On the 1st of July 2019, Che Adams signed for Southampton from Birmingham City for a reported £15 million. The 22-years-old English striker had been targeted by numerous Premier League clubs over recent transfer windows. In this tactical analysis, we will delve into Adams’ background and performances in recent seasons, comparisons with other young talents in the Championship, his playing style and how he may fit into Ralph Hasenhüttl’s Southampton team.

Non-league

Che Adams took a different route into the Premier League when compared to the majority of other strikers in the league. He was initially in the academy set up at Coventry City, joining at seven years old before being released at 14. From there, the striker played for non-league youth and senior teams at St Andrew’s, Oadby Town and Ilkeston. His senior non-league goal tally was not majorly impressive, scoring 14 goals in 73 matches, a ratio of a goal every 5.2 matches.

However, the player was still just a teenager who displayed raw talent and bags of potential. A key asset within Adams’ armoury is his physicality in terms of pace and strength. After a match between Ilkeston and Stourbridge, in which Adam’s was brought on in the 64th minute, reporter Mark Duffy stated: “his pace, power, and energy scared the life out of Stourbridge for the remainder of the game.” In his final season at Ilkeston, there were a reported 45 scouts from professional clubs analysing the performances of the English striker.

Sheffield United

Sheffield United won the race to sign the young talent for a reported six-figure sum in 2014. Adam’s impact was slow, but his first major breakthrough, which put him on the radar for many teams, was a brace against Tottenham Hotspur in the League Cup semi-final second leg. From there, he became a regular in the 2015/16 season scoring 12 in 41 and being voted the Sheffield Star’s young player of the year.

Birmingham City

His performances for Sheffield United caught the interest of Birmingham City, who paid around £2 million for the player at the start of the 2016/17 season. After a brief look at the statistics, Adam’s first two seasons at Birmingham did not highlight Premier League ability, scoring just seven and eight goals, respectively.

But, the player had just turned 20 years old and was playing in a team fighting towards the bottom of the Championship, with multiple managers and relatively little service for the frontman. Because of this, Adam’s goals were vital for Birmingham and helped keep them in the Championship.

If we take a quick look at his actual vs expected goals for 2016/17 and 2017/18, we can see that the striker scored 15 goals vs an expected 12.07, highlighting his lack of service but above average finishing. Overall, his quality, in addition to his important goals and impressive finishing were eye-catching enough for him to be awarded the young player of the season, top club goalscorer status and more links to other clubs, including a £10 million bid from Fulham.

2018/19 season for Birmingham

Adams has shown potential throughout his career. However, it was the recently passed 2018/19 season which has seen Adams really step up his total output for Birmingham, helped no doubt, by the season also being Garry Monk’s first full season in charge, giving the manager a chance to bring in his attractive style of football and offensive philosophy and tactics respectively. In addition, Adams’ was also subject to coaching from, funnily enough, ex Southampton striker James Beattie, who scored 131 career goals. As well as finishing work, Beattie influenced Adams’ fitness training so he felt stronger going into the final stages of the game, something which Englishman attributes some of his success to. Adams’ success was also encouraged by an effective striking partnership with Lukas Jutkiewicz, such chemistry with a strike partner may come in useful at Southampton, such partnership options will be discussed later.

In the 2018/19 season, the young striker was named in the Championship team of the season and became the first Birmingham player to score over 20 goals in a season in over 20 years. Adams finished with 22 goals and registered five assists in 48 appearances. Again he exceeded his xG of 18.22, highlighting his impressive finishing ability once again. Regression to the mean would usually occur, but after the player has exceeded his expected statistics for two seasons running, it could be suggested that Adams’ finishing ability is above that of the average player. Although, of course, luck and opposition goalkeeping performances do influence actual vs expected stats, it will be interesting to see how such statistics develop in the Premier League.

If we take a look at some other high performing young strikers (aged 23 and under), Tammy Abraham, Neal Maupay and Oliver McBurnie in the Championship last season, we can see how Adams compares in the graph below.

Che Adams 2018/19 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
A comparison of effective strikers, under the age of 23, in the Championship last season.

We can see that while Adams scored fewer goals in comparison to Abraham and Maupay, he, along with McBurnie had a significantly better goal to expected goals differential, meaning his contribution to Birmingham City’s goal tally was higher than expected, a stat Garry Monk would be pleased to see no doubt. Another consideration which further enhances Adams’ performances in comparison to the raw data, is that the compared players were all first-choice penalty takers for their clubs. Abraham scored five penalties, Maupay, three, and McBurnie, three, in comparison to Adams’ one scored. Removing penalty goals would mean the goal tallies would weigh up as Maupay on 22, Abraham on 21, Adams on 21 and McBurnie on 19.

In terms of creating, Adams offers the second-highest assist count of the four strikers, highlighting his service to teammates as well as taking chances himself, such stats may have benefitted from the two striker system that Birmingham often played. Adams’ expected assists were higher than his actual assist count, meaning, he should have ended the season with six assists if his teammates finished at an average rate.

An interesting point to add some context to this data is the finishing position of each team. Abraham’s Aston Villa finished 5th and got promoted via the playoffs, highlighting the quality of the players around the on-loan Chelsea striker. Maupay’s Brentford finished 11th and McBurnie’s recent Premier League team, Swansea, finished 10th, both in the top half of the Championship rankings. When we look at Adams’ Birmingham City, they finished 17th, albeit with a nine-point deduction.

