September 23, 2017

Scouting Borussia Dortmund’s New Signing: Andriy Yarmolenko

Perhaps the inverse of the “butterfly effect” is the “Neymar effect”: big changes create a series of ever-increasing smaller changes down the line. Something like this seems to be driving the domino chain from the Neymar-to-PSG transfer, which, on Monday, reached Borussia Dortmund with Ousmane Dembélé leaving and Andriy Yarmolenko joining the club. Of course, Dembélé is a massive loss for BVB, especially in terms of his creativity, foot skill, and the amorphous-but-important “excitement factor” he brought to every match. Because of these skills, Dembélé was the kind of player who could have an outsized effect on a match, especially during Champions League matches or against Bayern Munich. So losing Dembélé could mean that Dortmund has lost the kind of competitive edge that bought the club a couple points here and there in the league table. A big deal if you’re trying to catch Bayern Munich or advance past the UCL quarter-finals.

So who is Dortmund getting in return for Dembélé?

Andriy Yarmolenko is a 27 year old forward/right winger from Dynamo Kiev and the Ukrainian national team Reportedly, his transfer cost BVB €25 million, which is surely being debited from the €135 payment BVB is receiving from Dembélé’s transfer. In the case of Yarmolenko, I say “replacement” with the quotation marks, because the Ukrainian is certainly nothing close to a like-for-like replacement of the Frenchman. Yarmolenko’s skillset is completely different, as is his role on the pitch. In other words, Yarmolenko’s signing will mean that BVB’s tactics are necessarily being adjusted to account for the Ukrainian’s difference.

Nominally, Yarmolenko is similar to Dembélé in that both play on the pitch’s right side, so the Ukrainian is literally plugging a lineup hole left by Dembélé’s departure. However, this similarity is superficial. What Yarmolenko does from the right flank varies considerably from what Dembélé did from the same area. According to ESPN FC’s Michael Yokhin, Yarmolenko is more akin to Bayern’s Arjen Robben in that he too drives deep down the right flank and cuts in toward the center. Yarmolenko’s rightward tendencies are evident in this event map of his play last season in Kiev:

Andriy Yarmolenko’s event map when playing for Dynamo Kiev. Source: InStatScout.

Notice the heavy cluster of activity two-thirds of the way down the right touchline. This area is Yarmolenko’s orientation point for receiving the ball or cutting into the center. Given Yarmolenko’s age, it makes sense that he’s become more settled and static in this rightward-oriented role, honing it deeply a la Robben. I don’t think this tendency will necessarily hurt BVB. I mean, the right flank does need coverage, and besides, Yarmolenko will leave some nice vacated space in the right corner pockets after he cuts in toward the center. Just ask Bayern Munich how useful these pockets of space are when the rightback overlaps with Robben. Moreover, given Yarmolenko’s rightward orientation, it’s not surprising that he’s an extremely strong “weak-footed” player, according to InStat Football’s video analysis of his play. (Like Robben!)

In other words, what Yarmolenko does with his left foot, he does extremely well. Can we all just publicly acknowledge how excited I am that BVB has a Robben knockoff to torture other league teams with?

Of course, replacing Dembélé with Yarmolenko means that BVB’s final third play must change. Dembélé contributed greatly to Dortmund’s final third dynamism, easily meshing his movements with other teammates, like Aubameyang, Pulisic, and Kagawa. Metaphorically, Dembélé was a strand in something like a three-pleated braid. He drifted toward the center earlier than Yarmolenko by using his dribbling skills and intricate give-and-passing with teammates:

Ousmane Dembélé’s event map for Borussia Dortmund from 2016-17. Source: InStatScout.

 

So I can’t help but conclude that BVB will lose some dynamism in the final third. For example, Dembélé averaged 13 dribbles per match last season and Yarmolenko only 7. Additionally, Dembélé  averaged a staggering 7 Key Passes per match and Yarmolenko 4 (not bad). Furthermore, Dembélé was more active in challenging opponents on the ball, averaging 23 per match to Yarmolenko’s 15. However, Yarmolenko turns the tables in other statistical categories. For example, the Ukrainian had 25 assists (!) last season to Dembélé’s 23, and passed the ball more often (42 passes per match vs. Dembélé’s 37). And of course, there’s the goals: Yarmolenko’s 43 (on 2.4 shots per match) in all matches last season to Dembélé’s 14.

