“I get a youth player in the A-selection if he increases the competition in our dressing room and if he has shown that he is ready for the next step as a person and player, this is the case with Mo.” – Mark Van Bommel
High praise from the PSV head coach talking about teenage sensation Mohammed Ihattaren. Van Bommel, who worked with Ihattaren at U19’s level, has taken an interest in the youngster’s development and recently gifted him a chance to prove himself in PSV’s first team. The former Dutch international gave Ihattaren his first PSV start this season; making him the first player in the club’s history to make the jump from the U19’s side to the first team – without playing in the U23’s.
Coming from a Moroccan heritage, but representing the Dutch side in their successful U17’s European Championship campaign, Ihattaren has caught the eye of Europe’s elite clubs. Ihattaren quickly committed his future to PSV however, signing a professional contract in March which keeps him at the club until 2020. A snub to the lure of Europe’s wealth; the youngster was quick to turn down advances from Barcelona and Man City, keen not to see his talent get thrown on the scrap heap of players who chose money too soon.
A grounded player, with supreme confidence in his own ability and not afraid to choose what’s best for him as a player over what’s best financially. This is what Van Bommel alludes to in his quote above when he mentions the person and the player. One is not complete without the other, so when coaches discover a young man demonstrating a level of maturity beyond his years, they sit up and take notice.
This tactical analysis explains why Ihattaren is one of those young men, and by looking at the technical facets of his game, why people are taking notice.
Being just 17 and a skilful midfielder, naturally, Ihattaren has caught the eye of internet scouts. But the youngster is far more than a box of 5-star FIFA tricks and has a more nuanced style than a flashy Youtube montage could ever portray. Below we take a closer look.
For his age, Ihattaren is extremely versatile, being able to play a number of roles across the midfield. His favoured position, and where he is particularly adept is right wing or left wing. The left-footed youngster is most dangerous playing on the right wing and cutting inside on his stronger foot.
The heat map above shows Ihattaren is capable of playing a range of positions but favours the right side. Using his pace and dribbling ability Ihattaren is able to manufacture himself space when cutting inside, which he uses to either cross or shoot. Such is his ability and composure on the ball Ihattaren can also play CAM and has even been used in a deeper centre-midfield role as a six or an eight.
Direct dribbling and skill
The sharpest ability in Ihattaren’s toolbox is his ability on the ball. The teenager is able to bypass players with ease, not just creating chances from out wide but from deeper central areas too. Being only 177cm, Ihattaren’s low centre of gravity allows him to pivot on the ball at electric speeds, making him a nightmare for defenders.
Ihattaren uses this to his advantage, seeing opportunities to dribble into spaces that most players wouldn’t. Above, he drops deep to collect the ball, upon which he turns to face up the opposition. Using a potent mix of strength and acceleration, Ihattaren confidently drives at his markers. The defenders have to either stretch and risk fouling Ihattaren or let him go.
With no credible opportunity to make a tackle, the midfielders are bypassed. Ihattaren’s direct style of play guides him into the box where more defenders are pulled across to try and prevent his progress. What started out as a safe scenario for the opposition has turned into a situation which has disrupted their defensive structure. Ihattaren’s direct mazy runs from deep disorganise tight defensive blocks and are perfect for his teammates who now have extra space to exploit in attacking support.
One foot roll and two step-overs later, Ihattaren has drifted passed his next challengers. This direct run has taken four players out of the game and allowed plenty of space in the box for attackers to move into. Once in the box, defenders are terrified to put a tackle in due to Ihattaren’s quick feet and balance when changing direction. As a result, he is constantly able to create chances for himself and teammates.
First team material?
As Ihattaren is on the brink of the first team, a comparison of his dribbling success and productivity is logical to see where stands in relation to his teammates. To ensure the same opposition difficulty is measured, the graphs are created from Eredivisie matches only.
Compared against players in a similar position, Ihatteren slots in alongside the more experienced talents such as Lozano and Pereiro. On average Ihattaren attempts 6.88 dribbles per game, of which 69.7% are successful.
Bearing in mind the majority of Ihattaren’s appearances are limited to substitutions (averaging 36 minutes per appearance in 2018/19 season) achieving an average this high is impressive. By coming from the bench with only a third of the time to produce these figures highlights Ihattaren’s confidence to get involved in the action on the big stage and be successful at it.
