Sensible Targets: Eduardo Camavinga

With recent reports suggesting that Paul Pogba’s future lies away from Manchester United, it is only natural for the Mancunian club to be linked with a replacement for the French superstar. Pogba, who has a year left on his contract is not willing to extend his stay in England’s footballing capital and United can try and sell him right now, or keep him and hope he signs an extension before his contract expires next season. Regardless of whether Pogba moves or not, United desperately need a midfielder anyway. We have already done two articles on this before so I won’t elaborate about it here.

If Pogba does make a move this window, United should be (ideally) in the market for 2 Central midfielders. One midfielder being able to play a more deeper role and another one being a more dynamic, runner of the ball. And as it the case of almost every trsansfer window, Manchester United are linked to a host of different midfielders of both of those profiles. With Declan Rice being the standout name for the former and Atletico Madrid midfielder Saul being the most high profile for the latter. 

Another French midfielder who has one year remaining on his contract and would fit the Pogba replacement profile perfectly is Eduardo Camavinga. Today, I will try to explain how the young French sensation can fit the team and what little tactical tweaks we can observe with Camavinga in the side. 

History

For someone who is still in his teens, Camavinga already has moments in his short career that have been etched in the history books. Eduardo Camavinga signed his first professional contract when he just a month older than 16 and it was not long before he made his debut. 

Eduardo Camavinga was the youngest player at Rennes to sign a professional and also the youngest player to ever play for the first team. His breakout game came against PSG when he put in a MOTM performance in the midfield and also set up the only goal of the game. His assist meant he became the youngest Ligue 1 player ever to register an assist. 

After that, it wasn’t long before the young Frenchman cemented his place in the Rennes starting 11. The 2019-20 season can widely be regarded as his breakthrough season in France. Now, a full fledged first team regular and also a French International and with only one year remaining on his contract, it seems as if moving Camavinga on is the best move for all parties involved and Manchester United are among a host of clubs monitoring his situation at Rennes. 

Playing Style

When he first broke on the scene in 2019/20, Julien Stephan, the then Rennes manager used him as a defensive midfielder in a 4-4-2 or a 3-4-1-2 at the tender age of 17. Camavinga is excellent in tackling and disrupting the opponent’s play in his own half. He has displayed Kante-esque traits where his work ethic and excellent tackling make him a very good workhorse for the team. He won more tackles than any other player in the Ligue 1 in 2019-20 despite only playing 25 games. 

Even though he first made a name for himself for his tackling and work ethic, the youngster offers so much more than just that. He operates in the areas of a deep lying playmaker and his long passing also offers him to distribute the ball and start attacks playing from deep midfield. He completed 91% of long passes in 2019-20 displaying a perfect blend of maturity, tenacity and elegance in his style of play helping Rennes qualify for the Champions League for the first time in their history. 

In 2020-21 season, Rennes shifted to a 4-3-3 formation and with Steven Nzonzi sitting at the base of the 3 man midfield for the French side, it allowed Camavinga to play a more advanced role. He has played at the heart, on the right and on the left side of the midfield throughout the last season but he mainly played as a RCM in a 3 man midfield. 

Even observing his heat maps from the 2 seasons we can see his development as a player.   

As we can see, in 19/20 (Top) he played a much deeper role compared to the one in 20/21 (bottom). 

Due to being given more freedom to roam ahead and play further up the pitch, Camavinga’s creative numbers have gone up. His dribbling and passing numbers have improved while his tackling has remained the same. Camavinga can best be described as a combination of N’golo Kante and Paul Pogba. He has the work ethic and the tenacity of Kante while being as elegant on the ball as Pogba. 

The Frenchman has shown a lot of maturity in shifting his game from a deeper lying midfielder to a box to box midfielder. He had a pass completion of 89.3% in Ligue 1 while also averaging 6.37 progressive carries p90. Adding to this, he also had 3.4 tackles p90 and 1.92 dribbles completed p90. He ranked in the 97th and 95th percentile for both the stats in Ligue 1. Very impressive for an 18-year old. 

