After months of speculation linking AC Milan with a move for Noah Okafor, things finally came together as the forward was announced as the sixth summer signing over the weekend.
With a statement on their official website Milan confirmed that they have signed the forward from Salzburg on a five-year contract. Okafor has decided to wear the No.17 shirt, as was vacated by Rafael Leao with his move to No.10.
The Swiss international spoke in an interview with Milan TV in which he revealed his emotions after making the switch, while he is now with the squad for their USA tour and could get his first minutes later this week against Juventus.
Milan fans and the management got an up-close look at the 23-year-old last season as he scored in the Champions League meeting in Salzburg, but what kind of player are the club getting exactly?
Okafor was born on 24 May 2000 in Binningen, Switzerland, and he played his youth football with local team FC Arisdorf. In 2009 he joined the academy of FC Basel, and it is there where his rapid rise truly begun.
He moved up to their senior team during their 2018–19 season having signed his first professional contract for them earlier that year under head coach Raphaël Wicky. His senior debut came on 19 May 2018 in a home game against FC Luzern.
Okafor scored his first goal for the Swiss powerhouses on 28 July 2018 in a 1-1 away draw against Xamax and they would go on to win the domestic cup that year, with Okafor scoring a goal in the semi-final against Zürich.
From 2017 and 2020 Okafor played a total of 72 games for Basel scoring a total of 9 goals, then in January 2020 a new opportunity came knocking and he signed for Red Bull Salzburg.
He began making an impact on the European scene too. On 8 December 2021 he scored the only goal of the game as Red Bull Salzburg defeated Sevilla in the final group game in the Champions League, reaching the Round of 16 and becoming the first-ever Austrian club to qualify for the knockout stages of the UCL.
It was back on 7 September 2022 that he met Milan for the first time and he Okafor scored a remarkable goal in Austria, dropping Pierre Kalulu with a slick dribble and beating Mike Maignan with a shot between his legs.
Last season, Noah Okafor became the first Swiss player to score on each of the first three matchdays of a #UCL group stage campaign.
The only other player to do so for an Austrian side, was Erling Haaland (2019-20).
— MilanData📊 (@acmilandata) July 25, 2023
Last season Okafor scored 10 goals and added 5 assists in 32 games for RB Salzburg (in all competitions), with an overall tally of 34 goals and 23 assists in 110 games for the Austrian side and seven trophies to his name (four league titles, three cup wins).
In terms of his international career, Okafor represented Switzerland at U15, 17 and U18 level, before then jumping to the senior team in June 2019 and playing in the 2019 UEFA Nations League third-place play-off against England.
Okafor scored his first international goal for Switzerland on 15 November 2021 in their World Cup qualifying game against Bulgaria, which secured automatic qualification for Switzerland to the 2022 FIFA World Cup
Noah Okafor had a very specific and important role for Red Bull Salzburg, a team that operate as a well-oiled machine made up of crucial cogs, so for that reason it is important to break things in half.
Off the ball: Milan fans are already familiar with Salzburg and Okafor given the two games in the Champions League group stages last season.
Their head coach Matthias Jaissle uses a particular 4-3-1-2 or a 4-4-2 diamond. In the 2021-22 season when Salzburg had Karim Adeyemi – now of Borussia Dortmund – Okafor would partner him on the left of the front two.
Salzburg’s core values lie in their pressing off the ball and this means that Okafor is the first line of press in Jaissle’s scheme of things.
When building out from the back Okafor wouldn’t always press the opposing centre-back in a very aggressive way but he would be part of the plan to pull the opposition into a pressing trap, like how Milan have been sucked into Salzburg’s pressing trap.
— Rohit Rajeev (@keralista_v2) July 25, 2023
On the ball: Once the ball has been won back the idea is to hit the opposition with quick transitions and for this Jaissle’s team needs players with nimble feet and the ability to move the ball vertically at speed.
What Okafor does in a counter-attack is to come to the centre of the pitch and act as a passing option as well as to perform quick one-twos to pull opposition defenders out of position and therefore make space for runs for his team-mates.
In case the opposition are passive and prefer to sit back like a lot of the bottom-half Serie A teams do, Jaissle would have his 2 strikers split and occupy wide areas to allow runs from midfield (mostly the attacking midfielder) to act as a central midfielder while the forward would cross the ball in.
