Scouted: Lewis Ferguson
Blair Newman analyses 20-year-old midfielder Lewis Ferguson, picking out his strengths, highlighting his deficiencies, and assesses where his long-term future lies – both tactically and in terms of his next step.
At just 20 years old, Lewis Ferguson is already an experienced player. He recently completed his third season of Scottish Premiership football, with his performances earning him the Scottish Football Writers Association Young Player of the Year award. Ferguson was the first Aberdeen player to win the award in its 19-year history. Next season, assuming he doesn’t transfer away and there are no long-term injuries, he will almost certainly break 100 appearances in Scotland’s top flight.
It would be extremely surprising if clubs in the upper echelons of the English Championship – and perhaps above – were not following Ferguson right now. However, there is plenty for the youngster to work on before he takes that next step in his career. Here, we’ll take a look at his all-round game, detail the areas he must still improve, and analyse where, tactically speaking, his long-term future may lie.
RETENTION, PROGRESSION, OR PENETRATION?
Ferguson has played in almost every possible midfield role during his time at Aberdeen: as part of a deep midfield two, orchestrating build-up; as an all-action box-to-box role in a three, offering defensive and attacking support; and as a number 10, making runs off a lone striker.
When he has played in the slightly deeper positions, as a six or an eight, he has shown a variety of qualities in build-up play. Perhaps the most obvious is his physicality, which enables him to retain possession under pressure. He can hold off his opponent and play backwards or sideways, or turn and make space to play forward.
His clean and accurate short passing aids his ball retention too. He rarely under or over-hits short passes, nor does he give his teammates more work than necessary with poorly hit balls. This ability to control and re-distribute effectively in deeper areas is perhaps underrated in this day and age, but it is the first box that needs to be ticked in order to avoid silly turnovers and subsequent opposition counter-attacks.
Ferguson also ticks the box marked ‘progression’, as he regularly looks to play forward when possible. If he finds himself on the ball in space, he will try to progress the attack, particularly through long-range switches. These may not lead to anything more than crosses from wide at Aberdeen, but in a different system these diagonals could create 1v1 situations for quality dribblers. His pass accuracy over longer distances is also useful in attacking transition, where he can pick out forwards with balls into space.
Ferguson rarely gives the ball away unnecessarily and looks to play forward when he can. However, one box remains unticked – penetration. Too often he opts to spread the ball wide or switch it when he could instead look to break the lines. Even when there are options available to get his teammates driving at the defence, he will play it safe and go around the opponent rather than through. Below he ignores two options to penetrate in favour of a sideways ball out wide.
Ferguson’s accurate short passing and diagonal balls lend themselves to the No.6 role, though he doesn’t have the positional discipline to be a lone defensive midfielder. If Aberdeen do play him deep, it's generally as one half of a double pivot. This means the defensive/transition issues that arise when he leaves to press or to support the attack are mitigated by another defensive midfielder, such as Funso Ojo, covering behind him.
This desire to break forward is, however, an asset if Ferguson plays in less restricted roles. He possesses good movement which comes to light in different ways depending on whether he is playing box-to-box or further forward.
Playing off the target man Aberdeen usually go for – either Sam Cosgrove or Curtis Main – Ferguson makes good support runs, ensuring he is around the striker to receive knock-downs or challenge for second balls after direct build-up from back to front. Here his physicality and aggression prove particularly effective, as he can compete with centre-backs and defensive midfielders in a way other No.10s can't.
But Ferguson isn’t purely a scrapper – he consistently demonstrates positive movement off the ball to find pockets or, if playing further up, to try and run in behind the last line. These movements open opportunities for Aberdeen to penetrate or get in behind. Here is a simple example – Ferguson shows for the throw-in, drags his man with him, then spins off to receive in the space in behind:
Below, Ferguson sees the opponent moving to press his teammate and moves into the vacated space, offering a penetrative passing option:
In the next example, he shows for the simple sideways pass, realises it's going to another teammate, and instantly shifts position to create a passing option that eliminates two opponents and leaves him in space to drive at the opposition backline.
