Chelsea transfer target and Athletic Bilbao winger Nico Williams.
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Player Analysis: Why Premier League clubs want Nico Williams

There is something beautifully simple in the way Nico Williams plays. At Athletic Bilbao, a club with its uniqueness in Spanish football, the 21-year-old winger has found an environment to craft his persona in the game. It’s made him perhaps the most coveted young winger in European football, with the likes of Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United, and Arsenal in the hunt for his signature.

He’s come to prominence under the auspices of Ernesto Valverde. The once-derided Barcelona manager has guided Athletic Club to fifth in La Liga at the time of writing, just two points shy of Atletico Madrid in a Champions League place.

Valverde has brought calm and composure to Athletic, instilling a more possession-heavy approach that — especially against weaker sides — sees Athletic circulate the ball cautiously for long spells of the game. Yet, when they initiate attacks, they’re direct, fluid, and quick.

 

They attack with immense positional freedom, usually trying to drag the opposition out of shape to release a winger out wide for a slew of runners in the box.

Valverde is adaptable, though, and will adopt a deeper block with less possession and more direct attacks against stronger or more possession-based opposition.

Within this duality of approach, Nico Williams has become a highly effective wide player. Primarily, this is because of his sensational ball-carrying. As a two-footed player, there’s an inherent unpredictability about where and how he’s going to carry, making him hard to defend. But he’s also able to apply his dribbling in a variety of situations.

In games where Athletic sit deeper, he’s able to carry over long distances and into space. When facing a lower block, he’s able to slow the game down to draw out a defender and then rapidly speed it up, accelerating past a defender to get a cross off.

Williams’ dribbling numbers are not merely impressive, they are genuinely elite. Compared to other wingers in Europe’s top five leagues, he is in the 98th percentile for take-ons attempted, the 95th percentile for successful take-ons, the 93rd percentile for shot-creating actions from take-ons, the 92nd percentile for progressive carries, and the 89th percentile for progressive carrying distance. The range of his dribbling ability and the efficacy of his explosive actions in the final third are objectively world-class.

What makes him all the more impressive is his end product. He is a constant threat from crosses, with his two-footedness helping the variety of his delivery and accuracy regardless of which flank he plays on. Again, his control of tempo and timing allows him to usually make the right decision and execute well. Crucially, he can do this both on the break and against a settled defence.

That variety of threat is what makes Williams such a highly coveted player in the Premier League. Young, highly touted wide players like Jadon Sancho and Antony struggled at Manchester United because, among other reasons, they lacked the acceleration to beat Premier League defenders one versus one.

 

This meant against low blocks, they were relatively ineffective because they couldn’t generate space to pass or shoot. Other players, such as Mykhailo Mudryk, have the raw athleticism to beat players but have been unable to isolate defenders consistently or generate sufficient end product once beating opponents. Mudryk especially is more gifted at carrying into space rather than generating it against defenders in a low block.

By contrast, Williams is remarkably complete as a dribbler, creator, and decision-maker. He certainly has other aspects of his game to develop, particularly in goal-scoring and his play when moving infield. But for teams who want a winger who can hug the touchline and create chances from wide areas, turning methodical build-up into dynamic chance creation, he is an ideal fit.

When watching him for Athletic, he seems to fit into the category of player who can get away with doing the same thing over and over again because no one can stop it anyway. Receive, carry, cross.

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In an era of the game where players are often expected to fulfil such a variety of obligations and execute complex tactical instructions, Williams’ simplicity and remarkably efficient execution make him a genuinely unique forward.

Read – Ranking the five best strikers in the Premier League right now

See more – Noughties Nines: Adriano – The Emperor who lost his groove

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