Using data and video scouting to find a replacement for Raphinha

Following on from my last blog post, I wanted to again look at a player who has been linked with moves away from their current club and based on his current form, no one has more potential suitors than Leeds United’s Raphinha. Despite only joining the club in October, he has gone on to score 5 goals, register 5 assists, and play with some fantastic underlying numbers that just about do justice to how important he’s been for Leeds this season.

Raphinha is a dangerous mix of progressor, creator and finisher.

It’s fair to say playing under Marcelo Bielsa has definitely improved these metrics somewhat, with a great emphasis placed on getting bodies forward into dangerous positions. Playing on the right, and occasionally on the left, of a 4-3-3, Raphinha stays wide when Leeds have possession, often receiving the ball on the touchline. From there he has a variety of options: drive infield with the ball, switch the play, send passes down the line to an overlapping (or sometimes underlapping) fullback, make a pass behind the opposition line or, if nothing is on, recycle the ball back to the centre halves or the midfield. Given the amount that the ball gets funnelled out to the wide areas, this makes Raphinha key in providing both ball progression and creativity for Leeds, and he does this whilst also generating chances of his own and getting in the box for crosses from the other wing. He does this so well in fact that, even when compared solely to Jack Harrison, who often plays a similar role on the other flank, Raphinha still stands out.

Raphinha vs Jack Harrison this season in the PL.

This all goes without even mentioning the system Leeds play when they don’t have the ball! They currently allow the lowest PPDA (passes per defensive action) of all the teams in the Premier League, and every player on the pitch is expected to run consistently for the entirety of the match. Therefore, any player that replaces Raphinha will be expected to be part of an intense press off the ball, on top of being an influential presence whilst on it. This makes the prospect of having to replace this man a very daunting challenge indeed.

Before I look at who Leeds could bring in, let’s have a look at who they already have. On top of Jack Harrison who I mentioned before, Leeds have two other wingers that they could replace Raphinha with, at least in the first team: Hélder Costa and Ian Poveda-Ocampo. They also have the option of Ezgjan Alioski, although he has more often played as a left back this season, making comparisons difficult, and is looking likely to leave at the end of the season with his contract expiring in the summer.

It’s pretty clear that both of them pale in comparison to Raphinha, although they have both played less minutes, and Poveda-Ocampo is three years younger than the Brazilian, and therefore has plenty of time to develop to his level. All that being said, if Raphinha was to leave, then Leeds would need a player who is capable of stepping into the first team straight away, although it would not be unlike Bielsa to throw a young player in at the deep end (see Ilian Meslier). 

The criteria I will be using to find said player are as follows:

  • Aged between 16 to 27.

Despite the fact we are looking for a first-team player, Leeds have made an effort to keep the age of their squad down by bringing in players just before their peak. Therefore, I would like to continue this and recommend players that they could get at least 4-5 years out of.

  • Played over 1000 minutes in any Top 5 European League or the Championship.

Based on Leeds’ recruitment last season, they have tended to focus on the Top 5 Leagues and were linked with several Championship players. Therefore, I felt these were the most natural leagues to look at. The minute baseline is there to remove any players who aren’t currently playing first-team football, and hence wouldn’t be able to make an immediate impact for Leeds.

  • Has played as a LW or RW this season.

Although Bielsa does like versatile players, this is one of the few positions where he’s shown a preference for more natural fits. However, an ability to play on both wings would be useful.

  • Worth less than €20 million according to TransferMarkt.

I felt that Leeds wouldn’t want to spend all the money on a direct replacement with there being other areas of their squad that they might want to upgrade. It is also here to remove any unrealistic transfers.

Setting these filters leaves us with a pool of 97 players to search through.

The first area to look at is ball progression. As Raphinha receives a lot of the ball, often dropping off slightly to receive it, a lot of the emphasis is placed on him to move the ball forward, as well as on playing balls to forwards making runs in behind. Therefore, to see this, we look at the number of progressive passes per 90 against the number of through passes per 90, with the size of the points represents the number of progressive runs per 90. Although the latter isn’t an area that Raphinha stands out in, it might help identify good progressors who prefer driving forward with the ball to passing forward.

Progressive passes vs Through passes, both p90, with the size of the point indicating the number of Progressive runs p90.

The two standouts are both Championship talents, Norwich City’s Emiliano Buendia and Liverpool’s Harvey Elliot (on loan at Blackburn Rovers), with a couple others, Buendia’s teammate Todd Cantwell and Bournemouth’s David Brooks also performing well. If we look elsewhere around Europe, we can see there are strong performances from Reims’ Mathieu Cafaro and the Sevilla duo of Suso and Bryan Gil (the latter being on loan at Eibar).

Next, let’s look at the players’ creative output. Raphinha creates a large number of good chances for Leeds and therefore it will be important to replace him with a player who creates chances of a similar quantity and quality. We will therefore look at the number of shot assists per 90 against the xG of these chances per 90 (known as expected assists, or xA).

