The Weird Profile of Aurélien Tchouaméni
Is he a '6'? Is he an '8'? Is he a '6' and an '8'? Is he none of those things?
Thanks to Ligue 1 expert Alex (@alexfrco) for being a sounding board for my thoughts.
Please check out the analyses I’ve linked at the bottom of my article. All of them influenced this piece in one way or another.
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It is basic human nature to categorize. Filing things under particular labels helps us organize a complex world and greatly improves our ability to interpret vast quantities of information. As useful as this is, there is a fundamental arbitrariness to it, especially as the categorization becomes more abstract.
Consequently, there will always be things that confound classification and force us to think in a more granular sense. Is a virus a living organism? Is a hot dog a sandwich? Is Aurélien Tchouaméni a ‘6’ or an ‘8’?
We already had that last discussion with Eduardo Camavinga — another precocious French central midfielder that was snapped up by Real Madrid.
I ended up concluding that he would be best suited in advanced roles, which was fairly obvious to those who had been watching Rennes or done a respectable scouting job. The confusion over his ideal position seemed to be driven by ignorance and/or wishful thinking more than anything else.
However, Tchouaméni’s case is different. Detailed analyses have produced varying assessments of his ceiling and profile, with all of them reaching one of three broad conclusions:
He should develop as a single pivot/defensive midfielder.
He can play equally well as a 6 or 8.
He is best used as an interior/box-to-box midfielder.
This lack of consensus is caused by an interesting mix of qualities that fail to neatly map onto any one role. And, while I think there are merits to all arguments, it is important to remember that the Tchouaméni question does not operate in a vacuum. How we answer it depends greatly on what will extract the most impact from him at Real Madrid — not just in any random scenario — and whether his peak situation increases the potential of the team as a whole.
But, before all that, we first need to understand who he is as a footballer.
Scouting Select Traits: Defense
Regaining possession is the bread-and-butter of Tchouaméni’s game. By now, I am sure all of you are familiar with his impressive statistical resume in this regard (if not, I recommend reading Mark Carey’s piece from The Athletic). In short, he wins the ball back at a rate that few others can match.
His size and length spawn a large zone of control and allow him to cover ground at speeds that take dribblers by surprise. By the time his prey realize what’s up, Tchouaméni is already looking to target the ball and does so with remarkable accuracy.
The versatility of his tackling technique also stands out; he is adept at snatching lunch money from behind and is normally precise with his sliding attempts, although he can fly into them a little overzealously at times.
His skill and high-end athleticism make him comfortable contesting possession in all zones and situations, whether that be in a press, a 1v1 out wide, or hustling back in defensive transition.
Tchouaméni’s raw ball-winning promise motivates him to ball hunt, which can break his side’s compactness and open up options between the lines.
1st clip: Although he should simply leave the ball carrier to his wide teammate, he sniffs out a minuscule chance at a tackle and gets sucked forward.
2nd clip: Tchouaméni needs to calculate cost-benefit better despite Monaco’s structure being admittedly a bit discombobulated. He might have the best access to the ball out of any of his teammates, but his opponent receives in a largely unthreatening area. It would be more prudent for Tchouaméni to screen the option behind him and buy time for the second line to reorganize into a bank of four.
This stylistic quirk is quite similar to Camavinga, with both possessing an incredible thirst to make defensive plays.
Protecting Passing Lanes
Yet, when not in tackling mode, his laser-eyed focus on the ball becomes a major asset in jumping passing lanes.
He possesses a remarkable sense of how to manage these situations, reading the passer’s intentions while also keeping track of nearby options. On certain occasions, it appears as if he is trying to bait a delivery, daring opponents to hit a slim opening before he shuts it down with his incredible ground coverage and length.
The former Bordeaux man’s ability to anticipate and blow up balls coming into midfield is by far his strongest attribute and I am tempted to say that very few in world football execute better in this aspect.
In Monaco’s recent 3-0 victory over PSG, Tchouaméni had to be incredibly alert and attentive to stop Neymar from influencing proceedings and the new Madrid signing produced some scandalous interventions.
In general, Tchouaméni possesses strong off-ball awareness when evaluating sequences that develop in front of him.
He is extremely quick to react to runners going in behind and rarely misses action in the channel.
Scouting Select Traits: Passing
Tchouaméni’s passing game tends to be fairly simple and focused on feeding the ball to the flank or other midfield teammates. He keeps circulation ticking at whatever tempo that exists and rarely dallies in possession.
His most attractive characteristic as a distributor is his vertical passing. His processing speeds on defense clearly work on offense, too, as he is very quick to spot options between the lines and is equally quick at hitting them. On occasion, he’ll go for the mighty through ball down the channel.
His technique and accuracy are respectable and he has an affinity for little disguised balls, which help him slip teammates through tighter windows. He does this at shorter ranges and more dynamic angles as well.
None of this occurs at remarkably high volume, but it happens enough to be notable.
The Rouen native’s long passing could use some work. His figures look strong but he tends to put far too much height on his deliveries1, giving time for defenses to recover and negating the advantage of a switch.
He has better feel for chips into the box, where the motion of his leg is more focused (and his technique more controlled), although he is not a massive threat from these deliveries as it stands.
Scouting Select Traits: Press Resistance
Tchouaméni’s resistance vs. pressure is a mixed bag. His simplistic passing style and instinct to find the first option can create trouble when facing his own goal or the touchline. He is not a prolific scanner in these situations and his body shape on the reception can be rigid, thereby limiting his potential outlets.
