Frank Lampard’s Chelsea have stolen the show in the EPL, spreading their infectious attacking breed of football. Several stars have benefitted and are rising out as stars – Christian Pulisic and Fikayo Tomori being some in particular.
Another player is starting to make his name out there, albeit quietly. Displacing Marcos Alonso as the first-choice left-back is Emerson Palmieri, often referred to as “Emerson”.
Last year Maurizio Sarri handed Emerson a total of ten Premier League starts however this year looks to be the year of the Italian as Lampard has started the left-back in seven league games, consistently choosing Italian against better teams.
In this tactical analysis, we take a look at Emerson and his specific movements and exactly what tactics are involved in his style of play. Our scout report will report on Palmieri’s attacking, defensive, and buildup play.
Emerson’s attacking flair shines through
The modern full-back role is changing. With full-backs such as Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold having changed the role for good, more teams are requiring their full-backs to provide an additional factor that edges them to victory.
This attacking factor does not simply translate into hard and fast goals and assists. An analysis is a complex endeavour that requires looking deeper than even what surface-level statistics – in this case hard and fast goals and assists – show. This applies especially to the full-back role where their primary impact comes through their indirect interactions with team-play.
On the surface, Emerson seems to offer nothing compared to Alonso, his direct rival for the full-back position. Just last year, Alonso recorded two goals and four assists compared to Emerson’s zero attacking contributions in the entire PL season.
However, upon further inspection, it clears out that Emerson provides teams with much more attacking contributions than his fellow left-back in Chelsea.
One of the modern full-back requirements is the ability to start attacks down the wings with minimal team support. With teams playing expansive football, having full-backs who cannot catalyze attacking actions puts the team at liability as the team’s attack is forced to repeatedly develop on the opposite side or through a certain action.
Emerson fulfils that exact full-back requirement. For Chelsea and Italy, Emerson is able to start attacking plays on the wing with often one nearby midfielder or a winger.
This not only makes Emerson a versatile player but also adds attacking value to the team as it opens up new avenues for the team to prove the defence.
The most common example of this characteristic is Emerson’s creative use of his team-mates. The basic concept is for Emerson to engage in intricate play with his team-mates and then to go wide and fade out of the focus of the action. From here, his hopes are that one of his team-mates spots the space he is and passes to him.
Emerson employs this concept quite often with nearby midfielders and wingers, often initiating one-twos on the wing areas. The key here for Emerson is to situate himself on the wing areas. This allows his attacking patterns to be more effective as the play inwards draws in the opposition formation which opens up space on the wing area for Emerson to exploit.
In this picture, we see Emerson putting his body orientation forward to the forwards Tammy Abraham and Christian Pulisic. This causes the nearby defender to run laterally in attempts to stop this potential pass.
Emerson waits for the arrival of his teammate Mateo Kovacic and passes backwards. This causes the running player to quickly stop his momentum, shown in red, which gives Kovacic just enough time to open a passing lane, shown in blue, to teammate Pulisic.
Pulisic has received the ball and is in a 3v1 scenario. Using his technical skills, he is able to bypass them. However, the most important concept here is Emerson’s run. Having been actively engaged in the attacking movements, he is now faded to the wings and into the peripheral.
This takes Emerson off of the opposition’s minds allowing him to slip into high positions that the opposition doesn’t want.
Here is the culmination of Emerson’s attacking move. Chelsea, due to his help, have been able to move the ball upwards. More importantly, they will able to attack the wing even more as Abraham looks to pass to Emerson into space ahead.
With space ahead, Emerson will get enough time to look for potential runners in the final third and put in a low cross or cutback. The options there are endless which highlights the extra attacking dimension Emerson brings.
Another requirement for modern full-backs is to be comfortable in attacking spaces. Emerson has a versatile first touch, being able to control aerial balls with all areas of the foot. In addition to having excellent control, Emerson is very comfortable in tight spaces.
As such, he is able to maintain attacking positions under intense pressure and is able to attack in tight spaces. This press-resistant ability allows him to attract pressure and cooly release it to the other side.
Here Emerson is surrounded by three opposition players, all three of them pressing through the main angles: forwards, backwards, and centre. Moreover, with the ball being in the air, Emerson has to be careful with how he touches the ball.
We can see in this second picture that the pressure from the players has gotten much more compact. Moreover, the Chelsea full-back can’t pass to his teammates as the proximity of the opposition players mean that the passing options are blocked.
However, with a skilful chest and knee combination, Emerson bypasses the three-man press and creates space for his teammate Jorginho in the halfspace. Now, Jorginho has three options for attacking, all three which allow Italy to progress forward and keep the attacking impetus on.
In addition, to using these characteristics to attack indirectly, Emerson also uses his extremely technical profile to dribble. By far, dribbling is one of Emerson’s strengths. Being relatively lightweight, Emerson is very comfortable in dribbling in tight places and finding his way out.
Emerson, as a full-back, dribbles both inwards and outwards – both to great effect. His dribbles inwards attract the formation inwards. This frees up the winger or an attacker to make a move to the wing space. This inversion of positions introduces variability in a team’s attacking structure making Emerson that much more dangerous.
