Moving into the 2020-2021 season, Paris Saint-Germain seems poised to dominate Ligue 1 once again. As they vie for what would be their fourth straight title (and their eighth out of the past nine years), one of the clubs currently with the best odds of toppling this dynasty is Lyon. With powerhouses like Neymar, Kylian Mbappé leading PSG, Lyon aimed to compete by bringing over Karl Toko Ekambi from Villareal in the latter half of last season. Will this fresh blood be enough to make Lyon’s offence competitive against their toughest competition? In this data analysis, we’ll look at the impact Ekambi is likely to have on Lyon’s lineup and their chances against the league champions.
An awkward transition during an upward climb
Ekambi is no stranger to Ligue 1, having played at Angers for two seasons before a transfer to La Liga’s Villareal. But his first season at a first-tier club was a bit of a stumbling period after two solid years in Ligue 2. Though he increased his assists considerably that season, he wavered in his ability to score goals. In the 2016-17 season, he scored half the goals he did in his first season at Sochaux, translating to a drop in goals per 90 of about 40 percent.
Since then, however, Ekambi has enjoyed relatively steady success in most areas, leading up to his most successful season yet this past year. When combining his appearances at both Villareal and Lyon last season, Ekambi nearly matched his highest goals per 90 and shots per 90 to date, exceeded his personal best in assists per 90, and obliterated his first-tier record for key passes.
This success came despite his less than perfect mid-season transition between leagues. At the point when Ekambi was traded, he had been busy putting up his highest ever numbers in nearly every category. Had he continued this pace, he would have far surpassed his previous success. But upon moving to Lyon, this momentum dwindled. Compared to his appearances at Villareal, Ekambi’s matches with Lyon were far less notable. He fell by about 40 percent in goals per 90 and shots per 90, and he also completed slightly fewer assists per 90. The one area in which he showed marked improvement was key passes per 90, which he increased five times over. These changes are perhaps to be expected, given that he was finding his place in a new team. But it is important to note that this transition put a damper on what would otherwise have likely been Ekambi’s best season to date.
Coming up against PSG, Lyon’s forwards need to be able to compete. As shown below, PSG leads Lyon in goals and assists per 90, falling behind only in their number of expected goals. Adding Ekambi to Lyon’s squad, then, would hopefully affect a significant impact on their offensive line. Unfortunately, our analysis shows that this doesn’t appear to be the case.
The chart below compares the average statistics for each club’s forwards when only time at those clubs is considered. Lyon is shown once with all forwards included and a second time with Ekambi excluded. Though the ‘expected’ stats show slight decreases, it is clear that Ekambi’s exclusion actually improves Lyon’s average number of goals and assists per 90. These increases are slight, indicating that removing Ekambi isn’t incredibly significant. But that also means that adding him to the team didn’t have much of a positive impact, either.
Similarly, the following chart compares PSG to Lyon (both with and without Ekambi) in shots per 90 and key passes per 90. There is a noticeable dip in the first stat when Ekambi is taken out, though our previous chart confirmed that this didn’t translate to lost scoring opportunities. The change in key passes is negligible, again demonstrating that Ekambi’s influence on the Lyon offence was meagre.
Of course, time will tell if this lack of influence is permanent or simply a natural consequence of entering a new environment and finding his place with new teammates. But Lyon surely hopes to see Ekambi’s impact jump dramatically this season.
Playing with the best
Part of what makes Ekambi’s effect on Lyon somewhat lacklustre is that he’s joining a group of already formidable forwards. Memphis Depay and Moussa Dembélé are two of the six highest market value strikers in Ligue 1 right now. (PSG happens to have the top three in Mbappé, Neymar, and Mauro Icardi.) Comparing his performance at Lyon last year to that of his teammates, we can get an even clearer picture of how his stacks up.
Depay stands alone here, giving unneeded evidence as to why he is the captain of this club. He leads the group in goals, shots, and key passes per 90 and lands at over 80 percent of Bertrand Traoré’s top-ranking assists per 90. Excluding expected statistics, Ekambi ranks third and fourth across the board, in nearly every instance reaching only about half of what the top-ranking striker achieved. It is interesting that he is one of the more consistent members of this group in that way: he is neither the best nor the worst in any way. (Note how this causes his hexagon to be one of the more symmetrical in the chart above, second only to Depay’s.) But consistent mediocrity will not push Lyon to success against teams like PSG.
Perhaps Lyon didn’t intend for Ekambi’s entrance to affect a transformation of their striking team, but they must have hoped for more than what they’ve seen so far. In all fairness, Ekambi only made eight appearances with Lyon before last season ended. Perhaps he’s now gotten his bearings and this season will be his best ever. In his first match of the season last week against Dijon, he racked up one key pass and six shots, though no assists or goals. It’s almost imperative that this is the case, with the increasing likelihood that Depay will soon be leaving Lyon and rumours that Traoré is also looking at an exit. Lyon may soon be looking to fill big shoes, and without some big improvements this season, Ekambi may not be the man to do so.