This scout report is about how Serie A, this season, has been more than just about Juventus. Lazio and Inter Milan have put together a real challenge for the title. Then we have a fairy-tale season for Atalanta, who’ve defied odds in both the Serie A and the Champions League. Among all of this, there is another team that has had a very impressive season – Hellas Verona. They’re 8th in the league table, and with proficient tactics, have already accumulated more points thus far (35) than their previous recent campaign totals – season 17-18 (25) and season 15-16 (28). This is a tactical analysis of how a certain Marash Kumbulla has been crucial in their outstanding campaign.
Marash Kumbulla is one of Verona‘s first-choice central defenders. Kumbulla has come through the ranks at Verona and now plays at the heart of their defence. He made his international debut for Albania in a 0-4 win against Moldova in the EURO 2020 qualifiers. Being one of the most sought after young centre-backs in the league, this tactical analysis looks at why he is rated as highly as he is.
This scout report is an analysis of the 1546 minutes he has played this season. The analysis will then explore how his contribution has been critical in Verona’s incredible season thus far.
Role in the System
Ivan Jurić prefers to play with three at the back, setting up the team tactics in his favoured 3-4-1-2. The wing-backs double up at the back, when off the ball; and play as wingers when in possession. The back three seldom move forward and hold a tight line. Below is an image of the starting line-up against Udinese. As mentioned earlier, in this setup tactic, Kumbulla plays as left centre-back of a back three.
Kumbulla, per Jurić’s tactics, plays as on the left of a back three, often holding the line along with the fellow centre-backs. A natural on the left, he runs up the left flank venturing into the opposition third adding an extra man to the build-up play. The below map indicates the positions he’s taken up at different times, in course of the season.
He has also been played in the centre of the back three. Although in this case, he does happen to drift to both flanks, the below image still shows that he favours the left of the park.
A centre-back in the role of a stopper, he is an aggressive defender who loves to play on the front-foot and enjoys getting involved into duels. He also stands at 1.9m tall which makes him an indirect set-piece threat, which did get him his debut senior goal this season.
Absolutely loves to defend
While ability can be developed over time, the willingness to do so must be inherent. It holds true even in the case of Marash Kumbulla. The below analysis indicates how much the man loves to defend. For this analysis, we take into consideration the involvement score.
Involvement score = defensive duels + aerial duels + loose ball duels + sliding tackles [all per 90 minutes]
Kumbulla has played fewer minutes compared to the other players on the list, and therefore it is important to first normalise all the data to per 90 minutes and then analyse it. Let’s look at the numbers for Kumbulla, and compare them to some other highly regarded young centre-backs in the league – Matthijs de Ligt, Alessandro Bastoni and Luiz Felipe.
The numbers bring out the fact that not only is Kumbulla more involved in duels than all the above defenders, but is also almost the most effective as well. He fares better than De Ligt who is believed to be one of the finest young centre-backs in the world today. If we look at each attribute individually, we notice that Kumbulla is involved in twice as many defensive duels per 90 minutes as De Ligt. While De Ligt is involved in 5.3 defensive duels per 90, Kumbulla is involved in 11.58 per 90. And to top it, he wins 70% of those duels, matching De Ligt in terms of the number of defensive duels won per 90. Comparing Kumbulla’s defensive duels to both Bastoni (6.22) & Felipe (5.83) shows the same result.
Stays on the foot
If it were programmable, you could argue that Kumbulla has his stay on foot instruction set at 20/20, and sliding tackle set a 1/20. In one of the more clear observations you can make, it is easy to note that Kumbulla doesn’t quite enjoy slide tackles much. Below is a table which states the statistics for sliding tackles.
It has been widely believed that players who’re taller tend to slide less often. But when you compare Kumbulla (1.9m) to De Ligt (1.89m), Bastoni (1.9m) and Felipe (1.87m) who’re of near equal height, you realise it is not true in all cases. Kumbulla has attempted just two sliding tackles all season, De Ligt has attempted 14, Felipe has 17 and Bastoni has 11. While the players mentioned earlier have a win percentage of at least 50%, Kumbulla has lost both the tackles he did attempt. So what is it that makes him so effective? Sure, he wins balls with his upper body strength and his superior duels success rate. But what’s the x-factor that is making him so sought after in Europe’s top 5 leagues?
