Scouted: Callum Roberts
Callum Roberts took England's non-league by storm this season, first at Blyth Spartans before joining Notts County in the National League last January. Here, James Mayley comprehensively analyses his skillset.
Newcastle United academy graduate Callum Roberts is a left-footed, right-sided winger who can play in almost any attacking role. He delivered a string of eye-catching performances in the National League North with Blyth Spartans before moving to the National League with Notts County in January.
Having joined Newcastle at the age of eight, Roberts failed to break into the first XI despite an impressive academy career. In four years as a pro at the club he made just two FA cup appearances, scoring one goal, and was sent on out three different loans. Roberts was released in the summer of 2019, subsequently dropping down to the National League North to sign for Blyth Spartans. It was something of a surprise to see him drop so low, having previously been linked with moves to Football League sides and abroad, but it appears the decision was motivated by a strong relationship with then Blyth manager and former Newcastle midfielder Lee Clark – formed during a spell under him on loan at Kilmarnock.
It proved to be an inspired decision. Roberts benefited from his first ever extended run of first-team football, playing more matches during his time at Blythe than throughout his previous four years as a pro. He quickly proved far too good for the sixth tier of English football, scoring 17 goals in just 25 matches, and began his ascent back up the football pyramid with the move to Nottingham. He is already showing himself to be above National League level, having racked up five goals and three assists in just eight appearances for County.
It’s likely that a number of League One and Two clubs will have kept tabs on his performances, with a well-financed club almost guaranteed to swoop now that Notts County are resigned to another non-league season having lost their promotion play-off against Harrogate Town. To understand what makes Roberts such an exciting prospect for Football League sides, we will consider his style of play, strengths, weaknesses and data from games played this season.
As we can see from the above graph, Roberts’ attacking output has been outstanding since joining Notts County. He has been the most creative player in the National League, leading the way in terms of both expected assists and key passes. The success rate of his actions is also impressive. A 72% success rate for key passes is excellent and ranks him the in top 2.5% for National League players with more than 10 key pass attempts, while his overall pass success rate of 78% is also impressive.
His shot volume and xG hint at a player who likes to cut inside and shoot, which is confirmed through video analysis. His xG per shot of 0.09, while not overly high, is also decent for a winger and suggests he doesn’t waste his shots by shooting from unrealistic distances and angles. Moreover, for an inverted winger, his crossing success rate stands out. It is rare for a wide player to rank so highly in both shooting and crossing metrics, especially below football league level, showing the variety in his attacking threat.
Unsurprisingly, his dribbling stats also catch the eye. He attempts a high volume of dribbles (5.6 p90) at a respectable success rate of 55%. Importantly, he’s not a player who drifts in and out of games; he averages 66 total actions p90, of which 70% are successful.
For an attacking winger, Roberts also boasts impressive defensive output with p90 stats of 2.4 tackles (56% success rate), 3 interceptions and 4.7 free ball pickups. While these numbers wouldn’t be close to leading any league metrics, they are good for a player who is primarily in the side for creativity and threat in attack, and hint at his jack-of-all-trades skillset.
VIDEO ANALYSIS: ASSESSING HIS SKILLSET
A fast, direct, inverted right winger, Roberts has impressive, but not explosive, acceleration and speed, as well as excellent close control. He is very left-foot dominant, and in the final third frequently looks to collect the ball on the right wing and cut inside to shoot, cross or pass with that foot.
Defenders are aware of this, and will usually try to cover this movement and force him down the line. However, it is one thing to know what he intends and another thing entirely to stop him. Both National League North and National League defenders have struggled to stop him cutting in from the wing or driving into the box from central areas, as evidenced by his outstanding goal record. Opposition sides often double, or even triple up on him when in possession; but his close control, agility and balance usually allow him to wriggle through multiple defenders and tight spaces, either beating them or drawing a foul. A nice example of this is below, showing Roberts wriggle his way through three players before finishing coolly.
A key facet of Roberts’ game is the potent goal threat he provides from the wing, as shown by his xG output. When shooting we often see him driving into the corner of the box before getting his shot off. He combines this movement with quick feet to maneuver the ball in tight spaces, allowing him to create enough separation and space to shoot.