This temporarily converts the 4-3-1-2 to a 4-3-3. Okafor usually likes to occupy the left half spaces and only goes to the wide area with the ball to make space in the centre of the pitch, while drawing defenders away from the same area like a magnet.
Noah is not someone who takes a lot of shots from distance and always likes to dribble his way to the wings or inside the box before he shoots. His shooting technique is quite good with good power and accuracy as we saw against Milan.
Dribbling and 1v1: Okafor’s best abilities come with his dribbling abilities and his ability to take people on. Pioli has always spoken about how he wanted his players, especially forward players, to be good in isolation.
Okafor is extremely nimble and quick with his feet making it difficult for defenders to anticipate his next move and to require a lot of experience.
Quick release of the ball: One of the most important things in transition is how quickly you release the ball before defenders get into their defensive position. Okafor can use his deft touches to move the ball quickly and catch defenders out of position.
Physicality: In their two legs versus Roma, Okafor had a feisty battle versus Gianluca Mancini, one of the most physical defenders in Serie A.
Even though he isn’t the tallest player, the 23-year-old uses his frame very well and can hold up the ball holding off defenders. He did this quite successfully even against Mancini which shows his physical mettle.
Off the ball movements: Whether it is finding the right position in the box or making runs into space to help out a team-mate, Okafor has good off the ball runs and spatial runs making him a valuable asset to have in tight spaces.
Pressing: Being a Salzburg player, their core principles are to press so their players are drilled and taught to press well. Okafor is a potent weapon to any coach who likes to press high. He averaged nearly 4 recoveries per game in the 2021-22 season.
Areas to improve
Adaptation: The Austrian Bundesliga is only a 12-team league which starts in June, breaks for two months (December and January) and ends in March.
Serie A comparatively has 20 teams, no winter break from this season and is more competitive and intense. If anything can be learned from the situation we currently see with Charles De Keteleare it is that adaptation requires time.
Lapses of concentration: Okafor is prone to lapse of concentration and sometimes takes his eyes of the ball which can lead to attacks breaking up.
Aerial duels: One of Okafor’s biggest weaknesses is aerial duels. He rarely attempts any aerial duels which limits the amount of crosses into his side, and means that he is completely different to the other centre-forward in the squad Olivier Giroud.
The player closest to Okafor’s style of play is probably Roberto Firmino, formerly of Liverpool.
An underrated yet crucial player to Jurgen Klopp’s front three, the plaudits always often went to Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane, but Firmino’s mastering of space went a lot in helping the Egyptian and the Senegalese wingers in scoring many goals.
Okafor, like Firmino, also is not the greatest in the air but is good with the ball at his feet on the ground and he can use his off the ball runs and make space.
As we can see in the spider graph produced by DataMB, Okafor and Firmino have very similar style of play based on their numbers.
Both are not the greatest headers of the ball, have similar level of expected assists and expected goals and have similar number of passes into the box.
With the level of experience Firmino has, Okafor still has a lot to learn and play in the bigger leagues.
His role at Milan
Okafor has shown he is quite versatile and can play in any position in the attacking trident of a 4-3-3, but can he be a centre-forward.
There was one interview where Pioli speaks about how space was/is the best striker, and this is where Okafor can play well as a ball-playing centre-forward.
With his physicality he can easily hold off defenders and draw them away making space for wingers or defenders to make runs into the box and finish.
Most importantly, Pioli is a coach that likes to press and press high up the pitch. Even though Giroud was never a prolific striker he helped press from the front as Leao was not the greatest in terms of pressing.
Pioli even had to play a defensive winger like Alexis Saelemakers to bring balance in terms of pressing from the front when the Rossoneri had Zlatan Ibrahimovic in his late 30s.
Now with Okafor, Milan have a player who is conditioned by one of the best pressing clubs in the world to press from the front. It would set Leao free and reduce the burden on midfield to press.
Okafor for €14m is a very shrewd signing. Hernan Crespo spoke about how Okafor isn’t a clinical player but if modern football has shown anything, the goalscoring burden is not just on a single player anymore.
Instead, it is shared among all players on the pitch. Fans should not expect it to be smooth sailing for Okafor due to the aforementioned need to adapt, and patience will be needed, but investing in talent at that price is a no-brainer.
Transfer rating: 8.5/10