Sensational Zalazar: the 21-year-old set to explode onto the Bundesliga scene
2. Bundesliga has been a hotbed of young German talent for several decades now. Since the league started operating in 1974, we have seen some elite players learn their trade in Germany’s second division. Joshua Kimmich, Leon Goretzka, and Marco Reus are just a few examples of players who started their careers in the Bundesliga’s underbelly.
On loan from Eintracht Frankfurt at St Pauli, Rodrigo Zalazar could be another player to add to that list in the future. The Uruguayan-Spaniard has the distinction of growing up in Spain, spending a season in Poland, and now in Germany, after being purchased by Frankfurt in 2019. His growth has been facilitated well by Frankfurt, and St Pauli are currently reaping the rewards. This analysis will look at the player he has become.
The 21-year-old has developed a distinctive skillset for a central-midfielder and has frankly carried this St Pauli team at times on his own. He has produced some magnificent displays for a side that linger around the bottom half of the table. They do not struggle to score goals but keeping it out of their net is another matter entirely. This scout report will analyse how he fits into Timo Schultz’s systems.
In this tactical analysis, we will cover his role at St Pauli, his pros and cons as a player, and just how far he can take his game in the future.
Zalazar began his footballing career in the autonomous community of Castile-La Mancha, with Albacete Balompié, where he was born. He would stay with the club for eight years, before earning his way into the prestigious academy of Málaga CF in 2015. He would stay in Costa del Sol for four years, eventually playing out his contract and joining Eintracht Frankfurt in Germany on a free transfer in 2019. This would earn him a loan move to Korona Kielce in the 2019/20 season, where he experienced limited game time.
So, the 21-year-old is well-travelled for a player of his age, and this should benefit his future when it comes to adapting to new club environments. At St Pauli, Zalazar has been used in a variety of different formations, including but not limited to; 4-3-1-2, 4-2-3-1, 3-4-1-2, etc. He has performed at his best as a central-midfielder, either on the left of a three-man midfield or double pivot in a 4-3-1-2 or 3-4-1-2. As a defensive midfielder in a 4-2-3-1, he has struggled to find that balance between his defensive and attacking instructions.
Standing at 5’10” / 177 cm, Zalazar has the mobility of a box-to-box midfielder, while possessing some of the upper body strength to hold off opponents in possession. Best used as an #8, Zalazar does not involve himself massively in the build-up stages of possession – he only ranks 8th in the squad for passes per match within regular starters at St Pauli – with him preferring to make movements in between the lines and receive progressive passes, before driving at the opposition’s defensive structure with his strong dribbling ability.
Zalazar’s player profile, created by the wonderful Sathish Prasad (@SathishPrasadVT on Twitter).
Zalazar’s assistance in ball progression
Zalazar plays a facilitative role in build-up, rather than an active participator. Operating on the left side of midfield, he spends an equal amount of time in the wide zone as he will in the half-space. He has an innate quality to interpret the space, open up his body, collect the ball, and drive up the pitch. You will typically see the Spanish native carry the ball to the left, before swinging over to the right and taking it past his man.
Scatter plot of 2. Bundesliga central midfielder’s progressive passes compared with progressive runs per 90.
To begin with, let us note some context. St Pauli are a team who sit 11th in a division of 18 teams and hold 49% of possession on average. As such, when comparing his statistics to, for example, Aaron Hunt at Hamburger SV, who keep 56% of possession on average, we should keep this in consideration. So nearly six progressive passes per 90 is a decent figure, and he has shown promising fundamentals in this regard.
He is not a player who is going to rack up progressive distance though, he prefers to be the player receiving the progressive pass in between the lines. This can be in the build-up stage of play, but also later on in attacking patterns of play as well. In the final third, he can be quite an instinctive player, but usefully this instinct does include keeping his head up and looking for a simple one-two to bypass opposition pressure.
Here, Zalazar drops deeper to collect the ball, and receives it at an angle, leaving him able to turn and carry the ball in a fast manner.
Zalazar collects the ball, keeps his head up, plays a one-two with his teammate to beat the defender, which leaves him with room to shoot on the edge of the penalty area.
One player’s profile who Zalazar’s lines up with is a fellow Rodrigo. Rodrigo de Paul of Udinese. They are both central-midfielders who like to carry the ball up the pitch, both get fouled an awful lot, and both plays for a team lower down in their respective divisions. While de Paul lines up on the right of a midfield three, the Argentine is someone with who Zalazar shares striking similarities, and that is a very positive association to have.
His main tool for ball progression is through his ball-carrying ability as well. He is not the most skilful or even agile operator, but he is direct, and as we mentioned earlier, instinctive. There is a clear pattern in these efforts too. Draw the defender to one side (usually the left) before spinning to the other. This works quite well in one-on-one scenarios, but as more opponents encroach on Zalazar’s area, he tends to struggle a bit more.
With the ball out in a wide zone, Zalazar drifts onto his stronger foot, before feinting and chopping in the other direction, exploiting the space left in the penalty area.
Zalazar, driving up the pitch, gets crowded out by two opposition players, and with no teammates in his view, he loses possession.
In these moments too, Zalazar earns a lot of fouls, sometimes mischievously. He has an outgoing and playful personality which can get him into trouble here and there, and this blends over into this style of play. Before joining St Pauli, the club had to recognise an unfortunate social media post the 21-year-old had posted in the past. It is fair to say that he is an outspoken character, but he seems driven to succeed, nonetheless.
