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  • Writer's pictureChristian Marchetti

The subtle signs that Nestory Irankunda's development is accelerating

Adelaide United fans were treated to a masterclass by young starlet Nestory Irankunda last week, whose sensational hat-trick lifted the Reds past Western United for their second consecutive win. The performance punctuated a solid return to form for the 18-year-old Bayern Munich-bound winger in recent weeks. After a challenging mid-season period, which saw him relegated from a regular starting spot in the side, Irankunda is finishing his final season in the A-League Men by undertaking essential steps in his development. Such steps are making him a more well-rounded talent.

Nestory Irankunda became the youngest player in the A-League era to score a hat-trick against Western United. (Image: Courtney Pedlar)


After making his name as a super sub the previous season, Nestory Irankunda was set to be a regular starter for Adelaide United throughout their entire 2023/24 campaign. That aim looked a real possibility at the season's outset.


Irankunda's barnstorming start to the season culminated in the Reds' impressive early-season form. They scored nine goals without reply across the first two weeks against the two Grand Finalists from last season.


But come the first Original Rivalry of the season, a Round 3 clash against Melbourne Victory, the picture suddenly changed for both club and player. Tony Popovic's team dominated the Reds in a 1-1 draw, with Irankunda sent off for dissent. Despite referee Alex King's allegedly obscure handling of the situation, the consensus following the incident at AAMI Park was that the young winger had lost his temper and improvement was needed on the mental side of his game.


Irankunda returned after his suspension by assisting in the following two games. But after the team's first consecutive defeats of the season to Macarthur and the Brisbane Roar, Veart opted for changes to his regular starting lineup.


December was challenging for the then-17-year-old, who was suddenly in and out of Veart's preferred XI. With the manager constantly chopping and changing to look for his best team, Irankunda was involved from the start throughout January. Adelaide's 3-3 draw with Perth Glory on February 9 saw the young winger back on the bench, a status he maintained for the next three games in which he was available.


But after improved output in recent weeks, Irankunda seems set to be one of the first names on the team sheet again, as the Reds still harbour hopes of a late, unlikely push to finish in the A-League Men's top six.


So, why has the youngster suddenly become a focal point of the team again?

Off-field factors could have contributed to Veart's inconsistent use of the winger this season. This piece will not speculate on such matters, rather focusing solely on Irankunda's output on the pitch. Subtle moments in recent matches and key underlying statistics in his game are pointing to a late-season bloom for the 18-year-old, one which should bode well as he continues to prepare for a transformational move to Germany.


On February 17, Irankunda missed Adelaide's trip to Sydney FC. The following week, in a home fixture against the Western Sydney Wanderers, Irankunda began to show signs of incremental improvements in his game across a 45-minute cameo off the bench.


His assist for Luka Jovanovic's goal in Adelaide's 2-1 loss indicated technical improvement. In a match where the Reds did not show enough in an attacking sense, Irankunda returned to his roots by coming off the bench to provide a spark. In the 93rd minute, he picked up the ball, drove towards Marcelo and the Wanderers backline, and brilliantly slipped a reverse pass in behind the Brazilian to reward Jovanovic's run, who duly obliged by sliding the ball under Daniel Margush.


If you watched Irankunda closely at the start of the season, even when he was at his scintillating best in matches such as the 6-0 thrashing of Melbourne City, such an action, driving to engage the back four before rewarding a teammate's forward run, would have been an afterthought in his decision-making process. Most situations would result in a wild, hopeful effort on goal, which would be a waste.

The reverse pass is a technical component he has now added to his game, and slowly, we have seen him show more confidence in using his weaker left foot. Vast improvement is still needed here, but Irankunda's low left-footed drive on a tight angle against the Newcastle Jets recently struck Ryan Scott's right post and showed the power he could develop on his weaker side.

Although those moments are critical to highlight, last Friday's performance undoubtedly underlined key improvements in Irankunda's all-round game. The headline was the hat trick, but the keen eye would have noticed more unselfishness, thoughtful decision-making, and increased maturity.


Firstly, Irankunda undoubtedly showed a greater willingness to share the ball. His actions were calculated as if he were intentionally looking to involve his teammates in the final third. This theme was consistent throughout his performance.

