HOUSSEM AOUAR: THE UNPRESSABLE

 

The modern game has favoured players that are exceedingly specialized in certain roles. And among the midfielders we have covered so far, 22-year-old Houssem Aouar’s realized role in midfield demonstrates a maturity quite unlike his peers. The young Frenchman has been raved about in France for several seasons and was under the spotlight for his standout performances in the Champions League last season. Aouar has not only progressed steadily since then but also been pivotal to Lyon’s title charge this season.

Though he plays at central midfield, he has the characteristics of a player playing higher up the pitch. From deeper positions, Aouar is an outstanding progressor of the ball from half-spaces. In the final third, he is especially adept at creating dangerous shooting positions for himself and his teammates. As we shall explore in the following sections, Aouar is one of the most coveted goal-scoring number 8s in Europe.

This scout report provides a statistical, technical, and tactical profile of Aouar. After an analysis of his strengths and weaknesses, we explore how he could be potentially utilized at clubs elsewhere. Depending on the club, we might see him perform a similar role from a different position. Overall, we find that in midfield, Aouar is one of the best ball carriers in Europe with unparalleled one-on-one abilities.


 
Dashboard of Aouar's key statistics| Source: Fbref.com
 

STATISTICAL ANALYSIS

For a number 8, Aouar creates chances like a number 10, or rather like an inverted winger. The above dashboard highlights the Frenchman’s chance creation statistics in the past year. Chance creation can be quantified through several distinct metrics, such as possession chain values (XGChain90), Shot Creating Actions (SCAs), Shots, Shots on target, Expected Assists per 90 (xA90) and Expected Goals per 90 (xG90).

With a per 90 xG of 0.50 this season, Aouar is expected to score a goal every two games. Unsurprisingly, then, Aouar’s total xG of 8.37 is the highest (by a mile) among other central midfielders in Ligue 1. Thus, considering he has scored 3 goals in the league, the Frenchman has underperformed his xG by a significant margin this season. It may be argued, then, that more goals could be on the cards for the Frenchman in the remainder of the season.

Moreover, Aouar falls in the top cohort of midfielders that record Shot Creating Actions arising from dribbles, and shots (SCA(Drib) and SCA(Sh)). The latter is rather peculiar as it indicates that for every one of Aouar’s shots that are either rebounded or blocked, an output of 0.33 shot-creating actions is created for his team every 90 minutes. And Aouar has the highest output out of any midfielder in Europe in this regard. Its significance is noteworthy as SCA (Sh) is a metric that is often overlooked by analysts when quantifying chance creation. Rightfully so, but in Aouar’s case, it is consistent with his profile and is reflected in his possession chain values.

The youngster has averaged 52 touches per game which is below average for a midfielder on the one hand but has an XGChain90 value of 0.90 which is far higher than the average on the other hand. This indicates that his presence for Lyon is quite impactful. Aouar is a solid link between attack and defence and creates chances for his team in a unique and dynamic manner.

The quality and percentiles of the Frenchman may be unsurprising to some, but how reliably can he execute the same? In the following visualization, we analyze Aouar’s consistency over the past two seasons through box plots. We chose this as box plots work around the median instead of the mean of metrics and highlight outliers. This is useful to measure the Frenchman’s output week in week out.


 
Measuring Aouar's consistency - Home vs Away
 

The distinction between Aouar’s home and away performances may have some bearing on Lyon’s game management as well as opposing teams’ preparations against him. Interestingly, the medians and output of his shooting metrics i.e., SCAs and Shots indicate that he performs more consistently in away games over home games. However, Although his SCAs have a higher variance in home games, they tend to have higher peaks. Furthermore, with his xG being even for both venues, Aouar’s expected assists have a higher median as well as peak output in home games as compared to away games.

From this, we could potentially infer that though Aouar has a higher volume of chance creation metrics such as SCAs and Shots in Away games, he has a higher quality of direct chance creation in home games. All in all, considering his game time is stable, Aouar’s output is quite consistent as the median output of the Frenchman is close to his per 90 statistics for the above metrics.

Defensively, Aouar’s stats have room for improvement. He engages in 4.49 defensive duels per 90 (50%-win percentage), 1.9 interceptions per 90 and records an overall 4.42 successful defensive actions per 90. While these numbers aren’t particularly terrible, they indicate that the Frenchman must be paired up with an industrious and defensive midfielder to thrive at what he does. Is this a potential liability or does Aouar have defensive viability? We explain this in his tactical profile.

From the above analysis, we can paint a solid outline of the technical and tactical aspects of his game. Aouar is excellent at chance creation through dribbles and shots and has solid passing abilities to back it up.


 
Aouar's heat map for Lyon in the 2020-21 season
 

TECHNICAL PROFILE

The above heat map highlights that Aouar indigenously operates from the left-hand side of the pitch. If you were not told whose heat map this was, you would be inclined to say that it is of a dynamic left-back or wing-back. However, Aouar almost exclusively operates from the left as a central midfielder. Additionally, note that his average positioning in the heat map indicates that most of his activity is higher up the pitch. This serves as an important starting position for analyzing his technical abilities.

