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Lamine Yamal might not be the superstar we expect
On the dangers of predicting how a teenage wonderkid will develop.
This is Editor’s Take: an informal blog from our in-house team about whatever in football is making us think or feel.
This week Stephen Ganavas has a one-way argument with his Twitter timeline about the potential development of Barcelona’s Lamine Yamal. Just as you think he might have lost his mind, he transitions into a very thoughtful analysis of the teenage superstar. Phew.
Lamine Yamal had his breakout game for Barcelona against Villarreal. A barrage of tweets followed.
A few in particular caught my eye: they argued that while Yamal’s mental attributes are world-class, his physical profile will hold him back from entering that same bracket.
I think it’s a thought-provoking idea, even when considering the difficulties of projecting the career of a 16-year-old.
Some might say even attempting to do so is a worthless exercise, but the reality of the football market disagrees: the value of identifying if you have, or can acquire, a potential top-five attacking talent in the world is worth hundreds of millions of euros.
Let’s start by breaking down that idea, because I think it will help clarify what is easy and difficult to project about a player’s future — and reveal lessons about player portability from youth to senior football too.
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Firstly, on categorising Yamal’s mental attributes as ‘world class’: I understand what is being signalled at - Yamal is a head-down, focussed type. He is not easily flustered, he’s hard-working, and at both youth and senior level he has proven himself capable of taking on whatever responsibility is required, whether that be his hero-ball role with Spain’s under-17s or his more dialled-down role at Barcelona.
But assessing someone’s mental make-up as part of some sort of ranking is a flawed task - primarily because the kid is literally 16 years of age. As anyone above 25 can attest, there is a strong likelihood he will be a completely different person in 5-10 years’ time.
A young Kylian Mbappé was very similar to Yamal in his unassuming nature and driven, head-down attitude. Now, he is the de-facto sporting director at Paris Saint-Germain and seems to field phone calls from French President Emmanuel Macron every summer in an eternal attempt to jump ship. While one could argue such eccentricity has no impact on Mbappé’s performances, its destabilising effect on PSG can’t be denied.
Age, success, money, and the people they are surrounded by all have a huge bearing on how a young player’s mentality develops - and any changes are exacerbated by the pressure cooker of evolving from a driven youth international into a first-team star at one of Europe’s biggest clubs.
Projecting how this will pan out is almost futile. Clubs can only play a minor role in ensuring their youngsters have a solid foundation on which to grow up - much is left to the player and their entourage.
As for how someone can rank as ‘world-class’ in an attribute that is more difficult to quantify than any physical or technical trait, I will leave that to Twitter.
Perhaps the most interesting discussion raised by the series of tweets is that of physical development. Twitter suggested that Yamal’s potential is capped at a level significantly lower than that of the very best wingers on the planet.
Such an argument holds a potential nugget of truth. Yamal is listed at a touch under six foot already, and at 16 he is likely to grow further over the next five years or so. With his game being played mostly high and wide on the right flank, he relies a lot on dribbling to create separation from his defender - he does not yet possess the elite, explosive athleticism that will hopefully come with further physical development.
But we don’t often equate the best isolation dribblers with being tall. It is a skill, at least physically, that is predicated on quick movements, shifts of weight and a low centre of gravity.
In case you missed it…
The physical development of Cristiano Ronaldo is probably the best example of how someone’s athletic transformation can turn them from a nimble, quick-footed isolation dribbler into something completely different as their body composition changes over time. For Ronaldo, the change was so drastic that he essentially became an entirely different player between when he first arrived at Manchester United to his peak and post-peak years at Real Madrid and Juventus.
This is a roundabout way of saying that we shouldn’t be scared of Yamal growing and changing. We shouldn’t pigeonhole him into being a high-volume isolation dribbler off the right flank for the rest of his career - his body will change, but that can lead to unexpected and surprising outcomes.
If it does, his team evolving around him will become a key factor in his success - just as it was for Ronaldo.
A fundamental issue with player ID in the public domain is an over-emphasis on focussing on what players are, rather than what they could be. This pertains to how coaches deploy players within a system as well as their future development and is a problem compounded when dealing with someone as young as Yamal.
So while we are here, let’s dig into his performance on the weekend, and reflect on his step up from youth international football at the Under-17 Euros earlier this summer to get an idea on how his senior career might begin to take shape.
