During the summer, Freddie Ladapo became Rotherham United’s club-record signing from Plymouth Argyle. It took the Millers £504,000 to reel in the English attacker, who had been signed by Plymouth on a free transfer a year earlier, from Devon to Yorkshire.
The Millers mark Ladapo’s sixteenth club in senior football for the 26-year-old, having already reached the heights the Premier League with Crystal Palace – whom he featured for twice in a two-year stint with the club. Following two forgettable loan outings from Palace and an even more forgettable free transfer move to Southend United, Ladapo found his way to Plymouth.
In a 2018/19 season which saw him bag 19 goals in all competitions, Ladapo began to finally bear the fruit of his previous signs of promise. The League One striker is strong and commanding, yet also quick and technically able – lending him perfectly to the complete forward or wide target man roles.
This scout report will highlight areas of Ladapo’s game, which allowed him to be a hit with the Plymouth faithful and also use analysis to show how Rotherham’s record signing fits into Paul Warne’s tactics.
Back to goal
A key usage of Ladapo’s strength while in possession of the ball enables him to play with his back to goal – which he has shown examples of with both Plymouth and Rotherham. When a striker plays with their back to goal, traditionally, the attacker will give a further passing option to advancing midfielders and then, when having received the ball, can bring those midfielders into the attack by giving them time to advance while the ball is held up.
Ladapo then uses his skillset to make life even more difficult for defenders due to his pace and power. Holding off the defender at his back Ladapo still remains able, on occasion, to quickly turn and fire a shot away while still holding off the defender. Both are effective attacking options which are difficult to predict.
Here, we can see Ladapo in the process of playing with his back to goal in a Carabao Cup clash against Shrewsbury Town. Having received the ball whilst moving away from the Shrewsbury goal, the Shrews defender – Aaron Pierre – has attempted to press Ladapo to force him further away from goal leaving an area of open space in Shrewsbury’s defence. The striker is then able to slide the ball across to the advancing Matthew Olosunde, who then in turn plays a through pass into the now open space for Richard Wood to score Rotherham’s fourth.
In this annotation, the 26-year-old shows an example of the other benefit to playing with your back to goal for Plymouth against Rochdale last season. Ladapo has received the ball in a much more advanced position than in the previous example and due to this, he is given more space by the defender – Joe Bunney – at his back. Bunney is anticipating Ladapo to slide the ball across to a teammate, but instead due to the extra time and space allowed Ladapo can agilely turn and fire in Plymouth’s opening goal of that game.
The gaps between defenders
There is no doubt about it – Freddie Ladapo is an intelligent footballer with the skillset to execute various attacking styles. Whilst a key area of his game is his strength and power, for a man of 6’2” he is incredibly agile and quick where required. Not only is his hold up play excellent, but he is also able to beat defenders for pace and often operates by finding the gaps in between defenders – either centrally or out wide. This is where Ladapo’s intelligence comes into play, knowing where to keep his back to goal and hold play up, or to spot his opportunity to break through the line of defence between defending players.
Here, during Rotherham’s 6-1 hammering of Bolton Wanderers, Ladapo can be seen finding that gap between two of the Trotters’ central defenders. The intelligence of his run in this instance is that the Bolton defender closest to the ball of the two is concentrating on the crosser, to anticipate the cross in and clear – as opposed to tracking Ladapo’s run. For the defender on the left-hand side of Ladapo, this then makes defending incredibly difficult as Ladapo can move quickly towards the near post through the two defenders and away from the centre-back to the left. While the Englishman’s effort is kept out, the rebound is then scored by Jake Hastie.
Rotherham’s 4-0 victory over Shrewsbury in the Carabao Cup again offers up an example of how Ladapo can find space in between two central defenders. This annotation shows Olosunde advancing with the ball down the right-hand side before he crosses the ball deep, far towards the back post.
