The uniqueness of a creative, left-footed number 10 is healthily romanticized by analysts. The likes of Paolo Dybala and Kai Havertz are two recent phenomenons who perhaps have not quite lived up to expecations despite attracting fans for their aesthetic beauty. Among the more underrated and lesser-known players in this broad cluster, is the Ukrainian Ruslan Malinovskyi. In terms of output and raw talent, Malinovskyi is undoubtedly one of the most exciting and effective performers in Serie A - however, he has fallen out of favour, averaging a game time of just 46 minutes per 90 over the past two seasons.
This may be due to stylistic friction between his flair and Atalanta’s industriousness. The 27-year-old Ukrainian has a broad skill set that equips him to thrive in almost all areas of the midfield. Moreover, Atalanta are a system-heavy side that are known for their industriousness and pressing. We believe that Malinovskyi has been underutilized by Atalanta on the one hand but that on the other hand, he has seemingly lacked the work-rate required to thrive in Gian Piero Gasperini’s tactical framework.
In this scout report, we will provide an individual and tactical profile of the Ukrainian artist. Following a data analysis of some of his key performance indicators, we analyze his individual strengths and judge their compatibility with his expected role in Atalanta. We argue that tactical improvements on the training ground and a higher work rate on the pitch will be the biggest catalyst for the Ukrainian's development. Finally, as he has recently been attracting a large number of suitors across Europe, including England, we consider potential clubs where he would thrive tactically.
Our dataset consists of key statistics of Malinovskyi over the past two seasons obtained from FbRef.com. We have analyzed his output in terms of his Expected Goals, Expected Assists, Pass Completion Percentage(Cmp%), Shots(Sh), Shot-Creating Actions(SCA), Goal Creating Actions(GCA) and Carries. The above pair plot visualizes these variables on the x as well as y-axes. The long diagonal describes each metric in isolation. This gives us insights into the descriptive statistics of Malinovskyi's output.
Over the past two seasons, Malinovskyi has recorded an average xG of 0.13, xA of 1.15, 2.13 shots, 3.31 shot-creating actions, 29 carries and a pass completion percentage of 76.9% for every appearance. The Ukrainian's proficiency in being able to contribute to his team's overall volume of shots every match is a highly valuable trait. Moreover, at a first glance, we were surprised by Malinovskyi's pass completion percentage. Knowing that passing is his strongest attribute, we expected this number to be higher. However, as we shall see later, this can be explained through Malinovksyi's higher volume of riskier through balls.
The plots around the long diagonal investigate the relationships between Malinovskyi's performance metrics. This aims to identify deeper trends of statistical significance in the Ukrainian's output. For instance, there is a slight negative relationship between the Ukrainian's Cmp% and SCA. This intuitively adds up as riskier passes would yield more shot-creating actions at the cost of a reduced pass completion percentage. In this plot, however, this negative relationship is not statistically significant as their correlation coefficient is closer to 0 than to 1.
Perhaps the most significant insight from this plot is the relationship between Malinovskyi’s Carries and Shots, and his Carries and SCA. They have a correlation coefficient of ~0.7 indicating a strong positive relationship between each other. This implies that every time Malinovskyi records a carry, there is a high chance that it results in either a shot or a shot-creating action. Thus, we could interpret this in terms of the fact that Malinovskyi is not only adept at holding the ball but also creates a large number of chances from his time on the ball.
Consider the following comparison that compares Malinovskyi to the best performers in the Serie A this season.
The above radar charts demonstrate that the Ukrainian’s numbers are up there with Serie A’s better-known headline getters in Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Hakan Calhanoglu. Malinovskyi’s key passes per 90 and shots per 90 are far higher than those of Mkhitaryan. Furthermore, considering the shape of the chart on the right, the Ukrainian and Calhanoglu are stylistically similar. Malinovskyi’s value in key possession chains (xGChain90), however, is far more than that of his Turkish counterpart.