We can see from his shot map below the areas where he most typically shoots from (captured by the red circle). All bar one of these chances came from him dribbling into the box from outside the area. Three of the shots, circled yellow, were taken by going outside of the defender and shooting with his right. All of these shots hit the target despite being taken under pressure, perhaps due to the greater space granted by the defenders expecting him to cut onto his left. However, they lacked sufficient power and accuracy to trouble the keeper. For the remaining shots he checked back onto his left, and while more of these were blocked (blue arrows), the shots that did hit the target carried more power and accuracy, resulting in two very well-taken goals. Despite the element of predictability, Roberts is more dangerous when checking inside to shoot with his left then he is with his right.
Another of Roberts’ strengths is his ability to quickly identify and penetrate space, through either dribbling, movement off the ball or intelligent passes. A key facet of this is the way he utilises and changes his speed to meet the needs of the situation. In transition we see him drive past opposition players at pace to exploit the spaces that are temporarily left vacant. However, he also shows an awareness of when to slow down play. Below we see him slowly, but purposefully, carry the ball forwards, allowing his fullback to get around him on the overlap so that Roberts can release him into an advanced crossing position with a well-timed and weighted pass. Later, in the positional play section, we will also touch on Roberts’ ability to change the distance and speed of his movements off the ball in order to exploit space.
Although Roberts rarely goes around the outside of defenders, when he does do so his actions are often successful as defenders are typically preoccupied with stopping him from cutting inside. Roberts possesses quick feet and is capable of fast and effective stepovers. When he goes down the line he will often throw in a step-over with the outside of his left foot before quickly shifting the ball in the opposite direction, catching the defender off balance and by surprise. We see this below; during this game, Roberts has already cut inside three times when running at his fullback. This time, however he throws in a stepover before going around the outside of his man. This catches his opponent off guard and he is forced to commit a foul to stop Roberts.
For a winger, his crossing output is decent but not overly prolific. This is primarily due to his preference to cut inside, as well as his ability to scan for options and pick out passes from wide areas rather than mindlessly launching the ball into the box. A strength in his crossing is his ability to quickly glance into the box and accurately assess the situation before committing. This allows him to pick out the best area and/or player to aim for. He will very rarely, if ever, hit crosses blind.
Overall, Roberts’ crossing is less effective from the right flank than the left and perhaps not quite as effective as his impressive accuracy numbers would suggest (however I’m not 100% sold on the accuracy of his crossing data, taken from InStat, as having watched all his games at County they do not appear to match an eye test). Most frequently we see him hit in-swinging crosses, cutting back onto his left foot from the right wing. With his left he is capable of generating decent whip and pace while usually aiming for either the back post or central areas. His weakness with his left is a tendency to generate too much height on, or overhit, his crosses.
Again, his right foot is significantly weaker than his left when crossing. With his right he tends to stand crosses up, although we occasionally also see him attempt low cut backs from the byline. He is capable of hitting decent areas with his right, although his deliveries are less accurate than with his left and typically lack pace. This makes them easier to defend and puts emphasis on the receiver to generate the requisite power to score. Because of this, his biggest weakness when crossing is his overdependence on cutting back onto his left foot; often doing so at times when he could attack the byline and cross with his right. This is demonstrated in the clip below: He has the chance to drive to the byline and deliver a right foot cross, but instead cuts back towards two players and his eventual cross is, rather inevitably, blocked. Developing his confidence, consistency and technique when crossing with his right foot is important moving forwards if he is to be effective from the right wing at a high level and maintain an element of unpredictability to his play in the final third.
It is not just his skillset, but his consistency of performance that stands out. Roberts was a near ever-present starter for Blyth, and you don’t score at a rate of 0.68 goals per game, from the wing, without being consistent. He has carried on his consistently high performances at Notts County, contributing 0.89 direct goal contributions per 90 minutes played. Moreover, he has shown he can perform in difficult circumstances. In one of the games watched for this article he performed solidly, if not spectacularly, during a Tuesday night game away to a rough and rugged AFC Fylde, played on a pitch more in keeping with the final day of Glastonbury than a professional football match.
