Searching for Saïd (in Spain)
Updated: Sep 28, 2020
It's no secret that Saïd Benrahma has been near the top of many clubs' wish lists this summer and, with the domestic transfer window not closing until mid-October, there's still plenty of time for somebody to come in with an offer that Brentford deem too good to turn down.
Knowing Brentford, it's likely that they believe they've either already lined up a replacement for Benrahma with somebody at the club (e.g. Mbeumo, Fosu, Ghoddos perhaps?) or they have a shortlist of candidates they'd choose from should they receive a hefty transfer fee this summer. But what would that shortlist look like?
I wanted to give myself a theoretical but realistic recruitment scenario and see if I could find any viable alternatives for the Algerian midfielder that may be lurking in the Spanish second tier.
Why Spain you say? The Spanish leagues are my 'area of expertise', so to speak. I previously worked as a La Liga and La Liga Smartbank analyst for 4 years at a company called Football Radar in London, and this past year I've been regularly watching footage of games in Segunda B as part of some freelance consultancy work for an agency. I speak fluent Spanish and I'm a firm believer that there are always excellent deals available due to the combination of high technical ability and the lack of money in the Spanish game. So, let's begin.
My Benrahma replacement must be no older than Benrahma is now (25), should predominantly play at left wing (although versatility is always an advantage), be attack-minded and not afraid to take risks. We want a player who will make things happen, not somebody who will just complete 100% successful passes backwards or sideways. Ideally, we want a goal threat and somebody who also provides assists.
As can be seen above, Benrahma's attacking output last season was massive and his defending quality was of a high standard too. Ball retention was lower than I expected, but that can perhaps come under the risk-taker factor I mentioned earlier.
Stylistically, it would be good to look for players who lean more towards dribbling, shooting, passing towards goal and receiving in the box, and if we can get recovering in there too that'll be a bonus.
First of all, I wanted to see if Smarterscout threw up any interesting or viable targets for my shortlist, so I set it to search by similar players. After filtering the results to show only players in 'Spain 2', the 19/20 season and aged 19-25, I was left with three options:
Tete Morente didn't play enough minutes for my liking, but may be worth keeping an eye on next season. That triangle symbol next to Lazo means 'low performer for your benchmark league' (in this case the Championship), so I feel this rules him out. Lombardo, however, is marked as a 'high performer for your benchmark league', as well as 'first season with regular playing time', which means he's definitely worth adding to the initial shortlist.
The next step involved the scatter plots that have been everywhere on Football Twitter for a while now, but which I've only just started to use myself.
I thought the most logical way of doing this was by first breaking down what actions Benrahma performs most in a match, and then looking for players who are statistically and stylistically similar in as many aspects as possible.
At this stage I don't care how successful a player is at each action, for two reasons. Firstly, I have my doubts about the accuracy of Wyscout data, especially once you get outside the big leagues and, secondly, I don't want to penalise players who are attempting difficult or skillful actions - bear in mind we're trying to replace an exciting player that gets fans' bums out of their seats, we want a bit of magic and with magic comes risk and with risk comes failure. For me, video will be much more important in this regard.
A simple bar chart allowed me to visualise which actions Benrahma performs most per 90 minutes. From there, I took some of the most common actions and paired them up into scatter plots that I thought made the most sense.
After that, I filtered out players 26 and older, players who have not played at least once at left wing, players who have played fewer than five 90s and I applied a minimum value to each metric that cut out a lot of the chuff, hopefully leaving me with a nice chart featuring a handful of names - an example of which can be seen below (note our friend Enzo Lombardo...):
A list was compiled from the 5 charts, with players who stood out on more than one scatter plot marked as 'High Priority'. The standout players were:
Manu García - Real Sporting de Gijón - 3
Pedri - UD Las Palmas - 2
Enzo Lombardo - Racing de Santander - 2
James Igbekeme - Real Zaragoza - 2
Javi Galán - SD Huesca - 2
Iñigo Vicente - CD Mirandés - 2
Hicham Boussefiane - Málaga CF - 2
Based on what I already knew about some of these players, plus what I gleamed from some simple research, I was able to discard Manu García (plays mainly as a central attacking midfielder), Pedri (on loan from Barcelona, no chance of signing), James Igbekeme (plays mostly as a central midfielder) and Javi Galán (plays nearly completely at left back).
That left my shortlist as Lombardo, Boussefiane and Vicente, and I guess there's no better place to start then with Enzo.
Before I start any video analysis, I think it's always extremely valuable to conduct some research on the player. The last thing you want to find is that your main target, who you've watched hours of video on and are really excited about, has just completed a move to another club and you were none the wiser.
