Searching for Pablo’s Successor: Ivan Oblyakov

In the introduction to this series, I laid out my case for Leeds to look to get another season out of Pablo Hernandez as a starting midfielder even if they are promoted to the Premier League. This would allow them to look for a successor to Hernandez who can train alongside and learn from him, whilst also playing a good amount of minutes as cover. If you haven’t read that piece, I recommend doing so before continuing with this one.

The first player I want to focus on, I found by using Hernandez’s profile on SmarterScout and utilising their ‘similar players’ function. I set the parameters to be a maximum age of 24; that they’d have played at least 1000 minutes this season; and that they’d fit in at Premier League benchmark.

One of the hottest prospects that came up was this man:

Ivan Oblyakov

Date of birth:05/07/1998 (21 years old)

Current club: CSKA Moscow

Career History: Zenit St Petersburg (youth), FK UFA, CSKA Moscow

Estimated transfer value according to Transfermarkt: £6.48m

Estimated wages according to Football Manager 20: £24k p/w

Oblyakov will be on the radar of many, due to the fact that he’s played regular football in one of the top leagues outside of the Top 5 European Leagues since the age of 18 and is now the captain of the Russian U21 side. This will mean that, whilst transfermarkt have him valued at £6.46m, one would expect that he’d command a fee in the region of £10m. Either way, I would expect him to be within Leeds’ price range if they’re playing with Premier League money, even in current circumstances.

In the SmarterScout comparison, we see similarities in the two areas mentioned in my introductory piece: ‘Attacking output’ and ‘Pass towards goal.’ Hernandez’s successor needs to be a ball progressor and a creator. As we can see, with his ‘attacking output’ rating of 87 and ‘Pass toward goal’ rating of 71, Oblyakov matches closely to Leeds’ playmaker-in-chief.

[Note here that I have used Oblyakov’s 18/19 season to compare as he played exclusively as a central midfielder in that season. This season he has split his minutes between central midfield and left midfield, meaning the sample size for his central midfield minutes isn’t a fair comparison with Hernandez.]

Digging Deeper

Having identified Oblyakov as a player similar in style to Hernandez, I looked into his stats comparative to the level he was playing at, as well as watching clips and one full-game to see if he passed both the statistical and the eye-test.

On the statistical front: firstly, we’ll look at progressive passes. I’ve already established in the first article that Hernandez is a monster when it comes to this metric. No other midfielder comes close to him for these.

In this case, I wanted to look at how often he progresses the ball relative to how often he plays non-progressive passes. I did this by comparing all central midfielders in the Championship for their passes per 90 vs the percentage of their passes which are progressive.

As you can see, Pablo is still ridiculous:

As an aside, I wanted to see if there were any u23s playing in the Championship this season that stood out. I highlighted all u23s in green. The three that caught my eye were the Derby duo of Kristian Bielik and Max Bird, the former progressing the ball a lot more often than the latter. However, considering Bird is only 19, it’s very impressive that he’s as involved in play as he is. The third player is Hull City’s Daniel Batty. It’s worth noting that all three of these players operate in slightly deeper midfield positions than Hernandez.

So, does Oblyakov match up?

Not quite. He is the fourth most involved in play passer of the other players aged 23 or under, but he plays a higher proportion of his passes sideways or backwards than Hernandez.

This doesn’t have to rule him out of our search, as players such as Reading’s John Swift and Fulham’s Tom Cairney also sit in that segment of the Championship graph and they would certainly be considered to be creative central midfielders who drive their team’s forward.

As such, it’s important to note the importance of tactical systems in a graph like this. If Swift or Cairney were playing in Pablo’s role for Leeds, perhaps they could be taking up a similar place on the graph.

Chance Creation

Let’s turn now to the primary statistic we’ll be using throughout this series regarding creativity: expected assists.

Again Pablo Hernandez is outstanding in this metric, putting up 0.31xA per 90. Only two players in the league rank higher than him here (curiously these two players are Izzy Brown (!) and Niclas Eliasson, who is a crossing machine), with Matheus Pereira — considered by many to be the league’s best attacking midfielder — way below Hernandez with 0.19 xA per 90.

In the Russian Premier League, Obylakov is averaging 0.18xA per 90. This is significantly below Hernandez, but almost the same as Pereira: a very impressive figure for a player so early in his development.