He also possesses great awareness for his age. The 18 year old always wants to get on the ball and is never one to shy away from responsibility. As a result of his great awareness, he can be deemed as one of the midfielders who are ‘press resistant’. He has also got a strong physical presence. Even though he is just over 6 ft, his lean physique is just about at the stage where he can turn and dribble past players quickly but also not be bullied by his counterparts while he is in possession of the ball. His awareness coupled with his great vision allow him to play the creative, box to box role he has been playing for Rennes. Almost acting like a ‘Mezzala’. 

However, Camavinga still has a long way to go in terms of his technical and physical aspects. The midfielder still can’t be considered as a goal threat, either by his long shots or his presence in the 18-yard box. While his positioning and vision is still not polished, it is to be considered that the Frenchman is just 18 years old. 

In short, Eduardo Camavinga is a tenacious, dynamic, box to box midfielder. His awareness, tackling ability, dribbling and passing allow him to be a great all round option to have in the middle of the pitch. 

Tactical Fit at Manchester United

Well, first things first, Eduardo Camavinga is not someone who can play alongside Paul Pogba in the pivot as many fans are suggesting he might. He may have some of the skills required but his natural game isn’t that of a holding midfielder and if Pogba is to be played in a double pivot, he needs someone in that profile to play alongside him. Someone in the similar mould of a Nemanja Matic and even that is not enough to get the best out of Paul Pogba. He works best playing in the attacking areas of the LW-half space, something he has done recently for Manchester United playing from the LW.

So, if we cancel out the possibility of Paul Pogba playing in the deep midfield pivot in a 4-2-3-1 that leaves us with 4 potential partners Eduardo Camavinga can be paired with them being Fred, Scott McTominay, Nemanja Matic and Donny van de Beek. Now the main reasons why van de Beek can’t be a good partner for the French youngster is the same as Pogba in the sense both are much better playing closer to the goal. Adding to the fact that whenever van de Beek has played, he has played in the no.10 spot under Solskjaer. So, the Norwegian manager definitely doesn’t consider him to play in the pivot as a deeper lying midfielder. 

Now, that leaves us with only 3 options. Scott McTominay, Fred and Nemanja Matic. Camavinga would thrive if he’s paired with any of the aforementioned midfielders. Let’s understand why by taking the most recent game against Leeds United as an example. 

In that game, Manchester United lined up in their trademark 4-2-3-1 with McTominay and Fred playing in the double pivot while Pogba started on the LW and Bruno Fernandes played in his usual no.10 role. The McTominay-Fred pivot or ‘McFred’ allows Pogba and Bruno to link up further up the pitch. 

The midfield pivot was very dynamic as they both didn’t have a defined role as McTominay and Fred (and Camavinga) are all pretty similar players. Manchester United usually build up with a 2-4 or a 3-3 shape including the backline and the fullbacks depending on who the opposition is. In that build up phase, Fred drops deep to receive the ball while McTominay is the one who is a more free midfielder given the license to roam in the middle of the park looking for pockets of spaces but again, even that depends on game to game. In short, both midfielders can do the job of carrying the ball from the deep and their high energy and work ethic suit the fast-paced counter pressing, quick transition style of play Manchester United like to play.

As we can see here, United build up in a 2-4 shape when they are pressed with 2 strikers with McTominay and Fred both dropping a bit deep to receive the ball. But once United are past the build up phase, McTominay is the one who makes the late runs from midfield and Fred is the one who holds his position. 

Just by seeing his heat map in the game against Leeds United, it is pretty evident that McTominay likes to make runs and maraud forward

That is the role where Camavinga would thrive under at Manchester United. He is good at dropping deep and building from the back but he is also among the best young dribblers in Europe making him a very good ball carrier. His work rate coupled with his excellent dribbling and we have a younger and maybe arguably better version of Scott McTominay. 

As you can see, his progressive carrying and dribbling makes him a very viable alternative to the role the Scotsman plays at Manchester United.