And finally, here is an example of his movement in a more advanced position. Here he makes a run from out to in on the blind side of the centre-back, offering for the ball in behind the opposition defence. A better pass and he is in on goal with just the ‘keeper to beat.
As well as moving off the ball to find space, Ferguson can single-handedly kick-start combination play. He doesn’t wait around to admire his work, instead employing smart movement to receive a return in space once he's fed a teammate. He’s always available for the give-and-go and can get himself into dangerous positions this way.
This ability to make things happen, as well as strong game awareness, is wasted when Ferguson plays as a six. As an eight or a ten, with more license to roam and push forward, these qualities come to the fore without the risk of leaving the team open in transition. However, to get the most out of a more advanced role, he could improve his decision-making in the final third.
TO SHOOT OR NOT TO SHOOT?
This is the big question for Ferguson when he enters the final third and too often he gets the answer wrong. His approach play is good – he times his forward runs well to pick up lay-offs and moves well to get free in the box on crosses and cut-backs – but generally his shooting is too forced. This comes primarily from shooting from low-percentage locations where the chance of hitting the target, let alone beating the goalkeeper, is unlikely.
Below are a selection of screenshots that exemplify this trait. Here we see him ignore the opportunity to play Main in behind. He goes on to shoot from long range: His shot is easily saved.
Here, he turns down the chance to spread the ball wide and continue building the attack in favour of a shot with the ball bouncing and a defender right in front him. Needless to say, it doesn’t make the target.
Here he simply shoots from far too far away and it’s blocked by the nearby opponent.
And finally, here he ignores runs into the box from two teammates to try and work a shot for himself from an almost impossible angle.
In his first season at Aberdeen, Ferguson scored six goals. Last season, he scored just once; his goals per 90 dropped from 0.17 to 0.03. On top of that, he’s only contributed five assists in the last two years. But it’s possible for these numbers to improve if he starts making smarter calls in the final third.
If, in the graphics above, he had chosen to play his teammates in behind when he had the chance, he could have set up a few more goals. And if he had decided to keep the move going he could then have attacked the box on subsequent crosses, or combined with his teammates and picked up a few more goals from headers and shots inside the penalty area.
SOLID DEFENSIVE INSTINCTS
Ferguson is at his best when given license to get forward, but he doesn’t shirk his defensive responsibilities. When Aberdeen lose the ball, his reactions are positive – he wants to get back and help defend immediately, and he is reasonably quick making recovery runs. He could improve his tendency of being drawn to the ball – sometimes he goes to press and forgets about the space he leaves behind.
Still, his desire to get back and his willingness and aggression in pressing are positives. So too is his commitment in the tackle. He appears to enjoy getting stuck in and asserts himself well – if sometimes rashly – to try and win 1v1 duels and break up attacks. Below is an example of him winning a duel and initiating a counter-attack.
He also suits his team’s rigid man-marking system well, particularly when it comes to tracking runs. Aberdeen’s style of defending requires a lot of individual responsibility and can be pulled apart by opponents with lots of positional rotations and movement off the ball. Ferguson needs to be alert to fill in the gaps when necessary and does this well, covering for teammates who are drawn out of position by following runners behind them.
With his aggression, physical strength, impressive fitness levels and willingness to run back towards his own goal or cover man-to-man when necessary, Ferguson is defensively more mature than most 20-year-old midfielders.
A dynamic, physical and versatile midfielder, Ferguson has a lot of the raw material needed to play at a higher level, particularly in the high-tempo and direct style seen throughout English football’s top tiers. He also possesses a fine range of passing, impressive movement, and plenty of useful defensive attributes.
To progress, he must work on his decision making both in passing and shooting. If he can become a more penetrative passer whilst also improving his choices in the final third, he will start to score and assist more goals and become a more rounded attacking threat. At that point, the £200,000 paid to sign him will look like one of the best recruitment decisions Aberdeen have made in recent memory.
Volume VII of the Scouted Football Handbook is coming. Subscribe now to get it first.