19-year-old Rayan Ait-Nouri has been touted to succeed as a modern full-back by most analysts. His season at Rennes merited interest from several big clubs like Manchester United. The French teenager’s consequent move to the Wolverhampton Wanderers project is undoubtedly an exciting prospect. Ait-Nouri’s involvement so far indicates that Nuno Espirito Santo already sees him as a serious option for his squad selection this season.
An ideal debut against Crystal Palace can be contrasted with his rather underwhelming performance against Leicester City. A contrast must be further drawn between his level of integration in the team to the former Barcelona right-back Nelson Semedo. Despite this, the glimpses we’ve seen of him in the Premier League resemble a final product with a high ceiling.
This scout report provides a tactical analysis of how Ait-Nouri fits into Wolves’ system. Our analysis evaluates his strengths and weaknesses in regards to the template of the modern full-back. An optimistic run moving forward may cement significant strides in his development, as well as add a new dimension to Wolves’ tactics.
Good pace is arguably the most fundamental and coveted attribute for a full-back to succeed at the highest level; Ait-Nouri’s pace defines his game. He operates at a notably high tempo, and this permeates throughout his player profile.
The most commonly cited ability that the French youngster possesses is his ball control and dribbling. He’s particularly skilled at cutting lanes, shoulder to shoulder, which puts defenders off balance and permits Ait-Nouri to dribble past opponents.
In the above image, Ait-Nouri begins his dribble from a neutral half-space. A quick burst of pace in conjunction with clean ball control enables him to dribble past three defenders and progress the ball into a dangerous area.
The following image maps Ait-Nouri’s dribbles in the past year. An impressive 62% success rate illustrates why opposing teams often deploy an extra marker on the teenager.
In addition to his profound ability to beat a man, Ait-Nouri is adept at moving the ball more quickly through short passes in possession chains. When he isn’t dribbling, he seldom keeps the ball at his feet for too long. Instead, he tends to relay it to his more central teammates in a metronomic fashion. This often results in a one-two between Ait-Nouri and a central pivot, allowing the ball to be progressed between the lines.
His long-passing repertoire can be evaluated through his crossing. He has averaged 3.46 crosses per 90 last year, with a commendable success rate of 48.3%.
The importance of a good cross – a good high cross at that – cannot be overstated for a modern full-back. While Ait-Nouri’s cross success rate is impressive, it is noteworthy that almost half of these are ground crosses. The youngster opts for the played-back ground cross almost as an autopiloted action. This may be effective in systems where a midfielder overloads the opposition box on one hand. On the other hand, it may be merit a lesser expected goals (xG) value for a striker that likes to attack the cross, instead of holding his run.
Ait-Nouri’s pace is the foundation of his defensive traits as well. He backs himself in one-on-one situations and is strong at tackles after tracking back. This is illustrated in the following image.
As a wide defender, Ait-Nouri normally prefers positioning himself in the correct zone and waiting for the attacker to make a move. He then uses his pace to win back the ball. In the above position, Wilfried Zaha was under the impression that he lost his man, however, the teenager was well-positioned and won the duel despite it occurring in a risky area.
Moreover, Ait-Nouri’s positional awareness permits him to take advantage of his opponents’ blind spots. Consider the following position.
After subtly closing in two yards, Townsend was dispossessed, because he was unaware of Ait-Nouri’s position. The Frenchman knew when to accelerate and lunge in from his opponent’s shoulder.
As well as this, the youngster records the majority of his tackles in this manner. His overarching pace allows him to defend whilst holding a high line. This style of play – offensively and defensively – suggests that Ait-Nouri is an attack-minded full-back better suited to playing in teams that have the majority of the ball and like to pick teams apart. This is relevant with respect to his development at Wolves.
Ait-Nouri’s integration challenges at Wolves
Aside from the better-known obstacles such as learning a new language and settling in a new country, Ait-Nouri will face tactical challenges in his first season at Wolves. First, Wolves play a 3-4-2-1, as opposed to Rennes’ 4-1-4-1. Having three centre-backs permits the wide defender to get forward more often, which suits Ait-Nouri’s style of play.
The above image underlines Wolves’ structural roles in their signature formation. Nuno’s tactics offensively and defensively depend heavily on the positional influence of Wolves’ 3-4-2-1.
An equidistance amongst the players is quite important, as they tend to counter-press and are most dangerous in transitions. This equidistance will provide Ait-Nouri further protection defensively, as he would routinely be aided by Daniel Podence, Ruben Neves and Max Kilman on the press.
Thus, on paper, Wolves’ system should bring the best out of the teenager. However, we surmise that he will face the following obstacles in his first season at Wolves.