Multiple instances in the game highlighted this greater depth in his decision-making process. In the 36th minute, about 15 minutes after Irankunda had smashed in the opener to give the Reds the lead, Ethan Alagich won the ball off Josh Risdon in the defensive half, allowing Adelaide to spring forward on a quick counter-attack. Zach Clough found Hiroshi Ibusuki's feet, and the Japanese forward then picked out a flying Irankunda with a cross-field switch, putting the winger in a 1v1 with Western defender James Donachie just over the halfway line.


As Irankunda received the ball and started to drive, Stefan Mauk began to make a lung-busting run behind Donachie, which was logical in this scenario. Irankunda maintained his speed but wanted to time a through ball into Mauk's path, putting the midfielder into his own 1v1 against Western goalkeeper Matt Sutton. Unfortunately, the youngster's pass was overhit, and Sutton quickly claimed possession.


So why is this moment critical? It is feasible to argue that in such a situation earlier in the season, Irankunda might have blazed away, not attempting to recognise a supporting run and instead using pure speed to burn his direct opponent, shift the ball to his right foot, and try to find the near top right corner. Perhaps he should have done so in this situation, too, but the mere fact he was willing to reward a teammate for being in a better position should be recognised as evident growth.


Just after halftime, Irankunda made it 2-0, and two minutes later, he had his first-ever senior hat trick. The third goal was arguably the pick of the bunch and followed a similar pattern to the earlier half-chance involving Mauk.


Irankunda picked the ball up in a central space, just outside the box this time. Again, the early-season iteration may have taken the opportunity to shoot from a distance. But Irankunda drove to engage the back four, again noticing another excellent supporting run by Mauk. The midfielder returned the favour, rewarding Irankunda for continuing his run into the box. The well-weighted cross was met with a thunderous header past Sutton.

There were countless other occasions where Irankunda could have ignored his teammates by driving into open spaces with no sense of purpose or taken on opposing defenders in moments where the better option was to recycle possession. But he rarely did any of those counterintuitive actions. In particular, it was pleasing to see Irankunda not force the issue when the opposition was already set in a low block, and he had the ball in the middle third of the pitch. In this scenario, a winger trying to beat his opposing fullback is almost always nonsensical.


Much improvement is still needed out of possession. Ben Garuccio's cautious positioning in Western's build-up was a strange aspect of this game, not looking to take up positions beyond the winger. When Irankunda is on the pitch this season, many of Adelaide's opponents have successfully broken their press by exposing the youngster's tendency to switch off defensively by not cutting off passing lanes or failing to provide adequately intense pressing actions. Nonetheless, in this game, there were a handful of moments where Irankunda did show a greater willingness to chase the ball and win it back in the final third.


The final aspect of improvement to note is on the mental side of Irankunda's game. Since that Round 3 moment mentioned earlier, when the winger was sent off against Melbourne Victory, Irankunda has increasingly become more of a target for baiting by opposing players. If anyone has watched Michael Ruhs closely in recent weeks, you will know he is a master of the dark arts, becoming Western's chief antagoniser as the season has progressed.


So naturally, when Irankunda was rightfully booked for a late challenge in the 58th minute, Ruhs was the first Western player to run over and give the youngster stick for his tackle. It seemed the striker was trying to usher Irankunda off the pitch as if he had been shown a red card.


In Round 3, Irankunda would undoubtedly have reacted negatively to Ruhs' strategic mind games. For a moment, you felt that version would return with a brain snap, leaving his side down to ten men and in a precarious position to consolidate the 3-1 lead they had at the time. But again, the opposite proved true. Irankunda walked away. There was no reaction, just a few steps in the other direction away from Ruhs and the referee.

Even more impressive here was that no senior Adelaide player had to come over and ensure the youngster kept his cool. It was something he did of his own volition. Again, we are talking about moments. But if we always talk about young players being inconsistent because of their immaturity, then a moment like that must be brought to the fore when highlighting mental growth.

Nestory Irankunda now has 10 direct goal involvements in the A-League Men this season. (Image: Courtney Pedlar)


Beyond the eye test, a statistical deep dive backs up the abovementioned observations. Three key areas to look at when assessing whether Irankunda has improved over the course of the season are passing accuracy, dribble success rate, and the number of times he loses possession each game.


In his first five appearances this season, Irankunda had a 74% passing accuracy from 20 attempts per game, a measly 39% dribble success rate from five attempts per game, and lost possession a whopping 17 times per game. In his last five, the passing statistics are quite similar (76% accuracy from 16 attempts per game), but there are notable improvements in the other two areas, which are arguably more important to a winger's game.


