SOCCER

What next for Chelsea’s Broja – and why are so many clubs interested?

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Chelsea leave tomorrow for Los Angeles on their pre-season tour and striker Armando Broja still doesn’t know if he’ll be on the plane or going in a different direction.

The 20-year-old is wanted by many clubs, including Southampton, West Ham and Newcastle. They are all ready to splash big bucks on the striker, but no one is quite sure what Chelsea plan to do with him.

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It is a difficult situation for both parties. Chelsea and their head coach Thomas Tuchel are admirers of Broja, who has been at the club since joining their academy at Under-9 level.

Broja has a deep affection for Chelsea, but after playing regularly on loan for Southampton last season, he wants to continue to develop by getting consistent playing time. This is inevitably going to be much harder to achieve in a team as talented as Chelsea, even with the departure of Romelu Lukaku.

Discussions between representatives of Broja and Chelsea co-owner Todd Boehly are ongoing. A first meeting took place last week and another took place on Wednesday.

The plan in Broja’s camp was for his future to be decided before the team leaves for the United States this weekend, but time is running out. Further discussions are expected over the next 24 hours.

Chelsea continue to stress how much they love the Albania international and want to keep him. It’s the same message they send to 19-year-old defender Levi Colwill, who is in a similar situation.

Due to his absence on international duty last month, Broja was given an extended leave. Tuchel always wanted to see him back in pre-season before deciding if he was going to be a big part of his plans in 2022-23 and the idea was that this assessment would be done while they were across the Atlantic.

But with clubs making clear their intention to sign Broja, he gets the message loud and clear that their respective managers don’t need convincing and can offer plenty of departures already.

Broja trained under Tuchel last year and made 45 appearances for Southampton and Albania. There is a lot of material for the German to decide.

Broja still has four years left on his contract, giving Chelsea the option of sending him out on loan again. But it’s understood the striker has no interest in another short-term contract elsewhere – he also spent 2020-21 at Vitesse Arnhem.

Talking about Chelsea’s interest in Cristiano Ronaldo does little to help their cause persuade him to stay. This only adds to the concern that it is considered a fallback option.

There’s a chance nothing will be resolved before the trip to LA, which means Broja will be able to show what he can do at camp. But if he ends up going on a trip with his Chelsea teammates, no one should read too much into it. He could still end up leaving before the window closes on September 1.


Why is there so much interest in Broja?

While that may be a byproduct of the low amount of hard-core attackers on the market, few have such a varied and inherently aggressive profile as the 20-year-old, especially as a young and inexperienced player. It’s rare for forwards with similar characteristics to be so adept at working with their backs to goal, while showing enthusiasm for directing the channels.

Broja’s season was found to reflect Southampton’s messy shape and was prone to feast or famine periods. In the team’s standout performances – the 3-2 win at Tottenham, for example – Broja was at his best, sparkling with commotion and goalscoring. But the team’s worst days – seeing the 3-0 loss to Brentford – coincided with Broja’s personal nadirs.

Broja’s last league goal came in February, in that win over Tottenham, before suffering a barren 13-game streak to end his season-long loan.

Using smarterscout, which gives players a range of ratings from zero to 99 relative to how often a player performs a given stylistic action or how effective it is compared to others playing in their place, we can get a general overview of Broja’s natural attributes.

The pizza chart, powered by data from smarterscout, highlights Broja’s candor with the ball. Such verticality appealed to Ralph Hasenhuttl, whose fundamentals center on moving the ball from A to B. Broja excels in ball carrying and dribbling volume (84/99), making him an attractive proposition. Broja’s lively style is conducive to generating speed over short distances.


Broja was 19 at the start of the season and turned 20 in September

In Albania’s Nations League game last month, Broja falls in the defensive half to receive as Israel are caught in transition (below). This gives the front space to turn and drive with the ball. Broja’s first instinct, almost invariably, is to dribble past defenders.

