Is Juan Foyth the perfect replacement for Ben White?
Over the last couple of weeks, reports have been circulating that Leeds would like to take Juan Foyth on loan from Tottenham should they fail to convert Ben White’s loan to a permanent deal.
On reading that news, my first reaction was ‘he’d be my first-choice’. However, as I thought about it, I soon realised that I didn’t have much to go on in terms of reasoning. The fact that he’d played under Pochettino was pretty much it.
That isn’t a bad reason of course, but I thought it would be good to look into him further and see whether he really would be the perfect replacement for Ben White.
Of course, all of this is under the assumption that Leeds get promoted. If they don’t, we can forget Foyth as a realistic option.
What does White bring to Leeds United?
In order to best assess, Foyth, we first need to look at what White has brought to Marcelo Bielsa’s system this season.
- Interceptions (excellent anticipation)
- Covering in behind
- One-vs-one defending
- Superb in possession/build-up play
- Diagonal balls to the wings
- Carrying the ball forwards
Anybody who has watched White this season has observed a mercurial footballer. He is a superb front-foot defender although he does have an aerial weakness, often struggling with crosses into the box to such an extent that Leeds have had problems defending set-pieces.
As well as being a brilliant defender, he has been one of the best in the division with the ball at his feet. The graph below shows defensive output (all defensive actions per 90) plotted against passes per 90:
As you can see, White is one of the most involved defenders in build-up in the division while still being above average for defensive output.
Considering that Leeds have the highest average possession in the league, this tells the story of how White defends on the front foot. He constantly gets in front of forwards to steal the ball away and keep his side in possession. This is backed up by the fact that he ranks in the 99th percentile for defensive duels per 90.
In terms of his play on the ball, he is extremely comfortable receiving it from the goalkeeper and he progresses the ball forwards comfortably. As well as by passing, he does this by carrying the ball out from the back. His assist for Patrick Bamford away at Luton was the perfect example of this.
Leeds favour keeping the ball, but if they can get in behind their opponents early, they will look to do so. White himself recently said in an interview that his first thought on receiving the ball is whether he can play a diagonal pass to Jack Harrison or a ball over the top for Patrick Bamford to chase. In fact, both he and Liam Cooper have played passes like this fairly regularly. Anybody coming in to replace White will be tasked with playing these passes as well.
Can Foyth provide these?
Before looking further into whether Foyth could be that player, I ran Smarterscout’s player comparison.
It should be noted that I have used Foyth’s 18/19 season, as that is the one in which he played the most minutes for Tottenham. Even so, he still played only 737 minutes which isn’t ideal for comparison. We’d prefer to use a minimum of 1000 minutes for any statistical comparison.
As you can see, Foyth ranks highly for ball retention, and his and White’s spider graphs (used to denote ‘style ratings’) look extremely similar. This is likely to be because Pochettino’s pressing style fits quite closely with Bielsa’s. Note that Foyth gets a 99 rating for disrupting opposition possessions to Ben White’s 93. From that same season, Wyscout ranks Foyth in the 90th percentile for defensive duels and interceptions per 90.
In possession, he’s less impressive than White in terms of passes per 90 and this is reflected that his ‘Link-up’ rating is lower than White’s. However, he did rank in the 88th percentile for progressive runs per 90. This shows that he could take on White’s responsibilities in that regard.
Notably, both players are also similar in terms of White’s biggest weakness — aerial duels. Both sit in the 20th percentile for aerial duel win percentage. If Leeds do sign Foyth, don’t expect him to be an improvement in this area.
The Eye Test
I will focus primarily on the eye test from this point on as I don’t want to dwell too much on stats with Foyth having not played enough minutes to make them completely reliable.
In order to write this report, I watched Foyth in full games against Chelsea and Huddersfield to get an idea of how he’d play in a dominant performance and in a game where he’d have to do more defending.
I also watched clips of him conducting specific actions that would are important to judge whether he could be White’s replacement.
Out of Possession
As I highlighted earlier, White’s interceptions have been very important for Leeds winning quick turnovers.
I didn’t think Foyth was quite as aggressive in winning the ball back as White but that could be to do with tactical instructions. Also, Tottenham are not as dominant in the Premier League as Leeds are in the Championship.
I did feel that Foyth would be completely capable of playing the role from a defensive standpoint though.
In this example, Foyth was running down the touchline back towards his own goal when he spotted that his opponent wanted to make a pass inside him.
Despite facing the wrong way at the time the pass was played, he managed to turn quickly and get to the ball ahead of the Huddersfield forward. He then played the ball inside to Wanyama.
In this next example, he positioned himself excellently to stop Eden Hazard breaking away.
