Young, talented, exciting wingers: Justin Kluivert, Cengiz Ünder, Carles Perez, Nicolò Zaniolo. Roma is fortunate to have quite a few at the moment. (Maybe Monchi didn’t mess everything up.) It’s a quartet that gives Paulo Fonseca options in his high pressing, attack-minded philosophy.
We haven’t gotten too much of a look at Perez due to the current league hiatus. Meanwhile, before his ACL injury, Zaniolo was becoming a star out on the right wing, despite the fact it’s not his natural position. However, Kluivert and Ünder have had their peaks and valleys since arriving in the Italian capital. With youth comes growing pains.
There’s no denying the talent that both possess. When they’re on their games, the pair have the potential to be a headache for opposing defenses. That potential allows Romanisti to dream of what this team could eventually become. But when they’re off, the duo can make Romanisti pull their hair out.
Of course, the peaks seem to outweigh the valleys and both project as as productive wingers for a long time. Nevertheless, just how long they remain at Roma to display that productivity is a whole other question.
Thanks to the Giallorossi’s well-documented financial woes, Roma will likely have to sell off a prized possession or two this summer. While the fear is Zaniolo or Lorenzo Pellegrini will be sacrificed this time around, reports suggest that’s not in the plans. With the desire to retain the two crown jewels of the roster, it’ll likely be Kluivert or Ünder who could bring Roma the biggest return on the market.
With that in mind, we will try to determine which of the two is more valuable to Fonseca’s side. If Roma is forced to sell one of the two this summer, should it be the Dutchman or the Turk?
In order to make that determination, I will look at various factors, both offensive and defensive, using traditional stats and advanced metrics, looking at how each player fits into Fonseca’s tactics. With all of those things being factored in, we should be able to make an informed, objective decision.
Fonseca’s Wing Tactics
Of course, any player’s fit on a team has a lot to do with the tactics employed by the manager. We did a thorough breakdown of Fonseca’s tactics upon his arrival, but we’ll revisit the main points on the winger’s responsibilities under this system.
Fonseca has become well-known for his tactical approach after bursting onto the scene with Shakhtar Donetsk. In Fonseca’s fluid, high intensity approach, the wingers play an important role. Fonseca tends to favor inverted wingers with the ability to cut inside, which is why we usually see the right-footed Kluivert on the left and the left-footed Ünder on the right.
When defending, Fonseca’s 4-2-3-1 morphs into a 4-4-2. In the high-line, pressing set-up, the wingers drop into the midfield to flank the midfield double pivot. When the opponent is in possession Fonseca’s side tries to block the passing lanes through the middle, forcing them wide. This is where the Portuguese tactician wants his wide men to trap the opponent. This forces the ball back to where the two pressing players (striker and trequartista) can try and win the ball back.
The wing players in Fonseca’s system are of the utmost importance as the team transitions from defense to offense. The pass out wide is the first thing players look to do when winning back possession. This is where the pace provided by both Ünder and Kluivert becomes an asset for Roma. Both thrive when receiving the ball in transition and attacking an opposing defense on the back heel.
Once Roma takes over possession, the full backs push up high with the wingers pushing inside. This is important with Fonseca wanting to build play through the middle of the park when in possession. The wingers push into the half spaces to try and create confusion among the opposing defense with Roma’s numerical superiority in those spaces.
Then when play shifts out wide trying to break down a packed in defense, the wingers support the fullbacks that have pushed up high. This is where it’s important players like Kluivert and Ünder are able to work short distances in groupings of four to five players to draw out opposing defenses.
On the surface, it’s easy to compare attacking players like Kluivert and Ünder based on traditional offensive stats alone. Goals, assists, passing percentage and successful dribbles tell part of the story, but there is far more to it than that. For example, it’s easy to look at Kluivert’s four league goals and one league assist and conclude that he’s been contributed more in comparison to Ünder (three league goals).
However, when you consider the fact that Kluivert has played nearly twice as many minutes as Ünder, things become a bit fuzzier when looking at narrow stats like goals and assists. Once minutes are weighted, Kluivert averages 0.33 goals plus assists in league play, while Ünder averages 0.35, making it almost a dead heat. So, let’s take a deeper dive into their offensive contributions.
Before delving into the more advanced metrics, let’s look at a few more traditional stats. In terms of passing, Kluivert has a significantly better passing percentage (83.4% to 76.5%) and completes more passes per match 23.4 to 17.9. Conversely, Ünder outpaces Kluivert in crossing (0.8 to 0.3), long balls completed (1.3 to 0.9), and key passes (1.6 to 1.1).
Ünder also has better dribbling stats with 2.3 successful dribbles per match compared to 1.7 for Kluivert, while also being dispossessed less often (0.6 to 0.9). That combination also leads to the Turk having a much higher success rate of dribbling passed defenders with an impressive 79.4% success rate compared to Kluivert’s rate of just 53.2%.