This prevents Israel’s back line from preparing or allowing its midfielders to recover, despite being overloaded six-to-two. Instead, Broja opts to attack the space between their two centre-backs. In five seconds, Israel went from looking reasonably comfortable to having one of their centre-backs forced into a tactical foul.

We can also tell more about a player’s style by looking at percentiles – a simple way to show how they rank against their positional peers. For example, a player with an overall impact in the 70th percentile means that they have an overall impact greater than 70% of the players in the data set. Last season, Broja completed 1.41 dribbles per 90 minutes, ranking him in the 81st percentile.

A similar scenario materialized in Southampton’s defeat to Liverpool in November. Broja’s natural incision means he attacks the space in front of him, preventing the redshirts from getting into cover position.

This creates a two-on-two and isolates Fabinho, which Broja just seems to get through.

Broja is both everything you do and don’t expect from a 20-year-old striker with a full Premier League campaign under his belt. Some strengths have become weaknesses, perhaps crippled by Southampton’s general inconsistencies. His ball carrying abilities, for example, do not correlate with his passing progress (44/99), ranking low in the 8th percentile. An expected assist metric of just 0.06 suggests there is substantial room for improvement in its build game.

However, the initial flaws also turned into strengths, with Broja proving he could absorb new tactical lessons. In September, his off-the-ball work was reprimanded by Hasenhuttl following his side’s Carabao Cup victory at Sheffield United. “He’s not invested enough in the game, and then it’s hard to find him in a game like this,” said the Austrian. “This is what he has to learn. The quality was there, but you also have to work a lot more to get to the right positions. He’s a young player with potential, but there’s still a lot to learn.

But fast forward a month and Broja’s brutality has honed. Quickly he became Southampton’s most effective striker and a cornerstone of Hasenhuttl returning to a more coordinated team press, leading to an increase in results. It wasn’t a case of Broja’s application or physical toughness; instead, it was his understanding of working in a pressing-based system.

Every 90 minutes, Broja squeezed 17.13 and, as his pizza chart highlights, delivered a distinct intensity in his press. His high rating for disrupting opposition moves (98 out of 99) shows that he is very active in tackles, fouls, blocks and possession clearances.

His 0.59 interceptions per game puts him in the top 18% of strikers in Europe’s top five leagues. This metric, in particular, refuted Hasenhuttl’s initial reservations.

Towards the end of the campaign, when Southampton’s structural failings began to seep into individual performances, old habits resurfaced. When the team sat in a medium to low defensive block, Broja was slow to get back into shape. This caused central defense problems and was noted by the coaches as a concern, the captain James Ward-Prowse was often seen rallying the striker into a better position to intercept passes.

It sparked another outburst of disapproval from Hasenhuttl, insisting Broja was “not what he was” after a 2-1 home loss to Crystal Palace in April.

Referring again to smarterscout data, Broja is not a #9 archetype, despite his obvious physical advantages. It has minimal presence in central areas and is instead more prone to stray. This is evidenced by his receptions in the opposing box (38/99) and his pass card, mainly in the half-spaces on either side.

This may have directly hurt his goalscoring tally last season, having narrowly exceeded his xG of 5.89 with a tally of six league goals. Moreover, his the shot volume (36) and xG of the shot creation (16) also leaves something to be desired.

As a mitigation, a better calibrated attack system around it – especially one that has a bigger grip in games – would likely see those numbers go up.

Broja’s propensity to go back and forth and back and forth provides a pressure valve when his teammates are struggling to make progress down the pitch. In the example below against Burnley, Broja is isolated two-on-one after a long pass into the right channel. No red jersey is in sight and the Albanian has to bide his time.

But left-back Charlie Taylor folds into a cover position, opening up the possibility for Broja to cut inside James Tarkowski.

At centre-back Square, Broja fakes once more, putting the ball back on his right foot and drilling low through the box for Nathan Redmond, who misses the target.

Broja’s best and worst had a transformative effect on Southampton last season. At 20 and on loan, achieving such confidence should be seen as an indicator of his talent.

The clock ticks before that plane leaves.

(Photo: Matt Watson/Southampton FC via Getty Images)

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