So the rumours were true. To the delight of ‘Goal! The Dream Begins‘ fans, Mexico’s under-23 striker Santiago Muñóz has joined Newcastle United on an initial 18-month loan.
Arriving on transfer deadline day from Santos Laguna, Muñóz shares the name and nationality of the cult football movie’s protagonist (Santi Munez). For some, this moment of life imitating art is sublimely fun, but there are cynics within the Newcastle fanbase who believe the deal “is nowt more than a marketing ploy” cooked up by Ashley and co.
So are the club simply trying to pull the wool over our eyes again? Let’s see how Muñóz shapes up by analysing his play with the same detail we gave to Joe Willock, our only other signing this summer. But first a disclaimer…
Muñoz joins the club following a debut season in which he scored 3 goals and assisted 3 times in a total of just 1092 minutes of first-team football in Mexico’s top division, Liga MX.
This is a small sample of minutes played in one of the most competitive leagues in the Americas and this makes it difficult to draw any firm conclusions about Muñoz. It does, however, provide us with some insights into the qualities he brings to the Magpies.
That’s why in this piece we’ll also be using some videos of his play at youth levels alongside his data from Liga MX to assess whether Muñoz has a chance of matching the Hollywood-level exploits of his fictional namesake.
An intelligent striker that plays between the lines
So just what type of striker is Santi Muñoz? A look at the players heatmap shows he has a preference for dropping deep and into the space in front of the left side of the penalty area.
On film, it’s clear that he likes to receive the ball into feet and finding space between the lines of the opposition’s defence and midfield to receive the ball, something that creates space for runners in behind.
So what’s he like on the ball?
When the ball is turned over by the opposition and Muñoz is involved in his team’s transition from defence to attack, this preference for centre-left areas of the pitch is reinforced. In Liga MX, Muñoz received 11.54 passes per-90, and in one of the few games in which he played the full 90 minutes, the breakdown of his recieving locations helps to confirm this bias.
By watching his film we build a clearer picture of how he uses the ball once he receives it. Muñoz is happy to play with his back to goal and will often lay the ball back to a teammate before turning and moving. He has the technical ability to take a good first touch and make space to play by dribbling.
When he receives the ball in attacking areas and the final third, Muñoz shows good movement, decent speed and dribbles at defences. In and around the opposition penalty area he’s willing to take his man on, a high risk and reward trait that contributes to his 3.87 dribbles per-90 minutes at a 30% success rate.
While not evident on the video footage I’ve shared here, Muñoz’s decision making needs work. In many of the clips that I don’t have permission to share, he refused an opportunity to play a pass to a teammate, choosing instead to dribble or take an extra touch. Given his age, this is to be expected and a clear area for development.
Can he pass the ball?
Despite not always making the right choice about when to pass in the final third and attacking areas, when Muñoz does pass, he normally finds the mark.
Per-90 he attempted 15.58 passes, with an 87% success rate which is excellent for anyone playing so high up the pitch, however, a third of these passes (5.19 per-90) tend to be backwards and more generally about retaining possession than being played forward (2.31 per-90).
While his raw numbers from Liga MX say he had 3 assists in 1,092 minutes, one was a 5 yard sideways pass for a 25-yard screamer, one was a ball that hit him in the face and dropped kindly to an attacker, the other was a nice header placed across the six-yard box for a teammate to finish.
It’s a part of his game that’s sure to improve over time, but in the here and now there’s value in a striker that can pass the ball so safely in the oppositions half. The visualisation below shows the key attacking areas of the pitch from which Muñoz passes the ball along with the directions and length of passes.
What’s his shooting like?
Muñoz’s attacking movement and technical ability with the ball are the main way that he generates opportunities to shoot.
He managed 1.4 shots per-90 in Liga MX, which is on the low-side for a striker, though this increased whenever he played against his peers in Santos’ U20 (2.05 shots per-90). He has work to do to increase the volume of his efforts on goal.
As you can see from all the X’s on the visualisation, Muñoz managed to get just 35% of his shots on target, a stat which on the surface suggests he’s a poor finisher. However, by looking at WyScout’s expected goals (xG) model we get a fuller picture of his finishing ability.
xG is a modern metric that measures the probability of a shot being scored by using the outcomes of thousands of historical shots to generate the average likelihood between zero (0%) and one (100%) of an attempt on goal being scored.
