There is something about Brazil and great full-backs, isn’t there? Recent World Cup outings of Brazil often featured the greatest full-backs in the world, such as Carlos Alberto, Roberto Carlos, Cafu, Maicon, and Dani Alves. They practically redefined the position, making it more attacking-oriented and creative. Even now, the full-back position is ruled by brilliant Brazilians. Marcelo, an aging Dani Alves, Danilo, and Alex Sandro are some well-known full-backs.
There is one more excellent, yet relatively obscure, Brazilian full-back of Italian descent named Emerson Palmieri. Born and raised in Santos, he took the same path as two other superstar Brazilians (Pélé, Neymar), rising through the ranks of the Santos F.C. academy. After representing Brazil at the U-17 World Cup, he started receiving a bit of playing time for Santos F.C. in the Brazilian Série A.
In 2014, he decided to remove the acute accent from the name of his league and joined Palermo in the Italian Serie A on loan. However, he received very little playing time there as he was used as a back-up option. The next season, he joined A.S. Roma on loan. It was the same case here, too, as Emerson was used as a back-up for the French left-back Lucas Digne. In 2016, Roma signed him for €2 million. Little did they know that they had an absolute gem in their hands.
The Best in the World
My first glimpse of the 22-year-old Emerson’s brilliance was when I was scouring the data to write my transfer dossier on full-backs that Manchester City should sign. Before I filtered out older players, Emerson was clearly the best full-back in Europe according to statistics. And when I used a radar/spider chart to look at exactly how good he is, this was the result.
That right side of the radar is one of the best I’ve ever seen. Emerson is the second-most creative and attacking full-back in Europe (the first being Alex Sandro). He sets a completely new standard with 1.8 key passes per 90 minutes, 1.5 crosses p90, and 2 successful dribbles p90. Another fantastic feature of his game is that he isn’t bad at defending – he is rarely dribbled past and makes 2.99 possession-adjusted tackles p90. His interception count is low but that’s a general feature observed among full-backs. Emerson’s outstanding output may be a result of him playing as a wing-back occassionally, but there’s no doubt regarding his ability.
For comparison, take a look at the radars of Premier League left-backs who are perceived to be very good.
The only full-backs (all, incidentally, left-backs) that come close to Emerson are his Brazilian compatriots Alex Sandro and Marcelo, and the Austrian David Alaba.
They’re still not as good as Emerson, because:
- They’re all older and in their prime (Alaba is 24, but still older than Emerson).
- They all play for elite, table-topping clubs.
- And most importantly, they’re not as good (Alex Sandro is absolutely amazing, but not as good as Emerson).
So here’s a full-back who is arguably the best in the world at the age of 22, but is under-utlilized and obscure. An opportunity for other clubs? I certainly think so.
Involvement and Influence
Another thing is that Emerson is the most influential passer in Roma’s 11 when he plays. This doesn’t mean he is the best passer in Roma, but he is passed to the most and takes a lot of touches.
Let’s take the example of the game between Lazio and Roma, The Derby della Capitale, in December, which ended in a 2-0 win for Roma with goals from Radja Nainggolan and Kevin Strootman. This is Sander Ijitsma’s pass map for that game.
As you can see, no Roma player receives too many passes or is central to the attack. Except Emerson. He received 38 passes. He also completed 15 passes in the attacking third in that game, but we’re not talking about that here.
One game might be too small a sample, so here’s more pass maps (all by Sander):
The one on the far right (Roma versus Palermo) is quite interesting because Emerson played as a right-back in that game. As an inverted full-back, he made central runs and converted the 4-2-3-1 of Roma into a diamond 3-4-3 with Daniele De Rossi, Leandro Paredes, Emerson, and Nainggolan forming the central midfield diamond.
Emerson, who was bought for an insignificant €2 million, has only played 58% of total minutes and 60.6% of available minutes (total minutes minus time missed due to injuries and suspension) for Roma this season in the Serie A. This low figure is despite the fact that Emerson has missed only one match due to injury.
And Emerson hasn’t received more than 200 minutes in any of his past seasons since his last season at Santos. Even in that season, he was only used for 228 minutes. This is crazy for a player who I think is the best full-back in the world. Sure, he is only 22 years old, but still that’s absurd. This might in part be because of his position – as Simon Kuper notes in his book The Football Men, nobody cares about left-backs. For example, Roberto Carlos passed largely unnoticed until he was 24. Emerson is the kind of underrated gem that Billy Beane’s front office at the Oakland A’s kept discovering, as described in Michael Lewis’s bestseller Moneyball.
Since Emerson plays at a Champions League-quality club (if Lars Schiefler’s ELO system is an indicator of quality) and receives a moderate amount of minutes even for an average player (which Emerson is not), he should be a target for every big-5 league club. And practically any big-5 league club can sign him, as he’s severely underrated. His age is a huge bonus in signing him – just imagine Emerson’s output when he’s in his prime! Another thing is that he can play as a wing-back, which means he is a viable target for clubs that play three at the back.
So now all I can say to clubs is this: