Rhian Brewster is a good purchase, actually.

Why contingency plans sometimes have to be risky

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At the end of last season, we would have all agreed that Rhian Brewster was a good player and a promising young talent.

Now, the overriding opinion across forums and socials seems to be that he is one of the worst buys of the season.

My prediction is the lad will come good and will prove to be a decent long-term signing for Sheffield United. While the argument will rage on about whether that money could have been spent more effectively to keep Sheffield United in the Premier League, his purchase will come to be seen as an example of footballing contingency planning.

He’s an asset that’s less likely to depreciate, with high upside potential for future productivity, proportionately low cost to maintain the asset (wages < value), high probability of loyalty in case of difficult periods (relegation), and there’s a good chance he can contribute well to the team from a footballing perspective in the short term - filling a gap in Wilder’s system.

If you think I’m being bold just wait for the third section where I praise Dominic Solanke!

Who is Rhian Brewster? Rhian Brewster’s stats & more

Brewster is a professional footballer for Sheffield United, formerly of Liverpool - from where he spent half a season on loan at Swansea. He joined Liverpool from Chelsea’s academy, taking a very similar path to fellow England youth-level Golden Boot/Ball winner Dominic Solanke.

Brewster won his Golden Boot at the u17 World Cup as part of a feared trio of him, Callum Hudson Odoi, and Jadon Sancho. After the group stages, Sancho was recalled by Dortmund but Brewster stepped up to net consecutive hat-tricks in the quarter finals and semis - blowing the US and Brazil out of the water - and slotted another past Spain in a 5-2 demolition in front of sixty-six thousand.

Brewster was on top of the world until two very serious injuries derailed his progress over the next 3 years. His Swansea loan at the back-end of last season was designed to get minutes in his legs and accelerate his return.

He hit the ground running and scored a few absolute stunners.

According to data from Wyscout, he ended with a per-90 output of 0.5 goals from 0.38 xG, which left him on 11 goals total from just shy of 2,000 minutes of play. Extrapolated to a full season would see him around the 20 goals-a-season mark.

While he showed himself to be a competent finisher, he wasn’t much of a creator: he finished his half-season with no assists, aligning with the underlying numbers which give him 0.01 xA per-90. In pre-assists he hit 0.05 per-90 too.

That said, he had more to his all round game. His energy and agression is easily spotted on the eye test but he also won over 30% of his offensive duels, averaging 8 duels per game, mainly up against fully grown Championship centre backs. This figure rises when we look at his defensive duels where he was winning around half.

Brewster’s pressing certainly wasn’t at the Liverpool level; there wasn’t the team cohesion for that, but his numbers were solid. On top of the above, he recovered the ball back in the opposition half at least once per game - doing so 3 times in one game against Birmingham City with a 100% success rate.

As his fitness levels returned and his sharpness came back, you started to see the other metrics tip up too - his pressing certainly, but in the later games you can see his link up play and his positional awareness rise as well. This comes naturally from learning how your teammates play and saw Brewster open up space with intelligent runs many times not shown in my data.

Of the top 30 highest goal scorers in the Championship last season, Brewster was the youngest yet came in at number 7 for goals-per-minute, just behind Jarrod Bowen and ahead of Ollie Watkins - both of whom are looking great in the Premier League this season. Plus, if we wanted to massage these numbers and give Rhian that freekick he scored which went down as a goalie own goal, then he’d be third in the per-minute list… but we wont do that because here’s where the story takes a turn.

His move to Sheffield United was well earned and many Liverpool fans hoped he’d kick off with goals and show the club why the buyback clause was warranted. But then it all went wrong.

Despite all the optimism, Brewster is yet to score a goal nor even rack up that many shots.

His xG per-90 has dropped to 0.22 while his expected assists is contentious with Understat data (shown in the graph above) giving us a reading of 0.2 and Wyscout telling us 0.05.

This variance in the data is mainly because we’re dealing with very small sample sizes, and partly because the Understat data hasn’t updated to reflect today’s game vs Burnley. What it does highlight though is that Brewster isn’t just not producing much - he’s not really on the pitch that much.

It has been suggested that this means he can’t get into the side - but I’d be wary here and assume that Wilder wanted to ease Brewster in. His output might not have been strong so far, but it’s in recent games that Wilder has begun to trust him and start him.

(I’m mainly writing this article now for that very reason)

So has he flopped? Has he jumped up the leagues and come short?

Well, at the time of writing, Sheffield United have the fewest shots per-90 in the league but they’re not at the bottom for team expected goals… in fact, in terms of xG they’re out of the relegation zone. The problem is that the 16.76 xG they’ve accumulated has only led to 8 goals.

