Xavi Simons has been well-known as one of world football’s hottest prospects for quite some time. A namesake of Barcelona legend Xavi Hernández, Simons joined the Catalan club’s youth academy back in 2010. He had only just entered his teen years when he was the subject of transfer links to other European titans such as Chelsea or Barca’s historic La Liga rivals Real Madrid.
However, the now 17-year-old player remained a member of La Masia until last summer when we made a move to France, joining Paris Saint-Germain’s youth system where the young midfielder has continued honing his craft within Les Parisiens’ youth academy throughout the 2019/20 campaign.
In this tactical analysis piece in the form of a scout report, we will provide an analysis of the 17-year-old midfielder, based on some of his performances for both PSG’s U19 side as well as the Dutch U17 international team. We will attempt to provide a tactical analysis of how Simons fits into these teams’ tactics and analyse some aspects of the young midfielder’s game.
Simons’ dribbling quality and impressive close control
Simons has displayed some impressive quality on the ball so far during his young career and one aspect of his on-the-ball ability which is particularly impressive is his dribbling quality and the impressive control that he possesses over the ball.
The player stands at around 168cm (5’6”) tall and weighs roughly 58kg (128lbs). He isn’t a physically big player by any stretch of the imagination, however, he tends to be quite difficult to dispossess despite often being physically outmatched by much larger defensive opposition players.
Physically, Simons is likely helped by his relatively low centre of gravity as he has got an impressive ability to turn on the ball and keep opposition defenders guessing with regard to his movement in possession. Additionally, Simons possesses impressive quickness and agility. All of these traits combine to help make the playmaker an asset for his side on the ball via his impressive dribbling ability.
This image above provides us with an example of one of the ways in which the young playmaker can often be seen utilising his impressive dribbling quality and close control ability to evade multiple opposition challenges while retaining possession for his side and creating dangerous chances in the process.
Just prior to this image, the PSG player closest to Simons’ right shoulder had just dribbled the ball up-field and played it into the player where he currently stands. The young midfielder controlled the ball well in this position with his back to goal and proceeded to treat these Real Madrid defenders as if they were training cones, elegantly dancing through them and any challenges they presented to him and his attempts at progressing the ball.
We can see that Simons has received possession in an area of the pitch where he is surrounded by white shirts here. However, his excellent ball control and dribbling ability allow him to thrive in this type of situation and he can often be seen positioning himself in little, tight pockets of space such as this one to receive possession as he can attract attention and pressure from multiple opposition players in this position and subsequently use his ability on the ball to beat them and create for his team.
As this passage of play moves on, we can see that Simons exits to his left after quickly gaining control over the ball here. The player winds in and out past a couple of opposition challenges as he dribbles the ball out of the square of Real Madrid players that we saw that he had positioned himself in before, as he progresses play out to the wing, where space has now opened up, as we can see here.
Simons’ impressive dribbling ability is clearly helpful for his side with regard to playing within tight spaces as we can see, however, the threat that he poses for opposition sides on the ball also helps his team to create space elsewhere on the pitch. As opposition players get drawn in by Simons, he creates space for his teammates elsewhere and as he goes on to beat challenges with his dribbling ability, he can then put himself and his team into a position to capitalise on this space.
This particular passage of play is one such occasion where Simons and PSG capitalise on the space that has been created elsewhere on the pitch following a successful dribble. As Simons escapes from this square of Real Madrid defenders, he can go on to play the ball out to the right-wing where a player enjoying a relatively large amount of freedom can pick up the ball and attempt to create something for his team.
However, it’s clear that the opportunity for this wide man to receive possession here has come about as a result of Simons’ ball control and dribbling quality, while his decision making with playing this pass here, as well as the technique of playing the pass itself, are both also positive.
Simons is a player who can and has played in a variety of different positions on the pitch. In the previous passage of play, we saw him playing in an advanced playmaking role, operating in a tight pocket of space just behind the forward line. However, in this next image above, we can see the 17-year-old midfielder playing in a deeper area of the pitch.
Simons is very proactive about getting onto the ball and this has been particularly evident in some of his games with the Dutch U17 side this season, where he has operated all around the midfield on different occasions and can often be seen effectively running proceedings from the centre of the park, collecting the ball from the centre-backs and going on to continue his involvement with the move in the final third.
On this particular occasion, just prior to this image being taken Simons had received possession from the centre-backs and played it out to the left-back, who quickly returned possession to him when placed under some pressure.
As the Dutch player receives the ball again, he is also pressed by an opposition player, however, he provides us with another example of his calm, cool, and effective dribbling ability as he evades this challenge once again and backs himself to go on and carry the ball up the pitch, quickly turning a precarious situation into a positive one for his side.
