This is an “amateur scouting notebook” type post for Thiago Almada, Atlanta’s newest DP signing, a 20-year old attacking midfielder/playmaker from Velez Sarsfield who looks to slot in on the left hand side of a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 for Gonzalo Pineda’s Atlanta United in 2022.
I ate a bunch of tape on Thiago Almada and combed through all the data I could find. Perhaps, we start by framing this up based on how the manager Pineda sees the player, or what type of contribution he expects from him. Before the signing was officially announced but with rumors spreading that the deal was finally done, Pineda hopped on ExtraTime Radio and spoke only somewhat hypothetically about Atlanta United’s highly anticipated new third designated player, with everyone very aware of who he might have been describing:
We are talking about a player who is going to be creative and produce goals and assists in the final third. That’s the main thing, the player we bring has to produce that. Normally Atlanta United is investing heavy on that type of player, and normally they get it right.
I think this is a good way to talk about what Atlanta United needs out of Thiago Almada. Scoring goals is generally a team effort, the culmination of processes that on the ball we might call “possessions” that can begin with the defenders and goalkeeper. But despite the contingent nature of goals, it’s completely fair to task the front 4 players in a team with the primary requirement of scoring and assisting them – bringing those processes to their swift and joyous resolutions. First, let’s talk about scoring.
Maybe this sounds crazy, but sometimes I think it’s easy to overlook the importance of players that aren’t your center forward contributing goals. We’re talking about attacking midfielders and wide forwards and playmakers, which is what Thiago Almada is. It’s so easy to overlook that there’s a part of me that sees the goals Thiago Almada scores in his highlight reels (along with the tekkerz, and the passes), and thinks “ah goals are nice to chip in, but Almada’s primary objective is to create for his teammates, to feed Josef.” And that impulse is wrong. Goal scoring (and the effort and processes that lead to goal scoring) is a responsibility shared across the team, but especially across the front four. That’s why it’s exciting to read soundbites like this from Pineda and Bocanegra:
“He’s very good at arriving inside the box, so we think that we’re going to have a lot more presence inside the box with him.” (Pineda)
“He … has a nose for goal, and that’s something we’re looking to add to the group.” (Bocanegra)
If you’ve been watching Atlanta United the last couple of seasons, then these statements must be music to your ears. That Pineda and Bocanegra are accurately identifying this as a need is good! So the question is, have they found a solution in Thiago Almada? But before we get there (cuz is there really an easy answer for that anyway?), if a team identifies that it needs to add a goal scorer, how should they go about finding one?
Scouting for Goal Scoring
One way you could do this would be to receive a name of an interested player from his agent or an intermediary and then go about scouting him to see if he fits the profile of player you want in your team. You’d want to see some data on him. You’d want to scour footage of his career to date looking for the types of behaviors that goal-scorers share — not the goal-scoring itself really, but the things that make goal-scoring possible.
You’d want to see how he moves off the ball, how he unlocks space for himself and others to get on the ball in dangerous areas. You’d want to see how committed he is to stretch the defense, to sneaking in behind, and how conscientious he is about making the right runs inside the box once a teammate gets on the ball in the final third. Does he ghost defenders to the back post? Does he put in the effort to beat his mark and arrive at the near post at the right time? Is he brave?
If a smart scout or analyst (or Technical Director) watched every single match a player took part in with a wide angle tactical view (focusing on his actions on and off the ball) from the first to final whistle, they might come away with a strong understanding of what they’re working with here, how ready a player is to contribute directly to his team’s goal scoring.
Of course, limiting one’s transfer targets to those filtered based on the whims of agents and then analyzing the interested players in detail after the fact would close off so many possibilities. Ideally, you’d instead want to cast your net as wide as possible — identify traits of players that might lead you to a worthwhile shortlist and go from there.
But to my knowledge, there’s no perfect statistic or data record or data model that allows you to find fool-proof goal scorers. We know by now that looking at actual past goal scoring rates in small sample sizes is perilous. We want to avoid that. The rate at which players convert shooting opportunities into goals (G) faster or slower than the rate at which they find or create those various goal scoring probabilities (xG), doesn’t tend to stabilize until late in a player’s career (and by then, you’ve missed the boat on them). Moreover, the rate at which players “finish” better than their xG is immaterial anyway in comparison to the rate at which they find or create those goal scoring opportunities, something that is in relative terms both more predictable and more impactful.
But using xG like this as a player metric is full of its own problems. In the end, the xG of a given shot is the result of a team effort, and when you only ever look at the subset of possessions where this team effort came together to create a shooting opportunity, you miss all the times that a player made a smart run to the near post but the service was poor, and you also miss all the times where the service was right there ready to assist a goal, but the player never made the run. In short, if your data only includes events that happen on the ball, you’re missing a lot of the stuff a striker does in the hopes of scoring. In a perfect world, you’ve got a state of the art data model (like we suspect Liverpool has) that uses event data and tracking data recorded 25x per second logging the location of all players and the ball in space and time. Then, maybe, you’re able to identify which players repeatedly and effectively use off-ball and on-ball movement to open up goal scoring probability for themselves and their teammates.
