Naci Ünüvar 2019/20 – scout report
Ajax Amsterdam are famous for their approach towards youth development for several decades now. There are only a few academies all over the world where students get so much trust and attention as they do at the most successful club of the Netherlands. Every year, they manage to promote a couple of talents to the senior squad, and once they are there, they do not just warm the bench for the superstars – the Ajax philosophy dictates that the youngsters must be integrated into the team quickly so that they can experience what playing in the Eredivisie and the UEFA Champions League demands, and that they can learn their lessons as early as possible.
The latest to start climbing the ladder is 16 years old Naci Ünüvar who, despite not having played a minute in the first team yet, already has a 3,6 million EUR tag next to his name. In 2019, the youngster won the Abdelhak Nouri trophy – the annual award for the most promising Ajax academy player – and received 604 minutes in the Eerste Divisie, the second tier of Dutch football. With his physical attributes of 168 cm and 60 kg, many would doubt that he is ready to perform on the highest level but, in this scout report, we will demonstrate his real worth and let his statistics speak instead of anything else. For the most realistic tactical analysis, we will compare him to those Eerste Divisie forwards who had at least the same amount of minutes as Ünüvar in the season prior, and who played either as a winger or a wide attacking midfielder in the majority of the time.
As visible in his heatmap, Ünüvar spends most of his time in the left half-space, very close to the penalty box, where he can be involved in as many actions as possible. He is very comfortable on the feet and uses his body outstandingly, with small feints and quick changes of direction. He always seems to do just as many movements as necessary, without useless dribbles or running up and down on the flanks. The fact that he is most confident in the half-spaces makes him fit into the Ajax tactics flawlessly: as the striker often drifts out wide, or the full-back joins the offensive action by the sideline, Ünüvar often has at least one teammate in front of him who he can either find with a ball from behind or who can drag the defenders’ attention away from him so that he can attack himself.
Despite playing in the final third of the pitch, Ünüvar does his part in defending as well. From the next graph, it turns out that he was the most balanced winger of the 2019/20 Eerste Divisie campaign with 8,64 successful defensive actions and 7,45 successful attacking actions per 90 minutes. In the later parts of the analysis, we will investigate his defensive performance in more details as well.
Just to put his performance into context, let’s start with comparing Ünüvar to the rest of the attacking-minded counterparts of the league. The next graph will show the differences from the average in percentage, and the results are fascinating: he was way above the rest in almost all key elements of the game, like shots on target (22,8%), touches in the box (84,6%) and accurate progressive passes (90,7%). What’s more, he was more than three times more productive and effective in through passes (309,2%) and smart passes (372,5%) than the league average. The only two areas where did not reach the line was expected goals (-4,9% and crosses (-24,3%) but this just shows that he is neither a traditional winger who frequently delivers the ball into the mixer nor a finisher of the actions.
A passing mastermind
What makes the young Dutchman clearly stand out from the players in his age, or even a few years above him is his actions on the ball. As it turns out from the next graph, Ünüvar finished on the top of the Eerste Divisie with 4,32 accurate passes to the penalty area per 90, 27,55% of which was considered a key pass (1,19 per 90). This means that around every fourth ball taken into the penalty box by Ünüvar led to a serious chance in front of the goal. On the right side of the chart, we can also see that the winger’s 2,08 accurate smart passes per 90 is way over the performance of the rest of the comparison – this figure is almost twice better than the second-best of the league.
His efficiency also speaks for itself: the next radar outlines that Ünüvar is confidently above the league average in all types of passing statistics – among others, an overall 79,34% passing accuracy, 84,85% in passes to the final third and a world-class 94,64% in progressive passes.
Let’s see two examples of the mentioned statistics. The first snapshot from Jong Ajax’s game against Dordrecht illustrates what a great vision and passing rhythm Ünüvar has albeit his young age. As he drifts out to the wide areas, the striker makes a run behind the defenders in his position and Ünüvar supplies him with a perfectly timed through ball into the danger zone. While in the second one, the youngster brings up the ball in his favoured position, in the left half-space, surrounded by six opposite defenders. Although there were several chances to take the ball in front of the left-striker, Ünüvar scans the positioning of the defenders and is perfectly aware that this would be the wrong decision, given the narrow position of the defenders. Therefore he waits just until the ideal moment when all opponents step out on him, and that is when he supplies the arriving Danilo who finishes the action with a goal.