CONTRIBUTION TO BUILD-UP
Having assessed his skillset, let’s next consider how Roberts contributes to his side’s tactical structure by looking at his input during build-up play, his positioning off the ball and his work when his side are out of possession.
Roberts’ contribution to build-up play, especially his passing, is a blend of simplicity in deep areas and final-third creativity. In deeper buildup he tends to play simple, safe passes, using a one or two touch pass-and-move approach to rotate the ball before moving into a new position.
At times his contribution to build-up play is restricted by his one-footedness and a strong preference for taking touches with his left. This limits his ability to play forwards as it makes to harder to open his body. He will typically look play quick, short passes, either backwards or sideways, rather than taking the ball down the line or looking for an incisive forward pass. It’s worth noting that this also appears to be in part driven by the demands of the manager, as his counterpart on the opposite wing does similar. Although his passes are generally not progressive, they are crisp and accurate, reaching the receiver with both a good weight and often on their favoured foot. He marries this with good movement off the ball, changing direction to move into position for a new pass or spinning away and running down the line, dragging a defender with him and away from the ball in the process. This is exemplified in the clip below.
Although he rarely gives the ball away, developing an understanding of when to link with forwards during deeper buildup play would greatly add to Roberts’ game. The clip below is a nice example of his current shortcomings in this regard. Before calling for the ball he has just checked over his shoulder, and will have seen space behind him to receive and carry the ball into. However, he squares up to play rather than opening his body up to receive into space as the ball is played.
When the ball is played to him, Roberts plays a simple backwards pass (yellow arrow). However, had he the confidence and awareness to open his body and receive the ball on his right foot into space, he would have created a real problem for a disorganised defence by taking the ball behind the opposition midfield line. From there, he could have run at the defence or utilised one of two attacking passing options either to the player on the overlap or by playing a line breaking pass centrally. Moreover, neither pass would be difficult for a player of his ability to spot or execute. However, because Roberts’ instinct is to play safe (unless in transition or the final third) the chance to penetrate the defensive line is lost and the opposition are able to regather their defensive shape.
Below we can see another, slightly different, example of his overly cautious approach to passing in his own half. In the first image we can see he has the option of two relatively simple, but effective, passes which would build attacking momentum and enable ball progression against an opposition side still recovering their defensive shape.
However, he again checks back towards his own goal, recycling possession with a backwards pass to his centre-back. If Roberts is to progress through the leagues, he will need to add more positivity and ball progression to his buildup play.
However, in the final third his passing is far more creative and he possesses good vision and awareness. His intelligent decision making and passing is aided by his calmness on the ball and ability to scan the pitch for a pass while in possession. He will rarely hit the first pass he sees in attacking areas, instead choosing to calmly assess his options. This allows him to attempt high difficulty and/or unpredictable passes in the final third.
In the first clip below we see him attempt an ambitious scoop pass. Although the execution doesn’t quite come off, it demonstrates his ability to recognise and attempt something out of the ordinary. In the second clip, we see him remain cool in possession. With the defenders anticipating a cross, Roberts recognises the four-versus-two numerical disadvantage and tight marking in the box. Rather than crossing he delivers a short pass into the space on the edge of the box, creating a shooting opportunity for his onrushing teammate - a fine example of his composure and decision making in the final third. In the third clip we see an intelligent pass split two defenders, while in the final he plays a well-executed, defence-splitting through pass, with the move ending in a goal for his side.
Of all the phases of play, Roberts is perhaps at his most dangerous in transition, where his pace, directness and dribbling can effectively exploit the additional space available. He regularly starts his side’s attacking transitions by virtue of the fact he occupies central positions out of possession when the ball is on the right flank. This position allows him to pick up a large number of loose balls and interceptions before springing a quick counter attack. The trade-off here is the amount of ground he has to cover on the switch of play.
He often forces opposition sides into tactical fouling on or around the half way line. If they’re unsuccessful, Roberts’ combination of direct dribbling, incisive passing and finishing can quickly create dangerous goalscoring opportunities for his side.
His weakness in transition is that occasionally he will attack busy central areas when there is more space to exploit out wide. Again, this is usually because of his desire to get the ball onto his left foot. At times, though, he can be crowded out or forced backwards after dribbling centrally, leaving wasted opportunity out wide.