As mentioned earlier, Aouar is an excellent progressor of the ball. While he is not the fastest or the strongest at the heart of midfield, the Frenchman is strikingly hard to dispossess. In his own half, he manages to shield the ball notably well. This prompts the opposition’s CDMs to be caught out of position as the Frenchman wins new free spaces to operate from. Consider the following position.


 
Aouar's dribbling skills make him hard to dispossess
 

As will become apparent in the situations that follow, Aouar starts from positions where he is at a numerical disadvantage, and consequently wins his one-on-ones eliminating the players pressing him from the game. In the above image, the dribbling path taken by Aouar was a passing lane that was initially blocked by Bernardo Silva and Ilkay Gundogan. A clever shoulder drop permitted the Frenchman to cleanly dribble past the German midfielder.

Further, despite having a clear option for a lateral short pass, Aouar glides towards the point between the passing lanes blocked by Kyle Walker and David Silva. This swift movement created space between Man City’s midfield and permitted Aouar to progress the ball into the final third from a difficult position. If given the freedom to receive the ball higher up the pitch, Aouar often transforms into an extra winger. In the following position, note that the Frenchman received the ball from a wide area of the pitch approximately 15 yards behind the highlighted frame.


 
Aouar exuberates the qualities of an inverted winger in front of goal
 

The highlighted defenders to his left were originally positioned perfectly in trying to eliminate spaces for Aouar in possession. However, his impeccable lane-cutting enabled the young Frenchman to dribble past them effortlessly. Considering the angle of his attempted shot, the xG in this position is unsurprisingly low. In other words, the only way the ball finds the back of the net is through a perfectly curled shot. And Aouar’s right-foot permitted him a moment of magic in this case.

Thus, the young Frenchman’s biggest gift is his innate ability to dribble past players. Note that it isn’t the dribbling, but the dribbling past players that are so impressive. Aouar is outstanding at cleanly winning one-on-one situations. Unlike modern wingers that use raw speed to brute force their way past defences, Aouar instead invites pressure and consequently eliminates his markers. The ability to do so is ever important in an era where structurally organized teams are increasingly hard to break down.

While his preferred choice of progressing the ball is clear, it is noteworthy to analyze his passing range. Though Aouar may not be his generation’s most gifted passer, he does exuberate a high standard for the same. The Frenchman makes most of his passes between his left-back, left-winger and the number 9. This is demonstrated in the following position.


 
High quality through ball execution
 

Through repetition of simple sequences, Aouar understands the left half of the pitch with utmost granularity. The above image demonstrates that his abilities in half-spaces are not only executed through his dribbling. Notice that he drops as deep as left-back to receive the ball. His through ball in between the lines is especially difficult to make as an inch away would lead to a counterattack by the opposition side.

Interestingly, Aouar is almost always higher up the pitch while receiving the ball but tends to pick his moments in dropping deeper. As a result, he is often either unmarked or his marker is forced out of position. Being specialized in one zone of the pitch makes it even harder for opposition players to predict when he switches it up. This is a well-known strategy in football seen through the tactics of entire teams such as Crystal Palace that exclusively attack from the left-hand side of the pitch. This tends to impose a psychological ‘tunnel vision’ into the opposition’s defence making the rare attack from the right more potent due to a surprise factor.

The above scenario goes to show that the French youngster can be just as dangerous operating ahead of the opposition midfield as behind it. He is, furthermore, decisive when he moves away from the left-hand side of the pitch. We explore this theme further in the following section.

TACTICAL PROFILE

As introduced above, Aouar is a player that specializes in operating from the left-hand side of the pitch. His bread and butter of moving the ball are through routine rotations with his left-back and left-winger. In the above-analyzed position, notice the advanced position of France’s left-back. Aouar’s movement prompted him to bomb forward, pinning the opponent’s right-back. This created an ounce of space for the Frenchman to exploit.

This season, Lyon have mostly played a 4-3-3 with an occasional cameo of a 3-4-1-2. Aouar notably plays the role of a number 10 whenever Lyon plays 3 at the back. On his side of the pitch, Aouar usually coordinates with Maxwell Cornet, Karl Toko-Ekambi and Memphis Depay. In motion, Lyon routinely performs rotations between the left-centre midfielder (Aouar) and the left-back (Cornet), and between their winger (Toko-Ekambi) and their number 9 (Depay or Moussa Dembele). Aouar works incredibly well in conjunction with them through simple geometrical triangles not only in possession but also in transitions. Consider the following sequence.

 
Aouar switching play in conjunction with Lyon's rotations
 

In a transition, Aouar drifts left for a few yards and cuts into the current frame. The weight on his cross-field pass broke the final line permitting a potent finish by Moussa Dembele. Note that the centrally positioned Toko-Ekambi is offside and is aware of Dembele’s overlapping run. This implies that Lyon has practised this sequence on the training ground. The triangular formation, whether with their left-back in possession, or overloading attackers in this instance have Aouar at the centre of it.

