Who Is Nayef Aguerd?

After yet another drawn out transfer saga, Nayef Aguerd is a West Ham player at last. The Moroccan centre-back has signed from Ligue 1 club Stade Rennais on a five year deal for a reported £25m fee.

Jack Elderton and Callum Goodall

Nayef Aguerd began his footballing career with the Mohammed VI Football Academy based in Sale, just across the Bou Regreg river from the national capital, Rabat. The academy was opened in 2009 to regenerate the game in Morocco, with one of the key aims being to target young players based in underprivileged areas of the capital. Aguerd spent two years there before Fath Union Sport (FUS) Rabat, the smaller of the two Rabat clubs, signed him in 2014.

It wasn’t long before Aguerd was getting game time in Morocco’s top flight with then-manager, Walid Regragui, promoting Aguerd to the starting eleven midway through that first season. Although the eighteen-year-old’s selection might have initially raised some eyebrows, Regragui’s decision was vindicated as FUS Rabat rose to 5th in the table, losing just two games in which Aguerd started.

That form would continue into the 2015-16 season as well, with FUS Rabat winning their first and only domestic title to date before going on to achieve two top-half finishes in the following seasons. In 2018, Aguerd’s path would diverge from Rabat when Ligue 1 club Dijon came calling, while Regragui would eventually move on to manage Wydad Casablanca, Morocco’s most successful club – perhaps an indication of just how strong this period with Fath Union Sport had been.

Costing just £1.44m, Aguerd would arrive in Burgundy on the fringes of the Dijon team with Wesley Lautoa, Cedric Yambere, and Oussama Haddadi all ahead of him in the pecking order. And with a couple of injuries in that first season, Aguerd failed to get any rhythm together while Dijon struggled. Les Rouges just about managed to survive automatic relegation (by one point) and qualify for the relegation play-offs where they would beat Lens to retain their place in Ligue 1.

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Things started much more promisingly in Aguerd’s second season, with the Moroccan managing to solidify his place in Olivier Dall’Oglio’s team before an ankle injury interrupted his momentum just before the COVID-19 pandemic put everything on pause. As such, it was a bit of a surprise when European contenders, Stade Rennais, moved for him in the summer and placed him directly into the first team ahead of Juventus loanee, Daniele Rugani, when football resumed. Whatever Florian Mauruce (Rennes’ technical director) had spotted, he was right to gamble, as Aguerd became a mainstay in a Rennes team that finished sixth in Ligue 1 and qualified for the Europa Conference League.

Since then, Aguerd has only improved further. He became a key player for Rennes last season as he successfully marshalled a backline containing younger players like Adrien Truffert and Warmed Omari, with Les Rouge et Noir charging to another European qualification spot and Aguerd being widely regarded as one of the strongest central defenders in France. Praised for his ball-playing ability, recovery speed, and aerial strength, Aguerd is also an important member of the Moroccan national team – a shining example of the success of projects like the Mohammed VI Football Academy.

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Nayef Aguerd celebrates with fellow West Ham target Youssef En-Nesyri, another graduate of the Mohammed VI Football Academy in Sale.

Perhaps the most impressive facet of Aguerd’s game, or at least the most obvious standout when looking at his data, is his ball-playing ability. If you have ever listened to the KUMB Podcast then you will know that a left-sided, progressive centre-back has been near the top of our West Ham shopping list for a long time now. The news of Aguerd’s arrival was understandably pleasing for us, particularly given that we had identified him as a top target this time last season. Digging into the data, it soon becomes clear what Aguerd can provide that our current crop of centre-backs cannot – 10.2 progressive passes per 90 with a success rate of 80.6%. That equates to 8.2 passes per 90 that advance his team significantly closer to the opposition’s goal, an impressive return.

