FEATURE | World Cup One to Watch: Yunus Musah

The hype around Yunus Musah is nothing new. Since his early teen years, there has been a lot of talk about his potential and the heights he can reach in his career. With the hype came the attention of Europe’s historic clubs, with many following his progress. After spending time with Giorgione in Italy, he moved to England at nine years old, joining Arsenal. It was during his seven years at Arsenal that the conversation around him exploded. After turning 16, Valencia signed him for their B team, sparking the start of his journey into senior football. 

After joining Valencia’s B team, it did not take long for him to impress at his new club, quickly becoming one of those earmarked for promotion to the first team. That eventually came a year later as he was invited to join the senior team during preseason, after the arrival of Javi Gracia. It did not stop there. Soon, he was making his debut and first ever start in senior football; it was a 4-2 home win over local rivals Levante in the first game of the 2020-21 season. 

That entire season saw Yunus really establish himself as a star for the future, despite being played away from his natural position. He was played as a right winger, with the expectation that his explosiveness and dribbling skills could be maximised for the team. It was understandable then that Gracia did not think he could trust him yet in the middle, especially as he elected to play a two-man midfield. It would have been too huge a responsibility and pressure for such a young player in a struggling side, at a time when every point was vital. Down the right, Yunus adapted to his role. He helped out his full-back when he could and bombed forward in possession, often helping the team in transition. 

Gracia was sacked before the season was over and José Bordalás came in ahead of the 2021-22 campaign. Under him, Yunus remained in the right-wing role despite a growing need for a player of his profile in the centre. It started to look like Yunus was being misprofiled rather than protected from pressure. Meanwhile, with the USA – whom he had chosen to represent at international level – he was regularly delivering impressive performances in his natural position. Perhaps he would have looked even better if he was playing there every week at club level. Playing down the right in Bordalás’ Valencia affected Yunus’ performances, with many starting to doubt if he was worth the hype. However, most of the players in the team were struggling at the same time so it pointed to a bigger problem. 

The Valencia of Bordalás was ugly. There was a reliance on long balls punted aimlessly, in hope that the second balls would be won by the midfielders and forwards and attacks could spring from there. That meant that midfielders, both centrally and wide, were doing more off-the-ball work than on-the-ball. There was a greater emphasis on running and physicality in general. The team racked up more fouls and yellow cards than any team in the top five leagues, and were 95th in Europe’s top five leagues (out of 98 total teams) for passes completed. In such a side, it was difficult for attacking players or midfielders to shine, especially those whose best attributes were on the ball. There was also the risk of Yunus’ development stalling significantly if this continued. 

In the Copa del Rey, Valencia soldiered through round after round, relying on resilience and surviving through being battered. In truth, they were more suited to the cups with their style. Cups are about moments, after all. In the final against Real Betis, Yunus came on in extra time and was the only one to miss a penalty in the shootout as Valencia lost. The club and its fans, realising how devastating this could be for such a young player, rallied around him in support. In the 4th minute – he wears number 4 – of the next game at home against Levante, the fans applauded to show support and assure him. There were also many messages of support for him on social media. These actions certainly helped him avoid being crushed by the moment. The faith was soon to be rewarded. 

Gattuso arrives at Mestalla

Fortunately for Yunus, there was a change in coach once again at Mestalla before the new season. This change could be the single most significant occurrence for Yunus’ career. In came Gennaro Gattuso with a style of football Valencia haven’t seen in years – an emphasis on possession and dominance. More importantly, Gattuso profiled Yunus accurately. He moved the youngster back into midfield and gave him the freedom he needed to function at his best. 

So far this season, the world has seen a reborn Yunus, the real version of him. He has operated in a box-to-box role and has been near unplayable in most games. He has the freedom to ball-carry down the middle and drive Valencia’s attack, one of his most devastating attributes. He is also able to hold onto the ball and play with his other midfielders, forming a solid unit. Defensively, he has been sound, helping the team to win back the ball often. For the first time in his senior career, we are seeing the full range of Yunus’ abilities. He looks set to develop into one of the most complete midfielders in world football. It is hard to point to a significant weakness in his game.

World Cup with USA

Valencia’s gain is also the USA’s gain as the World Cup approaches. They needed him back in the middle and in-form ahead of the tournament, and that is exactly what has happened. In fact, he looks set to be the star of the side. He has easily been the most impressive and lauded US Men’s National Team player in club football this season. His performances have been that good. He is a threat around the opposition box, a presence in the centre in and out of possession, and a ball-winner closer to his own box. He roams across midfield stamping his authority with strength and guile, playing with the full-backs, playing sublime passes to the forwards and hitting stinging screamers at goal. When he bombs forward with the ball, the only way to stop him is to foul him. When he calms the game down, he retains the ball well under pressure. He is exactly the kind of player you rely on during tournaments like the World Cup.

There has been talk about what players could be the breakout stars of the 2022 World Cup. It might be wise to put your money on Yunus, as he looks set to be exactly that. Look out for him.

GSFN | Astorre S. Cerebróne

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