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SCOUTED’s Christmas Wishlist: Three underrated January bargains

Scouted Football
By: Scouted Football
• December 2023

SkillCorner has partnered with Scouted Football, providing data and insights to support their writing on the best emerging talent in football. In this article, the Scouted team set out to find three "under-the-radar" bargains for the January transfer window, based on our data. 

The holidays are here. Whatever you’re celebrating this December, I hope we can all agree on one thing: this time of year is about the generosity of the human spirit.


And what better way to celebrate than to ask football clubs if they mind, generously, selling us their players, thanks very much?


Obviously, our indie publication does not have the capacity to buy a football player. But we do have incredible friends at SkillCorner and access to their wondrous data. So, this winter we thought it’d be fun to use said data to see if we can pull some names from around Europe who jump out on the strength of just their numbers - and put together a wishlist of cut-price bargains for clubs to investigate this January.

Data alone cannot assure you that deals like this will work. But it can tell a club’s scouts where to look and why, and we hope to prove just how valuable SkillCorner is to in-house analysts looking to add specific qualities to their team; and to demonstrate how a process like this might work at your favourite club. And just for fun, we made sure these are players we haven’t watched a second of (at least that’s true for the authors of this piece - Llew has, inevitably, 8000 words of notes on all of them tucked away in our Notion database).


So, Mr Claus, this is what we’d like this Christmas please: three under-the-radar players with data profiles we just can’t resist. We promise we’ve been good.

 

What we’re looking for…

For this exercise, we challenged ourselves to find players who fit distinct profiles. Clubs, of course, will be looking for specific things depending on their needs. We decided on three profiles that are valuable in so many tactical setups they’ll be of wide interest:

  • An athletic, transitional centre-forward

  • A press-resistant, deep-lying midfielder

  • A game-intelligent, technical full-back

We’ll begin as all good things do: at the spearhead of attack.

 

Discovery one: An athletic centre-forward

When it comes to gifting talent to larger, more financially capable clubs, there are few organisations as generous as the English pyramid. So it only makes sense we browse their wares while putting our wishlist together.


This is where we stumbled across Ali Al-Hamadi. The Iraq-born, Liverpool-raised striker has been finding his feet with AFC Wimbledon this year, to whose fans we can only apologise. At just 21, Al-Hamadi has ten goals and five assists in League Two this season, averaging 0.89 goals/assists per 90 minutes.


Al-Hamadi’s story will be familiar to so many who follow lower-tier English careers. His family fled to England as the country invaded their homeland in 2003, with baby Ali in tow. His talent was first spotted by Tranmere Rovers and he later signed professional terms with Swansea City, who released him in 2021. As so many consumed in the vacuum of England’s academies do, Al-Hamadi went without a club for four months; as so many sadly don’t, he returned to professional football with Wycombe Wanderers. They briefly loaned him to National League side Bromley when he was 19 before Wimbledon picked him up last January. There, he’s finally found the steady ground so many young players need to unlock their ability.


And that ground has allowed him to generate some of League Two’s most impressive numbers this season, at least in the categories relevant to our search for a powerful, transitional centre-forward. Perhaps most importantly, amongst forwards in League Two, he leads the league for runs in behind this season and ranks third for dangerous runs in behind.

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Such numbers look like they’re a result of a particular focus in Wimbledon’s style. The team target his dangerous runs in behind, and successfully complete passes to his dangerous runs in behind more often than any other forward in the league.

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If these runs don’t directly lead to shots for himself, Al-Hamadi’s running helps get his team-mates involved in the play.

Next, his numbers suggest a tireless athleticism. The jump in physicality between League 2 and the upper tiers of the pyramid is not to be underestimated, and clubs looking to pull Al-Hamadi up a league or two will be encouraged by how much and how quickly he moves.

We won’t go through all his physical metrics compared to League Two forwards. Whether it’s PSV-99, high accelerations, sprinting distance, high intensity distance, etc, he is right near the top in basically everything. So let’s do something a little different and compare him to Premier League forwards.

The results are pretty interesting to say the least. He presents, athletically at least, very in line with a Premier League standard. I’ve placed his strike partner Omar Bugiel on the graph as well, just for a comparison.


