Yunus Musah’s evolution: How the USMNT’s young star is developing with Valencia

Quick Hits
  • With a new manager taking charge of Valencia, Yunus Musah is starting to look like the star at club level that he’s already been for the United States men’s national team
  • Musah is now playing as a central midfielder in La Liga, which has proven to be a positive change for him in 2022
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In July, Gregg Berhalter said that young U.S. men’s national team midfielder Yunus Musah would “surprise the world with his performances at the World Cup.” 

Now, that comment seems slightly strange, given that Musah was recently nominated to the Golden Boy shortlist and has been a full-fledged U.S. international since the age of 17. But Berhalter does have reason to categorize Musah as a surprising talent. At Valencia in La Liga, the teenager hadn’t played consistent minutes in a role that suits his strengths up until this season. 

Under the management of Gennaro Gattuso, Musah is starting to look like the star at club level that he’s already been at the international level.

What’s his role?

Last season, Musah played under manager José Bordalás at Valencia.

Bordalás set up his team in a defensive 4-4-2 that was compact and resilient without the ball and aggressive and direct with it. When Valencia had possession, which wasn’t often in Bordalas’ scheme, they would play up to their two strikers and press the area around the two No. 9s to overwhelm the opponent and break into the attacking third. 

In this system, Musah played primarily as a right midfielder who would tuck in and provide defensive structural support and press high when Valencia played long balls into the attack. 

However, when Gattuso took over the club this summer, he changed Valencia’s playing style and altered Musah’s role. The Italian has transformed Valencia into a possession-based team that tries to build from the back. In Gattuso’s first handful of La Liga games in charge, he’s used a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 with Musah as an actual central midfielder instead of a wide player. 

Musah plays alongside Hugo Guillamón and Carlos Soler/Nico González in midfield. Each member of the midfield trio has a distinct role: Guillamón distributes from deep, Soler and González sit further forward to direct Valencia’s attacks, and Musah plays as a box-to-box midfielder responsible for applying defensive pressure and contributing offensively. 

Below, you can see Valencia’s average position from their most recent game against Getafe. Musah, wearing #4, is on the right side of central midfield as they attack from top to bottom.

Musah is asked to press all over the field, but his pressing numbers are much more conservative so far this season than they were in 2021. Last year, Musah averaged 20.9 pressures per game and this year he’s averaging 11.9 pressures per game. What Musah has relinquished with his pressing stats, though, he’s gained with his attacking numbers.

This year, Musah is almost doubling his completed mid-range passes from 2021 and is more than tripling his successful long passes. The 19-year-old is also averaging ten more touches per game under Gattuso and is averaging one shot per game after shooting just seven times for Valencia last year. That’s not even counting the incredible strike he scored against Atlético Madrid that was called off due to a foul in the buildup.

With his increased attacking involvement, Musah is becoming a complete midfielder. He’s doing a bit of everything, from pressing to possession play to shot creation, and has been one of Gattuso’s most important players this year.

Don’t believe me? Just look at his minutes. Musah is the third youngest player in Valencia’s squad, but ranks fourth in minutes played so far in 2022. Gattuso has freed Musah from the chains of being a miscast defensive wide midfielder and is giving the U.S. youngster the freedom to express himself. 

Musah’s strengths at Valencia

Defensive workrate

The workrate that Bordalás seemed to admire about Musah isn’t completely lost under Gattuso. The differences this year lie in how and where Musah is pressing. This season, Musah is playing much deeper than he has for Valencia in the past and is tasked with breaking up attacks in central areas rather than on the flanks.

He’s taken to this central midfield role quite well. In La Liga, Musah ranks 13th in tackle percentage against dribbles and he has made 14 recoveries through four games.

A great example of these numbers in action comes from this sequence against Atletico Bilbao from August. Here, Musah presses high on an attacker who then runs down the flank and plays a one-two with his teammate. Although Musah is two steps behind his marker, he accelerates into his defensive half, catches up with him, and forces him into a turnover.