To put this metric into context, the most progressive centre-back at West Ham in 2021-22 was Angelo Ogbonna, completing 4.1 progressive passes per 90 (79.3% of 5.2 attempts), followed by Craig Dawson (3.9 per 90; 69.2% of 5.7 attempts). Aguerd, completing more than double the number of progressive passes per game than any of our centre-backs averaged last season, will be a welcome addition in possession, particularly as we transition away from our dependency on Aaron Cresswell in build-up. Looking more broadly for a comparison, Aguerd is in good company, as there are only a handful of centre-backs that completed a similar percentage (>80% from 10+ attempts) of their progressive passes in 2021-22, including Aymeric Laporte, Sergio Ramos, Ibrahima Konate, and Thiago Silva.

Key to Aguerd’s skill on the ball is his press resistance, or calmness under pressure…

Aguerd is chased down by Marc Albrighton and Patson Daka during Rennes’ Europa Conference League Round of 16 fixture against Leicester.
Rather than hacking the ball away or attempting to run away from the pressure, Aguerd receives calmly and turns into the press to play a pass bisecting the two approaching players and releasing his team up the pitch.

Although these actions can be high risk, West Ham have desperately lacked a truly press-resistant progressive passer in central defence under David Moyes and the arrival of Aguerd will surely ease some of the progressive burden on the full-backs and allow us to build up play more fluently. One of the obvious issues when looking at the results from last season is the difficulty Moyes’ side had when facing sides that execute effective pressing systems. West Ham were only able to win three of their eight fixtures in all competitions against Leeds, Brighton and Southampton. Moyes will be hoping that by adding progressive excellence to the backline his team can improve results against this kind of opposition.

Dawson receives the ball in space with a single presser (Raphinha) approaching.
Dawson turns away from the pressure and plays back to Fabianski.
Diop then receives the ball in space with Raphinha and James attempting to cut off the pass to Rice and put Fabianski under pressure.
Diop turns away from the pressure and plays back to Fabianski.
Fabianski is forced to rush a clearance under pressure from Raphinha.
West Ham lose first and second contact in midfield and James is able to run straight through on goal to shoot.

Comparing just that one instance of Aguerd’s confidence under pressure against Leicester to this series involving Issa Diop and Dawson from the 3-2 loss against Leeds should make clear the kind of difference the Moroccan can make to our build-up.

Another area of Aguerd’s game that Moyes will undoubtedly have been enamoured by is his aerial ability. In 2021-22, the Moroccan international won an impressive 64.4% of his aerial duels, more than any West Ham centre-back managed last season. The perks of his aerial prowess are two-fold in the context of a David Moyes’ side. He would provide us with a further threat from set-pieces, whilst also allowing us to defend our own box effectively after funnelling the opposition out wide. Given the reported fee, it is fair to assume that Aguerd will replace Dawson in the starting line-up and become a long-term partner to Kurt Zouma. The obvious concern with losing Dawson is that we lose a genuine goal threat from corners in particular, but Aguerd scored the same number of headed goals as Dawson last season (4), despite playing 230 less minutes.

To capitalise on this, we need to quality delivery, and with Cresswell also likely to be phased out of the starting eleven this season, there may be understandable concerns amongst fans as to where this will come from. It appears that Moyes has been planning for this transition though, with the evidence suggesting that Jarrod Bowen and Pablo Fornals took over the vast majority of set-piece responsibilities as far back as early April, as surprising as that might sound.

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Based on the evidence presented so far, Aguerd seems to be a solid candidate to excel as a centre-back in the Premier League under Moyes, but whilst he will surely add a progressive, front-footedness to our backline, he is by no means flawless. In fact, there is one rather glaring weakness to his game, and that is his competency in 1v1 ground duels. Just a quick glance at his data tells us that he is far below the standard set by most centre-backs playing in Europe’s Top Five Leagues last season, ranking in the bottom 3% in terms of defensive duel success. In the 3,500+ minutes he played in Ligue 1 and the Europa Conference League last season, Aguerd won 61.2% of his defensive duels. When compared to the rest of West Ham’s centre-backs, this doesn’t make for great viewing, as it’s 2% less than Ogbonna (63.3%) and a rather remarkable 10% worse than Diop (71.1%).

