After a positive turnaround during the latter part of the 2019/20 season, Ralph Hasenhüttl’s Southampton not only improved their league position but played a more entertaining and attacking brand of football, which has created a sense of euphoria among the fans for the upcoming season. The excitement escalated after they learned that a day after Kyle Walker-Peters was permanently signed, the Saints acquired another promising defender Mohammed Salisu from Real Valladolid on a four-year deal after triggering his 10.9 m buyout clause on 12th August 2020.
It was important for Southampton to reinforce the centre-back position due to the dearth of first-team options. Hence, Salisu comes as an essential signing for the Saints. Having said that, the signing also raised a few brows not only because the fee is a bargain for such a highly-potential player, but also because the Saints managed to acquire a player who was reportedly on radars of several big clubs like Manchester United, Barcelona, and Atletico Madrid to say the few.
In this tactical analysis in the form of a scout report, we will do an analysis of Salisu’s individual qualities and how he will fit into the former RB Leipzig manager’s tactics. We will also see how the 21-year old fares amongst the current centre-backs in the team and consequently, why should we expect him to become the first-choice centre-back at some point during the next season.
Salisu is an African Talent football Academy product whose potential was seen by Real Valladolid, consequently signing him in 2017. After playing for the reserve team in the first year and making a couple of cup appearances in the subsequent year, Salisu announced himself in the 19/20 La Liga season, where he became an indispensable part of Sergio’s team that recorded the club’s best-ever finish in 17 years. The team finished with the seventh-best defensive record and the 21-year old played a key role.
Salisu epitomizes the modern-day “ball-playing” centre-back who has the ability to assist his team during the buildup and attacking phases without compromising the most important element of his game, which is to defend his goal and to prevent goal-scoring opportunities for an opposition. Salisu is left-footed, which allows him to effectively use his ball-playing abilities on the left side of the field and also be comfortable on the left flank, as shown in the heatmap below.
The lack of quality ball-playing left-footed centre-backs has prompted the modern-day teams to go after them since such defenders allow them to build the play from the other side of the field as well. The signings of Nathan Aké by Manchester City and Gabriel Magalhães by Arsenal are the most recent examples. Salisu, likewise, falls into this rare category of centre-backs.
The most prominent feature of Salisu which catches instant attention is his impressive athletic and physical prowess. The 21-year old stands at 191 cm, weighing in at 82 kgs., and possesses a strong upper body that gives him a significant advantage in one versus one ground and aerial duels. Although it is not impossible for a strong opponent to beat Salisu in physical duels, it requires an extra effort to put him off the ball.
Apart from his core muscular strength, Salisu also possesses long legs which assists him to make key interceptions and tackles. Observe the stretch of his legs in the following figure, which shows an instance where the 21-year old denies Álvaro Morata a shot on goal.
Besides, the Ghanaian tends to open his body to make it wide while facing an opponent. Such a wide-body frame makes it difficult to get past the defender because the opponent would require to knock the ball further wide and cover more distance to get back to the ball. Hence, Salisu was dribbled past only 0.63 times per 90 minutes last season, according to FbRef.
Observe the extended body shape of Salisu in the above figure. The youngster has covered a significant area around the Leganés full-back which makes it difficult to get past. Although the opponent tries to use the space between Salisu’s legs to nutmeg him, the Ghanaian is quick to change his body shape and hold the full-back off, in turn, forcing a turn-over in the opposition half. Although he is physically imposing, Salisu is impressively agile and can change body movements quickly, adding more features to his athleticism.
Salisu’s physical shape does not make him a slow defender either. Although not the quickest of the defenders, the Ghanaian’s speed must not be undermined. The youngster’s impressive athleticism allows him to burst into acceleration quickly while the long legs assist in making long strides to cover larger distances.
In the figure above, a dangerous possession loss from Real Valladolid’s full-back forced Salisu to play Atletico Madrid attackers onside and allowed Diego Costa to put a threatening ball in the half-space. Observe how far Salisu is from the play while he starts his run in an attempt to regain possession. Even though there was a hint of miscommunication between Morata and João Félix, Salisu still managed to out-pace the two Atletico attackers to prevent a potential goal-scoring opportunity.