Progressive dribbling

If there is one area where Musah absolutely excels, it’s with his progressive dribbling. 

His agility, acute spatial awareness, and footwork are a deadly combination for any defender who tries to take the ball from him. Musah doesn’t have the most audacious skills in his locker, but he has a knack for sensing pressure and breaking ankles with body feints and quick bursts of acceleration. 

The sequence leading to Musah’s second assist against Getafe over the weekend is a great example of his ability to create space for himself and his teammates. Everything Musah does here is excellent – his ability to sense pressure, his feint to the right and dupe his marker, his quickness, and his vision to find a forward pass.

Musah’s progressive dribbling consistently leads to good shooting opportunities for Valencia. In the past year, the 19 year old is in the 95th percentile among midfielders in Europe’s big five leagues in successful dribbles that lead to shots.

One thing that goes under the radar about Musah’s dribbling is how good he is at using his body to create space.

Because Musah is so nimble, some teams try to use big, athletic defenders to overpower him on the dribble. But with an aggressive defender on his back, Musah will use his body intelligently to put space between him and his marker and protect the ball. 

Take this moment against Getafe. As Musah brings down the ball, he has Nemanja Maksimovic, who has a four inch height advantage, on his back. Despite that difference, Musah does a great job of shielding the ball and holding off Maksimovic’s attempts to poke it away.

Actions in the final third

In the past, Musah’s biggest shortcoming has been his end product. He’s always been capable defensively and great at progressing the ball, but he’d either make a wrong decision in the attacking third or misplay his final pass. However, Musah’s recent performances for Valencia have shown some promise in the attack. His first assist against Getafe was a thing of beauty: he received the ball and didn’t hesitate to send a lovely ball over the top for his teammate to finish. 

It’s difficult to imagine Musah doing something like this even six months ago.

Now, precisely because it’s difficult to imagine Musah pulling off that pass six months ago, this strength is a tentative one for Musah. If he executes smooth passes like the one above on a regular basis, though, Valencia should expect more than a few big-money inquiries for the young man.

Things to improve

Passing under Pressure

As good as Musah is at dribbling out of pressure, he does need to improve his passing under pressure. This wasn’t a regular problem under Bordalas last year because he didn’t pass the ball with any regularity (he was in the 28th percentile for passes under pressure among midfielders in La Liga). But this year, Musah has had some hiccups as part of the buildup for Gattuso.

When Valencia win a goal kick, Gattuso likes to have two midfielders drop back to receive the ball and quickly pass out of pressure. 

Musah can contribute in these buildup situations, especially when he has time to take a touch before releasing the ball. However, some of his first-time passes in these situations have probably raised Gattuso’s blood pressure. In Valencia’s preseason game against Atalanta, Musah attempts to make a first-time pass out to one of his center backs, but leaves it too short and allows the pressing attacker to get a foot on the ball. 

Touch

When receiving a hard pass from a teammate, Musah can struggle with his close control. In La Liga last year, Musah averaged 2.29 miscontrols per 90, which was in the 2nd percentile among midfielders. His numbers are a lot better this year under Gattuso, with only two miscontrols through four games.

But you can still see Musah using his athleticism to compensate for an occasional sloppy touch.

“I‘m not naturally technical,” he said last month. “But I’ve worked on it, and now I can say that technically I’m alright. I’m getting there.”

During the last two seasons, watching Musah on international duty with the U.S. and watching him with Valencia was like night and day. Playing under Berhalter, Musah looked like a dazzling prodigy with impressive dynamism on the ball, but under Bordalás at Valencia, he seemed caged by a conservative, route-one scheme. Under Gattuso, Musah has finally been able to showcase his talent in Spain. 

If Musah continues this run of form in Valencia’s new system, the world won’t need to wait until the World Cup to learn about the United States’ young star. They’ll see him shining in La Liga every weekend.

All stats courtesy of FBref.