When Southampton sold Jaanik Vestergaard to Leicester in the summer transfer window, fairweather followers of the coastal club would have been apprehensive of who was to replace the great Dane.
Internally, however, Southampton were confident in the abilities of their young Ghanaian centre-back, Mohammed Salisu. Their trust has certainly been repaid, with Salisu consistently performing well for The Saints. So what is it that makes Salisu such an exciting prospect?
Before analysing the metrics behind the Ghanaian’s game, it is important to contextualise the rapid ascent that Salisu has made. Not long ago, he was playing barefoot on the dry, sandy pitches of Kumasi, in Southern Ghana. He made his break into European football in 2017, when he was picked up by Real Valladolid.
No more than 40 games passed between the time when Salisu was playing friendly matches in his homeland and his debut for the Real Valladolid first team. His former trainer, Fran Castano was not surprised by Salisu’s quick rise. “I was struck by the ability he had to improve. Every day he was a better player.”
That is something that Salisu has carried into the Premier League. Despite being hampered by injuries in his first season, he has developed into Southampton’s most reliable central defender, notching up the 2nd most minutes of any Southampton outfield player. Undoubtedly, he could not have been such a stalwart in the defence without performing well.
Defensively, Salisu is combative and highly proactive, often coming out of the snap up the space from an incoming attacker’s feet. This effusive style of defending has led to him making 1.78 tackles won per 90, which puts him in the 94th percentile for Premier League centre backs.
Salisu’s ability to quickly jump out of the defensive line is also useful for sweeping up loose balls, as such he has 13.01 ball recoveries, ranking in the top 6% of Premier League centre backs. Similarly, Salisu performs very well for pressurising his opponent, making 9.32 pressures per 90, putting him in the top 14% for Premier League centre backs.
His first couple of strides are typically explosive, which aid in his ability to get close to a man and tackle or recover a loose ball. This burst of place also comes in useful if Southampton are defending a high-line, as they can rely on Salisu to at least, keep up with most forwards.
This burst of pace can also come handy in carrying the ball up the pitch. Salisu may be a stocky, tall figure, but he still has a habit of progressing the ball up the pitch. So far this season, he has managed 3.7 progressive carries, which is in the 79th percentile for Premier League centre backs.
Salisu has also completed 0.41 dribbles per 90, ranking him in the 88th percentile for Premier League centre backs. These metrics are indicative of a defender who is comfortable in his ability with the ball at his feet.
Unfortunately, he can show signs of rustiness taking too long on the ball, or taking heavy touch. As such, he only has a 75% dribble success rate, which places him only in the 55th percentile for Premier League centre backs.
Ralph Hasenhuttl is certainly a coach that will encourage his defenders to be brave on the ball, allowing them to grow into the role. With more game time the 22 year-old should become ever more confident when carrying the ball out of defence.
In terms of passing the ball out of the back, Salisu is currently competent, if not flawless. He is left-footed, which gives Hasenhuttl the opportunity to play a centre-back on their preferred foot on each side, opening up more passing lanes.
Most of the time, Salisu is the one to begin Southampton’s attacks from deep. He has completed more passes this season than any other Southampton player, and has progressed the ball more than any of his outfield teammates.
Yet, Salisu only has a 79% pass completion rate, a worryingly low tally for a centre-back, indeed it places him in the 19th percentile of Premier League centre-backs. It’s an intriguing paradox. The Ghanaian completes the most passes out of Southampton’s central defenders this season, but has the 2nd lowest pass completion rate.
Perhaps this low figure can be put down to Salisu’s eagerness to progress the ball up the pitch as quickly as possible. After all, he manages 4.18 progressive passes per 90, in the top 10% of Premier League centre-backs. Salisu’s willingness to take risks in possession is refreshing to watch, but it can at times leave his team at risk of counterattacks.
The sale of Jannik Vestergaard has taken some of the assurance and experience from the heart of Southampton’s defence. Fortunately, in Salisu Southampton have one of the Premier League’s youngest and most exciting central defenders.
If the Ghanaian can refine his ball progression then he has the capacity to become one of the best left-footed centre-backs in the division. Hopefully, Salisu can continue on his rapid rise.
By: Joseph Odell / @IncogFootball
Featured Image: @GabFoligno – Robin Jones / Getty Images