Search for a CM: Manuel Locatelli

As football has grown more immersive, the Premier League has seen a variety of tactics and cultural mixing in recent years and the Serie A has also evolved to include a variety of gameplay approaches that mimic continental football. One player stands in the intersection of these 2 gradually widening circles – Manuel Locatelli. With Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tactics moving towards a European top team high possession game and Locatelli’s own game being very suitable for a title-aiming possession side needing a deep-lying playmaker, a seemingly unlikely marriage might actually be what both could greatly benefit from.

A few days ago I started this series. I analysed the kind of central midfielder United badly needs, detailed the traits to describe one and then used available data to create a realistic summer shortlist for the same. You can find that article here. I continue the journey today with a deeper analysis of one of the candidates from that shortlist who has made himself really hard to ignore this league season and in the ongoing Euro 2020 – Sassuolo’s Italian maestro, Manuel Locatelli.

Career History

AC Milan signed Locatelli from Atalanta in 2010, when the footballer was just 12 years old. Locatelli has worn the captain’s armband in every youth team he has played at AC Milan, from the Under-15s to the Primavera squad.

Locatelli is one of AC Milan’s academy finest products. Filippo Inzaghi was the first one to give him a call-up to the senior AC Milan team, Sinisa Mihajlovic has always had sweet words for the 18-year-old playmaker, whilst Cristian Brocchi gave him his first chance in Serie A playing him against Carpi in 2015.

Locatelli broke into tears while celebrating his first senior goal with AC Milan netting the equalizer in the Milan-Sassuolo clash which the Rossoneri won 4-3. After making 25 appearances in 2016-17, Locatelli was starting to establish a reputation, named alongside the likes of Kylian Mbappe and Kai Havertz in FourFourTwo’s 11 best teenagers in the world in 2017. But he struggled to kick on from there, usurped in the 2017-18 season by Chelsea loanee Tiemoue Bakayoko. He was then loaned out to Sassuolo for the 2018-19 season before joining the club permanently. It’s at the Citta del Tricolore that he’s established himself as one of the standout players in his position in Italy and the world.
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Having captained Italy’s Under-21s, the midfielder was rewarded with his first senior international cap by Roberto Mancini last autumn and instantly looked like a key player for the Azzurri in their successful UEFA Nations League campaign.

Locatelli is now 23 years old. His last 2 seasons at Sassuolo have seen him start 32 times each in the league while he has also started 7 games in the last 12 for the Italian senior team. A key and reliable member of both teams, Locatelli has finally made his mark in world football and is attracting the interest of the best clubs. A move to a Champions league and League aiming team is the next logical step for the Italian wonderkid.

Strengths & Weaknesses

Let’s start with why Locatelli even appeared on our shortlist. I’ve posted the final viz for ‘Passes into final 3rd’ vs ‘Progressive Passes’ from our first article. Locatelli stands tall as the best for both. The only dots above him for Progressive passes are Kovacic and Kimmich while only Soumare trumps him on Passes into the final 3rd. This simple viz indicates Locatelli’s first and most obvious strength – Passing.

The Italian is an elite passer. Now passing itself is a broad trait. What kind of passing am I referring to? In Locatelli’s case, mostly build-up passing from deep. He is able to find attackers and wide players with ease from deep DM areas. His passing range is sublime for such a young player. Capable of pinging cross-field diagonal balls to bombing fullbacks, precise quick grounded passes through a packed midfield to his striker and releasing game-advancing through balls to his fellow midfielders and wingers during attack, Locatelli has every pass in his locker. He is the kind of midfielder who drops deep to ask for the ball and takes authority to build up moves and set the tempo of the attack. 

The second trait required for a playmaker is carrying. Locatelli looks impressive even in this regard, capable of progressing the ball while dribbling. He boasts strong 73 and 79 percentiles for final 3rd carries and progressive carries which are very good numbers considering he plays the deepest role in midfield. The players in the top 25 percentile for these 2 metrics are usually more attacking midfielders like Luis Alberto or Hassem Aouar.

When it comes to defending, Locatelli is not an aggressive presser. Given his role to hold position and be wary of opponent counter attacks, he prefers to stay deep which is the reason his pressures are low. But as a result his dribbled past stat is low (76 percentile). His % of dribblers tackled stat is a healthy 84 percentile while his tackles won are at 75 percentile showcasing a willingness to do the dirty work when needed. Locatelli sacrifices intense pressing to hold back and not allow opponents to dribble past him and is very willing to tackle dribblers to stop them during transitions.

There’s no apparent weakness to Locatelli’s game for his role but If we are splitting hairs, the only issue I can think of is his eagerness to slide in during tackles. As we explained, Locatelli loves a good tackle and often tracks back with energy to stop opponent runners using his good defensive awareness. In some of these cases, in an attempt to catch up and never be dribbled past, he does slide in to win the ball. While his sliding tackle attempts are usually clean, the odd mistimed or rash tackle could result in trouble, especially close to his own box. Locatelli does have 9 yellow cards each in his last 2 seasons and 7 in the one before that, but he hasn’t received any red card in this period and is usually very safe in his tackling. This is also a trait attached to younger players which usually dies down in their peak and later years. Especially when playing in a top team, midfielders learn to stay on their feet more. Fred is an example of a midfielder who loved a sliding tackle before joining United but has since adapted to stay on his feet in the last 2 seasons.

Overall, this is a player with one of the best passing ranges in Europe, build up metrics as good as anyone under 27 years of age, carrying metrics in good range for a deeper mid and defensive stats that indicate a strong tackling holding midfielder who does not allow opponents past him easily. It’s starting to sound like what Manchester United badly have missed since peak Michael Carrick.

Technical Fitment: 10/10

Tactical Analysis

We know what he’s good at by now, but how does this translate on the pitch in reality? We take a look at Sassuolo’s games this season to find out.

