Seydou Doumbia: from hawker to Tzar
- Updated: February 1, 2015
Seydou Doumbia, the man
When journalists launch themselves in (usually poor) attempts to narrate the story of a footballer, the “lost childhood” card is usually their favorite. Being Italian, I can’t think of anybody but Balotelli: the “lost childhood” of someone who was very comfortably brought up in a rich adopting family. But hey, some gratuitous bombast will surely make things more interesting.
Now roll back to 17 years ago: it’s 1998, Abidjan, the de facto capital of Cote D’Ivoire. The country has been struggling for 15 years, and the days of prosperity seen in Aya of Yop City are just a distant memory. Prices of agricultural goods (Cote D’Ivoire main asset) are plummeting, inflation is high, poverty is some serious issue, the country is politically unstable (and the government will be soon overthrown with a coup d’état).
Right in the middle of the traffic, standing by the traffic lights, a little kid rushes to the cars trying to sell people bauble and paper towels. A man called Olivier, the chairman of a local club called Athletic Adjamè, is moved by a feeling of pity and asks the kid why he’s not at school.
“I can’t. I either try to make some money here or my family starves”, Seydou Doumbia replied.
This is the moment Doumbia’s life changes. In some parts of Africa, sport is the only thing that can pull you out of a life of misery. Luckily enough, this little guy was bound to become of the most gifted football players in the history of his country.
Seydou immediately wins Oliver’s heart, and joins Athletic Adjamè academy. Fun, training, study and proper nutrition: not something to overlook, as we’re talking about someone who used to have one meal a day. Seydou was different from the others: maybe not the most technical in the academy, but he was the fastest. And most importantly, the most commited. Something which is noticed by the management of Toumodi FC, second division club in Cote D’Ivoire: that’s his first professional experience, and while at the club a strong friendship was developed with Gervais Yao Kouassi, a young footballer whose blistering pace and dizzying dribbling earned him the nickname ‘Gervinho’.
Seydou’s experience with the club probably wasn’t what he hoped for: despite scoring in every single game, he was soon marginalized by the locker room and forced to find another club. And here’s the breakthrough: acquired by first division club AS Denguélé, Doumbia becomes the top scorer of the league with 15 goals in 20 matches at just 17 years old. He is universally acknowledged as “the next big thing” in Ivorian football. Soon, the stands of the 3,000 seats stadium are filled with scouts from any corner of the world, especially France: Lille,Guingamp, Bastia want him badly. But things don’t go through because of visa problem.
One day, an unknown man from Japan shows up and offers Seydou a trial in a Japanese club: done deal, our man gets on the first plane to Tokyo but…he’s forced to fly back to Cote D’Ivoire few hours after landing: it was a trickery played by a Japanese agent. Few weeks later, a new offer is sent to Olivier: no more games this time, Seydou flies back to Japan accompanied by his mentor Olivier. After a successful trial, he is signed by Kashiwa Reysol. His experience in Japan, however, can’t be considered a success: Seydou wasn’t able to fully express his talent, mostly because of the cultural barriers which made his integration extremely difficult, even though he tried his best and even learned Japanese. “I was the only African player in the league: it was very difficult for me”, Doumbia recalls.
In 2008, Seydou moves to the Swiss side Young Boys for €130,000. A huge burden is put on his shoulders: he has been acquired to replace Hakan Yakin, one of the strongest players in the history of Swiss football, who moved to Al-Gharafa during the summer. This is the turning point for Doumbia’s career: 50 goals in 64 matches over two season, all the teams in the Swiss Super League being completely ripped apart by his pace. Not bad for someone paid just €130,000. However, one thing is clear: Doumbia is just too good for Switzerland.
Soon, Young Boys letter box collapses by the weight of all the offers received: the most serious one comes from CSKA. While Young Boys’ president chops his left hand in order to sign with his own blood, Seydou is on a plane to Moscow.
This is a difficult change for someone like Seydou, who comes from Africa and had integration problems before: Russian crowds are not exactly known to be the epitome of civility. However, our guy has broad shoulders now: the damns he gives approach to zero, and the rest is history: loads of goals, assists and an excellent display in the European cups.
Quite an achievement for someone who started selling stuff on the street while eating once a day. One can hope all this qualifies as the “pedigree” Tavecchio was talking about (maybe someone will ask Seydou if he likes bananas during his first press conference. With the Italian press, the sky’s the limit).
Seydou Doumbia, the player
Seydou Doumbia (27) is a striker from Cote D’Ivoire, standing at 178 centimeters tall and weighing 73 kilograms. His preferred role is centre-forward, either in a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1. He’s a complete striker who revolves his game around pace and mobility.