Considering the fact that Eduardo Camavinga is still very young, he can very well be developed into the role Fred plays as well. While his passing and vision isn’t polished, his awareness and press-resistant nature means he is very good at dropping deep and receiving the ball. His passing and vision can only improve in the future. As mentioned earlier, when Manchester United build up in a 3-3 shape with Fred or Matic dropping in the defence, Camavinga can easily be the mid who drops deep too as he has all the attributes in him to be developed in that profile. Adding to the fact that Camavinga’s work rate is pretty similar to Fred. 

Being alongside Nemanja Matic and he can very well play the same role Scott McTominay plays as the Serbian is the perfect DM allowing Camavinga the freedom to carry the ball forward in threatening attacking spaces allowing Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba to be closer to the goal and flex their creative or goalscoring muscles. 

All in all, Eduardo Camavinga going by his most recent form is the perfect alternative for Scott McTominay in the current 4-2-3-1 setup that Manchester United play but can be a viable alternative for Fred also seeing how much of a versatile midfielder the young Frenchman actually is. Assuming that Paul Pogba would play on the wings in the near future, signing Camavinga would make a lot of sense for Manchester United. 

Now, there are multiple situations pertaining to this. Manchester United are long term admirers of Declan Rice and if Rice was to switch sides and join the Manchester based club along with a contract extension for Paul Pogba, it would mean Pogba would be dropped back into midfield as a pure Defensive midfielder like Rice would allow Pogba to play with more freedom from the midfield pivot which could hinder Camavinga’s opportunities in the first team. If Pogba won’t renew his contract then Camavinga is probably among the top 5 candidates to replace him. 

If we look closely at the current scenario, it looks like Paul Pogba would be staying at Old Trafford this season and that would mean the current setup with Pogba playing on the LW would be Solskjaer’s go-to system considering that Rashford is out for a considerable time. That leaves Manchester United with only 3 viable options who can play in the midfield pivot with ‘McFred’ and Matic and it only makes sense to bring in another option to add to the depth of the squad. 

In conclusion, Manchester United should make a late push for Eduardo Camavinga as his asking price is probably the lowest it can ever be and the financial strength of Manchester United’s competitors for his signature is also the weakest at the current moment. If Camavinga does decide to run down his contract and leave Rennes next season, then Manchester United may have to be involved in a bidding war for the young Frenchman’s signature. If Manchester United do manage to make a late push and get his signature then the transfer window would be classified as a very successful window for the Red Devils. 

Why Maguire-Varane is the perfect CB duo

It’s hard to ask United fans to relax about Varane coming to the Theatre of Dreams for his medical this week. It’s hard to ask them not to get over-excited about seeing him in a United shirt soon. It’s not something to relax about at all. The prospect of seeing two world-class centre backs in Maguire and Varane is nothing short of mind-blowing. Ability-wise alone, it’s a finger-licking thought – putting together 2 of Europe’s best CBs together. But in today’s article,  I’ll try to explain that from a tactical point of view, they are a ridiculously good fit for the system Ole has been trying to perfect for 2 seasons now.

Analysing the stopper-cover system

Most modern centre-back pairings operate in a stopper-cover partnership. The stopper (or dog) is the one who aggressively engages in duels with attackers and often steps into the DM area to win the ball early before the clear-cut chance can be created by the opponents. The dog marks the man rather than the space.

The cover CB (or cat) drops to sweep up loose balls, cuts passing angles and contests duels only if his stopper loses/misses. The cover CB marks the space rather than the man. Cats usually cost more than dogs since they are a rare breed.

The relevance for this style of partnership has only increased in modern times as many attackers are adept at dropping in the hole to create (like Firmino, Messi, Kane) as they draw out defenders and create space for their more attacking partners (like Salah, Griezmann, Son) to attack the space. With the stopper-cover setup, the stopper engages the former type while the cover player tracks the latter type to give the team a double opportunity to weed out threats.

For reference, Ferdinand Cover and Vidic Stopper or Ramos stopper and Varane cover or Puyol Stopper and Pique cover would probably be the best examples in recent times.