Zalazar’s goal and assist contributions
Within players between the age of 16-21 in the 2. Bundesliga, Zalazar ranks top for both expected goals and expected assists. Not only for central-midfielders but forwards are also included in that stat as well. This is impressive and shows he can contribute against players beyond his years. He has scored a decent variety of goals as well, late runs into the area, two-touch efforts from the edge of the box, etc.
Scatter plot of 2. Bundesliga central midfielder’s xG per 90 compared with xA per 90.
Zalazar is a proper dual-threat. His decision-making is not perfect, but he is generally composed approaching the penalty area, either sending the ball diagonally into the half-space, lurking on the edge of the box, or opening up his body and taking a shot on goal. When Zalazar does shoot from the left, he will look to place it into the top right corner, and if shooting from the right, he drives the ball across the face of the goal, towards the bottom left.
Zalazar, down the half-space, receives the ball, opens his body well, and hits the ball with the inside of his boot into the top right.
From an awkward angle, Zalazar decides to shoot, which probably is not wise. Look above at the two options waiting for the ball in the box.
He is a direct player in the final third, and this of course has its pros and cons. On several occasions this season we have watched the 21-year-old pick up the ball, when his team are one or two goals down, and drag them up the pitch, and force the momentum in St Pauli’s favour. He instils an attacking thrust into this team from midfield, and this is a valuable asset to have at any football club. His shooting technique is strong too.
On the flip side, this is a high-risk high-reward style of play, meaning in games where St Pauli want to keep control of possession, Zalazar does not totally compromise his attacking urges. He has one modus operandi; force possession up the field into attacking zones where St Pauli can do the most damage. His medium-long range passing is of a decent enough level too, to help in these moments when St Pauli attack.
The weight of his passing is at a good level, and here he sends his teammate down the flank, at a fast enough pace to escape opposition legs.
It helps the 21-year-old that his attacking endeavours start from deep, giving him more time on the ball because when he is under pressure from the opposition, he can crumble. When the opponent’s zone in on his location, especially if there is more than one, Zalazar will either pass the ball backwards, killing the attacking momentum or run into a footballing cul-de-sac of sorts.
He is under pressure here from two opponents, and instead of attempting to fit through the gap between the two defenders, he plays the backward pass to a teammate, who is then next to receive pressure.
Ultimately, his combined xG + xA per 90 of 0.42 is really strong, thanks to his application in attacking patterns of play. He can sometimes be a bit too eager in the build-up and make the forward run before it is even necessary, although this does force St Pauli to act more direct. It is not as if Zalazar is not a team player, but it is almost as if he could go some way to grab a better understanding of his side’s tactics and help out more in the build-up.
Zalazar’s defensive acumen
Zalazar is an entirely competent defender, but nothing beyond that currently. He aggressively hunts his opponents down out of possession, especially when he has been caught out of position after bursting up-field too early in possession. Playing in several different systems does not help this though and goes some way of explaining St Pauli’s poor defensive record.
Scatter plot of 2. Bundesliga central midfielder’s defensive duels won % compared with defensive duels per 90.
So, Zalazar is as close to average as you can get in the 2. Bundesliga in terms of defensive output and success rate. In general, the 21-year-old can read his opponent pretty well – he often intercepts attempted passes from the opposition – and this results in quick counterattacks for his team. This is useful as Zalazar does not even have to exert too much energy (rather than pressing for example) to win the ball back, which is a bonus.
The Heidenheim midfielder plays the pass into the path of Zalazar, who intercepts the ball…
And he’s off. Up the pitch Zalazar drives with the ball, and the through pass to a teammate, ending in a 2v2 for Heidenheim to deal with.
He tends to lunge into tackles with his whole frame, rather than nipping in with a foot to recover possession. Thanks to this and his well-built frame, it can lead to the occasional foul, but it is not too much of a worry. In terms of recovery pace, Zalazar is not the fastest player across the turf and would struggle to catch up with speedy attackers at the top level, so he will need a full-back behind him to support him in this regard.
A loose ball has found its way onto the wing, and although Zalazar has the advantage, he loses out on the footrace to his opponent.
Overall, from a defensive perspective, Zalazar shows good awareness of where to position himself when opponents advance up the pitch, and in one-on-one duels, he has shown good application of whether to shield off a passing angle or to put a foot in. However, he can be brash in his challenges and his lack of recovery pace will be exposed at the top level and should be taken into consideration from a recruitment point of view.
Individually, he has performed best defensively in a 4-3-1-2, where there is less of a reliance upon him to put a shift in defensively. Though, when traffic has come down his channel, he will chase the opponent down to win the ball back. In a 4-2-3-1, as a double pivot, he has struggled to find that balance between defence and attack. At the moment, Frankfurt operate with a double pivot in a 3-4-2-1, so he must improve in this regard.
Forecast for the future
Zalazar has most of the hallmarks to become a top-level midfielder in the Bundesliga. He is a direct operator, who looks to play the ball vertically whenever possible. He drives with the ball at his feet from deep – an attribute which is highly valued by most top clubs these days – which will aid his long-term development. His goals and assists from midfield is another sought after trait which will be especially useful for teams who rely far too much on one or two individuals for their goal output (not unlike Frankfurt with Filip Kostić and André Silva).
His main cause for concern is his defensive positioning and recovery pace in these scenarios, which he will have to work around. With all this considered, potential suitors in the next couple of seasons could include Tottenham Hotspur or Everton, given their over-reliance on a couple of attackers at each club, respectively. In terms of style of play, for now, it could work out well at Frankfurt, but Zalzar will need to become perhaps slightly more passive in his defensive approach, for the better of his side’s shape.