace to provide covering depth is a useful asset for all teams. It also helps his sweeping role which reduces his frequency to contest aerial duels. Out of the 98 Pro League centre-backs to play over 500 minutes last season, Lucumí ranked 90th for aerial duels per 90 with 2.28 and ranked 86th for win rate with 45%. His pace also assists his ability to defend transitions and defend when overloaded. In the figure below, Lucumí is able to get across to cut the passing lane into Club Brugge attacker Noa Lang, forcing Jutglà down the outside on his weaker foot, after Genk lost possession in their own half.
Choosing Genk and Bologna as his first two destinations in Europe shows the path Jhon Lucumí is trying to go down. Two clubs with the reputation of brilliant defensive development with the transfer fees and profit prove that their intentions provide success. As a centre-back with ideal attributes for a modern-day centre-back, Lucumí has the potential to be a big-money departure for I Rossoblù in the future.
However, the Colombian must prove his quality in Serie A. It may take some time before he starts to excel in his new role at Bologna within Siniša Mihajlović’s tactics, but the centre-back could dominate Serie A soon. Technically sound in possession with the ability to progress through passes or dribbles, he is also a rapid defender with well-rounded physical attributes to assist his defending 1vs1, in a low block, or in a high line.
In this tactical analysis, we have looked at Jhon Lucumí’s style of play, discussing his in-possession and out-of-possession attributes ahead of an exciting season for Bologna’s new starting centre-back.