Depending on the phase of play, player rotations and the location of the ball, Roberts will either hug the touch line to provide width or tuck inside into central/half-space areas between the lines. Roberts’ understanding and reading of triggers of when to support wide and when to move inside is good, and he typically takes effective positions to support play and offer passing lanes.
At Notts County the triggers for Roberts to move into central areas are: the ball being switched to the opposite flank; a direct ball into target man Kyle Wootton; or to create space/provide a passing option when attacking right back Richard Brindley is overlapping or in an advanced position. When collecting balls in central areas he is again very direct, typically turning and running at defenders. We see this in the clip below - he moves centrally in anticipation of the keeper playing long to Wootton, collects the flick-on before driving into the box and getting a shot away.
The next clip is even more impressive and demonstrates Roberts’ intelligence and ability to find space between the lines. We see two slight, but very clever, pieces of movement. First, he moves left for a split pass from number eight Doyle. Eastleigh’s screening midfielder covers this pass, and this creates a passing line to County’s number four Mitch Rose. As Rose controls the ball Roberts again adjusts his position, getting in a position to receive a split pass on the blindside of the Eastleigh midfielders. This allows him to receive the ball in just enough space to take an excellent first touch forwards before smashing the ball home with his second touch.
Roberts is also extremely effective when running in behind. Moving into central areas allows Roberts’ to make an in-to-out run into space to receive the ball in wide areas and move into the blindside of his marker. Moreover, he is intelligent when making runs to penetrate the space in behind in central areas, showing a good understanding of which areas to attack and how to angle his run to best exploit them. His ability in central areas also means that he may be effective playing as a direct no.10, with license to drift wide. He can and has also operated as a second striker.
Finally, Roberts provides width during deeper buildup play, when the ball is being switched from left to right and when the full-back is deep. As mentioned above, when receiving the ball in wide areas he will usually check inside from the wing to shoot, pass or cross and his effectiveness in these areas can be limited by his left foot dominance.
OUT OF POSSESSION
Robert’s biggest strength out of possession is his forward pressing in attacking or midfield areas of the pitch. When pressing, Roberts is both hardworking and fast across the ground. He is quick to apply pressure to defenders and well suited to a team who play with a high press.
Although, as mentioned, his overall defensive output is impressive, his out-of-possession work has weaknesses. He does not always get into the best position after pressing, meaning that he can fail to force the direction of play or stop the forward pass. While his movement is quick, he needs to develop an understanding of how to position himself and his body in relation to the ball after pressing, as well as when to rush his opponent to try to win the ball and when to delay or force them backwards.
Arguably his biggest weakness off the ball is that he can be lightweight and lack aggression when defending in his own half. His positioning, both within his team’s shape and in 1v1s, is not always perfect and he has a habit of giving opponents too much time and space. While his speed, acceleration and commitment can sometimes make up for his positional weaknesses, he is probably not best suited to a low block system.
Roberts’ future, along with many others in the National League, has been thrown into doubt by the Covid-19 pandemic. Notts County should have a chance of reaching League Two through the playoffs, if they are to go ahead. Even if County were to win promotion to the football league, I believe Roberts has shown enough this season to suggest he is ready to make the step up to League One next season.
He would be a good pickup for League One sides looking to sign young, promising players and develop them for profit, as he has the potential to kick on and play Championship football in the future. He is best as an attacking, creative, high pressing winger in a 4-3-3, 3-4-3 or 4-2-3-1, while he also contributes enough off the ball to play right midfield in a 4-4-2. Alternatively, a side may consider his qualities and use him as a number 10 or shadow striker, although this would be a slightly riskier move as he has not regularly played in these roles. With that in mind, who should be keeping tabs on Roberts this summer?
A move to Accrington Stanley would make a lot of sense for both player and club, with the League One side set to lose their current star man and right-sided midfielder Jordan Clark. There are a lot of similarities between Clark and Roberts: both are versatile, skillful and hardworking wingers, who like to drift inside and make a significant contribution in terms of goals and assists while not shirking defensive duties. Accrington also have a history of signing younger players from non-league and developing them to sell on, and their flexible tactical approach would make good use of Roberts’ versatility. They have played three primary formations: lining up in a 4-4-2 where Roberts could play right midfield, a 4-2-3-1 where he would be best used on the right of attack and a 4-1-2-1-2 in which he could play as the number 10. If he were to move to Accrington, Roberts may need to develop the tactical side of his defensive game to slot into their defensive block.
