The facilitators of counter-attacking football often submit themselves to the pragmatic approach. In order to thrive in the system employed by the manager, for these players technical ability is a requisite. Furthermore, they need to consciously put in effort out of possession to bear the fruit of hard work & an opportunity to break into the attack. Finding the right profile to liberate such a counter-attacking system in a possession dominant footballing era is difficult, but not impossible. From Morocco rises a new hope, Zakaria Aboukhlal.
Name: Zakaria Aboukhlal.
Position: Right Winger / Left Winger.
Preferred Foot: Both.
Current Club: Toulouse.
Positioning + Movement:
Comfortable using either of his feet, Zakaria, provides Toulouse with the ability of functioning on any flank with relative ease. As the French club aim to break quickly after winning possession back, his ability to dart through the middle aided by his blistering pace have made him an immense asset and cause of many goals on the counter. Often, he is the farthest man forward, always ready to accelerate towards goal. Even when he isn’t the recipient of the pass in the final third, his positioning in front of goal has seen him score several rebounds.
When Toulouse retain possession against more evenly matched teams, he is confined to the role of a more traditional winger. Zakaria is tasked with stretching the backline for his peers to get into more central areas. While he has done a decent job till now, his instinct of cutting inside is evident. He rarely likes to occupy zones adjacent to the opposition’s box. Instead, he often occupies zone 15 with an aim to create, leaving the wing wide open.
As he glides into central areas, Aboukhlal relies on his ability to progress the ball in tight spaces. So far this season, he has averaged 3.69 progressive carries p90 which is impressive considering how less of time Toulouse have spent on the ball. After entering attacking zones, Zakaria lays off the ball and makes his way into the penalty area to receive the ball. This season he has averaged 5.11 touches p90 in the penalty area, placing him in the 80th percentile of the stat. Crucial in the Ligue 1 club’s hunt of goals.
Passing + Creativity:
To successfully execute a counter-attack, the passes played on the break need to be pristine. Initially struggling with finding his teammates, Aboukhlal has finally improved his passing. On an average, the Moroccan completes 73% of his passes p90, a clear upward trend from his poor 65% a year ago. While passing isn’t Zakaria’s strength, he still has consistently created several opportunities for his teammates to take shots and score.
In the league, Aboukhlal has managed to assist 5 times while enabling 6GCA. Similarly, he has also helped Toulouse through his progressive carries into the box and passes to create 66 SCA this season. He helps create space for others in the box to take shots. As the youngster continues to become a more refined version of himself, his passing ability is sure to improve. Currently, he only averages 11 passes per game.
Limitations elsewhere often fuel desires to strengthen. While Zakaria’s passing isn’t his strongest facet, his ability to shoot is. The Moroccan averages nearly 2.80 shots p90 while averaging 1.15 SoT/90. In context, Toulouse averages 4.5 SoT/90, showcasing how significant the Moroccan’s presence is in front of goal. His 8 goals in the league this season are his highest ever in a senior league. These goals are a direct result of his unwavering energy in front of goal, positioning & confidence. Multiple times throughout the season, he has found himself in areas to potently harm the opposition & continues to do so.
OUT OF POSSESSION
Under Philippe Montanier, Toulouse has managed to transform itself & return to Ligue 1. He has deployed his team in a strong midblock out of possession which often takes the structure of 4-4-2. His forwards are required to constantly maintain shape & his use of Aboukhlal has been sensational. The winger often occupies central areas in a 2 above two compact lines of 4. Here, he presses the center back & tries to win the ball. His reading of the game so far has been excellent and has resulted in him nearly averaging an interception every game. Quite impressive for a forward.
He is also not shy of diving into challenges and has often been seen tackling to win the ball. In order to prevent breaks, Zakaria is also seen tracking back to help clear any danger. So far, he has averaged 0.88 clearances p90. His willingness to constantly put in a defensive shift has certainly boosted Toulouse & his understanding of the game.
Philippe Montanier’s pragmatic approach to life in the first division has certainly been facilitated due to the presence of Zakaria Aboukhlal in his system. The Moroccan has shown a high level & with time will keep improving. A pacy winger, with a tendency to occupy central zones, many have considered him to play the role of an attacking midfielder as well. However, to unleash his true potential, Zakaria needs to continue playing in a similar system.
– UNCUT GEMS #1: Celta Vigo’s GABRI VEIGA
– UNCUT GEMS #2: Girona’s sensation Arnau Martinez