Sassuolo’s go-to formation has been a 4-2-3-1 this season. Locatelli pairs up with Pedro Obiang in a pivot behind Djuricic. The 3 mids collectively provide for a Boga-Berardi-Caputo front 3. In the pivot there is a clear differentiation of roles with Locatelli taking up the deep lying playmaker (DLP) role while Obiang taking up the box-to-box midfielder (B2B) role. 

Sounds familiar? Our previous article details the 2 roles in Ole’s pivot and these are very similar to them. An AM with license to create, 2 in-cutting wingers who look to score and a complete forward capable of hold-up and finishing complete the rest of the similarities between Ole’s 4-2-3-1 and De Zerbi’s 4-2-3-1. 

The similarities don’t end there. Sassuolo have the highest possession % of 61% in the Serie A this season, even more than Juventus (57%) and Napoli (55%). The only other teams in Europe that boast a possession % of more than 55% and also play a 4-2-3-1 are Bayern Munich and Manchester United. Ole would want United’s average possession to rise from 55% to 60% like the other top teams of Europe (rivals Manchester City have 64%). Maybe buying a CM who has immediate experience of playing DLP in a possession based 4-2-3-1 with similar profile players around him is the ideal solution. Ole has the ball players in defence and the front 4 to create and convert but a DLP to put a stop to the press-hungry McFred pivot might be the biggest step in perfecting his controlled possession 4-2-3-1 tactic.

Let’s take a look at a few situations that describe Locatell’s abilities and importance.

The above scenario details a league match against Cagliari where Locatelli (in white above the opponent ball carrier) spots the incoming dribbler and waits until he’s in range before quickly closing him down after a big touch from the Cagliari man. A clean tackle later, Locatelli is able to quickly put his head up and play a precise grounded ball all the way to his striker Caputo who lays it off to Berardi as the counter from the front 4 begins. A threatening defensive situation turns into a counter opportunity thanks to Locatelli. 

Another situation where Locatelli (in white above the opponent ball carrier) as the LCM gradually gains ground on the pass receiver in yellow. The Italian waits for the bad touch before pouncing on the opponent to win the ball cleanly. At this point most midfielders would have circulated the ball back to the defence with their right foot and patted themselves on the back for a good ball win. But Locatelli spots the winger and belts an outside-the-foot through ball along the wing to set up a counter with the winger running into open space.

We can spend hours posting images of Locatelli’s cross-field balls to wide players. The Italian executes those diagonals as effortlessly as a 5 yard pass – it’s wonderful to watch. Here are some of the best examples:

No matter what the angle or distance, Locatelli usually finds a wide player with pinpoint accuracy and ease.

By now, I think I’ve convinced you enough of Locatelli’s excellence operating from deep. But your next question might be “Does he have the dynamism of a pivot midfielder to go forward and function in the attacking 3rd as well?” The answer is a resounding YES. Locatelli actually has an 85 percentile for attacking 3rd tackles, a 75 percentile on attacking 3rd touches and a 71 percentile for penalty area touches which are superb numbers for a deep lying midfielder. The Italian loves to bomb forward when the opportunity allows and supports his teammates with good dribbles, passes and the occasional shot on goal. His xG is at 74 percentile while his xA is at 80 percentile showcasing a willingness for the final ball and shot which is rare for a DLP.

Below are some examples of his contributions in the attacking 3rd:

In the above example, Locatelli (the one getting cut in the image at the top) makes a ghosting run from LCM to the edge of the D on the left half space. Djuricic spots the Italian and backheels an oncoming pass towards Locatelli who quickly plays it back into the space Djuricic runs into. The slick 1-2 exchange thanks to Locatelli overloading the left side creates a clear cut chance for Djuricic to shoot and convert. 

In the above example Locatelli rushes forward to the edge of the D on the left side to give support to his left winger Boga. Boga slides a quick pass to the Italian and knows Locatelli has the presence of mind and technique to play it in the open space which Boga runs expectedly into. Locatelli delivers with a precisely weighted outside-the-foot pass that creates a clear cut chance for Boga to shoot. Boga’s shot was eventually saved by the keeper. 

In the above instance, Locatelli finds himself wide on the left wing after providing a supporting overlapping run to help out his left-back. Trapped in a corner, Locatelli fakes a backward pass to take on the opponent right back and dribble inside the box with purpose. He keeps carrying the ball until the opponent’s right center back is also forced to engage. With both defenders close, Locatelli finally releases a quick pass between both opponents to his now free left winger, Boga.

So, tactically speaking, you have a deep lying playmaker who can find anyone ahead or wide of him with beautifully executed passes, loves a good tackle to rob opponents in a timely fashion and then always thinks of the immediate pass or dribble forward to create a chance for his team – a technical and dynamic pivot midfield playmaker.   

Tactical Fitment: 10/10

Transfer News

Current contract: July, 2019 to June 2023 (2 years left)
Current wage: £22,000 per week

Throughout most of his developing years, it seemed like Locatelli would follow the typical Italian route of staying in Serie A and playing for one of the top Italian clubs and the Italian national side during his peak years. Most of the rumours that were floating around when he started performing well at Sassuolo included either a return to boyhood club AC Milan or a switch to title contenders Juventus and Inter Milan. But a lot has changed in the past year to dispel this notion. 

In April 2021, Locatelli responded on the potential of seeking out a new challenge outside of Serie A: “Playing abroad is an option for me and at the moment I’m not excluding anything. It’s part of my job and it means that I have raised my level.”

