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Ruslan Malinovskyi: Euro 2020’s form player?

It is incredibly rare to find Cristiano Ronaldo on a football pitch, and for him not to be the most dangerous player on it. Perhaps only the showpiece clashes with Lionel Messi create such a dynamic.

However in the 2021 Coppa Italia Final, Ronaldo had little claim to being the game’s danger man. His Juventus team have been built around his status as one of history’s greatest, yet they have had little of the success they imagined would accompany him to Turin.

Despite winning the final, with Ronaldo kept relatively quiet, it was Atalanta who possessed the match’s lethal component. Ruslan Malinovskyi has flourished in the months after Papu Gomez’ departure, and since April can claim to be Europe’s in-form midfielder.

This summer he will be the spearhead of a fascinating Ukraine team, one with some very talented parts and could surprise with their collective effort. Rather like the Atalanta team he has become so integral to.

Italian Acclimatisation

Malinovskyi arrived in Bergamo in 2019 for £12.24 million, a fee at the time only bettered by two others in Atalanta’s history. The Ukrainian had spent four impressive seasons in Belgium with Genk, and was integral to the club’s league title win in 2018/19. Playing over three thousand league minutes that season brought returns of thirteen goals and eleven assists.

As has been expected of Atalanta, they operated shrewdly and creatively to bring such a talent in. Being twenty five, Malinovskyi was primed to step into Gian Piero Gasperini’s set up in a range of roles. He had proven himself as a destructive right winger/midfielder, able to receive the ball to feet and cut in towards goal. From there he could exercise his lethal left foot.

Atalanta’s system is cultured for such a player. Playing a 3-4-3 that moulds into a 3-4-1-2, Malinovskyi was perfectly suited to operating as one of those attacking midfielders behind the striker. At the time of his arrival however, the mercurial Josip Iličić and beloved club captain Papu Gomez held dominion over these roles.

This restricted Malinovskyi’s playing time significantly, starting only twelve of the thirty four matches he played in in Serie A that season. Interestingly some of these appearances came in a deeper role, where Malinovskyi was tasked with feverishly pressing and harrying opposition midfielders in order to rotate one of Remo Freuler or Marten de Roon.

Nevertheless, the league campaign returned eight goals and three assists for Malinovskyi. Proving himself to be a capable deputy to the irrepressible Iličić and Gomez was a perfect way of acclimatising him to the new league. Gasperini has been masterful in this method of bedding in new players. His control and relationship with the likes of Malinovskyi, Luis Muriel and Mario Pašalić when they have found minutes hard to come by, is testament to this strength.

One could be forgiven for sympathising with Malinovskyi. He had joined a team in its pomp, and one with a trusted formula. Breaking in would be no easy task, especially in his preferred position. The 2020/21 season however would return that faith.

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Stepping up to the plate

The start of the 2020/21 season bared a familiar resemblance for Malinovskyi. He started only one of Atalanta’s opening five Serie A matches, and appeared off the bench in only two games in the Champions League group stages. One such European tie even saw Malinovskyi left as an unused substitute versus Ajax. This was despite Iličić remaining on compassionate leave.

However on 1st December 2020, club captain Papu Gomez was substituted at half time in the Champions League tie against Midtjylland, a moment that signalled the end of Gomez’ Atalanta career. The Argentine was sold to Sevilla in January 2021, closing a chapter but also casting a concerning eye as to who could fill his shoes. Gomez had become one of Italy’s finest creators, so losing him was a major blow to Atalanta.

After a brief coronavirus induced absence, Malinovskyi would start six of La Dea’s next ten league games after Gomez’ exit. These would only yield two goals, both coming in convincing team wins over Fiorentina and Benevento. His first eleven league appearances would bring only one goal for Malinovskyi, with no assists to return. He might have been benefitting for playing time since Gomez had left, but Malinovskyi had done little to replace his former captain’s attacking output.

Spring arrived, with Atalanta chasing top four football for the third successive year. In late March, as Inter Milan pulled clear at the top and the chasing pack congested, Malinovskyi and Atalanta exploded. A goal and an assist in a win over Hellas Verona in late March was the first in a sequence of ten games in which Malinovskyi would score or assist in each. At the time of writing, that streak remains intact. Atalanta have not lost in the league since a 1-0 defeat to Inter on the 8th March. Malinovskyi’s supernova turn of form has propelled the club into Europe for another season.

This run of six goals and nine assists in only ten games is unrivalled across the top five leagues in Europe. Not only has the volume been frightening, but the significance of the output notewirthy. Scoring the sole goal in a 1-0 win over Juventus, in a 1-1 draw with Roma, assisting twice in a 3-2 away win over Fiorentina. Add to this a rocket in the Coppa Italia final, and Malinovskyi demonstrates a dependable knack of contributing when it matters.

The Malinovskyi mojo

Watching Atalanta, and the role Malinovskyi has within their system, it is not hard to see why he has found such success. Playing with high and aggressive wing-backs, Atalanta often see their central areas completely emptied. The central midfielders cover wide to protect those marauding wide players, so between the centre forward and three centre backs there is a void of personnel.

This of course is a deliberate arrangement, forcing the opposition wide so not to be overloaded and outnumbered. Throw in the risk of one of the centre backs coming forward in support, and at any one time Atalanta can have three wide sided players all stretching the touchline on one flank. Such boundless space is what inverted attacking players such as Malinovskyi feed on. It allows him to receive the ball in an expanse of space and drive forward, either to unload at goal himself or feed one of the other forward attacking unison.

