Ahead of the 2023-24 season, Wellington Phoenix’s squad is looking bleak. But they are making active steps in the transfer market to improve upon their 6th place finish from 2022-23. New midfielders remain one of the first agenda items after the departures of first-team regulars Clayton Lewis and Steven Ugarkovic. In Mohamed Al-Taay, they’ve uncovered a 22-year-old gem who can tick all the boxes they need to become a more assertive side in the A-League. Here is what Al-Taay will bring to Wellington Phoenix, as we break down the defensive midfielder’s game.
POSITIONING & ROLEEmbed from Getty Images
Mohamed Al-Taay is an intriguing player who could be described as playing the game on 2x. He adopts an enhanced sense of speed with all of his actions, which can often become both his greatest strength, and his greatest weakness.
Defensively, the 22-year-old Australian is what we would call a ‘Midfield Destroyer’, staying in a relatively reserved role to quickly break up the play in any defensive phase. With his aggressive, defensively proactive approach to football, he’s your typical Casemiro-type – the kind of player who is never afraid to make a challenge.
Al-Taay also showed quite a bit of versatility for the Jets, playing on the right and left of central midfield, and even dropping into the defensive line on occasion.
On the ball, his possession numbers are quite positive. However, we noticed that he often acts in haste, where he then lacks some of the technical quality to pull off what he perceives with his superb spatial awareness and vision. He has the tactical and physical tools to excel for one of the A-League’s best sides, but the technical quality on the ball would be something to dedicatedly help the player improve.
Mohamed Al-Taay is what I would consider to be a Cedric Toussaint-like terrier. He’s incredibly quick on his feet, fast-thinking, and often assertive in stepping up to make challenges.
Within that ‘Midfield Destroyer’ role, he often held a reserved position for the Newcastle Jets, often as full-backs or others ventured forward. This naturally made his role imperative in transition, where he became responsible for quickly shutting down attacks, shifting over to the wide areas, and covering for out of position teammates.
Al-Taay played the part phenomenally. He reads the game incredibly well, perceiving the necessary spaces to close down. While he’s quick to go to ground, he often still times his challenges well, and quickly anticipates passes to shut down open corridors of space. The Australian has a great awareness of when to “front” the player he’s marking, ensuring he can screen and intercept the pass, or when to remain in behind, and then step up appropriately.
Any time an opposition player shows too much of the ball, he’s destined to win the situation. He never shies away from taking matters into his own hands, even if an opponent has already beaten one of his teammates.
The same goes for loose ball duels or misplaced passes, where Al-Taay is quick to fly into the situation and soar to action with a tackle. I also appreciate how vocal Al-Taay is after he wins challenges, often urging his teammates on to where they should play the next pass.
With that phenomenal reading of the game, he’s often in-tune to when a player in front of him is about to receive the ball with their back to goal. In those cases he will immediately pressure and step on the opponent, ensuring they have no room to breathe and are forced to go backward. The alternative is the 22-year-old being able to get in front of the opponent, sneakily intercepting the pass altogether.
This has all culminated in Al-Taay putting up more possession-adjusted tackles, and more defensive duels (10.44) than any Wellington midfielder, backing up his proactive and assertive approach.
|Player||Def. Act||Def. Duel||Def. Duel %||Aerial %||PAdj. Tkl||PAdj. Inter||Fls||Yellow-C|
Despite being a smaller player, he even possesses all the physicality needed to excel, often using his arms and terrier-like aggression to win 1v1 duels, and snuff out any danger.
Again, this can often lead to danger for the Australian, as he picks up unnecessary cards or fouls. He’s picked up 0.5 yellow cards per 90 so far this season, to which only the similarly proactive Nicholas Pennington can match.
Al-Taay’s excessive energy can also sometimes result in pressing in circles, as he motors from one player to the next. Nevertheless, the fear factor he strikes tends to work in his favour, and the right coaching team will hone in his ability to stay patient and positioned.
For Wellington’s purposes, you can see the quality he will add in springing to action and winning his battles in the defensive phase. Pennington plays a similar role for the club, but having Al-Taay now means they have two standout ball-winning-midfielders in their ranks.
It’s possible the Yellow Army may want to invest in more of a box-to-box midfielder who can play alongside the defensively sound pair of players. But for now, Pennington and Al-Taay would be a fear-inducing pair for any opposition midfield to come up against.
The attacking phase is not Al-Taay’s forte, but he possesses all the tools to bring that fantastic reading of the game he holds in defense over to his on-the-ball actions.
The main problem for Al-Taay is that his biggest strength in defense can become his greatest weakness in attack. He can sometimes become overly excited once the ball reaches his feet, and make decisions without first perceiving the teammates around the situation.
This side of his game can grow. The 22-year-old excels with his vision and awareness. He often sees the spaces, but lacks the execution to pull off the maneuver. This often comes from over-hitting the ball, or delaying the moment too long.
But just like how he’s quick to act in defense, the same can be said for attack, which can be great in transition. Combining his ball-winning with his forward-thinking mindset, he makes for a useful asset on the break.
In terms of his own on-the-ball actions, I would sit down with Al-Taay to work on his shifting of the ball from left to right foot, his composure in picking out simpler passing options, and his decision making on when to turn to release himself from pressure. He has the necessary speed to breakaway from anyone trying to catch him, and he’ll win a ton of fouls from his energetic approach.
But his attacking duel and dribbling percentages remain lower than they should be for a midfielder of his quality. When he gets into the final third it often just looks like unfamiliar territory for him, and he lacks the necessary poise to shift the ball backward and pick out a safe option.
The right coaching team just needs to hone in his patience in possession, ensuring he can be more than just a ‘Midfield Destroyer’, but a capable progressor. The stats would suggest that he rarely moved the ball forward or long for the Jets, and offered very little creative threat. That’s fine not to be part of his role, but he could make more of his time on the ball to progress the play and ensure his team picks out the right options.
But again, Al-Taay has sound tactical foundations in place. His forward passing numbers actually exceed any Wellington Phoenix midfielder, pinpointing his tactical awareness of when to spread the play forward to some degree. For Newcastle, he often jumped into a back-three during possession to spread the play, which already shows one way in which he can bring over his tactical knowledge to the Phoenix.
|Player||Pass %||Fwd Pass %||Prog. P||Drbl %||Att. Duel %||Prog. R|
So while Al-Taay lacks the same stunning in-possession quality that he brings over to the defensive side of the game, he certainly still holds his own. His passing percentages are encouraging when speaking to that composure and patience we’re speaking to, and he could be unleashed to have a more attack-minded role in a team with more possession and pizzazz.
All and all, this should be a fantastic signing for Wellington Phoenix, giving them all the steel they need in midfield ahead of the 2023-24 season.
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