The special move
Before we look into the special move, we take a look at his superior anticipatory skills. It is his ability to anticipate a pass that has caught the eye. And not just anticipate but his ability to anticipate the pass and dispossess the receiver of the ball even before the ball has reached his feet. Once he has dispossessed the receiver, and taken control of the ball, he looks to play a quick ball to kick-start a counter-attack. It is his ability to read a pass and break it down before it materialises, that has caught attention. In today’s game when the focus is on ball-playing defenders, Kumbulla is a perfect partner for a ball-playing defender at the back. He holds the line when out of possession and plays as a stopper when the ball nears the box. Below are some images of Kumbulla doing what he does best.
In the below images (Figure 1 & Figure 2), from the game, Lazio vs Verona is an instance of how Kumbulla holds the line along with the other defenders and then breaks away to fulfil his stopper duties.
Below is another instance from the same game. Kumbulla anticipates a pass, not to the first receiver but the second receiver, and breaks up the play to start an attack of his own.
And some more of the same from the game Milan vs Verona.
As if this weren’t good enough, he is known for his incredible ability to shadow the intended receiver of the ball from the back, and poke his foot in before it reaches the player’s feet. That’s his special move. He has successfully gotten the ball from the opposition on multiple occasions with this ability.
Below is an instance of the same from Udinese vs Verona.
And this is not by any means, the only instance of this. He has repeatedly taken balls away from the opposition with this form of tackle. Below is an instance from the game Verona vs Genoa.
Game after game, the Albanian has showed that he makes up for his lack of sliding tackles with incredible on-foot tackles and ability to read the passes. Another instance of this can be seen below from the game Verona vs Sassuolo.
Arguably, he is one of the league’s better defenders on foot, and has some of the best anticipatory skills. There are a number of instances where his skills have been on display and crucial to Verona. The above snippets indicate the immense quality the young defender possess, and why he is so highly rated.
Importance to Verona
The analysis shows that Verona have conceded just 26 goals in the 25 games they have played this season, that’s 1.04 per game. To put this incredible achievement into context, they’re only behind Lazio (23), Inter Milan (24) and Juventus (24). While this in itself looks like an outstanding feat for the newly promoted club, there’s more depth to this stat. Marash Kumbulla has played 17 games for Verona this season in the Serie A. He also played nine minutes of the 18th game but since it had little impact on the result and the analysis, we consider the 17 games only. In the games Kumbulla played for Verona in the league, they conceded 14 goals in 17 games, that’s 0.82 per game. In the remaining 8 games that Kumbulla didn’t play for them, they conceded 12 goals, that’s 1.5 goals a game. That’s nearly twice as many conceded without Kumbulla on the pitch.
In the 17 games that Kumbulla has played for them, they’ve totalled 27 points – i.e. 1.59 points per game. Their record for the games reads as 7W-6D-4L. A stark contrast to the eight games when Kumbulla has not played – 2W-2D-4L. In the eight games, they average just about 1.0 point per game.
With Kumbulla, Verona have allowed 67 shots on target in 17 games, that’s 3.95 per game. And without Kumbulla, they’ve allowed 48 shots on target in 8 games, that’s 6.0 per game. Needless to say, the number of interceptions per 90, and the clearances per 90 also dipped significantly in the absence of Kumbulla. It would be safe to say that Kumbulla has been a vital cog in the outstanding season Verona are having.
The scout report highlights just how good Kumbulla has been this season, not just for Verona but even for himself. The analysis brings out his sharp anticipatory skills, and also his somewhat unorthodox style of tackle. Add to this his upper body strength, swift movement and above-average heading capabilities, he possesses all the qualities that a rising young centre-back is expected to have (minus the slide tackles, yes). Given that he is only 20 years of age, he seems like a player to be closely followed. It is no surprise that a host of clubs are already lining up to make Kumbulla a part of their squads (read: Inter Milan, Everton et al). Italy, and the Serie A, of course, do have a repute of producing some of the best centre-backs in the world after all. One could say that the Albanian just got added on to the list this season.