Since Southampton plays a high defensive line under Hasenhüttl, the side can often leave ample space behind its defensive line which can be vulnerable during an opposition counter-attack. Hence, it is pivotal for the Saints to have centre-backs who have the ability to chase down the quickest of the attackers. Hence, Salisu’s quick acceleration and high pace make him a great asset to his new club.
The following figure is an example of Southampton’s structure during the attacking phase. As you can see, there are eight players (red) in the attacking third which leaves only the two centre-backs, who are not visible in the image but are positioned ahead of the halfway line, to maintain the vertical compactness of the team.
Salisu is an aggressive defender who likes to engage in physical duels in a bid to dispossess an opponent early. He tends to scan around the field to identify the positions and movements of the players around him before marking the closest attacker tightly. He sticks behind the attacker which virtually prevents any direct pass. Even if the attacker receives a pass he could neither face the goal nor could he have time and space to make a turn. If the attacker drops deep to get rid of his marker, Salisu is not afraid to leave his line to follow his run and continue to maintain a close distance. The following figure shows an instance where Salisu cedes his space to follow Morata.
As the attacker receives the ball, Salisu quickly uses his upper body strength to shove the attacker to unbalance him. This imbalance takes the attacker away from the ball and forces him to lose ball control. Finally, the 21-year old extends his long legs to successfully tackle the loose ball and win the ground duel and the possession. An example is shown in the following figure.
Moments before the above image was captured, Salisu was closely marking the Getafe attacker, Jorge Molina Vidal, in the left half-space. Molina dropped between the lines to receive a pass from the middle third and Salisu followed his run. A slight push from the Ghanaian forced Molino to lose his balance. In the image, you can see Salisu extending his left leg out to tackle the loose ball.
More often than not, such an aggressive kind of defending productive, which is indicated by Salisu’s imposing defensive duel success rate of 71.84%. Only seven other Premier league centre-backs (who have played more than 1000 minutes) have a better number than the youngster. Not only that, but it is also effective because it helps in avoiding committing any foul. It is hard to spot a foul for a referee because Salisu wins the ball as a consequence of an opponent losing his balance rather than the defender coming in direct contact. The slight push during the early stages is almost impossible to spot. Hence, even though the 21-year old engages in 5.01 defensive duels per 90 minutes, he concedes merely 0.73 fouls per 90 minutes.
Although opposition attackers may try to draw him out of his position by dropping deep, Salisu is an intelligent defender who is always aware of the positions and movements of the players around him. Hence, he can recognize movements of opposition players even during his run which allows him to quickly retreat if an opponent tries to expose the space that he left behind him. Due to such diligence, he is seldom caught out of position and hardly cedes his space. One such instance is shown in the following figure.
In the figure above, Salisu followed Morata while Koke looked for a pass to the ex-Chelsea striker. However, the youngster checked over his shoulder during the run to realize that Costa and/ or Félix are ready to make runs into the space left by him. Hence, moments after this image, he quickly stops his run, leaves his marker, and retreats back to close the space.
Hasenhüttl likes his Southampton side to engage in an aggressive high press in the opposition half to win the possession higher up the field. Consequently, the Saints commit a lot of bodies forward ceding space between their midfield and defensive lines. If the opposition is able to break the first line of pressure and manage to enter the middle third, they can expose the space between the lines. The following figure shows the shape of the team during the initial high press. Although the defensive line is not visible, they are positioned in their own half, leaving the gap between the lines.
A team like Manchester United, who is adept in efficiently playing out from the back, was able to find several opportunities to find passes between the Southampton’s lines. Similarly, Brighton also troubled the Saints when they had visited Saint Mary’s stadium in which the away side dominated the first half by exposing the space between the Southampton lines, as exemplified in the following figure.
While most of the modern-day teams like to build their attacks from the back, this can become a frequent issue for the Saints. Hence, Salisu’s tendency to stick at the back of an attacker and be aggressive in duels will be a useful weapon to combat such a situation.