In this instance, Lombardo hasn't had any recent transfer activity. In fact, he's been on loan at Racing from Mallorca for the past two seasons, playing in Spain's third tier and now second tier. Furthermore, with Mallorca now back in La Liga Smartbank for the 20/21 season, Lombardo will still be somewhat under the radar. However, the bad news that I discovered during the research phase is that he tore his ACL in a league match against Ponferradina on the 26th of June. It's unlikely he'll be back in action until January at the very earliest and, even then, it's unlikely he'll be fully fit for another month or two. If this was real life and we were looking for a replacement this summer (or in the winter window at the latest), he'd be an unviable target.
However, given this is all hypothetical and for my own enjoyment, I'm going to analyse him anyway in order to see if he'd be an option down the line, if he were to recover in good time and Brentford were willing to take on some risk.
Lombardo stood out in particular in the amount of offensive duels and the amount of dribbles he was performing per 90 - both higher than Benrahma's average. He was also completing a similar range of shots and touches in the box per 90.
At first glance, it's clear the Frenchman would need to dramatically up the number of goals and assists he is providing if he were to be an adequate replacement for the Algerian, but I feel that there is an important caveat here. Racing were by far the worst team in La Liga Smartbank last season, finishing 22nd out of 22, winning only 5 times all season, scoring the second fewest goals (39) and conceding the fourth most (56). If Lombardo can perform at a decent level in a bad team, there's every reason to imagine his output would be much greater in a better, or simply more attacking team.
At LW, and benchmarked to Championship standard, Smarterscout highlighted his high ball retention ability and ground duels out of possession. Stylistically he also looks like a nice match with Benrahma, with dribbling, shooting and receiving in box standing out.
Deportivo La Coruña v Racing (90 minutes, LW)
Ponferradina v Racing (25 minutes, LW, tore his ACL in this match)
Tenerife v Racing (90 minutes, LW)
Racing v Ponferradina (90 minutes, LW)
One of the first things I noticed about Lombardo were his quick feet. He wasn't at all fazed having to control the ball in tight or crowded positions, and he was really good at using his body to shield the ball from oncoming opponents. He's an excellent dribbler, loves taking players on and dancing past them and, in this Racing side, he was the main point of danger in attack. It feels as though he relishes being surrounded or outnumbered by opponents and having to work his way out of trouble. Aesthetically, there's something really exciting about the way he dribbles and moves with the ball - he immediately looks like a flair player, which is definitely the profile we're looking for here.
He can send in crosses with delicious whip and speed and he has a real burst of pace in one-on-ones, with or without the ball. He also absolutely loves a nutmeg, which can't help but entertain those watching.
Technical traits aside, he really put in a shift to press and track opposing players. He also has a slight edge to him, not being afraid to square up to an opponent - which could put him in good stead for the physicality of the Championship.
I wanted to watch more video of him, rather than moving on to the next target on my shortlist, which can only be a good thing.
Although Lombardo worked hard to pressurise and chase opponents, as noted above, he wasn't the most difficult player to play past or through. His shooting was a real mixed bag too. He clearly likes a shot, and backs himself from even extreme distances, which is not always ideal. Bearing in mind how many shots Benrahma takes per 90, we wouldn't want to discourage Lombardo from shooting, just help him to take more intelligent shots.
One slight frustration I had was that I felt he could be more aggressive in attacking space in the box before his teammate put in a cross. He'd often find nice pockets in the centre of the area or around the D, but it would feel quite tentative. From the video I watched there was also only one attempt at playing the ball with his head, which would signal it's not a strength of his.
Finally, there were a few times when he would go down too easy for my liking. This would have to be corrected if he were to move to Brentford because, if he's not being given those fouls in Spain, then he definitely won't be getting them in England.
The video below is a compilation of his actions throughout the 3.3 matches that I watched. It includes both positive and negative clips, as I feel it's important to see a player in full rather than from a purely positive or negative light - as this can then influence opinion, perhaps incorrectly.
Lombardo as a player really excites me. It's such a shame that he's suffered a significant injury, because it's clear he has a lot of talent and I worry about whether he'll be able to get back to the same level when fully fit. He'll also miss at least half of another season in La Liga Smartbank, which would have given him more experience in, you'd like to think, a stronger side in Mallorca than at Racing.
If I were Brentford he would definitely be on a shortlist of ones to keep tabs on - ideally looking at how he performs once he's back starting matches and, if it's to the same or a similar standard, then I'd look to swoop early. Of course there will always be risk of injury recurrence now that one of his ACL's has been damaged, but on the other hand this could also represent an opportunity to watch as much video as possible during his period of downtime, as we know nobody else will be attempting to sign him right now.