Speed: This is probably his greatest asset. Doumbia is gifted with tremendous pace both in the first metres and over distance (although it’s his acceleration which mostly stands out). When he was at Young Boys, some of his team mates defined his speed “ridiculous” and said he was “completely unreachable in the first 10 metres, he can break you in half”. Of course his explosiveness has slightly toned down since his Swiss days, but he’s still an extremely fast striker. Most importantly, Doumbia is able to control his bursts and use them for his advantage: he’s not the kind of headless chicken like Obinna or Martins. This makes him useful not only during counter-attacks with open field ahead but also during impasse situations as he can reach immense levels of speed when bursting from standing position.
Of course this strength might be limited by the attitude Roma’s opponents usually have (i.e. shameless catenaccio).
Dribbling: Not as good as his speed, but still a very important part of his play. Doumbia belongs to that strange breed I call “dribblers without technique”: players who don’t posses impressive technical prowess, but are still effective at getting past their man (e.g. Gervinho). Doumbia’s dribbling is far from consistent: he doesn’t possess the innate technical abilities players like Totti or Pjanic have, but rather bases his play on deft touches e rapid changes of direction. As Slutsky (CSKA manager) put it:
“(Seydou) is incredible, he’s so clumsy he’s almost funny to watch. Whenever he has the balls, you always wonder what the hell he is trying to do with it, but most of the times he manages to get out of it as the winner. He’s amazing”
Which for Roma fans pretty much means “Gervinho v2”. Not aesthetically pleasing or silky elegant, but effective most of the times. His ball retention when speeding away is also pretty good (a la Iturbe), something that can be a dangerous weapon as most of Serie A defenders struggle against containing fast strikers while falling back to goal.
Finishing: Doumbia is definitely not a sniper. 99% of his goals are scored inside the box and near the goal, yet his right foot is able to hit the target with reasonable accuracy most of the time. His classic finishing is the inside of his right foot, even if he can pull some impressive stuff like lobs and such now and then. He doesn’t seem to be very fond of instep shots, something which might be a liability in certain situations. Overall, his finishing is generally reliable even if not spectacular.
Header: Someone may wonder how a guy who’s 1.78 metres tall can be good at heading. That’s a good point, and Doumbia is definitely no Cristiano Ronaldo or Raul Garcia: playing crosses on him on a regular basis would be stupid. Yet, he has shown both in Switzerland and Russia that he can give his contribution on high balls even though he’s physically limited: his leap is good for his size and so is his heading technique. He has a remarkable % of goals scored with his head considering his physical stats, and is not totally useless on dead balls and crosses (Destro anyone?).
Strength: Linking this to the header part, Doumbia can be considered a strong player for his size. He’s not a brick like Tevez or Aguero, but his compact physique and sturdiness come handy during dead ball situations (where he scores most of his headers). Something which is more important than it seems, as all of our strikers/wingers are extremely weak and struggle when challenging opposition defenders (probably the main reason why we struggle so much on dead ball situations) and get dispossessed easily.
Lines play: This is a serious weakness of Roma’s play. We lack a striker who can run off the last defender and elude offside traps. This was my main issue with Destro: he was totally useless in these situations as he was so weak and slow that we basically couldn’t go for this option as it was a guaranteed failure. While we have attackers with similar characteristics (i.e. Iturbe/Gervinho), they 1) are not as good as Doumbia in terms of off-the-ball movement 2) their finishing is beyond ridiculous. With Seydou as a centre forward, we finally have a player who can run in behind the defence, use his speed to trash the defenders and finish properly in front of goal.
Defensive contribution: This trait of Doumbia was pretty evident during the game against City at the Etihad: although he’s not a tireless worker, his stamina is pretty good and he doesn’t have particular problems tracking back and pressing opponents. Again, an improvement towards Destro.
First touch: As explained in the dribbling section, Doumbia is one of those weird players who can dribble like Figo but sometimes look like they have the overall technique of a brick. This is especially evident in his first touch: similarly to Gervinho, he’s generally poor at controlling the ball. I’m not saying he’s Gattuso, but his ball control is pretty inconsistent: it’s probably his main weaknesses in the penalty box as it can lead to many wasted chances if the defenders are responsive enough.
Weak foot: Second most important issues with him is his left foot, which is poor in both finishing and dribbling. Moreover, he looks very reluctant from using it most of the times and tries to do everything he can to shoot with his right. This can be a pretty big advantage for opposition defenders as they can limit him massively by closing his right.
Passing & creativity: Short passing is bad, crossing is worse. He’s by no means a “creative” striker, just a regular centre forward. So don’t expect Tevez v2.