In terms of traits, the ideal requirements would be,
Stopper traits: Aerial prowess, Strength, Duel winning, Aggression, Bravery
Cover traits: Positioning, Awareness, Anticipation, Speed, Communication

And if we take some common skills required for a top possession oriented team,

Common traits: Passing, ball control, Duel success, consistency, fitness

It should also be noted that all pairs aren’t necessarily a stopper-cover system. Many teams don’t operate that way. For example, Burnley under Sean Dyche line up in a classical 4-4-2 and have a deep defence line where both center backs are of the physical duel-winning type and are tasked to win their individual duels. The need for covering and positioning is limited thanks to the deep line while their strengths of aerial presence and physicality are utilised better. Also, many backlines in recent years have been a back 3 in Europe. This blurs the duties further – at times 2 stoppers and 1 cover play (like Conte’s Inter) and at times 1 stopper and 2 covers (like Conte’s Chelsea).

For Manchester United over the last 2 seasons, Maguire is the clear stopper and enjoys stepping into midfield to contest with opponents. His strong frame and heading ability make him a great asset to win the ball early and stop opponent moves while his lack of pace and agility are also made up for when he engages early without giving the attacker a chance to collect the ball and run at him. In contrast, Lindelof avoids the early aerial scruff and drops patiently to pick up the quick poacher or loose ball from Maguire’s duel.

Football is a weak-link sport. This means that a team would suffer if it had weak links. Upgrading the weakest parts of a team is usually the aim since one single good player rarely wins you games alone but a single poor player could cost you games easily. In comparison, basketball is a strong-link sport where upgrading your good player to a superstar could result in you winning a lot more, since a single player earns many points in a team.

For this reason, team building in football usually happens in the format of identifying weak spots and upgrading them to create a more balanced squad. This isn’t always possible though and especially when it comes to center-backs, the chances of getting a well-rounded center-back who ticks all the boxes (fast, strong, technical, consistent and tall) are close to zero. A manager is better off pairing two center-backs who compliment each other so well that together they eliminate any ‘weak link’ between them. This is where a stopper-cover equation really shines. Instead of looking for 2 world-class well-rounded CBs, a manager has a better chance of looking for a world-class stopper and a world-class cover to create an air-tight defence.

With that explained, we now proceed to make two (slightly ambitious) statements.

Harry Maguire is a world-class stopper
Raphael Varane is a world-class cover.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team building has been top notch since he took over. Selling players who don’t fit or aren’t good enough and buying/promoting players who fit his system or offer clear upgrades to existing players are the 2 major parts of team building, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. Ole has managed both to a great extent. For 1-2 seasons now, a CB upgrade has been on his mind even after the acquisition of Harry Maguire. His vision for the backline might finally be complete with the addition of Varane.

We will now proceed to explain the logic behind the 2 statements.


Harry Maguire is a world-class stopper

One of Maguire’s best qualities, his aerial prowess, can be summed up with the following viz:

Maguire boasts an insanely high aerial win % of 76% while also contesting a whopping 190 duels. Only Caleta-Car was better at 77% but contested much less. It wouldn’t be wrong to call Maguire the best CB in Europe in terms of aerial prowess. Milenkovic, Mings, Tarkowksi, Andersen, David Garcia round up other aerially strong CBs. 

But that’s not the only thing he’s great at. Maguire’s pizza chart is an astounding reflection of his well-rounded qualities and the amazing season he has just had. He’s not only been an aerial monster, but also amazing at progressively passing and carrying. He’s also played with the consistency, leadership and fitness of an elite defender. He is the quintessential CB who ticks all the stopper traits as well as the extra common traits needed for a top team backline. 



Raphael Varane is a world-class cover

Explaining why Varane is a world-class cover might be tougher. Unlike stoppers, there aren’t very clear metrics to quickly identify a good cover CB or cat. The fine arts of positioning, sensing danger and marking space to plug gaps so that the need for a duel never arises are not easily quantifiable. That said, we do have things to go on.