Irankunda has had a 66% dribble success rate from only four attempts per game over this period, with the youngster's improved decision-making highlighted by only losing possession ten times per game. Essentially, slightly fewer dribble attempts underline his greater willingness to pass, and losing the ball less often means he has ultimately been more efficient.

For a more direct comparison, which highlights his all-around growth, the abovementioned Round 3 Original Rivalry saw Irankunda only complete his dribbles at a 29% success rate, and he lost possession 21 times (21!). When Adelaide travelled to Wellington recently for their Round 19 clash, Irankunda's efficiency was incredible. Though he may not have significantly impacted the result in his cameo off the bench, he completed each of his 11 passes and one dribble and only lost the ball thrice.


Many have felt, Carl Veart included, that Irankunda's performances have worsened as the season progressed. It could be argued that he had more moments that swept fans off their feet in the opening rounds but was still in his 'raw' talent phase, requiring more minutes to refine his overall game. Recently, by being back in the first team picture regularly, Irankunda is slowly starting to learn from his mistakes, as any young player will, which bodes well for the Bayern move, where learning from mistakes could be a weekly, if not daily, occurrence.


So now, Irankunda's challenge is to keep learning and find a balance between being the player who needs to take games by the scruff of the neck and the teammate who needs to facilitate helping others shine. His manager shared a similar sentiment when discussing the improved decision-making after the Western result.


“I think it all comes together at times, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes, he is not selfish enough, and then sometimes, he is maybe a little bit too selfish. We’ve just got to keep working with him. Tonight, he made a lot of right decisions,” Veart said in his post-match press conference.

How does Veart see Irankunda's seemingly improved maturity away from decisions on the ball? In what were comments in stark contrast to a month ago, when the manager seemed to criticise his young star by claiming he "hasn't been anywhere near his level this year", Veart seemingly launched a show of support for Irankunda.


“We’ve done a lot of work with him, getting him to understand that there’s a lot of people out there, in Australia, [who] want him to fail and make it tough for him," he said.

“Some of the things that he’s had to go through on the pitch, other players wouldn’t be able to cope with, and we’re expecting an 18-year-old kid to have the maturity of an overseas professional.”


Veart's assertion that onlookers of Irankunda "want him to fail" certainly stood out here. In all honesty, it is a sentiment that rings true when you talk to certain critics and fans who are either placing too much expectation on a kid who is still 18 or do not want him to succeed because of the usual, damaging tall-poppy syndrome that exists in the commentary of elite level athletes in Australia. There is seemingly no in-between.


This piece is not written to analyse tall poppy syndrome. But those who criticise Irankunda because they perceive lacklustre maturity or a player not built for European football must ask themselves: At the Asian Cup, what was Australia's most significant issue? Anyone who watched closely could see it was their lack of game changers, players who could break a line, take a risk, and play with the freedom Socceroos fans are almost always starved of when watching their national team.

Whether Irankunda should be in the Socceroos (or Olyroos) squad is a debate for another time. However, young, creative Australian talent needs to be celebrated more because, guess what? The country will not always be able to produce them at this level. There is a constant expectation in Australian football, and even globally for that matter, that U23 players have to be at their best week in and week out. It is an entirely unrealistic view to have.

 

READ MORE A-LEAGUE MEN COVERAGE ON FPF

The reality is this:

  • Irankunda is 18.

  • His decisions on the pitch will not always be correct, yet when they are, his talent will make you think he has the biggest ceiling of any Australian talent you have ever seen.


His recent long-range goal against Melbourne Victory in Round 20 highlighted his importance to Adelaide United. The team has been dominated and is short on ideas in attack. Irankunda comes on at halftime, picks the ball up from 30 yards, and decides to score and change the game's direction. These are the moments Reds fans had become used to seeing from Craig Goodwin in seasons prior.


Further, it is no surprise that the moment Irankunda starts to regain his swagger, so does Adelaide. The team is now on a mini-win streak with faint hopes of making the Finals Series. An 18-year-old should not be in this position, but Irankunda is, in many ways, Adelaide's heartbeat.

With Olyroos selection not forthcoming, Reds fans have another opportunity to see their prodigious young talent in the flesh. Celebrate him through good and bad because Nestory Irankunda will not be in Australia much longer.


All statistics sourced from Sofascore.


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