Shot assists vs xA, both p90.

Again, we can see that Buendia is the standout player, with the previously mentioned Bryan Gil also performing well. Other strong performers are Saint-Étienne’s Adil Aouchiche, Stade Brest’s Franck Honorat (below Gil), Levante’s Jorge de Frutos (below Honorat), Lorient’s Armand Laurienté and Frankfurt’s Vincenzo Grifo (below Laurienté).

Lastly, we’re going to look at each player’s attacking output in terms of shots, goals and xG. Due to how Leeds play, any replacement for Raphinha will be encouraged to shoot often and, if possible, from good positions. Therefore, we will look at how often the players shoot per 90, what is the cumulative xG of these chances per 90 and the number of goals they have scored this season.

Shots vs xG, both p90, with the size of the point indicating the number of goals scored this season.

There are three main standouts – Lyon’s Timo Kadawere, Saint-Étienne’s Denis Bouanga (next to Kadawere) and Huddersfield Town’s Josh Koroma. Following them is Buendia, who shows why so many clubs have been linked to him, especially in the January window, Aston Villa’s Bertrand Traoré, Watford’s Ismaïla Sarr and the aformentioned Vincenzo Grifo.

Based on the pure data, the runaway choice would be Emiliano Buendia. Even accounting for him playing in a weaker division, he is one of the only players to register good metrics in all three key areas, making him a good pickup for any side. However, there are two main reasons why he wouldn’t be my choice for Leeds.

Firstly, due to Norwich’s current position in the Championship and his vast number of potential suitors, Leeds would have a difficult time acquiring Buendia, especially for a reasonable price. This would automatically make him a difficult recommendation, but I also have to add that I don’t think he would be a good fit for Leeds, at least the way he plays now for Norwich. Although he plays on the right on paper, he often receives the ball more in the right-half space as opposed to on the flanks like Raphinha and the other Leeds wide players. This isn’t automatically a problem per say – a coach as good as Bielsa would be able to mould him into a Leeds player – but it would be a risk to spend a lot of money on a player, only to significantly change the way they play, especially when it could affect their output.

My personal choice would be Bryan Gil, who is registering good numbers whilst playing for one of the weakest teams in La Liga at the age of just 20. He usually plays on left of a 4-3-3, staying wide to maintain width and allow the infield players to have more space, very similar to how Leeds’ use their wide players. Another thing that Eibar and Leeds have in common is their use of a high press. Eibar have one of the lowest PPDA values across all the European Top 5 Leagues, even lower than Leeds, and therefore, at least in terms of intensity, Gil would be a good fit for Bielsa’s men.

The main thing that stands out about Gil is his technical ability in possession. His touch is very good, keeping the ball under control even when the pass to him is poor or at a difficult height. This allows him the time to assess his surroundings and make a good decision in possession, which he usually does. His passing is accurate and regularly finds its target, although this is partly because he rarely looks to switch the play, more often playing short balls inside to one of his midfielders. Once he’s done this, he always looks to move into space, which is often found down the channels in behind the defence, looking for a return pass from his team-mate.

Due to being left-footed and playing on the left flank, he often doesn’t have many options other than to cross the ball into the box. Although not always accurate, he is capable of a variety of them, making his delivery harder to predict. Should there be a defender in the way, he is more than capable of dribbling past them with a combination of his fantastic control and fantastic turn of pace. However, he is also susceptible to being bullied off the ball, which leads me into my main concerns about Gil.

Due to his age and size, Gil does get outmuscled quite regularly by bigger players, especially those that can keep up with him. What’s even more concerning is that this is in La Liga – a league not exactly renown for its physicality. Should he join the Premier League, it would definitely be worth trying to strengthen this area of his game so that, not only is he more effective in 1v1 situations, but also so he can be more effective when trying to win the ball back himself.

The other major concern I have is his lack of shots. He currently only takes around 1.4 a game with a total xG per 90 of 0.12, just below the median value for both stats. He has also only scored 3 goals from these chances, making him a not exactly natural fit for a free-scoring Leeds team. However, part of this comes down to the role he plays. Given his position and strong foot, he doesn’t get many opportunities to get into the box to shoot (as he is often the one setting up the chances) and it is difficult to cut inside onto your weak foot to score. Therefore, I would like to see him being given more chances on the right-hand flank, as this might give him a greater variety of options when he gets the ball in the final third.

Despite this, I think that, should Leeds be able to convince his parent club Sevilla to part ways with him, he would be a tremendous addition to their squad and a fantastic replacement for Raphinha. However, they may want to move quickly, as recent reports have linked him to Barcelona, and I’m sure that his recent inclusion in the Spanish national team would have only multiplied his potential suitors.

Data taken from/Video scouting done using Wyscout

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