Victor Osimhen: The Off-Ball Dynamo
There’s a general consensus that Kylian Mbappé and Erling Haaland are currently the best strikers in world football. It’s a scary thought given both are still in their early 20s and at least theoretically aren’t yet in their prime years. Mbappe’s ability to be threatening from anywhere in the final third with or without the ball has been a hallmark of his game since bursting onto the scene with Monaco during the 2016-17 season. Haaland has arguably become football’s pre-eminent penalty-box threat, with his frightening combination of athleticism, spatial awareness and elite finishing making him nearly impossible to deal with within 25 yards of goal. For lack of a better descriptor, these two guys are the freaks of their generation.
Going a bit lower down the pecking order, it’s interesting to look at some of the other young strikers in Europe. Tammy Abraham’s move to Roma has helped showcase the dynamic off-ball movement he flashed in England. Alexander Isak has a tantalizing skill set for someone who’s 6-foot-3 and is another example of how the striker position is continually evolving. Dušan Vlahović’s shot-making has arguably been his best trait and intrigued Juventus enough to spend lavishly on him last January. These are all good players (in the case of Abraham, he might already be a star) with a lot of time to potentially jump up a level or two.
Among that early-prime age group, Victor Osimhen is arguably near the top. Since becoming a regular starter for Lille during the 2019-20 season, he’s constantly produced shot and goal rates that compare favourably to many forwards in Europe across all age groups. All the while, Napoli have been a Champions League-level side in Italy. The Nigerian had looked to be on pace for another impressive statistical season before a recent thigh injury put him out of action until early October. So why are people so high on Osimhen’s attacking impact?
Strong Off-Ball Work Rate
What makes Osimhen such an intriguing forward doesn’t necessarily stem from what he does on the ball, but rather without it. Simply put, the man is constantly trying to use his off-the-ball pace to find quality scoring chances by getting on the blindside of defenders. Many of his runs tend to originate from the central zones, whether they are burst into the half-spaces (particularly the right one) or a straight-line dash forward. He’s constantly on his toes and uses quick footwork with little side steps to exploit an advantage. You give him room to run into, and more often than not, Osimhen will find it. One example of the speedy forward attacking the last line of defence came in the opening minute against Liverpool in the Champions League this season (as shown by the animation below). As the ball gets circulated to the right flank, he curls towards the blindside of Joe Gomez and is able to beat the high line before knocking it past Allison Becker. The end result was Osimhen stumbling slightly and hitting the post from a tough angle, but it was part of an impressive 40-minute performance that was unfortunately curtailed by his thigh injury.
There are different ways to quantify a forward’s last-line presence, but a basic and, to some extent, interesting one is the number of times they’ve been caught offside. Among players who played at least 25% of available minutes in Serie A last season, Osimhen was offside the 13th most times at 0.86 per 90 minutes. That might sound like a bad thing at first glance but part of what makes the best strikers so deadly is their willingness to gamble that the next run they attempt could lead to a dangerous opportunity. There’s also likely a cumulative impact with opposing centre-backs constantly having to react that could tire them out throughout a match.
It’s all well and good to have the ability to beat high defensive lines. That’s part of the hallmark of quality forwards. What helps differentiate good strikers (say, Marcus Rashford) from the very good/great ones is being able to find weak spots even against teams that are playing closer to their own box and not conceding a lot of space in behind. Osimhen has enough in his locker to maintain effectiveness in these scenarios, which is important given he’s been on a ball-dominant possession side with Napoli who’ve dealt with their fair share of low blocks. Napoli had the build-up attacks in Serie A last season – passing moves of 10+ passes that ended in a shot or touch in the box – and only Fiorentina progressed the ball directly upfield at a slow rate.
For one, Osimhen got a quick first step and good instincts for when the centre-backs have relaxed for a split second. Both of those factors allow him to pick a spot to dash into. He’ll occasionally throw a double move where he gets his marker to lean one way with a decoy run before moving in a different direction to find space, often using his arms and body in general to gain separation.
Osimhen also mixes up his movement in the box when a team-mate has possession in the wide zones. Sometimes there’ll be a sprint towards the six-yard area, other times he’s curling slightly back for a cut-back pass. But one this is consistent and that’s attacking the penalty area. It’s no surprise the highest percentage of passes received by some distance for Osimhen is within the box.
Not only is Osimhen a threat to receive ground passes in high-value areas, but he also carries gravity for potential crosses. Although he’s not the tallest striker at just over 6-foot, he’s an impressive leaper. Once Napoli have circulated the ball into the flanks within the final third, Osimhen will often raise and hand to signal for a cross into the box It’s like watching a center in the NBA call for a post-up opportunity.
Despite his stature, no one in Serie A last season registered more headed goals than Osimhen (7) despite him playing fewer than 2,000 league minutes, and goals like this against Genoa towards the end of last season show his ability to attack crosses.
What you get is the type of shot map you come to expect from a top striker: lots of attempts, with the vast majority inside the box. Going back to last season in Serie A, on a per 90 basis Osimhen ranked fifth for both shots per 90, and shots inside the box, and third for non-penalty expected goals.
