Norwich City may be worried about losing Jamal Lewis in the summer, but they’ve got another, younger left-back who’s impressed for Coventry City this season in Sam McCallum. He earned a move to Carrow Road in January after impressing in the first half of the season for the League One leaders. The Canaries allowed the 19-year-old to rejoin the Sky Blues on loan until the end of the season, and since then he’s certainly picked up from where he left off.
The Canterbury-born teenager has shown his ability to both defend and attack, and he’s shone recently when Mark Robins has played him as a wing-back. He’s part of a defence that has leaked only 30 goals all season, which is the joint second lowest in the EFL.
In this tactical analysis scout report, we will analyse his performances in the 2019/20 season.
Role in the team
Recently, Coventry have been playing a unique 3-4-2-1 formation, as Mark Robins favours a system that allows him to accommodate four technically gifted central midfielders into his team. Below is an image of their starting line-up in their most recent game: a 1-0 victory at Ipswich.
Because of these tactics, the Sky Blues rely on their two wing-backs to provide width when attacking. As he doesn’t have the luxury of working with a winger in front of them, McCallum (and his opposite wing-back Dabo) have to be able to cover the most ground in the team. They have to be able to stretch the play when the team has possession, but it’s also vital that they don’t push too far forward and leave their wide centre-backs exposed.
Above is an image of McCallum’s heatmap for the season, which illustrates that he covers all of the left flank, as he spends around the same amount of time in both halves of the pitch. Luckily for McCallum and Coventry, he’s an excellent athlete with pace and energy to burn and he’s able to cope with this workload.
The next screenshot shows the 19-year-old’s positioning when in possession in their 4-1 win at Wycombe Wanderers back in December.
Coventry have the ball at the back with Michael Rose, and McCallum (circled) is keeping his discipline by staying wide. He looks to receive possession in between the opposition’s two midfield pressing lines. Wycombe (who are defending in a 4-2-3-1) are set up narrowly as they attempted to stifle Coventry’s central midfield talents. McCallum spots this and demands the ball in a wider position.
His role is to try and make the pitch as big as possible when City have possession, and when he gets it he knows they’ll have an overload down the left-hand side. Coventry have players who can switch the play with ease, so the wing-backs are encouraged to ‘get some chalk on their boots and receive the ball in plenty of space, with a numerical advantage down their flank.
In this particular game, McCallum was marking Scott Kashket who would drift infield. Therefore, in defensive phases, the youngster had to tuck in so the left-sided centre-back wasn’t left one on one with the winger. He did this well throughout the game: making the pitch smaller when defending but making it bigger when attacking.
The defender, who was linked with Liverpool in December, strikes a solid balance between providing defensive solidity and an attacking outlet. For the time being, this tactical analysis scout report will analyse the defensive side of his game.
McCallum’s ability to read the game is what sets him apart from most other defenders in the third tier. He’s strong in the tackle, difficult to get past and is always in a good position to make an interception. The loanee likes to get touch tight to whoever he’s marking, so they’re less likely to be able to make a pass or keep hold of possession. For a lot of full-backs or wing-backs this could be risky if they get turned, but McCallum has the pace to make a recovery if that does happen.
As well as constantly bombing up and down the wing, he’s intent on making sure his opponents don’t have a moment’s peace in possession. Take this example in the image below. McCallum isn’t content with playing as an orthodox wing-back, he wants to hunt down possession and win the ball back for his team. Wycombe right-back Sido Jombati panics in possession, McCallum nicks in and gets fouled, and out of nothing the Sky Blues have a penalty.
Attitude, application and a willingness to run are football’s basics: but getting that side of the game right is fundamental.
The teenager reads the game so well for such a young man. He averages 6.71 interceptions per game, which is amongst the highest out of all full-backs and wing-backs in the division. On average, McCallum completes 8.57 successful defensive actions per game, which shows that he’s a proactive, assertive player who likes to affect the game. And for a man of relatively small stature (five foot nine to be precise) Norwich’s January signing is decent in the air. He’s won 53.33% of his aerial duels so far this campaign.
McCallum has already developed a decent knack of timing his tackles well. He averages 0.67 tackles per game, which is a very respectable rate for a wing-back. This goes back to his ability to read the game. The example below shows him in action against Portsmouth. McCallum executes two perfectly timed slide tackles within a couple of seconds of each other, stopping a dangerous attack as Marcus Harness and James Bolton had created a two versus one situation down the wing.
Speed is an important attribute for any full-back or winger, as football constantly becomes a quicker and more intense sport. McCallum is a powerful runner with pace in abundance, and it’s so useful in both attacking and defensive situations. Defensively, on the occasions where he does get caught out of position, he’s able to recover and win the ball back for his team or delay the opposition’s attacking move.
