Victor Nelsson burst onto the scene for Nordsjælland at the age of 17. In his opening season in the Superliga he played over 1,000 minutes in midfield, but he was converted to centre-back early in his second season in the first team. He quickly established himself as one of the most promising defenders in the division and convinced Copenhagen to part with €3.59m to bring the Danish U21 international to Telia Parken.
Nelsson is a physically strong centre-back, standing at 1.85m tall and well-built in his upper body. However, he’s far more than a brute of a defender. He’s a great example of a modern centre back who is comfortable with the ball at their feet.
He is one of the highest performers in the league for passes per 90, making 61.36 per 90. This shows that he is key to Copenhagen’s build-up. 33% of those passes are forward, which is below average for centre-backs in the division, but when considered in the context that Copenhagen are the top side in the league for possession it makes more sense. Nelsson is often involved in sideways passing at the back whilst players ahead look to find space before an attack can build.
That being said, when he does play the ball forwards, he does it extremely well and is comfortable passing through the press and into midfield or the feet of a centre-forward.
In this example, he has the confidence to take the ball under control, sidestep away from the pressing Brondby forward, and play a pass through the lines to Mohammed Daramy with his weaker left foot.
This then allowed Daramy to turn into space on the edge of the Brondby penalty area.
Nelsson’s ability to break lines from just inside the opposition half can be very important in allowing his creative teammates such as Zeca, Pep Biel and Mohammed Daramy to create against exposed defences.
Another attribute that he brings to Copenhagen in possession is his ability to play long passes. From his position at the base of the team, he is able to find wide players in space.
In this example here, Aalborg are set in their defensive shape and the ball had just come from the left-hand side. As the ball came back to Nelsson, he quickly played a long ball over the top to Varela who is the Copenhagen right-back. If he controlled the ball well, he’d have a clear run to the penalty area.
Out of possession
As a centre-back, whilst his passing is very important, he will always be assessed first and foremost by his defending.
He excels in 1 vs 1 situations, where his body positioning is very important. He tends to position himself in a way so that he can force forwards to go in the direction that he wants them to go in. This is largely down the line, so that he can make a challenge and then play the ball up the wing to safety, or out for a corner if needed.
However, he’s obviously not always able to manage that, at which point his timing of the challenge becomes more important. Fortunately, this is an area in which he excels.
Here, Celtic’s Mohammed Elyounoussi is running at him. The young Dane attempts to show him down the line, as is his preference. Crucially, he keeps his eye on the ball and is able to react to whatever the Celtic winger attempts.
In this case, he’s unable to force his opponent down the line and has to turn back to make a challenge. He times this perfectly and is able to take the ball away, averting the danger.
In the air he’s important to the team, winning the majority of his duels at 62.02%. However, it should be noted that sits below the average (68.46) for central defenders who have played over 1,000 minutes.
In this example, as Elyounoussi attempted to cross, he positioned himself to cut the ball out if it came low across the box but had to be aware of Odsonne Edouard behind him.
He had to adjust quickly to head clear though as the ball came high towards the penalty spot. If he hadn’t managed that it would have been a good chance for the Celtic striker.
Anticipation is also a key attribute of the Danish U21 international. He ranks 3rd amongst all centre-backs in the league for possession adjusted interceptions per 90 with 9.17. This is often born out by him getting in front of a centre-forward to steal the ball off their toes before they can do anything with it.
In defensive transition, Nelsson’s positioning is key. As he’s a centre-back, his role primarily involves stopping through balls being played in behind by stepping out to intercept them if needed or otherwise by sweeping in behind.
The image above displays recoveries in the transitional phase, and it shows him busy across the entire defensive half of the field. His minutes have come exclusively as the right-sided centre-back, so this shows that he’s prepared to come across to the other side to quickly win the ball back in transition and does so regularly. His 12 ball recoveries per 90 make him one of the best performers in the league in this regard, as shown below.
Notably, there are only three sliding tackles on the recovery map, which supports the idea that he is often in good positions and doesn’t have to attempt the last-ditch tackle to cover for his errors.
This example demonstrates his excellent positioning. As Damsgaard carries the ball forwards for Nordsjælland, Nelsson is in retreat. However, he keeps his body shape at an angle so he can still react, particularly with Mohammad Kudus looking to make a run across him.
When the through ball was attempted, he was able to twist and stick out a leg to block the pass, before clearing the ball away.
On the occasion that he does get caught out, he has the pace to recover, as in the next example.
Here Kamaldeen Sulemana (highlighted by the white box as he’s lost in the shadow) is streaking away from Guillermo Varela. Nelsson sees the danger and races back to cover.
Sulemana is particularly quick, so this was no mean feat for Nelsson to catch him. He managed to track him to the left side of the penalty area and get across him to clear away for a throw-in.
Had Nelsson’s starting position been even a yard higher up the pitch he would have been highly unlikely to catch up and make the interception.
In attacking transitions, Nelsson is quite conservative. This isn’t surprising given the fact that he’s a central defender. His role in transition is to play the first pass which launches a counter-attack, as shown by the image below.
There are a couple of long passes, but they are mostly mid-length passes. There are only two actions in the opposition half, but this is hardly surprising given his position.
Even in situations like the above, where he has an opportunity to carry the ball forwards, he is still wary of doing too much.
As Copenhagen were a goal down to Celtic at the time, they really needed a goal, but he did not want to overcommit on the counter. He drove forwards to the midfield third, then played a pass to the feet of Pep Biel, who would continue the attack whilst Nelsson dropped back into position.
Room for improvement
As mentioned earlier, Nelsson has a tendency to attempt to steal the ball from the feet of his opponent. This is largely successful, but it is a high-risk strategy. If he does not time his challenge well or his opponent takes a particularly good touch, he can be caught out and leave an easy run to the goal, considering that he is the last line of defence.
This image shows that a large proportion of the defensive duels which he has lost have led to Copenhagen conceding shots on their goal.
Although this example isn’t a duel lost on the edge of the penalty area, it does show the danger of that can come from Nelsson diving in.
On this occasion, Edouard was able to nip the ball away from him and could play a pass to Leigh Griffiths in the centre. Fortunately, Nelsson’s defensive partner was able to clear up, but diving in here was almost very costly for his team.
This analysis has shown that Nelsson has a bright future in the game and will surely become a bedrock of the Danish national team. He’s already one of the best young centre-backs in Scandinavia. It would not be a surprise to see him turning out in one of the top European Leagues soon. Perhaps he could fit into a side like Everton in the EPL as competition for Yerry Mina and Michael Keane. He could also be an option for Leeds United, should they get promoted to the Premier League, as they are likely to need to replace one of their starting centre-backs.
Copenhagen are unlikely to want to sell him at this stage due to the fact that he’s only been with them for a season. However, they’re unlikely to be able to hold onto him for longer than another season after he’s been picking up rave reviews for his performances in the Europa League. If they do eventually sell him, they’re likely to return a tidy profit on their investment.