From Giovanni Reyna to Christian Pulisic to Weston McKennie to Tyler Adams, the United States currently boasts an unprecedented amount of young talents playing in Europe’s top 5 leagues, and it appears as though the next American prospect could be on the horizon. At 17 years of age, Yunus Musah finds himself entrenched in a tug-of-war between four different countries, and for the time being, the Stars and Stripes are winning the battle.
Born in New York City to Ghanian parents, Musah’s family moved to Italy when he was still an infant, where they would spend the next ten years. Living in the northeastern town of Castelfranco Veneto, Musah began his career at A.S.D. Giorgione Calcio 2000, but he headed west in 2012 and joined Arsenal’s academy.
For the next seven years, Musah ascended the ranks of the famous Hale End academy, a recruitment pipeline that has produced the likes of Ashley Cole, Tony Adams, and Ray Parlour. Musah racked up impressive statistics at the youth level, registering 5 goals and 3 assists in the 2018/19 season, but with a lack of a pathway towards first-team action, he departed North London in the summer of 2019.
Photo: David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images
In what was described by Marca as a “stabbing” for then Arsenal boss Unai Emery, who reportedly held the teenager in high regard and was planning on using him in the first team, Musah left Arsenal and joined Valencia for a fee of €200,000. His time with Valencia’s U-19 squad didn’t last long; the senior team’s assistant manager, Óscar Álvarez, was so impressed by his performances at youth level that he convinced new manager Javi Gracia to promote him to the first team.
After an impressive preseason for Los Che, Musah made his senior team debut on September 13 in a 4-2 home win over Levante, and in doing so, he became the youngest foreign player to ever play for Valencia’s senior team as well as the first “Englishman” to play for Valencia. Seven weeks later, he became the youngest foreign player to score for Valencia after opening the scoring in a 2-2 draw against Getafe.
Whilst he is eligible to play for Ghana and Italy, Musah represented England’s youth sides from the U-15 level all the way to the U-19 level, before accepting a national team call-up from USMNT manager Gregg Berhalter on November 2. He started in both of their friendlies against Panama and Wales, although the United States Soccer Federation will have to wait until the 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers in March to permanently cap-tie him. On the other hand, England could persuade him to switch back with a call-up to the UEFA Nations League semifinals next summer.
Whilst Musah played as both a right interior midfielder and a left interior midfielder in his first two appearances for the Stars and Stripes, he has been mainly used on the right wing of Gracia’s 4-4-2 at Valencia, replacing Ferran Torres, who joined Manchester City on August 4 for a reported fee of €23 million.
Photo: twenty3sport / Wyscout
Weighing 75 kg and standing 1.78 cm (5’9″), Musah’s combination of speed and athleticism allows him to execute offensive transitions whilst also helping out to defend the counter, a fundamental characteristic for Gracia’s pragmatic style of play. Whilst he has played as both a box-to-box midfielder and a number 10 for the bulk of his youth career, his versatility and positional awareness has allowed him to adapt to a new role, with the 17-year-old often trading positions with Carlos Soler in the build-up.
Similarly to Blaise Matuidi’s role for France in the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Musah is a box-to-box wide midfielder, whose engine and stamina allows the left winger (typically Gonçalo Guedes) to enjoy more creative freedom in attack and enables Valencia to remain compact on and off the ball.
Press & Athleticism
Apart from his strength, speed and work-rate, one thing that sets Musah apart from his age mates is his tactical intelligence. In this example against Getafe, he identifies the pressing trigger and executes it to perfection; with Marc Cucurella playing a cutback pass to Erick Cabaco, Musah sprints from the near post in an attempt to block Cabaco’s cross.
The Uruguayan’s tepid cross is headed out of the box and into the path of Musah, who collects the loose ball at the halfway line, sprints down the right flank, and comfortably slots the ball past David Soria in goal. It was a goal that served as a microcosm of Musah’s abilities; the speed of mind, the change of pace, the proactive movement, and the composure in front of goal.
In the below example, Musah identifies the trigger and space to burst into once again – this time in the middle third. He presses towards Emiliano Rigoni and intercepts Iván Marcone’s loose pass, eliminating Elche’s opportunity of breaking the lines and preventing them from initiating a counter on the left flank, before finding Kevin Gameiro in an attacking position.
Dynamism & Off the Ball Movement
Two things Musah offers in ample degree are dynamism and off-the-ball movement. Through his versatility comes unpredictable movements and the ability to create various passing angles, no matter where he plays.
Whilst Musah started on the left side of midfield against Panama, he played as a right-sided midfielder against Ryan Giggs’s Wales side at the Liberty Stadium. The teenager got off to a red-hot start to life in the Stars and Stripes, outpacing Welsh winger Tom Lawrence and making the underlapping run to receive a pass from Sergiño Dest, but his cross was blocked by James Lawrence.
In the example below, Musah collects the ball in the defensive third off of a pass from Matt Miazga. He drives forward, once again using his swift speed, and dribbles past Wales’ attacking duo Harry Wilson & Kieffer Moore. His ability to resist the press and spread the passage of play from the right-hand side of the pitch to the left-hand side, where Antonee Robinson collects the ball, is a testament to his dynamic movement and ball-carrying.
In another example vs. Elche, Musah quickly moves down the pitch to collect the ball from central midfielder Carlos Soler. He checks behind him and identifies a space to attack after receiving the ball, before making a quick one-two combination play with Gameiro and finding Thierry Correia wide open in space on the right flank.
Room for Improvement
Whilst Musah’s physicality, off-the-ball movement and versatility are off the charts for a 17-year-old, there are certain things that he must improve upon if he is to take the next step in his development, namely: concentration, decision-making and passing.
In the above example, Musah does everything right up until the attempted pass. He elegantly dribbles past Wales forward Kieffer Moore, before attempting an under-hit pass to the US’s Giovanni Reyna, which was intercepted by Wales winger James Lawrence, rather than making a simple pass to Dest on the right side. Dest had ample space available on the right flank and could’ve zoomed and whipped in a cross into the box.
When Musah has ample passing options, he overthinks most scenarios and takes far too long to make a decision with the ball. As evidenced by his passing accuracy rate of 75%, Musah struggles to release the ball in a timely manner and find a teammate in a timely fashion, and his team’s attacking play suffers as a result.
Two years after leaving Arsenal’s academy, Yunus Musah has carved out a starting spot under Valencia manager Javi Gracia at 17 years old. With 614 minutes, he has played the most minutes out of any teenager in La Liga, surpassing the likes of Ansu Fati, Pedri, and Kang-In Lee. If he keeps improving at this rate, the United States could have another rising star in their ranks.
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Eric Alonso – Getty Images