First touch play: Something we lacked with Destro and will continue lacking with Doumbia. Not the striker who can be a reference point to the team, hold a defender and trigger winger with 1-2s. He’s a striker who likes to run forward face the goal and prefers to have the ball on his feet. So don’t expect Higuain v2.
HOW HE SLOTS INTO ROMA’S ATTACK
Doumbia could play either as a central striker between two wingers in a 4-3-3 or as a lone striker in a 4-3-2-1.
4-3-3: The standard attacking trio would be either Gervinho-Doumbia-Iturbe or Gervinho-Doumbia-Ljajic. Let’s analyse the former first.
This solution gives Roma immense width, as well as greater flexibility when attacking. Gervinho and Iturbe would do the regular job, i.e. using their pace to overlap and cut from the sides of the penalty area to put a ball in the middle. However, Doumbia (unlike Destro) gives more unpredictability to Roma’s offense.
Doumbia can be considered relatively similar to an old acquaintance of Rudi Garcia, Moussa Sow (we could use Frau as another example of a movement striker used by Garcia, but he was very different from Sow). During his most successful season at Lille, Garcia played with a 3-men attack with Gervinho, Sow and Hazard. We can say that the attack would be similar for 2/3: Gervinho being Gervinho, Doumbia being Sow and no-one being Hazard, as he differs from any other player we have (closest is probably Ljajic). Doumbia, like Sow, can be considered a mix between a centre forward and a winger as he combines the characteristic of a striker (i.e. good response times, good at attacking the space without the ball) with those of a side attacker (i.e. good in getting past his marker, good speed). Basically, Doumbia can switch his tactical set-up from poacher to winger in any moment of the game: this increases massively the unpredictability of Roma’s offense.
Like Sow used to do at Lille, Doumbia would constantly change position on the pitch, attacking on the sides and pointing a man or attacking the space in the middle depending on the situation of play. At the same time, Gervinho and Iturbe would attack on the flanks and invert their position, with Doumbia possibly overlapping over one of the two to bring a man away or having superiority on the flanks. This may also free space for the movements of our midfielders.
On counter attacks, the music would be completely different from the days of Destro: Doumbia would be able to accompany both Iturbe and Gervinho going forward, so Roma could have a truly organic offensive movement which may put in real difficulty the whole opponent’s defence, instead of having a crippled counter like we had for two years (i.e. Totti is too static, Destro’s pace is not up to our wingers’ levels so most of our counters see either Gervinho or Iturbe being way ahead of Destro during the counter. We therefore lose “that moment” when the winger could pass with the defence leaving the middle uncovered because Destro can’t reach the penalty box soon enough).
Such 3-men attack has a major liability: lack of creativity. Iturbe, Gervinho and Doumbia offer little flair and technical prowess to be dangerous by themselves or trigger offensive actions. The midfield must therefore step up and build up play with consistency (yes Pjanic, I’m talking to you). No wonder Doumbia thrived in a team like CSKA, with several quality players as for passing & creativity like Natkho, Elm and Dzagoev who could trigger him, Musa and Tosic upfront.
This might be balanced by the presence of Ljajic in the attacking trio: at that point, extra-creativity as well as quality in 1vs1 would be added upfront. This would go with Ljajic playing slightly behind Gervinho/Iturbe-Doumbia and being a mix between a trequartista lurking between the lines and a winger, in a sort of 4-3-3 which switches to 4-3-1-2 and vice versa depending on the situation of play (Ljajic prefers to dictate the play through the centre). Unfortunately this limits width, which is a main component of Garcia’s playing style. Full backs would therefore be required to give a strong contribution upfront, and with our current full back situation I don’t see this happening often enough.
4-2-3-1: I’m aware of the fact that there’s no such thing as a “best module”, but 4-2-3-1 is by far my favourite one (mostly because it’s the one which allows the squad to cover space on the field most effectively when defending). We’ve seen Roma use this solution few times, and while I don’t think this can be a viable long-term solution a line of attacking midfielders with Gervinho-Totti/Ljajic-Florenzi and Doumbia upfront might be something worth trying.
The improvement towards the 4-3-3 version is straightforward. You have an extra attacking midfielder that can use his creativity and trigger the attackers from short range giving more options upfront. However, the major issues would be 1) lack of equilibrium, as we would lose someone like Pjanic (midfielder) for Totti/Ljajic (offensive midfielder) 2) lower quality on the flanks with Florenzi 3) less effective possession because of the nature of 4-2-3-1. While the first problem might be limited by Florenzi’s and Doumbia’s sweat, I don’t see a solution to the other two (Pjanic as the central attacking midfielder, with Roma switching between 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1?).