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All said, Ali Al-Hamadi looks like a centre-forward profile ready to be ported from League Two into a more bullish level of competition. And this January will be a good time to do it: his contract expires in June 2025, meaning he’s approaching the point where Wimbledon will feel pressure to offer a renewal or look to cash in before his value falls from its peak.

This is a tall - 1.87m, per Transfermarkt - rangy, athletic centre-forward of the kind that is particularly fashionable, playing a step below his physical ceiling. Obviously, with ten goals and five assists in 18 league appearances this season (he scored another two in one game during the writing of this story), clubs above Wimbledon in the pyramid have already registered interest. So perhaps we can’t claim this one entirely - but hopefully, we’ve illustrated why he’s a coveted property.

 

Discovery two: A press-resistant six

Secondly, we went hunting for our very own bargain Jorginho: an anchoring six who is under pressure constantly but simply refuses to cede possession (unless he’s playing against Tottenham, sigh).

After a bit of digging, we settled on Oleksandr Pikhalyonok: a 26-year-old midfielder with SC Dnipro-1 in the Ukrainian Premier League.

In 2019, FC Dnipro - the club of Ukraine’s fourth-largest city - went bankrupt. Not willing to allow 101 years of history to dissipate, Dnipro rallied and founded SC Dnipro-1 as an unofficial successor. Less than three years into the phoenix club’s history, Russia amassed on the country’s north-eastern border and began the ongoing war.

Inside the maelstrom of violence, Ukraine’s football has persevered. The remarkable stoicism of its players, coaches and fans has been documented by others far better than we can here (Andy Brassell, please step forward); but this is the context under which Pikhalyonok is churning out the numbers we perused via SkillCorner.

SkillCorner’s data insights make it easy to understand when a player resists pressure well. And in every relevant metric we pored through, Pikhalyonok stood out. Amongst midfielders in the Ukrainian Premier League this season (qualifiers noted on each graph), he ranks highly for ball retention under all forms of pressure (low/medium/high).

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He also ranks very highly in both dangerous pass attempts under pressure, as well as his completion ratio for dangerous passes under pressure.

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Pikhalyonok also leads the league in opportunities to pass to and completed passes for runs, with his position above the regression line on the upcoming graph indicating that he completes these passes at an above average rate.

 

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Lastly, his passes create threat. Over 30% of the passes he attempts are classified as dangerous, translating well in SkillCorner’s threat model as shown in the graph below — he’s finding team-mates in dangerous positions very often.

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He’s doing all this while receiving the second most pressures per 30TIP of any midfielder in the league this season. Opponents understand what he can do with the ball and are trying to shut him down. But he can play through them regardless, curating dangerous moves by passing forward to teammates in space.

This is where I hit you with the third-act twist. Although we were searching for a press-resistant, deep-lying midfielder, I’m sorry to say - and any Ukraine-watching readers will have been screaming this at their screen for the past five minutes - Pikhalyonok is not such a player. The majority of his appearances have come from attacking midfield and he’s even made a handful of starts out wide.

My Premier-League addled brain says: not a problem! In England this year, we’ve seen coaches ask their most press-resistant players to pick the ball up off the centre-backs, regardless of their historically favoured positions: James Maddison has done it, Bernardo Silva has done it, and I watched Ross Barkley do it against Arsenal last week to great effect. But the stats we’ve uncovered above don’t tell us Pikhalyonok is good at evading the press - carrying the ball through challenges and skipping through traffic - as much as they do he is good at resisting it, especially by passing through it.

Could he catalyse attacks from the base of midfield? Maybe. It’s impossible to know without educated insight from real football minds watching real football. We’re merely pointing them in the midfielder’s direction.

Should he be deemed suitable to play as a six, value will quickly come into play. You might’ve noticed, but good sixes are quite expensive these days. Pikhalyonok might be a standout player in his domestic league, but he’s not a six. This sleight-of-hand will pair with the understandably (so much so it seems gauche to mention) declining quality and financial capacity of the Ukrainian Premier League, as well as the mere 18 months remaining on Pikhalyonok’s contract, to open what those in the biz call a ‘market opportunity’.