Wolves have ambitions of building their team around flying full-backs – similar to Liverpool’s Trent Alexander Arnold and Andrew Robertson. While Ait-Nouri is cut from the same cloth, his counterpart Semedo is visibly preferred by his teammates whenever Wolves have the ball. This could be for a number of reasons, such as the Portuguese connection among the Wolves squad, which is telling.
Despite having only a few more games than Ait-Nouri under his belt, Semedo looks like he’s been playing in this team for years. Furthermore, his intuitive decision making on and off the ball is objectively more reliable. While Ait-Nouri likes to pass the ball quickly, Semedo takes his time to play the right pass and engages more Wolves players.
This isn’t meant to draw an unfair comparison between the two players. Instead, it is meant to illustrate a fairly important task that Wolves’ coaching staff should address, despite it being early days. The consequences of procrastinating a proactive integration process for the youngster may underline some of the weaknesses in his game rather harshly. Consider the following position-
In one of several fascinating exchanges with Leicester City’s James Justin on the left-hand side of the pitch, Ait-Nouri is ball-watching, despite being correctly positioned. This permitted the cross to reach Youri Tielemans, who managed a shot on goal amidst three Wolves defenders. Ait-Nouri autopiloted the situation, and was careless to not close in on his man.
The above position summarises several areas for the youngster’s improvement. Like in the position before, Ait-Nouri is susceptible to a lapse of concentration, especially when he hasn’t seen much of the ball. In an aerial situation, while he did well to cover ground to make an interception, his touch let him down. Furthermore, he attempts to control the ball with his left foot, which is unnatural, considering the direction of the ball. Finally, his weaker instincts regarding when to close in on his man concede the penalty also need work. Unlike the previous position, Ait-Nouri is overly rash, trying to make up for the bad touch.
Offensively, too, a lack of coherence between Ait-Nouri and Wolves’ attackers is evident. His interplay with Podence, in particular, is almost entirely non-existent. So far, both players are dissimilar in tempo and are not utilising the opportunity to build possession chains from the left optimally.
Against stronger oppositions in the league like Leicester, Ait-Nouri may have a tendency to refrain from expressing his creativity. In the above image, he is so focused on successfully doing the action expected from him that he misses a better pass. Therefore he has room to improve on his own strengths by sticking to the basics, like keeping his head up while on the ball.
While some of the aforementioned points may seem a bit harsh, it is noteworthy that he is already playing at a significantly high level. Subtle improvements and solutions to weekly integration problems go a long way, and are foundational for Ait-Nouri to reach his potential.
Solutions moving forward
Wolves are a counter-attacking team. However, with quality wing-backs like Ait-Nouri and Semedo, they will likely aim to evolve their tactics. For instance, they could improve their play in possession by adding an extra horizontal pass before a probing vertical pass.
In the above image, Podence is arguably too direct in his approach, and could keep possession in a positive manner by playing it wide. The intended cross to Pedro Neto may result in a big chance, but it depends entirely on the outcome of a percentage ball. Playing the extra pass also connects an often isolated front three in a 3-4-3 system, with more players joining the attack. Thus, playing the extra pass significantly improves the xG of a counter-attacking team in the long run.
Nuno may try to utilise Ait-Nouri in a 3-5-2, with an extra midfielder. This would grant the youngster more space to operate in. Furthermore, the front two would be less focused on dropping deep, and more focused on occupying central spaces. This would allow a more harrowing presence of Wolves’ strikers, who must eventually trust build-up play from either flank.
Finally, Wolves must make a conscious attempt to move the ball through both flanks. For instance, Conor Coady routinely makes a cross-field long pass with his right foot (thus curling inwards) to Semedo. This gives Semedo a 10-yard headstart higher up the pitch to link up with the forward players. The same pass must be routinely made to Ait-Nouri. Perhaps the left-footed Kilman could be instructed to employ this in the build-up phase for Wolves.
The importance of switching flanks and making an extra pass better equips an equidistant 3-4-3 system to not just be solid, but also add an extra dimension to their attack.
The purpose of this scout report was to provide an approach to weekly tactical decisions potentially being made by Wolves’ coaching staff this season. Rayan Ait-Nouri already possesses attributes of a modern full-back, but must now make progress in terms of integrating with his teammates, as well as focusing on the basics.
Wolves, on the other hand, must evaluate their possession chain values. In order to improve upon their current output, they should diversify their possession chains. The synergy between Ait-Nouri and Semedo as flying wing-backs may be the key to do so.
This scout report outlined the player profile of a serious talent in the first section. In the second section, the scout report outlined how Ait-Nouri can accelerate his development, with respect to the upcoming season. A couple of solid seasons at Wolves may prompt an even bigger move in the future.