Even removing that deduction would have meant a 14th place finish. Overall, this suggests that Adams’ quality of teammates was lower than the other three compared strikers, suggesting that the output he produced can be considered even more impressive than his fellow strikers based upon the support that was provided to him on an individual level. Adams reached similar goal tallies to the compared players, very similar when we exclude penalty goals, and exceeded his xG whilst playing for an inferior team in many aspects.

It is no surprise to find that all of these exciting prospects have been surrounded by transfer rumours, and completed transfers in Adams’ case, to higher division clubs.

Adams’ style of play

The striker is capable of utilising his athleticism, prior to finishing, to either run into space behind a defensive line, hold the ball up to either bring teammates into play or work a yard for a shot. Below are some diagrams highlighting instances of such play which led to a goal for the 22-years-old when playing for Birmingham in the 2018/19 season.

Che Adams 2018/19 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Goal example: As a ball is played over the top, Adams uses his pace to get in front of the defender.
Che Adams 2018/19 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Goal example: The ball bounces up, forcing Adams to play with his back to goal. He retains his strength to hold off the defender.
Che Adams 2018/19 - scout report - tactical analysis tactics
Goal example: Adams uses his skill to turn the defender, gain a yard and produces an effective finish into the far corner.

Utilising Adams in a press

Besides his goals and creativity up front, Adams is also likely to be the first defender as teams attempt to play out from defence, and can, therefore, utilise his physical attributes to effectively press the opposition. If we look at Birmingham City’s pressing style, we can see that Monk’s side chose to retain defensive structure rather than press as frequent or fast as other teams in the Championship. Birmingham were ranked 19th for passes per defensive action (PPDA) at 10.91, suggesting Adams’ athleticism was not utilised as a part of an intense pressing team.

Looking at how Adams may be asked to lead the line and press at Southampton, it also appears that Saints aren’t one of the quickest and most frequent pressers in the league, they are ranked 10th in the Premier League with a PPDA of 11.31 last season. This suggests that Adams defensive role upfront may not change dramatically. However, a contextual point to consider is that Hasenhüttl only joined Southampton in December 2018, so the PPDA stats are influenced by both his and Mark Hughes’ tactical philosophy.

The Austrian coach has had to adapt the team slowly to fit the style of play he wants, in addition, he inherited a squad and has not had a summer transfer window, until now, to make changes to the squad which may influence playing style. By bringing in a striker with effective finishing ability, as well as physical attributes, along with energetic winger Moussa Djenepo, Hasenhüttl’s team may be more suited to the intense pressing that RB Leipzig performed as they finished third and sixth-ranked in the Bundesliga for PPDA, with values of 8.33 and 9.44 in the 2016/17 and 2017/18 seasons, respectively.

Within that RB Leipzig team, Timo Werner was the energetic forward trusted with the role of pressing the opposition high and often, something which Hasenhüttl may ask of Adams at Southampton. Adams’ eye for goal and his physical attributes and developing game understanding certainly make him an ideal candidate for such a responsibility.

Where could Adams fit in at Southampton?

As stated throughout the scout report above, Adams’ youth, physicality and finishing ability could be useful to Southampton in numerous ways. However, to analyse Adams’ playing chances further, we need to look at Southampton’s existing front line options. Shane Long, whilst a useful player, has never been prolific with a record of 25 goals in 148 appearances for the Saints and is 32 years old. Charlie Austin has a reputation as a natural finisher, but only managed two goals in the Premier League last season and has been left out of the pre-season squad, therefore, a transfer is likely for him. Young striker, Sam Gallagher looks to be on his way to Blackburn Rovers, while Michael Obafemi is still unproven at Premier League level with only seven appearances.

Based on the information reviewed, it would appear that Adams will be favoured ahead of the alternative striking options. The main competitor for a starting spot looks to be Danny Ings. Ings has just been signed permanently, but, the former Liverpool and Burnley player struggled for fitness last season. Should Hasenhüttl look to play a one striker system, Adams may find himself starting ahead of Ings, should such injury issues persist. Alternatively, should the Austrian manager favour a two-striker approach, Adams has successfully demonstrated his chemistry with a forward partner in the form of Jutkiewicz in the 2018/19 season.

Overall, the signs suggest that Hasenhüttl prefers young players and is looking to reduce the average age of the squad. This can be seen in other areas of the team as Hasenhüttl has trusted 23-years-old goalkeeper, Angus Gunn, to start multiple matches, transferred out Cédric Soares and replaced him with Yann Valery and continued to play James Ward-Prowse, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Nathan Redmond in midfield, before adding Djenepo, Adams and Ings to the squad permanently.

Ings and Adams are likely to be the first choice strikers at Southampton this season, barring any more transfer additions to that area.

Conclusion

Overall, the tactical analysis of Che Adams suggests that the former non-league man has developed into an effective striker, capable of outperforming his expected metrics via his finishing ability and physical attributes. The former Birmingham City player is capable of leading the line on his own, or linking with a strike partner. At 22 years old, he still has many years to develop before he hits his peak. A move to the Premier League after playing so many games in the Football League at a young age could help his performances to rise further. Hasenhüttl has provided evidence of his preference of youth, this, along with the situation and performances of other centre forward options at Southampton, suggest Adams will be given opportunities to shine this season.


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Connor McGillick

Lecturer in Performance Analysis at UCFB Etihad
BSc Sport Science, MSc Performance Analysis. Current Lecturer in Performance Analysis at UCFB Etihad. Involved in applied and taught areas of scouting, recruitment, match analysis, performance data, set piece appraisal and tactical insights.
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