Grade: B+ Significant potential and talent, likely to be very affordable, but ACL injury means the risk could be deemed too great even in a year's time.
Hicham Boussefiane signed for Málaga back in 2016 from l'Académie Mohammed VI in Morocco, following in the footsteps of Youssef En-Nesyri, who made the same move the year before and has since gone on to play for Leganés and Sevilla.
During the 18/19 season he split time with the first team in La Liga Smartbank and the B team (Atlético Malagueño) in Segunda B, but in the 19/20 season he spent the whole year with the first team as the B team had been relegated to the fourth tier.
Anyone who has followed Málaga at all over the past few years will know what an utter shit-show the club is in terms of finances and shady goings-on. Last month they told 11 members of the first-team squad that they were basically being made redundant, as they could not afford to maintain the wage bill as it was. So far 10 players have left this summer, and there will probably be more departures as a few of those who were part of the aforementioned 11 have yet to resolve their futures.
Added to that, the Al-Thani family have been removed as owners by the board and, over the past few days, four ex-higher ups at the club have been arrested on charges of alleged fraud. The point being, Málaga are not flush for cash right now and the squad is undoubtedly unsettled, which could be beneficial for any club interested in one of their players...
In similar fashion to Lombardo, Hicham's dribbles per 90 and offensive duels per 90 were both comparable to Benrahma's. Shots per 90 was a touch lower than Lombardo whereas touches in the box per 90 was a tad higher.
Hicham's 1 goal and 2 assists are clearly low output for the type of attacking player I'm looking for, and only playing 996 total minutes demonstrates that he was more of an impact sub/rotational option than a starter - only completing the full 90 on 3 occasions during the season.
Smarterscout only had him as playing 11 minutes at LW, which I would query based on the video I've watched, but we can view him at LM and RW below to get an idea of his profile. His defending quality at LM was really high, and his ground duels out of possession were great in both positions. It's interesting the difference in his playing style when on opposite sides of the pitch. On the left he hardly passed towards goal at all and received in the box less than on the right, but shot a lot more. His dribbling and level of disruption were equal on both flanks. We do have to bear in mind the small sample size for each position, however.
Málaga v Deportivo La Coruña (37 minutes, entered as a second half sub, LW)
Fuenlabrada v Málaga (90 minutes, RW/LW)
Elche v Málaga (90 minutes, RW)
Sporting de Gijón v Málaga (62 minutes, subbed off in second half, LW)
The first thing that stood out about Hicham was his high defensive work-rate. His Smarterscout style ratings gave us a hint that he would be involved in a lot of tackling/fouling/clearing/blocking actions, but I was quite surprised by his effectiveness. He had boundless energy, often sprinting from one side of the pitch to the other just to tackle an attacking opponent. He's aggressive and dogged in the challenge and, more often than not, won the ball or put it out of play to put an end to a dangerous attack.
The second thing that stood out was his pace. At times he looked like one of the fastest players I've ever seen on a football pitch. There are certain clips in the video below (4:55, 5:31, but 7:25 most of all) where you can't believe the ground he makes up in the time he does, it's genuinely impressive and could be such a weapon in attack if developed well.
In general his first touch seemed good, either controlling the ball or playing it first time, and when he does get a chance to shoot it's usually on target or close by (he's not hitting a wild screamer regularly like Lombardo, for instance). I also really liked the fact that, generally, he attempted to do something positive to advance the ball in the direction of the opposition's goal, whether that was a dribble/take-on, cross, pass or shot. He's never going to be a player who looks great in success percentages as a result, but as I said at the start of this post, I do not want to penalise invention and creation.
I was disappointed with Hicham's one-on-one ability in the matches that I watched. His searing pace should be enough for him to blaze past the average full back, but he seemed to dither and dally too long on the ball. This could just be a sign of inexperience at this stage, as he's not yet had an uninterrupted run as a starter in the team, but it was frustrating to see him be so quick and aggressive without the ball, yet more timid and unsure when in possession of it.
He can sometimes dribble down blind alleys or allow himself to get boxed in by defenders, and he doesn't have the same level of close control as Lombardo in order to engineer his way out of these situations. I think he may not be fully aware of just how lethal his pace can be, so when he slows down and tries to be cleverer than he maybe needs to be, he really lets the defender off.
One other aspect of his game that let him down, in my opinion, was his attitude at times. There were occasions when he would lose the ball, or feel as if he should have had a foul, and would remonstrate to the referee rather than working to win the ball back or help his team. The clip that begins at around the 3:35 mark in the video below is a example of that, and one that wouldn't go down too well in England.