Here we see Emerson start his dribbling from a wide position.
In this picture, he has dribbled inwards and a variety of things have happened. First of all, Mason Mount on the far left now has ample space on the wings meaning that if Emerson were to pass back to a central midfielder, Chelsea would automatically find one of their attackers on the wings.
Moreover, the two players’ movements are disrupted. The man-marking Emerson has had to traverse laterally quickly while a second player comes out to press Emerson. This creates space, shown in orange, between the midfield and the defensive lines.
We see that Pulisic can easily occupy this space and Emerson will be able to pass to him allowing Chelsea to break the lines and penetrate an opponent’s tight defensive structure.
The more dangerous component of Emerson’s dribbling characteristics are his runs on the touchline. Often starting his dribbles from the touchline, Emerson is able to make dribbles on the touchline, often carrying the ball into the final third.
There are various tactical benefits to this movement. First of all, since Emerson is dribbling very wide, he is able to disrupt the positioning of the full-backs and the wide midfielders much more.
Since these positions are being disrupted to a greater degree, Emerson can open up space in the defence much easily. This, in turn, allows his teammates to find space in the dangerous positions near the box, allowing the team to have a much better attack.
Here we see Emerson finding the ball on the touchline. About four players surround the Chelsea full-back, with two of them blocking passing lanes to the nearby Chelsea teammates. In normal scenarios, a full-back might try to pass back and play it safe. However, Emerson sees this opportunity to start an attack and he does this through his dribbling.
Here we see the end result. Emerson has gotten past three of the four players near him and is in a 1v1 situation. Knowing his technical skills, Emerson will be able to get past the player. In a simple move, Emerson has progressed Chelsea forwards single-handedly and has created a play where some chances may be produced.
Aside from starting attacks by one’s own effort and having attacking characteristics, a modern full-back also needs to have an intelligent positioning.
Intelligent positioning allows a player to make certain decisions and actions much easier to act out. Emerson adheres by this policy through his final action positioning. The Italian’s positioning can be described as being productive. What this means is that Emerson is able to yield the most value out of his positions in the attacking play.
From his seven games this season, Emerson averages 0.6 shots in the penalty area out of his one shot per game. This indicates that near the final third, Emerson likes to penetrate inwards to involve himself in the penalty box.
Moreover, Emerson averages 90% of his shots from open play showcasing just how productive the full-back can be, converting small pockets of space into as many shots as possible. 60% of his shots are on target, per game, showcasing how he has the ability to test the goalkeeper.
Emerson’s defensive duties fall short from time to time
One of the key qualities for full-backs to switch their attacking instincts into a defensive mindset in a quick switch. Some of the most successful full-backs such as Marcelo show this trait.
Emerson, to some degree, shows this trait in his playing abilities. One of his strengths in defending has to be his early anticipation on the flanks. Moulded as an attacking full-back, his natural instincts are always to look for certain poorly hit passes as to counterattack.
The Italian is well versed in reading the balls on the flank and intercepting efficiently. In his own team, Emerson ranks in fifth in interceptions – his ranking is lowered through the presence of world-class players such as N’golo Kante and Jorginho (both who have higher activities in this statistic on average).
Recording 1.7 interceptions, Emerson holds his own against accomplished full-backs such as Serge Aurier (1.9), Aaron-Wan Bissaka (1.9), Trent Alexander-Arnold (1.5), and Andy Robertson(1.5).
Not only does the Italian do an excellent job at interceptions and blocking passing lanes, but he also gets into position really well. He is blessed with pace which allows him to quickly run and keep the defensive line narrow and well-organized.
Here Mount defends against the winger on the touchline. Emerson knows, through his body positioning, that the winger is going to pass centrally. One can see here as Emerson widens his stance to get the necessary acceleration to intercept the pass.
In the end, Emerson has been able to get the ball. Now Chelsea have regained possession and can build out from the back to further hurt Crystal Palace. A simple pass to Kante allows the home team to progress the ball centrally and attack directly from an interception.
Aside from defending positionally, the full-back can also defend in the traditional way: tackling and booting the ball. Out of his 2.9 tackles attempted per 90 minutes, the Italian has achieved a 100% success rate. While he doesn’t make many tackles, as seen by the likes of Wan-Bissaka (6.9) and Ricardo Pereira (6.2), Emerson ensures that his tackles almost always get finished.
However, he is not strong in all fields and one deficiency in his weakness is his 1v1 defending. While the former Roma full-back is blessed with pace, his discipline in staying compact and narrow against wingers and skilful midfielders is not always present.
As such, Emerson is easily faked out and wingers are able to bypass a defensive player and infiltrate the final third of the box where numerically inferior situations may arise for Emerson’s team. This is as a normal attacking full-back, Emerson often focuses on trying to create counter-attacking one too many times.
This opens space on the other side which the attacker is able to exploit resulting in a dangerous situation for the home team.
In this picture, we see his deficiencies. Against more skilful forwards, Emerson comes charging forth and gets easily beat in a 1v1. This has left a gap on the left-hand side of Chelsea which Crystal Palace look to exploit.