In the absence of a perfect world, you do what you gotta do. And you should know that Thiago Almada gets on the end of xG at a rate of 0.22 per 90, putting him in the 73rd percentile of attacking midfield/wingers in Argentina (data courtesy of Carlon Carpenter at StatsBomb). While I don’t have the StatsBomb data for previous Atlanta United transfers out of Argentina, other data sources I’ve seen suggest Almada has created xG slightly better than players like Barco, and Pity Martinez and Almiron did in Argentina (and at a younger age). Furthermore, according to American Soccer Analysis, 0.22 per 90 would put Almada right at the type of xG production Pity Martinez took part in at Atlanta United once he arrived in the states (and just ahead of Barco’s 0.19 and Moreno’s 0.18), recognizing that the leagues are very different.
Because quantitative data is only one kind of information you might use when scouting a player for his goal-scoring ability, I went ahead and watched every shot Thiago Almada took for his club during league and cup play in 2021. And this process revealed something really important.
When Almada’s club was in transition (i.e. “on the break” against a disorganized defense after a turnover) Almada’s instinct to get into the box to receive passes was on full display. This player sparkles in transition on and off the ball. For this pair of weary eyes, it’s this off-ball movement in transition that looks enticing. When you watch every shot, time and time again you’ll see Almada lead the break on the dribble, distribute wide, and then crucially continue his run into the box to receive a pass and fire at the keeper. Now, he will not infrequently shoot from too far out while leading a break when he could be more patient, but he mixes this with that all important “nose for goal” Bocanegra and Pineda mentioned, and finds his way to the near and back post for opportunities often enough for it to pop on film.
Conversely, when Almada’s club was not in transition, when they were building slowly or trying to progress the ball through an organized defense, he looked much, much worse. For those of us familiar with Pity Martinez’ endless long shots which almost always came to nothing, you will be very disappointed to see him waste countless of his team’s controlled possessions (if Almada plays for Atlanta similar to how he did at Velez). By my count, two thirds of the open-play shots Almada found in possession were from outside the box, and way too many of them really outside the box, the kind you see get blocked by the nearest on-ball defenders or skied over the goal. He still seemed pretty good at moving off the ball to find time in the half spaces to receive and dictate play, but all too often he wasted these moments, impatiently firing shot after shot, extinguishing the danger that he himself (and his teammates) had created in some form or fashion.
Thiago Almada takes set pieces. He took a ton of direct free kicks with direct shot attempts at goal from the half spaces just outside the penalty area. I watched him line up and take 22 free kicks at goal with his right foot in 2021 and none found their way past the keeper. More worryingly, most were into the wall over skied over the top of the bar.
So, from a goal scoring perspective, I’d agree that this player likely brings something vital to Atlanta United in terms of a non-Josef goal threat, but I’d caution that this is only going to happen regularly if the team is able to create enough positive transition moments. Almada needs to find himself in space. If Atlanta United does not press proactively and instead they build everything from square one against an organized defense, Almada might be more of a hindrance than a help. Side note: I don’t know enough about young players to know if this transition instinct piece comes first (likely) while chance creation within methodical possessions comes later in careers, but even if that’s true and that this trait of Almada’s is normal and you’d expect this kind of Dr. Jekell and Mr. Hyde performance in- and out-of-transition from a young player, I want to highlight it simply because Atlanta United fans want the team to win now, not just for the team’s players to develop during their time here and garner larger transfer fees to big clubs in the future (and it’s worth remembering that this buy low/ sell high idea doesn’t always go as planned).
If everyone agrees goal scoring is important for a front-four player in an Atlanta United team, we’re probably all on the same page with Pineda about the importance of assisting goals too. When our front four players aren’t moving off the ball with the intention of getting on the ball in the box, we want them playing clean passes to one another and making the right choices to reward players who are moving off the ball to create dangerous space.
With event data you can observe at scale which players are completing passes that lead to shots. Soccer analytics most commonly calls these “key passes,” but that’s a bad name. There’s nothing subjective being evaluated by the coders surrounding the “importance” or “cleverness” of any of these passes. They’re simply passes that “assist” shots. They’re “shot assists.” Statsbomb data suggests that Thiago Almada is in the 84th percentile for open play key passes at his position. But when we add in how valuable each of those shots were – by assigning the xG of each shot to the shot assisting pass – Almada’s “Open Play xG assisted” of 0.15 per 90 is good for 73rd percentile in Argentina amongst similar players. He’s better than most, but by no means a world beater.
