Is Noa Lang the most exciting player missing from the Euros?
Noa Lang's moment may finally have come, but it won't be at the Euros.
He was 18 years old when he first sat on the bench for Ajax during the 2017-18 Eredivisie season, but things never worked out for him at the club after that. He didn't make it onto the pitch in that campaign, and in 2018-19 he had only about 45' in the league and 45' in the cup. His attitude was apparently a problem.
After managing just a few games in the first half of the 2019-20 season, he went on loan to Twente and got more minutes. But there was still no solid place for him at the Johan Cruyff ArenA, so in 2020-21 he headed to Club Brugge.
The rest is shaping up to be history. Lang took the Belgium First Division by storm and was named the young player of the year. Club Brugge won the regular season at a canter and then squeaked by Genk to grab a place in the 2021-22 Champions League group stage.
Naturally, Club Brugge exercised the option to buy Lang... for just €6m. Since then, Leeds have reportedly come calling, so the Belgian champions may be in line to turn a tremendous – and tremendously quick – profit.
It's not hard to understand why Lang is in demand. Here are his stats at a Premier League standard, for the benefit of certain clubs in West Yorkshire:
Lang is a smarterscout young prospect coming off his breakout season with attacking output rated 85 out of 99 among Premier League wingers. He's rated 90+ in ground duels both ways and 98 for finishing in open play. Let that sink in.
The young Dutchman presented defenders with a huge challenge as he cut a diagonal line in from the flank to the corner of the box – would he link up with a short pass, find a teammate closer to goal, or take the player on? The dark green and gray markers on his smartermap illustrate the dilemma:
Lang was most active just inside that corner of the box, but he got his shots off from all across the penalty area. Here's a map of his attempts from open play:
As you can see, Lang showed some preference for the corner of the goal to the GK's right, but he was able to score all across the goal mouth and from many different angles. He's primarily right-footed, but he has a good variety of shots in his arsenal, from low drives to smashed half-volleys and long-range curlers.
So it's not surprising that Lang scored far above par from LW, or that he was involved in more than half of Club Brugge's goals while on the pitch, despite occupying only one side of it:
And Lang didn't just play LW for Club Brugge. He shuttled across several attacking positions, and his attacking output was even higher at all of them:
All the while, Lang showed excellent ball retention at a Premier League standard, in large part because of his safe passing and exceptional skill on the dribble. He's a fairly stocky player who's difficult to move off the ball, and he has the passing vision to find options all over the attacking half of the pitch.
There haven't been many players in Europe's top five leagues who have played with a style similar to Lang's in their younger years, but you will have heard of most of them:
These are the kinds of players who get under defenders' skins. They're just a bit too quick, a bit too tricky, a bit too much of a threat from distance as well as in close. And if we look at Lang side-by-side with Said Benrahma and Mikel Oyarzabal, we can see that Lang's output has been higher than either of theirs with roughly the same types of actions:
Benrahma is 25 already, but Oyarzabal – now one of the hottest properties in Spain – was the same age as Lang back in the 2017-18 season. So it's anyone's guess what the ceiling for Lang might be.
Of course, he has to test himself in a tougher competition than the Belgian First Division, but our league adjustments suggest he won't have much trouble once he's adapted to the pace. After all, there's only one player who can match his ratings in our overall models and his skill ratings at LW:
In light of these stats, you'd think that Lang would be a lock for Euro 2020, right? He's just the kind of young player you'd want coming off the bench, a fearless kid who can make things happen.
But no, Frank de Boer – whose coaching career has consisted of a cushy posting at Ajax and then falling upwards through Serie A, the Premier League, and MLS – has not selected Lang. We can understand taking Memphis Depay to play LW or striker, but Cody Gakpo ahead of Lang?
Maybe it's because Lang still has some growing up to do, and a need to educate himself as well. Until then, let's hope that Lang gets his big move, and then we'll see if the KNVB's senior staff can ignore him any longer.