Multiple quotes like these in the recent months and a sense from the Italian media that Locatelli is willing to move outside Serie A has alerted the top European clubs. The list of suitors is long with Arsenal, Manchester City, PSG, Manchester United, Chelsea, Barcelona and Real Madrid all linked at some point. The regularly quoted fee is 40m euros or 34m pounds which provides a very attractive proposition for top teams wanting to obtain a peak-approaching midfield playmaker in Covid-hit times like these.

Juventus still look like the favourites to sign the Italian. He has been identified as one of the men who will reignite the club’s midfield after an underwhelming campaign. But, Juventus are struggling to meet the modest evaluation and recently offered player swap deals that Sassuolo weren’t interested in, post which Locatelli left to join the Italy camp for the Euros. This seems to have created a level playing field for any of the other suitors to still come in with a winning bid.

Manchester United aren’t highly linked to Locatelli but that could just be thanks to the English media obsession over Declan Rice for the same position. United have wrapped up deals without a great deal of media links in recent times (Lindelof, Dalot, Cavani, Van de Beek, Amad Diallo etc.) so while the rumours may not be much, a healthy transfer fee, an enticing wage offering (Even quadrupling his current wage means £88K per week which would still be less than Dean Henderson, Alex Telles and Aaron Wan-Bissaka) and a key starter guarantee in a system very similar to the current one he plays in may be enough to tempt Locatelli to don the iconic red jersey in 21/22. 

Transfer Chances: 7/10

In summary, Locatelli could possibly be the most ideal candidate for Manchester United’s DLP requirement this summer. He has all the technical traits of passing, carrying and defending, tactically plays the exact same pivot CM role in a possession 4-2-3-1 system and has the willingness to move out of Serie A for a new challenge to a club that guarantees him starts. It might not get any better than this for the Red Devils. But a focussed and aggressive transfer approach might be required to beat the large number of suitors eyeing the Italian international as they see him do what he does best during these Euros.

Technical Fitment: 10/10
Tactical Fitment: 10/10
Transfer Chances: 7/10
Overall Devil’s DNA score: 9/10

Well, that crosses off one name from our CM shortlist for United. Who do you want us to cover next?

Manuel Locatelli (Sassuolo) – 9/10
Ismael Bennacer (AC Milan)
Mikel Merino (Real Sociedad)
Bruno Guimaraes (Lyon)
Matteo Ricci (Spezia)
Cheik Doucoure (RC Lens)

Sensible Targets: Search for a CM – The Shortlist

It’s not a big revelation for anyone watching Manchester United regularly this season to know that they need a new midfielder in the starting XI. The recent league game against Liverpool, which United lost convincingly, was the latest reminder of this fact. The pivot kept losing the ball while building up and there was no one to stop the opponent attackers in defensive transitions. But what kind of midfielder do we need? Where does he fit? What are the criteria to find one? And who are the realistic options? I’m going to start a series to answer these questions. In this article, we will understand the profile required, run some graphs on the stats that indicate these requirements and create a realistic shortlist of midfielders that will fit United’s needs.

 

Understanding the profile needed

I had written an article at the start of the season covering United’s possible midfield combinations and where VDB can fit. Check it out here. While Ole struggled to fit VDB in the suggested fashion, the article’s explanation of the midfield roles Ole uses still holds true even a season later. Ole does have a clear differentiation between the 2 midfielders in the pivot. There is one player who drops deeper between the CBs to pick up the ball during the build-up phase and progress from the defensive midfield zones while the other is more of a ball-carrier who keeps trying to move closer to the most advanced attacking midfielder and focuses on linking defence to attack. For this discussion let’s name the 2 roles as the deep-lying-playmaker (DLP) and box-to-box midfielder (B2B).

The only logic that has changed since last summer is Ole’s reluctance to use Pogba in either pivot role. Ole neither sees Pogba as a DLP who can drop deep and build up play (the experiments for the same when paired with Scott led to many mistakes during the build up and some penalties given away) and neither trusts Pogba as a B2B who can run up and down and connect the play while being disciplined (Ole’s recent comments on keeping him away from the United box are indicative). With Pogba out of the picture and Matic ageing, Scott and Fred have played the most in the pivot. The 2 roles have blurred more due to this, but it is still noticeable that Fred attempts the deeper build-up role while Scott tries to stay a little further ahead. The issue now is that Fred lacks the positioning and playmaking skill required for a DLP. While he has managed to improve his passing and maintain his great defensive duties, he isn’t naturally suited to a DLP given his high pressing game and average first touch. It can be argued Fred would look much better in the B2B role. Scott is even less suited for the DLP role due to his poor passing and that is the reason Ole has never played him in that role, to the point of forcing 2 unnatural fits in Pogba and Fred to play deeper when paired with Scott. Scott’s poor progression and average defending make him the most likely to be dropped if a new CM does arrive at United. A confirmation of Fred and Scott’s strengths and weaknesses can be seen below in their pizza percentile charts. On paper, Matic is most suited for the DLP role but the decline in his agility and press resistance due to age has made Ole use him sparingly this season. 

 

 

Fred Percentiles vs Europe’s top 5 league midfielders 20/21

 

 

Scott McTominay Percentiles vs Europe’s top 5 league midfielders 20/21

So what is the ideal pivot? We look to post-lockdown Matic-Pogba to get a good idea. This was the phase when the DLP-B2B combination was in clear display. Matic held back and found Pogba and Bruno with his progressive passes and Pogba could go ahead and connect with Bruno while dropping enough in the defensive phase to press in midfield. For United, replicating this combination might be the solution. In the off case Pogba does leave in the coming summer, Fred can step into the B2B role comfortably (one could argue he is more suited to a well-rounded B2B than Pogba). He already ticks most of the boxes and with the reduced burden of playmaking from deep, he might be able to pull off a perfect Kante-style B2B role. In both cases, a strong DLP is needed at the club. 

A summary of the above 2 paragraphs is: United need a younger version of Matic – the same traits and additionally, the energy and dynamism to play in a pivot.