Malinovskyi’s considerable lack of minutes is noteworthy and has undoubtedly had an impact on his performance. Over the past two seasons, the Ukrainian has been on the bench more than he has started. The lack of consistent game time influences a higher variance in his performances and vice versa. This can be explained by the following image.
The histogram on the left plots Malinovskyi’s xA over a span of two seasons. Notably, the difference between its highs and lows is quite volatile. And the boxplot on the right underlines this. Considering the outliers, it could be argued that regardless of whether he starts, he can be a world-beater on his day. However, if this isn’t the case, then the drop off is quite noticeable. A lack of consistency could potentially be a caveat to his per 90 stats and would explain Gasperini’s scepticism in regularly utilizing the Ukrainian in his tactics. In the following sections, we will explore this theme further through concrete examples.
Malinovskiy is an excellent progressor of the ball. He is equally adept at making probing passes as well as dribbles into the opposition’s final third. The Ukrainian’s left-footed long passes, in particular, are an absolute spectacle in their vision, technique and execution. Consider the above scenario.
The pass above is extremely difficult to make in terms of finding its target. However, the weight behind this pass not only found its respective target but also put his colleague in a position where he was a few yards clear of his respective marker. The Ukrainian’s grounded through ball bypassed three lines of Manchester City’s defence. This is even more impressive considering that City are drilled to defend in a preventative manner by blocking passing lanes. When given space, Malinovskyi’s execution of through balls is unparalleled.
Furthermore, notice how deep the Ukrainian is positioned before making the pass. We believe that situating himself in quarterback position bring the best out of the Malinovskyi’s distribution. The Ukrainian’s positional awareness can be seen higher up the pitch as well. Consider the following position.
The above image demonstrates one of the more common situations Malinovskyi has been deployed in by the manager. After a quick peek across his shoulder, Malinovskyi’s turn in conjunction with a probing dribble quickly permits him to progress the ball onto the edge of the penalty area. Additionally, his technique in being able to shield the ball forced the opposition to foul him in a dangerous area. Considering the presence (or lack thereof) of his teammates around him, Malinovskyi managed to create something out of nothing.
The very same permeates into his shooting as well. Malinovskyi is an incredibly clean shooter of the ball. In the above position, the Ukrainian’s striking technique shot power on his weak foot, and the speed at which the ball swished the back of the net illustrate that the Ukrainian is dangerous from a variety of different angles. In the following section, we will explore how his individual skill set is utilized in Atalanta’s tactics.
The Ukrainian's all rounded versatility poses tactical problems in the squad management for Atalanta. Gasperini has been especially keen on playing Malinovskiy in the supporting two of a 3-4-2-1 this season. This is due to the fact the Remo Freuler and Marten De Roon are the backbone of Atalanta’s midfield and are given the nod due to their reliability and seniority in the team.
Malinovskyi is therefore deployed to operate in the half-spaces between the opposition’s defence and midfield. For the majority of this season, he has been tasked with holding the ball in these half-spaces and winning fouls in dangerous areas. This is especially effective in the final third as Malinovskyi’s superior shooting ability makes him dangerous at taking set-pieces as well.
The above image illustrates two different set-piece tactics from a similar zone. In the corner above, Malinovskyi’s ball in was aimed at the far post. That no opposition defender in the near post even jumped indicates that the flight in conjunction with the ultimate dip of the ball was perfectly weighted. The indirect free-kick below was an under-cross. Malinovskyi’s body positioning leads the highlighted defender (number 7) to lunge forward in anticipation of a deeper cross. However, the consequent cross is perfectly played into the near post resulting in a well-executed set-piece goal.
The other visible tactic that Malinovskyi has engaged in this season is making delayed runs in central overloads. Consider the following position.
In the above image, Luis Muriel’s initiative on the flank creates room for Atalanta’s attacking midfielders to flood the box. Malinovskyi’s delayed run, in conjunction with poor marking from the Lazio defenders in transition, permitted the Ukrainian to execute a clinical finish.
