Window Shopping: Azzedine Ounahi Earned His World Cup Boost
12:32 PM EST on January 20, 2023
Welcome to Window Shopping, a recurring feature in which Defector highlights and analyzes some of the biggest players rumored for a big-money transfer each window. Each summer and January, we will take a look at these potential stars in order to answer two simple questions: Who the heck is this guy, and why is he worth so much money?
The World Cup's best story was likely that of Morocco's run to the semi-finals, as the Atlas Lions stood up and punched both Spain and Portugal in the mouth before falling to France in the final four. During that journey (the furthest any African team has made it in a World Cup, if you hadn't heard) a handful of the Moroccan players jumped off the screen to become intriguing targets for some of Europe's best and/or richest teams. There's perhaps no one who raised his own stock more than Azzedine Ounahi, the maestro who put in the best midfield performances in both the Spain and Portugal matches.
The 22-year-old midfielder currently plies his trade at Angers in France's Ligue 1, and the Black and Whites are pretty terrible. Currently mired in last place domestically and seven points off the safe zone in 16th place, Angers is not long for the top flight. In turn, this means that any influx of cash that it could get for Ounahi would surely help them stay up, by virtue of redistributing the funds to fill multiple weaknesses. It might not be enough, but Angers fits the profile of a club ready and likely willing to sell off its hottest commodity.
The timing couldn't be better for Ounahi himself. As he's riding the hype that comes from a successful World Cup run, the Moroccan has attracted interest both from Italy and England, and a move in the remaining 11 days of the January transfer window could completely change the path of his career. There's no other way to put this: While being in a top five league is helpful for a player's career, there's probably not a lower-profile spot in that group of leagues than being in a relegation candidate in France. Moving to either a top Italian side or a mid-table Premier League club would make Ounahi a more renowned player. This is the reality of European soccer, after all, wherein more money equals more eyeballs.
That's not to say that Ounahi will definitely be on the move in January. As each day passes and deadline day gets closer, it becomes more difficult for Angers to redistribute the money it would get for any potential sale, and losing one of its better players while in a relegation fight is a scary prospect. (The club could also agree to a deal where Ounahi is sold but then immediately returns to Angers on a six-month loan, a common agreement and one that has already been floated by at least one of the interested clubs.)
This makes Ounahi a prospect to monitor as clubs reach crunch-time during this unique January window. How much are clubs willing to spend for a player who has shown talent but not consistency, and how badly do they want him now, versus in the summer when he would likely be part of an Angers fire sale if the club were to finish in the relegation zone? The latter sounds like the more prudent option, but historically clubs have not been prudent when it comes to young players who had the types of World Cups that Ounahi did. I'd wager on him moving sooner than later, and then it will be time for a lot more people to become familiar with one of the breakout stars of the world's biggest tournament.
What Are The Rumors?
Ounahi's signature isn't going to cost prospective buyers too much of their transfer budgets; it looks like somewhere just north of €20 million would seal the deal with Angers. At least, that's where it appears to stand given Napoli's failure to secure the transfer over the past week; according to Fabrizio Romano, the current Serie A leaders bid just around €15 million, with no bite from the French side, despite the aforementioned provision that Ounahi would return until the end of the 2022-2023 season.
So, if Napoli won't push its bid further up, then that opens the window for other teams. Here's where Leeds United, and the ever-looming threat of Premier League money, comes into play. The Whites reportedly offered €22 million for Ounahi earlier this week, in hopes of bringing in the Moroccan to pair with Tyler Adams and Marc Roca in midfield. However, that report conflicts with a bit of reality for Leeds, as the club just broke its own club record for a transfer with the €41 million purchase of former Hoffenheim forward Georginio Rutter. Is there money left over for Ounahi?
If there isn't, then in comes Aston Villa. Perhaps not content with beating Leeds in the Premier League on Friday the 13th, the Villains might also swoop in to pip Leeds for Ounahi's signature. A recent report by L'Équipe stated that Angers' president Said Chabane flew to England to talk to an English side about Ounahi; it looks like that unnamed club was Villa, so there's a chance for movement for a move to Birmingham for the Moroccan.
Are These Rumors Bullshit?
As is the case with any World Cup breakout star, it really feels like a move for Ounahi is a matter of when, not if. There are a bit too many clouds around his potential destinations, however, to say with any certainty if the rumors of a January move are true. In the span of a week, he has been a near-lock to go to Napoli, but then also to Leeds, and now Aston Villa might be in the lead. When there is that much smoke, there's going to be a fire, but it's impossible to know where that smoke is coming from.
I would say, though, that if Ounahi were to transfer in January, it would be with that move back to Angers until the end of the season. He fits the player profile for that type of transaction: Young, playing for a club that needs both him and cash, and a player not fully formed as the midfielder he is going to become. So, even if he were to sign for Napoli or one of the English teams or anyone else this month, don't expect to see him lighting up the Premier League or the Serie A title race before the summer.
What Does He Do?
Give Azzedine Ounahi the ball, and things will happen. This is his best value, by a long shot. There aren't many midfielders at his age who are as smooth and controlled on the ball as he is, nor as willing to use that talent in the center of the park, where congestion occurs most often outside of the penalty box. The stats bear this out: He's in the top one percent of top flight central midfielders in terms of dribbles completed, averaging two-and-a-half per 90 minutes. He also gets into the box at a high rate, whether by dribbles or with smart off-ball movement: His average of 2.79 touches in the opposing penalty area is good for the 94th percentile.
