Inspired by a quality (as always) post over at Played Off The Park looking through smaller leagues for transfer, I decided to pack my supercomputer (old Macbook Air with a shaky battery/charger situation) on my trusty wooden galleon and head toward the deep green unknown of South America looking for gems to make my name. I’ve always wondered why we don’t see more statistical content about players from Brazil/Argentina seeing as those countries provide an enormous amount of the best players in the world. Just in the last year, we’ve had the following transfers directly from these two leagues:
- Arthur directly to Barcelona for 27 million and instantly has become one of their key players on a top 5 team in the world
- Vinicius Junior to Real Madrid for 54 million
- Rodrygo to Real Madrid for 54 million euros
- Lucas Paqueta to AC Milan for 32 million
- Paulinho to Leverkusen for 17 million
- Lautaro Martinez to Inter for 13 million
- Marcelo Saracchi to RB Leipzig for 11 million
- Santiago Caseres to Villarreal for 9 million
Torino, Udinese, West Ham, Shakhtar, Krasnodar, Dynamo Kyiv, Porto, Stuttgart, Atlanta United, Genoa, Benfica, and a host of Mexican and Arab teams have spent a million or more Euros on a player from Brazil or Argentina basically just in the past few months for the most part. The talent vein is rich, we should see more statistical analysis of these players. And we will, now, as soon as this intro is out of the way.
Now most of these are young players, but Arthur is 22 and several are mid-20s. If you’ve ever listened to the excellent World Football Phone-In on BBC with Brazilian football expert Tim Vickery, you know the leagues over there move at a much slower pace than top-level European soccer, so identifying if the player can play quickly and under pressure is important. We can sort of scout for the first, but the second we don’t have pressure data yet to analyze so we will of course put more of that burden on our eyeball scouts. This is not a bid-after-reading type article, film study should follow, but has not preceded it. I’m diving in blind and scouting from the comfort of my couch, even though it’s not Saturday. Is there a chance that numbers in these leagues turn out to be less-than-reliable given the game tempo and environment? It’s very possible, but again that’s something that should be verifiable using film.
One note: Brazil and to a lesser extent Argentina are leagues full of ancient players. 33, 35, and even 37 year olds often stand out as the best players in the league. Guys like 37-year old Andres D’Alessandro who made his European move to Wolfsburg in 2003 often pop out as superstars. Leo Moura I thought looked a good right-sided attacker and he’s 40! 40 and playing fullback! We won’t be discussing those types of guys here, because even though they deserve recognition and credit for what they are doing in their athletic career, the likelihood is very few European teams will be moving for a 30+ year old from the Brazilian league.
Leo congratulating his son on reaching college. Seriously, I respect the hell out of Leo Moura now just from seeing his age and his numbers. He moved to Belgium during the Clinton administration and had returned to Brazil from Europe before 9/11.
What am I looking for?
When I look for attacking creators I am of course looking at the basics of shots and key passes, but we aren’t looking only for pure strikers here, we are mainly looking for players who can contribute to your passing attack in dangerous areas as well. I’m looking at deep completions per 90, deep completion %, passer rating (completions above expected) and how often his passes turn into shots within 15 seconds. A deep completion is a pass completed within a ~30 yard radius of goal, with more weight given to the completion the closer it is to goal.
I’m also looking at how good these players are at moving through the zones. I compare how often they progress their team to how often they lose the ball in the zones they are most active in. So if you successfully advance your team forward a zone 40% of time you have ball in zone 5, you get a score of 1.71 because that is 71% more than the normal player does. Same thing goes for losing the ball, if you lose 25% of the time in this zone you get a score of 1.4 because that’s 50% more than the average. Did I need to compare them to league average first? No. Did I need to write this sentence pointing that out? Also no.I look at these ratios and factor in if they are surrounded by other players doing similar things on their team. Gremio, for example, progress the ball fantastically well, but not every player is probably a standout if that makes sense.
For pure strikers, I’m looking at how often they turn deep receptions into shots along with how often their deep touches turn into shots in general, not necessarily just for them.
For defensive purposes, I’m not going as deep. I’m looking at if opponents push the ball into that area often and if they are successful. I’m not breaking it down minute-by-minute however, so they could be getting credited or debited for what happens when not on pitch. I’m looking at interceptions and tackles also.
Giorgian de Arrascaeta, 24, Cruzeiro. Attacking mid or winger. Just by basic old-school counting numbers this guy leaps off the chart: 3 key passes per 90, 2.5 from open play, 2.6 shots in the box per 90. He leads the league in both categories. Unsurprisingly he completes a lot of deep completions and is involved in moves that lead to shots (97th percentile in both). He’s good, not great, as far as his efficiency, but this guys numbers just scream off the page. I’m sure teams all over Europe are all over Giorgian. Adds in 2.3 tackles for good measure. Newcastle and Celtic are apparently in on him with Monaco and Wolves sniffing, but big teams should absolutely be looking to buy him, the rumored 18 million seems to be a great deal at least for PL teams with the money.