The striker can make a curved run when he receives the ball and exploits the space while also leaving another defender in the dust. Another option for Palace is to pass the ball back and then play it forward, allowing them to exploit Chelsea’s positions on the left-hand side.
In any way, Emerson’s eagerness has resulted in a potentially harming situation that might turn worse.
These flaws are seen much more in tight workings where play is being forced in a tight place. His attacking instincts combined with his tendency to want to intercept mean that from time to time, Emerson forgets his defensive responsibilities which opens up space.
In these tight spaces, where formations are being skewed to fit the complex situation, opening up space can allow the opposition just enough to time to spray a ball to the other side, opening up the home team on their other flank.
Unlike some other defenders, Emerson is not as strong in the physical department meaning that strong forwards are able to brush him from his pressing. Emerson complements this deficiency through his tactical defending but, as we’ve seen, lapses of concentration can open up chances for the opposition team.
Emerson’s heavy involvement in buildup and his effects
Nowadays with every big team, the buildup has become the “must-have”. As in generations before where one common tactical aspect defined a plethora of teams, the concept of buildup is the natural step in this rite of passage.
The essence of buildup is simple. Use short passes in your own half to attract the opponent so you can – often stylistically – get out of their pressure and create a counterattacking scenario. In the end, every successful buildup creates a counterattack for a counterattack is tactically an advantageous situation.
The opposition team’s balance is off-centred while your players – who already know what to do – can attack with lethal venom and create big chances.
A common trend to accomplish this buildup pattern has been the use of a central defensive midfielder. This midfielder drops between centre-backs to allow the home team to break the opposition’s pressure. Conversely, this midfielder can also break these lines of pressure and delicately spray balls to the running wingers. Common players as such, now, include Jorginho, Rodri, and Busquets.
However as teams begin to man-mark this midfielder, teams are having to look for other options to achieve the same result. A solution has been using the full-back to a greater frequency than before.
Emerson personifies this “build-up full-back” for Chelsea and Italy. So what does he have that makes him a “build-up full-back”?
As we’ve seen in the attacking profile of Emerson, he has a great technical skillset. His comfort in dribbling and going through tight spaces tells us that the former Roma full-back is well-versed in possession-based football.
A corollary of that skillset is the skill of playing one-touch football and body positioning. While “macro” tactics show how a team can beat pressure, “micro” tactics teach us that it is just as accomplishable to do with individuals.
Emerson often recognizes to play progressive places and as such will open his body towards the centre. This allows him to span a big enough arc to face one to two attackers at a much better angle. Having enlarged the angle, he can play passes breaking these “mini” lines of pressure.
At first thought, this action might seem normal of an attacking full-back. However, this is clearly not the case as his fellow teammates Alonso and Cesar Azpilicueta do not execute this movement to the same degree – either facing their own goal or veering their body too much to the touchlines which mean that their passes are blocked.
Apart from participating in buildup technically, Emerson also participates in the game positionally. Various times he will drop to the level of the two centre-backs (as Chelsea and Italy mainly play in a four at the back) to create a three-man buildup line.
This positioning allows a waterfall of effects to happen. The first effect is that it opens up the wing more to him. This is important because as a “buildup full-back” he likes to play that are akin to those played by defensive midfielders.
In this picture, the two defensive midfielders, Kovacic and Jorginho, are being man-marked closely. With a striker pressing the centre-backs, it is not an ideal situation for Chelsea to build up with.
Emerson drops back to create a three-man backline. This creates a 3v1 scenario allowing the home team to easily bypass a single player’s pressing. Little actions like these allow the buildup of teams to be better as Emerson often as a neutralizer – making buildup scenarios safer and more efficient.
His dropping in deep attracts some midfielders to go further. From here, Emerson, due to his vantage point, can play a longball that hugs the touchlines. This type of longball is akin to what his central defensive midfielder Jorginho plays. As such this type of variation in buildup not only makes him much more versatile but also opens another lane for his teammates to attack through
One of the best left-backs in the world right now is undoubtedly Andy Robertson. His gung-ho and attacking style has many coaches desiring their full-backs to stimulate that same style.
When comparing Emerson and Robertson, one finds they are much closer in playing styles than one would initially think. Both full-backs play in a possession-based system in the Premier League and are both used in the buildup.
So how close are they in this sense?
In this case, there are two statistics that will help us: xGBuildup90 and xGChain90. xGChain90 looks at all the passing that leads to a shot and then gives credit to each player involved with the xG of that shot. xGBuildup90 looks at “pre-assists” as in how much a player was involved in a buildup of a play.
As we can see in this graphic, Emerson outperforms Robertson in these advanced buildup statistics showing just how good Emerson can get in a buildup – going toe to toe against some of the best full-backs right now.
While he is not world-class, Emerson has established himself as an above-average full-back that has consistently been the cog of Chelsea and, recently, Italy.
While he doesn’t make stunning goals or compilation worthy skills, Emerson is a player who does the basics extremely well and supports his team well. Moreover, his underlying statistics indicate that Chelsea and Italy have a solid team player that may have his best yet to show.
He isn’t the world’s best left-back as he lacks in goal and assists contributions but he is a consistent full-back that any team wants as a starter and/or substitute.
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