Europa League Last 16: Five Players to Watch
As an intriguing 2022-23 Europa League heats up with the knockout stage proper, we pick out five of this season’s standout individuals to keep an eye on in the last 16 – and, they’ll be hoping, beyond.
Mark Flekken: Freiburg
Left out of the Netherlands’ 2022 World Cup squad, Mark Flekken has been at his best to keep the ball out for Freiburg this season. In the Europa League, only seven goalkeepers rank higher in terms of goals prevented than Flekken (1.7) – and only of those seven is still in the competition, Manchester United’s David de Gea (1.9).
Freiburg – playing in Europe for the first time since 2017-18 and only the fifth time in their history – won their group with a record of four wins and two draws, conceding a joint competition-low two non-penalty goals (three overall). Flekken kept four clean sheets in his five appearances, before being rested for the group-concluding 1-1 draw away to Azerbaijani champions Qarabag.
Sure, Freiburg enjoyed a pretty kind group draw – they finished five points clear of Ligue 1 mid-tablers Nantes and also faced Olympiacos, one of five teams not to win a single group game – but Flekken still comes out as one of the strongest shot-stoppers in the Europa League this term. When goals prevented is weighted for the number of shots on target – giving us goals prevented rate – the 29-year-old places joint second with De Gea and Olympiacos’ Alexandros Paschalakis (who only played 180 minutes to Flekken’s 450) on 1.9.
Things are, in theory, about to get a lot tougher for Freiburg as they face a resurgent Juventus in the last 16. Currently well in contention to equal their best-ever Bundesliga finish of third and potentially 180 minutes away from a first-ever European quarter-final, the brilliantly nicknamed Breisgau Brazilians are enjoying a fantastic campaign under long-time boss Christian Streich; they’ll need Flekken at his sharpest to help ensure a bang in-form Ángel Di María and dangerousDušan Vlahović don’t bring it to an end.
Christopher Trimmel: Union Berlin
Until coming unstuck against the former a couple of weeks ago, Union Berlin were level on points with Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund in a three-way Bundesliga title race. Urs Fischer’s upstarts are one of the stories of European football this season – and skipper Christopher Trimmel is a brilliant story within that story. Having just turned 36, the cross-whipping right wing-back is one of the oldest outfield players to feature in the 2022-23 Europa League – and, with the exception of Cristiano Ronaldo, the oldest outfield player to play at least 450 minutes.
Trimmel joined then second-tier Union back in 2014, captaining them to their maiden promotion to the top flight five years later. Now in his ninth season at the club, the 25-cap Austrian international is as integral to the cause as ever, and recently signed a contract extension until the summer of 2024. Averaging 0.28 expected assists (xA) per 90, Trimmel has been the primary creative outlet for Union in the Europa League this term.
To put Trimmel’s impressive creative exploits into further context, only three players with 450+ minutes in this season’s Europa League have averaged more xA/90. And only one of those three is still in the competition: Bruno Fernandes, who’s been at the peak of his creative powers for Manchester United in recent months. Among defenders with 450+ minutes in the 2022-23 Europa League, only Freiburg left wing-back Christian Günter has created more chances/90 (3.6) than Trimmel (2.4) – whose open-play crossing accuracy of 47.37% is the second-highest of any player to attempt at least 10 crosses in the competition this term – and the highest of any player still in it.
They may have eased past Ajax 3-1 in the second leg of their knockout round play-off, but Union are hardly free-scoring (the first leg of that tie finished 0-0). No side in the top half of the Bundesliga has found the net fewer times this season than Die Eisernern, who, astonishingly, scored just four goals (in four 1-0 wins) en route to finishing a point behind last-16 opponents Union Saint-Gilloise as Group D runners-up (only four out of 32 teams managed fewer group goals).
Set-pieces could prove key in the last 16 – Union have scored a Bundesliga-high 13 goals from dead-ball situations in 2022-23, despite ranking bottom of the league on set-piece xG – and, as such, so couldTrimmel, whose devilish deliveries have created more chances from corners (five) than all bar two players in this season’s Europa League.
Lorenzo Pellegrini: Roma
“He can do everything,” said Roma boss José Mourinho of Lorenzo Pellegrini in August 2021. “If we had three Pellegrinis, they would all be starting the game at the same time.” Fast-forward 18 months and Mourinho’s effusive praise of his captain and all-round midfield maestro holds just as true.
Pellegrini has had something of an injury-disrupted 2022-23 so far, but he keeps bouncing back to pull the strings – and get stuck in – for the Giallorossi.
If Roma are to build on their triumph in the inaugural Europa Conference League last term and lift the Europa League for the very first time, the presence of Pellegrini will be pivotal. With three assists and three goals – including a brace in the 3-1 win over Ludogorets which secured Roma second spot in Group C – the 26-year-old has twice as many goal contributions in the competition as any of his team-mates.