These comparisons perhaps show just how difficult it is to judge defenders using data alone. It seems reasonable to wager that the vast majority of West Ham fans, if asked who our worst centre-back was, would respond with Diop, and, despite what the data seems to suggest, they wouldn’t be wrong. Of course, Aguerd’s relatively poor defensive duel success rate is something of a red flag, but it is far from the be all and end all, as Antonio Rudiger has proven by earning a move to Real Madrid following a season in which he posted an even lower defensive duel success rate (60.9%) than Aguerd. The data isn’t all bad though, with Aguerd recording less fouls per 90 (0.6 < 1) and more possession-adjusted interceptions (6.6 > 5.8) than Dawson averaged last season. This suggests that Aguerd reads the game well and only engages when he feels he can regain possession without committing a foul.

This selectiveness over when to engage is key to understanding the kind of player Aguerd is. Although his superior recovery pace would allow us to hold a higher line, that may not translate to a significantly higher line of engagement as Aguerd generally isn’t keen on stepping out of the defensive line and committing to pressures high up the pitch, preferring instead to use his pace to sweep balls and runs that go in behind the defence. Committing to just 6.25 pressures per 90 with a success rate of 34.7%, it’s clear to see that Aguerd generally prefers to back off and force an onrushing attacker to beat him.

It is likely that Aguerd’s physical profile will enable us to commit the full-backs higher up the pitch in possession with us holding a higher line that we can then retreat from. If this were the case, it would necessitate the signing of a new left-back as Cresswell simply would not be able to match Aguerd, Zouma and Vladimir Coufal in recovering backwards and this would open up a clear weakness of diagonal balls into our left channel or flank, something we already saw exploited a number of times in the Europa League last season.

Lastly, a major strength of Aguerd’s is his awareness and anticipation. Although his positioning has been an area of his game that he has had to work on over time, it was certainly one of his weaknesses when he arrived in Ligue 1 with Dijon, he has now developed to a point where he is really comfortable in assessing the spaces around him and positioning himself effectively to make interceptions and clearances.

If you’ve been following our work across the last couple of seasons, you’ll be well aware of our frustration with West Ham continually conceding goals from low cut-backs that hit the space in front of our retreating defenders. Hopefully, this is something that Aguerd can help impede through his ability to read and break up these situations.

Aguerd drops back into the space to cover the most dangerous ball across the six-yard-box but is already on the move and anticipating the cutback to Jonathan David before the pass is made.
This allows him to easily intercept and break up an otherwise dangerous situation.

It’s pleasing to see us resolve the most important area for recruitment so early in the window with a player that should add quality to the team both defensively and offensively while matching the profile of players that have worked incredibly hard to improve themselves and earn each and every step they’ve made in their careers. The French-speaking 26 year old should be part of the core of our team alongside Alphonse Areola and Zouma for many years to come.

Jack’s Rating: A-

One of the names on my eight-man list for the centre-back position, it’s incredibly pleasing to see Aguerd signed just one week into the transfer window. I’m hugely excited about what he can bring to the side in possession and hopeful that his aerial ability and preference to retreat defensively will make him a good fit in Moyes’ backline.

Cal’s Rating: A-

Having identified Aguerd as a solid option over a year ago, I couldn’t be more pleased to see him signed. There are still a few question marks around certain areas of his defensive game, but his ball-playing ability, aerial dominance, and recovery pace can only be positive additions to our backline.

Jack Elderton and Callum Goodall will be working together throughout the summer to provide in-depth breakdowns of West Ham’s new arrivals. For even more depth on the latest transfer links, targets and signings, follow the KUMB Podcast.

By Jack Elderton and Callum Goodall

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