When I think back to the 2021 MLS season, one of the players that first comes to mind is Nouhou. I’m not kidding.
Initially, I was skeptical about Brian Schmetzer’s decision to use an occasionally-reckless Nouhou as a left-sided center back in his new-look back three, but it turned out to be a brilliant move that embodied Seattle Sounders FC's switch from a 4-2-3-1 to a three-at-the-back shape.
Despite missing most of the summer with a groin injury, Nouhou handled his shift into the left center back spot with relative ease, making the MLS All-Star team and helping Seattle finish second in the Western Conference.
He also played in a handful of World Cup Qualifiers with Cameroon in 2021 and started all three group stage games at the African Cup of Nations.
With Nouhou’s success in a new position in 2021 and his rising international profile, he's a perfect player to spotlight in our offseason player analysis series.
During the break from MLS play, we’ve been using Second Spectrum’s data to look at MLS players who could be in for a huge year in 2022 and perhaps even feature at the Qatar World Cup. So far we’ve analyzed Miles Robinson, Julian Araujo, Adam Buksa and Cristian Arango. This week it’s time to dive into Nouhou.
What do the numbers say about him? And what could 2022 mean for the 24-year-old defender? Let’s get into it.
Overall, Nouhou adjusted quite well to his shift from left back to left center back in a back three. And much of what made Nouhou a dangerous, albeit inconsistent, left back translated to his center-back play.
With his athleticism and ability to drive the ball forward, the Cameroonian provides speed and ball progression. Among left and right-sided center backs in MLS in 2021, Nouhou landed in the 84th percentile in top sustained speed. His pace of 9.4 meters per second put him 23rd among any player who spent time as an outside center back last season. That speed helped Nouhou cover large amounts of ground and apply frequent pressure on opposing attackers.
Nouhou’s 13.9 pressures per 90 minutes placed him in the 92nd percentile among outside center backs in pressing frequency, and his distance closed while pressing placed him in the 95th percentile. Nouhou didn’t just press, he also won the ball a lot. Nouhou finished 2021 with a 61.3 pressing efficiency, meaning he helped force a turnover for the opposition within five seconds of pressing 61.3% of the time. That placed him in the 70th percentile among outside center backs with at least 100 pressures, excellent for someone new to the role.
You can see that pressing intensity in this clip, where Nouhou wins the ball from Emerson Hyndman inside Seattle’s box.
The other thing you can see in that clip is Nouhou’s love for dribbling forward from his center back spot: after winning the ball, he moves up the field and draws a foul.
By most statistical metrics, Nouhou isn’t a dangerous passer, but he is a very capable dribbler. Per Second Spectrum, Nouhou finished 2021 in the 76th percentile in successful dribbles per 90 minutes and in the 86th percentile in defenders bypassed per 100 touches among outside center backs.
He takes risks that likely turn Schmetzer’s hair an even gray-er shade of gray, but Nouhou’s skill on the ball is clear.
He’ll spin past an onrushing attacker in his own box…
Or he’ll use his speed to break forward and progress the ball.
At times, Nouhou becomes a little too focused on driving play forward on his own and disrupts Seattle’s attacking rhythm. But if he can somehow elevate his passing to eliminate some of his over-reliance on dribbling, Nohou could be an even more effective center back (or left back) in 2022 than in 2021.
To recap, here’s a TL;DR of Nouhou’s strengths and weaknesses:
- Eager to press
- Not an influential passer
- Likes to dribble forward
Though he likely won’t be asked to make another season-defining position change, 2022 could still be a huge year for Nouhou. With Jordan Morris back healthy and Albert Rusnak arriving via free agency, the Sounders again look like genuine MLS Cup contenders. With his energy in the back, Nouhou will be an important part of his team’s on-field performance in 2022.
At the international level, Nouhou’s prospects are even more exciting. After their group-stage wins over Burkina Faso and Ethiopia and their draw against Cape Verde, Cameroon advanced to the Round of 16 in the African Cup of Nations. The competition in Africa is stiff, but Cameroon have one the most talented squads in the tournament and could make a deep run.
After AFCON finishes, Cameroon will have a pair of even more important games on their schedule: a home-and-away contest against one of the other nine teams that qualified for CAF’s Third Round of World Cup Qualifying, with a spot in Qatar later this year bestowed to the aggregate-goals winner.
Should the Indomitable Lions reach the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Nouhou is likely to be a key part of the squad after starting in their last seven games. Perhaps overseas interest picks up, too?
Whether he’s playing for Seattle or Cameroon, 2022 could be a massive year for Nouhou. And with his entertaining playing style, you won’t want to miss it.