While the aforementioned tactics are effective for Atalanta to a certain degree, their drawbacks may be hindering the Ukrainian’s optimal role. On operating from half-spaces higher up the pitch, Malinovskyi has recorded far few touches in games. As mentioned earlier, at times when things don’t click for the Ukrainian, he tends to go missing in games. And the drop off is fueled by the fact that Atalanta play high-intensity football. Malinovskyi’s biggest weakness is arguably his work rate (or lack thereof) off the ball. Consider the following position.
In the above frame, Malinovskyi was perfectly positioned to not only identify the progression of the opponent counterattack but was also on equal footing with the ultimate goal scorer. He, therefore, had it within his sight and should have anticipated the consequent 2 v 2 by tracking back. Instead, he was caught jogging and ball watching. According to our database, this loss against Sampdoria has been the only time this season that Malinovskyi was deployed as a deeper central midfielder.
The conundrum, then, is that Malinovskyi’s is a better passer of the ball than a dribbler. However, he is utilized in half-spaces, usually against solid Italian teams that often eliminate these spaces with a midfield of 5. And the manager doesn’t trust Malinovskyi with an out and out central midfield spot as he’s not happy with his off the ball performance.
Gasperini has gone on record stating that Malinovskyi needs more time to adapt to the team’s tactical routines on the training ground. Ultimately, he has given Matteo Pessina and Aleksei Miranchuk the nod ahead of the Ukrainian as he sees them as more reliable in Atalanta’s pressing and counter-pressing.
This friction between Malinovskyi’s undeniable quality and Atalanta’s pre-determined tactics is an addition to our ongoing debate surrounding the death of number 10s. Although Malinovskyi certainly has the raw talent to be world-class, he is a luxury player in a system-heavy team and does not have the creative freedom to showcase all of his strengths.
Theoretically, what team(s) would better befit Malinovskyi’s strengths and weaknesses from a tactical standpoint? We submit:
Malinovskyi could potentially be utilized as an attacking midfielder competing for a spot with the likes of James Maddison and Harvey Barnes in 2 of Brendan Rodgers’ 3-4-2-1. He’d fit in like a glove on set-piece duty and would add significant value to the Foxes against teams that look to frustrate them by heavily preparing against their wing-backs.
Unlike Atalanta, Leicester play a comparatively lower tempo when fighting for the ball. This could potentially mean that he could even feature alongside Youri Tielemans in a double pivot at the heart of midfield. This would give him the space to execute his long passes across the field backed up by his effective carries. In terms of the respective philosophy of the manager and the team’s style of play, Malinovskyi could be given a relatively larger degree of creative freedom at Leicester. The main issue would be the lack of a guaranteed starting spot.
This one is especially interesting as Marcelo Bielsa is arguably the most system-heavy manager in the world today. However, Bielsa’s patented 4-1-4-1utilizes an enganche in a two-man number position alongside Mathieuz Klich. With Klich acting as a lateral pivot, the enganche is essential the artist of the team being afforded the highest degree of creative freedom.
With Pablo Hernandez approaching the end of his career, Leeds originally brought in Rodrigo to fill in the position. The Spanish international has had mixed results playing in the enganche and there have been reports urging Leeds to consider reinforcements in this position. Granted, this may be a stretch realistically due to the club’s financial limitations.
Malinovskyi’s individual and tactical profile is quite befitting of an enganche. He has a gem of a left-foot and can truly create magic on his day. However, he will need to make tactical improvements, especially in regards to his off the ball work rate, to reach the next level. If the Ukrainian were 21, he’d be assessed with a different set of eyes. At 27, though, having raw talent is not the only metric through which analysts assess a player.
With the departure of Papu Gomez, Malinovskyi may well get more game time and reach the next level at Atalanta. With a patient touch of tactical and defensive improvements over time, Malinovskyi may well have a breakout season later in his career like Calhanoglu. However, we believe that due to his individual skills, his ceiling might be even higher. In order to avoid stagnation, perhaps a move to Leeds under the tutelage of Bielsa would be the best step for him to take.
Nikhil is a tactical analyst based in Sweden who obsesses over full-backs. He also thinks he can beat you at chess.