With Yunus Musah linked with a move away from Valencia, we examine his strengths and why he might be keen on leaving Mestalla.
Yunus Musah is a player who’s both immensely talented and undeniably difficult to categorise. He is a bundle of interesting traits and skills and can do whatever you ask him to do. That’s why the single most important variable in how he develops as a footballer is what you ask him to do.
It is no surprise then that at Valencia, a club in search of their own identity, have failed to maximise the young midfielder’s talent.
Musah might lay claim to the most diverse background in professional football. Born in New York to Ghanaian parents, he moved to Italy where he started his football career as a child before moving to England, playing for Arsenal alongside Folarin Balogun. His now USMNT teammate had a breakout season with Reims in Ligue 1 this season, scoring 21 goals.
From London, Musah set off for Valencia, breaking into their team as a 17-year-old. But he’s still waiting for his breakout campaign.
The diversity in his game is rooted in the environments he has learned in, and that’s been on full display during three seasons in Valencia’s first team. Couple his footballing education with his outstanding physical traits and you have one of the most exciting – if not confusing – midfielders in Europe.
Musah is 20 now and has three seasons of top-flight football under his belt, plus a World Cup, at which he starred for the US Men’s National Team. Premier League clubs have enquired about his availability and it looks like he is ready to make the move.
The path towards progression for a teenage midfielder is often beset with obstacles at the best of times, but the turmoil at Valencia doesn’t necessarily lend itself well to linear development either. As stated, a motley crew of Valencia managers have used Musah in search of the same end using very different means.
Valencia had the youngest average starting XI in Europe’s top five leagues last season, but to suggest there’s structure to their philosophy is not true. The approach is often scattershot and born from necessity and not some underlying belief in youth development. Their managerial selection in recent years underlines the lack of a coherent plan by the higher-ups.
Valencia have gone through six managers in three years since Musah broke into the first team under Javi Gracia. Voro, the interim coach perpetually waiting in the wings, took the reins twice and Musah only played under him for 239 minutes in total in La Liga, so for the sake of this analysis, we will only include the four he has worked under for a significant amount of time. He has played over 1,000 minutes under each of Gracia, José Bordalás and Gennaro Gattuso, and 724 minutes with Rubén Baraja in charge at the end of this season.
His statistics with each manager are instructive of what he has been asked to do. For example, with Gattuso on the sideline, he touched the ball 52.5 times per 90 in 1,176 minutes. That number never exceeded 44.1 under the other three managers.
Below, you can see the various positions he has played over this season.
Despite the turmoil on the sideline, Musah is the 11th-most used player over the last three years with 4,914 minutes and is the second-most used midfielder after Carlos Soler. The managers he’s had can clearly see the importance of having him on the field but each of them have seen him as the solution to different problems.
Baraja, who took over with Valencia in dire straits after Gattuso was given his marching orders in January, hasn’t played Musah in his best position, preferring to utilise him on the wing to take advantage of his willingness and capacity to cover lots of ground quickly – something that entirely misses the point of Musah.
The former Valencia and Spain midfielder, Baraja, recently renewed with the club and that might explain why Musah’s name has been linked with a move away from the east coast of Spain this summer.
To Baraja’s credit, he arrived with the club staring relegation in the eye and implemented a defensive system with five at the back. He brought through a couple of youth players in an effort to revitalise Valencia’s season and focused mainly on defensive solidity.
The one manager who seemed to get Musah and have a vision for him beyond being a runner was Gattuso, but he’s a distant memory at the Mestalla now. Gattuso came in with a clear vision and a fun, attractive style of play. Musah was certainly seeing an uptick in his usage in important parts of the field under the Italian.
“Gattuso wants to see me touching the ball more, and he gives us clear ideas to be able to play,” Musah said after a few weeks working with the former Napoli coach. He deployed Musah and Nicolás González as number 8s in a 4-3-3 with Hugo Guillamón sitting behind them. Guillamón, a centre-back turned defensive midfielder, handled most of the defensive work with Musah joining him when out of possession to make a double pivot. This gave Musah license to play a box-to-box role with the kind of nuances that set him apart.
Musah saw career highs in touches, total carries (14.2), long progressive carries (4.8), passes in his own half (12.9), passes into the final third (4.5) and successful passes in the opposition half (19.4) under Gattuso.
His best game this season came against Getafe at the Mestalla when Gattuso was still in charge. It was prior to the World Cup, and Gregg Berhalter – then coach of the USMNT – was in attendance. Musah put on a tour de force as a box-to-box midfielder and added a couple of assists during the 5-1 win. It looked like Gattuso, who Samu Castillejo said arrived and found a team “afraid to play”, had found a way to maximise some of the exciting young talent in the team.
Gattuso was eventually sacked at the end of January when results went against him, but Musah took his good form into the World Cup. He was used in a deeper role under Berhalter as the USA shocked many and finished second in their group, drawing with England and Wales and beating Iran before losing to the Netherlands in the knockout stages.
Against England, we saw many of the same qualities from Musah but in a different, slightly deeper, position on the pitch. He had just turned 20 but his commanding performance belied his youth.
Against Mexico on Thursday night, we saw Musah deployed as the deepest-lying midfielder with Weston McKennie in a freer role slightly ahead of and around the Valencia talent.
It was another commanding performance from a player who hasn’t turned 21 yet as he showcased his ability to control the game from the base of midfield, lead the press and play in a more central area of the field.
B.J. Callaghan, as interim coach, is continuing from his predecessor in essentially building the midfield with Musah as a central component.
It has been in a USA jersey where he has most resembled the man he is, in theory, linked to replace at West Ham if their recent interest in him leads to a summer move.
Musah as a West Ham Replacement for Rice?
It will be difficult to replace what Declan Rice does for West Ham with just one player. He is one of the leading defensive midfielders in the Premier League and Europe. Rice is much more of a connector of play, a very physical presence who covers lots of ground. Musah can do the same but you wouldn’t, for example, play Rice as a number 10. Musah has the nuance in his game to create higher up the field, but playing him deeper in the role Rice plays with lots of touches doesn’t seem like the best fit either.
For what Musah does lack in technical ability to receive the ball under pressure and build out from the back, he makes up for slightly higher up the field. He is what Frenkie de Jong is to Sergio Busquets, if you’re looking for a somewhat contrived but close enough frame of comparison.
Musah’s greatest strength is his ball-carrying ability and that can be done either as the deepest midfielder or, as we saw under Gattuso, in a number 8 role. Only Samuel Lino (138) had more 10+ progressive carries than the American (106) for Valencia last season.
As far as what we’ve seen from Musah in a Valencia shirt, he is not a replacement for Rice but maybe West Ham and the teams looking at him are enthused by what they’ve seen when he plays for the USMNT. His statistics are a function of where he has been asked to play.
Perhaps West Ham are going to sell Rice and invest in a variety of midfielders, avoiding trying to directly replace their talisman. Maybe they won’t sell him at all.
Or maybe West Ham see an underrated 20-year-old with three years’ experience in the top flight, 25 caps for his country and a World Cup where he starred for his nation as a teenager.
Both Musah and Valencia have the entire summer to figure out what’s next. But the team who does end up getting Musah will have a superstar on their hands if they play him in his strongest position.
Who were the most similar players to Yunus Musah across 2022-23? You can find this out, plus analyse thousands of other players in the new Opta Player Comparison tool.