Because I’m nothing if not fair, and a glutton for punishment, I also watched film of every single “shot assist” Almada logged in 2021 for his club. What I found was that over half of the open play shots he assisted were shots that his teammates took from outside the penalty area. These aren’t completely worthless (he found an assist or two this way), but they’re not the sort of penetrative passes into the penalty area that create good goal scoring opportunities for your teammates. This is why he scores lower in terms of “xG assisted” than his “key pass” tallies would suggest. There were some gems in the other half of his shot assists though, particularly earlier on in the spring of 2021 where he’s carving up the gaps between centerbacks and fullbacks and playing his teammates into the box (to say nothing of the passes he picked out where a shot never came of it). And you saw a lot of these “juicier” passes into the box if you caught the highlight package the club released as part of the announcement.
Thiago Almada also puts a ton of free kicks into the box with the hope of creating set piece goals for his teammates. A quarter of his shot assists were essentially dead-ball crosses from these set piece opportunities. He might not be much of a threat going direct to goal with shots from dead-balls, but he is much more effective at serving these opportunities into the box near the penalty spot for his teammates to get on the end of. These are of course real goal contributions that he might bring to Atlanta, but when recruiting goal creators it’s important to remember that dead ball opportunities are mostly a zero sum game. For every opportunity Almada has to create a shot for a teammate, he is taking away whatever production Luis Araujo or Marcelino Moreno would otherwise provided from the same dead-ball opportunity. This is why it’s great to have skilled set piece takers, but we get more excited when a target player shows an ability to find these shot assists from open play.
By my count across all club competitions in 2021, Almada assisted 2 goals off set pieces, 2 in transition, and 2 in more balanced open play. More than anything, if he’s going to set up his teammates (or himself) for good chances at goal, it’s going to be important that he’s not just constantly firing shots at goal from 30 yards out. Rather, that he’s reading the game, passing and moving, getting into the box to receive passes and looking for his teammates to do the same.
When you watch Almada you notice he’s very skilled with the ball. He takes clean touches and he has that thing Barco has where he’s difficult to take the ball off of… or I mean, he’s more difficult to take the ball off of than other players who might try similar stuff. But in general it’s still pretty easy to take the ball off someone who’s right in front of you, which is maybe why I hope to see less of this 1v1 dueling from Atlanta United in general this year. If there’s something I like most about Almada’s dribbling ability, it’s that he’s not attempting a crazy high number of them per game (like Moreno was at Lanus or Pity at River Plate). Relative to other attacking mids/wingers in Argentina he’s kind of in the middle of the pack statistically. In 2021 he attempted 3.5 dribbles per game with a relatively strong 62% success rate – he’s not a take-on monster. Like any counting stat logged based on “events,” the overly discrete nature of the idea of a “dribble” poses problems anyway. Instead, where Almada does the most damage to opponents with the ball is, again, in transition, surging forward with the ball on the break: progressive “carries” of the ball. We saw flashes of this kind of thing with Barco over the last few years, and I am sure I’m not alone saying that I appreciated this kind of thing much more than the take-ons where he’d put his head down and take on 2 or 3 defenders. And Almada has that trait as well, don’t get me wrong. I found clip after clip of him impressively dribbling his way around 3 defenders only to move the ball closer to his own goal, or get fouled in the center circle. On this note, he gets fouled less often than Barco and Pity did in Argentina, and my gut is this is a good fact. Being the most fouled player in MLS, the way Barco was during his time here, didn’t mean Atlanta United dominated the league by any stretch. Perhaps, the fact that Almada draws fouls less often than the others is a sign he’s able to move the ball more effectively. We’ll see.
Just like with shooting (and likely passing as well), Thiago Almada will be most dangerous to opponents when Atlanta is on the break, and most dangerous to Atlanta if he’s asked to break down organized defenses with his 1v1 ability… which and I guess this is the part that worries me… the manager Gonzalo Pineda sort of hinted at, that he might want Almada to do. Again, on that sort of ambiguous, sort of hypothetical ETR interview, he described Atlanta’s third DP like this:
“The characteristics, he can be a good winger, very good on the one-v-one dribbling to unlock lower blocks. Or he can be a very clever player, a very good connector, similar to Thiago as you mentioned.”
And then later following his signing:
Thiago is a talented player who will add quality to our attack in the final third,” Atlanta United head coach Gonzalo Pineda said. “He’s very good at taking on defenders and creating chances for himself and his teammates. We’re very happy to welcome him to the club and look forward to integrating him into the team as quickly as possible.
I’ll just put it out there then to the.. uh ether: Please, please please… don’t rely on Thiago Almada taking on defenders 1v1 in order to break down lower blocks. Please do organize a game model designed to create chaotic transition moments that are good for Atlanta and bad for their opponents. If you do this, and if you give him runners on the break (not just guys looking to get on the ball), you might – just might — see him become a star.