After years of mismanagement and financial turmoil, Fiorentina fans have seen great improvement in the last couple of seasons. The Della Valle family has invested heavily in the squad, the club is well run and there is talk of a new stadium. Good times are rolling in Tuscany.
A year ago, much was expected of the newly formed striking partnership of Giuseppe Rossi and Mario Gomez. Rossi seemed to shake of his latest injury and made his debut at the end of 2012-13 season while Gomez arrived last summer amidst grand expectations, but both have been spending way too much time on the treatment table for Fiorentina fans’ liking. Rossi has been in lethal form when fit (16 Serie A goals in just 19 starts), but persistent problems with his right knee are raising serious doubts if he will ever fully recover. Currently he is recovering from latest set-back that occurred in September and is targeting a comeback in a couple of months.
The Gomez affair is not much different. Persistent injuries have restricted him to only 3 Serie A goals and it looks increasingly unlikely that he will be a big success at la Viola.
But instead of spending more silly money (the club has spent over 30 million Euros on transfer fees to bring Rossi and Gomez to Florence), the manager Vincenzo Montella has decided to explore Fiorentina’s inner resources and give youth a chance.
Step forward Khouma Babacar.
Who is Khouma Babacar?
Babacar’s development has been gradual but done properly. At 21, he has reached an age when he has to show his promise at the highest level. He left his home country of Senegal at 14 and joined Pescara’s youth set-up after a successful trial. The club did not hesitate and invested close to 100,000 euros for his signature. He could not play official matches yet, because he was too young, but he trained with a generation featuring a certain Marco Verratti (he is a year older than Babacar). It was an important period of adaptation to his new life far away from home.
“I was happy, because everyone treated me well and it was easier to be able to cope with being away from my family in Senegal. The parents of other players took me for pizza with them and I felt part of something,” remembers Billy, as he is known to his friends. Later on a lot of clubs tried to sign him with the youngster even playing two friendly games for Inter, scoring 8 goals, but the transfer failed to materialise.
A year after arriving in Europe he joined Fiorentina and was given his debut by Cesare Prandelli at 16 in the Coppa Italia. And even though Prandelli described Babacar as a “player of unlimited technical prospect”, his progress stalled due to some off the field issues (some comparing him to Mario Balotelli) and a serious knee injury. It all changed with a loan move to Serie B, where he scored 20 goals for Modena last season.
Even though the fans were guessing which striker Fiorentina were about to buy after Rossi’s and Gomez’s injury problems, Montella decided to put his trust into two young prospects: Babacar and the technically wonderful Federico Bernardeschi. The early signs are positive and the whole thing got la Viola fans dreaming of a repeat of the legendary B2 partnership from the late 1980s, when Roberto Baggio and Stefano Borgonovo thrilled the crowds in Florence.
Babacar has secured some serious game time, despite it being just the start of the season. He started all but one Serie A game and scored twice. His beautiful, memorable goal in a 3:0 win over Inter at Artemio Franchi propelled him to the attention of the continental media and also earned him a spot in Outside of the Boot‘s Talent Radar Team of the Week.
Style of play, Strengths and Weaknesses
With his height of 6′ 3″, Babacar is naturally inclined to use his power and strength. But he is much more than just your regular target man. He has – as the old cliché goes – good feet for a big man, can dominate defences with his size and pure raw power and is more than willing to put in a defensive shift as well.
Babacar is tall and strong, but he is not playing as your classic number 9. In fact, he is doing quite the opposite. Statistical overview of his game shows us, that he relies heavily on his technical quality. He is a keen dribbler and with 0.8 dribbles per game, he’s very efficient at going past people. His pass average is quite low at 16.2 per game, but his successful pass percentage is an impressive 82.4%.
What is surprising is his very low average of aerial duels won. For a forward of his size, 1.2 aerial duels won per game is not the most ideal number you’d want from him. But it has to be said this statistic is a bit deceiving due to on the team’s style of play, Fiorentina’s pass and move style where the idea of “lump it forward to the big man” is not a prevailing one on the players’ minds.
The goal against Inter that put him on the map was an exceptional powerful strike from distance. It showed what he is capable of and that he is more than willing to shoot from far out. The statistical overview of his shooting reveals that he is hardly one to wait around when in position to strike at goal. His shots per game average of 2.3 should increase in the future, but the information that a large chunk (0.8) of these shots come from outside the box shows us that the player is aware of his powerful shot and is more than willing to use it. He should look to exploit his very decent pace more though and look for depth more often, running in behind defences and getting into the box more often.
Babacar will have to reproduce last year’s goal scoring statistics on a higher level. More tranquillity in the penalty box will be crucial in search for real consistency in Serie A, or as Montella brilliantly put it: “He’ll become a great striker when he’ll score ugly and meaningless goals.”
Montella is playing a diamond with two strikers and is teaming Babacar up with more lighter, technical players like Juan Cuadrado, Josip Iličić and Bernardeschi. Because his partners like to roam he can stay isolated up front. This will help him benefit from further improving his link up play and holding up of the ball. His enormous size makes him a real handful for opposition defences. That is why defenders frequently choose to foul him with any means necessary and stop the flow of Fiorentina’s attack.
He is a real team player and does not hide from his defensive responsibilities. His 1.5 average clearances per game show that he is an important player when defending set-pieces. He likes to put a tackle in and it is a characteristic that should be nurtured carefully and used to his team’s advantage. He certainly is the true first line of defence for Firoentina while his competitive streak may need to be tamed, as he concedes many fouls (2.3 per game).
In Montella, he has got a great mentor. Who better to learn from, than one of the best Italian strikers of the last decade, a man who scored close to 200 goals in Serie A, favours attacking football and is willing to give youth a chance? It does seem like an ideal situation.
Here’s what Giancarlo Rinaldi, Fiorentina expert, Football Italia writer and author of ’20 Great Italian Games’ told Outside of the Boot about Khouma Babacar. Follow him on Twitter @ginkers
“Nobody could say they have lacked patience at Fiorentina. More than four years passed between Khouma El Babacar’s first Serie A goal for the club and his second. His first strike, just days after his 17th birthday, made him one of the youngest scorers in the history of Italy’s top flight. He then went out on loan to Racing Santander, Padova and Modena. It was at this last club that he found his form – hitting 20 goals in Serie B. With Giuseppe Rossi and Mario Gomez injured this season, he has emerged as a seriously impressive goalscoring prospect with great physical strength and ever-improving technique.”
Written by Tine Zupan