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Unlocking Mohammed Kudus: How can Chris Hughton get the best out of the Ghana star?

Mohammed Kudus has been a star for West Ham this season
Mohammed Kudus has been a star for West Ham this seasonProfimedia
Since Chris Hughton (65) was appointed in early 2023, Mohammed Kudus (23) has only played 90 minutes on four occasions and scored twice in nine games for Ghana.

It could have been a moment he dreamt of growing up but this time in front of 43,983 people at the Education City Stadium during the 2022 World Cup. Kudus had just curled the ball past the South Korean goalkeeper Kim Seung-Gyu to restore Ghana’s lead in a must-win game for both countries.

Kudus celebrated with passion, his teammates took turns trying to hug him, but the former Nordsjaelland player found the closest camera and celebrated with deep passion. Ghana held on, the stadium erupted as Kudus became the first Ghanaian to score a brace in a World Cup game.

At just 22 years old, Kudus had just proved that he was ready to lead the Black Stars. Seated in the stands was Chris Hughton, taking notes in the capacity of the national team technical advisor at the time.

The natural progression was for the player to become a core pillar of a national team undergoing a rebuild. More than a year later, Kudus has just one competitive goal to his name under Hughton. 

In that same period, he’s gone on to join West Ham and is the club’s second-highest scorer this season. With the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations looming, one of the key areas Hughton has to look at is how to maximise the potential of his charge.

Evolution

In an interview with TalkSPORT, Hughton referred to Kudus as “…a 10 because he's a goalscorer, you want to get him close to goal, but he has had good success playing on that right-hand side."

Whilst answering the question on his remarks on Kudus, Hughton mentioned the number 10 three times in the space of 15 seconds. In his closing argument, he stated that he expects the player to become a number 10 though he’s talented and can play across the front line.

The debate concerning Kudus’ best position grew with him through youth football. In his first professional club at Norsdjaelland, he was deployed in six different positions.

During his two years in Denmark, he spent 44% of his total minutes playing as a central midfielder, 35% as a false nine, 7% as a central attacking midfielder, 9% on the wings and 3% as a defensive midfielder.

It was evident that playing in midfield was his most preferred position after all his formative years at Strong Tower FC and Right to Dream saw him play in much deeper areas. At a young age, Kudus showed immaculate strength on the ball coupled with his silky footwork. He was a delight to watch as he consistently carried the ball for long distances.

He caught the eye of Ajax and in his first competitive start for the Dutch club, he won man of the match against Waalwijk. Kudus pulled the strings from midfield like his role model Thiago in that game and announced his presence even without a goal or assist. In his first three games for Ajax, he scored one goal and provided three assists as Erik ten Hag described him as a player with “incredible potential”. A knee injury against Liverpool in the Champions League derailed his progress as he saw limited minutes for an extended period.

Alfred Schreuder then came in and played Kudus as a false nine – his second favourite position in Denmark. The Ghanaian took his chance and went on an impressive scoring run. However, when John Heitinga took over as interim coach he moved Kudus to the right wing. Once again the player adapted and was scoring at an even higher rate than under Schreuder. He ended the season with 11 league goals and West Ham came calling.

In London, Kudus has continued on the right wing which comes as no surprise considering Heitinga is now part of West Ham’s technical team. So far, he has five Premier League goals in eight starts and has largely looked impressive whenever he plays.

Is he a number 10?

Whenever Kudus is asked about his favourite position be it in Denmark, the Netherlands, or England, he always says in midfield as a number eight or 10. It’s interesting how he always ends those quotes by stating it’s a team sport and he can also play anywhere to help the team.

In Hughton’s assessment, he praised the structure that David Moyes has put in place to help Kudus settle in England quickly. It is similar to Heitinga’s setup at Ajax where though Kudus is a right winger, he doesn’t necessarily stay on the wings. Quite often, he is in the half spaces functioning as an inside forward.

More specifically, Kudus operates as an inverted winger now at West Ham with his first instinct to come inside and combine with team mates whilst the right back occupies the wide areas. As such, he ends up in central areas and can use his skillset which suits him in the middle of the park.

Interestingly, in Kudus’ best game for the Black Stars which came against South Korea in the World Cup, Otto Addo played him in a similar role. His two goals came as a result of him moving into the penalty box instead of holding his width as a winger.

The number 10 position can be viewed in two ways; an operative midfielder who links the midfield to the attack or a second striker who arrives late and scores goals. Kudus is more of the latter as his creation statistics have never been his strength as a player. His highest expected assist (xA) per 90 was 0.24 and that was from the two league games before he left Ajax this season. Before that, his highest xA per 90 read at 0.18 in the 2021/22 Eredivisie season. 

At West Ham this season, his xA per 90 in the Premier League is 0.15. For context, Kudus’ xA per 90 tally amounts to two big chances created which leaves him behind Vladimir Coufal (3), Jarrod Bowen (4), Lucas Paqueta (6), and James Ward-Prowse (6) in West Ham’s rankings. If you extend it to the national team, Kudus’ only assist came against Madagascar in the AFCON qualifier in fortuitous fashion because he miskicked the ball to Osman Bukari who scored. 

Kudus is not the type of player to provide the eye of a needle pass splitting defences just yet. What he is good at is navigating through tight areas, picking up spaces in opponents' penalty box, and having incredible ball-striking ability. Instead of arguing whether he is a 10 or not, the focus should be on what position will help maximise his outlined strengths. 

Where does he fit in Ghana's side?

Hughton says he wants to get Kudus closer to the goal, an idea that makes a lot of sense on paper. The West Ham player has currently scored 9 goals in all competitions this season from 13 shots on target. His 8 goals from the league and Europa League means he’s over-performed his Expected Goals (3.6) by 4.4. Kudus is one of the most lethal finishers in the Premier League this season.

Hughton could take inspiration from Moyes and also use Kudus from the right wing but the variables at West Ham and Ghana just aren’t the same. If Tariq Lamptey isn’t fit for the AFCON, then there is no right back in the provisional squad who can offer that penetrative force in wide areas for Kudus to come narrow. Also, at West Ham a lot of the creative burden is on Ward-Prowse and Paqueta which allows Kudus to thrive. In Ghana, a lot will also depend on Partey’s fitness with Daniel-Kofi Kyereh also missing the competition due to the ACL injury sustained.

The truth is there are a lot of rough edges when it comes to using Kudus as an inverted winger due to the aforementioned circumstances. Hughton has tinkered and deployed the 23-year-old in a similar role though it was a 3-4-3 formation. In that game against Liberia Kudus was very involved and scored a well-taken goal.

It could be one of the formations Hughton turns to for the AFCON but there’ll be question marks after it was seemingly figured out in a friendly against Mexico. Ghana’s biggest asset heading into the AFCON will be the depth of wingers – most of which possess unbelievable pace and trickery.

I don’t see Hughton playing Kudus on the wings for this reason as he will want to make the most out of the winger repository. If Kudus is deployed as a number 10 in Ghana, it has to be as a second striker so he can get on the end of moves and also have the liberty to pick up spaces in the opposition defence. The creative burden will have to be placed on the wingers and maybe a number eight that can carry the ball and equally pick a pass.

Owuraku’s ideal Ghana AFCON XI (4-4-2) – Ati Zigi; Odoi, Djiku, Salisu, Mensah; Bukari, Salis, Partey, Nuamah; Kudus, Williams.

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