On the stats front, whilst Oblyakov doesn’t match up with Hernandez, I’m satisfied that he shows signs of being a similar type of player to be Pablo’s successor. Frankly, nobody in the age and price range we’re looking at is likely to match Pablo at this point, so we’re mostly looking at potential.

The Eye-Test

As mentioned above, I watched a good amount of clips of Oblyakov on the ball as well as watching him in the context of a full match.

My immediate thought upon watching him for the first time was that he’s very similar to Hernandez in stature and in the way that he moves. This was very encouraging. He’s diminutive, with a low centre of gravity and he carries the ball well with close control, keeping it away from his opponents.

He doesn’t dribble lots, also similarly to Pablo, but when he does he relies on control rather than pace to beat the defender. In the example below, he also uses his body well to shield it from the opponent before a quick shift of his feet takes him away.

During the full match I watched him in, I thought he looked like a very intelligent player who was always on the move, looking to find space in which he could receive the ball. On receiving it, his first thought was always to drive the team forwards, but if he couldn’t do that, he would play short, sharp passes to keep play moving.

In this clip, we see an example of how Oblyakov progresses his team forwards by finding space amongst a crowd of opposition players. Here, he plays a first-time pass out to the left midfielder before receiving it again on his chest, controlling well and playing as pass down the line to take out a defender. This demonstrates his intelligence and technical ability.

A key part of Hernandez’ game is his vision. He sees passes that others on the pitch don’t, or if they do, they don’t have the quality to pull them off. This season, his assists for Stuart Dallas at Stoke or Helder Costa against Cardiff are perfect examples of this. In the next clip, Oblyakov shows the kind of vision and execution Leeds will be hoping for from anybody who will need to step into Pablo’s shoes in the future:

Receiving the ball in a deep position with seven defenders between him and the goal, Oblyakov seemed to know exactly what he wanted to do straight away, clipping the ball into space to be volleyed home.

Producing moments of magic like this consistently is a real challenge for a young player, but he’s showing signs of that already with 13 assists from 12.35 xA in the Russian Premier League. This is an impressive figure for somebody of his age and it shows that he’s got the quality we’re looking for. I watched him play lots of ambitious passes in the final third across the clips I watched. Not all of them came off, such is the risk with passes like this. The key thing here is seeing them and having the confidence to attempt them.

Also, in the full game that I watched him in he picked up an assist by taking a quick free-kick into the box that caught out the entire defence of the opposition and even the TV director, as the goal was scored whilst they were still showing a replay for the foul. Looking through clips, I discovered he’s also scored directly in the same manner. This is an excellent sign that he’s thinking ahead of other players on the pitch.

Another thing that Hernandez has brought to Leeds is that he’s been a consistent goal threat from midfield, scoring the most from outside the box of any Leeds player in recent seasons as well showing good timing of his runs to get into the penalty area unmarked to score, notably his two goals against Millwall at Elland Road in 18/19.

The clips below show that Oblyakov can be deadly both inside and outside the box:

This reminds me of Pablo’s finish against Bristol City on the opening day of the season as he guides it into the top corner.

This goal shows Oblyakov’s excellent movement to ghost in behind the right back before finishing with aplomb.

His goals per 90 in the Russian Premier League is 0.1 over the last two seasons: some way behind Hernandez who is averaging 0.24 goals per 90. However, as I’ve mentioned earlier, we don’t need Oblyakov to match Pablo at this stage. He’s still very young, so it’s all about potential. Again, I think he shows potential as a goal threat.

So could he be Pablo’s Successor?

I’ve still got several other players that I’d like to look into before I decide who’d be my number one pick, but Oblyakov has been a brilliant player to look at first.

As mentioned earlier, he’s the Captain of the Russian u21 side, so there could be plenty of other teams tracking him. I think Leeds would be able to compete for him and the Premier League (which in this scenario we’re hoping Leeds are in!) would be a big draw for a young player like Oblyakov.

If I had been watching him with no other players in mind, I think he’d be a very good option to bring in as successor to Leeds’ talisman. If Leeds ever were to be genuinely linked with him, the fan base would have reason to be very excited.

You can follow Josh Hobbs on Twitter @JoshAHobbs.

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