Inputting the metrics

Based on what we’ve discussed so far, I’d like to split the role of the required DLP in two parts: Passing and Defending

Let’s take up both traits one by one and then match the commonalities.

(A) Passing: He needs to be an adept passer who can find the likes of Pogba, Bruno and the wide players. High progression and good passing range are a must here.

For the above described passing requirements, the 2 stats that can work are ‘Passes into final 3rd’ and ‘Progressive passes’. A player doing well on both would indicate passing range and progression from deep. We use Fbref to pull out the data and filter using the below criteria:

Position: All players categorized as midfielders as per Fbref
Age: 27 or lower (United will be looking for a young or peak player who can fill the role long-term)
Starts: 12 or more (We need a robust regular starter. The per 90s also makes more sense with many starts and would not be skewed due to low 90s)
Minimum numbers for both passing stats: At least 3.96 passes into final 3rd and 3.3 progressives passes per 90. Both correlate to roughly the top 60 percentile in Europe. Players in the bottom 40 percentile on both stats are not of interest to us.

This gives us a list of 89 players. We run them on a X-Y plot to obtain the following results.

(Note: Only top 5 league players have been used here. While I do admit we might miss out on some hidden gems outside the top 5 leagues, the chances of United buying someone like that are low and the data set would become too huge to work with anyway. So, if you do feel someone worthy outside the top 5 leagues has been missed, do let us know and we can scout them separately)

Okay, this is giving us some options. But we can notice a few issues here immediately. Some players are already playing for big teams or rivals (Kimmich, Kovacic, Rodri etc.) and some aren’t technically pivot CMs (Bruno, Oliver Torres etc.). We hide these names, add some reference lines to see the averages and hide the bottom-left quadrant names to obtain a clearer idea of the prospects. 

Much better. As we can see, the top-right quadrant gives us players who rank the best for both progressive passes and passes into the final 3rd. I added Scott McTominay into the mix to indicate his poor progression. We definitely need a much better passer than that. This set looks okay for now. Let’s go to the second part of what is needed from our ideal DLP.

(B) Defending: The recent game against Liverpool and many other games before that this season showed how badly we needed someone who could hold and shield our defence especially in the defensive transitions. With Scott and Fred losing the ball high up the pitch and the fullbacks ahead as well, our defence was regularly exposed to 3 on 2 situations vs Liverpool. Our ideal midfielder should be able to shield the defence during these defensive transitions. A presser or tackler who leaves his position will not be acceptable. Someone good at positioning and strong in not letting runners go past him would be perfect.

The two metrics that come closest to describing this behaviour are ‘Pressure Success %’ and ‘Dribbled Past’. A player scoring high in pressure success indicates someone who presses only when he’s sure of winning the ball while a player ranking low on the dribbled past stat ensures he doesn’t get dribbled by in transitions. This combination will help us eliminate many CMs who love pressing and tackling like Fred and Scott. We don’t want high-risk high-reward press-hungry tacklers. We already have that. Our guy needs to be able to hold back, be measured and shield well and these 2 metrics take care of that. 

The passing metrics gave us a data set (top 60 percentile on both passing stats) of 89 players that we don’t want to shy away from. We use the same data set and map the 2 defensive stats from Fbref. We plot an X-Y to get the below graph (Dribbled past is a reversed axis). 

Again, we can clean this up by eliminating players who are already at top clubs, haven’t played CM regularly enough and are below the average lines. 

Lots of options here. Much more crowded than the passing set which indicates defensively there are many who can do the required job of holding and shielding well. Now, we just need to find the players who can do both well.

 

Creating the Shortlist

Simply comparing the top-right quadrants of both graphs we obtain 2 names that fit all 4 criteria perfectly – Ismael Bennacer of AC Milan and Marcel Sabitzer of RB Leipzig. Now, the stats don’t indicate a real world tactical fitment, so let’s check that. Bennacer plays CM in a 4-2-3-1 for Milan indicating he’s already playing the role we want. They also attempt a possession style game and he is the DLP when paired with Kessie who is a B2B. Perfect match! Sabitzer is an odd case. While the stats imply he can pull the role off and he has, to his credit, played a very measured CM role this season, that isn’t his natural position. Playing as an aggressive CM in Nagelsmann’s ever-changing high-press 3-5-2 / 3-4-3 / 4-2-3-1, Sabitzer might not be tactically what United need. There’s a good chance he reverts to more attacking roles next season itself. The transition to becoming United’s DLP in a possession-based 4-2-3-1 seems far-fetched.

We widen our scope to include more options for the shortlist.
Reducing any one defensive criteria includes Merino, Ricci, Tielemans, Locatelli and Guimaraes
Reducing any one passing criteria includes Cheik Doucoure

Again we run a tactical fit and realism check on these options. The only issue seems to be Tielemans. With Leicester in with a very good chance to qualify for UCL, United’s chances to sign him are low. Even if Leicester don’t qualify, it’s a tough ask to poach from a financially strong top 6 EPL side. The others seem realistic. This brings our final shortlist to:

Ismael Bennacer (AC Milan)
Mikel Merino (Real Sociedad)
Manuel Locatelli (Sassuolo)
Bruno Guimaraes (Lyon)
Matteo Ricci (Spezia)
Cheik Doucoure (RC Lens)

A few explanations for some famous names that are often linked to United and where they got cut in these calculations:

Wilfred Ndidi and Declan Rice: 2 very popular names that are constantly linked got eliminated when it came to progression. Their progression numbers are in the bottom quadrant close to Scott which is definitely not what United want. Ndidi’s dribbles past is also a high 1.79 per 90 while Rice’s pressure success is only 29%. So both lacking big time in passing and even in some defensive requirements took them out early.
Eduardo Camavinga: I’m a big fan of the player myself and hoped he would fit United’s DLP needs but this exercise has proven Camavinga is too aggressive to play the DLP role. He’s closer to a Fred-style B2B (with much better dribbling and creativity). He got cut off on both defensive metrics easily while also seemed lacking in pure progression from deep skills having played in a more advanced role.

