The January transfer window has been open for around 15 days now, and with 15 still to go, there could well be more movement than we have seen thus far. The most high-profile deals of the window have seen Gedson Fernandes move from Benfica to Tottenham Hotspur and Ashey Young swap Old Trafford for the San Siro in a move to Inter Milan. There have also been the constant press rumours about the futures of players such as Bruno Fernandes, Timo Werner, Edinson Cavani and Christian Eriksen, but today, we are going to have a look at a slightly lower-profile player, who could become a household name if he makes a move by the end of the month.
The player in question here is Lille midfielder and French under-21 international Boubakary Soumaré, who, if reports are to be believed, will be moving to the Premier League in January and who will be choosing between Manchester United and Chelsea. In this piece, we are going to take a look at how he would fit in under Frank Lampard, were he to choose west London over Manchester.
Soumaré has been described to the general public as "Paul Pogba but without the baggage," and while that is quite a charming and succinct way as any other to put forward one's assessment of an individual, it is, to put it bluntly, inaccurate and lazy journalism.
Shown below is a radar comparison of Soumaré and Pogba, using averages across their careers. On first glance, it is fairly obvious that Soumaré does not come close to doing the same volume of work that Pogba does, both with and without the ball. From the radar of positive actions, we can further see that Pogba makes far more tackles, takes more shots and wins more aerial duels than his compatriot, whose game is centred around other things.
Looking at the radar of negative actions, once again, it is glaringly obvious that Soumaré is by far the 'cleaner' of the two, by which it means that he is extremely adept at ensuring that he does not influence the game negatively, even if he is not actively contributing going forward.
Now that we have established why Soumaré is not like Pogba, let us have a look at what his game is about, how he could fit into Chelsea's system and why the Blues would want a player like him.
Soumaré is one of a talented crop of youngsters who have graduated from Paris Saint-Germain's youth academy and gone on to find pastures anew. This list includes the likes of Yacine Adli, Odsonne Edouard, Christopher Nkunku, Giovani lo Celso, Kingsley Coman and Goncalo Guedes, among others. There is no doubt that players coming out of the French capital are supremely talented, and have received the highest level of football education, so we can say that Soumaré has a certain amount of pedigree.
Comparing him to Chelsea's current midfield options of Jorginho, N'golo Kanté and Mateo Kovacic (Mason Mount and Ross Barkley are more attacking players and so are not taken into consideration), a couple of interesting observations can be made.
Number one is that there is no single metric that jumps out instantly. He seems quite average, or slightly above or below average in most departments. Many might call this a disadvantage, a 'jack of all trades, master of none' situation, but this could well be a strength. It shows that Soumaré is no one-trick pony, and should be able to adapt to the game situation, opposition and manager's tactical gameplan fairly comfortably, allowing him to interchange roles quite fluidly with any one of the aforementioned midfielders.
Now, coming on to how he measures up against the Blues' midfielders in terms of his negative influence on games, it makes for fairly promising reading. Soumaré is rarely dribbled past, just once every 2 games and is also fairly adept at winning the ball without conceding too many fouls. He also has an aerial duel success rate of nearly 60%, an asset in a midfield somewhat lacking in height.
If one had to put Soumaré into a specific category, it would probably be that of a midfield 'destroyer', as opposed to a 'holder', which is the role that Jorginho plays for Lampard. If Soumaré were to come into the side, he could conceivably do so for games against higher-quality opposition, where Chelsea often lack control and end up being hurt by Jorginho's relative lack of mobility and defensive nous.
However, how would Soumaré do if he had to come in for the Italian against a team that sits off Chelsea and invites them on? Would he have the same role or impact?
Comparing him with midfielders of a similar age (under 23) who have played roughly the same number of minutes this season (over 1000), we start to see a clearer picture of why clubs like Chelsea and United are interested in him. In the above graph, we have a plot of passing accuracy (in % of attempted passes completed) vs. the number of passes completed (per 90 minutes).
Soumaré stands out here, quite prominently, in the 'high volume, high accuracy' quadrant and, in fact, in an elite band within the quadrant which also comprises Arsenal youngster Matteo Guendouzi, Dutch and FC Barcelona superstar Frenkie de Jong and the highly-rated Algerian and AC Milan midfielder Ismael Bennacer, a summer purchase from Empoli.
His pass accuracy of 90.2% and completed passes per game of 50.97 are among the highest on this list, even more impressive when taking into consideration the fact that he does not play in a team whose philosophy is built around ball retention, and is above the likes of Lucas Tousart, Youri Tielemans, Ruben Neves, Declan Rice and Eduardo Camavinga, all players who have been widely tipped to have excellent careers.
Potentially the only weakness in Soumaré's game, however, is illustrated above. In this graph, by plotting the number of key passes per 90 minutes (passes leading to a shot) with the expected goals value of those shots, we get a comparison between the quality of chances these players created and the number of chances they create.
For example, someone like Eduardo Camavinga does not provide many key passes, but when he does, they are usually to positions of high opportunity for a teammate. The same goes for players such as Douglas Luiz and Konrad Laimer. Conversely, we can see that the likes of Gaetano Castrovili, Ibrahim Sangare and Ronaldo Vieira all provide a high volume of key passes, but the shots taken from those positions are often poor chances.
Measuring Soumaré by this yardstick, we see that he falls in the 'low volume, low quality' quadrant, which means that he does not provide many opportunities, and on the rare occasion that he does, it is still not a good scoring chance. However, on the bright side, he is on the edge of this quadrant, so one would think that he has room to grow here. Of course, working with a former midfielder such as Lampard will only help him improve the creative side of his game.
To sum it all up, we can say fairly comfortably that Soumaré has all the skills and potential to be an all-action midfielder at the very top level of the game, but with regards to his development at the moment, he is essentially a defensive midfielder, who looks to protect the back four and provide an outlet for teammates when a forward pass is not on and look to retain possession. He is unlikely to provide much for Chelsea going forward at this stage, but will provide something different in the number 6 role for the Blues, and could well turn out to be a star for years to come.