By scoring 3 goals, Muñoz was on par for his cumulative total of 2.76 expected goals (xG) and when playing against his peers at under-20 level, his shots on target increased to 40%.
Example 1 – header against Juarez
His goal against Juarez really demonstrates the best of all his attacking attributes in a neat package and hints at the potential of the player to be a menace to Premier League defences.
In the clip below, watch the way Muñoz creates separation from his marker with a blindside run when he spots his strike partner turning back with the ball. By doing so he creates a simple passing option and enough time to take a touch before laying the ball into the path of the right-winger and getting himself in between defenders before finishing a headed chance worth 0.15xG.
While it’s a nice finish from a free header, but don’t expect Muñoz to be a bully in the air. Throughout his Liga MX season, Muñoz struggled to keep headers on target (or win punts upfield) when under pressure.
Example 2 – Goal against Necaxa
The second goal I’d like to highlight shows off Muñoz’s ability to cause defences trouble with his technical dribbling ability.
Playing with his back to goal Muñoz receives the ball in front of the defence in his favoured centre-left area. He takes a touch, shows good balance to turn his man and hold him off before taking one touch to set and then shoot the ball low through the defender’s legs.
The move to create the initial space so centrally is impressive and not something you see a lot in senior men’s football. It shows a slyness to Muñoz’s game that is difficult to teach.
What’s he like without the ball?
Though I’ve not been able to see as much of his overall defensive work rate as I’d like – running stats are a closely guarded secret across football – it does appear that Muñoz is intelligent when pressuring opponents carrying the ball.
Throughout the clips below, he rarely goes full tilt at the ball carrier, choosing instead to arch his runs and cut off passing lanes before pressing his man.
Across 1,092 minutes, Muñoz managed 15 final third recoveries in the Santos first team, just a shade over one a game. While Steve Bruce’s Newcastle team don’t really apply much pressure on the opposition defences when they have the ball in their own half, Muñoz offers a nice option should Bruce (or any replacement coach) need to rely on him to step into the first team.
Conclusions – So just how much potential does Muñoz have?
Well, that’s the million-dollar question and it’s difficult to answer without more analysis. It’ll be good to see how Muñoz performs with Newcastle’s under-23s and whether inevitable injuries to Callum Wilson, Allan Saint-Maximum and Dwight Gayle give him a quicker pathway into the first team than we may expect.
While we wait, we can perhaps monitor the progress of Juan Jose Macias – another Mexican striker who has moved to Europe this summer – to give us some idea of how Liga MX strikers fare in Europe.
Macias has joined Getafe on a loan-to-buy deal and while he is a couple of seasons ahead of Muñoz in his own development, his performances could provide a yardstick as to the current level of Liga MX vs. the top-level in Europe. Below is a radar of Macias’ 20/21 season in Mexico.
Muñoz’s needs to find ways to earn and take more opportunities to shoot, comparing his radar to Macias – who is a full international for Mexico – reveals that Muñoz probably fits well into the fringes of Newcastle’s first-team squad.
It’s an interesting if unfair comparison. Muñoz’s inexperience means that his play data is far less reliable than Macias, however, it’s still uncommon for such a young player to break into a first-team and then generate such a buzz in such a short period of time.
While the hype machine was no doubt well fed by comparisons to his Hollywood namesake and his eligibility to play for both the US and Mexico (Muñoz was discovered in America), it was Muñoz’s play and goals that helped him become a breakout Liga MX player and earned him a Liga MX team of the week spot.
The rise of his star, made the player was the focus of a March 2021 feature in the US edition of The Athletic, in which Santos’ manager, Guillermo Almada, expressed thoughts about his potential:
While the move has come early and Almada’s words about Muñoz not being ready do ring true, it reveals something of the player’s character. Whether you think it shows that Muñoz is naive, ambitious, confident or a mix of all three, I’ll leave up to you.
What is clear is that this isn’t a marketing stunt from Newcastle United. Muñoz is a player of genuine potential, it’s now up to the club to nurture it, let him settle in the UK and give him a pathway into the first team. If they can do that then Muñoz might have a shot at meeting his own goals and following in the footsteps of his Hollywood namesake.