I need to explain this cutting edge gauge chart, sometimes the analytics just hits so hard it can overpower some readers, I know.
- DC Volume is simply deep completions per 90, turned to a percentile. So Giorgian is in the 99th percentile there.
- DC efficiency is simply completion% on deep attempts.
- shot product is how often a shot happens within 15 seconds of a touch
- passer rating is completions above expected
- shot hunter is how often he turns his deep receptions into shots
- and key zone progression is how good he is at moving ball forward compared to how often he loses it in the zones where he pops up most often.
- All of these are percentiles to their current league, as Argentina is a different passing environment than Brazil.
Alexis Mac Allister, 19, Argentinos Juniors. Attacking midfield. First noticed among stat guys as far as I can tell by Ashwin Raman back in August. There are *three* brothers Mac Allister playing for Argentinos Juniors: Francis, Kevin, and Alexis in descending order of age and ascending order in talent. The story you’d get is a pretty good reason to sign all three, but Alexis is the one that has the shot to be a star. I saw a profile saying Mac Allister was kind of a Toni Kroos type, but that’s not how he’s playing at all really. There’s nothing he’s not doing well right now, but he’s not really a pure zone-mover like Kroos. He’s a serious threat to get ball to the danger zone and shoot or create. His shot selection has improved this year: 1.7 in-box shots is scary, while his key passes have skyrocketed up to 3.4 from an already good 2. He’s a big goal threat.
Róger Guedes, 22, Atletico MG, now Shandong Luneng. Attacking mid/forward. 2.5 in-box shots with truly elite efficiency and deep completion numbers should have leapt off the page to clubs across the world. He’s moved for 9 million to the 3rd place team in the Super League in China already though so could be hard to pry him away. He turns service into good shots at an incredible rate and chips in basically everywhere else also, a forward who fits an abundance of styles.
Everton, 22, Gremio. A very advanced wide forward who does it all, attacking wise. 8.3 adjusted deep completions per 90 (93rd percentile), at a very efficient rate (83rd percentile) and is involved in moves that often lead to shot in the 88th percentile. He takes 2.3 in-box shots per 90 (what Lukaku and Lacazette are taking right now). This guy has it all, he’s destroying Brazil and deserves a big-money move to Europe. Supposedly Man City are sniffing around.
Lucas Janson, 24, Tigre, now Toronto FC.
Just a loan to Toronto, so he’s still available really. Not sure how much I’m cheating by including players already in China and Toronto but to clear myself I’m indicating that I think they are ready for bigger leagues. You look at his Toronto stats and you might think he’s just a shot monster, his 2.8 shots per 90 trail just 6 players in MLS but playing as the tip of the spear is not Janson’s best quality. He’s an incredible distributor, as efficient and dangerous as they come in Argentina, where he certainly didn’t look to shoot first when receiving the ball in advanced positions for Tigre. As a secondary shooter of an already solid attack, Janson should slot in absolutely perfectly. I don’t know how teams calculate their offers but 10 million for this guy seems like a very easy gamble for Premier League teams without currently full elite attacks.
Alexis Soto, 25, Racing Club, right back. No fancy dials for the fullbacks so verbal statistical description will have to sate your visual needs. Soto is a brilliant zone-mover on a team that isn’t full of them, he’s a fantastic passer, shown by being 92nd percentile at progressing the ball. Soto is no one-way guy either, he racks up defensive actions (6 tackles+INTs per 90 while being very rarely dribbled past) and his area on a pretty fierce Racing Club defense is a step beyond their normal standards. He can do it both ways, and is worth adding to any club scouting for fullback options on a budget.
Renê, 26, Flamengo
If you don’t think Alexis Soto will provide the passing you want from a fullback, Renê from Flamengo might be your man. His 98th percentile in progressing the ball without losing it was up there right next to Arthur, the Barcelona man. Rare air. Defensively, he does rack up actions (5.2 tackles and interceptions) but opponents pass into his zone at a pretty standard rate so a few peripheral signs of a shutdown fullback that you’d like to see aren’t quite there. Offensively though, his resume is the best in South America for a fullback: no one progresses the ball better and no one has more open play key passes than Renê. Now Flamengo aren’t quite Gremio, who are so good they seem to inflate everyone on their teams passing stats, but they are probably next closest thing to them, so there might be a bit of team effects here where a slow-tempo league and a good team combine to give him eons of time on the ball. A bit of video review could solve that but you don’t come to Saturday On Couch for the video reviews, that goes to our scouts.