European clubs lacking a press-resistant six should get their video scouts to wipe down their blue-light glasses and boot up Wyscout forthwith. Just make sure you spell ‘Oleksandr Pikhalyonok’ correctly so Mr Claus knows what to bring you.

 

Discovery three: a project full-back

Football looooves a ‘project’ full-back these days. Rico Lewis is likely to be soon joined at Manchester City by Valentín Barco, Rico Henry is a touted England international handmade by Brentford, and Barcelona built Alex Baldé from whatever magical nuts and bolts they keep at La Masia. As with all things in top-level football, the trend is more utilitarian than romantic; truly great full-backs are rare, expensive and clutched so tightly by their owners I’m surprised crowbars aren’t more often used to prise them free.

Of course, buying young and cheap with the future in mind is hardly an idea exclusively deployed to full-backs; but, aside from centre-forwards, they do seem to be - in my head, at least - the position most likely to have ‘project’ affixed. So we thought we’d give finding one a go using the numbers.

We landed on Samuel Dahl. Yep, off to Scandinavia, a familiar SCOUTED haunt. Specifically Sweden: Dahl plays for Djurgårdens IF in the Allsvenskan, for whom he’s racked up 30 appearances and a handy five assists this season. The club already exist under a spotlight: Lucas Bergvall leads their midfield.

Dahl’s output has come at the end of a heady rise. He started the year at Örebro SC in the Superettan, a division below Djurgårdens. There, he played as a left midfielder/wing-back in a 3-4-3. He was sold to Djurgårdens in July and stepped up to the new level with aplomb, immediately becoming the club’s first-choice left-back and adjusting to the tweak of position (they play with a back-four) without complaint.

Dahl’s performances will leap off the pitch to any scout already browsing the Allsvenskan, of which there are many. But on the odd chance a club doesn’t have someone in situ in Sweden, the numbers do just as well at pointing a massive arrow at Dahl’s noggin.

A few metrics jumped out immediately. Firstly, amongst full-backs, Dahl is first in Allsvenskan for completed passes for runs per 30TIP, and fourth for attempts made to find them per 30TIP.

 

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The threat Dahl creates per 100 completed passes suggests he is not an overly adventurous passer, but he is at least efficient, completing close to 70% of his dangerous passes attempted.

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He also shows promise as a player that takes great care with possession, especially under pressure, with some outstanding ball retention metrics under both medium and high pressure.

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His strong passing metrics and clear ability to retain the ball under pressure are rare for a 20-year-old in his position on the pitch. I don’t need to tell the readers of our publication why such metrics are becoming increasingly valuable for full-backs in Europe.

Unlike the other names on our wishlist, we can’t guarantee Dahl will be cheap, in relative terms at least. He only joined Djurgårdens six months ago and his contract runs until 2027. Any suitors would need a few million quid to pull him from Sweden, and considering a jump to a top-five league would be much more intense than the step-up he made domestically this year, the kind of teams interested are unlikely to be confident in blowing that kind of money on such a green youngster.

Of course, leaving him to develop in Sweden could backfire, as his value is likely to increase in the years ahead as he cements himself as one of Djurgårdens’ most important players. And, of course, the club might be about to land a small fortune by selling a certain blonde midfielder. Buying from clubs with a recently strengthened financial position is rarely fun — so get in quick, we say.

 

The final word

This was a fun experiment! Over the past almost-ten (!) years, the team at SCOUTED has built a reputation on watching young players extensively and coming to thoughtful, measured conclusions. When we began our little blog in 2014, data was available but hardly mainstream; if you said ‘xG’ to anyone on Sky Sports they would’ve called for an interpreter. Over the years we’ve developed skills in data analysis as the rest of football has, but our emphasis is so often on combining that expertise with the traditional scouting we’ve been doing since the start.

So, diving in data-first felt a bit like jumping without a parachute, at least for this writer. But the more we use SkillCorner’s extensive tools, the more colour they add to our work. Perhaps you’ll join us in watching the players we’ve highlighted here - and give us a pat on the back if they move this winter.

 

By Joe Donnohue, Tim Curren and Stephen Ganavas.

 

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