The Belgian attempted to flick the ball over Foyth’s head but as Foyth had left a gap between himself and Hazard he was able to turn quickly and get to the ball before his opponent.
From there, he played the ball back to Sissoko, who passed to Eriksen. Spurs were then in a dangerous attacking position as Eriksen could attack the Chelsea backline.
Examples like this show that Foyth can react quickly in order to steal the ball back.
Another aspect of White’s defensive play is his awareness in knowing when to sweep in behind rather than going to intercept.
Here we see Alvaro Morata bursting forwards. Rather than attempting to challenge him, Foyth saw that Toby Aldeweireld was better placed to do so and ran to cover the centre.
As the attack continued, he kept his eyes on the danger of Morata, whilst making sure he covered the middle of the pitch. Aldeweireld held up Morata and, by the time support arrived and a cross came in, Foyth was able to head it away. This displayed mature defending and highlighted his awareness.
Finally, he looked good marking strikers with their backs facing towards him.
Here Morata had the ball at his feet and immediately looked to turn. However, Foyth positioned himself half a step back from him, allowing him to cut off the option to turn to the left or the right. As Morata held the ball for the moment, Foyth nipped in and stole it away.
I don’t think Foyth is as impressive with the ball as White. He isn’t bad, he simply isn’t as brave with his passing options in the same way that White is. Once again, though, I did see some examples of him doing the things mentioned as important.
In games where Leeds are controlling the ball, Foyth would need to be confident to pass the ball into midfield.
In this example, Tottenham had a positional attack situation, with Huddersfield set in their defensive shape. Foyth played the ball through the gap to Dele Alli, breaking the midfield line and creating a dangerous situation for Spurs. It should be noted that Huddersfield left too big a gap. But Foyth had to zip the pass into Alli’s feet to take advantage of it.
Here we see that he’s capable of more difficult passes, even under pressure. As Thomas Muller sprinted to press him, Foyth played a pass to the feet of Lucas Moura (out of picture). This broke the Bayern press and allowed Tottenham to drive into space in the Bayern half.
Another thing that’s important under pressure is the ability to take a player on if needed. As Leeds pass the ball around at the back, they are often pressed as teams see this as their opportunity to force a mistake and score. They then drop into a mid or low-block if they don’t win it. White’s confidence on the ball has been exceptional and he has handled this far better than Pontus Jansson did previously.
As an example, cast your mind back to White being pressed by Stoke’s Lee Gregory. White simply swiveled his hips and left the Stoke forward on the floor before passing inside.
Foyth showed similar confidence here. As his opponent raced towards him to press, he simply dropped his shoulder and left him behind.
He was then able to play the ball into Moussa Sissoko, taking the midfield out of the game.
As for carrying the ball, he didn’t really do this at all against Chelsea but it’s not very surprising that he played more conservatively in that game. Looking through clips, there are plenty of examples that show he’s comfortable and capable of doing this.
In this instance, he won the ball after some good one-vs-one defending. Rather than passing to the midfield options in his immediate vicinity, he saw the chance to launch an attack himself and drove into space.
Carrying the ball into the centre circle, he played a through ball for Danny Rose to chase with the entire left-hand side of the field wide open.
Foyth doesn’t seem as confident to play the diagonal balls as White, preferring to pass sideways or on the floor to midfield. I did find a few examples to show that he can do it but I wouldn’t say it’s a feature of his game and it’s something he would need to add if playing for Leeds.
I’m sure Tottenham fans would probably argue with this but I personally think White is better than Foyth. This is despite the fact that he hasn’t played at Premier League level yet and that Foyth is an Argentine international.
However, I think White has the potential to be an elite centre back and I’m not sure yet if Foyth will be. The fact that he’s been unable to make a position stick at Tottenham shows that he still has a lot of development ahead of him.
Of course, White is by no means a finished article but the fact that Foyth might be moving away from Spurs whilst the top clubs chase Ben White tells the story. If Leeds could somehow buy White, that would be the dream scenario.
That being said, Foyth is certainly an excellent young talent and if Leeds do need to replace White, as looks most likely, I think he’d be a great option. Leeds already have a lot of money committed in fees this summer, as well as potentially needing to make another centre back signing. Because of this, a loan would be a good option and there are unlikely to be better players than Foyth available.
One thing Victor Orta will want to avoid, though, is another situation like the one Leeds have with White. They’ve developed a player who had never played in the Championship to one that elite clubs want to buy. If they manage to take Foyth, who has already played a good number of minutes at the top level, develop him a similar amount, then they’d have next to no chance of keeping him going forwards. Foyth might be the perfect solution for next season but Leeds will want a long-term option after that.
You can follow Josh Hobbs on Twitter @JoshAHobbs.
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