Player Profile: Saïd Benrahma

When West Ham weren’t playing at home, I used to go and watch football elsewhere around London where possible. As a result, I’ve seen quite a lot of Saïd Benrahma in the flesh at Griffin Park over the last two seasons and feel like I’ve got a good handle on what’s his game all about.

So let me lay it out plainly: he’s a tremendously gifted footballer but a horrible fit for the current squad, a horrible fit for the current style of play, and a horrible fit for the current manager at West Ham.

On top of all the usual difficulties that come with jumping to a higher standard of football and switching from a dominant team to a struggling one, Benrahma is going to have to deal with a significant stylistic change when he arrives in Stratford.

Brentford averaged 56% of the ball last season, whereas West Ham clocked 45.4% (and that’s dropped further to 42.8% this year, although fixture difficulty has played a part in that), so Benrahma will need to adjust to having significantly fewer touches of the ball.

Benrahma’s going to have to get used to big shift out of possession as well in Stratford:

Brentford allowed their opponents very few passes before they intervened and they generated the third most high turnovers (the number of sequences that start in open play and begin 40m or less from the opponent’s goal) in the league.

Essentially Brentford were very proactive in their attempts to win the ball back and did the bulk of their defending high up the pitch. That’s not going to be the case for Benrahma at West Ham.

But let’s put those stylistic concerns to one side for a second and focus on…

The Fun Stuff

Saïd Benrahma is capable of producing some moments of pure, unbridled joy. When you watch him play, it’s immediately clear that he’s dripping with confidence and that he revels in humiliating his opponents with outrageous bits of individual brilliance:

If the phrase “another backheel nutmeg” applies to a player, they’re someone you should enjoy having at your football club

He’s particularly fond of that spin away from his marker using the outside of his right boot. Makes it difficult for defenders to get tight to him without getting put in the washing machine.

And this is just from a handful of randomly selected games. There’s even more impressive stuff out there in a thousand YouTube highlight reels if you’re so inclined. It’s something he does all the time.

Dribbling

… and the fact that he tries the tricks and flicks all the time is why he’s a double-edged sword of a player.

The other side of the coin to the breath-taking skill is the overwhelming sense of frustration that comes from watching Benrahma repeatedly dribble himself into trouble. He’s direct and constantly driving forward to make things happen and when it comes off, it’s fantastic. He changes direction so quickly and effortlessly that navigating tight areas and engineering a yard of space for himself in the final third is rarely a problem:

And not’s all just for show — Benrahma averaged more carries per 90 minutes and created more chances off the back of those carries than any other Championship player last season:

Something that stands out from the carry map is how few chances he created by dribbling in from a wide starting position; the bulk of his attacking output from wide areas comes from carrying the ball inside to take shots.

But he’ll try to take opponents on all over the pitch, regardless of the situation or game state, which can lead to him ignoring better passing options, running into traffic, or losing the ball in dangerous areas:

This is the price you pay for those golden moments.

His game, fundamentally, is all about risk. This is true of all high-volume dribblers, but it’s especially true of Benrahma, who can’t shift up through the gears the way other dribble-heavy wingers like Allain Saint-Maximin, Wilfried Zaha, or Adama Traore do, instead relying on his shiftiness and manipulation of the ball to get away from defenders. That lack of explosive athleticism means that his desire to carry the ball at any cost can leave his team very open from turnovers.

The upside is that he has gravity; just look at how many defenders are attracted towards him when he’s got possession. If he can find a pass in those situations, he can catch opposition teams out of position.

He does, however, slow everything down when he’s got the ball. Beating one man is rarely enough and he often goes back for a second — these jinking runs are fun to watch and can bamboozle defenders, but they kill any sense of attacking momentum. His dribble-first approach wherever he is on the pitch will inevitably be a bit of a sticking point in a team more focused on quick counter-attacks.

Crossing

Our attacking approach under Moyes so far has been almost entirely cross-centric, so assessing Benrahma’s ability to deliver the ball from wide areas is a worthwhile exercise.

He’s happy sending the ball in first time, both with his right foot and his weaker left. Even with time and space, Benrahma’s delivery is inconsistent though.

His specialty is those in-swinging crosses from that inside-left sweet spot, but he’s better at clipping balls over the top for late runners from deep than picking out target men with floated aerial deliveries. It’s something he’ll have to adjust if he’s trying to find Tomáš Souček in the box.

Link Play

Benrahma generally plays in narrow central areas even when he’s down as a left winger on the teamsheet.

You can get a feel for that from his SofaScore Heatmap for last season:

Lots of touches in central areas right across the width of the pitch.

…and the xA data Statsperform’s Championship 19/20 season review highlights that, although his key passes most often originated from the left side, the highest value chances he created came when he cut inside:

When he does take up a wider starting position, he uses little give-and-go passes with a player ahead of him to get into the left half-space he likes to operate in. His relationship with Ollie Watkins was key to this — as former winger himself, Watkins was comfortable drifting wide and laying off those cushioned first time passes. Developing that kind of dynamic with Michail Antonio will be vital to getting the best out of Benrahma.

