In this piece, Josh Hobbs looks at Dutch youngster Noa Lang who has been linked with Leeds United this window…
Before the end of the season, it seemed like we might have a fairly decent handle on who Leeds’ main transfer targets were. Stade Brest’s Romain Perraud and Romain Faivre had both been mentioned by The Athletic’s Phil Hay. Ryan Kent is a long-term favourite of Marcelo Bielsa. Since then, all those names have been mentioned less and less with Perraud looking likely to move to Southampton and Leeds playing their cards very close to the chest on their dealings.
One name that keeps cropping up, though, is Netherlands U21 international Noa Lang. The Dutchman moved from Feyenoord to Ajax as a 14-year-old and made his first start in the Eredivisie in December 2019 becoming the first player in 60 years to score a hat-trick for Ajax on debut. However, this did not lead to him becoming a star at the Dutch giants as might have been imagined. Instead, Ryan Babel was brought in on loan in January and Lang made a temporary move to FC Twente before the COVID19 pandemic ended the season prematurely.
When football returned to the Netherlands, Ajax signed Antony Dos Santos for big money, adding to their options of David Neres and Dusan Tadic to play on the flanks. Seeking regular minutes, Lang pushed for a move and a loan with an option to buy at €6m was agreed with Club Brugge. After a season where he delivered 17 goals and 8 assists which concluded with Brugge winning the title, this was an option that the Belgian club were all to happy to exercise this option. This does not mean that Lang isn’t available. It simply means that he won’t come cheap and will be in the region of a club record sale for the Belgian Champions.
Before going any further in this piece and exploring why Lang has caught the eye of Victor Orta, I need to address the elephant in the room. Firstly, Lang has a reputation in the Netherlands as a bit of a party boy and is thought to be arrogant. Looking through a few forums, I found that a lot of criticism was due to him ‘acting black’. This is a strange criticism in the first place and becomes stranger when considering the fact that he is of mixed-race descent, with his father hailing from Suriname, South America’s most ethically diverse country and previously a colony of the Netherlands.
Whilst it sounds like there is some prejudice against Lang, sadly, the reputation for the bad attitude can’t simply be cleared up there. Many will have seen the controversy surrounding him after Club Brugge won the title when he had scored the crucial third goal against fierce rivals Anderlecht. Lang was videoed singing a song about Anderlecht which had anti-Semitic connotations. When the story broke, neither he nor his club apologised for this event. Instead, they dismissed it as simply about Anderlecht without acknowledging the problematic nature of the song or showing any willingness to engage with the issues.
Some people have branded him anti-Semitic for this action, whilst others feel that he’s merely shown immaturity and obnoxiousness. Knowing that he is strongly linked with Leeds, the whole affair is very disappointing and is something we would want to see him apologise for and certainly never happen again.
It may well be that Leeds don’t want to go near him after this event but he has been linked on several occasions since then, so it seems they are not deterred. With that in mind, I’ve prepared a scout report purely on him as player, as he’s a footballer I really enjoy. I will caveat this in saying that I am uncertain about him as a person. I don’t have many issues with his perceived attitude and I would hope that the senior pros in the team would put an arm around him and help him grow up, as they have with Ian Poveda — who Patrick Bamford revealed on a podcast was regularly arriving late for training until told by his teammates to get in line. Nevertheless, the song is another issue and one that makes me uncomfortable. If he would address this maturely and learn why it was wrong, that would go a long way, in my opinion.
With that addressed, onto the player.
We already have four wingers… Why do we need Lang?
After 3 seasons on loan, Jack Harrison is expected to be officially announced as a Leeds United player in the next few weeks with a deal of around £11m agreed in the terms of his loan. His performances this season have made that deal look an absolute snip. On top of this, Raphinha stood out as one of the league’s finest wingers after signing from Rennes. Leeds also have options in Helder Costa and the aforementioned Ian Poveda, but unfortunately, the quality drop between those two and the starting pair is significant.
Costa showed flashes of his quality, particularly in a strong start to the season but ultimately dropped off in a big way after Raphinha displaced him from the starting eleven. Meanwhile, Poveda is still young and raw. He has brought energy and drive in his substitute appearances but his decision making needs a lot of work and he isn’t trusted to start matches at this stage.
I would suggest that Lang is earmarked to replace one of these two, as whilst he was competing in a league of lesser quality, he would surely be more trusted to start games than Poveda and I would back him to deliver more quality than Costa. If he is brought in, I would imagine Poveda could be loaned out for experience or the club could look to recover some cash by trying to sell Costa.
More than that though, I believe that Leeds are interested in Lang because he would bring a different kind of profile to Bielsa’s attack. Over the course of the season, the Dutchman operated along the front-line for Brugge — being used on the right and even as a centre forward at times but primarily starting on the left. However, he plays nothing like Jack Harrison does on the left. First of all, Lang is right-footed, which makes a change to every other winger that Leeds currently have.