So, there you have it. From our calculations, these 6 would be ideal to meet United’s CM requirements. As a continuation of this series, I will delve into detailed scout reports of the above 6 over the next few weeks to assess more on how good a tactical fit they are for United, how their season has been and how realistic they are to sign for the upcoming summer window. Whose scout report would you like to see first? Let us know!

Tactical Analysis: Thomas Tuchel

 

There are some very good reasons why Thomas Tuchel keeps getting high-profile club jobs without having to wait, and knowing German is not one of them! We take a look at the tactician’s early history and the principles that shape his philosophy that make him one of the most exciting coaches in world football today.

 

Early Days

 

A series of knee injuries halted Tuchel’s budding career as a defender in his mid 20s. He played 68 times before being forced to hang up his boots for good due to a serious knee injury at the age of 24 in 1998. He then funded a business administration course by bartending before attempting another shot at a career by requesting his mentor Ralf Rangnick, head coach of Stuttgart at the time, to allow him a trial. After 9 moths of training with the Stuttgart reserves Tuchel came to the painful realisation that his playing days were surely over. A devastated Tuchel was suggested by his mentor to get into coaching. At a time devoid of textbooks, Tuchel learnt from the notes of Rangnick & Helmut Groß. He followed the personality building principles of Hermann Badstuber, father of former Bayern defender, Holger Badstuber, which led Tuchel to place great emphasis on making personalities. Acts like being on time, proper greetings with handshakes & making eye contact while talking would later become part of Tuchel’s own expectations as a manager. 

 

 

Tuchel started by shadowing the academy coaches before taking over the U14 team in 2000. He would then swiftly rise up the ranks as U14, U17 & U19 manager while impressing at each stage. His U19 league win with Stuttgart in 2005 prompted a switch to Mainz U19 who were on the rise at the time thanks to a club-defining spell under Jurgen Klopp. In June 2008, at a pre-season training camp in Austria, in a bid to motivate his players, Tuchel and his team underwent an intense trek and buried a club badge at the top of a mountain with the promise that the team would come back and remove it only if they reached the U19 Cup finals. In June 2009, the team reached the finals to face Borussia Dortmund. Tuchel did not want to disturb the players and went and brought back the badge before the final along with his assistant. He showed the video of their climb and them digging out the badge moments before the final in the dressing room to his players. An inspired Mainz U19 went on to win the final 2-1.

 

 

 

FSV Mainz 05 (2009-2014)

 

Being rewarded with a glamorous 7 years from 2001 to 2008 thanks to the inspired appointment of Jurgen Klopp, Mainz decided to follow up the club’s greatest era with another inspired appointment. They promoted the 35-year-old Thomas Tuchel to lead the senior team. Shaking off constant comparisons with Klopp, Tuchel delivered a strong 9th place finish in his first season before improving on it further with a club-first Europa qualification berth a season later. Key to their success was young Andre Schurrle whom Tuchel worked with in the U19s. Lewis Holtby, who joined on loan from Schalke, and Ádám Szalai, who made his move from Real Madrid Castilla permanent, formed a good trio along with Schürrle and the three were the Mainz boyband. Tuchel left Mainz in 2015 averaging higher than Klopp’s points per game (1.41 compared to 1.13 for Klopp), another Europa league finish and club-high 7th position. 

 

 

 Borussia Dortmund (2015-2017)

 

That followed a year-long break, during which Tuchel was still educating himself, understanding the importance of stats from Brentford owner Matthew Benham and then learning from Professor Wolfgang Schöllhorn, a famed sports scientist who indirectly influenced Guardiola. Tuchel’s next job was as challenging as his last – improving another impressive Klopp team – Borussia Dortmund. While Tuchel’s success is well-known, his methods aren’t. He employed a strict diet plan at Dortmund which improved the fitness of key players, Hummels & Gundogan. Even the official team bus driver was on a diet plan & lost 8 kgs! In his first season, they lost just four games all season while the attacking triumvirate of Marco Reus, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored an incredible 85 goals between them in all competitions. A year later Tuchel would win his first trophy, the DFB Pokal. He departed Dortmund again with better a points per game average than Klopp and in fact the highest points-per-game record of any Dortmund manager in history. In those 2 years, Dortmund were undefeated at home and Tuchel’s win % was a brilliant 62.7%.

 

  

 

 

 

Paris Saint-Germain (2018-2020)

 

If his Mainz and Dortmund spells were impressive, his time at Paris Saint-Germain was even better. In 2018-19, Thomas Tuchel’s PSG side set the record for most wins to start a top-five European league season – 14 and then went on to score in all 38 games of the league campaign – a first-time feat. If you thought the attack was fantastic, the defending wasn’t any less. PSG conceded a record low 6 goals throughout the 2019/20 Champions League campaign – a run which saw them reach the finals. Tuchel had to fight through waves of squad injury issues and display immense man management to get the best out of the previously underwhelming PSG stars. Eventually a disagreement with the board prompted him to leave the club, a trend observed during his departure from Dortmund as well.

 

It’s no surprise that a few weeks later he already finds himself in the coaching tracksuit of London side, Chelsea, presiding over them a day after Frank Lampard was sacked. Chelsea’s announcement of the appointment was followed with a training clip of his first session, where the German suited up quickly in a no-nonsense fashion before rushing to the training ground to take over his troops. It summed everything about Tuchel really – an efficient, hard-working winner who wastes no time doing what he does best. With 7 trophies and a Champions League runners-up medal under his belt and a stellar record of greatly improving every side he has ever managed, Tuchel is among the fastest-rising managers in the world. The challenging Chelsea job might just be the best opportunity for him to prove those who still doubt him wrong.

