Eredivisie runners-up AZ Alkmaar have a well-known approach of integrating their youngsters into the senior squad as soon as possible, with the likes of Calvin Stengs, Teun Koopmeiners or Myron Boadu in recent years. This is a fundamental part of their long-term strategy – with the aim to become a regular title contender and participant of the Champions League or the Europa League – which seems to be just effective, based on their performance in the season behind us. It is obvious that they build their success on their youngsters and therefore put immense emphasis on their development.
As per the latest news around the club, academy graduate Mohamed Taabouni will be the latest alumnus to get the opportunity the prove his worth in the first team from the 2020/21 campaign. Taabouni was a member of the Jong AZ squad (the U21 team of AZ) and spent 1921 minutes on the pitch in the second tier, also already making his debut in the senior team against Groene Ster in the Dutch Cup. In this tactical analysis, we will analyse the youngster’s recent performance and the potential in him, based mainly on his core statistics and several in-game situations.
The young Dutchman is a perfect example of a modern attacking midfielder: as visible in his heatmap from the 2019/20 season, he spends most of his minutes in the left half-space areas of the pitch from where he can find his teammates in the penalty box and get involved in as many passing actions as possible. We will see in more detail later that Taabouni often drops back deep from the attacking midfield areas, in some cases he is the player who picks up the ball from his defenders, to be able to start the offensive actions from an advanced situation.
With 175 cm and 67 kg, Taabouni is an agile midfielder with quick movements and a low centre of gravity. Apart from his wide range of skills with the ball, he also uses his body perfectly through quick movements or changes of direction to beat the opponents or possibly open up spaces for his teammates. The youngster has outstanding intelligence on the pitch which is obviously the biggest advantage of a creative player: he can analyse the game very quickly and therefore can make decisions before the others.
Although defending is not the main responsibility of an attacking midfielder, they have to take their part inevitably at least in the pressing situations or quick interceptions after losing the ball Let’s see how Taabouni’s statistics compare to the league averages – for this, throughout this scout report, we will take a look at only those players who played at least 900 minutes in the 2019/20 Eerste Divisie campaign, in the same positions as the Alkmaar youngster.
As we see, Taabouni is decent in defensive duels: he had 3.7 successful actions per 90 throughout the season behind us. However, his figure of 1.64 interceptions per 90 is far from outstanding: only three players had fewer in our comparison, all the rest of the attacking players could show up more in the league. This is something that the Dutchman has to improve in the future as Arne Slot’s AZ Alkmaar tends to apply a high pressing in which the attacking midfielder – or the left-winger if that is where Taabouni will get his chance – has a fundamental role and responsibility.
A much more promising aspect of Taabouni’s performance is his attitude. He pays immense attention to communicating with his teammates during the games and he shows great signs of leadership in many cases. He gives instructions to his counterparts and acts as the coordinator of the actions very often, just as we can witness in the below situation.
When AZ is applying a high pressing, Taabouni is always one of the first players to attack the opponent with the ball, in some cases even the goalkeeper. Getting back the plaything quickly is a significant element of the team’s tactics and Taabouni can help a lot with his agility and his attitude. He is that type of player who goes after the opponent relentlessly and even if he cannot win the ball back, he makes sure to get the opposite player bothered and tired.
Without a doubt, Taabouni’s biggest strength is his passing skills which might sound obvious from an attacking-minded midfielder but the Dutchman’s creativity and confidence is something to admire. Compared to the league players, he is above average in accurate final third passes (3.00 per 90) and accurate passes to the penalty area (1.92), illustrating how direct and offensive he is.
Apart from the classic, safe, short passes, he does not shy away from some unexpected moves either. He is outstandingly good on his feet and seems to find the most effective solution in most cases, even if it is not the easiest one or comes with some risk also – backheels, no-look passes and using the outside of his foot is all in his repertoire, as illustrated in the following snapshots from Jong AZ’s games against Almere and Helmond.
As a creative attacker, Taabouni aims to be involved in the majority of the actions with short link-up plays, progressive passes, or through balls behind the defenders. He always aims to move into empty areas and to make sure that he is a realistic passing option in all cases. He feels comfortable in all areas of the attacking third and seems to be ahead of the others with one or two movements. An offensive midfielder must always be aware of what is happening around him, the location of the teammates, the opponents and the ball, but above all, must be able to foresee the actions also so that he can control it before anyone else can react.