Nevertheless, you know a necessary disclaimer is coming: Yarmo played in the downward-trending Ukrainian Premier League, while Dembélé played in the Bundesliga, one of Europe’s top 4 leagues. Furthermore, Yarmolenko hasn’t necessarily starred in recent years when Dynamo Kiev played in the Champions League or Europa League, especially the 2016-17 campaign when Dynamo finished last place in its group. Obviously, we can’t simply compare and contrast Yarmo and Dembélé’s stats in a like-for-like way. However, these stats are at least indicators of certain tactical and stylistic tendencies offered by each player. Naturally, in the case of Yarmo, we should expect these tendencies to be more muted as he adjusts to the Bundesliga—especially those assist and Key Pass numbers!

However, for BVBers, the Yarmo transfer really has to be all about the goals.

Say what you want about the wide quality gulf between the Ukrainian Premier League and the Bundesliga. Yarmolenko is the goal-scorer type and Dembélé is not. Goal-scorers are a curious type, being trained and encouraged to instinctively turn body and ball toward the goal. Then shoot. And sometimes score.

My guess is that this trait is what BVB and Peter Bosz are hoping to get out of Yarmo. The Ukrainian will be less of a giver and more of a recipient. However, given the increased difficulty and speed from the Ukrainian Premier League to the Bundesliga, let’s assume that Yarmo will score and assist on considerably fewer goals this season for BVB. I’m going to guess that something like 10 goals and 5 assists would be a very pleasant surprise from Yarmolenko this season. That, and maybe 2.4 Key Passes per match.

Furthermore, when Yarmolenko is on the pitch, I can only assume that BVB’s tactics have to be different. Instead of speedy build-up play laced with fine dribbling and quick around-the-box passing, Dortmund will probably try for longer aerial or ground balls in Yarmolenko’s direction, then let him cut in from the right. In other words, BVB will have to play more frequently off turnovers and the counter, I think, hoping for opponent turnovers in the central midfield.

Fortunately, Yarmolenko was effective in counter situations at Kiev, and has effective dribbling moves when cutting in, but only once he was always in position, rather than on the fly, like Dembélé. Moreover, his crossover is vicious, and his surprising nimble feet remind me of Zlatan—another big man who can turn a sweet dribbling move or two. Over at Spielverlagerung.de, Martin Rafelt observes that Yarmolenko is great during slower build up play, once he’s able to pick a spot and receive the ball. In other words, he needs play to come to him, rather than creating it himself. Finally, Yarmolenko is simply a cut below Dembélé in terms of general play-making skills. Just about everyone is though; Dembélé is world class. Anyhow, I don’t think Yarmolenko will get as much time on the ball for his slick dribbling, thanks to speedier and more aggressive Bundesliga defenders.

Unfortunately, Yarmo has a significant weakness: the winger is terrible in pressing the ball defensively. In Bosz’s Gegenpressing 2.0 set up, this weakness is a problem, especially because Dembélé was a solid presser, thanks to his speed and foot skill. Yarmolenko is simply not as fast nor as skilled as Dembélé in these defensive departments. He’s just not a great on-the-spot defender to make the kinds of stops that are necessary for pressing to work.

Look, I was never going to argue that Yarmolenko is a replacement for Dembélé. In the finite pool of elite football talent, there’s no one left who is. After the Neymar dominoes fell, it was too late for BVB to buy elite talent, even if this talent was a young starlet with elite talent potential from, say, a Ligue 1 side. Nope. At this late notice, Dortmund was left with older players, through whom parent clubs could profit from in a sale, which is what Dynamo Kiev did, earning a chunk of the original Neymar money—if we can call it that in this of abstracted capital courses through the credit markets of international football. Dortmund will have to wait until Winter at the earliest to hunt for another young talent to groom (who will also transfer out in a couple seasons surely). More likely, the club must wait for summer, as younger players build up an entire season of work for Dortmund to examine.

Meanwhile, Yarmolenko amounts to something like a half-the-time-starter, providing depth as a sub, and relief for others as a starter, given Dortmund’s “triple burden” (as the Germans say) of the Bundesliga, Champions League, and DFB Pokal. As a BVBer, I really hope that I’ve horribly underestimated the Ukrainian. However, I can’t ignore the quality gap between the two leagues and Yarmolenko’s lack of glitter in European matches or even for the Ukrainian national team where he’s been a perennial under-performer. I just get the sense that this signing is about 3-4 seasons too late. Dortmund have been on Yarmolenko’s trail for awhile, it’s too bad the signing happened under these circumstances this late in the story.

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. He writes for Howler magazine's website. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and coaching the U8s are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, and his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!

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