Once again, and this time in the most dramatic fashion imaginable, the Uzbekistan powerhouse Pakhtakor Tashkent missed out on the most important part of Asian Champions League, meaning that once the spotlight soon turns to Round of 16 when many tune in for the first time this year, one of the best wingers on the continent will yet again be hidden away from cameras. And it’s getting quite frustrating, to be honest…
Is there a classier way how to start a new blog than by doing a long overdue justice to someone? Do I hear a resounding “guess not”? Cool, then let’s dive in.
Disclaimer: this “We need to talk about…” kind of a piece is something I may otherwise not spend much time on, but nevertheless, what follows is essentially an appreciation of one’s rise not so much in terms of raw quality but rather prominence.
Now 25 years old, Tashkent-born Jaloliddin Masharipov was there (albeit only as a sub) when Uzbekistan was low key making their way to the U-20 World Cup quarter-final against Pogba’s France in 2013. He starred and scored in another quarter-final, last year in the Asian Games – you know, that game which almost resulted in yet another Son’s failed shot at the desperately coveted military exemption. In his fifth season as a fully-fledged member of a Uzbek Super League squad, he’s already a three-time champion, last year’s assist leader, and a seasoned veteran of the Asian Champions League.
At every step of the way, however, someone else was in the centre of attention instead of Masharipov. The U-20 World Cup was undoubtedly the Igor Sergeev show. His early Pakhtakor days coincided with the birth of the phenomenon named Jamshid Iskanderov, another 1993 kid and valued product of the famed academy. At Lokomotiv, during his 2017 loan stint, there was Marat Bikmaev – the most prolific league scorer since 2005 – grabbing all the spotlight for himself. Even at this year’s come-of-age Asian Cup, all the headlines centred around the mazy running of Eldor Shomurodov.
And look, to some extent, fair enough. There are definitely players who, on most days, excite more. Sergeev, Bikmaev and Shomurodov all did the scoring, too. That doesn’t mean Masharipov himself does not deliver highlight reel moments: just consider his spectacular overhead kick that helped to get Pakhtakor back into the ACL group stage after a relatively long hiatus for a club of their domestic stature. He beautifully set up an opener in the much awaited 2019 league campaign opener against Lokomotiv, too, showing his signature poise amidst coming up with an irresistible cross for Sergeev.
Even without these eye-catching scenes, though, Jaloliddin Masharipov would be – to me at least – the most exciting talent of all Uzbek players listed, and one of a kind in the whole of Asia, too.
So yeah, actually, let’s talk about the very guy who’s been seemingly incapable of putting a foot wrong at least since the start of the continental showpiece held in the UAE earlier this year. Let’s do that, and let’s use some fancy numbers to illustrate his effectivity, too.
The alert force in carrying the ball
When I was figuring out how to approach this piece, I first briefly thought of labelling Jaloliddin Masharipov a “defensive winger”. Then I realized how mad even a Dirk Kuijt would probably be if you slapped such an unfashionable tag on him, and very quickly dropped the idea. I mean, can you think of all the times you won a trophy on Football Manager while deploying a defensive winger on the flank? Exactly.
So instead, I’ll borrow a term from my “second sport”, ice hockey, and label him a two-way winger. Obviously, this is not a novelty of any sorts – a two-way player is simply anyone who doesn’t mind tracking back while remaining a threat on attack. That really shouldn’t be anything extra either; instead, basic work rate and dilligence might be something you want to see from your player to begin with.
Yet there is a reason why I’m scrambling to highlight this aspect of Masharipov’s game in particular and in the first place. It’s not that he would be particularly adept at recovering the ball, tackling, or any of the sorts. In fact, some might suggest he needs to work on those areas, and he does seem strangely apathetic in body-on-body battles, to be fair. This is more about his movement and how he fills the space, helping to elevate much of the pressure off of his fullback’s back. It’s a bit abstract, but it’s genuinely there.
While he’s never been asked to defend as deep as he was at 2019 Asian Cup by Héctor Cúper, Masharipov bought into the coach’s (frankly ridiculous) idea of having two of his most gifted players act as wing backs, didn’t let the experience frustrate him, and instead used it to grow into a more complete player that has been on display ever since.
I had an Uzbek fan on Twitter tell me the Asian Cup “opened” Masharipov. And yes, you could actually say that – after being shackled in the UAE, he expresses himself more freely now. Funny, that.
Now he’s a master at efficient dribbling in deep positions and quite often makes himself the first option available for a defender inside his own half (there’s a reason he receives 10 more passes per 90 than Khamdamov on the other flank). He is just as comfortable taking the ball on there as he is at performing the same tricks higher up the field.
