Scouted: Marash Kumbulla
Before a pandemic-induced lockdown, Hellas Verona were cementing their status as Serie A's surprise package. Phil Webster has analysed Verona's rise, and that of the young defender at the heart of it all.
On the surface, Serie A appeared to become one of Europe’s more formulaic leagues during Juventus’s strict rule of eight straight scudetti. The cycle became circular: Juve would hover immutably in the top two, the Milan clubs – in an endless rebuild – would flounder helplessly in the chasing pack, and maybe Napoli or Roma would make a plucky break from the peloton to engage in a futile pursuit of the champions elect.
This year, though, the league has deviated wildly from this tried and tested recipe, and there has been a treasure-trove of new tastes to explore. There’s the title race: a stand-off between Juventus, obviously, and a Lazio side riding the crest of an unthinkable, club record 21-match unbeaten run. Atalanta (and their Reading-sized budget) are blitzing everything in their path, scoring 70 goals in 25 games. Antonio Conte and Romelu Lukaku are leading a renaissance at Inter. The surrealism is only enhanced when you see that 18-year-old Daniel Maldini, son of Paolo, has made his Milan debut, attempting to reignte the dynasty of his forefathers.
Beneath the revitalised canopy, however, a quieter delight is flourishing: the team that finished fifth in Serie B last year is pushing for European qualification with one of the continent’s best defences, marshalled by a local 20-year-old with less than 20 senior league appearances. For Hellas Verona and Marash Kumbulla, this was never meant to happen. Verona secured an improbable spot in the top-flight via the play-offs after finishing 15 points behind champions Brescia – an inauspicious promotion that was reflected by modest spending. In September, Gazetta Dello Sport reported that Verona had the lowest budget in Serie A, and just the 25th highest in Italian football.
There were no high-profile signings to bolster a vulnerable squad: instead, around €10 million was spent on a phalanx of underappreciated castoffs and projects. Head coach Ivan Jurić’s three jobs prior to Verona were – almost impossibly – three brief stints at Genoa that each played out like a groundhog day spin-off; every spell ending with an ignominious sacking. There hasn’t even been an attacker in a rich vein of form to carry the team. Their top scorer is a 35-year-old Giampaolo Pazzini, with just four league goals. Nothing in their preparation hinted at what was to come.
And yet, Verona have extracted every possible ounce to surge up to eighth in Serie A with games in hand. To be perched just behind the towering powerhouses of Roma and Napoli is special, but with the fourth-best defence in the league, and a prodigious lynchpin in Kumbulla to anchor their rearguard, they’ll be dreaming of even more.
But how exactly have Verona managed to claw their way towards the summit of Serie A? In the absence of elite, established talent in attack (Verona have scored just 29 league goals this season – 7th worst in Serie A) Jurić has deployed his players carefully. The Croatian coach has implemented a regimented 3-4-2-1 system, one with an emphasis on defensive principles. But rather than using this structured shape as a passive shield, Jurić’s charges proactively barricade themselves across the pitch: they’re a coherent unit that efficiently get through a heavy defensive workload in all areas.
Their statistical profile points towards a defence that always seems to be kept busy – but crucially, one that never seems to be sliced through. Per WhoScored, Verona concede the sixth-most shots per game in Serie A. And yet, all these shots rarely translate into anything dangerous: their goalkeeper, Marco Silvestri, has only had to make 3.2 saves per game, good for 11th in the league, the same amount that Juventus’ goalkeepers have faced. Verona will let you attack them, but only in harmless areas.
Verona’s lockdown defence can’t simply be explained away by suggesting they’re on a lucky run of opposition profligacy either: per StatsBomb data, only six teams in Serie A have a lower expected goals against (xG against) tally.
Instead, you begin to realise that this is no fluke – Verona are simply incredibly difficult to break through. Just look at their credentials. Their 0-0 draw away at Lazio marked the only time the Rome club had failed to score at home all season. Juventus managed just two goals from open play against them across their two fixtures. With ten men they still held firm to secure a 1-1 draw away at Milan. They’ve kept valuable clean sheets Parma, Udinese, Sampdoria and Fiorentina.
Verona constrict and suffocate the best attacking units, but most exciting of all? The head of the snake is a 20-year-old defender named Marash Kumbulla.
This is what makes their year so thrilling – this isn’t a wily, old back three carefully keeping clean sheets. On the contrary, Amir Rrahmani – who already has a transfer arranged to Napoli – along with Koray Günter and the aforementioned Kumbulla are all emerging triumphantly on an upward, unorthodox trajectory. This is a triumvirate comprised of a 26-year-old poached from GNK Dinamo, a 25-year-old loanee out of favour at Genoa, and a jewel in the crown in the form of the local youth academy product.
To understand Verona’s ascension, you have to understand the enormous impact of this assured Albanian international. The 6'1" defender was born in Peschiera del Garda, a resort town on the tip of Lake Garda within the province of Verona, and despite belatedly joining the club’s academy in 2017, his style has quickly become wedded to the qualities they demand. For a team that prides itself on an energetically effective defence, Kumbulla is the perfect match.