There is more to it than that. Here is Harrison’s strongest profile on Analytics FC’s TransferLab:
This has him down as a ‘classic winger’. He scores very highly for creative metrics, sitting in the 94th percentile for key passes and his heatmap shows that he makes the majority of his touches on the left flank.
Conversely, Noa Lang excels in the ‘wide playmaker’ profile:
In this case, his stats are converted to a ‘Tier 1’ standard, which equates to Europe’s Top 5 Leagues. Compared to Pro League forwards only, he looks even more impressive. As we can see, the ‘wide playmaker’ profile makes goal threat more prominent, an area where Lang performs well, hitting the 84th percentile for expected goals. He also sits in the 94th percentile for touches in the box whilst his heatmap shows him making far more touches in-field than Harrison. This begins to paint the picture of the differences in traits between the two players, despite both lining up on the left wing.
When it comes to goal threat, Harrison just had his best season for Leeds. He racked up 6.6 xG from 47 shots. This comes out at a very strong 0.14 xG per shot, meaning he wasn’t taking a lot of wasteful shots but getting high-value chances. His return of 8 goals meant that he over-performed this but not unsustainably so.
As his map shows, a high proportion of his shots come from the left hand side of the box. He took a few efforts from outside the box but mostly he was shooting from inside the penalty area.
Thinking back to the goals he scored, there were some fine finishes, like his goal away to West Brom — shooting into the top-corner after a combination with Bamford — and his shot across the keeper away to Newcastle. There were also some open goal tap-ins, such as the opener at home to Sheffield United and the third goal at Leicester.
Lang’s shotmap is a lot busier. His shot volume is more like that of a striker as he shoots 2.58 times per 90, compared to Harrison’s 1.51 attempts per 90. For reference, Patrick Bamford takes 2.69 shots per 90. Of course, we need to keep in mind that Lang has been playing for a dominant team in his league but his tendency to shoot can’t be denied.
In terms of the shot locations, he shoots from outside the box a lot more often and it’s notable that a number of these shots are blocked. This is likely because Club Brugge have faced a lot of deep defences this season but perhaps suggests that Lang has taken shots on when it’s not the right option. However, it’s important to state that Lang also averages 0.14 xG per shot, which shows that even though he’s outshooting Harrison considerably, in terms of volume, he’s still getting very good value for his efforts.
It’s also impossible to miss the fact that he’s clinical from the right of centre of the box. This is an area of the pitch that Harrison doesn’t often shoot from and an area you wouldn’t expect somebody playing primarily on the left to take a lot of shots from. This is because he doesn’t hold his position on the left in the same way that Harrison does. He just drifts into space in the box. Once he gets the ball in that position, he wants to shoot across the goalkeeper and find the bottom left corner. As well as this, he has also scored a number of high-value, close-range efforts where he darts into the middle to get across defenders and finish low crosses.
These clips show a specific technique that I noticed when watching him. He is excellent at shifting the ball out of his feet to get a snap shot away. In busy penalty areas, this is a very important skill to have and is something that Harrison doesn’t particularly excel in. Additionally to this, his ability to take shots early can catch goalkeepers out. The classic example of this in English football is Jermain Defoe, who often took his shots early and beat goalkeepers before they had the chance to react. Lang has an element of this in his game.
This ability to get shots away quickly is just one part of what makes Lang so clinical in the box. He also possesses the movement and speed of thought of a top goalscorer and seems very calm in front of goal, ensuring to choose his finish carefully.
Here is a selection of his goals from 20/21 to show that he’s capable of scoring a variety of types of goals:
It seems obvious to me that adding another consistent goal threat to the squad is a big part of why the product of De Toekomst seems to be high on Orta’s List. Importantly, Leeds had a variety of regular goalscorers beyond Patrick Bamford: Stuart Dallas, Jack Harrison, Raphinha and Rodrigo all scored more than 5 goals in the Premier League. In Lang, though, they could have a player capable of contributing double figures with a decent amount of minutes on the field.
It’s worth mentioning the fact that Lang over-performed his xG by just under 4 goals. He may not be able to keep up that level of finishing performance going forwards but my feelings are that his finishing technique is excellent and he could be a player who regularly beats his xG, although probably not by as many goals as this season. Even if he doesn’t, his movement will still mean he gets a lot of chances and even matching or slightly under-performing xG will make him a regular scorer anyway.
As we’ve now established, Lang takes up extremely different positions to Harrison and this plays out in the chances he creates as well as the chances he gets himself.
Here’s a plot showing the open play chances created by Jack Harrison last season:
Given that Harrison holds width on the left, it’s not surprising to see the huge majority of his chances coming from high and wide. There are a lot of crosses and cutbacks as well as a lot of passes backwards to set up shots from the edge of the box.
