FEATURE | World Cup One to Watch: Breel Embolo

Breel Embolo not only heads into the 2022 World Cup as an experienced international player, but as one of Switzerland’s premier performers. In the last few months, now 25, Embolo has made a steady rise with Monaco – but where he goes from here is not so clear.

Whether it was a natural progression or just good management, Embolo’s career has been well mapped out with gradual steps up, building to his current role as a key figure at Monaco. The confident young forward was brought in by the Principality club as a complimentary attacking option to Wissam Ben Yedder. However, over his 23 games this season, Embolo has proven to be more than just an alternative, but a dual threat.

Embolo has scored seven goals in 15 league matches plus three goals for Switzerland this season – to say he’s is off to a great start is an understatement. Previously, however, the striker has rarely been prolific, but his presence on the pitch has always been important. The Swiss, while not a playmaker per se, does have the ability to create chances for his teammates, stemming from his efforts in dropping back to help the defence. Whether it be winning the ball or receiving the ball deeper on the pitch, Embolo has the strength and passing ability to hold off opponents and create plays in transition.

His first five goals for his new club displayed his skill set nicely, showing what he brings to a team. His goal at Nice in particular embodied his style. Embolo not only won the ball from a Nice midfielder but was fouled before the play continued for him to score the game-winner with a header over a defender at the back post. Embolo is a scrappy, menacing forward who through work rate finds ways to be effective even when he’s not scoring. He’s constantly pressing and dropping back to help the defence on top of making brilliant runs forward. His contribution defensively doesn’t take away from his class as a striker – a goal against Montpellier was as clinical as they come, hitting a rocket into the top left corner of a bounce.

Embolo has everything you’d want in a forward. His size is phenomenal standing at 1.87m (6’2), he’s rapid and he has the strength to hold off defenders while maintaining possession and creating play. He wins balls in the air, he pounces on balls in the box and can finish from anywhere. However, generally, he remains a less than prolific goalscorer.

When looking at strikers, specifically number nines, they are usually grouped into a few broad categories. The traditional centre forwards, secondary forwards, target men and poachers. As a target man, Embolo is able to hold up play and finish in the box but also works hard defensively. As a secondary forward, he doesn’t really create his own chances or get involved with build-up, but he does create chances for his teammates, while he doesn’t fit a traditional centre forward description either. That would require him to play as a lead number nine, which requires a better first touch.

Embolo is extremely talented and entertaining, but his issue in progressing from a system forward to becoming a world-class striker stems from a lack of refined movement. The Swiss plays with flair and character but his dribbles and touches can look chaotic and loose. A lot of players who spent their youth as bigger, faster and stronger than their opponents develop a dependency on speed and size and rarely perfect their touch. The biggest difference between someone like Erling Haaland and Embolo isn’t strictly talent, it’s touch.

If Embolo is unable to refine his game, it will hurt him later on when he loses a step, impeding his ability to reach his full potential. For example, the goal against Montpellier, as clinical as it was, his initial first touch was poor and relied upon good finishing and ingenuity – many of his first touches are heavy or without intention. Forwards who drop back in defence are very useful, but Embolo relies on his size to hold off and beat defenders when he receives the ball, creating limitations on his ability to create offence from deeper positions. For the Monaco man, fewer touches in the box equals less goals. If Embolo was more refined technically, we could be looking at a player contributing 15-plus goals and 10-plus assists per season.

If we defined Embolo by his goal total, he’s hasn’t reached double figures in the league since leaving Basel for the Bundesliga in 2016, it would be hard to make a case that he’s a top striker in Ligue 1. However, when you look at his full skill set, work rate and contribution of the ball, Embolo becomes one of the most effective forwards in France, and, if Embolo can refine his game, he could become one of the best forwards in Europe. At 25, that will be difficult, but with the level of talent and ability Embolo has, it can be done.

Tony DesRois | GFFN

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