Lastly, his crossing can be quite inconsistent. There are definitely a few dangerous crosses in the video below, but you're not always sure - if he does manage to beat his man and get a cross in - how good that cross will be.
Hicham surprised me in both good and bad ways. He wasn't as good taking on a defender as I was hoping for, and I don't think he has as much game intelligence as Enzo Lombardo, but the defensive aspects of his game, and his effort and energy levels, really made up for a lot of his attacking shortcomings. If he can simplify his attacking game (i.e. look to knock it past the defender more and use his supreme pace) and maintain his defensive work he could become a real asset for Málaga this coming season.
Grade: C- Not ready for Brentford right now, and Benrahma's boots would be too big for him to fill given he isn't starting regularly yet. However, there's enough raw talent there to make him an interesting player to keep tabs on and he'd be worth another look during next season.
Iñigo spent last season at Mirandés in La Liga Smartbank, on loan from Athletic Club. Previously, he had played for the B team Bilbao Athletic in Segunda B. He has played almost equally at left wing and attacking midfield/support striker during his career, with a few stints at right wing too, so he's clearly a versatile player.
Knowing Athletic, the importance they place on their youth system and their reluctance to sell anyone for below their minimum fee release clause, I think Vicente would probably be the toughest player to buy of the three, and would probably command a higher fee too. As a result, I think he'd have to really stand out in video to be worth more investment from the recruitment/scouting department.
Iñigo's data presents us with something new - rather than dribbling/offensive duels, he's similar to Benrahma in the amount of forward and lateral passes he performs per 90. Smarterscout's data below also backs this up, with his dribbling style rating only hitting 25. Instead, his pass towards goal, recover and disrupt ratings stand out.
His attacking output and defending quantity/quality are slightly disappointing and ball retention is much, much lower than Lombardo's - although of a similar level to Benrahma's and Hicham's (at LM).
Mirandés v Numancia (67 minutes, subbed off in second half, AM)
Extremadura v Mirandés (90 minutes, LW)
Girona v Mirandés (89 minutes, subbed off just before end of match, LW)
Mirandés v Almería (54 minutes, subbed off in second half, LW)
Vicente's first touch and ball control was probably his most impressive quality to me, especially bringing the ball down from height, which he did with ease. I expect players who have made it this far through Athletic's academy to be tidy on the ball, so he's no exception there. His one-touch passing was also good and he showed a few little moments of skill too.
He was on set-piece duty for Mirandés in the matches I watched and delivered well the majority of the time. He also played at left wing, right wing and as a central attacking midfielder/support striker and looked equally comfortable in all three positions, so that versatility could really be useful, especially in a side that has a limited budget.
From his data profile, I knew he wasn't going to be as prominent a dribbler as Lombardo or Hicham, but I was really disappointed with his ability in one-on-one situations. Although he's not slow by any means, he doesn't have that burst of pace to really knock the ball past an opponent. In general he seemed to slow play down when receiving out wide and, aware that he hasn't got the beating of his man, would normally end up playing a pass inside.
His non-one-touch passing was extremely inconsistent and could be fairly inaccurate, as can be seen in the video below. There are numerous occasions when he either passes behind a teammate, out of their stride, or simply to nobody. It seems as though the longer he had on the ball the worse his end product was because, as mentioned in the positives section, there were some really nice one-touch passes.
In terms of attitude and personality, I thought he seemed really timid and lacking confidence. He doesn't seem like an aggressive player and as a result he can be outmuscled quite easily. He also seemed rather lazy in his pressing/defensive contributions - the polar opposite to Hicham. He didn't bust a gut to regain the ball after being dispossessed.
As an aside - and this neither a positive nor a negative - he has quite a peculiar running style. It's almost bird-like or Tyrannosaurus-like in that his arms stay quite rigid while moving.
It looks likely that Iñigo will stay in and around Athletic's first team this season, rather than heading out on loan again. I don't think he's ready for La Liga yet, but Athletic's academy players consistently step up to the mark when promoted, so I would not be surprised if he ends up being a decent squad option for them over the next few seasons.
Based on the video I watched, I think he's the weakest of the three candidates in terms of a Benrahma replacement.
Grade: E - Iñigo was much too timid in my opinion, and this is in a league that is not as physically challenging as the Championship. As a result I feel he would struggle to gain a foothold in games in England and his head could drop quite easily. Price-wise he would be more expensive than Lombardo or Hicham, so doesn't represent good value for money at this time.
Hopefully that was an enjoyable read. I plan to conduct the same analysis/recruitment scenario for players in Segunda B, to see if there are any potential gems flying under the radar.
I'll also be testing myself with different player/team scenarios over time, with the Spanish leagues being my main point of focus.
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