The Unconventional Floor Raising of Dušan Vlahović
Juve's new star striker has an ability to create shots from nothing, but how valuable is that attribute?
In my piece How Basketball Can Help Us Understand Football: Introducing 'Floor Raising' & 'Ceiling Raising’, I established the archetype of a floor-raising attacker as a high-usage, ball-progression and chance-creation machine.
These characteristics were reflected in the likes of Lionel Messi and Karim Benzema — figures who can guarantee a strong baseline of performance in flawed or weak squads. Other examples include Bruno Fernandes, Vivianne Miedema, Harry Kane, and Esther González, with their capacity and willingness to initiate from deep being the common thread between them.
However, while the combination of ball monopolization and technical proficiency (in a traditional sense) is the tried-and-tested path for many great heavy lifters, there also exists more unconventional ways to elevate mediocre talent.
For a case-study of this, look no further than Dušan Vlahović — Juventus’ new star striker.
A quick glance at Vlahović’s fbref scouting report over the last 365 days leads to uninspiring reading beyond the shooting statistics.
Although his back-to-goal game is nothing to scoff at, he’s not an elite link-up forward and ultimately creates at below average rates for teammates. Additionally, he doesn’t pop as a particularly proficient carrier or dribbler. On the surface level, statistically, he comes off more like a “ceiling raiser” — someone who retains offensive effectiveness without needing many touches (to put it simply).
Those skeptical of the Serb’s scalability critique his trigger-happy tendencies, pointing at a not-insignificant number of suboptimal attempts and a subpar non-penalty xG/shot ratio (0.11 — 40th percentile in the league in 21/22).
There are certainly numerous occasions where he passes up better paths to goal in favor of leathering efforts from poor positions.
If the first clip asks too much of Dušan’s passing, the next two are more straightforward actions that get ignored for very low-percentage shots.
A lukewarm defense of this might reference his “finishing ability.” Across domestic and European competition in the last two seasons, he has scored 5.1 more non-penalty goals than expected.
Whether that’s sustainable or not remains to be seen. Vlahović is currently overperforming his xG per shot by 3%, which lands him right in that uncertain “highly unlikely to continue” zone (ignore the Martial bit).
Regardless, that level of efficiency is definitely not enough to justify his decisions in the specific scenarios selected on film. But are there any situations where bad shots are worth it?
According to Ben Torvaney, there could be for weak teams:
Essentially, a greater volume of poor shots makes it more likely to score either no goals or several goals, while just a few shots (assuming they equal the aggregate xG of the poor shots) makes it more likely to score inside the extremes. When applying this logic (in a more sophisticated manner) to teams that have awful defenses, we can see that an inefficient approach has mild positive effects; when you’re going to concede a ton, you might as well go for broke on the other end.
Now, Vlahović’s context is not exactly the same — notwithstanding the fact that Fiorentina weren’t great last season, they were middle of the pack defensively (an okay defense on the chart). Furthermore, it is also far from true that Dušan only lets loose from terrible locations — his shot map is incredibly diverse and hints at a player that is skilled at fashioning looks in all sorts of circumstances. However, that type of complex profile is what I’m more interested in interrogating in relation to the idea that volume shooting correlates with a degree of floor raising.
This is where Vlahović’s unconventional method of providing lift enters the picture. In 20/21, Fiorentina’s second top scorer in the league was Gaetano Castrovilli, with 5 goals (Vlahović had 21; 6 pens). In that same season, Fiorentina were 10th in passes into the final third and 5th-last in passes into the penalty area (PPA). The offensive support for the Belgrade native remained similar in the following campaign, as did the entries into the final third, although Fiorentina’s PPA rank currently sits at 8th.
For a team that can only sustain threat at moderate rates, there is probably significant value in turning whatever service exists into some kind of shot. And that is Vlahović’s greatest skill. It doesn’t matter what type of pass he receives — he can mold it into a scoring chance.
His opener within ~thirty-two seconds vs. Villarreal in the Champions League encapsulates this perfectly. A sharp run in behind is catalyzed by admirable chest control, taking him away from goal with two defenders draped all over him. At the 15-second mark in the video, it appears as if he has no way of finding the net and zero accessible passing options in similarly threatening positions.
Yet, from an awkward body orientation, he manages to spin back around and connect cleanly with the ball, slotting it into the far corner. From what should be a dead sequence, Vlahović put Juventus in the lead, and not in the way we normally associate with floor raising — i.e. spectacular dribbling to create separation.
Instead, the €70-million man takes advantage of his big frame to bully defenders with a frightening cocktail of power and agile body control.
That’s an impressive half-minute mixtape that shows off the sheer range of zones and distances from which Vlahović can fashion shots. His first touch, whether that be with his feet or chest, is superb, allowing him to bring down any delivery and create inches of space. His strength and balance ensure that he can’t be pushed off the ball and his dexterity means that he can turn on a dime and unleash before defenders are able to set themselves.
His awareness is another key component to his success in these moments.
In addition to having great feel for the defender’s location and how to spin past them, he also seems to always know exactly where the goal is, all while simultaneously taking snapshots of defensive help and goalkeeper positioning in the blink of an eye.
These skills must’ve greatly reduced the pressure on his Fiorentina teammates to play the perfect ball. They knew that something could happen as long as they got the rock into him, widening the window of acceptable pass execution and, thus, the potential window for a goal.
In other words: when possession in dangerous areas isn’t plentiful, efficient receiving and the resulting shot that comes from it induces noteworthy floor-raising impact.
These traits aid Vlahović in situations where he faces goal, too. With the reality of defenders bumping into him or trying to block shots, he has the uncanny ability to keep his feet and shift the ball just enough to place an effort on target. Of course, all that fluid athleticism helps him volley the ball as well and he’s tried a few bicycle kicks over the years.
In rarer moments, this physical dominance combined with underrated footwork produces sequences destined for highlight reels.
Juventus desperately needed this. They might rank 5th in passes into the final third, but they sit only 10th in PPA (lower than Fiorentina) and their xG per game is a disgusting figure of 1.32 — good for only 11th. Over twenty-six Serie A matchdays, the top scorers in the team are Paulo Dybala (6 goals) and Alvaro Morata (5 goals).
In sum: Juve’s build-up is labored and uninspiring and they lack attackers who can fashion decent shots from very little outside Dušan.
The bigger question is what Vlahović and his skillset look like on a good team. His non-penalty xG numbers, which hover around 0.40-0.45, are not amazing, but I do see promise here. While I don’t expect this aspect of his style to reap dramatically-different gains next to more gifted teammates (better talent likely means that the additional service will be easier to handle), his floor raising being contingent on receiving in shooting positions implies the possibility of increased opportunities to turn vinegar into wine.
Nevertheless, getting into those high-probability locations is what playing on big sides is really all about. Given Vlahović’s respectable off-ball package and low usage rate, an uptick in production seems well within the realm of possibility, but that is an untested theory.
Who knows whether he can cull some of those bad shooting tendencies and develop greater passing recognition in zones outside the box. Those things, alone, could determine his ceiling.
Be that as it may, what is certain is that the 22-year-old has a proven track record of keeping mediocre offenses afloat — and that matters a lot for where he is right now.
All statistics taken from fbref, unless otherwise stated.