Finding a Central Midfielder for Leeds United: Orkun Kökcü
This piece from Josh Hobbs looks at Feyenoord midfielder Orkun Kökcü, and evaluates how he would potentially fit in at Leeds United under Jesse Marsch…
It’s well known that Leeds United have needed a new central midfielder for some time. In fact, Adam Forshaw was the last permanent first-team signing in that position and he was bought in January 2018. That means eight transfer windows have now passed since a central midfielder has joined the club. Surely, this summer will finally see that streak end.
I’ve written about potential midfield signings in the past, and Lewis O’Brien was a target that I felt would have fitted perfectly in Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds team. Now that the club is managed by Jesse Marsch and playing a different style, with a double pivot in midfield, the type of player Victor Orta should be signing for the midfield is different.
The make-up of a double pivot midfield pair tends to involve two different types of profile. Usually, one more defensively disciplined player, and another more concerned with ball progression. Both have to defend the area in front of the back four, but don’t necessarily have to be ‘defensive’ midfielders in terms of being primarily a ball-winner. However, they won’t roam around the pitch in the way that the number eights did in Bielsa’s system. I wrote about this recently, explaining how Mateusz Klich has adjusted to this new role.
There continue to be rumours about Kalvin Phillips’ future at Leeds, but it seems most likely that he will stay at the club and be the first-choice in the more defensive of the pivot roles. As such, I think Orta will be looking at signing a midfielder to play the second, more progressive role. Over the next few months, I will assess some candidates for this position, similar to the series I wrote before the 20/21 season on finding a successor to Pablo Hernandez.
Introducing Orkun Kökcü
The first player that I will look at is Feyenoord and Turkey midfielder, Orkun Kökcü. The 21-year-old was tenuously linked to the club last summer, but none of the prominent Leeds journalists have ever mentioned him as a target. When I saw that link last summer, I didn’t think he would fit into the team but now that Leeds are set up differently, I think he is a very interesting option.
Kökcü is a product of the famous youth system of Feyenoord and has been a part of the first-team since the 18/19 season. Since then, he has steadily increased his playing time and influence in the Eredivisie, with this season being by far his best in senior football.
During the 21/22 season he has played 44 times in all competitions, racking up 3,758 minutes in total. He has scored 9 times and assisted 8 goals — very healthy numbers for a player operating in a deep position.
When I wrote an article for Analytics FC recently on players ready to make a step from the Eredivisie to a higher quality league, he was one of those included, as the TransferLab algorithm rated him as the best deep-lying midfielder in the league.
Here is his profile as a deep playmaker, compared to other midfielders in Eredivisie:
As you can see, in all the possession metrics, such as progressive short passing, diagonals, through balls and one touch passes, he has been absolutely outstanding this season. In fact, data-wise, there are few players in Kökcü’s age-group who come close to him as a deep playmaker.
So, he’s excellent according to the data. How does this all look when we check the tape?
A note on running style
Before getting into the nitty gritty of what Kökcü does, I just wanted to touch on something I’ve noticed in his running style. To my eye, he appears to have an ‘ambling’ style to his gait. His feet seems to be quite wide apart as he runs, almost as if his feet would point diagonally outwards if his legs where together.
Here are a few clips where you can judge this for yourselves:
This may just be an aesthetic issue but I would say that he doesn’t look like a particularly graceful mover. With that in mind, I would wonder whether he might be susceptible to injuries by twisting sharply or planting his foot awkwardly.
I checked his injury history on Transfermarkt and discovered that he suffered from ankle problems last season, which is a little bit concerning, given my original feeling that his running style could make him susceptible to that kind of injury.
Notably though, he has barely missed a game this season. This isn’t an issue to make me overly concerned, but it’s something to keep in mind.
A regular option in build-up
As explained earlier, Kökcü’s role in the double pivot is primarily to move the ball forwards. Of course, passing the ball is a major part of that but first he needs to be able to receive it well. This is an area of central midfield play which often gets overlooked but is vitally important. If a player doesn’t regularly make themselves an option to receive the ball in the build-up phase, they cannot effectively progress the ball.
As you can see from the heatmap above, Kökcü favours the left but he is clearly getting the majority of his touches in the centre of the pitch. This is what we want to see from a midfielder heavily involved in build-up and progression.
Here are some clips to demonstrate his behaviour in receiving the ball:
As you can see, he is very good at positioning himself behind the first line of the opposition press. He does not get stuck behind the ‘cover shadow’ of opponents, where it is impossible for centre backs to pass to him because the passing lanes are blocked — instead, he shuffles across or drops deep in order to receive the ball in space.
His first-touch is worth mentioning from the clips, as there are two different ways in which he receives the ball here. In all cases, he is receiving the ball with his back foot. This gives him the option of spinning as he receives, in order to play forwards, or taking a ‘negative’ touch, where he moves back towards his own goal to move away from opposition pressure. From there, he can then turn and play forwards, shift it wide to a full-back, or return the ball to centre backs.
He is very good at making the right decision on whether to turn or whether to take a negative touch, and this is down to his strong awareness of his surroundings. Note that he often turns his head to ‘scan’ the area around him, informing him of the position of both his opponents and his teammates.
Breaking lines and progressing the ball
After receiving the ball and making the afore-mentioned decision of which direction to turn, the Turkish international always wants to move the ball forwards if he can. As shown earlier in the data profile, Kökcü is outstanding as a ball-progressor. He excels at playing the ball through the opposition lines and is very aggressive in trying to do this as often as possible.
To illustrate this, here is another graph from Analytics FC showing midfielders in the Eredivisie, plotting passes per 90 against line breaking passes.