As play moves on, Simons successfully gets past this first opposition player and then makes a sharp turn to evade a second. We can see the playmaker in the process of making this turn in the image above. Simons goes on to continue his run into the opposition half before playing a progressive pass into the feet of one of his more advanced teammates.
This second passage of play shows us that Simons’ dribbling and ball control are not only effective traits in the final third, but the 17-year-old midfielder can use these traits positively in a variety of different areas of the pitch and he often has enough confidence in his ability to take these chances on in the hope of creating something for his team.
How one receives the ball is an important aspect of any midfielder’s game and Simons tends to receive the ball well. We saw a glimpse of this in the previous section of this tactical analysis piece when he controlled the ball quickly in a tight space surrounded by opposition players, however, we will look at this aspect of his game in greater detail within this section.
As we mentioned previously, Simons isn’t a physically big player, however, he knows his size and he uses is quite well with regard to protecting the ball when he receives it. Simons is an intense and fairly aggressive player at times and this aggression and determination to retain possession of the ball is evident in this next passage of play.
In the image above, we can see Simons positioned on the left-wing, preparing to receive possession from a midfield teammate. However, as the Dutch playmaker prepares to receive the ball, we can also see an opposition defender closing in on him from behind.
The first thing to note about how Simons typically receives possession of the ball is that he is good at making himself aware of his surroundings on the pitch and can quite often be seen diligently checking his shoulder and scanning the pitch to create that picture of the game in his mind. He does so on this occasion and makes himself of aware of the fact that an opposition defender is approaching.
As play moves on, we see Simons collect the ball and immediately shield it from this opposition player. While he’s not a big player, he is more than capable of holding off opposition defenders in this style and can often be seen doing so. On this occasion, after initially controlling the ball and subsequently shielding it, he quickly uses his agility and speed to turn inside and probe into the space that we can see over his left shoulder.
Simons manages to go on and quickly shake this opposition defender thanks to, firstly, the diligent scanning of his surroundings and secondly, effectively shielding the ball to help him to get past this defender who had been applying some pressure.
This technique of shielding possession for a moment after receiving the ball before quickly turning and shaking a defender off in the process is a common feature of Simons’ game and it’s one that often helps him to overcome the size difference between him and his opponents, while highlighting and making use of some of his own positive physical traits, such as his balance and agility.
In this next image above, we can see an example of Simons picking up possession of the ball in a deeper area of the pitch. Again, this shows us an example of his versatility, as he is a player who can operate effectively in a variety of different positions depending on the particular situation.
In this game, The Netherlands were playing against a USA side who were leading 2-1 going into the final 15 minutes of ordinary time. At this point in the game, the USA side were deploying a deeper block and were defending in a more passive manner. Due to his impressive playmaking ability, Simons operated deeper, where there was ultimately more space at this point, and where he could potentially create more for his team and enjoy more time on the ball.
We can see this in the image above, as Simons isn’t really being put under a great deal of pressure from the opposition as he prepares to receive the ball, with most opposition players opting to sit deeper, maintaining their compact shape.
As the ball is played to Simons, he makes himself fully aware of this, in addition to everything else that’s happening on the pitch at this time as he scans the pitch, checking his shoulder, and once again putting that picture of the layout of the pitch into his mind.
This provides us with a clear example of Simons’ intelligence and another example of why the way in which he receives possession of the ball is particularly noteworthy. This is an important aspect of a midfielder’s game as scanning the pitch and creating that picture of the pitch in your mind can give you more time to decide on what you’re going to do with the ball once you do receive the pass.
This can improve the quality of decision making, as well as the speed of decision making, as it can often appear as though a player has made a decision immediately upon receiving possession as if they’ve got a set of eyes in the back of their heads when in reality their scanning allows them to plan ahead and make the decision of what they would do before they even receive the ball.
On this occasion, Simons provides himself with the information of where all of the more advanced players on the pitch are positioned at this particular moment, giving him an extra second or two before receiving possession and subsequently turning, as he also knows that no opposition players are actively pressing him, to help him make his decision on the next course of action. This often helps Simons to be an even more effective playmaker and a difficult player for opposition defenders to deal with at times.
Additionally, as we also previously touched on, Simons likes to place himself in the types of positions such as the one that we can see him occupying in this image above, in tight pockets of space in between multiple opposition players. On this occasion, we can see that Simons has drifted into the right half-space, effectively positioning himself between four opposition players in the process, while offering a very clear path to quick ball-progression for his teammate.