He's also a classic shuttler of the ball: His teammates find him with progressive passes (those that move the ball at least 10 yards forward or into the penalty box) over four times a game, a high number for a player in the midfield. Though he's not quite as excellent at finding those passes himself, he still has a respectable amount of passes, both normal and progressive, per contest. And he's not afraid to shoot the ball once he's further up the field, though perhaps he should be (more on that in a second). Ounahi is your prototypical No. 8 midfielder, willing to break the lines either with his passes or his own runs, which can flummox his opposing counterparts, as he did Portugal in the quarter-finals of the World Cup:
What Doesn't He Do?
Once he has to shoot, Ounahi's weakness in attack shines through. He is not a goalscoring midfielder, which tends to be a luxury but still feels like a red flag for someone who spends so much time in the attacking third. His finishing is horrid, and all of those shots do not often turn into goals. A team likely wants someone who takes as many shots (1.59 per 90 minutes) as Ounahi does to convert at least some of them, but in 47 league matches since moving to Angers in the summer of 2021, the Moroccan has only scored two goals. At least this one, in his Ligue 1 debut against Lyon last season, was pretty nice:
If he can't score, though, there's always the chance for assists, where Ounahi is somehow worse. He's only notched one assist in his time in France, and for all the marvels at the World Cup, he didn't grab one there at all. (Part of that is that Morocco didn't score too many goals, though it's a real chicken-or-egg situation there.) This could come with time; Ounahi only has a season-and-a-half of top flight experience, and Angers isn't exactly drowning in goals, but it's the biggest weakness in his game, exarcebated by how often he does get into good positions.
On the other side of the field, Ounahi is a good interceptor of the ball but his physicality is lacking, and that shows up in his tackling stats: He barely notches one per 90 minutes, a figure that puts him in the bottom 15 percent for players in his position. Despite being six feet tall, he also is a poor presence in the air, which contributes to both his lack of goals (set pieces are the great equalizer, after all) and his defensive frailty. He's skinny for a tall player, so he could grow into his frame still, but right now, he's not a huge asset in either end of the field. Strictly, Ounahi's value comes in the middle part of the field and only really with the ball, which limits his potential barring some changes to his game.
How Does He Fit Into A Top Team?
Whereas last week's Window Shopping focused on the versatility of Jude Bellingham, this week's sees a much less versatile player in the spotlight. Ounahi really has just one role on a top side, and that is of a creative center midfielder who plays between the defensive pivots and the attacking line. He's not going to provide too much further up the field, nor will he shore up any defensive flaws a team might have. Instead, he will help shuttle the ball between the lines, find pinpoint passes to runners on either side (though preferably from the right side of midfield to the wingers and fullbacks on that third), and smoothly dribble around pressing opponents.
If that is what a club needs and wants from him, then Ounahi will find it easy to carve out a role in three-man midfields, where a manager can surround him with players who do all that he can't. In a two-midfield formation, though, the results might not be as clean. He simply doesn't have the physicality to be the more defensive of the pair, nor does he provide that incisive final ball or, god forbid, shot to create goals. (Not coincidentally, Morocco played with a three-man midfield at the World Cup, deploying Ounahi almost exclusively on the right side of that trio. It sure did work.)
Who Would Hate This Move?
Expensive transfers tend to shake things up, be it the dressing room, the roster hierarchy, the manager's position, the fans' outlook, and the domestic and international landscape. With that it mind, this section tries to determine who stands to lose from the potential transfer.
If Napoli misses out on Ounahi, that's probably fine. Gli Azzurri are flying high domestically, nine points up on second-place AC Milan and 10 over Juventus, who they just beat 5-1 last week. If he doesn't move there in the summer, Napoli can probably find another target and be just okay.
On the other hand, if Ounahi ends up at either Leeds or Villa, the other will hate missing out on a midfielder of his quality and profile. Both teams could use a playmaker in the center of the park, though Leeds probably more so given the Adams-Roca pairing; both of those players work better as a double pivot of defensive midfielders, so having some creativity next to or in front of them would open up the attack under Jesse Marsch.
I'm also going to break with the tradition of this section here to say who will not hate it if Ounahi moves to a transitional club, and that is the bigger clubs in Europe. Ounahi has not proved that he has "it" at the highest level, at least not consistently. Sure, he was great at the World Cup, but he hasn't been the most eye-catching prospect at Angers. If he does move to, say, Leeds and then shines there, the big six of England and perhaps teams on the continent in need or want of midfield depth could look his way in a year or two. And if he flops, well, then that saves them some money and time. Of course, if he succeeds after moving for a comparatively low price tag, the next move will be much more expensive, but that's probably a risk a club like Chelsea or Real Madrid, or whomever else is willing to take while in win-now mode.
Important signings are bound to be controversial, so here we include a representative example at each end of the spectrum of sentiments.
Where Does He Rank On The Defector Boom/Bust Scale?
Ounahi isn't a sure thing. He's too specialized, and too inexperienced, and too hyped due to his World Cup. There's a chance that he's the player he was for Morocco, and just needs a team that coalesces better than his club team. Almost as likely, he could have just had the form of his life at the exact right time, and who he is is actually who he has been since moving to France.
There's definitely talent there, so I tend to believe that he will fall somewhere between the two extremes, and perhaps closer to the World Cup performance than not. Given his affordable price tag and the potential to truly blow up at a new club, I think there are worse dice rolls for teams of Aston Villa's or Leeds's level. For these reasons, Azzedine Ounahi grades at a 51.1 on the Defector Boom/Bust Scale.