Additionally, the specifics of the above Champions League match must be noted. Throughout the game, Aouar won most of his one on ones against Fernandinho on the left-hand side. Man City’s centre backs would normally be able to stop a sequence like this but were in two minds in this instance. It could be argued that this was due to Aouar’s constant pressure and unpredictability that snowballed over time. The Frenchman manages to make his defenders second guess themselves on which way he turns, and this consistently breaks defensive shapes.

While there are oceans of existing analyses focusing on Aouar being hard to contain, not much is written about his defensive contributions. As highlighted in the statistical analysis, the Frenchman’s defensive contributions are average. However, he serves a well-defined purpose for Lyon as a recycler of the ball. For most of his defensive actions, the Frenchman is normally facing his own goal and tends to make challenges from a position of tracking back. From deeper positions, he utilizes his ability to shield the ball by carrying it out of danger. This is demonstrated in the following position.


 
Aouar retains the ball, then recycles it
 

Though not at the epicentre of Lyon’s defensive formation, Aouar’s positioning permitted him to intercept a pass from Raheem Sterling to Rodri. There is still work that needs to be done from this position. As modelled throughout this report, Aouar cleanly wins his one on one and manages to progress the ball 5 yards further. The Frenchman’s resourcefulness in a dangerous position ultimately wins his team a foul.  

Aouar managed to be the point of contact to retain the ball and diffuse his opponents’ final pass. In this situation, his strongest attribute permitted him to follow up on his interception by recycling it. The threat of a counterattack contributed to a successful defence executed dynamically against a potent play. It is further noteworthy that the Frenchman positioned himself alongside his opponents’ number 6. Once beaten, this would result in a promising situation for his side on the counter. Furthermore, winning important fouls is a tactical bi-product of Aouar’s gifted technical abilities and helped ease sustained pressure from oppositions.

Thus, Aouar’s movement on and off the ball is consistent both offensively and defensively. Admittedly, this profile lacks defensive completeness especially due to a combination of a compromised percentage of tackles won, and a lack of an aerial presence. However, though the Frenchman can improve his defensive contributions, his current game has solid tactical viability to Lyon. And this style of play could potentially be more effective or further developed at another club.

POTENTIAL TRANSFERS

This section explores four cubs where Aouar could tactically fit into. Note that this is entirely theoretical and does not speculate on his current transfer situation. The following figure is a guide for the same. We compare Aouar’s per 90 stats for the past 4 seasons with key midfielders of Liverpool, Bayern Munich, Arsenal and Manchester City.


 
Comparing Aouar to key midfielders in potential destinations | Source: Understat.com
 

Perhaps the most striking resemblance in all of the comparisons is the similarity of the players’ respective shapes in the above radar charts. This may suggest a certain readiness of the Frenchman in being able to immediately fit into the respective clubs’ tactical systems.

1. Liverpool – In a Klopp team, Aouar would be able to provide what Naby Keita has promised over the past couple of seasons. Keita is arguably Liverpool’s most unique midfielder but has been consistently let down by his injuries. Aouar would bring the Guinean’s ball control, recycle the ball like Wijnaldum and be a creative goal-scoring threat like Coutinho

2. Bayern Munich – This may look like a peculiar destination at a first glance as the German powerhouse have an incredibly vast squad of midfielders. However, Aouar would be a realistic contender for the spot of Bayern’s double-pivot. Considering his comparison to Leon Goretzka, Aouar would pair quite well with Joshua Kimmich. With Kimmich being the orchestrator of Bayern’s attacks, Aouar would thrive as the number 8 making central overloads – a tactic that Bayern routinely employ.

3. Arsenal – This is a move that has had the most media attention. Aouar’s unpredictability and one on one prowess would help the Gunners break down defences more consistently. Further, we may see Arteta utilizing the Frenchman as a left-winger from time to time as an advanced pivot. Potential rotations with Saka and Aubameyang could lead to some sharp and fluid attacks. The manager would have to find the right combination between Saka, Odegaard and Aouar in balancing creativity with industriousness.

4. Manchester City – This is a move that has the hardest midfield to get into but may also provide the highest potential for Aouar. Aouar is least similar to Bernardo in the above figure but may likely grow into the Portuguese’s template. For instance, Man City play a proper possession-based system which would by nature, increase Aouar’s possession chain values. Guardiola may likely utilize the Frenchman at left-wing like Bernardo’s transition from central midfield to right-wing.


 
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THE PYTHAGORAS PERSPECTIVE

Houssem Aouar’s maturity seen through his specialization, in conjunction with his remarkable one on one skills, equips him with the perfect blend of discipline and unpredictability. Watching him ease past players feels like he is almost unpressable at times. The Frenchman is the real deal and will likely make more headlines as his generation takes over.

In this scout report, we analyzed Aouar’s game through different analytical approaches. It is, further, likely that a move away from Lyon may be imminent. Despite being a final product, Aouar has the potential to go up a gear if transferred to the right club. If this were to happen, the Frenchman has the potential to be the best at what he does.


 
 
 
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