Lang, on the other hand, has created almost nothing from crosses. This is primarily because he doesn’t cross the ball very often. In fact, he crosses almost exactly half as often as the Englishman with crosses taking up 13% of Harrison’s passes and only 6.5% of Lang’s.
Instead, Lang drifts into central spaces — the area most likely to produce an assist from, known as Zone 14 — to try and slip through balls in behind.
Here are some examples of how he looks to create from Zone 14:
Lang’s game is all about sharp movements to find space and little touches to keep the ball moving. He probes for gaps and then tries to slip cute passes beyond defenders. Whilst Rodrigo and Raphinha are capable of creating chances like these, they are much rarer from Harrison and with Pablo Hernandez sadly moving on, Leeds could do with another player with this kind of guile.
As well as creating from Zone 14, he shows elements of a different kind of wing-play, by creating a number of chances from cutbacks from the byline.
It’s notable that a lot of these chances come from when he has been playing on the right-hand side or when starting as a striker. Lang seems to make those darting runs into the right channel in this case, where he will then get his head up and look to find a forward for a close-range finish.
We can see his preference for his right-foot playing out here. When he’s on the left, he comes inside to use his stronger foot to create and when he’s on the right, he runs in behind to play back across goal.
Can he match Jack Harrison’s defensive intensity?
One thing that Jack Harrison is absolutely exceptional at is his ability to press. When considering a potential replacement, the question of whether Leeds can sacrifice his defensive intensity comes up.
Harrison is almost always used as the second striker out of possession, stepping up to join Bamford in pressing the opposition backline intently. He regularly forces turnovers and gives defenders no time on the ball.
It’s safe to say that Lang isn’t asked to do anywhere near as much pressing for Club Brugge as is expected of Harrison but I watched to see what his intensity was like in this regard.
As you can see in the clips above, he does press intelligently. He makes the right kinds of pressing runs, angling correctly to cut off options to pass forwards. However, the intensity in the clips is varying. There are some where he is sprinting out to the man and others where he seems to be jogging. If he were playing for Leeds, one would expect that he’d be sprinting at top speed for all of these or he’d be being bellowed at to do so if he wasn’t.
From a physical standpoint, the Dutchman is much more slight in his build than Harrison and doesn’t quite possess the power in his legs to burst forward in the same way. Leeds’ number 22 is three years older though and has developed significantly in this regard since arriving at Elland Road. I wouldn’t expect Lang to ever bulk up to the level of Harrison, given his body type, but he will perhaps need to put on a bit of muscle mass to cope with the physicality in the Premier League. This would benefit him both when it comes to defensive work and when trying to hold off defenders whilst carrying the ball.
Can he make the step up?
The next important question to ask is whether or not Noa Lang can make the step up in quality.
In Victor Orta’s first transfer window for the club, Leeds signed players from the Swiss Super League, Netherlands’ Eredivisie, Sweden’s Allsvenskan and Spain’s La Liga 2. They also signed a player from Club Brugge in left back Laurens DeBock. It’s fair to say that DeBock wasn’t even up to the standard of the Championship and the only signing who had any sustained impact out of that crop of bargain buys from foreign leagues was Gjanni Alioski. Of course, there were no questions over the talent of Samu Saiz but discipline issues and homesickness meant his effectiveness was limited and he left sooner than expected.
Whilst Lang would be moving from a lower quality league, he is clearly of a vastly higher level of ability than the types of players Leeds have bought from similar leagues before. The TransferLab profile of Lang showed that his data output would still translate as a strong Premier League level attacker and he was voted the Pro League’s Young Player of the Year. With the aforementioned transfers, Leeds had a clear strategy to try and find bargains that would either perform well enough in the league to get Leeds promoted or that they could sell on for a profit. In Lang’s case, he will command a very high fee for a Pro League player because the question is not whether he has the ability to play in a top five league but rather when he will make the move.
This deal would make sense for Leeds to do now because they already have Jack Harrison who they can trust to play the majority of minutes. Lang could be brought in slowly, without immediate pressure to start lots of games. He could initially be used as an option from the bench for when a different attacking profile is required but in time he could genuinely compete with Harrison for a starting role. Many top teams utilise different players depending on the opposition. Lang would be the perfect choice to play against teams dropping deeper, where his guile, movement and clinical touch around the box could unlock stubborn defences, where Harrison can sometimes be a little too predictable.
In my mind, whether Lang is good enough is not a question. I’m completely sold that he’d improve Leeds’ forward options significantly. It’s especially helpful that he can play on either wing and even up front and I could see him playing a lot of minutes. The issue is more whether Leeds want to take a chance on his character, rather than his ability.
You can follow Josh Hobbs on Twitter @JoshAHobbs.
Thanks to Analytics FC for the Jack Harrison and Noa Lang profiles.
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