Faced with the task of unpicking a defensively robust Real Sociedad side in the last 16, Roma – who beat Red Bull Salzburg 2-1 on aggregate in the knockout round play-off – may well need to lean on Pellegrini’s playmaking prowess. The Italy international averages 1.65 xA/90 and 3.2 big chances created/90 in this season’s Europa League, placing him third and fourth respectively among players with 450+ minutes. Statistically, only Paolo Dybala comes even relatively close to Pellegrini in terms of creativity.
Usually deployed as one of two attacking midfielders in Mourinho’s 3-4-2-1 set-up, Pellegrini doesn’t shy away from what, by contrast to what he typically does with the ball at his feet, really is the ugly side of the game. Determined to get his side in position to create and threaten, his average of 0.95 final-third possession regains per 90 is among the highest of any midfielder with 450+ minutes in this season’s Europa League.
Ultimately, it’s not hard to see why Mourinho would gladly have three of him.
Bruno Fernandes: Man Utd
Bruno Fernandes’ breathtakingly petulant display in Sunday’s 7-0 drubbing by Liverpool justifiably saw him branded a “disgrace” by pundit Gary Neville – but, that embarrassing episode aside, the Manchester United captain has been in fine nick for the last few months. Since the start of November, Fernandes has racked up 18 goal contributions (seven goals, 11 assists) in 25 appearances in all competitions, playing a part in over a third of his side’s goals during that period.
With at least 16 games of 2022-23 remaining, Fernandes is six assists off equalling his previous single-season best for United. While Marcus Rashford has been scoring the goals, the Portugal star has been consistently doing what he does best and serving up opportunities on a plate – as evidenced by his squad-high tally of 30 big chances created in all competitions (next on the list is Luke Shaw with seven).
Operating as the number 10 in Erik ten Hag’s 4-2-3-1 system, Fernandes naturally finds himself with a fair amount of shooting opportunities. And it’s borne out by the data: he ranks first among all midfielders in this season’s Europa League for overall non-penalty xG (2.22) – and joint third per 90 (0.31) among those with 450+ minutes. That gives the 28-year-old a competition-high combined non-penalty xG and xA figure of 4.93. Fernandes is proving yet again what a multifaceted attacking threat he is – and he hasn’t even taken a penalty yet.
Penalties are Fernandes’ forte, though. While high-profile misses last term against Arsenal (hit the post) and Aston Villa (skied his kick while facing professional rattler Emi Martínez) understandably spring immediately to mind, Fernandes’ record rather speaks for itself: he’s dispatched 22/25 penalties for United (he also had one well saved by Newcastle’s Karl Darlow the season before last). And, encouragingly for Ten Hag and co, he’s got a 100% (nine of nine) career record from the spot in European competition.
Eddie Nketiah: Arsenal
Arsenal’s squad depth has been questioned this season – and they certainly don’t have the strength in depth of, say, Manchester City – but the Premier League leaders have seen several supporting cast members step up when it really counts, and Eddie Nketiah is one of them. This time last year, the Gunners academy product was being strongly linked with a move away from the club; since signing a new long-term deal in June, he’s pushed on to firmly establish himself as an invaluable member of Mikel Arteta’s attacking armoury. He’s scored nine goals in all competitions in 2022-23, seven of them in a stretch of seven games either side of the New Year.
Nketiah has recently lost his place in the starting 11 after a mini goal drought, but Arsenal’s last-16 clash with Sporting CP could be just what the 23-year-old needs to reignite his campaign. The Gunners have scored seven goals in their last two games without a recognised centre-forward from the start – but when it comes to the potentially tense crunch of knockout football, a natural marksman can make all the difference.
Unsurprisingly given he’s on course to deliver Arsenal’s first league title in 19 years, Arteta has rotated heavily in the Europa League – but that has allowed Nketiah to very much take centre stage. England U21s’ record goalscorer started all six of the Gunners’ group matches and was their only player to find the net more than once, notching in victories over FC Zürich and Bodø/Glimt. He bagged the winner against the former with a header following an exquisitely-timed run, and the opener against the latter with a quick-reaction first-time finish after Kieran Tierney’s shot had cannoned off the post.
And, as the data shows, being in the right place at the right time has been a defining of Nketiah’s Europa League performances this season. Only two players still in the competition – red-hot Marcus Rashford and Euro 2020-winning Roma striker Andrea Belotti – have accumulated more-penalty xG than Nketiah (3.15) – whose average of 0.55 per 90 is the third highest of any player with 450+ minutes.
“You back him to finish those chances,” said Arsenal’s second-highest scorer of all time, Ian Wright, of Nketiah earlier this year. And, while Nketiah’s finishing hasn’t been devastatingly clinical, he’s demonstrated a Wright-like poacher’s instinct: he ranks sixth in the Europa League for overall touches in the opposition box (37), and third per 90 (6.4) among players with 450+ minutes.
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