The first thing to say is… wow. This is a freshly turned 16-year-old starting games for Barcelona. These aren’t symbolic, throwaway, end-of-season minutes for a La Masia graduate once the league position is secured, either. We are talking serious, early-season minutes in a team that has no injuries in his position. Meanwhile, Raphinha, signed for close to €60 million last summer, sits on the bench.
In the end-to-end game against Villarreal, it didn’t take long for Yamal to show what he can do.
The cross is out of this world. The technique is perfect, like a little golf chip with no follow-through and a beautiful trajectory and curve, aimed right at a swarm of players lining up at the back post.
It is a very repeatable skill for Yamal. His ball-striking is of the highest calibre and varied too, with lovely chipped crosses like this matching an equally wonderful technique when shooting with power.
After the Under-17 Euros this summer, I wrote this:
He hits the ball with power, and he hits it with dip. He scored three non-penalty goals at the tournament, all in the ‘Robben Zone’. He likes the flat, dipping technique, but his curled, in-swinger as a crosser is equally effective.
This skill alone is probably the single biggest reason why he is starting for Barca, and it’s a quality that is portable to any level of competition. Yamal doesn’t need many touches - if he can get an ounce of space to whip something into the box or shoot on his left foot, he can do maximum damage. As he continues to get better at creating separation at the senior level, we might have to rename the ‘Robben Zone’ the ‘Yamal Zone’.
I really like the role Xavi seems to have locked him into. Yamal sits very wide and tries to receive in space, ensuring he doesn’t engage in too much physical contact with much bigger bodies. It was clear from some of his defensive efforts that he is still a mile off the physicality of senior football, but that Xavi still wants him out there anyway proves how influential he is with the ball.
This run is a great example of the situation Barcelona are trying to craft for him; they want to give him space to receive and let him find solutions. In this instance, the solution he finds is simple: burst through two players and then try to score. Not bad.
One can only imagine, with a bit more physical development and explosiveness, the kind of damage Yamal can do with his technical quality and ball striking. Happily, we don’t have to imagine.
At the Under-17 Euros, a somewhat level playing field (even then he played up a year), we saw what Yamal can do when constantly fed the ball and expected to be more physically engaged.
In our round-up of the tournament, I wrote this:
“Yamal has an elastic athleticism that is very fun to watch. His ability to shift his weight and change direction instantaneously makes him incredibly difficult to mark, which leads into his trademark move: cutting inside and doing maximum damage as a creator and goal scorer. He is quick, can turn on a dime, and has fantastic ball control; he can beat multiple players at will, and is Vinícius Jnr-esque in his willingness to relentlessly go at defenders for 90 minutes.”
This is what he can do when not dwarfed by men a decade his senior. Granted, he is not expected to play like this for Barcelona yet. But when the physical differential is less steep, he is exceptionally good at weaselling out of the craziest scenarios in possession, and as he matures he will be able to ride these sorts of challenges out against larger bodies. As he does in this next clip:
The beauty of this for Barcelona fans is that Yamal is (rightfully) playing senior football while only bringing a fraction of his skillset to the table.
Above all, it is his mercurial talent as a ball striker that has him in this team. But Xavi deserves credit for noticing the parts of his game that aren’t as portable from youth football yet and hiding them as much as possible. While he is clearly a liability defensively — you can see him flinching out of contact five or six times just in the first half of last weekend’s game — Xavi is taking things slow when integrating Yamal into Barcelona’s attacking structure. He’s asking for few touches, but maximum impact. It’s great player management.
A favourite SCOUTED saying is: “development is not linear.”
Every player has a unique pathway and for now, it looks like Yamal’s is being handled well. He possesses a brilliant technical skillset and will take time to develop physically. Barcelona know what he brings to the pitch right now and are asking him to play in such a way that accentuates it. Hopefully, they can continue to develop him as an athlete more effectively than they have Pedri and Ansu Fati in recent seasons.
Outside of that, projecting too far ahead is difficult and futile. We don’t know how Yamal will grow and change — especially physically. But wherever that process leads, it will be the technical fundamentals developed early in life that provide the foundation of his career. His physical development into early adulthood can catapult him into superstardom - but one that looks very different to what any of us can currently envisage.