To again borrow from the world of ice hockey, there is currently a mild obsession with stats showing how capable of exiting their own zone or entering the opponent’s in control any given player is. We don’t really look for this sort of things on football pitches, and it makes sense given their size, but having watched a ton of footage of Pakhtakor games (some of them are now stored on YouTube!), a simple eye test tells me there would be no more adept Asian winger in this respect than Jaloliddin Masharipov.
He’s the perfect mix; he stays responsible and typically doesn’t lose the ball in situations where the teams needs him to be just that, whereas he dribbles, shifts, turns and becomes inventive whenever he can afford to do so. In other words, he’s all for advancing the ball up the field but takes highly calculated risks while doing so.
One good example of him never coming close to losing the ball while remaining a threat:
Here, he’s a bit closer to losing the ball, but manages to create an opening nonetheless:
And here, for a change, he does a little dribble and then draws a long through ball for a de facto second assist (Masharipov wasn’t credited for it by Wyscout, presumably because of the slight deflection on the first assist):
You get the gist. This person is just a stoic. And highly effective at being one.
Stats are very willing to back me up on this front, too: I identified all starting left and right wingers from the top 10 clubs of the Uzbek Super League, extracting Wyscout data for a total of 22 players (some clubs have two semi-regulars), and proceeded to compare Masharipov to all his rivals and colleague Khamdamov. Now I can say that, at this point of the season (after 10 rounds), how he compares to others is, quite frankly, astonishing.
Masharipov makes 3,7 progressive runs per 90 minutes, topping the next in the line (Nasaf’s Islom Rashidkanov) by 0,68 runs per game. But what’s even more impressive: in an average Super League game, Masharipov embarks on 11,3 dribbles and yet completes an incredible 81,3% of them. That’s greater success he enjoys when dribbling than even some holding midfielders do when passing! Now granted, it’s not the best success rate in the league (though one of only two above 77%), but Sardorbek Eminov takes about half as many chances as Masharipov does (he only makes 5,5 dribbles per 90), which makes Masharipov easily the most efficient and dangerous dribbler of all.
Now, you might argue that these numbers are inflated by some underwhelming opposition he frequently faces at the domestic level that either allows him vast space to run into, or fails in 1-on-1s consistently, or both. This is a fair concern. And so let’s move onto the Asian Champions League action, where… the pattern somehow doesn’t change. In fact, Masharipov makes even more progressive runs per 90 mins there (4,31 in eight starts, slipping right into the top5), completes just slightly less dribbles per game (9,43, just slipping out of the top5) and maintains an impressive success rate of 76,54% (top4).
All that recorded while playing in by far the toughest, most competitive groups of all. Take that, no caveats there. (Unless, of course, you don’t rate any Asian competition whatsoever and in that case you arguably shouldn’t be anywhere near this blog.)
Masharipov’s dribbling success, of course, stems from his generally outstanding awareness. He seemingly never receives a pass the way it doesn’t put him in a clear advantage one step, two steps down the line. For that matter, he often stalls the attack simply by not giving the arriving opponent any other option than to foul him (and truth be told, he doesn’t require much convincing to fall to the ground). It really doesn’t feel as though he’s ever unprepared for a lunge; whether he uses that prior knowledge for the sake of plotting a “tactical” dive (I swear it typically looks like he plans for the tackle, too, and when it doesn’t arrive, he just proceeds to the “gets fouled” part regardless) or seemlessly rounding the naive-looking opponent is another thing altogether.
I mentioned highly calculated risks above. You could actually remove the “risks” and conclude that barely anything in his game appears to be uncalculated. Here are a couple of examples of how that looks like in practice pieced together:
The underrated creator
Naturally, I wouldn’t be just sitting here raving about the above mentioned attributes if that all didn’t account for much in terms of final product. Yet, curiously enough, the final product is one thing some might point to as one of the possible shortcomings. Two goals and four assists (coupled with two second assists, just so we complete a whole trio of hockey parallels) in 10 starts in the Super League are fine, but one mere assist from six appearances in the Champions League group stages represents a clear red flag.
Lose no hope, as we are about to turn to advanced stats again to demonstrate how it wasn’t actually Masharipov letting his teammates down in key moments, but rather the other way round.
You see, in his age bracket of under-25, Jaloliddin Masharipov was actually in top 3 when it came to expected goals and assists, lurking only behind Fahad Al Muwallad and Edmilson Junior, meaning someone was definitely falling short of what was a reasonable expectation given the quality of opportunities taken or set up.