It’s far too early to make a judgement on Brewster individually this season after only ~600 minutes, but Sheffield United are not performing very well and their strikers have to bear a good portion of the blame for simply how poorly it’s going.

What happens when you sign a young striker? Brewster vs Solanke vs Neto

When signing a young attacking talent there are a few potential outcomes.

Very rarely is an attacking talent signed to go straight into the starting XI. The exception is Haaland (a sentence you should expect to hear more often).

Typically there are 4 scenarios:

  1. The steady integration

  2. The rushed integration

  3. The flop

  4. The superstar

Or, for the purposes of this article:

  1. The Neto

  2. The Solanke

  3. The I’m Not Going to Be Mean

  4. The Haaland

Straight off the bat, I don’t believe there is enough evidence yet to suggest Brewster is a flop, and his history suggests improvements will come. He’s also clearly not the Haaland, Rooney, Mbappe type.

So let’s focus on number 1.

The ideal scenario when signing any young player who is inteded for the first team squad is that you can give them a development path into the team. This might involve substitute appearances in games where the pressure is off. It might mean cup games against lower-league opposition. Or it might be fairly solid game time at the end of the season if you have nothing left to play for.

If you can give a young player the chance to make an impact when it matters, that’s great - a source of confidence - but you don’t want to put all hopes on their shoulders.

And that’s the key: you want them to be free to make mistakes and feel like they can express themselves. More than any other position, a striker makes mistakes. Every missed chance is a mistake - every poor touch, run not made, moment of hesitation, all. Crucial to a striker’s development is making the mistakes and moving right past them. Paradoxically, the more shots a striker misses in each game the more goals they’re likely to end up on over the course of a season.

Rhian Brewster Outcome Type 1: The steady integration of Pedro Neto

Pedro Neto is not a comparable player to Brewster, but he’s an excellent example of player development.

He only had a slight sniff of game time in 18/19, but in 19/20 found himself playing almost 1,000 minutes across the season. He was a little Bambi-esque at first but you could see he had talent.

This season, he has taken up an important role in the Wolves team and allowed the club to cash in on Diogo Jota. Jiminez’ unfortunate injury along with an early-season attempt to move away from 3-at-the-back has meant that Wolves haven’t been as effective as they would like, but Neto has been one of the real bright sparks.

If we look first at his Understat radars we see good performance, despite the drop off of team-based metrics:

Pedro Neto in 20/21

Pedro Neto in 19/20

However, the most outstanding metrics aren’t captured above - and they’re precisely why he looks so good on the eye. As per Wyscout data:

Neto is currently sitting 5th for the most dribbles in the top 5 leagues. Yes, his per-90 figures are below Neymar’s, but so are everyone else’s.

At 20 years old, and almost exactly the same age as Brewster give or take 20 days, these are mad figures to be achieving. He’s quickly establishing himself as one of the best young dribblers in the world. You’ll only find one other player in the top 30 who’s a similar age, and that’s Eric Junior Dina Ebimbe - a right winger for Dijon.

If we take a look at the Wyscout overview for Neto, we get a much more extreme picture than Understat gives us:

The biggest scores in that radar are Crosses per-90, Key Passes per-90, Pass Accuracy, and Dribbles per-90. Which largely aligns with what the eye test tells us: Neto is one of Wolves’ primary creative forces this season.

Some might say this is just down to him being a quality player, but football is rarely like that. Neto was given time to settle, then time to adjust to the league, time to grow, and finally time to perform. Now we’re seeing the emergence of a serious talent.

This is the ideal in youth development. Not everyone reaches it but those who do have a much higher chance of flourishing.

Not every player, however, is quite so lucky…

Rhian Brewster Outcome Type 2: The rushed integration of Dominic Solanke

First off, I don’t want to sound like I’m being a dick to Eddie Howe. I really rate Eddie and I think he did the best he could with Solanke given the circumstances.

Dominic Solanke joined Bournemouth the summer prior to the 19/20 season from Liverpool, where he’d joined from Chelsea 2 seasons prior. He had won the Golden Ball at the u20 world cup, not for being the highest goal scorer - à la Brewster - but the best player.

At youth levels, Big Dom was a true dom. He was bigger and stronger than his competitors, he was sharp on the turn, had a powerhouse of a right foot, and he had bags of confidence to go with it. He was a Statsbomb favourite for a period, with Ted Knutson vowing that he had everything else, the goals would eventually come…

You can just about make out his 17/18 Statsbomb (limited minutes) radar below salvaged in low quality from a since deleted tweet:

The problem was that Solanke came in a little earlier than he was ready for. He wasn’t thrust straight in - but he had a lot of confidence to rebuild, a new town to move to, and a new playstyle with new responsibilities to adapt to.