 

 

(All Image Credits: Getty Images)

 

 

 

 

 

Mid-season report: The numbers behind MUFC

If you’re wondering whether it would be right or wrong to call Manchester United’s ongoing season a good one, then you’re not alone. It has been an exciting for the fans of the red devils but it’s still hard to place any name tags like ‘successful’ or ‘improved’ on it yet. A positive run in the league that sees the club in a so-called “title race” has been sandwiched the disappointing Champions League group stage exit and recent Carabao Cup semi-final loss to City. A very different season of football which started with no pre-season break, is filled with fixture congestion issues and still hasn’t been immune to repeated COVID contractions and player fitness issues, makes it hard to assess whether United are actually having a good season or not. We try to break through the confusion using our greatest weapon – data. Below are a few detailed data visualizations of some of the underlying numbers that can indicate how the red devils are performing this season and who the stand-out players are.

 

 [Goals vs G-xG, EPL 20/21]

The first viz highlights the Premier League teams who are over-performing on their expected goals like Southampton and Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham and those who are under-performing with respect to their goals scored like Sheffield United and Burnley. All stats used are per 90 minute stats. United and Liverpool have not only been scoring high but also more than expected. This kind of slight over-performance is sustainable and expected for a top team challenging for titles since they would boast of players with the ability to over-perform and score from unexpected situations as well. It reads well for United fans who are trying to understand if this type of performance in the league is sustainable.

 

 [Goals vs G-xG, MUFC in all comps 20/21]

The next logical question will be which United players are over-performing and under-performing on expected goals. This viz highlights exactly that. The players over-performing on xG are Rashford and Bruno. Rashford’s xG in the game against Paris Saint Germain at Old Trafford was just 0.1 whereas his goal against Brighton at home was a 0.3 xG chance. Bruno’s double against Everton at Goodison park had a combined xG of just 0.2.
Worryingly, Anthony Martial has a negative G-xG differential. His blank against PSG at Old Trafford accrued 0.9 xG while he failed to scored at West Bromwich Albion even with an xG of 0.8. Martial has had a reputation of over-performing on his expected goals metric, the best of which United fans witnessed in the 19/20 season where he scored 17 goals in the league with an xG of 10.9 only. Greenwood has also been underwhelming so far with just 3 goals this season after having scored 17 in all competitions in 19/20. If those two can start finishing like their usual selves and support Rashford and Bruno in attack, United fans can expect even better attacking output from the team in the remainder of the season.

 

 [Progressive passes vs Progressive Distance,MUFC 20/21]

This viz maps progressive passes per 90 against progressive distance of thoses per 90 minutues. Alex Telles’ consistently aggressive crossing helps him top progressive distance while Bruno regularly looking for line-breaking passes and assists helps him top number of progressive passes. Nemanja Matic, Luke Shaw and United’s Centre-Backs ensure high progression even with lesser number of progressive passes. Donny Van De Beek and the forwards prefer less progressive passing.

 

[Pressures per 90 vs Pressure success %, MUFC all comps 20/21]

This viz gives a good indication of United’s pressing strategy under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. It highlights how Bruno Fernandes and Fred are press-hungry at the cost of success % while Paul Pogba & Scott McTominay maintain a good balance. Luke Shaw and the centre-Backs prioritize success. It gives a general indication that the attackers don’t press too high, while Bruno and Fred have complete license to go overboard to win back possession and Pogba, McTominay Matic are expected to strike a controlled approach. The defence opts for safety over high pressing numbers. In short, Ole prefers winning the midfield battle the most.

[Carries vs Progressive Distance, MUFC 20/21]

This viz highlights player movements with the ball. Nemanja Matic stands out on both the number of carries per 90 and progression towards goal while Marcus Rashford and Daniel James boast high progression even with less number of carries.

[MUFC Goals & Expected goals Trend in EPL 20/21]

Last but not the least, we take a look at the game-by-game trend of United’s expected goals and actual goals scored in the league so far. It’s clear that the red devils didn’t create enough against top 4 rivals Chelsea and Arsenal and weren’t good value for the win in both games. United should have scored at least one goal in the drab 0-0 draw against neighbors Manchester City. But the team showed great spirit in over-performing on xG to clinch wins against West Ham and Sheffield United even when the team wasn’t creative enough which shows a winning quality lacking in recent United sides against such clubs in the league.

In summary, much of the underlying numbers have indicated clear progress from last season and a genuine forward-thinking approach from Ole Gunnar Solksjaer which have rewarded him with good attacking displays and an unexpected title challenge in the league. The worries have been towards the defensive end where United have let in some goals cheaply often owing to set-pieces. Doubts also remain of United’s performance in big games this season after having done wonderfully well last season in such games. The last worry seems to be over-reliance on a few players. Days in which Bruno and Rashford are shut down result in poor attacking displays like against City in the Carabao cup. Ole will be looking for more from the likes of Martial, Greenwood, Wan-Bissaka and Pogba towards the latter of the season. Who knows, if the missing members step up and things go his way, Ole might be the first United manager post-SAF to make a genuine push for a league title towards the end of the season. As of now, United fans should take solace in knowing that the underlying numbers support the narrative of improvement from last season and they should expect more points in the league at the very least.

The path to the perch, Part 2: 1992-1999

We continue our series following Sir Alex Ferguson’s journey in bringing Manchester United back to the top with the second leg of this 3-part series. We recount the years from his first title at the club to possibly the greatest moment of his career in 1999.