Firstly, we can refer to the same aerial prowess viz to quickly highlight one underrated strength of varane that covers usually struggle with:

Varane almost matches Maguire’s 76% win rate while contesting ~100 duels. Aerially, that’s a world-class combo. It should be noted that Varane does face lesser duels though. Lindelof’s traits point to a cover CB but he’s been forced into many aerial duels taking him close to the Europe duel average. United will need to protect their cover CB (now Varane) more by keeping the ball better, pressing wide areas to stop crosses & maybe buying a holding DM. Varane has made a few mistakes in the past even in Madrid when he hasn’t been protected adequately. 

For Varane’s other strengths, we take a look at his pizza chart:

Other than the impressive aerial win % which we covered, we can immediately notice a dribbled past percentile of 86. That is really impressive and a very specific cover CB trait. Cats rarely get dribbled past thanks to their elite positioning, awareness and agility. Varane is a master at that. He jockeys players well until they have nowhere to run and then makes a well-timed tackle. He spots a runner or dribbler quicker than anyone in Europe. Once he does, he has the acceleration, speed and agility to turn and catch that player and not let them get past him.
Fbref’s dribbled past percentile of 86 is actually not a fair reflection because many players with low number of 90s would get ahead of Varane on a per 90 basis. If we dig deeper into the data to filter center-backs in Europe who have played at least 25 90s in 20/21, only 5 players have been dribbled past less than Varane. That is elite.

Going through his other metrics it becomes clear that Varane is a very well-rounded player. He isn’t as amazing at carrying and dribbling as Maguire and as amazing as Lindelof when it comes to passing but he’s just one shade lower at both. Varane is the kind of CB who is a solid 8/10 on everything. Once again, using the weak-link concept explained earlier, that well-roundedness really helps a top team. Lindelof, for example, is a very accomplished center-back in his own right and has formed a good partnership with Maguire in the last 2 years. But the ‘weak link’ in his game, and consequently United’s defence, is his aerial ability. Not having a weak link is more important than having a strong link in football, especially in defence. Even If Varane offers a good upgrade on Lindelof’s aerial ability with a small downgrade on his passing, the overall positive effect for the defence is huge. The defence won’t have any specific weakness that opponents can target. That alone could be the reason a few draws turn into wins and a few semi-finals turn into trophies. United fans will understand.

Stats can only explain so much. The eye test matters a lot, especially when it comes to partnerships. The most simple way of knowing why Varane will work with Maguire is to see what has worked for him so far. He hasn’t won 4 UCLs for nothing. It’s convenient that his partner in these exploits is a player who possibly shares the most common traits with Maguire. Sergio Ramos is the original dog – the aggressive stopper who snuffs out attacks before they begin with his high duel winning ability. His immense leadership at the back and comfort on the ball round up the uncanny similarities with Maguire. Varane cannot hope for a more suitable replacement to extend his career’s success. With Ramos off to PSG, partnering Maguire might be the fastest way to form a UCL winning pairing once again.

We highlight Varane’s movement as a cover and what he is capable of doing with Maguire by illustrating what he has done in Madrid consistently.

In the above example, Varane lets his right-back make the tackle on the oncoming dribbler first jockeying and surveying the result. The moment the attacker gets through, Varane creates a tight angle to corner him and his timing is so good that he can almost walk away with the ball after a heavy touch by the attacker. 


In the above scene, Varane at the center of the pitch keeps his calm even in a final ball situation as he waits for the right moment. He notices the striker bursting through the center with a well-timed run that beats Ramos easily. Varane then covers the path to the goal in lightning-quick speed and once again times his block with the touch of the attacker to clear away the danger.

I could go on and on about the numerous times Varane uses his awareness, agility and speed and times his tackles/blocks to win the ball right after an attacker’s touch. But I guess United and EPL fans will soon be able to witness such moments.

In conclusion to this article, if an elite stopper-cover system is what United have been dreaming of since Vidic-Ferdinand, then it might not be possible to find two better peak CBs (both exactly 28 years old) for either role than Harry Maguire and Raphael Varane. A dream pairing of one of Europe’s best stoppers and best covers might just be what’s needed to bring to reality the dreams of a major trophy United fans have been harbouring for almost a decade now. 

