PROFILING HIS BEST ATTRIBUTES ASSESSING HIS FUTURE ANALYSING HIS STATS LEARNING ABOUT HIS STORY SO FAR
Who is Djed Spence?
Middlesbrough loanee Djed Spence has enjoyed a fruitful season under Steve Cooper at Nottingham Forest. A mainstay in the manager’s lineup, the 21-year-old has offered up his best return offensively as the promotion-pushing side’s right wing-back.
With such a season rumoured to be garnering interest from some of the very top clubs up the footballing ladder, is the now-England U21 international good enough to make the cut?
Djed Spence's style of play
Spence’s wing-back role can be sort of a withdrawn one, with movements that mirror a lot of what the top possession-oriented sides do. It isn’t all about movement in behind but is about also dropping short enough to multiply the angles around the ball-holder and stretch the space between the lines.
Spence has followed these instructions well but could sometimes do more to create better separations between him and his marker. For instance, timing his drop-ins better and applying more double movements that could help him receive more freely in congested buildup situations. However, when he does receive the ball, he’s always looking to open up his body to whatever’s ahead.
What he does with the ball then can be a little stunted, though, as he doesn’t have the finest array of passes in his locker, here. Half impacted by a lack of scanning before receiving, Spence doesn’t react or play to runs ahead of him quickly enough. With the extra time needed to get his head up, and the skewed vision he has as a result, he can often miss the need to play the simple pass inside or backwards. And, even when it comes to the simpler plays, Spence is more than a little guilty of overweighting basic layoffs.
This lack of foresight can also be seen in some of his first touches, where his repeated close-to-body control occasionally misses opportunities to be more direct, in attacking space first-time.
That being said, this type of receiving benefits his biggest asset: dribbling. It keeps the space inside and down the line pinned, with him gradually but carefully approaching his opponent goal-wards. Spence is great at keeping his body over the ball and his touches light, enabling him to spring in either direction.
Over greater distances, he has trouble maintaining consistency in weighting his touches correctly, despite being able to comfortably use both feet, but his acceleration is undeniable. With plenty of jinxes thrown into the mix, a quick two-touch shift to the outside so often sees him soar past his opponent to get to the byline.
The speed he has on offer is almost under-utilised at times, with and without the ball. He sometimes misses chances to cut in through a gap on the run, and, off the ball, he could be a far more potent threat if he was more willing to commit to run-making. As things are now though, he isn’t yet a prolific box threat.
What still holds him back after beating his man, however, is the lack of awareness that remains. Spence is not one to constantly lifts his head mid-dribble to see what’s on, so it’s usually hard to get a pass or cross out of him early or when there’s a slight opening during his ball runs. Even once he’s reached the byline, for example, his crosses – be it low or swung in high – are basically instinctual since he rarely even looks up.
That in itself brings inconsistency to the quality of his final ball. Sometimes his crosses are wildly overhit; sometimes they’re underhit; sometimes they’re right on the money; sometimes they fall too far behind the intended target. This is not to say the technique itself is by any means bad, it’s just that the target-hitting becomes so without awareness.
It’s something which unsurprisingly plagues what he does with the ball on the cut-in. Although he sometimes boasts great patience when slowly shifting the ball inwards, looking for a good angle to open up, it’s mostly the case that he has to hurdle challenges without being able to angle his body over the ball.
Read about another EFL talent: Petebrough’s Ronnie Edwards
The defensive side of Spence’s game is a bit alarming and currently sheds a bit more cause for concern, mostly due to lapses in concentration. He’s a very passive figure during counter-presses, as he’s rarely directly onto an opponent nearby, instead leaving himself planted and ball-facing without enough awareness for the opponents exploiting the vacant space behind him.
His tendency to ball-watch is also prevalent when turnovers occur on the opposite side, as he’s then often a few seconds slow of reacting appropriately by getting back goal-side of the attackers who target the exposed space down his channel. Thankfully for him, his blistering recovery pace – and inconsistent opposition targeting of it – have seen him get away with this.
His speed over the first few yards is also beneficial to his man-marking game, as he has a great knack for reading simple passes into feet and getting across to intervene.
When approaching opponents who’ve gotten onto the ball though, his technical skills can sometimes be lacking. Whilst he curves his presses out to direct play well enough, how he handles his position relative to the ball-carrier when head-on is another matter.
Sometimes due to his own lingering starting positions, and other times due to indecision when pinned by another, Spence always affords his opponent so much time on the ball. This makes it incredibly easy to feed runners off his blind-side. In more direct wide 1v1s, it’s also a sticking point as it allows the ball-holder to dictate the shift in direction without having their angles too shut off, which is then furthered by Spence’s lacking reaction time.
Although Spence does often enough keep a low stance when engaging ball-holders and appears very light on his feet, he’s always one step off the pace of an opponent’s next darting move, with or without the ball. As a result, this can lead to crosses flying in past him and easy separations when marking players at set-pieces or when tracking the runs of players at open-play crosses.
From a physical standpoint, the wing-back is surprisingly good in the air. This comes more down to his spring, though, since his physical tussles are usually one-sided – both offensively and defensively.
Forecasting Djed Spence's future
In his current mould, I believe there are reasons to be fairly cynical about Spence’s current level, to the point where a move up to the Premier League feels like a big stretch based on what he’s currently producing.
Yet, in spite of this, the types of clubs (high-up, ball-dominant teams) that appear to be pursuing him actually feel like they bear the most potential for success than any stepping-stone side lower down the league. What he has the potential to offer feels like the casings of a modern, possession-based wing-back, where the right coaching and system mechanics could see his defensive work rate, attacking awareness, and forward execution fill out and thrive.
Djed Spence’s nimble footwork and blistering pace are assets that make him a dynamic threat with the ball, as well as enabling him to cover against danger well down the opposite end.
Spence’s lack of awareness in and out of possession is a big concern, as it leads to sloppy decision-making offensively and lapses in defensive concentration and positioning.