March to the first titles

As fate would have it, the rebranding of the English league to the Premier League coincided with the class of 1992 – Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Phil Neville, Nicky Butt and David Beckham graduating to United’s first team. After a shortage of goals in the second half of the 1991-92 season cost United the league title, Ferguson was intent on signing a new striker. His key target was Southampton striker Alan Shearer, but he lost out to a newly promoted Blackburn Rovers side managed by Kenny Dalglish, who had managed Liverpool to three league titles and was backed by the millions of steel baron Jack Walker to bring similar success to the resurgent Lancashire club. Ferguson then switched his attention to Dion Dublin, the 23-year-old striker who had excelled in the lower divisions with Cambridge United. Dublin completed a £1 million move to Old Trafford to become United’s only summer season signing.

The first victory of the 1992-93 league season came only in the fourth game when a late goal by Dublin provided a 1–0 win at Southampton, but Dublin then broke his leg in the next game against Crystal Palace and was sidelined for six months. By late October United had endured a run of five successive draws and the all too familiar goal shortage was attributed to this once again. United sat at 10th place in the league by November 1992, with one of the lowest goal tallies in the division. United were linked with moves for some of the most highly rated strikers in the English league, including Brian Deane and David Hirst, but on 26 November 1992 United made a £1.1 million move for French striker Eric Cantona, who had helped Leeds United win the previous season’s league title. The arrival of Cantona transformed United, and by the turn of 1993 they were looking like title contenders again. Despite challenges from Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers and surprise contenders Norwich City, United went on a storming run during the final weeks of the season to win the title by a 10-point margin and end their 26-year wait (the last title being under Sir Matt Busby in 1967).

United broke the English transfer fee record over the summer of 1993 by paying relegated Nottingham Forest £3.75 million for Irish midfielder Roy Keane. United started the following season beating Arsenal on penalties in the FA Charity Shield. They led the Premier League at the end of August, a lead they maintained all season. By the end of October, they were 11 points ahead and their lead peaked at 16 points in the new year. Despite a second round exit from the UEFA Champions League, United had their sights set on a unique domestic treble. In March 1994, United dropped points against Arsenal and bottom-of-the-table Swindon Town, in which Cantona was sent off in both games and subsequently received a five-match suspension. They then lost the League Cup final to Aston Villa and nearly went out of the FA Cup in the semi-final at Wembley, before Mark Hughes scored a late equaliser to force a Maine Road replay, which United won 4–1. An upturn in results soon followed, and United clinched their title on 1 May 1994 when they won 2–1 at Ipswich Town. In the 1994 FA Cup Final, it was goalless at half time but two Cantona penalties and subsequent goals from Mark Hughes and Brian McClair gave United a comprehensive 4–0 win over Chelsea. Cantona finished the season with 25 goals in all competitions and was voted PFA Players’ Player of the Year. Other players to impress during this campaign included Mark Hughes, Paul Ince, Ryan Giggs and Lee Sharpe.

 

Sir Alex Ferguson, Mark Hughes and Sir Bobby Charlton of Manchester United celebrates in the dressing room with the Premiership Trophy after becoming FA Carling Premiership Winners in the 1993-94 season at Old Trafford on May 8, 1994. Manchester United 0 Coventry City 0 (Photo by John Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)

“You can’t win anything with kids”

Ferguson felt that his squad were good enough to challenge on all fronts in the season which followed the Double, and made only one signing, paying Blackburn Rovers £1.2 million for defender David May. The 1994–95 season saw United rarely out of the headlines. On 25 January 1995, Eric Cantona kicked a Crystal Palace fan who had taunted him with anti-French racist abuse. Cantona was suspended by the club for the rest of the season, a ban which the FA extended until the end of September. United were also without players like Paul Parker, Ryan Giggs and Andrei Kanchelskis for long periods of time due to injury. 1994–95 also saw the debuts of promising young players Paul Scholes and Phil Neville. Scholes was particularly impressive, scoring five goals in 17 games. Having made a handful of appearances between them in the previous two seasons, Gary Neville, David Beckham and Nicky Butt all made more regular appearances for United during 1994–95.

United broke the English transfer record again on 10 January 1995 by paying £7 million for Newcastle United’s free-scoring striker Andy Cole. He had been signed just two weeks before the Cantona incident as an eventual replacement for 31-year-old Mark Hughes. United almost made it three league titles in a row, but just couldn’t get the better of a West Ham side who held them to a 1–1 draw in East London on the final day of the season. Blackburn, led by Kenny Dalglish, were crowned ­champions. The FA Cup also slipped out of United’s grasp when they lost 1–0 to unfancied Everton in the final.

 

 Manchester United’s Ryan Giggs walks dejectedly off the Wembley pitch after his team lost in the Cup Final, watched by manager Alex Ferguson (Photo by Bob Thomas Sports Photography via Getty Images)

“Have you taken your eye off the ball?” asked Professor Sir Roland Smith, after Fergie had been summoned to the chairman’s Isle of Man home to discuss his request for a six-year deal. Smith’s suggestion that Ferguson should come back next year was not what the 54-year-old was hoping for. And chief executive Martin ­Edwards added insult to injury by warning Ferguson there would be no cushy boardroom job for him at the end of his tenure. “We don’t want a repeat of the Matt Busby syndrome,” Edwards is reported to have said. It is fair to say that Ferguson was not in a good place. His bid to become the first manager to defend the Double had ended in failure. 

In the desolate dressing room at Wembley, Ferguson warned that any players who had let their team-mates down would not be around much longer. The ­manager shocked his board of directors by announcing that he planned to sell Paul Ince. The England midfielder might have been at the top of his game, but Ferguson felt he had become too big for his boots. Ince had christened himself ‘The Guv’nor’. His nickname was even stitched into his ­Predator boots. As Ferguson explained in his ­autobiography, “I had observed Paul closely for the past five months and decided his attitude and performances had ­altered to a degree that I could not tolerate. This Guv’nor thing should have been left in his toy box.” Ince was sold to Inter Milan for £6million and fan favourites Mark Hughes and Andrei Kanchelskis were to follow through the exit door. Ferguson was on holiday in the United States when he was told that Hughes had decided not to sign a new contract and had joined Chelsea instead.