The Albanian already has the classic frame of a long-serving Serie A defender. Akin to a battle-hardened veteran like Giorgio Chiellini, Kumbulla has the stature, broad shoulders and uncompromising ferocity to overpower and overwhelm attackers. In an increasingly rare trait for modern defenders, Kumbulla looks as comfortable digging in and fending off a bombardment for ten minutes as he does strolling out of the backline.
Naturally, then, Kumbulla is an ideal centre-back for a Verona side that lives for 90 minutes of unflinching, unrelenting defensive work. For a start, per Wyscout data, Kumbulla averages the most defensive duels per 90 minutes in Serie A with 11.58 – no centre-back gets through more work on the ground. But more importantly, despite being thoroughly examined with this kind of volume, only five centre-backs exceed Kumbulla’s success rate in these duels; those names include Francesco Acerbi, Matthijs de Ligt and Chris Smalling. Kumbulla is forced into firefighting throughout every game and he’s been one of Europe’s most effective extinguishers.
The obvious counter-argument would be that there must be some weakness – be it in positioning or concentration – that forces him into such a high number of duels, but well-rounded defensive numbers elsewhere ease such worries. Kumbulla possesses a spry leap that allows him to post an acceptable 56.5 percent aerial duel success rate, while he also remains busy in other areas too, registering 4.66 interceptions, 2.62 clearances and 0.76 blocks per 90. Far from simply dominating attackers on the ground, Kumbulla is a versatile defender who can repel attacks no matter how they arrive.
What turns Kumbulla from “merely” an excellent penalty-box defender into a potentially elite contributor in Europe is his growing comfort in possession. Passing has statistically been the weak point for Kumbulla this season, but there’s enough promise there to envision a future where the defender can confidently kickstart attacks for elite clubs.
Kumbulla is usually deployed on the left side of defence and generally looks elegant on the ball. He’s rarely satisfied with a lateral pass and is instead constantly swivelling, searching for a gap to exploit.
Without possession, Verona’s back three usually pinches and becomes narrow. In such situations, Jurić eagerly encourages Kumbulla to venture out toward the left touchline, enabling Marco Faraoni to surge forward from wing-back. The result is that you often see Kumbulla progressing the ball with passes from this slightly unusual area – see below.
This isn’t some reckless counter-attack. It’s a meticulously designed plan in the early stages of an away game where Kumbulla is trusted to advance possession into the opposition’s third. And this isn’t a one-off move: Jurić’s faith in Kumbulla’s technical ability and intelligence is a consistent facet of Verona’s game. Wyscout’s heat map for the defender illustrates neatly the distant outposts upfield that Kumbulla regularly ventures towards.
Obviously, the map mostly flares up defensive areas, but Kumbulla’s attacking influence is felt right the way down the left touchline. The simple fact that Jurić even tolerates this in his keenly devised system highlights Kumbulla’s technical promise.
Nevertheless, consistency in this area will certainly be a point for Kumbulla to improve on. He posts a forward pass completion rate of just 78.43 percent; for context, amongst elite defenders in Serie A, Kalidou Koulibaly registers 84.02 percent, Alessio Romagnoli 90.41 percent, and Milan Škriniar 90.41 percent. This can be mitigated by the fact that Verona generally struggle as a team to accurately pass through teams. Per Wyscout, Verona rank in the bottom half of the league in their accuracy on long passes, throughballs and passes into the final third. This inconsistency in possession isn’t confined to Kumbulla, but internalised within the entire side.
Perhaps Jurić has instilled an urgency in attack that leads to risk-taking, or maybe Verona’s defensive intensity draws energy away from their attacking impetus. Regardless, Kumbulla is trusted as a consistent distributor of the ball, even if – at this stage – the results are mixed.
From almost nowhere, this year has provided a tantalising glimpse of the type of impactful defender Kumbulla could become for a top club. Coupled with Verona’s startling season and his statistical profile, a top move in the summer feels like an inevitability.
Moves to Napoli or especially Inter would make a great deal of sense amongst the mass of transfer rumours. Kumbulla has already proven himself in a back three and he’s naturally well-equipped with the physicality and tactical acumen necessary for Serie A.
As ever, though, the top six in the Premier League could all barge onto the scene and there would be little surprise if Kumbulla did venture to England. The frenzied style of the Premier League lends itself well to athletic centre-backs who can cope with a frenetic 90 minutes of defending. After his hyper-activity at the back for Verona this season, Kumbulla would be well suited to putting out fires for a top six club.
Nevertheless, part of the excitement of emerging talent is their origin – it would be foolish to fixate on the future for Kumbulla when the present at Verona is already so enchanting. Just as Marco Verratti entrenched himself as an icon for Delfino Pescara after promotion from Serie B, Kumbulla has the opportunity to carve out a fairytale start to his career.
If indeed Verona do realise their mission to qualify for Europe, Kumbulla can leap into the summer at the forefront of every elite club’s mind, but more importantly, he will be entombed firmly within the folklore of his hometown club.
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