MUFC Attack Combinations with Jadon Sancho

The long-drawn saga finally comes to an end! More than a year in the making, Jadon Sancho is now officially a Red Devil. Though it has taken time, the transfer fee of 73m pounds and the completion of the process before the Euros even ended deserves immense credit. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will now look forward to Sancho joining United’s pre-season tour and getting ample time to plan out tactics with the 21-year-old winger in mind. Sancho joins an array of attacking talent at the club in Rashford, Greenwood, Cavani, Martial, James, Amad, Mata, Elanga, Shoretire and more which will give the Norwegian manager selection and tactical headaches (good ones) for the coming season. Will Sancho play on the right more than the left? Will Greenwood play more as a centre-forward? Whose game-time takes the biggest hit? We try to answer these questions and more in this article. I will take a look at Sancho’s past 3 seasons at Dortmund and United’s last season trend to make some possible combinations and predictions for United’s front 3 in 21/22. Let’s get straight into it!

What is Sancho’s best position?

We know that Sancho is a winger capable of playing on either side. But where has he actually played more and where is he better at? 2 questions that need answering. I pull out Sancho’s playing time data over the past 3 seasons and split them by position. I’ve considered only his starts in this viz. Do note that he often switches positions mid-game and pops up in various areas as a substitute as well which isn’t reflected in the below viz.

The first obvious insight is that Sancho has clearly started at RW more than any other position in this period. That’s one W for the ‘He’s our permanent RW’ camp. But as we analyse more it also becomes clear that his rate of playing on the right wing is reducing over time. What was almost a 80% rate in 18/19 has become exactly half in 20/21. He has been playing more LW recently and as of last season even lined up as CF a few times. The starts are dependent on the tactic used. For the most part, Dortmund lined up in a 4-2-3-1 in this period, at times making way for a 3-5-2 or 4-4-2 diamond mainly in 20/21 due to change in managers. The latter cases are when Sancho has found himself at CF (as per Fbref data). To be more precise, his role was of a central support striker role playing slightly off the finisher (mostly Haaland). For the majority of the last 3 seasons at Dortmund, it has been simply a choice between left or right winger in a 4-2-3-1 for Sancho and from the data we can clearly see that his managers have been shifting him from the right to the left progressively over time. The reason for that becomes clear in our next viz.

In the below viz, I simply chart Sancho’s goal contributions (Goals + Assists) per 90 minutes over the 3 seasons for each position he has played in – LW, RW & CF. This is to gauge where he’s most lethal from. 

Interesting findings here. Sancho’s 0.69, 0.94 & 0.76 G+A p90 as RW are comfortably bested by his 0.83, 1.24 & 1.26 as LW. The reason why he’s been given the LW berth more in recent times is simply because he’s much more effective from there. In terms of eye test as well, Sancho from LW has the options to cut in and shoot a lot more often while it also opens up the field for him to look for a cross-ball to his striker or opposite winger. Both his goal and assist threat increase from the left side due to these reasons. His G+A per 90 from CF in the few games he has played there is also an amazing 1.55. It should be noted that on the pitch this also translates to a left-sided support striker role where he has even more freedom to be close to goal while retaining his right-foot angle to create and shoot. Per game, Sancho takes 4 more shots when he plays on the left compared to the right. His xG (Expected goals) per 90 from RW is 0.34 while from LW is a whopping 0.84. The pattern is clear.

The summary of the above data is: 

  • Sancho has played more on the right than the left in his last 3 seasons at Dortmund
  • He is very capable of playing on either wing or even as a central support attacker
  • His goal contributions and goal threat are better from the left compared to the right which is why he has been featuring there more in recent times

Manchester United’s front 3 in 20/21

To understand where Sancho fits at United, we must first understand what he’s fitting into. The recent season data of 20/21 across all competitions should give us a good idea. In the next viz I simply plot who Ole has chosen for the front 3 positions in the recent season.