Rodrigo Caio, 25, Sao Paulo. One of the sweetest progressers of the ball in my data set, a quick google finds AC Milan and Lazio all over him which indicates there is something there. There might be even more there, Sao Paulo are one of the toughest to pass against in central areas, hinting at some sort of defensive standard. Caio is probably the real deal, as his Brazil appearance indicates. Probably not exactly under the radar. Has played out wide and in midfield in the past as well. Champions League caliber?
Esteban Pavez, 28, Colo Colo via Atletico PR. I generally stay away from centerbacks, they do the most stuff that stats generally don’t pick up, but I need to make one exception here . Esteban Pavez, a Chilean who played for Atletico PR for 500 minutes this summer has passing numbers so good I thought there must be a glitch. From Zone 6 (see the zones here), Pavez advanced the ball 40 times from his 113 passes and lost the ball 7 times. That’s a 35% advancement rate and a 6% loss rate, league averages are 23% and 19%. His ratio of 4.6 is 3rd in the universe of 1715 players I have from Argentina and Brazil. Think that’s impressive? Yes it is, but we are still shy of the ultimate Esteban Pavez fun fact, and if you read the phrase Estaban Pavez fun fact knowing passing zone stats are coming and don’t quit reading, well you are in the right place: in Zone 5 Pavez advanced the ball 35 times from 96 passes and lost it twice, those are rates of 36% and 2% compared to league averages of 23% and 18%. His ratio is nearly 14x above league average, second place is 7x. Of course, he’s first among the 1715 players from zone 5. From zone 4? 14th. Booooo! Anyway, he’s off back in Chile now and played just 5 games so maybe there were some odd circumstances or maybe he’s one of the best passers in the world. Maybe he can’t defend at all but if he’s just passable, there seems like there’s a club out there somewhere looking for a DC/DMC maybe who is literally better than Toni Kroos at passing (literally not used literally here).
Others That Just Missed
Raniel, 23, Cruziero. A shot monster striker, he’s a player I’d pick if you told me “I want someone similar to Vinicius Junior.” Both turn their touches into good shots at rates about as good as it gets in Brazil, and neither really shows a deft touch elsewhere. I’m not sure I would have paid so much for Vinicius Junior but he’s obviously a valuable player. Raniel is doing it for a bang-average Cruziero side whose other strikers aren’t reaching 2 in-box shots per 90, in fact another of Cruzeiro’s strikers is near the bottom converting passes to shots. I’d like to watch him alongside de Arrascaeta.
Emanuel Reynoso, Boca Juniors
Juan Quintero, River Plate. The numbers are without a doubt enough to put him on the shortlist but the lack of 90 minute efforts suggest he might not be fully fit. As he essentially squandered his previous move with a lack of dedication, focus and fitness, that’s enough to move him out of the recommended signings.
I almost put Nikão from Atletico PR on this list but when I looked up his picture, he looked…a little too portly. He’s out.
Daniel Guedes, a 24 year old Santos right back has fantastic numbers but plays as a reserve at his club. I don’t think coaches are generally geniuses but being benched this much is enough for me to take him off the list.
Sidcley, a 25-year old who played with Corinthians as a left back, would have been right near the top of this list. He progressed the ball at elite levels but Dynamo Kiev jumped the line for 4.5 million.
Santiago Giordana is a 23 year old striker who played for a truly terrible team in Temperley (25th in a 28-team league) and he’s now playing in the 2nd division in Argentina. Why is he here? He turned very little service into 3 in-box shots per 90. One player in Argentina took more shots than that: Lautaro Martinez from top side Racing Club who made a 12.6 million euro move to Inter. Now our man Santiago doesn’t seem to do anything else, but he was the best striker in South America at converting touches into good shots. The lack of anything else and fact he’s now in second division puts him here.
There are so many old players who are putting up big numbers here, Maicon from Gremio deserves a shoutout here in just how thoroughly he tops almost every passing category.
There you have it, the guy from his couch using his computer to scout leagues he’s never seen. These leagues often produce huge-money moves and future stars though, so I think us couch-sitting computer guys should pay a little more attention to what’s going on way down there. The list again:
Giorgian de Arrascaeta
Alexis Mac Allister
and one after the fact addition brought to my attention by the knowledgable Jan Riha on twitter, in a fullback Fabricio Bustos of Independiente. The 22 year old gets forward a ton, his 7.2 deep completions are in the 90th percentile. He’s moves the ball through the zones at nearly that 90th percentile and he doesn’t turn the ball over at all. 4.5 tackles, 0.5 dribbled past, and Independiente being brutally tough to pass down his side means he checks off every single thing on the list. I’d make him my #1 fullback target above both Renê and Alexis Soto.
Let me hear it, you guys who have your own lists or who have seen players from down there.