The Vancouver Whitecaps have signed Ghanaian midfielder Leonard Owusu. It happened while I was at work so everybody has beaten me to the punch on getting an article on it out but I will do my best to provide some insight that others haven’t already given. So sit back and relax as I steal all of Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic’s ideas! I kid, but you should read his article on the subject, he and the BTS boys are tragically under-followed for the level of work they are producing.
In 2018 Owusu appeared on the scene (one can only assume he was somewhere before then but finding information on lower league African football is very difficult) helping Dreams F.C gain promotion to the Ghanaian first division playing as a #10. Transfermarkt has him scoring 3 goals in 10 games but a Ghanaian source I saw had him with 5 goals and 5 assists in 10 games. Either way he was a stand out and we can rest assured that the Whitecaps latest signing is too good for the Ghanaian second division.
Sidebar! Is the Ghanaian Second Division Good?
No! The most recent CAF 5 year ranking (which determines how many clubs each nation sends to continental competitions) ranks the Ghanaian first division the 20th best league in Africa (out of 31 ranked nations, I can only assume the ones below 31 are SOL when it comes to continental competitions). You have to figure the second division is worse than that.
Career Summary Cont.
Owusu’s performances earned a move first on loan, and then permanently, to Israeli Premier League side F.C Ashdod. Ashdod then played him in almost the exact opposite role as the one he’d played in Ghana (which, I must say, is a bold recruitment strategy), deploying him as a defensive midfielder, and his offence dried up. He registered only a single assist in Israel and averaged 0.06 (not 0.6, 0.06) key passes per game.
Sidebar! Is the Israeli Premier League Good?
Yes, kind of! Israel are ranked 23/55 in the UEFA league coefficients, almost exactly in the middle. They are sandwiched between Kazakhstan (24) and Norway (22). It’s not exactly Serie A but players have moved from Poland (28), Switzerland (20), and Serbia (19) to MLS and been very successful.
Style of Play
So why on earth did the Whitecaps sign this player? Well, although he wasn’t directly creating very much, he was kicking ass at pretty much every other aspect of midfield play.
Owusu played over 40 passes per game with a 90% completion rate. A lot of those passes were progressive passes, meaning they bypassed defenders so he wasn’t just passing sideways. He had 6.9 recoveries per game (nice), 3.5 interceptions per game, and 2 tackles per game while winning a respectable 60% of his defensive duels. If you extrapolate his 6.0 passes into the final 3rd over a full 34 game season and stuck him in the 2019 Whitecaps he would take the team from the fewest passes played into the final 3rd to middle of the pack. Obviously he won’t play every minute of every game and there will probably be a bit of an MLS learning curve so expecting him to do that all by himself is unrealistic but the point is this is a player who wins the ball often, plays it forward frequently, and rarely looses it while doing so. That’s something the Whitecaps desperately needed last season. To quote Gangué-Ruzic:
“the Caps defence is far from their worries, because with an improved midfield, things should stand to change massively. Just to get an idea of how much the numbers could shift, consider this. On average, the Whitecaps conceded a goal every 11 shots against in 2019 (on target or not), which is a rate of around 8% (Caleb’s note: This was not luck, the Whitecaps limited the shot quality of opposition to attempts to the lowest xG per shot in the league in 2019). If they kept that same rate, but dropped from 20.1 shots a game to a 2019 league average of around 13.5 shots per game, they would have only allowed 37 goals, which would have tied them with LAFC for the best defensive total in all of the league.”
If Owusu can ensure that the Whitecaps spend more of the game in possession by winning the ball back and keeping it once he gets it then he will at the very least be making a significant defensive contribution, simply by denying the opposition a chance to attack Vancouver’s beleaguered backline.
Now all of this is not to say I don’t have reservations. His lack of production, even if he is playing in a defensive role, is certainly eyebrow raising. It will be intriguing to see if being played in a more advanced role (the Whitecaps are making noise that he will be deployed in a #8 role) frees him up to provide more direct service to forward players.
Speaking of forward players, this signing raises some questions for me about how the Whitecaps plan to generate offence in 2020. Assuming In-Beom and Owusu fill the #8 roles, that’s two players who’s strengths lend themselves better to shuttling the ball to the front three rather than being creators. In-Beom does offer some creation but he’s definitely better at getting the ball to the front three rather than playing the killer ball himself. This means they will be heavily reliant on the hold up play of Cavallini, and the playmaking abilities of Dájome and Reyna to make things happen in the final third. Is that a strategy that can work? it might, but I have some doubts. Cavallini’s hold up play is pretty good but he didn’t get many assists or key passes in Liga MX. MLS is a bit of an easier league so his numbers may come up but it does suggest that he’s more likely to pass the ball backwards and move into space than he is to play in a winger for a shot. Dájome and Reyna have shown a good ability to create big chances but have struggled to produce those chances in high numbers throughout their careers. Both Reyna and Dájome have more career goals than assists. They would both have to play relatively narrow for this set up to work. That’s fine for them as it plays to their strengths but it does mean that the width has to be provided by the fullbacks. I’m pretty confident Ali Adnan can do that on the left but I have serious doubts Jake Nerwinski can do that on the right. Georges Mukumbilwa might develop into the sort of player who could play that role but he’s only got about 10 professional minutes under his belt so relying on him would be a bad idea.
Owusu is an interesting player who offers skills that were sorely lacking in the 2019 Whitecaps. However he opens up some questions about how the team is going to be set up and how well his performances in Israel and Ghana transfer to MLS remains to be seen.