The same can be said for the above. Ihattaren on average is involved in 13.13 offensive duels per match, of which he wins 54%. Compared to his more experienced counterparts, there is nothing differentiating their ability from the 17-year-old.
But it’s not just dribbling that has caught the eye of Van Bommel. Ihattaren is a multi-dimensional player with more to offer than direct forward runs, he is a promising playmaker too.
Versatile and dangerous
Mohammed Ihattaren has an impeccable first touch which buys him more time to pick passes than your average player. He can use both feet and displays a maturity in his decision making which is beyond his years. The teenager demonstrated his ability in the U17 European Championship’s where he picked up two assists in five games.
Being such a dynamic dribbler, Ihattaren would be forgiven for attempting to dribble at every opportunity instead of passing. Instead, he produces a fine balance of both key passes and progressive runs which makes him difficult to predict.
As the above image shows, Ihattaren receives the ball on the right wing after making space for himself. PSV players begin to move ahead of him knowing how comfortable he is in possession. As a progressive player, Ihattaren’s attention is focused forward, only playing backwards if absolutely necessary. Dropping a shoulder to sail past the onrushing opponent, Ihattaren bursts into the space vacated by his teammate’s runs.
Once travelling with the ball, Ihattaren is not head down and oblivious – something a young Cristiano Ronaldo was criticised for – instead his head is up, enabling him to identify a pass into the striker, who has moved off his marker. Without hesitation, Ihattaren releases the pass and moves forward to support.
The freedom in Ihattaren’s game allows him to seamlessly drift into dangerous areas as a result of his involvement in the build-up play. By picking the right passes at the right time, Ihattaren moves his team into threatening areas. Then with penetrating runs in support, he is able to breach tight defensive structures with ease.
What do the statistics say?
As mentioned, only Eredivisie matches have been used to create the graphs. The ensures a fair comparison between the players.
Ihattaren distances himself from his position rivals when it comes to penetrative passing. The Dutchman attempts on average 7.5 passes into the opposition penalty area per match, more than any other player. This cross-referenced with the success rate of these passes clearly demonstrates Ihattaren’s technical ability. His passes are accurate, achieving a success rate of 66.7%, surpassed only by Perierio (68.6%). As a result of his direct play, Ihattaren is able to achieve the following.
The graph shows a stark difference between Ihattaren and his teammates. An xA of 0.71 is over double the closest comparison of Lozano with 0.33. This shows that at such a young age Ihattaren is not just surviving at the top level, he is thriving. On top of his xA, a second assist value of 0.42 marks Ihattaren as PSV‘s danger midfielder. This metric shows that if he’s not the one playing the final pass before a goal, Ihattaren will have been involved somewhere in the build-up play.
So, he’s a shoo-in?
Not quite. Delving into the statistics, it can be concluded that Ihattaren is a dangerous midfielder whose dribbling and passing ability places him alongside the senior players. However, at 17 years of age, it would be naive to assume he is already the complete player. Looking at the statistics, one area of obvious development for the youngster, which is possibly the reason he is not yet a regular starter, has been identified below.
Ihattaren made 12 appearances in the 2018/19 Eredivisie championship, racking up 432 minutes in total. Despite his impressive dribbling and passing stats that have been reviewed, Ihattaren failed to score in any of these appearances. With only 1.25 shots per match on average, he is quite far below the average achieved by his teammates. As a result, his xG per match is only 0.07. If Ihattaren intends to start in key attacking positions, he will need to develop this area of his game. By making the choice to stay at a club who trust him, cherish him and believe in him, no doubt with experience and continued coaching, the goals will begin to flow.
Looking to the future
Ihattaren’s development is key to his potential. Game time and mentoring will put this rising star on a trajectory only a few are capable of. By staying focused, determined and away from condemning labels beginning with ‘the next…’, this youngster has all the attributes to turn into a fearsome attacking midfielder.
Blessed with the confidence of youth and unburdened by the weight of the football commercialism, Ihattaren’s uninhibited freedom is a refreshing reminder to those who love the game that when the world is at your feet, play football with it.
If you love tactical analysis, then you’ll love the digital magazines from totalfootballanalysis.com – a guaranteed 100+ pages of pure tactical analysis covering topics from the Premier League, Serie A, La Liga, Bundesliga and many, many more. Buy your copy of the May issue for just ₤4.99 here, or even better sign up for a ₤50 annual membership (12 monthly issues plus the annual review) right here.