His actual goals have hovered around his total non-penalty xG over the past three completed seasons. Although more of a sample size is still likely needed, there’s a chance he’s the kind of forward who boosts his goal tally through lots of quality chances rather than efficient finishing on fewer opportunities.
Questions on On-Ball Capacity
It’s clear Osimhen’s gifts off the ball make him a handful to deal with, but what does he bring when in possession himself? He’s not a prodigious dribbler or ball carrier. Seventeen forwards averaged more carries per 90 than his 7.4 in Serie A last season, and 15 attempted more take-ons per 90 than the striker’s 2.6. There’s not a ton of shiftiness with his dribbling to get defenders on their backfoot when trying to engage in a one-vs-one out wide, which can lead to him getting bumped off course just enough to lessen the danger.
Quick flicks to himself and pushing the ball into space to sprint towards are more consistent ways of him creating space. Between those moments and leveraging his movement into receiving in stride, despite low volume of overall carries, he does produce a plentiful number of shots from them. In fact, Osimhen took 27 shots following a ball carry in the Serie A last season, enough for the fifth-highest mark in the league, while only Roma’s Nicolò Zaniolo attempted more as a striker (29).
Osimhen is satisfactory in the passing department. He can execute the basic reads you’d want from his position and sprinkle in an advanced pass. You wouldn’t confuse him for being a high-end initiator as he does miss a number of passing windows that a more accomplished passer would take advantage of. Osimhen ranked basically dead last in passes completed into the box and near the bottom in expected assists among forwards in Serie A during 2021-22.
His back to goal play is decent and perhaps an argument could be made that it’s solid. As mentioned earlier, the Napoli forward can spin around opponents with flicks from either ground or aerial passes. Despite not having an imposing figure, he’s strong enough to not get bullied when receiving passes. You’ll see moments where defenders are having to grab his jersey as almost a last resort. He’ll also try and bring team-mates into play, but the results can be mixed due to a heavy initial touch or overhitting the lay-off.
So How Good is He?
Evaluating Osimhen’s attacking value comes down to how highly one rates him without the ball, and whether the on-ball actions chip away at the positives he brings. It’s clear that his off-ball work is well above average. He’s a handful to deal with whether coming up against an opponent with a high defensive line or finding space in congestion. He’s capable of receiving passes either to feet or as an aerial threat in the penalty box. His athleticism also provides a buffer for him to not always be exact with his initial positioning, as being quick off the mark gives him and his team-mates delivering passes a bit of room for error.
The passing is okay on the whole, and he brings some ball carrying to the table but not a ton. And while he doesn’t have the cleanest technique for receiving in between the lines,it’s not a major demerit since he’s not often tasked with doing that.
The film paints a picture of Osimhen as a primarily off-ball threat, and the data is in line with the observation. If we look at the percentage of a team’s open-play sequences ended by a player as a proxy for usage%, alongside their shot involvement, he’s not far off the median in the former and among the strongest in the latter. That puts him alongside other renowned low-usage movement strikers both young (Haaland) and old (Lewandowski, Benzema).
He’s right up there in terms of being a box threat as well when simply looking at their total shots generated and how often they’re in the 18-yard area, although he’s a slight notch below the truly elite due to not being a strong creator.
It’s no secret Osimhen is a possible target for a future mega deal, and as such the dicey injury history over the past two seasons is important to bring up. After playing in nearly 91% of available minutes with Lille in 2019-20, that number got reduced drastically to 46% and 58% in 2020-21 and 2021-22 respectively. He has suffered from muscular injuries, including his current one to the thigh. The big injuries though have been more freak accidents than anything recurring. A dislocated shoulder while playing for the Nigerian national team in November 2020 and a bout of COVID-19 in January 2021 knocked him out for two months. He had a scary facial injury against Inter at nearly the same point a year later which also sidelined him for two months There’s probably not enough there to suggest that he’s incapable of playing around 75% or more of possible minutes in a league campaign going forward, which is what super clubs would like their expensive forwards to hit.
So where does all of this leave us? It’s fair to argue Osimhen is the kind of striker who needs to have multiple above-average passers and creators surrounding him, so his off-ball gifts are accentuated. His on-ball actions in attack are necessarily a negative, but it’s not a coincidence he has a relatively low usage rate despite getting off a ton of shots. While the mild concerns over the consistency of his link-up play might bring into question the absolute heights his ceiling raising can reach, he still has a formidable one at the very least because of how diverse his movements are.
Simply thinking of him as a striker who punishes high defensive lines does Osimhen a disservice. He can pressure opponents in many different scenarios. While it’s still early, there’s the chance Napoli have built themselves a potential title contender to finally end their championship drought dating back to 1990. The emergence of Khvicha Kvaratskhelia has helped considerably, but their best-case scenario for the 2022-23 season involves a healthy and firing Victor Osimhen being the off-ball dynamo we’ve come to know and admire.
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