Charles Onwuakpa writes a detailed scout report about the Sweden and Juventus attacking midfielder, Dejan Kulusevski.
Juventus’ dominance in Serie A and numerous scandals in the lower divisions have often led the public to question the competitiveness and integrity of football in Italy.
Serie A is generally regarded to be a slow league, which makes it the ideal environment for players in their thirties: although there’s truth in this cliché, quite a few interesting young players have emerged recently.
The latest is Dejan Kulusevski (2000), who earned the “Serie A Best Young Player” award with 10 goals and 8 assists for Parma during the 2019/20 season, along with a place on our Serie A U22 Team of the Season.
Born in Sweden to Macedonian parents, Kulusevski joined Atalanta’s youth sector in 2016: he made his first team debut in January 2019 and won the Under-19 national championship last summer.
His early performances on loan with Parma earned him a transfer move to Juventus in January for the sum of 35 million euros, after which he was loaned back to Parma for the rest of the season.
Kulusevski is a versatile attacking midfielder: he mainly played on the right wing last season but was also used as a number 8 and as a 10 (his primary positions in Atalanta’s youth teams).
Although he’s 186 cm tall, he’s bad at contesting the ball in the air due to a low vertical leap; he’s more effective when it bounces and he can post up the opponent with his slim physique.
He makes up for a lack of explosiveness in his acceleration with good strides in his progressive runs, especially when there are big spaces in front of him: he’s a strong ball carrier and keeps his head up when running with it.
Kulusevski’s directional control with the ball is good: his agility and touches aren’t excellent, but he’s skilled enough to consistently get past opponents when pressured on the ball, either with dribbles or body feints.
He attempted 4.6 dribbles p90 last season with a success rate of 56%, which is slightly above average: sometimes the ball got stuck under his feet when adjusting his body quickly, while in other circumstances he showed incredible balance and footwork for his size, for example during this goal against Verona.
The Sweden international is predominantly left-footed (this body part accounts for 79% of his passes).
Most of his passes from the right wing are directed backwards due to his body posture when receiving the ball; he relies on short, sideways passes to switch play from the centre to the left wing and is effective in these situations thanks to a quick release.
Forward passing is his biggest strength: he regularly attempts final third passes behind the last line of pressure and is an elite passer in transition, combining those confident strides with a proactive attitude and a wide playing vision to punish the retreating opposition, almost like a sharp knife used to slice warm butter.
His passing against set defences is slightly above average, often using the quick release in combination play to compensate for an unpolished technique in small spaces: he can split multiple lines with a single pass, but this fundamental is still a work in progress (he often drags his left foot to generate power on the ball).
Kulusevski’s style is highlighted by his pass completion rate last season (78.2%): there were often situations in which he tried to force penetration through impossible angles, while in other circumstances the targeted receiver was on another wavelength, but I wouldn’t really be concerned about his value in this metric.
Parma had the 4th lowest pass completion rate in the league and mainly relied on direct attacks or long transitions to score goals: having multiple off-ball runners in the team (Gervinho, Cornelius, Inglese and Caprari) meant that Kulusevski always had an option ahead of him, so the reward was worth the risk.
He was their primary shot creator, averaging 4.21 shot-creating actions, 2.33 key passes and 0.28 xA p90.
He scored great goals against Bologna and Brescia and was an efficient finisher last season (scoring 9 goals from a total of 6 xG, penalties excluded): his shot volume p90 (1.81) and average shot quality (0.1 xG) were subpar, but I think this offensive production is sustainable and improvable in better attacking environments.
Kulusevski’s on-ball defence is more than satisfactory for an attacking midfielder: he attempted the second highest amount of pressures in Serie A last season with 728 (22.3 p90), which summarizes his defensive work rate for Parma (who press a lot in their middle and defensive thirds).
He rarely tackles but is good at using his body to cover shadow and prevent passes, either through the middle (where he often had man-marking assignments this season) or in proximity of the right wing.
Kulusevski’s mobility allows him to cover a lot of ground: he’s more comfortable moving vertically rather than horizontally and his off-ball offence as a 10 is questionable (he failed to recognize the space ahead of him in this situation against Lecce), although his scanning is good enough for him to play there in the future.
He can attack the space behind the defensive line and create chances for himself or others in these situations but lacks the consistency of an elite off-ball attacking threat: for me this issue is due to his huge offensive load for Parma, but I also think he’s versatile enough for a team with better on-ball shot creators.
There isn’t much to say about his off-ball defence given the fact that he needs a bit of freedom to be effective in transition (although not as much as Gervinho, who is usually Parma’s most advanced player), but he does a decent job when retreating and tracking his opponent in the middle and defensive thirds.
My overall assessment of Kulusevski is positive: his forward passing and carrying in transition are already at an elite level and could improve any team’s offence, while his on-ball/off-ball defence are solid for a winger.
I think he can have a good impact in the same position for Juventus, but I don’t believe that he’s ready to be the primary shot creator for a team that needs a rebuild after contending and winning titles regularly.
I also have doubts on whether he can maintain such effectiveness when playing in the middle due to his technical level in small spaces, an inconsistent off-ball offence as a 10 (which may not fit well with the current forwards) and the contrasting attacking styles of Parma and Juventus, with the latter team controlling much more possessions due to its technical superiority and therefore facing more set defences.
Data from StatsBomb (via fbref.com)
Read all our other articles on Young Players here.