Kulusevski’s permanent signing can still be pivotal despite tough second season
Converting a loan into a permanent move is never the sexiest bit of transfer news, but last week’s confirmation that Dejan Kulusevski will be staying at Tottenham Hotspur still felt oddly underwhelming.
Had the announcement been made a year earlier, there would likely have been a lot more excitement — especially as the fee of £25.6million ($32.6m) is so low by current standards for someone that talented and who only turned 23 in April. Because, in the summer of 2022, Kulusevski was coming off a thrilling run of form that helped Spurs surge up the table to a top-four finish.
After arriving from Juventus on an 18-month loan in the January transfer window, the young Swede scored five goals and registered eight assists in 18 league games, at a ratio of 0.93 non-penalty goal contributions per 90 minutes. It was the fourth-best ratio of any player in the Premier League that season.
The campaign just gone has been more difficult. Kulusevski provided two goals and seven assists in his 30 games, at a rate of 0.39 goal contributions per 90 (down to joint-53rd in the league). His underlying numbers were also down — an expected goals and assists figure of 0.31 per 90, compared to 0.44 for the same metric in 2021-22.
Despite this, there is excitement at Spurs over what a fully-fit Kulusevski can do next season, and beyond, for the club. Especially with a head coach such as the newly-appointed Ange Postecoglou, who demands that his wide players are a constant attacking threat. Postecoglou is seen as being a perfect choice to get Kulusevski going again.
And if we delve a bit deeper into the data, we can see last season wasn’t quite the decline it first appeared.
Revisiting that period when Kulusevski was starting out as a Tottenham player, it wasn’t just the numbers that stood out. There were less tangible elements too — the sense of wonder that he evoked not just from the supporters but from his team-mates as well.
“The person who’s really surprised me is Kulusevski because I think he’s really added something either we didn’t have or didn’t see so often,” defender Cristian Romero told The Athletic in 2022. “He’s a really bright and intelligent player who’s become a vital cog in our system.”
Emerson Royal said to colleagues early on last season that he couldn’t believe the level Kulusevski was operating at. Kulusevski had scored in the opening league game to cap a 4-1 home win over Southampton, and looked set to hit even greater heights than in that debut half-season.
As it turned out though, he only scored once more all season (he actually picked up more bookings — three — than he scored goals). And that second goal did not arrive until January — five months ago, and five months after the one against Southampton.
That said, it was away at Manchester City — making it two in two games for him at the Etihad — and led to some more high praise, this time from City defender Nathan Ake. “Kulusevski from Tottenham is a different kind of player,” Ake said a couple of months later when asked about his toughest opponents last season. “I’d say he’s more powerful and likes to run in behind.”
One of Kulusevski’s two league goals last season came on the opening day (Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Ake’s tribute is a reminder of the threat Kulusevski posed to defenders last season even if he wasn’t at his best, and there are some mitigating factors for why he didn’t quite hit the heights compared to his debut campaign.
The first is the thigh problem that derailed the early part of his season. Picked up on international duty in late September, it caused him to miss 10 league and Champions League games. Tottenham’s struggles without him emphasized how important his creativity is to the team — as did his brilliant assist for Harry Kane within two minutes of making his comeback off the bench at home to Liverpool on November 6.
A week later, Kulusevski produced another superb assist, this time for Rodrigo Bentancur’s late winner against Leeds United. But just as he was finding momentum again, the Premier League was halted for the World Cup. And in the first game back after that six-week hiatus, Kulusevski — who’d had no football in that time as Sweden failed to qualify for the finals — picked up a muscular injury against Brentford, causing him to miss three more games.
It was that kind of season. One in which Kulusevski only completed a full league game five times, and was even substituted as a substitute in what turned out to be Antonio Conte’s final game in charge, the reverse fixture with Southampton in March.
We should consider as well how what Kulusevski was asked to do for Tottenham last season changed, compared to those exciting first few months.
The following two charts use data from smarterscout, which rates an individual’s game out of 99 in specific metrics relative to others who play their position.
A guide to smarterscout and understanding The Athletic’s pizza charts
They show us that Kulusevski was asked to create with the ball at his feet a lot more last season, and that this was something he did successfully. His carry and dribble volume rating went up by 27 (from 54 out of 99 in 2021-22 to 81 out of 99), and his xG from ball progression score more than doubled, from 30 out of 99 to 73 out of 99.
And despite Kulusevski’s goal return declining, his shot volume was also up in relative terms (from 30 out of 99 to 48 out of 99).
These improved numbers suggest Kulusevski may have been “running hot” in those early pre-injury weeks when it came to his shooting — ie, he was outscoring his xG at a rate that was unlikely to be sustainable. The relevant data implies there’s some validity to this idea, given that Kulusevski scored five times in 2021-22 from an xG number of 2.7, meaning an overperformance of more than two goals. In 2022-23, however, he underperformed his xG (two goals from a near-identical figure of 2.6). This supports the eye test which showed Kulusevski narrowly missing with whipped efforts from the right side that had been nestling in the corners the previous season.
In other areas of his game though there were some downward trends.
One was his ball-retention ability, which almost halved from 80 out of 99 in 2021-22 to 53 out of 99. The other was his link-up play volume, which was down to 49 out of 99 from 77 out of 99 and is below what one would expect from a player with his level of creativity.
Generally though, Kulusevski’s numbers on the above two charts were better in 2022-23 than in his debut half-season for Spurs, which is counterintuitive given how much more effective he was from a goals and assists perspective in those initial months after his arrival from Serie A.
And as our next graphic shows, he was still in the 79th percentile when it came to assists by players in his position across Europe’s top five leagues (ie, in the top 21 per cent), and in the 85th and 76th percentiles for carries into the penalty area and successful take-ons respectively. He was also in the 92nd percentile for ball recoveries and the 73rd for tackles, which gives some indication of the volume of defensive work he was asked to do by Conte.
Under Postecoglou, Kulusevski will still be expected to put in a shift, but, as The Athletic has explored, the main demands placed on him will be to repeatedly take on his full-back and to look to burst into the box when Son Heung-min has the ball on the other side of the pitch.
This should suit Kulusevski perfectly, and it’s even been suggested that he could operate as one of Postecoglou’s attacking No 8s, given his creativity and ability to work clever passing angles with his team-mates.
The transfer window has only been open for a week, but at the price he cost and with the talent he has, Kulusevski’s low-key permanent signing could end up being viewed as a pivotal moment of Spurs’ summer.
(Top photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images)