Taabouni has all that has been mentioned so far. He is very direct and tries to break the lines with vertical and diagonal passes frequently. As we can see in the next picture, he operates with a lot of through balls, in many cases between several defenders, which illustrates perfectly how brave and willing he is to find the teammates in a goal-scoring position.
Although he is the most confident in the attacking half-space areas, he often drops very deep in the pitch to receive the ball early and start building up the offensive actions proactively, before the opponents can fully take their defensive formation and close all passing lanes ahead of them. By this, he serves as the focal point of the tactics and it is undeniable that he gets a lot of trust and freedom from both the head coach and the teammates. We can witness an example in the below picture, with Taabouni collecting the ball in a deep area in front of his defenders and breaking the first line of the high-pressing Jong Ajax with a long ball towards his winger.
We have already touched some of the Dutchman’s offensive capabilities in the previous section, but now let’s see how he copes in direct attacking situations such as duels, dribbles, shooting, or running. As per the below chart, Taabouni is above the league average in successful offensive duels, with 4.92 per 90. He also has 2.62 successful dribbles, 1.45 progressive runs, and 4.03 progressive passes on average – all decent figures from such a young player. However, there is a lot of room for improvement, especially in direct goal contributions: his 0.15 expected assists and 0.14 expected goals per 90 mean only 0.29 expected contributions, a figure far below average in the league. No question that he will be required to perform much better in his direct attacking outputs in the senior squad of AZ Alkmaar.
As mentioned and illustrated in the earlier parts of this analysis, Taabouni is an effective team-player both on and off the ball. When he has the plaything, his first intention is to get the ball to the teammate in the best possible situation, or at least keep the possession for AZ. However, the youngster is also a very talented dribbler which he is not afraid to use if he has the chance. His quick feet, unpredictable movements, and sudden changes of direction make Taabouni a nightmare for the opponents – enough to take a look at the next snapshot against Helmond, where the attacker leaves two defenders behind with one single movement and the perfect use of his body and rhythm. Still, he could and should make use of his skills more often, as it brings a valuable extra quality to the whole collective without a doubt.
When off the ball, Taabouni’s creative performance is also key for the offensive actions of Jong AZ. As we can see in the next situation, he often acts as a leader, pointing at the empty areas and giving instructions to the others. Although the playmaker is only 18, he shows great signs of anticipation and support when the ball is not on his feet and the team is trying to break the defensive lines.
In the first snapshot, from the clash against Almere, Jong AZ is transitioning from defending to attacking through a quick counter-attack, with a midfielder bringing up the ball from his own half of the pitch, with several passing options ahead of him. Taabouni, while rushing up with the action in the left half-space, is giving instructions to the teammate coming up on the left-wide areas, and thereby supports the player with the ball also. This is a significant momentum, as we can see a 3 vs 3 situation where the two defenders will meet the dangerous Taabouni and the other defender will have to decide between three other attackers, in three distant areas of the pitch.
Of course, the youngster also asks for the ball whenever possible. He is outstanding in finding viable passing lanes and positioning so that he is a confident option for the passer. Often, he drops into the pockets (the area between several defenders) where keeping the ball is always more difficult, but Taabouni’s first touch, ball control and the ability to make quick decisions leave him without much doubt. Just like in the below situation, where he uses direct gestures to assure his teammate that he is ready to receive the ball.
In the beginning of this analysis, we stated that youth development is the key factor behind AZ Alkmaar’s progress in the last years. The academy players have the possibility to get familiar with the club’s philosophy and tactics in the reserve team contesting in the second tier of Dutch football. This makes integrating the youngsters into the first team much smoother and easier, as the changes come in small portions and therefore the initial shock can also be eliminated.
Mohamed Taabouni is just a perfect example of that: an exciting profile who could add a lot to AZ’s performance with his great vision, rhythm, and intelligence. As an academy youngster, he has been socialized in the AZ philosophy for many years and if someone is fully familiar with the team’s general tactics and strategy, that is him. With Oussama Idrissi, Myron Boadu and Calvin Stengs – all receiving significant interest from elite clubs from the Premier League and La Liga – in the attacking force of the first team, Taabouni is expected to get his chance either in the midfield or, as back-up support for Idrissi, in the left-winger position. It will be interesting to see how quick and effective Taabouni’s development will be in the first team in the 2020/21 season – one thing is for sure: he will get all the trust from the teammates and head coach, Arne Slot, so that the youngster has to focus only on his own performance.