In spite of having time in the second clip to make a decision, he forces a pass into a 1v3 underload because he has limited awareness of the free player behind him — something that also makes it hard for him to operate on the half-turn.
Elite midfielders take a beat under pressure when they don’t see a great option, using feints, elite ball control, and physicality to shield the rock and probe for a better outcome. Tchouaméni lacks the agility and skill to do the first two but has the size and strength to draw fouls as a bailout option.
His best actions vs. pressure tend to come directly off of turnovers — this is when his rapid passing and decision-making have its highest value. If he can face play, Tchouaméni is capable of sparking dangerous counter-attacks with a single flick of his boot.
At Monaco, Tchouaméni liked to offer himself in a number of ways from the double pivot, whether that be in front of the center-backs, to their sides, or in the middle of them in a back three. His active movement gives him added value vs. cover shadows and helps him attain respectability in the press-resistance department.
Scouting Select Traits: Destabilizing Blocks
Ball Carrying & Dribbling
I went in with high expectations after all the hype about Tchouaméni’s ball carrying and came out extremely underwhelmed. His figures are solid and he does have impressive burst, but most of this was on display in wide-open space, especially in transition.
It was rare to see him knife through a number of players in the manner of a Camavinga, Frenkie de Jong, Mateo Kovačić, or N’Golo Kanté. While I don’t usually look to highlight comps for much, I do think it’s revealing that there are very few instances of Tchouaméni eviscerating defenders in an 8-minute video meant to showcase only his positives:
In truth, he struggles in tight spaces and relies on straightforward, well-timed footwork and explosiveness to beat opponents. As a result, he will pull off a sharp run every now and then, but he is not someone who can be regularly expected to single-handedly drag teams into the final third or destabilize defenses.
Under coach Niko Kovac, Monaco used patterns that had a member of the double pivot spring forward after making a pass, providing extra attacking numbers in advanced areas and a dynamic method of penetrating blocks.2 This helped Tchouaméni develop a decent sense of when to roam forward and what spaces to occupy.
As can be seen in the above film, he knows how to get open between the lines and be the conduit through which his team enters the box. However, his lack of proficiency in high-paced combinations ultimately limits his value in these scenarios.
The issues that plague his dribbling and actions in cramped real estate hinder his possibilities when trying to deconstruct blocks with speedy, one-touch passing and movement.
The initial balls tend to be good — the trouble comes when he needs to manipulate his body in more fluid ways and find his teammate in unconventional fashion.
So, Where Should He Play?
If you’ve been paying proper attention, you’ll have realized by now that Tchouaméni is no Camavinga. Yes, they have many similarities, such as their defensive prowess, ball hunting, and physical dominance, but there are a number of significant differences. While both are great, adventurous tacklers, Camavinga is a step above in his aggression and volume.
On the flip side, Tchouaméni is in another stratosphere when it comes to manufacturing interceptions. Camavinga landed in the 17th (0.75 p90) and 42nd (1.31 p90) percentiles in 20/21 and 21/22, respectively, in contrast to Aurélien’s 99th percentile mark (3.5 p90) this season. Some of that is down to Camavinga having a more advanced role, but it also reveals Tchouaméni’s care and competency for that side of the game.
Thus, I am much less concerned about the latter’s suitability for the defensive responsibilities of a pivot. Tchouaméni’s tackling tendencies are an issue and will need to be curtailed, but he has genuinely elite potential as a screener. He reads and jumps passing lanes like a savant and dutifully tracks threats in front of him.
In an ideal world built just for Tchouaméni, I would disregard this thought exercise and simply give him a roaming destroyer role in a double pivot, since he is neither a perfect 6 nor a conventional interior. However, Los Blancos don’t sign players to serve their needs — they sign them to serve the club’s. And, ultimately, I am just too low on the Frenchman’s offensive ceiling in forward zones to argue for the midfield being reorganized around him or that he should operate as an 8.
Tchouaméni doesn’t truly pop as a carrier, has limitations when it comes to initiating combinations, and isn’t a particularly creative passer. His astute off-ball positioning, opportunistic runs, and long-distance shooting (I skipped over this, but he does like to have a pop from range) are not nearly enough to provide the consistent middle- and final-third impact Madrid require from their interiors.
Fede Valverde is no offensive genius but is a tremendous ball carrier and a capable threat in behind. Meanwhile, Camavinga is a high-level dribbler who flashes brilliance in combinations and via his deliveries into the box.
Instead, Tchouaméni’s offensive attributes are more appropriate for a pivot role, even if he is far from a deep-lying playmaker or a press resistance god.3 His range is a bit of a mirage and he is not a tempo controller, but his short passing is crisp. Where Camavinga might lack proper weighting or accuracy on a simple ball he finds too boring, Tchouaméni is far more reliable. Where Camavinga might just ping a simple lateral pass, the 22-year-old will assess options between the lines and look to play a vertical dagger.
Tchouaméni is built for the type of simple, yet, precise game to supplement Modrić and Kroos.
As a result, I believe that adapting to the demands of the ‘6’ position presents Aurélien Tchouaméni with his best bet at making high, symbiotic impact at Real Madrid.
‘How GOOD is Aurélien Tchouaméni?’ by Pythagoras in Boots:
‘Aurélien Tchouaméni analysis: Scouting Real Madrid’s new €100m-plus midfielder’ by Mark Carey for The Athletic
The press resistance part of the equation has its kinks but it looks to be serviceable and a possible upgrade over Casemiro’s.