Although Brentford’s possession-oriented style is a factor, it’s clear that Benrahma thrives on having players around him and is at his most effective when he can exchange short passes and quickly combine with nearby players:

This is the part of his game that gives me the most pause. How does he fit into the current West Ham side where he’ll have fewer passing options in close proximity? The way we’ve been playing under Moyes hasn’t been conducive to the little bounce passes you can see from Benrahma and his ability to play a more isolated creative role is going to determine whether he’s a success or not.

Benrahma’s also been used to playing with freedom, floating around all over the place, dropping very deep when he wants to get involved. How does he deal with playing a more positionally disciplined role?

A big part of what made Brentford tick last season was Josh Dasilva’s ability to fill in out wide while their two wingers roamed inside:

Dasilva gets on the ball both offensively and defensively in wider areas more often than an average CM.

He provided defensive cover and helped his side to retain their width during attacking phases. That’s something Benrahma isn’t going to have at West Ham and it’s going to be tough for him to adapt to.

I’m not sure how well he’ll work as a transition player either. His passing over longer distances isn’t fantastic and he lacks the change of pace and upper body strength to provide much a threat running in behind himself:

His best moments on the counter come when he receives the ball quite high up the pitch. Can he be as effective when he’s working from a deeper starting point?

A hallmark of his game are these disguised shunt passes. He takes a few touches on the dribble and then uses that repetition to trick the defender into thinking he’s going to continue running with the ball, before nudging it into the path of a team-mate:

Shooting

He scored an awful lot of goals for Brentford last season (17 league goals in 39 starts) but I’m not sure his shooting technique is especially good. As you’d expect from a right-footed left winger, he likes to cut inside and let fly with curling efforts into the far corner. His execution of these is pretty hit and miss, but that’s a product of his inherently high-risk approach — he looks for the top corner, looks for the spectacular, and looks to hit unreachable shots to take the goalkeeper out of the equation:

As with everything Benrahma does, his shooting is boom and bust. You just have to learn to live that.

Defending

On the defensive end, Benrahma is capable of working backwards to help out his full-back as well as pressing opposition defenders high up the pitch:

Quite like that last clip. Shows he’s switched on to danger.

He’s an active defender, someone who makes it clear that they’re putting in effort. Despite that, he’s not particularly effective when it comes to closing down, often shaping his body or his pressing runs poorly which leaves easy forward passes open for the player he’s closing down. A similar issue crops up when he’s tracking back — he’ll get back into a useful position but switch off once he’s there and not actually make a difference defensively:

The effort’s there, but he’s a weak link without the ball. In the first leg of the play-off semis against Swansea, Thomas Frank re-jigged his frontline with Benrahma playing as a false 9 and Watkins on the left. It seemed a tacit acknowledgement of Benrahma’s defensive deficiencies by Frank as he shifted his top goalscorer out of position to use his greater level of work rate to thwart Roberts and Cabango’s attacking prowess down Swansea’s right wing.

How Benrahma’s game out of possession translates into a team playing a deeper, more reactive defensive style is a major point of concern.

Conclusion

If the plan is to persist with the 5–4–1/4–2–3–1 hybrid shape we’ve used in our last three Premier League games, Benrahma can realistically only fit into the Pablo Fornals role and question marks over his positional discipline, his passing range over longer distances, and his effectiveness as a transitional player make that an uncomfortable fit.

What seems more likely is that we’ll revert to a more standard 4–2–3–1 for the bulk of our games, with Benrahma-Fornals-Bowen playing behind Michail Antonio. On paper that seems better, but unless there’s a radical stylistic overhaul, Benrahma seems ill-suited to what we’re trying to achieve.

The most baffling aspect of this signing is that Benrahma is basically the same player as Felipe Anderson. He is going to have exactly the same problems at West Ham that Anderson did. This time next year, the club and the fanbase are going to have exactly the same complaints about Benrahma that they’ve had about Anderson.

We’ve even bought him at the same stage in his career as Anderson and at a similarly high fee. This is literally repeating the same mistake from two years ago. We never learn.

Putting aside the Coufal signing, over the summer we’ve essentially swapped Diangana +£10mil for Benrahma. It’s difficult to suggest that represents good business. This squad was crying for another out-and-out winger and instead we’ve added an extra wide playmaker into the mix.

Personally I’d quite like us to play the type of football that incorporates players like Benrahma, but we’ve not been able to successfully do that at any point over the last two seasons and it’s difficult to see that changing under the current regime.

He’ll be fun to watch but this is not a signing that is part of a coherent strategy. Benrahma could have a very frustrating first season at West Ham ahead of him.

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Cast Iron Tactics

I write long, boring, and increasingly deranged articles about football tactics and West Ham @CastIronTactics on Twitter