As the PSG centre-back in possession of the ball lines up this pass for Simons, the 17-year-old playmaker orientates his body somewhat to the side, as we can see here. He prepares to receive the ball and quickly turn to face the opposition goal by doing this and as play moves on, he can link up with the right-winger to create a 2v1 situation versus this Real Madrid left-back which helps PSG to progress the play.
Aggression and defensive effort
The first two sections of this tactical analysis piece show us that Simons offers his side plenty of quality on the ball, however, another important part of the Dutch midfielder’s game is his aggression, determination, and the fact that he does offer his side a decent work-rate out of possession.
This image above provides us with an example of a passage of play in which PSG have pushed Real Madrid into a precarious position via some effective pressing. At this particular moment, we can see Simons positioned on the right-wing, preparing to press Real Madrid’s left centre-back, should he receive possession from the left-back. Meanwhile, the rest of PSG’s side effectively position themselves to help facilitate this.
As play moves on, PSG’s pressing does pay off as the Real Madrid left-back is ultimately forced to play the ball back to his teammate at left centre-back. This pass triggers the press of Simons who quickly springs into action, while his teammates assist him in his efforts by cutting off all nearby passing lanes for the Real Madrid centre-back.
Simons is quick and aggressive in the press and he eventually intercepts the defender’s attempted long-ball when he does try to play it. On this particular occasion, the ball is blasted off of Simons’ boot and ends up rolling out for a goal kick, however, this passage of play provides us with an example of the 17-year-old midfielder’s effectiveness when contributing to his team’s press.
Simons’ work-rate off-the-ball proved useful in a separate clash with Real Madrid, in which he managed to open the scoring after he caught the Spanish side’s goalkeeper in possession inside his own box and successfully managed to dispossess him, subsequently tucking the ball away.
This shows how dangerous it can be for opposition players to try and play their way out past the aggressive and speedy Simons. The Dutch midfielder often appears to be quite determined to have possession of the ball, whether he shows that determination through calling for the ball in an animated style or whether he shows it through aggressive pressing, as we’ve seen here.
This is a useful trait for his team and Simons operates effectively as one of the first lines of his side’s defence, with the 17-year-old playmaker making the majority of his ball recoveries inside the opposition’s half of the pitch.
The PSG youth player is also happy to go to ground if he feels the need to do so when competing for a 50/50 ball or when pressing an opposition player. In some games this season, Simons has attempted to win the ball back through slide tackles after aggressively chasing down the ball-carrier. These challenges have yielded mixed results, with the midfielder pulling them off effectively on some occasions, while on others, this results in a yellow card.
However, regardless of the outcome, this willingness to go to ground and determination to come out on top in challenges is a clear and evident aspect of the midfielder’s game which highlights his determination and competitive nature.
Weaknesses and potential areas of improvement
As stated previously in this tactical analysis piece, Simons isn’t an extremely tall player and he evidently struggles to compete in the air if the need arises. This typically isn’t an extremely big issue, as this isn’t an aspect of his game that his teammates will look to use, however, it is one that the opposition could potentially exploit on occasion.
We mentioned Simons’ ability to receive the ball as being one of his more positive traits previously in this scout report, however, the midfielder can, at times, be overly relaxed and somewhat nonchalant about receiving possession, which can result in him allowing a simple turnover of possession.
This image above provides us with an example of Simons positioning himself in between four opposition players once again, as his central defensive teammate picks out his movement and lines up this pass. The player does make himself fully aware of his surroundings, as we discussed, however, the way that he approaches playing the ball after receiving it here is ineffective.
As he receives possession of the ball, Simons attempts to flick it out to a wide teammate via the outside of his left boot. However, the Dutchman fails to get enough power on this pass and he also fails to play the pass with enough precision. This allows the Club Brugge players to regain the ball easily inside of PSG’s half of the pitch.
While Simons is generally good at receiving the ball and his confidence is typically a positive aspect to his game, this element of overconfidence does rear its head every now and again, resulting in easily preventable errors such as this one.
Lastly, with regard to his shooting, Simons tends to play his shots with a lot of power, however, this can, at times, come at the expense of precision. He can be a very effective player in front of goal and he is also a set-piece specialist, indicating that his shooting ability is quite good, however, finding a greater balance between power and precision in his shooting is an area that he can improve upon.
To conclude this tactical analysis piece in the form of a scout report, it may be fair to say that Simons is still evidently a very promising midfielder who is capable of influencing the game from various different positions on the pitch. He is a technically impressive player, his playmaking ability is impressive, and his dribbling, ball control, and passing are all key aspects to his game.
While he does still have some clear areas where he can potentially improve on his game, it’s clear that Simons’ potential is clearly very positive.