CF appears a little more than RW and LW thanks to a few iterations of the 3-5-2 and 4-4-2 diamond that Ole attempted in the first half of the season. Else, it’s majorly been a case of 3 attackers in a 4-2-3-1.

For CF, we see that Martial and Cavani have played most with Rashford and Greenwood not far behind. Rashford’s 12 starts at CF aren’t as far off from Martial’s 20 and Cavani’s 21 as one might think. While injuries to the latter 2 have provided him more chances than one might have thought, there is a case to be considered here that Ole might see Rashford as a viable CF option after Cavani and Martial, thanks to his ability to run behind the defence. Rashford’s goals per 90 from CF are exactly the same as from LW (Both 0.37). Only his assist rate of 0.19 from LW is slightly better than 0.14 from CF. This will have an effect on our predictions later.

We notice that the wings give us a much clearer pattern with Rashford being the main choice for LW and Greenwood for RW. Once again Rashford pops up at RW as much as James and boasts some important goals and assists from there as well. Like Sancho, Rashford retains the ability to play anywhere in the front 3 and just like Sancho he seems better suited to LW and CF compared to RW. We see Pogba make the 2nd most starts at LW, a ploy which saw Ole get the best out of him towards the end of the season. But whether that remains a long-term tactic is up for debate. With Pogba’s future in question and his eventual role lying in central midfield (where he started most this season) it might be safe to assume he is not seen as a long-term winger post the signing of Sancho.

There’s also a very good argument to see James at LW more often since his underlying metrics also suggest a higher goal and assist threat from the left (I hope you can see a pattern of too many right-footed players preferring left-sided roles at the club). But the stability advantage James offers when he plays RW is also worthy of mention. When United tilt the attack to use Shaw, Rashford, Pogba and Bruno to combine on the left, James and AWB often slot in like RM and RCB in a 3-5-2 to help stabilise the formation. James offering the 2 options of an inverted winger on the left and a deeper classical one on the right make him a valuable squad player.

While Martial shows up a few times at LW here, eye test can confirm that he’s much poorer from the left than centre. Injuries forced Ole’s hand on those few occasions. It’s safe to assume Martial won’t feature at LW much after Sancho’s arrival. Cavani seems locked at CF for now. Amad and Mata also seemed locked at RW for the front 3, although both could provide good options for CAM on the rare occasions Bruno decides to rest. Elanga looks interesting. having started once each at LW and CF and offering a very brief glimpse of his traits which could suit either role. He is one to watch out for, but he has some time before he can trouble our starters at least for the upcoming season.

With an understanding of the position preferences, I bring your attention to the time Ole has given to each of these attackers over the past season.

Minutes played by MUFC attackers in 20/21:

4144 – Marcus Rashford
3142 – Mason Greenwood
2415 – Anthony Martial
2192 – Edinson Cavani
1518 – Daniel James
862 – Juan Mata
267 – Amad Diallo
155 – Anthony Elanga

While injuries to Martial and Cavani are big reasons for their reduced minutes, it is worth noting that Ole likes to use Rashford and Greenwood a lot. Even in 19/20, Rashford’s 3459 minutes and Greenwood’s 2631 were next best after Martial. With age on their side and rapid development to look forward to, it won’t be baseless to say that such a trend might continue. Cavani’s injury and fitness issues over the past 3 seasons are well documented. The Uruguayan hasn’t managed to cross 2400 minutes in any season in this period and was almost set for a return to South America this summer before a sudden U-turn enabled another year at United. It might be fair to assume he won’t be in the top 3 starters for the coming season and will be used mostly as an impact sub.

Okay so that’s a lot of information. We’re now going to use all this to make some combinations.

