In recent Serie A seasons, Udinese have had this over-reliance on certain players to constantly survive relegation. That player usually has been Argentina’s Rodrigo de Paul. And while the former Valencia player’s contributions can’t be undermined, it often takes a lot of credit away from their 25-year-old Ivorian midfielder Seko Fofana.
Known to be a rather undervalued talent in the lesser clubs in Serie A, Fofana found a home at the Friuli after having a career that wasn’t really making much of an impact. The Ivorian was signed by the Manchester City youth side in 2014 but spent loan stints at Fulham and Bastia.
But two seasons on, City parted ways and Udinese roped him in when he couldn’t come close to breaking into the first-team at the Etihad. No one knew what the future held for him at the Dacia Arena, but Fofana rode on the momentum from his stint at Bastia to establish himself as a regular at Udinese.
Over the years, Fofana has silently become a vital cog in the wheel for the club. His influence in the first-team remains invaluable to them even today. This scout report will be a tactical analysis of Seko Fofana and his role in the Udinese team.
Role in the system
Udinese are well-known in Serie A to use a three at the back shape like Walter Mazzarri’s Torino side would every week. This season saw the club start the campaign with Igor Tudor as the manager but after a frustrating run of results around November, Tudor was replaced by caretaker boss Luca Gotti. Despite that, their foundational shape and system hasn’t really changed.
In the club’s regular 3-5-2 tactics, Fofana is the engine room that carries the burden of linking defence to attack but is versatile enough to add thrust to the attack while playing further forward. While Rolando Mandragora plays as the deepest midfielder and De Paul takes the role of a deep-lying playmaker, Fofana is tasked with carrying the ball forward. The 25-year-old constantly uses his preferred left foot to receive the ball and make in-roads forward.
The 25-year-old Ivorian is generally more focused down the left side of the pitch. He isn’t the most prolific tackler, but he just thrives on being effective with attacking transitions on the ball. De Paul can often drop deeper and make the midfield a bit more cohesive and allow Fofana more room to run with the ball.
There have been games in which Udinese have played with a sole striker in Kevin Lasagna and this has allowed Fofana to play as an attacking midfielder, with De Paul playing deeper. The freedom that Fofana often gets makes him a dangerous player to deal with and he’s also been one of the club’s best players this season.
In Serie A this season, he has made 21 appearances in all competitions. He has a single goal and four assists to his name, but that don’t really show how he really functions.
Dribbling and attacking ability
As mentioned above, carrying the ball is one of Fofana’s main strengths. He has acquired a reputation for making regular runs forward with the ball and while he may not always play someone else in, he is really good at what he does.
As per Soccerment (subscription needed), the Ivorian boasts a dribbling accuracy of as much as 72.1 percent. He completes 3.02 dribbles per 90 minutes and that is a reflection of what he brings to the table. Those are very impressive numbers indeed for central midfielders in Serie A.
A brief look at a scatter involving Under-25 midfielders who have played atleast 800 minutes would say a lot about Fofana and his dribbling abilities.
Clearly, Fofana and Gaetano Castrovilli attempt a lot of dribbles. They might not be as accurate as Ismael Bennacer in that regard, but they do come very close to that success rate. The fact that these players dribble a lot with a high percentage is concrete proof to how they’re very efficient.
In Udinese’s 2-0 loss to Inter at home, Fofana came up with a moment that really lifted the Friulani fans from their seats. In a passage of play in a deeper area, the Ivorian got the ball from Mandragora within their own-half.
Instead of using sound technical ability and passing it out, Fofana uses his brute pace to move the ball into a very promising attacking area.
He carries the ball for over 50 yards. He spots the space, goes past one Inter player and no one could stop him in that march into the final third. Ken Sema can’t control the through-ball that Fofana played, but it was a fair proof of what the midfielder can do.
And it isn’t like he is a bad chance creator at all. Fofana has created 1.85 chances per 90 minutes for the Friulani this season. And going by the numbers, he creates 11.5 percent of the total chances that his team has created. De Paul does create 2.50 chances per 90 minutes, but Fofana is pretty close in this regard and not bad at all either especially considering how he can often be deeper than the Argentine.
Paying attention to their Expected Assists (XA) per 90 tally and passes played into the final third will speak volumes for their ability in the final third, in terms of quality and amount.
This data analysis gives further insight into how Fofana is efficient in chance creation too- like Alessandro Murgia. They don’t play as many passes into the final third, but still create a very respectable XA for a midfielder. Sandro Tonali is certainly a rare case, as the young Italian creates the highest XA in this case despite usually playing as the deepest midfielder at Brescia.
But this is proof as to why Fofana is very reliable in an attacking sense and maybe, using him as the most advanced midfielder will be a case of playing to his strengths.
Against Milan earlier this year, Udinese did succumb to a Rossoneri comeback in the second half. But Fofana didn’t disappoint in that performance. In a passage of play in the first 45 minutes, the 25-year-old showed how he always looks up, on or off the ball.
The play starts with him acting as the target for defender Bram Nuytinck. Fofana receives the ball, calmly plays it back.
He then finds an open space near Bennacer and Franck Kessie, before dribbling inside by going past the Algerian. With Jens Larsen calling for a pass, Fofana plays a lofted through-ball to the Dane and plays him in.
But he doesn’t stop there. He dashes forward almost like an attacking midfielder to add some offensive support for the front two, in case a cross comes in.
Larsen has to play the ball inside to De Paul. But Fofana doesn’t stop there either. He makes himself available for the ball by dropping into an open space near the Argentine.
What he does next is smart. He doesn’t get the ball from De Paul. He comes in centrally and a little more deeper. He makes himself available for a pass from Mandragora. But instead of simply receiving it, he makes a very smart dummy run into space around Theo Hernandez and allows Okaka an option to pass to.
