The Scottish international is one of the best players in the Rossoblù’s impressive start to the season.
When Lewis Ferguson arrived in Serie A less than 18 months ago, we barely even noticed. There are not many 23-year-old talents from Scotland – coming from neither Rangers or Celtic - that can become some of the best players in the Italian championship. Ferguson played four seasons at Aberdeen without even being a regular for the Scottish national team. And yet, it only took him a few weeks to settle in Italy and become one of the most interesting, complete and efficient midfielders in Serie A.
The arrival of Thiago Motta on the bench was critical for him, as it was for Bologna FC in general, as he revolutionized the team from a tactical standpoint, in a moment when they were in tactical and motivational regression. After some initial struggles, Bologna are having a positive campaign so far, validated by the fact that the team beat the record for the longest unbeaten streak in the league, ten games. Lewis Ferguson was by far one of the best players during this streak, as he seems to be the one who most embodies the team’s traits: dynamism, intensity, physicality and intelligence.
Ferguson is a peculiar player: more offensive than an inside forward, more defensive than a striker. Ferguson does too many things to fall into one clear definition. His technique is not eye-catching, it’s not flamboyant, but rather aimed at effectiveness, perfectly fitting in with the spirit of a team that wants to control the game while being versatile and pragmatic.
So, when we talk about Ferguson we talk about flexibility; about a smart player, who knows how to read and understand every situation the game throws at him. A player whose usefulness is not always obvious unless one starts to notice the amount of tasks he does on the pitch. He knows how to defend and attack, finish and link with teammates.
He’s the first to initiate the team’s first press and the first to run back to cover any holes in the defensive shape. When the eye is trained, one could have a strange feeling that Lewis Ferguson is everywhere. One moment he’s closing up on Augello (the opposing fullback) for a throw-in, and one moment later he’s already finalizing the play in the opposing box. The competition he expresses on the pitch, the ferocity of his runs, it all has the attitude of that Anglo-Saxon football he comes from.
Looking at his heatmap, you notice how Ferguson often ends up playing on the flanks. He starts from the center but then he drifts onto either wing to link up with his teammates, before coming back to the center in the last third. According to Serie A metrics, he is one of the players who runs the most kilometers.
This marathon-runner attitude, though, is not only functional to a physical style of play but also to a cerebral one. When Bologna have the ball they are a very fluid team, one that wants their players to swap positions. In this context, Ferguson’s dynamism is also essential to moving the Rossoblù’s shape, disorganizing opposing defenses. According to Motta: «He scores and attacks the box well. He’s very disciplined on defense. He always plays with his heads up to check his teammates’ movements and adapt. He’s a model to follow».
So far this season, he has only scored one goal, against Lazio, but last year he finished the campaign with nine. He’s very close to surpassing his fellow countryman Denis Law, in becoming the most prolific Scottish man in the history of the Italian championship.
The goal he scored against Lazio possibly showcases what is Lewis Ferguson’s most obvious skill, his ability to arrive unmarked in the box, often creating dangerous goal-scoring opportunities. He’s the Bologna player with the second-most xG p/90, behind Orsolini but ahead of striker Joshua Zirkzee.
The link-up between Ferguson and Zirkzee is one of the most interesting offensive mechanisms of Thiago Motta’s side. The two have perfectly complementary skills. Zirkzee is tall and slender but loves to play with the ball on the ground. He always wants the ball in his feet, so that he can link up with his teammates in tight spaces. So, Zirkzee links up in the final third, freeing up space in the box that Ferguson can attack, as happened in the goal against Lazio.
Ferguson, on the other hand, has a more vertical style, naturally taking up spaces left free by his teammates to finish in the opposing box, recalling a classic British box-to-box midfielder style. As we can see from the chart that shows his Penalty Area Deliveries (from Wyscout Player Report), Ferguson loves to play on both the right and left wing.
His shot map is pretty impressive for a midfielder too, especially if looking at the number of times he shoots from within the penalty area. Last year, most of his goals came thanks to the great timing of his ninja-styled cuts into the box. If we only consider the timespan Bologna played under Thiago Motta, Ferguson is the midfielder with the most goals in Serie A.
This year, he hasn’t found the same scoring efficiency he had last season yet, but he compensates well with the general usefulness he has for the team. He’s among the best midfielders for ball carries, the second among Bologna players for number of touches per 90 mins; and he’s among the best passers in the league.
For a team that wants to win the ball back high up the pitch as Bologna, Ferguson’s discipline and consistency in pressure is an important weapon, both offensively and defensively. According to Wyscout metrics, he recovers almost 5 balls per 90 mins. He’s the 23rd player with the most counter-pressing recoveries but if the data is parametrized with the number of minutes he played, his contribution is even more obvious. Ferguson very much represents the physical impact and intensity that Bologna want to put on the pitch every Sunday and that is always above the Italian league’s average.
Ferguson told The Athletic’s James Horncastle about the moment when he learned about Bologna’s interest in him. He was with the National team and asked his teammate David Hickey – a former Rossoblù, about it. «He told me that the city was beautiful, a very nice place to live. He calmed me down about the idea of leaving home, as I was going to be just fine in a club run by good people». In those days, Pantaleo Corvino’s Lecce were also rumored to have interest in him, but he has now settled in well in Bologna, loving Tortellini with cream.
Thiago Motta loves the fact that Ferguson might be the secret ingredient in his tactical recipe so that nobody can steal him in the next transfer session. His skills are those of a midfielder without any peaks of excellence but always able to have a very high level in most situations. The kind of footballer to be used as a Swiss army knife, useful in every game and every scenario. The very kind of player managers can’t help but love.
The competition with which he plays every game could potentially overshadow his great tactical intelligence and his ability to read the game – especially without the ball – but he doesn’t seem to bother. In the aforementioned interview with The Athletic, he quoted a very Scottish philosophy: «If you don’t run, you don’t win».