In reaction to this, the defenders to Ladapo’s left are sucked out to the ball, while the defender to his right is unable to make a recovery run to mark Ladapo. Michael Smith then heads the ball back across goal into Ladapo’s path and he applies the finish for Rotherham’s third goal.
Here, it can again be seen how this has been carried forward from his season with Plymouth Argyle. In their 3-2 defeat to Nigel Clough’s Burton Albion at Home Park, Ladapo uses pace to his advantage by keeping an attacking body position and darting into the space between centre backs before they can turn. Antoni Sarcevic has spotted the opportunity and played a simple through pass into Ladapo’s path, which he runs onto and scores the Pilgrims’ second goal of that afternoon.
Ladapo’s role in Rotherham’s press
Any striker worth his salt in today’s game will almost certainly play a vital role in any team’s press, acting as the first line of defence. For Ladapo in Rotherham’s press – it is no different. Paul Warne tends to have his side initiate a press relatively high up the pitch, once the opposition begins to leave their third.
This is done via the front three, as Warne has deployed a 4-3-3 for the majority off this season. This front three will act as a triangle, while the centre attacker applies pressure to the ball, and the two supporting attackers are a little deeper and move outwards to block passing lanes and be in a position to press other defenders.
Here, the triangle structure of Rotherham’s front-line pressing can be seen. Carlton Morris, on the right, and Kyle Vassell, on the left, have tucked in behind Ladapo slightly from where they can then move outwards and block the defenders passing lines while Ladapo applies pressure to the ball. The wingers are also tucked in as, should Ladapo win back possession of the ball, they can provide support. In this instance, the press works immaculately as Ladapo forces the defender into a mistake and Rotherham regain possession of the ball. Morris then heads a through pass into the open space where Vassell can collect the ball and he scores their second goal.
Despite being positioned as a wide-right target man in Rotherham’s game against Bolton, Ladapo was still the main presser when the ball was on his side of the pitch – perhaps in part due to Warne’s admiration of his closing down abilities. Here, immediately after kick-off, the ball is with Bolton’s left side of defence, and therefore Ladapo implements the tactic of pressing for the ball while Morris cuts passing lanes to his left and Ben Wiles is in position to do the same to his right from the right-hand side of central midfield. In other instances, during the game, when the ball was with the opposite side of Bolton’s defence, Morris would apply pressure to the ball while Ladapo would give support to the right and Hastie to the left in the triangle structure.
Greater xG, lower goal tally
Last season Ladapo sparkled in what was a struggling Plymouth side which, ultimately, was relegated to League Two. During that season the striker bagged 19 goals in 47 appearances in all competitions for Argyle with an average expected goals per outing from across the season of 0.35. This season, so far, Ladapo has found the net on four occasions over 14 appearances in all competitions with an average xG per outing 0.49. Despite his xG this season ranking 0.14 higher than last, Ladapo is averaging 0.11 goals per game less, having averaged 0.4 last season and 0.29 this season.
In fact, the stats go further than that with the Englishman also registering a greater number of average shots and shots on target per game this season and only a minimally lower average number of touches in the box this season.
Ladapo’s heat map from this season may offer as an explanation for why the striker is having a tougher time in front of goal this season over last. While at Plymouth Ladapo was predominantly used as an out-and-out centre-forward, which led to his qualities being utilised most effectively. However, this season for Rotherham, as the heat map shows – Ladapo has been used right across the line of the front three.
The 26-year-old has, on separate occasions, been used centrally, on the left and also on the right – and in all three during different stages of the game against Tranmere Rovers in August. This may be causing Ladapo to be in unfamiliar shooting positions which is affecting his goal conversion rate.
While Ladapo has had a steady start to his life in Yorkshire, adapting to other ways of operating along the front line, he looks to have the raw attributes to become a big success with the Millers. Should his luck turn in finding the net more often, capitalising on his stronger xG this season, then he certainly won’t be far away from his 19 goals in all competitions tally come the end of the 2019/20 season and, perhaps, may even surpass it.
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