In the last decade of European football there have been clubs who have developed reputations for recruiting more intelligently than others, Udinese in Italy, Porto and Benfica in Portugal and Lyon in France, for example, all became well known for signing players from undervalued markets before developing them and selling them on for a significant profit. The trick, however, is to continually be able to reinvent your side when you sell your best young players. Gradually over a period of time, each of the aforementioned clubs has fallen away as their recruitment models have been less successful, it is the nature of football that eventually even the most successful clubs in terms of recruitment will make poor choices and fall away.
In 2018, however, two sides standout in terms of their ability to identify and recruit talented youth players, AS Monaco of France and RB Leipzig of Germany. While there are integral differences between the way that the two clubs operate, as we will touch upon later in the article, both sides have shown the ability to withstand players leaving to ‘bigger’ sides with the capacity to promote young players from within the system to replace players that have sold.
With the January transfer window having come to an end there were perfect examples of each of these two sides excellent talent ID departments. Two 16-year-olds were identified, one by each of the two clubs, and one deal was completed, the other fell apart on deadline day. This article is intended as a small case study looking at each of these players individually to see what Monaco and RB Leipzig look at when recruiting such players.
The deal that went through – Pietro Pellegri
After the success of last season which saw AS Monaco win the domestic title and reach the semi-finals of the Champions League, where they lost to Italian side Juventus, we have seen their squad stripped or a number of their prized assets. The left-back Benjamin Mendy and attacking midfielder Bernardo Silva left to join Manchester City, central midfielder Tiemoue Bakayoko left to join Chelsea and teenage striker Kylian Mbappe moved to Paris St Germain.
These moves resulted in a fall off of performance from Monaco and this season results have not been as strong. This is most likely partially due to the squad turnover. The likes of Youri Tielemans (20, Anderlecht) and Keita Balde (22, Lazio) were brought in to provide options but both have been slow to adapt to the French game, their form has however picked up over recent weeks.
It was in January however that Monaco sprung something of a surprise in the transfer market with the news that they had signed 16-year-old Italian striker Pietro Pellegri from Genoa for a reported £19Million, The surprise was not that such a fee was paid for a 16-year-old but rather that Monaco got the deal finalised despite significant competition from Juventus.
Whilst the aforementioned Kylian Mbappe may well continue to develop as he has to date and become a generational talent Pellegri would sit on the next tier down. He has been highly rated since he was just into his teens and his physical development (Pellegri stands 6ft2 already) has often seen him mistaken for someone older. This was not helped by the fact that Pellegri has played up either one or two age levels as he has made his way through the youth system at Genoa. This season saw Pellegri display the talent that had impressed talent evaluators for years and in just 279 first team minutes this season Pellegri had already claimed two goals at senior level.
Given that Pellegri is a Genoa fan since birth, indeed his father is on the Genoa coaching staff, it is perhaps somewhat surprising that he chose to leave the Italian side at all. That Pellegri chose to make the switch to Monaco speaks volumes of the club and their Portuguese coach Leonardo Vardim’s reputation for developing young players, indeed the success of Mbappe last season at Monaco may have been a decisive factor. Indeed this may have also been part of the reason that Mbappe turned down a move to Juventus, the Italian side do not have a history of playing and developing young players. At least in Monaco Pellegri will be part of the first team squad.
As a player there are certain similarities between Pellegri and his new teammate the Colombian international Radamel Falcao. Pellegri likes to play as a central striker and he tends to limit his movement radius to the width of the penalty area. That said his movement is intelligent for a player of his age and his ability to identify and exploit space centrally is excellent. He is also very strong at exploding in the penalty are and taking chances when they are presented to him.
Here we see an example of impressive movement from Pellegri as he makes a double move, First he comes short towards the ball and then he spins again to attack the space between the far centre back and the fullback. When the man in possession plays the pass in Pellegri has the strength to hold of the defender and get the shot on target, resulting in a goal against Lazio.
This time we see an example of Pellegri being explosive in the penalty area. The Lazio back line are spread wide across the width of the penalty area. This provides Pellegri with an opportunity to isolate and attack one of the two central defenders.
As the cross is played into the penalty spot Pellegri is already moving on the blind side of the defender. He has the advantage and gets to the ball first connecting well for a goal.
It will be interesting to see how much of a role Pellegri plays for the remainder of this season, there is a definite sense that he was signed now in order to be fully acclimatised for next season.
The one that got away – Umaro Embalo
The deal was done. For the entire winter transfer window RB Leipzig had been casting covetous glances at 16-year-old Benfica winger Umaro Embalo and as January went on it appeared to all intents and purposes that a deal had been completed for the Portuguese U17 international. Unfortunately for the German side the deal fell apart on the last day of the window with no time left to repair the transfer.
Since RB Leipzig were formed as part of the Red Bull footballing group in 2009 we have seen something of a pipeline of talent emerge with the key components being RB Leipzig and their older but still junior partner Red Bull Salzburg of Austria. The link between the two has already seen talents like Naby Keita and Dayot Upamecano move from Salzburg to Leipzig before firmly establishing themselves in the Bundesliga. There are more talents like Duje-Caleta Car, Amadou Haidara and Diadie Samassekou in Salzburg awaiting their time at Leipzig.
This pipeline of talent is driven by the core recruitment policy for the Red Bull group which sees them concentrate on talented players who are under the age of 24. This allows them to narrow their talent identification and recruitment searches and concentrate on key players of that age group in each position.
The normal process for a young player identified in Europe would be that they would first join Salzburg to develop either there or with lower tier feeder club Liefering before making the move to Leipzig. With Embalo, however, the pathway appeared to be slightly more direct with the director of football at RB Leipzig Ralf Ragnick appearing keen for the young winger to move directly to Leipzig.
With the presence of Portuguese winger, Bruma already at Leipzig Umaro Embalo offers a similar profile with both players offer explosive pace in wide areas. With the tactical system employed at RB Leipzig under Ralph Hasenhuttl Embalo would be a perfect fit in the system able to play either on the left or on the right.
Developed by the highly productive Benfica academy Embalo is a talent that the Portuguese club would be loathed to part with the young winger, indeed only after Leipzig raised their offer to around the £18Million mark were they willing to allow the youngster to leave. There has been a move at Benfica in recent seasons to depend more on young homegrown talent as opposed to bringing in foreign players. This has seen a number of young talents emerge but Embalo is seen as the star of the current academy group.
His most striking asset is his explosive pace although this is combined with an understanding of space and the ability to manipulate the ball in tight situations, as with many modern players Embalo is press resistant and he is able to retain possession comfortably when under pressure. He also links well with teammates around the final third of the field, especially when cutting in from the right-hand side.
First, we see an example of intelligent movement and use of space in the final third from the young winger. As his side attack down the right flank Embalo has moved inside to the right half-space where he has found a pocket of space in the defensive line between the central defender and the fullback.
As soon as the ball is released into space there is no contest and Embalo makes it to the ball comfortably before bursting into the penalty area at pace.
This time we see an example of Embalo identifying space and then linking in with teammates. He first takes possession in his own half and is strong enough to hold off two robust challenges before moving forward with the ball. As he moves into the opposition half of the field he identifies that a teammate is in space on the right touchline. As he shapes to cut inside with the ball the opposition fullback moves to cut him off, this in turn only increases the space available to the wide player.
Embalo is able to create an angle to play the ball out to the wide area comfortably releasing his teammate.
There appears to be little doubt that RB Leipzig will be contacting Benfica again in the summer with a view to signing Umaro Embalo. The only question will be whether the Portuguese side have the financial resolve to hold off offers for their prized asset.