Ünüvar enjoys being involved in one-twos and short build-ups, and he has all the trust to do so. Ajax is famous for using geometrical shapes, triangles or diamonds, in their positional plays, and the youngster fits into these smoothly. Also, he has an enormous range of passing skills that he is not afraid to use at all. One of his most used techniques is passing with the outside of the foot. This is not an easy movement at all and not the most common by any means, that is why it looks so good when executed well during a game, especially when it comes from a young talent. We can observe two perfect examples in the below snapshots – in both cases, the striker ahead of Ünüvar could not be reached in any other way. He constantly recognizes these opportunities and finds the passing lanes that none of his teammates could. No wonder that, as declared in the previous sections of this analysis, his 2,08 smart passes per 90 is a convincing record among forwards.
Versatility off the ball
One of the fundaments of the Ajax philosophy is that the ball, after lost, must be gained back the soonest possible. The starting point to this is to start defending very high on the pitch, right around the opposite penalty area. In Ajax, we can often see two attackers rushing out on the opponents to limit their options, cut their passing lanes and force them to make early and therefore not optimal decisions. This approach is clearly visible in the tactics of the first team, but Jong Ajax is not any farther from it. As the academy students learn the same principles right from a very young age and throughout their whole development, they all share the same values and strategies. Ünüvar, consequently, is also very strong in this regard: from one side, he has excellent attributes for it – like a low centre of gravity, quick movements and the ability to read the game quickly – and from the other, his mentality makes him even more effective. As we saw earlier, he had 8,64 successful defensive actions per 90, with 4,62 defensive duels won and 3,75 possession-adjusted interceptions. In several cases, the youngster is the first to take pressure on the defenders or even the keeper, as illustrated in the below picture.
No better example for his spirit than the next one from their game against Go Ahead Eagles. After he loses the ball in the left half-space, granting the opportunity for the opponent to drive a quick counter-attack, he leaves his position, starts to chase the ball-carrying attacker and executes a perfect sliding tackle, and not only he stops the build-up immediately but also manages to deliver the ball in front of his teammate Danilo who then makes good use of the unexpected transition.
When the team is in possession, Ünüvar always strives to find empty areas to open up passing lanes either for himself or for a teammate by dragging an opponent away with him. We have already mentioned that one of his most valuable skills is his rhythm of play which he uses effectively not only to supply a teammate but also to receive the ball between or behind the defenders. In the 2019/20 Eerste Divisie campaign, the youngster had 3,13 progressive runs and 5,66 touches in the penalty area per 90 which shows that he is also dangerous and comfortable in the attacking zones.
Let’s take a look at the next situation where the ball is still at the feet of the deep-lying midfielder, facing a fully stood up defence with eight players from Top Oss. Ünüvar, however, perfectly detects the large empty area in the left half-space, immediately signs to his teammate, and, taking advantage of his unique acceleration, swiftly changes direction and bursts into the penalty box.
Moreover, the youngster has an excellent talent to read the game, scan the pitch and be ahead of the rest with a few movements. Not only his decisions are outstandingly quick but he frequently gives instructions to his teammates regarding where to move or pass. Despite his young age, he already shows the signs of a creative leader of the collective, which we can witness in the next picture. The ball is with the deep-lying midfielder again but this time Ünüvar, instead of rushing into the large space behind the defence, rather approaches the goal more slowly and takes two markers with him so that the passing lane is open for his full-back who can receive the plaything in a more advantageous position. The most fascinating thing in this situation is that Ünüvar, while dragging away the attention of the central- and the right-backs, even turns back and points at his teammate, acting as the orchestrator of the attack even though he is off the ball.
There is nothing new about the phenomenon that youngsters who earn first-team opportunities at an extremely early stage of their careers always get special attention from coaches, scouts, fans and, most of all, the media. The path of fulfilling one’s potential is full of obstacles, distractions and, in general, it just depends on too many variables. However, one thing is undeniable: Naci Ünüvar is one of the most talented prodigies of his generation and a very promising alumnus of the Ajax academy. He only has to focus on his improvement individually because his club will grant everything else to support him on the way.
The departure of Ajax maestro Hakim Ziyech to Chelsea instantly opens up an empty spot in the senior squad which is required to be filled by a player who is creative, skilled and mature enough to carry the team if needed. Should Naci Ünüvar continue performing like what we have seen from him so far, there is no doubt that he is a serious contender for Ziyech’s role in the near future. Until that, he only has to follow the footsteps of his academy teammates Ryan Gravenberch, Sontje Hansen and Lassina Traoré, and receive his first minutes in the Eredivisie in the next season – and his career is still ahead of him.