In August 2018 at the tender age of 16 years old, Ki-Jana Hoever made the switch from Ajax to Liverpool. As Hoever had not yet signed a professional deal at Ajax, Liverpool only had to part with a small compensation fee to sign the highly-rated defender. With a number of high profile teams throughout Europe reportedly tracking Hoever, it was seen as something of a coup for Liverpool. Since his arrival Hoever has become a mainstay in the Liverpool youth team. He has appeared throughout Liverpool’s UEFA Youth League campaign as well as forming a solid defensive partnership alongside fellow dutchman Sepp van den Berg. His performances have clearly also impressed first-team manager Jürgen Klopp as Hoever was handed his first-team debut last season and has gone on to start three more times for the first-team this season.
In this tactical analysis I will examine what makes Ki-Jana Hoever such an exciting prospect in European football. I will present a scout report looking at the strengths in his game but will also highlight some areas of his game that he could improve upon before making further inroads into the Liverpool first team. This analysis will also look at how Ki-Jana Hoever could fit in to Liverpool’s tactics.
On the ball
With a footballing education from both AZ Alkmaar and Ajax it is unsurprising that Ki-Jana Hoever is incredibly comfortable and confident on the ball. He has a range style when the ball is at his feet and although he doesn’t initially appear to be carrying the ball at any great speed he is able to glide past opponents. He is very smart when it comes to his progressive passing. He is aware of space and where the opposition may apply pressure and as such can quickly find incisive passes to teammates in space.
Hoever often prefers to play a pass which will maintain an attacking move rather than simply looking to recycle possession. In the images above we can see that there is a pass available to Hoever which would be the easy one back to his centre-back partner or full-back. In the three instances above Hoever has noticed where and how one of the opponents will apply pressure. He is then able to play a disguised pass forward, breaking the lines and putting his side on the front foot.
In the images above we can see a similar example. Here, Hoever again has the easy backwards pass available. However, on this occasion instead of deciding against passing because there is imminent opposition pressure he decides that the pass isn’t very beneficial for his side. He performs a drag-back to take the ball comfortably past his opponent before carrying the ball down the line. He invites the pressure of another Salzburg man and then plays the ball into his teammate who can turn in the half-space and attack the Salzburg box. Here Hoever has combined his easy ball carrying style, identification of space and the desire to play forwards as often as possible – a potent combination.
Progressive passing from right-back
Throughout his career Hoever has been used as both a right-back and a centre-back. Following his performance against MK Dons where Hoever played as a right-back, Klopp suggested that for the near future this position may be where Hoever plays as he grows and adapts to the physical demands of first-team football. Playing right-back allows to Hoever to utilise his vision and passing ability in a more advanced and wider position.
In the image above Hoever is on the ball midway into the MK Dons half. Rhian Brewster drops from the front-line to offer himself to Hoever. Brewster’s movement brings with him a MK Dons defender, opening space for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to move into.
The images above also depict Hoever finding smart passes into the half-spaces from his wider right-back position as opposed to playing in the centre of defence.
Potential weaknesses on the ball
Whilst I was conducting my video scouting of Hoever one thing in particular stood out to me; his one-footedness. Whenever he moved the ball onto his left foot, which was a rare occurrence in itself, he looked incredibly uneasy. Whilst this may not be an immediate issue should he keep developing to play at right-back (as it is very common for full-backs to be much stronger on the foot which corresponds to the side they play on), this could present some potential problems if he plays at the heart of the defence. Opposition sides with intelligent pressing systems could look to force Hoever onto his left foot, which would limit his ability to play his incisive forward passes which are probably the strongest aspect of his game.
The right-back slot at Liverpool looks to be secured for the next 10+ years with Trent Alexander-Arnold having made the position his own over the past few seasons. Hoever has however made a number of appearances at right-back, including one of his first-team appearances this season. When playing at right-back his profile was very reminiscent of Joe Gomez. He looked athletic, physical and a good ball progressor but when it came to his impact in the final third, this was lacking. Klopp himself has said that Hoever must improve this aspect of his game in order to keep progressing. Alexander-Arnold provides Liverpool with a high volume of crossing with many of these being accurate and dangerous.
In his right-back outings Hoever very rarely found himself in a dangerous crossing position. On the occasion he did, he looked quite awkward and unsure of himself and subsequently ballooned his cross over his teammates.
It must be noted that Hoever was able to get on the scoresheet in his game against MK Dons when he ran onto a floated James Milner from his right-back position and powered a header past the MK Dons goalkeeper.
Hoever’s defensive game
As evidenced in his identification of space when on the ball, Hoever is equally adept at identifying danger when he is defending.
Hoever is often able to make crucial interceptions whilst he is defending on the back foot. He has good balance and agility and as such he is able to quickly move to cut the ball out after he has identified a dangerous pass or run.
In the three images above, not only does Hoever make the interception, he lays the ball off first time to a teammate and is able to instigate a counter-attack immediately with six Salzburg players caught ahead of the ball.
When writing a scout report on Joe Gomez it was evident that his experience of playing both right-back and centre-back gave him the adaptability to almost cover two positions while playing in one. The same can be said for Ki-Jana Hoever.
For the youth team Hoever often plays alongside Neco Williams who is an exciting attack focused full-back. As a result of this Hoever is often tasked with cover for Williams if Liverpool lose the ball with the right-back high up the field. In the images above Williams is caught slightly ahead of play and two Salzburg players are looking to move down the Liverpool right flank. Hoever sees this and moves across to cover the right-back channel, this defensive move from the Dutchman forces the Salzburg attack to slow down and allows Liverpool to recover into a more solid defensive shape.
He is also able to do this when defending in space.
Having the ability to defend two defensive channels, particularly in space, can be very beneficial for a team like Liverpool who like to play with their full-backs high and wide. Should Liverpool turn the ball over or get caught in transition Hoever has the awareness and athleticism to cover the space and nullify attacks.
A lack of pace?
Ki-Jana Hoever has shown a clear ability to cover space and with his running style, as noted earlier in the article, can be fast without looking as if he is running very fast. However, whilst his speed over a distance seems to be decent his initial acceleration can sometimes be found wanting.
There were a number of examples of Hoever getting caught with space in behind him, particularly in the UEFA Youth League game vs Salzburg. In the images above we can see that he is in a decent defensive position and also has the head start of his opponent. However, he is quite easily beaten to the ball and elects to bring his man down. He received a booking for a foul that quite easily could have warranted a red card for the denial of a goalscoring opportunity.
Again, in the images above, Hoever has a decent head start on the two Salzburg players (that eventually combine for a Salzburg goal). The pass is played into the space behind the Liverpool defensive line and he is fairly easily beaten to the ball by the Salzburg winger. In this example, Hoever would probably expect a bit more help from Williams but there does seem to be a bit of a trend developing.
Ki-Jana Hoever looks like a very exciting prospect for Liverpool and Holland. He looks as though he has a bit of both Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez in his game. He has the right-back/centre-back adaptability of Gomez and the languid ball carrying style of van Dijk. Jürgen Klopp has noted that he isn’t the most physically imposing player and this will be something that he needs to develop if he wants to become a dominant central defender like van Dijk. He is however, still only 18 years old and will undoubtedly naturally develop his physique and athleticism and will become more accustomed to the physical demands of first team football with more and more exposure. With the right-centre back position still somewhat up for grabs at Liverpool, Hoever may feature in the forthcoming games acrosss the remainder of this season.