Salisu’s athleticism and maturity make him a secure defender. However, an aspect on which the new Southampton recruit should perhaps work on is his aerial duels. His height and strength give him a great advantage in the air, however, the 21-year old can do much better than his previous season’s aerial-duel success rate of 59.57%.
Ability on the ball
Athleticism is not Salisu’s only strength. The Ghanaian has superior technical abilities which makes him an effective ball-playing centre-back. The youngster played a more defensive role at Real Valladolid which limited his offensive play. However, the quality was evident in the limited display of his game’s attacking aspects.
The 21-year old is comfortable and confident in bringing the ball out from the back. As shown in the following figure, Salisu was attempting to drive the ball forward while Morata was looking to press the defender from a close distance. Moments later, as Morata engaged in a duel by trying to tackle the youngster, the latter used his arm to keep the attacker away from him and dribbled past him easily.
Salisu’s confidence on the ball can be judged by the fact that 78% of the dribbles that he made were is in his half. Although he had only dribbled 0.28 times per 90 minutes, the success rate of 66.67% was impressive which seconds his dribbling impression.
Moreover, the youngster has a calm and composed demeanour on the ball even under pressure which elevates his ball-carrying ability. As you can see in the following figure, Salisu just won the ball back which was followed by a counter-press from Atletico attackers. Instead of clearing the ball out to safety, as most of the defenders would do, the Ghanaian quickly made a turn with the ball and released himself from the press. The movement positioned the defender facing the opposition goal which triggered a more aggressive press from the away side. Consequently, it left space behind them and the defender started a quick counter-attack by passing to a free teammate on the flank.
Hasenhüttl likes his centre-backs to step out into the opposition half thereby creating space to find a team-mate in the attacking third. This was one of the reasons why Jack Stephens became a regular starter in the side in the latter half of the previous season. The British footballer was tasked to time and again step out of the defensive third to drive the ball into the attacking third. The following figure shows an instance of it.
Salisu has the attributes to perform this role and hence, the defender can be seen to manoeuvre the ball forward frequently for the Saint Mary’s-based outfit.
The Ghanaian helps his side to progress the ball vertically not only by driving forward with the ball but also by effectively distributing it from the deeper areas. Salisu has a wide range of passing ammunitions that includes long balls into the final third, smart passes that can break opposition lines, and also short or medium passes to circulate the possession amongst the teammates in the defensive third.
Hasenhüttl will relish this kind of a passing range from a central defender as the manager’s tactics rely significantly on the passing versatility of his centre-backs. Southampton builds their play in two different ways depending upon the opposition and match day tactics. The most favoured pattern is to put in a long ball from the deeper areas into the attacking third in an attempt to win the second ball by crowding the central zone with six players in a hexagon-like shape as we had seen in the previous section. This long ball can come from one of the centre-backs or the goalkeeper.
Alternatively, the Saints also rotate the ball amongst their six defensive players (four defenders and two pivots) patiently unless they find some space on either flank to progress the ball forward.
Salisu’s final third passing success rate and passes into the penalty area accuracy are 63.51% and 50% respectively. Combining them with his ability to play long balls fit in the Southampton’s first pattern of constructing attacking play, while his efficiency in short/ medium passes can help in the alternate approach. Moreover, his smart passes can be useful during counter-attacks. The following figure shows a line breaking smart pass that the Ghanaian attempted during a counter-attack against Atletico.
Although the idea was good and it did break the front line, the execution was not perfect since the slow pace of the ball allowed the opposition defender to close down the Valladolid’s attacker who was the target recipient of Salisu’s pass.
While the youngster has a great range in passing, the accuracy of his passing needs improvements. The overall passing accuracy of 83.75% is not the worst statistic. In fact, it is higher than all the current Southampton centre-backs. However, for a central defender, there is room for improvement. Similarly, 50% long pass completion will need a further upgrade to be able to create more quality chances for his new team.