One passage that has personified Malinovskyi’s role came in that Coppa Italia final defeat to Juventus. Juventus were caught in possession by the man oriented Atalanta press, with Freuler progressing forward. Malinovskyi peels off to the Swiss’ left, central of the goal roughly eighteen yards from goal. Freuler feeds right wing back Hans Hateboer, who squares back across for Malinovskyi. From that range, few hold such consistency in their shooting, with Malinovskyi crunching the shot past Buffon. It was the archetypal Atalanta goal, in utilising this aggressive press, the creation coming from the wing-backs, and the finish buried with ruthless power and precision.

On this occasion, the positioning had brought a goal directly from Malinovskyi. However it is also where he creates for others. With one of Muriel or Duvan Zapata ahead of him, a creative midfielder like Matteo Pessina or Pašalić rotating with the forwards, and the wing backs pushed high and wide, there is a plethora of passing options. Malinovskyi routinely looks centrally, again with the defensive line stretched it breeds space for the powerful Zapata to run into. The Colombian is both excellent in running beyond the defender, and in holding the ball in tight spaces. Malinovskyi will push passes in to Zapata, and allow his incredible turn and finishing to do the rest.

Malinovskyi’s average position heat map for 2020/21 (via Wyscout)

Monster Malinovskyi metrics

The eye test of watching Atalanta since the turn of the year alone is enough to applaud Malinovskyi. He has embodied their ethos as well as any player could, and his production has been remarkable. Digging deeper into his impact however only furthers this appreciation.

Over the last 365 days, the Ukrainian has decimated the averages expected of an attacking midfielder. He ranks in the upper 97th percentile or better in assists, expected assists, and non penalty expected goals plus expected assists. His 0.60 assists per 90 are bettered only by Thomas Muller across the European top five leagues. 0.96 non penalty goals and assists per 90 also ranks him in the top ten players across the five leagues.

Perhaps the greatest indicator of Malinovskyi’s involvement come in his shot creating action (SCA). This figure reflects how many of the two actions preceding a shot a player participlates in (essentially, are they contributing to shot creation). Malinovskyi is recording 6.20 SCA/90, a figure more than Kevin De Bruyne and bettered by only five others from the top five leagues. Interestingly, he was creating even higher last season with 6.74/90, showing that even in a bit-part role he was at the core of Atalanta’s attacking vibrancy.

Within passing comparisons, Malinovskyi is in the top 1% of progressive passes made per 90 (7.56) showing his ability to drop into deeper central spaces and progress the ball forward. His 9.38 progressive carries per 90 feed into this habit and better 94% of other players in his position, and 9.53 received progressive passes per 90 is in the upper 8% position-wide. This in particular is a fascinating metric to excel in, espcecially when dominating ball progression stats from his own actions. The verticality of Atalanta’s build up feeds Malinovskyi the ball from deep, for him to turn and drive centrally. These are apparent to the eye, but the numbers are staggeringly textured in their detail of what makes Malinovskyi tick.

His creativity may have risen, but Malinovskyi has thus far equalled his goal tally for last season with eight Serie A strikes. These have come from 65 shots, compared to 78 shots last term, and from an average distance of 20.4 yards. In 2019/20, his average shot distance was 23.7 yards and perhaps contributed to his overperformance of xG (eight goals from an xG of 4.7). He is still overperforming his xG (eight goals from 6.4 xG), but the extent to which this has shrunk show fewer of his goals are coming from unlikely, unrepeatable efforts from range. Malinovskyi of 2021 is shooting less, perhaps less ambitiously, but creating to a far greater degree. This is only a welcome development.

Map of Malinovskyi’s shot locations for the 2020/21 season (via Wyscout)

Stepping to the fore

Atalanta have secured another season of Champions League football, a brilliant achievement for a spirited and delightful team. Winning the Coppa Italia would have been the perfect ending, and been the tangible progress reward they deserve. They will be back however.

On to the European Championships this summer for Ruslan Malinovskyi. The twenty eight year old is, on current form, Ukraine’s undisputed star man. Left back Oleksandr Zinchenko is close behind, but Malinovskyi charges into the tournament as arguably Europe’s in form player.

Ukraine qualified top of their group, finishing undefeated and beating a much stronger Portugal team in doing so. This has placed them in an intriguing group with the Netherlands, Austria and North Macedonia. It is debatably the tournament’s most open group, such are the inconsistencies of the Dutch and Austrians, and the unknown qualities of Ukraine and North Macedonia.

That impressive qualification seems a lifetime ago however. A 1-0 win over Spain in the UEFA Nations League in October is the team’s only win in their last eight fixtures. Before that win, they had one win from five. The momentum has been taken out of this youg team, and it will be on Zinchenko and Malinovskyi to pull them through.

There has never been a better time to play the Netherlands, given their notable absentees and new manager. Austria have proven to be unreliable to back in international tournaments, and North Macedonia are the minnows of the competition. Ukraine will back themselves to progress out of the group, and in Ruslan Malinovskyi they have a precision rifle that will not miss.

He can’t keep on playing like this. Can he?

All statistics correct as of 22/05/2021 (via FBref and Wyscout)

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