It’s important to note that the line breaking passes metric is quality-based on TransferLab, meaning that rather than it being a volume metric, it attempts to quantify how that particular action from a player contributes to their team’s expected goals.
As you can see, the Feyenoord midfielder is one of the best performers. He makes the second most passes per 90 in this group, whilst adding the fifth most to his team’s expected goals through line breaking passes.
Here’s how that looks on the pitch:
In the above clips, see how Kökcü is often the deepest player apart from the back four. He likes to position himself so that he has all the attacking options in front of him. From there, he often tries to play crisp passes into the feet of those attackers. Importantly, many of these passes go through the centre of the pitch or into the ‘half-spaces’.
It’s easy to imagine how this would work well in Marsch’s system for Leeds, as The Whites will now be compressing space in his narrow system rather than holding width as they did under Bielsa. Having a player capable of making passes like this on a regular basis would serve Marsch’s attacking midfielders and strikers very well, as they could be receiving the ball behind the opposition midfield and able to turn with defences back-pedalling.
Creating chances from deep
Alongside moving the ball forwards for others to create and score, the 21-year-old is a superb creator in his own right. As shown already, he often plays the ball to the feet of attacking midfielders, but when the moment is right, he will look to play a through ball over the top to penetrate the opponent’s defensive line.
Here are all the chances he has created in open play this season:
The chances created map shows that he isn’t a player that favours drifting out wide to create. Also, whilst there are some chances created from just outside the box, he tends to continue to do what he does in build-up, by staying in a deep position and playing forwards.
There are a number of passes played out towards the corner of the box, and it should be said that these are ‘chances created’ because Feyenoord have wide players who like to cut inside and shoot. Therefore, they receive the ball from their playmaker, taking a touch inside and letting fly.
Here’s a few clips of how Kökcü creates chances:
In the examples above, note that whilst he can play balls over the top to attackers, when the time is right, he will advance with the ball and look to play through balls. Although he isn’t a hugely athletic player, he has good close control which helps him when carrying the ball in central areas, as he is able to shift the ball quickly away from opponent’s challenges.
Alongside his creativity in open play, the Turk is an excellent set-piece taker. With it seeming highly likely that Leeds will lose Raphinha in the summer, they may well be losing their best set-piece taker. In Kökcü, they could sign a specialist, with four of his assists for Feyenoord this season having come from corners and free-kicks.
The clips above show that he is dangerous with in-swingers and out-swingers. He is capable of getting excellent whip and pace on his deliveries, making them difficult to defend and very enticing for teammates to attack.
Threat from range
Another aspect of his play in attacking phases is his threat from long-range shooting. His nine goals from this season haven’t all been from outside the box, but he is somebody who shoots from distance regularly, as shown by his shot map below.
The ‘x’s signify blocked or off target shots, whilst the dots are on target and the ‘g’s are goals.
There are obviously a lot of shots from range which haven’t tested the keeper, so Kökcü could be a frustrating player in this regard. In the analytics community, shots from range have a bad reputation, due to how unlikely they are to result in goals. However, it is important to have players that offer a regular threat from distance as if opposition defenders know there isn’t imminent danger from shots, they will act differently to how they do if they feel they need to move to block a shot, potentially creating space elsewhere.
As I’ve noted in a few comments, I would have some concern about Kökcü’s physicality. The ‘ambling’ running style is married with a lack of pace, which could be a problem both in terms of fitting into an intense style of play at Leeds, and the fact that the Premier League is the most physically demanding league in the world. I also feel that he can be weak in challenges, both when trying to hold off opponents and in trying to win the ball.
Being that he would have a defensive role to play in the double pivot, this is something to keep in mind. However, I would argue that it isn’t as much of an issue now that Leeds aren’t playing a man-marking system. If they were, I would rule Kökcü out as an option for this reason. Now, his defensive contribution would be more about positioning and moving with the pressing unit as a whole. As long as he is able to keep up with that, I don’t think this issue is something that makes him a bad option under Marsch.
It’s always important to asses the ‘deal’ when deciding whether moving for a player is right or not. In Kökcü’s case, he is a player Feyenoord know is highly likely to attract offers. However, they are in a position of strength, given that his contract runs to 2025.
Transfermarkt currently values him at £15.3million. It should be noted that Teun Koopmeiners was valued at over £16million on the site before he moved to Atalanta for less than £13million. I would argue that the Dutchman is better than Kökcü but AZ Alkmaar did not have the same protection of the long contract and are also not as financially well off as Feyenoord, who are one of The Netherlands’ biggest clubs.
With that in mind, I would say that £15million would be a good deal for Kökcü but I could see Feyenoord trying to push the deal towards the £20million mark. That would be the absolute peak of what I would want to spend on him and once bidding got to around £18million, I would want to carefully asses whether other options might be better value.
One final thing that I think it’s important to touch on is that there is a portion of Leeds’ fan-base that would find the idea of signing a Turkish player difficult, due to the murders of Chris Loftus and Kevin Speight, before the UEFA Cup semi-final against Galatasaray in 2000.
Orta has alluded to it being ‘politically difficult’ for Leeds to sign a Turkish player before, as he spoke about his like of Okay Yokuslu last season. Personally, I don’t see it as an issue. I can see that many Leeds fans would never want to do business with Galatasary, but I wouldn’t rule out any player based on nationality.
I did run a Twitter poll on this recently to gauge the view of others and found that 17.5% of over 1,500 participants did feel that Leeds shouldn’t sign a Turkish player.
I think this would be a shame, but clearly it is something Orta is aware of and the club would weigh this issue carefully.
One thing I am confident about is that — whether or not it’s with Leeds — Orkun Kökcü will be playing in a top five European league next season.