THE affable Marvelous Nakamba is so often the unsung hero who’s set to feature more prominently for Aston Villa this season.
With Douglas Luiz set for a break after his Olympic Games involvement, it’s Dean Smith who will assess the possibility of Zimbabwean Nakamba stepping up in his absence.
This idea that Nakamba will see increased minutes in the near future has been reinforced through pre-season.
The 27-year-old has started in both of the pre-season friendlies so far against Walsall and Stoke City which, again, suggests that the Villa coaching staff are keen to see how he has developed over the summer.
In a dull performance at the bet365 Stadium against Stoke on Saturday, Nakamba was one of the few positives to take from it as he looked increasingly confident on the ball as well as displaying his usual tenacity defensively.
It may only be pre-season, but it is promising to know that his confidence could snowball going into the season after games like this.
It is integral Nakamba does in fact carry this form into the beginning of the season knowing he could well be vital in midfield in the opening games against Watford, Newcastle United, Brentford and Chelsea.
Given Villa’s four-game winning start last season a positive start can set the tone for the entire campaign.
A proportion of the fanbase, though, are keen for Villa to invest in a new defensive midfielder with rumours circulating regarding Southampton’s Oriol Romeu and FC Metz’s Pape Matar Sarr.
It poses a question, then; should Villa invest in this position knowing there are questions regarding Nakamba’s ability on the ball?
Or should he be trusted to start the season as Smith’s first option?
The graphic above outlines why fans and even the coaching staff may be doubtful regarding Nakamba’s reliability in the Villa midfield.
There are no doubts regarding the Zimbabwe international’s defensive ability but, as the graphic shows, a lack of composure and ability on the ball could hinder Villa this season.
The statistics were taken from comparing him to his positional peers within the Premier League in the 2020/21 season and, amongst these players, he was in the top ten percent in; defensive pressures, successful pressures, blocks and stopping players dribbling past him – as well as ranking high in tackles and clearances.
Leeds United’s Kalvin Phillips is regularly praised for his defensive work rate and non-stop running.
He averages 23,6 pressures per game compared to Nakamba who averages 25. Nakamba’s work rate is uncommon and wouldn’t be out of place in Marco Bielsa’s side.
Running figures that compete with Leeds United are somewhat of an anomaly in Villa’s squad and should be valued highly.
An issue fans highlighted with Douglas Luiz was although he ran, he saw little to no results stemming from this.
Luiz averages 20 pressures per game for Villa, but with just five of these pressures leading to the opposition losing possession.
There were rarely results for this running.
He possesses the work rate but lacks the ability to apply a press effectively.
Nakamba operates on a much more efficient basis. With 7,5 successful pressures a game, he is in the top 10 percent of midfielders in the Premier League for forcing errors following his ability to apply a press.
This is one of the many weapons in his defensive arsenal that make him so problematic for attackers in this league.
His defensive IQ and ability to read opponents is clearly of a high degree. As well as the extraordinary level of pressures, he also averages 2,7 tackles, 2,5 blocks, two clearances and, for the season, was dribbled past less than once a game (0.72). He does everything Smith could want defensively, and more.
Another statistic that highlights his ability to read the game is the number of fouls he commits.
Nakamba averages just one foul a game, whereas Luiz averages more than double at 2,2.
The frequency of Luiz’s fouls may show his poor positioning and judgement of the game in this position. These fouls have also cost Villa in vital situations such as the penalties conceded against Manchester United.
Nakamba’s ability to involve himself defensively whilst also staying out of trouble in terms of fouls is extremely useful and he should be applauded for his judgement and timing.
His outstanding defensive ability should surely be enough for him to secure this starting position for Villa?
Sadly, this is not the case with the issues as to why are outlined here; Nakamba can be perfectly represented by his performance away against Tottenham Hotspur last season.
Although he was solid defensively recording three tackles with a 100 percent success rate, 26 pressures and two interceptions, he was caught on the ball for Spurs’ first goal after being robbed of possession by Steven Bergwijn.
This is where issues arise for Nakamba. When you ask him to operate as the modern-day holding midfielder, its Villa who want him to be a calming influence on the ball who is able to not only break up play, but progress the team forward.
As the aforementioned graphic outlines, his ability on the ball is a weakness of his and is the main issue holding him back from becoming a trusted starter for Villa.
He averages just 28 passes completed per game compared to Luiz at around 38. As the Spurs goal emphasises, he also struggles under pressure.
With just 6,7 passes under pressure being made a game. Compared to more comfortable players in midfield such as James Ward-Prowse at around 8,3 passes under pressure a game.
Being uncomfortable under pressure, especially in midfield could lead to costly error for Villa.
The incident at Spurs was a clear example of this. It is also well known that Nakamba is strongly left footed. He averages just 3,8 passes attempted with his right foot, which is in the bottom 4 percent of Premier League midfielders.
This lack of balance in midfield stagnates attacks for Villa.
Also, whilst Nakamba attempts to readjust himself to use his left foot, it only increases the likelihood that he may get caught in possession.
However, the biggest stat from the lot is this one; in the six games Nakamba played 80+ minutes last season, Villa recorded 5 wins and 1 draw, with four clean sheets to boot.
His display against Chelsea in the last game of the season was also exceptional, leading the team with 31 pressures as well as recording eight blocks. He was an undeniable force defensively.
Nakamba will be able to come in and produce for Villa.
However, whether he can develop his passing ability and secure this position for the foreseeable future remains to be seen.
It will be interesting to see now whether or not Villa invest in a defensive midfielder before the transfer window ends. — BirminghamLive