He does receive the ball to cross and the Ivorian’s cross wasn’t on target, that is a fair reflection of how Fofana is.
He likes to be in the thick of things attacking wise. When his team is in possession, he can take up various positions on the pitch to allow for smooth attacking play. He loves to find spaces in the central or attacking midfield to act as a decoy or as a passing option for the players around him.
Fofana also makes 2.03 progressive runs per 90 minutes and that is close to only Castrovilli. While others do rack up decent numbers in this regard, these two are again neck and neck and above the others. In that sense, Fofana isn’t just an aggressive dribbler, he does that with a purpose and with a positive intent.
Many times, he can use his dribbling skills to penetrate defences when some can play a pass. One of that came against Cagliari, against who Fofana enjoyed the best game of the season.
He does initially have the option of playing Okaka in, but he prefers to dribble and conjure something up. He can’t succeed and finds himself surrounded, but does set-up De Paul and the Argentine takes a shot on goal.
While his ball-carrying will always come to the fore because attacking contributions get more recognition, Fofana is reliable off the ball as well. Playing for a team that has to rely on the break and winning the ball in deeper areas can certainly make him look a shade better.
It is crucial to note that Fofana is a bit unlikely to get involved in defensive duels on the ground. He has attempted only 0.8 tackles per 90 minutes and has won 0.6 of them (via Soccerment)
Judging by the graph, Fofana doesn’t involve himself in these defensive duels too much. While his percentage is the highest, but his tackles per 90 metric is the lowest in the same bunch of players.
Udinese have won the fourth-highest number of tackles per 90 minutes in Serie A this season (per Whoscored), but Fofana still doesn’t average high in this regard. This does bring out a defensive weakness but also suggests why attack is more important than defence for him. In general, Fofana’s defensive statistics don’t paint him to be someone who commits himself to defensive stuff.
He gets involved in just 4.69 defensive duels per 90 minutes. That is the lowest for all the players that were in the graph above. But there is a flipside to this, as Fofana is really good at ball-recoveries.
The former Man City man averages 6.66 recoveries per 90 minutes. Soccerment (subscription needed) suggest that this tally is above average for a central midfielder, with the average at 6.14 recoveries per 90 minutes. That is a fair reflection for Fofana, who isn’t exceptional in this regard but can often do a fair job when it comes to managing transitions in play.
What Fofana also likes to do off the ball is close down spaces quickly in the middle of the park. He won’t occupy attacking positions when the opposition has the ball. He knows how to stick close to his man and be responsible in that regard.
In a passage of play from Udinese’s game against Milan, Fofana shows some defensive smartness without even committing himself to a tackle.
With Milan trying to attack from their right with Andrea Conti and Franck Kessie, Fofana opts to close Conti down instead of staying close to Kessie and allowing the Italian to run. While this doesn’t lead to anything exceptional, but Fofana puts an end to the attack in a smart way right there.
He is at the risk of being stuck in a 1v1. But Fofana takes the smart route of being someone who interprets spaces well. He chooses to close down Conti in a way that also cuts out the passing lane for Kessie.
Against Inter early in the game, Fofana shows his ability to cover up space that the opposition can possibly play through. Instead of marking Matias Vecino in midfield, Fofana prefers to drop in deeper to make sure that the Nerazzurri can’t play through the midfield, with De Paul caught higher up.
In many cases, Fofana does allow for De Paul to sometimes commit forward with the ball. He might not be the tackler that De Paul or Mandragora can be, but he uses a smart football brain to keep a check on the open spaces in the middle of the park.
In many ways, Fofana comes across as a player who is a very good interpreter of spaces. Be it attacking wise or defensive wise, Fofana is adept at making the best out of spaces around him. He senses them very well and makes perfect use of them.
Fofana’s stylistic strengths are very clear by now. Attacking wise, he is a lot like Fiorentina’s Castrovilli. He is technical and skilful while carrying the ball into attacking areas. He is very precise while creating opportunities and doesn’t need to try too hard to do just that. He makes a fair share of recoveries and allows the team to build from deeper midfield whenever he receives the ball.
But that doesn’t mean that Fofana is short of weaknesses. One of those can be easily identified and that is the lack of goals. The Ivorian takes 2.04 shots per 90 minutes, but generates an XG per 90 minutes of 0.11. He has underperformed on his XG by 0.7 this season, but that isn’t exactly the problem as that is too less an amount to pass a judgement.
It is the sort of shots he takes that are the problem. He can be speculative with his efforts on goal. And his shot map from Understat below provides a reflection of that.
Clearly, he has the habit of taking shots that carry a low value. But the one time he got a high value chance of 0.67 XG, he got a goal against Cagliari. Out of the eight shots that he has taken from the box, only two have been on target and one led to a goal. The rest are shots from long distances out and carry XGs of less than 0.10.
That one goal says a lot about him though. If he can get into the box more, his goalscoring tally can increase. The sort of work-rate Fofana possesses, he could certainly do that. That could be down to how Udinese don’t always attack with full might and Fofana could certainly get into the box more while playing for a better team.
While the Udine side do demand Fofana to often come deeper and close down spaces to help them play in two perfect blocks, the former Bastia man may just be suited to a more advanced midfield role. And he could certainly do that at a club that has more of the ball that Udinese.
He won’t have to come deep and it will play to his strengths on the ball. At 25, he still has the time to make the jump to one or maybe two bigger clubs. But the idea for those clubs should be to give Fofana the running room that he needs to make an impact.
Playing at a bigger club will allow him more space in the final third and potentially get rid of the weakness in shooting that he may often have.
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