The image above shows Wycombe on the attack with Wycombe’s right winger about to receive a through ball in between McCallum (far side, white shirt) and the wide centre-back. The youngster had been caught too high up the pitch, and it looked like his opposite number would receive the pass in front of him and advance through on goal. However, McCallum was able to accelerate quickly and make a recovery, and Coventry only ended up conceding his corner.
Having said that, when the teenager goes on to play at a higher level he could come up against quicker wingers who would be able to pull away from him. Therefore he’ll be keen to ensure he gets caught out of position less if he’s to become an even better player.
Coventry’s tactics are reliant on both of their wing-backs to provide an attacking outlet, and the analysis will now switch to his contribution going forward. McCallum has scored twice this season, against MK Dons and Wycombe. Both were stunning strikes, so he’s proven that he’s capable of striking the ball from range. Impressively, he’s managed to score twice from a low seasonal expected goals total of 0.35. His shot conversion rate is 20%, which is an outstanding return for a wing-back.
McCallum is left-footed, but the fact he’s capable of using his right is another dangerous weapon that opponents have to deal with. He started at right-back in the League Cup tie with Exeter, and in an early-season clash with Gillingham when Dabo was suspended. When he attacks, opposition full-backs naturally try and show him inside onto his weaker right foot, and he managed to cut inside and score with his right at Wycombe.
The Wycombe full-back doesn’t do much wrong in the above image: he showed McCallum onto his weaker foot instead of letting him run down the channel. What followed was a moment of quality that you must credit the Coventry man for. He feigned to go on the outside, before shifting the ball onto his right foot, creating a bit of space to get the shot off. McCallum then side-footed an effort into the top right corner.
This leaves opposition full-backs with a tough conundrum: do they show him down the channel onto his stronger foot where he can get to the byline and cross, or do they show him onto his weaker foot and hope that he won’t produce a strike like that?
The loanee plays with his head up and has a good appreciation of where his teammates are on the pitch. He’s always positive and looks to play forward, whether that’s carrying the ball or passing. And he’s capable of playing passes down the channel. In the example below, he spots Matt Godden running in behind and delivers a well-weighted ball into his path.
He averages 11 progressive passes per game and 3.77 passes to the penalty area, both of which are amongst the higher numbers of full-backs in the league.
McCallum is a good ball carrier who can progress the ball by running with it. He completes 3.73 dribbles per game on average and has a success rate of 60%. Both are respectable numbers, especially when you consider that Coventry average the most passes per game in the league, which shows they’re primarily encouraged to pass through the thirds instead of taking opponents on.
Despite his youthful age, he’s an intelligent protector of the ball. In the example below against Sunderland, he’s being hassled by his opponent, but he puts his body across his man to protect the ball. Because of this, instead of getting tackled he gets fouled and wins a free kick for his team.
McCallum’s crossing accuracy is a pretty low 28.28%, but when watching him play he seems to possess a decent delivery. We must analyse the reasons why his success rate is surprisingly low for such a productive wing-back. Unlike lots of League One teams, Mark Robins’ tactics aren’t set up to score a lot of goals from crossing. Despite averaging the third-highest percentage of possession per game (53.4%) the Sky Blues only attempt 15.7 crosses per game – which is the same as the league average.
McCallum will often deliver a cross into a good area that won’t always be met by a Coventry player. This would show up as an unsuccessful crossing attempt.
In the example above, McCallum aims a cross into space for Matt Godden to attack. It’s a decent delivery but Godden doesn’t quite get there. He’ll often try to deliver into an area to play to Godden’s strengths, as a lone striker he’ll often be marked by one or two taller defenders. Therefore, he has to use his sharp movement to attack the space in front of him.
A way the Norwich recruit could develop his game would be to develop a bit more finesse in the final third and improve his decision making.
In the image above, McCallum attempts to cross early (yellow arrow) instead of driving to the byline and creating a better angle for the cross. If he backed himself to drive to the byline, he’d have been able to play the ball across the face of the goal, and the Rotherham centre-back would have to defend the cross whilst running back to his net: a defender’s nightmare. This could have ended in an own goal or a simple tap in for Godden. Instead, his attempted cross is blocked.
Surprisingly, he hasn’t managed an assist all season. But he’s totted up 2.33 expected assists, which suggests that based on the quality of chances he’s produced this season, he should have created two goals. However, that number isn’t particularly high and if he became better in the final third then his game would be taken to the next level.
The next logical step in McCallum’s career would be to play in the Championship next season. At the moment with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it’s difficult to say who that could be with. If Norwich get relegated and they lose Jamal Lewis, it seems likely that they’ll want to give him a chance in the Championship next season.
However, if the season is voided and neither Norwich or Coventry get relegated or promoted respectively, it would make sense to give McCallum a pre-season before sending him out on loan to a Championship side. The jump from League One to the Premier League is huge, and he should have a season in the Championship regardless of what league both the Canaries and the Sky Blues are in.