Azaz had seven goals and five assists in 26 matches for Plymouth this season. Alamy Stock Photo
in depth

'He makes things happen for teams': How Finn Azaz caught Middlesbrough's eye

Irish youngster has impressed in League One and the Championship, sealing a January transfer to Michael Carrick’s side.

Updated at 12.20

FINN AZAZ’S pathway up the football ladder is as good an example as any for young Irish footballers to follow.

The 23-year-old was on the books at Aston Villa since the summer of 2021 having begun his youth career at West Brom in 2009.

And while Azaz has been technically at a Premier League club for his whole senior career until completing a permanent move to Middlesbrough earlier this month, he has spent almost the entirety of that time on loan.

While with the Baggies, he played a season with Cheltenham Town, featuring regularly in League Two.

He stayed in the same division after joining Villa, with a campaign representing Newport County.

That 2021-22 season was particularly memorable for the youngster — in addition to scoring seven goals in 42 appearances, he was named League Two Young Player of the Season and made that year’s EFL Team of the Season.

Although not everyone who thrives in English football’s fourth tier is capable of making the step up to a higher level, Azaz has done exactly that.

He was an important player last season as Plymouth Argyle picked up 101 points and were crowned League One champions, scoring eight goals in 34 appearances.

This season, he has continued to impress in his second loan spell with Argyle, registering seven goals and five assists from 26 matches while managing a shot accuracy of 56% — paving the way for his move to Boro at a reported fee of around €3 million.

These developments were good news for the Irish national team and whoever succeeds Stephen Kenny as manager.

Azaz was born in Westminister and is of Irish and Israeli descent.

He qualifies for Ireland through his Cork-born grandparents and made his debut and only appearance for Jim Crawford’s U21 side in the crucial playoff loss to Israel in September 2022.

In recent years, Ireland have lacked a top-class creative midfielder and Azaz seems like a candidate to potentially fill the void based on his development over the last 18 months.

“He makes things happen for teams,” Plymouth Live reporter Chris Errington tells The 42.

“He can score goals — quite often, spectacular ones. But he’s more than aware of those around him. And if he spots them in good scoring positions, he is usually able to pick them out.

“Morgan Whittaker at Argyle, for example, has 14 goals this season. And a number of them have come directly because of the vision and the awareness of Finn Azaz.”

Errington cites “defensively” as the one area of his game where there is room for improvement, playing for a side that have the third-worst goals-against tally in the Championship. However, he adds: “More often than not, he’s going to be in a starting lineup because of what he brings to the team going forward.”

Aside from a serious ankle injury that meant he missed three months of the first half of last season, Azaz has invariably been one of the first names on the teamsheet for Plymouth.

“He was one of the key players [last season] and got Argyle off to such a great start,” Errington explains. 

“Although he came back for the final few months of the season, I’m not sure he was ever really fully up to speed after being out for quite a long time.

“So he wasn’t quite the same player that Argyle had seen at the start of the season. And I think it’s probably to his credit that he’s come back on loan at the start of this season quite late — just a few days before the season started. So he didn’t have a pre-season with Argyle. He joined them three days before the season started. And I think it’s fair to say that he’s probably been a better player in the Championship than he was in League One.

“It’s almost as if the step up in standard and the way the game is played in the Championship, where it is more technical, has suited him.”

This ability to adapt impressively to a higher level convinced ex-Man United star and current Boro manager Michael Carrick to snap him up, while there was interest from other clubs too, including Bristol City.

It is also one of the reasons why Errington believes Azaz has the potential to be a Premier League regular someday, citing his impressive temperament as key.

“Finn is quite a deep thinker — he is not your typical footballer when interviewed by the media. He often takes time to think about how to answer a question and often comes out with a different line or perspective than you might have expected.

“So I don’t think he’s particularly loud or brash, I think he’s one of those that his teammates respect because he takes his profession very seriously.”

Azaz will be expected to boost Boro’s goal return — despite being six places above Plymouth in the Championship, they have scored five fewer.

Where exactly he fits into the team though remains to be seen. Azaz tended to occupy different roles at Plymouth — at various points playing as part of a three-man midfield, a three-man attack and as a number 10.

“I would say in a reasonably central position, off the front, is where you’re going to get the best out of them,” adds Errington. “Could he play in a wider position? Maybe. But just get him in a bit of space in the centre of the pitch where he can work his magic.”

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Moreover, he may have just left a Plymouth side who are currently seven points off the relegation zone, but it was certainly a fond farewell, with Azaz scoring an outstanding goal (see video above) during the 3-3 draw with Watford on New Year’s Day.

“Home Park was packed,” Errington recalls. “It was pouring rain. And he scored a wonderful volley. A corner was played into the box. It was headed clear. And he’s about 20 yards out. And this is where his technical ability just shone through. The ball dropped to him. Most players would have tried to control it or would have taken a shot and it would have gone way over the crossbar. Instead, he caught it with a side-foot right volley — 20 yards, lifted it past the goalkeeper into the corner and it was a magnificent goal. A goal-of-the-season contender no matter what else happens this season.

“Although from an Argyle perspective, it’s sad that he’s left, what a memory for him to leave the Green Army from his last game.”

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