As is so common with young players, he dived in the deep end and floundered. His first few games weren’t just ‘not good’, they were positively bad. He kept messing up his first touches, slipping at the wrong moments, and misplacing passes. It really wasn’t going his way.

Then, injury struck. Not once, but multiple times to key starting players.

Suddenly, low-confidence out-of-form Solanke is in the starting line up more often than not and the world is on his back. Worse than this, Solanke’s bedding in period saw the team do really well and then drop away dramatically. So when Dom jumps into the side, it’s not just him who is low on confidence but all of them.

I’d love to say that Solanke should just have done better, but the circumstances didn’t help - and we can’t ignore them if we want to predict future events.

So what happened that season?

The Understat data says it all really.

The only divergence worth mentioning is that Solanke’s strong finish to the season in the last couple of games will actually make that graph look a lot more positive than it is now.

But tomorrow is the future, yesterday is the past, and today is a gift; that’s why we call it the present. For today’s gift, Solanke is having a very different experience:

The radar, even at a glance, looks much healthier.

Solanke is now the starting striker for Bournemouth, with competition here and there from Surridge - an underrated striker in his own right.

He is leading the line and both scoring and assisting, true to his original Statsbomb radar. At the time of writing, he stands on 9 goals and 3 assists in the Championship according to Wyscout.

It’s worth mentioning that all my data will be from the Wyscout base, not the Transfermarkt base where Solanke sits on 6 assists - mainly down to winning penalties, I beleive.

The point is, he’s doing very well.

In total goals + assists and in total expected goals + assists Solanke sits in 4th. While in xG+xA per-90, he sits 5th in the league - ahead of known names like Deeny, Buendia, Stanislas, and Sarr.

If you look only at Solanke’s current strike rate, you find him tracking very closely behind Watkin’s rate from last season - but with the added value of more assists.

As young talent goes in the Championship this year, Solanke stands out as a very promising all round number 9.

Armstrong is very exciting, currently surrounded by young talent but similar in style and/or output to Danny Ings - see this Statsbomb article for a run down.

Toney has done an amazing job jumping up the leagues. As always, Brentford have found a winner. The question now is whether he can maintain his 30% conversion rate - ridiculously high, way above the Premier League best. Though, he’s still holding it after 2,000 minutes so it’s probably not all fluke!

All this said, Bournemouth presently sit 4th in the Championship table but if they win their game in hand would go second on goal difference.

So where has Solanke’s value been?

The cyncial among us would say that Solanke’s added value has occured this season, for low wages, after top strikers left (Wilson), that this might drive them back into the Premier League, and that none of this was an accident.

A player like Solanke is signed not just to be good now or in future. They are signed because if you go down, they’re unlikely to leave. And they have a level of proven quality such that they will thrive in the Championship. From an administration perspective, you’ve already partially paid for your return to the Prem.

Now, Bournemouth have an excellent squad in the context of the Championship (though they’ll get vultured a bit during January too). So this isn’t all down to Dom. But he gives them bouncebackability. He’s a signing who can still deliver in the worst case scenario.

And he is absolutely doing so this year.

What is a contingency plan? And why does that add value?

A contingency plan is where you prepare for an outcome you didn’t want.

It’s a simple as that really.

We all do it in work and life all the time. One of my main subjects I write about is process management - so a certain degree of contingency planning is built into ‘If This Then That’ kind of logic; you need to prepare for outcomes which differ from those you desired.

I do this all the time at work building processes - whether marketing workflows, HR workflows, sales worfklows, or even just approval workflows, you have to account for what comes after the negative.

And this is the perspective I think we need to factor into both the Solanke & Brewster signings. Here it is one more time, what they both have going for them:

  • Very high potential, demonstrated at youth level with flourishes at men’s level.

  • Low wages compared to similarly skilled experienced players.

  • High loyaly value, in that they’ll stick around if you go down.

  • Even higher chance of success in the Championship meaning they’ve a good chance of bouncing you back up.

  • Very likely to retain their asset value provided they’re not an outright flop over multiple seasons.

So it’s worth taking a punt on a youth player of this caliber because if it works you end up with a star, and if it doesn’t there’s a good chance they’ll come through for you eventually - and give you a large sell on or re-earn you Prem TV money!

Add to which, if you’re a small club with limited revenue, financially it’s worth overpaying on a transfer fee than breaking your wage structure - that’s the route to long term ruin!

All in all, I expect you to slaughter me (@adam_h_h) if Brewster doesn’t come through but my prediction is this:

He’ll start to look good by the end of the season and he’ll tear up the Championship next year. If Sheffield United go down, as is likely, it will be everyone else’s fault more than Brewster’s as they’ve failed to perform to the level we all know they’re capable of. Also, Wilder in.”