Burton Albion, who look likely to lose the out of contract Oliver Sarkic, would also be a good destination for Roberts, being another side famed for signing and developing young players. They also play with attacking wingers in a 4-3-3, a formation which well suits Roberts and would give him greater attacking freedom than a traditional 4-4-2. There are a lot of similarities between Roberts and Sarkic - indeed InStat has them as an 82% similarity match - and I believe the former would make an excellent replacement for the Montenegrin. Like Sarkic, Roberts can play on either wing or through the middle in attack and while they both offer creativity, Roberts offers the better goal threat. With Burton also set to lose the creative, goalscoring midfielder Scott Fraser, arguably their best player, they will need to replace his 16 direct goal contributions this season. Signing a player like Roberts, thus adding more goals and assists from wide areas, would be an intelligent start.
If League One sides are not keen to take a punt on Roberts then a move to League Two may be on the cards: Colchester United would be an excellent destination. They have been a hotbed for young talent of late, play a 4-2-3-1 in which Roberts could fit any of the advanced midfield roles, and may well be searching for a replacement for the extremely exciting and gifted Kwame Poku, who will surely be attracting attention from a number of higher division sides this summer.
Like Roberts, 18-year-old Poku has been most frequently used as a left-footed right winger, who likes to cut inside from his flank. Both Poku and Roberts are highly intelligent in their positioning and movement off the ball. They also share similar relationships with dynamic, attacking fullbacks and understand how to adapt their movements to dovetail nicely with a man behind them. Poku is capable of producing moments of delightful skill, often featuring a drag across his body with the bottom of his foot and probably has a higher ceiling than Roberts given his younger age and early exposure to regular first team football. However, he has not yet developed Roberts’ level of decision-making and end product in the final third; Roberts offers a more complete attacking threat at present. However, Poku is less risk averse during deep buildup and more willing to open his body by controlling the ball forwards with his right foot. He is also more physical and aggressive in duels: two areas Roberts will have to improve on in the future. If Colchester were to sell Poku, reinvesting some of that money in Roberts would be a shrewd decision. They would get a player similar in style, who has shown enough to suggest that he is ready to shine at League Two level but can still develop further and be sold on for a profit in the near future.
Another League Two side potentially looking to replace a talented young winger is Leyton Orient, who could well struggle to keep hold of 22-year-old Jordan Maguire-Drew. Like Roberts, Maguire-Drew can play on the left wing, right wing or as a ‘10’. The obvious parallels between Maguire-Drew and Roberts do not stop there: both players are left footed but have been primarily fielded on the right of midfield, too. There’s also only five months between them in age and both dropped down the leagues permanently last year having failed to make the grade at Premier League level (Maguire-Drew joined Orient from Brighton in January 2019).
Both Maguire-Drew and Roberts also offer a key attacking threat for their sides in terms of goals (their xG and shot numbers are near identical) and assists. There are of course differences between the two: Roberts dribbles more frequently, is more direct and perhaps a slightly better key passer in the final third while Maguire-Drew is a superior crosser of the ball and better when crossing or shooting with his right foot. Despite these key differences, Roberts would be an excellent replacement for Maguire-Drew should he be sold, especially as Leyton Orient have fielded a number of different formations this season which would make the best of Roberts’ versatility.
Getting Roberts’ next move right is crucial. His development could probably have been better managed at Newcastle – playing just 18 first team matches by the age of 22 left him with little first team exposure and likely stunted his progress. Now 23 and playing non-league football, Roberts is certainly behind the development curve many predicted during the latter stages of his youth career. Whatever happens this summer, Roberts should be playing league football next season, and would improve almost any League Two or One squad. With sufficient first-team exposure at a higher level and coaching to develop his weaknesses highlighted in this article, Roberts still has the time and talent to one day become a key player in a Championship-level squad – or at the very least a promotion-chasing League One side.
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