That someone was decidedly not Masharipov.
Based on his individual xG, Masharipov would’ve been expected to score the one goal he did in fact produce and virtually nothing extra (precisely 0,15 goals extra). That’s what he can influence. What he cannot control for is how his teammates deliver upon his own delivery, and that part has been suspect, to put it kindly. Based on the quality of shooting positions he created, it would’ve been fair to credit Masharipov with 2,44 assists; way up from the actual one assist. In fact, even once we remove the age cap, it’s Bafetimbi Gomis, Shunki Higashi and our own Masharipov who have by far the strongest claims for getting underwhelmed most by their pals. All are among the 30 most prolific creators in the competition, and all have been saddled with at least a 1,41 negative discrepancy between their expected and actual production of assists.
And just to be clear: Pakhtakor were sixth in expected goals as a collective, while they also ended up being the only team in that same top6 who actually underscored their expected total. That’s usually a bit of a problem. Not to mention we are talking fine margins between failure and progression here, as anyone who followed that last day’s results can attest to (unless they are a Pakhtakor fan and have already forgotten).
Masharipov himself did just about everything right, however. Creatively, his only weak games came against Al Sadd (accounting for a combined 0,12 assists), and yet even then, he still managed to pull off this magnificent piece of a chopped assist.
That’s also him in a nutshell, by the way; head held high, unreal poise, spot on accuracy:
The calculated delay in his decision-making is arguably my favourite detail of Masharipov’s game. He overcooks it every now and then; his stepovers can become infuriating, and sometimes there’s just one stop-and-turn too many. But you take those if it means that so many other situations result in crosses that cause penalties, be it through a foul of the recipient or a handball, rebounds or… general havoc. Masharipov won’t force a cross either if a lane for a sharp pass into the box suddenly opens up, because he simply observes what’s going on and seemingly never misses a beat.
Again, this – and we aren’t talking just crosses but also ground passes into the box – is effectively the same case like his dribbling ability. With both comes elite measurement, maturity. An above-average volume matched by adequate quality.
Using the same sample of 22 left and right wingers for another exercise, Masharipov leads the Super League in passes into the box per 90 mins (8,56), and is doing so by a mile – specifically by more than 2 passes a game. At the same time, though, his accuracy of 60,5% tops absolutely anyone who clears the hurdle of registering at least 3,3 such passes per 90 (which leaves us with seven players excluding Masharipov himself). His colleague Dostonbek Khamdamov comes closest – 3,98 passes with 60% accuracy. Husniddin Gafurov (Lokomotiv Tashkent) is then a very good passer on his own, completing an impressive 76,5% of passes into the box, but he produces 5,4 a game less than Masharipov – which ultimately creates a considerable hole between the two.
As per pure crosses, Masharipov finds his target with 61,3% of them. That’s top class, but also in the league where he’s admittedly got a lot of time for himself. No wonder only 38,6% of his crosses are accurate in the Asian Champions League. But then again, the standard there is much different, and so the only from the previous sentence is relative. After all, out of the top 10 most active crossers in ACL, Masharipov is one of only five with accuracy over 35%, and to share the same category with Al-Haydos, Oscar, Higashi and Edmilson Junior is honestly nothing to be ashamed of. Far from it.
All considered, it’s indeed no surprise Masharipov sets his teammates up for a shot on a league-leading average of 2,54 times per game. He knows so many ways how to do so, and has got so much patience for everything. Give him an extra split second, and he decides the game against you like this:
Jaloliddin Masharipov is definitely not a complete package, and by staying in Uzbekistan he’s arguably risking not developing into one as well. He still lacks conviction in finishing, leans a tad too heavily on his right foot (which is both kind of interconnected; a soft chip he doesn’t mind nearly as much as a powerful enough shot), doesn’t quite reach the levels of combativeness his counterpart on the right Dostonbek Khamdamov shows, and I’d say his stamina might be a bit of a concern, too.
But as far as wingers-ball carriers working their byline and offering constant outlet for defenders/midfielders are concerned, Masharipov is as effective as they come. He’ll help your team advance the play in the middle third and he’ll look for that final pass in the attacking third, too. He’s usually the first midfielder activated on a counter-attack, targets free space very cleverly and is just overall a super alert kind of a player.
He’s also on record saying he’d like to test himself in Europe, just presumably wasn’t convinced by the rumoured offers from Turkey in January. So if you’re reading, unnamed European club, feel free to pounce. In fact pounce while you can!