Low passing accuracy can be one of the reasons why the 21-year old was not tasked to provide long balls frequently at his previous club. Salisu only made 12.19% of progressive passes that were longer than 40m. Hence, the youngster did not enjoy much freedom in carrying the ball out with his feet which is evident from the following ball-progression map of last season.
While Salisu made 6.72 progressive passes per 90 minutes, he made merely 0.22 progressive runs. Moreover, he lost the ball possession every time he made a progressive run, which is something that the youngster needs to work on. The following figure shows the possession-loss map of Salisu.
The figure highlights the issue that the defender seems to lose more balls in his third which can be dangerous for his side as the opposition can start their attack higher up the field. According to Wyscout, Salisu lost possession 6.13 times per 90 minutes, and 61.53% of it was in the defensive third.
How does Salisu fare amongst the current options?
Jan Bednarek has been promoted as a regular starter at the heart of the defence since Hasenhüttl took charge of Southampton in 2018. The Poland international provides the aerial and defensive solidity that the Austrian manager needs from his centre-backs. Even though he is not the quickest on his feet, the 24-year old shows impressive defensive intelligence and positioning which covers up for his lack of speed.
Jannik Vestergaard, who was brought from Borussia Mönchengladbach in 2018, built a reasonable partnership with Bednarek for the initial part of the season. He played on the left side of the central defence due to his two-footedness which made him the only reasonable left-footed player in the squad. The $22m defender was brought to provide the aerial prowess due to his 199 cm height. The 28-year old has decent long passes as well. However, since the 9-0 drubbing against Leicester City, the Dane has lost the trust of the manager, consequently losing his place in the first eleven. The defender does not seem to fit into Hasenhüttl’s tactics due to his slowness and lack of agility. Hence, he is strongly tipped to move out of the club in the current transfer window.
Vestergaard’s fall was Stephens’ gain. Since the 26-year old is better than Bednarek in ball-playing abilities, he was being given the responsibility to progress the ball from deep. Stephens did a fine job that resurrected his career at Saint Mary’s. However, the British defender tends to lose concentration often in a game, which is never a good sign for a central defender, especially at the Saints, who are often left with only the centre-backs in defence during an opposition counter-attack, as established earlier.
Salisu’s aerial and ball-playing abilities make him a perfect signing for Southampton. With Bednarek and Stephens both being “non-nonsense” defenders, the Ghanaian offers something different and complimentary. The following figure compares the new recruit against the existing centre-backs on the metrics that play a vital role in Hasenhüttl’s tactics.
As you can see, Salisu easily offers more than Stephens in every metric, which makes him a better candidate to start the games over the 26-year old. Although Salisu trails Bednarek and Vestergaard aerially, the Ghanaian provides more solidity in ground-defence which can be seen in defensive duel accuracy. While Vestergaard has better passing numbers, the difference is not significant. However, Salisu is the only genuine left-footed player in the squad which enhances the team’s chances to play from the back.
Salisu and Stephens can provide a strong ball-playing partnership on either side of the field which can be helpful in games where Southampton expects to dominate the possession and the onus is on the Saints to go for a result. However, I expect Salisu to form a formidable partnership going forward alongside Bednarek purely due to the defensive ability that both the players can provide to the side. Besides, Bednarek can move back into his favoured right side and continue to take the defensive onus while Salisu can take the ball progressing responsibility from the left. Having said that, the fans should not expect the new signing to get into the team immediately, as the manager also mentioned in one of the interviews.
Mohammed Salisu’s rise in the footballing world in just a span of a season epitomizes his potential. Given the Saints’ history to develop players, the youngster’s choice to join Hasenhüttl’s side look like a step in the right direction. The Ghanaian’s physicality and abilities on the ball make him a perfect modern-day centre-back whose style suits the Premier League.
While his quality will not keep him away from the first-team for a long time, Salisu is certainly not devoid of issues and has aspects of his game that needs improvements. However, he is only 21 years and 31 first-team games old which provides him ample time to improve.
It will be interesting to see how the youngster develops but I will not be surprised to see him ending up at a bigger club in the future.