United had lost three key players, and the club’s directors weren’t the only ones who felt Ferguson had lost the plot. When the opening game of the season was lost 3-1 at Aston Villa and Match of the Day pundit Alan Hansen famously declared United would win nothing with kids, thousands of fans voted in a poll run by the Manchester Evening News asking whether Ferguson should be sacked. The pressure mounted on Ferguson as the new season began without a major signing, with Ferguson instead putting his faith in young members of the squad such as David Beckham, Gary Neville, Phil Neville, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt. This was seen as a big gamble, especially as the likes of Newcastle United, Liverpool and Arsenal had spent heavily, but Ferguson stuck to his decision. He mentioned in his autobiography, “It was clear I now had youngsters equipped to play at the highest level.” In September 1994, when United travelled to Port Vale in the League Cup, ­Ferguson unleashed the rest of the club’s 1992 FA Youth Cup winners. Ferguson recalled: “After that night at Port Vale there were ­protests in the House of Commons. One woman MP said I should be banned for life for not playing my strongest team when people had paid their £10 to get in.” United prevailed 2-1 at Vale Park, thanks to two goals by Scholes.

Aside from a New Year’s Day defeat at Tottenham Hotspur and a goalless draw at home to Aston Villa, United regained their winning touch after Christmas and reached the top of the Premier League in mid-March. Cantona was instrumental in many victories, and United remained firmly in control at the top and sealed the title on the last day of the season with a 3–0 win at Bryan Robson’s Middlesbrough. A week later, Manchester United beat Liverpool 1–0 in the FA Cup final to become the first ever English club to win the Double twice. Eric Cantona, who scored 19 goals in 1995–96 (including the FA Cup final winner), was voted FWA Footballer of the Year by football journalists and was made team captain following the departure of Steve Bruce to Birmingham City.  Ferguson once again crossed the Irish Sea to speak to Professor Sir Roland Smith.

 

 Eric Cantona and manager Sir Alex Ferguson of Manchester United with the FA Cup and Premiership Trophy at Victoria Station, Manchester on May 12, 1996 after completing The Double. (Photo by John Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)

“Football, bloody hell”

In the summer of 1996, United once again tried to sign Alan Shearer, but were beaten to his signature by Newcastle United for a then world record fee of £15 million. A new striker did arrive at Old Trafford that summer – Ole Gunnar Solskjær, a little-known 23-year-old Norwegian striker. Another Norwegian, defender Ronny Johnsen, was also signed to fill the gap left by veteran Steve Bruce’s departure. Manchester United won their fourth league title in five seasons in 1996–97, helped by 18 goals from Solskjær. Hopes of winning the European Cup for the first time since 1968 were dashed, however, as they were defeated in the semi-finals by the eventual winners, Borussia Dortmund. At the end of the season, Eric Cantona announced his shock retirement from football just a few days before his 31st birthday. He was replaced by England international Teddy Sheringham, a £3.5 million signing from Tottenham.

A new adversary loomed in the form of Arsenal and their new boss Arsene Wenger. Although the pair would often have a fiery relationship in the press, Ferguson was full of praise for the Frenchman guiding the Gunners to the 1997-98 title, stating: “I think it’s good for my young players to lose on this occasion.” Shortly after this disappointment, Ferguson broke the club’s transfer record twice by signing Dutch defender Jaap Stam from PSV Eindhoven and Trinidadian striker Dwight Yorke from Aston Villa.

Ferguson’s words would ring true as in the following 1998-99 season United rose to the occasion and gained a reputation for not conceding defeat even in what seemed the most hopeless of circumstances, winning and drawing several matches with late goals. Ferguson himself called it ‘Squeaky Bum time’. Some of their more notable comebacks were the FA Cup Fourth Round tie at home to Liverpool, which Liverpool led from the third to the 85th minute, both legs of the UEFA Champions League semi-finals against Juventus and the FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal, won by a Ryan Giggs goal deep into extra time, forced by a last-gasp Peter Schmeichel penalty save in the last of his eight seasons at the club. However, the most dramatic comeback came in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich, when Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjær scored a goal each in stoppage time to give United a 2–1 win in stoppage time. After the game, Ferguson uttered one of his most famous phrases: “Football, bloody hell.” United lost just five times in the entire season; three times in the league, the Charity Shield at the start of the season, and the League Cup quarter-final to eventual winners, Tottenham Hotspur. They defeated every other Premier League team at least once in all competitions and were undefeated in the Champions League.

Fans and writers regard the treble haul as manager Alex Ferguson’s finest hour, although he dismissed that assertion in later years. Tens of thousands of fans lined the streets of Manchester to welcome the team as the season drew to a close. In recognition of his achievements Ferguson was awarded a knighthood, and handed the Freedom of the City of Glasgow in November 1999. By the end of the season, Manchester United had become the world’s richest football club and the most valuable sporting brand worldwide. Sir Alex Ferguson had well and truly converted United into a global force.

 

 Raimond van der Gouw, Wes Brown, Jaap Stam, Jonathan Greening, Andy Cole, David Beckham, David May, Alex Ferguson head coach, Ryan Giggs, Denis Irwin, Teddy Sheringham and Gary Neville celebrate his victory with the trophy during the UEFA Champions league final match between Manchester United and Bayern Munich on May 26, 1999 in Camp Nou, Barcelona, Spain. (photo by Alain Gadoffre / Onze / Icon Sport via Getty Images)