Hard working, skilful, versatile and full of imagination, Tottenham Hotspur’s signing of Dejan Kulusevski is unquestionably a wonderful piece of business.
Making the switch to North London from Juventus in an initial loan deal with an option to buy for £29 million, the Swedish international is set to add some much needed quality to Spurs’ efforts in the final third.
Having spent nearly six years in Italy plying his trade with Parma, Atalanta and Juventus, the immensely talented, tactically knowledgeable 21-year-old shouldn’t have too many issues slotting into Antonio Conte’s plans. Ready for the challenge ahead, Kulusevski’s comments on his transfer illustrate his happiness at joining Spurs. “I feel very good, I’m very happy to be here, very grateful for this opportunity that Spurs have given me,” he told Spurs’ website.
“I’m coming here with fresh energy, a new club, a new stadium. I can’t wait to meet the fans, to get to know the whole club, the players in the team… It’s just exciting times. I’m so happy to be here, really. It’s a dream come true, being here.
“I think I have everything to do very well here. I’ve been at some teams in Italy, I’ve had a lot of different coaches, learned a lot from them, had a lot of players around me so I think I’m ready for the Premier League at this age and I can’t wait to play.”
An exceptional offensive operator, his work with the ball at his feet is one of his big strengths. Velcro like with his first touch and ball control, this gives him the platform to be such a weapon on the dribble. Capable of beating opponents with whirring shoulder drops, shimmies, feints and devastating changes of pace and direction, the tricky Swede’s arsenal of moves helps him either beat foes or gain separation from them.
The fact he’s so strong on the ball in the legs, core and upper body, plus has a low centre of gravity, means foes struggle to outmuscle him, as he withstands pressure admirably while remaining balanced. As a result, adversaries often get frustrated and foul him, thus earning his team free kicks in promising positions in and around the attacking third.
Whether weaving out of danger in close quarters, turning markers, holding the ball up or getting at opponents 1v1, this, in combination with his frequent head scanning that gives him a constantly updated mental imagery of his surroundings, adds to his menace and ability to thrive in a variety of scenarios.
Being such an outstanding ball carrier notably helps him manufacture openings to use his shooting qualities, with him especially dangerous when cutting infield and unleashing shots from the edge of the box. Indeed, having bagged 19 goals in the last three campaigns displays his keen eye for goal and finishing prowess.
Creative with his passing and not afraid to take risks, this aspect of his game ensures he’s a solid chance conjurer and unlocker of defences. Excellent at disguising his intentions with his eyes and body posture, the Swede’s vision then allows him to execute his actions. Very adept at piercing the lines of the opposition’s press to find players in and around zone 14 and getting the ball into the feet of attackers, teammates are often found in promising zones.
Moreover, his ability to oblige runners with through balls down the channels and in behind enhances his danger, for once he gets his head up, Kulusevski’s quick to use his wand of a left foot to feed teammates. Similarly handy in crossing situations, there’s been a lot to like about how he assesses his options coherently before delivering. Able to strike inswinging, outswinging, lofted or driven crosses, the Swede can hit targets in a variety of ways.
When operating in more central locations, his ability to engage in slick one and two touch exchanges have been a real highlight. Concise and considered, Kulusevski can subsequently help unbalance backlines, plus put himself in positions to receive return passes or be the third man runner due to his off the ball movement.
Focusing on his positioning and movement, and he’s certainly a major asset here too, for he’s quick to identify gaps to exploit to help breathe life into attacks. Parlaying intelligence with a relentless work rate, these traits will endear him to new manager Conte, who will value this combination no matter if he plays out wide or as an attacking midfielder.
Be it hugging the touchline to be isolated, edging into the half spaces or picking up positions between the lines, opponents are kept on their toes tracking him. Moreover, the way he can surge in behind with cleverly angled runs, arrive into the box with impeccable timing and rotate with his colleagues have also been vital strings to his bow.
A key byproduct of his movement is that he pins and draws markers to generate space for others and manufactures disconnects in opposition backlines. The graphics below offer a good depiction of this. In the first, the way he attracts the attention of two defenders is vital in allowing Federico Chiesa the freedom he needs to break upfield unimpeded.
Then, for the second, he expertly pins his man to allow Paulo Dybala to inherit possession behind the opposition midfield line with time and space to turn.
An active presser whose energy and intensity means he harries his foes diligently, Conte will love this part of his game too. Not only does he get at opponents with gusto, but he also curves his pressing to block passing lanes behind him to limit options for the ball holder.
By the numbers among players in his position across Europe’s top five leagues (as per FBref), his 23.51 pressures per 90 (top 4%), 6.68 touches inside the box p90 (top 9%), 8.15 progressive passes p90 (top 16%), 0.26 expected assists p90 (top 16%), 1.86 tackles p90 (top 19%), 0.22 assists p90 (top 27%) and 3.50 shot creating actions p90 (top 36%) demonstrate his all-round contribution.
“He is a complete midfielder, box-to-box, a really reliable player. Dejan is just 21, but as I explained before, he scored 10 goals and 10 assists at Juventus. He’s a really good prospect, but also played 35 games at Parma and scored a lot, so a big prospect,” asserted Spur’s sporting director Fabio Paratici.
“Dejan is a forward, but he runs and fights a lot, has a big personality, is very ambitious, so this is the most important skill he has.”
Considering he left his homeland at the age of 16 for Italy and is used to switching clubs should ensure he has little issues adapting to life in England.
Eager to stamp his mark at his new team after spending far too much time on the bench for his liking already this season, Kulusevski will relish every opportunity he gets.
One for now and for the future, the acquisition of Kulusevski by Spurs is certainly a superb piece of business on the surface. Only time will tell if it in fact is, but all the signs are there that this move should be the catalyst for him to fulfill his immense potential.