The two are nearly even in average shots as well: 1.9 to 1.7 in favor of Ünder, but when averaged over 90 minutes instead of appearances it favors Ünder at 2.79 to 2.25 shots per 90. Both players put roughly a third of their shots on target.
When diving into the advanced metrics, Ünder outperforms Kluivert in every category when weighing their performance per 90 minutes. As seen on the graph below from understat, key passes per 90 (KP90) and expected chain per 90 (xGChain) strongly favor Ünder. Meanwhile, he also outperforms Kluivert in expected goals per 90 (xG90), expected assists per 90 (xA90), and expected goal build up per 90 (xGBuildup90).
One interesting caveat to these advanced statistics worth noting is that both players are currently outperforming their xG. Kluivert’s four league goals are 1.23 goals more than his 2.77 xG, while Ünder’s three league goals are .57 better than his 2.43 xG. This seems to indicate that both are making the most of their opportunities, even though at times it feels like both waste glorious opportunities. Also worth noting is that Kluivert has hit two posts this season; had those shots gone in then Kluivert would be scoring at more than double his xG.
Wingers may not bring to mind defensive prowess. However, in Fonseca’s high pressing style, the wings have a role to play in pressuring opponents in order to create more scoring chances for the Giallorossi. When it comes to the eye test, Kluivert has seemed like the more willing of the two to track back and defend. This is highlighted by his 9.2 km run per match versus Ünder’s 7.9 km. Is that impression validated by other stats or is it just a veneer brought on by Kluivert’s hustle?
This season in league play Kluivert averages 0.9 tackles per match compared to Ünder’s 0.5. And the Dutchman is successful more often in his attempts at tackling opposing dribblers with a 30% success rate compared to the Turk’s 18.2%. However, this is a drop-off from last season when Kluivert was successful 40.7% of the time. Consequently, this indicates that he can do even better than his current 30%; good news for Roma if can get back to last season’s rate.
In terms of applying pressure, Kluivert has pressured opponents 230 times and Ünder 116, which puts them at virtually the same rate when factoring in Kluivert playing about double the minutes. The success rate of the pressure applied by each is also very similar (27.8% to 26.7% for Kluivert), as is the location on the pitch of where that pressure is applied.
Kluivert pressured opponents slightly more in the attacking third, while Ünder spends a little more time pressuring in the middle third. The number of pressures in the defensive third is virtually even. Meanwhile, Kluivert does a better job of getting into the passing lanes with 23 blocked passes this season to Ünder’s 9.
The Dutchman averages 1.3 fouls per match compared to Ünder’s 0.3. This can be interpreted two ways. When looking at this in a positive light, it indicates that Kluivert is more aggressive and willing to stick his nose in against opponents. Of course, the negative is that fouls lead to free kicks for opponents. Nevertheless, that grinta from a diminutive winger like Kluivert is something most Romanisti tend to appreciate.
Initially when delving into this comparison, I expected the outcome to heavily favor Kluivert, considering how much more he has played under Fonseca this season. However, upon closer inspection of the numbers the choice becomes a bit more difficult. The potential for both to excel in Fonseca’s system from an offensive standpoint is fairly obvious. Both are pacy wingers who can lead the break in transition, while also cutting inside and playing overlaps with the fullbacks in possession.
Nevertheless, despite Kluivert getting much more playing time on the left than Ünder on the right, the advanced offensive metrics tend to favor Ünder. Part of the reason for the playing time discrepancy is likely due to the respective competition at their positions. Ünder was often stuck behind one of Roma’s most important players in Zaniolo. Meanwhile, Kluivert’s competition, Diego Perotti and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, spent a lot of time on the trainer’s table.
However, another factor that favors Kluivert more than Ünder is what happens on the other side of the ball. While wingers are generally judged by their offensive contributions, their defensive work rate is incredibly important in Fonseca’s system. Work rate and defensive statistics favor the Dutchman. This likely also contributes to Fonseca’s comfort with playing him more often than Ünder.
Zaniolo, who played the majority of his minutes on the right prior his knee injury, displayed the same kind of grinta and work rate as Kluivert on the opposite flank. While both were whistled for plenty of fouls and received quite a few yellow cards that desire to defend doesn’t seem to come as natural with Ünder.
Thus, when trying to answer the question posed earlier—which player is more valuable—a lot of it has to do with beauty being in the eye of the beholder. If Fonseca is made to choose between the two this summer, his track record so far would seem to indicate that he’d favor Kluivert. The Dutchman may not possess the same potential for offensive firepower at the moment, but he contributes more defensively. His grinta, work rate and willingness to defend are things that can’t be taught and his offensive talent can be refined with time. For these reasons, I’d personally favor Kluivert, but an argument can certainly be made for Ünder based on his more explosive offensive talents.
Who would you prefer Roma keep, if one must be sold this off-season?
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