Analysing Jeremy Ngakia
England are producing right-backs at a truly remarkable rate. Trent Alexander-Arnold sets the standard, as do Reece James and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, while Jeremy Ngakia is another to keep an eye on.
by Danny Lewis
When Jeremy Ngakia and Bernardo Rosa featured on West Ham United’s bench against Sheffield United, plenty of eyebrows were raised. The Hammers had allowed various talented youngsters to go out on loan in January, including Nathan Holland and Connor Coventry, making the decision to feature these unknown quantities in the squad rather suspect.
But it became clear why David Moyes had chosen the full-back and midfielder during West Ham under-23s’ Premier League 2 draw against Stoke City just over a month later. The pair stood out among their peers in Dmitri Halajko’s outfit, athough their profiles were already very different.
Rosa had returned to the under-23s squad immediately after the loss at Bramall Lane, but Ngakia had played the full 90 minutes against table-toppers Liverpool. These two contrasting stories offer a clear indication of the part chance can play in youngsters getting their first senior opportunities: injuries helped Ngakia’s initial rise towards the first-team as Ryan Fredericks was unavailable through injury; Ben Johnson, who had been ahead of his fellow youngster in the pecking order, was also out.
This left Moyes with a dilemma about whether to opt for the ageing Pablo Zabaleta or the untested Ngakia. The Argentinian had not fared well in a 4-1 loss against Leicester City, which surely played a part in Moyes opting to use the 19-year-old – a decision that turned out to be somewhat of a masterstroke, as he held his own against the league leaders. Ngakia was replaced by Fredericks for the following two matches, but another injury picked up against Manchester City saw the teenager reinstated to the starting line-up until the forced break of play.
At first, Moyes will have likely seen the teenager’s inclusion as a short fix until Fredericks was available again, but his performances have surely made him more than that. The academy graduate has only played four first-team matches for West Ham, but he has already had fans chanting his name, teammates singing his praises and could have even forced his way into Moyes’ plans for the longer-term.
Ngakia’s debut, which came in a 2-0 loss against Jürgen Klopp’s side, did not start well. Understandably, the full-back was akin to a rabbit in the headlights. One of his first involvements saw him completely mess up a clearance, and he seemed panicky in general.
But things turned around and by the end the teenager had put in a truly solid performance – the character he demonstrated to get back on track was in itself impressive. A clear indication of his already developing defensive nous is that he made all three of the tackles attempted throughout the game.
Having debuted against a Liverpool side without Sadio Mané, his subsequent appearances came against Liverpool once again, this time he was pitted against the Senegalese star, as well as in a 3-1 victory over Southampton and a narrow loss at the hands of Arsenal.
An encouraging aspect from these early games – one especially important under Moyes – has been Ngakia’s ability to deal with tactical switches. West Ham's recently re-appointed coach often moves between different formations from game to game, meaning Ngakia has already played in 5-4-1, 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2 systems. These alterations have seen the teenager receive different levels of protection, as well as requiring him to tweak his own game, which he has done well so far. Of the aforementioned appearances, the win against Southampton is the only game in which Ngakia has tasted victory. It offered the most conclusive insight into both his strengths and weaknesses so far.
Ngakia is clearly committed in his defensive work, which was displayed through his tenacity and persistence off the ball. There were two particular duels that highlighted this. The first was when he was initially beaten by Sofiane Boufal but used his pace to recover and regain possession. The second came when Ryan Bertrand pushed the ball past him twice, but the Ngakia kept his concentration and eventually made the tackle.
While effort and intensity is vital, there is also a natural feel to the teenager’s defending, as he can anticipate danger and proactively step in to cut it out at source. This was highlighted best when possession fell to Michael Obafemi on the edge of West Ham’s box, after a corner was not cleared properly, but Ngakia spotted the threat and won the ball back for his team to prevent a clear goalscoring opportunity.
Moreover, there is a real sense of discipline in the way that he carries himself on the pitch. Young defenders can sometimes find themselves being drawn out of position – especially when they get the chance to attack – but Ngakia seems to be avoiding that trap. This important trait, in addition to the intelligence he possesses, mean he has managed 3 tackles, 1.5 interceptions and 3.3 clearances per 90 minutes. (It must be emphasised that those numbers come from a data set of just four complete games; they're likely to drop with more minutes.)
His role is not just about defending though, and there have been mixed messages from his attacking game so far. There is optimism in the academy graduate’s approach with the ball at his feet, as he looks forward at every opportunity; this has seen him stride up the pitch confidently, play balls behind the opposition for attackers to run onto, and break the lines with passes into the feet of attackers. While there is good intent, sometimes the execution is off slightly. If he is to avoid getting his team into difficult situations, he will need to keep possession effectively. He did not do that against Southampton, completing just 27.8 percent of his passes. However, he did make a drastic improvement in the following game, against Arsenal, having a success rate of 75 percent. His attempted passes demonstrate decent vision, so if he can start to pull them off, he will become someone West Ham’s attackers can thrive off.
Across his four first-team games to date, the full-back has also completed a total of five dribbles, indicating his willingness to carry the ball forward. Considering Ngakia’s attacking and defensive traits, his partnership with 23-year-old Jarrod Bowen down the right could be a truly exciting one going forward.
The Hammers have a talented crop of youngsters coming through their ranks, led by Declan Rice. In addition to that, there is optimism for loanees such as Grady Diangana, Holland and Coventry. The big test for any youngster in the Academy of Football will be proving to Moyes that they are ready for Premier League game-time – something Ngakia has already achieved. However, Moyes' level of trust will be significantly tested once football returns, as Fredericks will be available after recovering from injury.
Despite the step up in competition, Ngakia’s level of performance so far should leave him confident of maintaining his place in the side. Having initially been used as a temporary stop-gap, the teenager has quickly become one of West Ham’s best defensive assets.
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