Predicting the front 3 for 21/22

Using what we’ve discussed so far, I make a few predictions on what we could see in the coming season. A few points to note before I start:

  • I’m lining up the options from most probable to least. This means that I feel that by the time the season ends, Option 1 would have been used a lot more by Ole than Option 6
  • I’m assuming a consistent 4-2-3-1 for the full season. Ole has played with the 3-5-2 and 4-4-2 diamond before and we also saw a fluid 4-2-4 variant towards the season end but all signs (including the signing of Sancho) point to the 4-3-2-1 on a consistent basis
  • Injuries and massive dips or upturns in form could change these equations to a large extent

Enough disclaimers! Let’s get into it. 

You might have seen this coming if you read between the lines so far (either that or I’m bad at dropping clues). For the first – and what I feel is the one we might see the most – option, I simply line up the highest appearance-making attackers of last season along with the new boy. I give Sancho and Greenwood the positions they have been most effective from in recent times and give Rashford his 2nd choice berth, a role he has shown good ability to pull off. The left-sided tilt strategy gets further enhanced with Shaw and Bruno combining with Sancho and Rashford to lethal effect while the roaming Greenwood can pop up with dribbles and shots when they create the space for him to cut into.

Pros:

  • We can expect pace and flair in abundance from the three U23 players that could give any defence nightmares
  • Positional fluidity that could be hard to track will be a strong weapon. Rashford and Sancho can switch between wings while Greenwood can play on the right or centre
  • Sancho’s high goal and assist threat, Rashford’s dangerous runs behind the defence and Greenwood’s ability to cut in from the right maximizes the natural traits of each player

Cons:

  • The absence of a proper line-leading CF like Cavani in this mix could cause a ‘too much support but no finish’ scenario. Especially against low blocks, phases of attack where the 3 strikers roam in the half spaces and areas around the box without anyone really running between the opposition centre-backs can be a roadblock

In this option, I slot Rashford and Martial in their best roles while giving Sancho his 2nd best role which he has ample experience and ability for. Ole has pushed Martial hard in his tenure and brought out one effective season (19/20) from him, but the jury is still out on the Frenchman. The coming season could be a make-or-break one for Martial and if he discovers his best form, then this combination could be Ole’s go-to lineup.

Pros:

  • Rashford’s understanding with Shaw and his recent mastery of the movement and playmaking from LW are maximized
  • Martial’s hold-up play can supplement two attackers who love to drift in and cut in to central areas

Cons:

  • Sancho is a very average presser off the ball while Martial also has phases where his workrate without the ball suffers. With Rashford also showing a very conservative pressing pattern in recent times (possibly due to his ongoing injury issues), the cumulative defensive output of this front 3 could be a burden on the high press tactic Ole wants to employ
  • Rashford and Sancho both love an attacking fullback to combine with, which might require a lot from Shaw and Wan-Bissaka in this formation. While Shaw has shown great form recently, AWB will need to improve a lot to provide that flank domination on the right that Sancho expects from his fullback partner (See Hakimi when he played with Sancho at Dortmund). Such a tactic with both fullbacks high up the flanks might not even be practical in many games unless United are trying to break low blocks. The stability of the formation comes into question again. 

A slight modification from option 2, I simply switch Martial with Cavani here. The traits the veteran brings to the table would be really appreciated by the dribbler-turned-creator duo of Rashford and Sancho. 

Pros:

  • With a clear line-leading CF to push defences back, the Englishmen could look forward to dribbling into the spaces Cavani’s continuous off-the-shoulder movement creates
  • With a very clear target man to aim at, Rashford and Sancho’s assist threat goes up a notch, as they can expect to find world-class runs behind the defence

Cons:

  • The tactic stability issues from option 2 make their return here. Although it must be said that Cavani’s intense and willing pressing makes him much more suitable to the high press system compared to Martial. The only doubts remain over both wings being stretched in transition and both fullbacks requiring effort to support either winger

A very subtle variant of Option 1, one would think that most of the dynamics remain the same, but they actually don’t. Even if we do see such a lineup on paper, my prediction is that it will change into the option 1 system on the pitch.

While Rashford does get his favoured role, Sancho and Greenwood operate in their second best roles. Yes, Greenwood’s best role comes up for debate at this point. We recently attempted to cover it in this article. In short, Greenwood seems like he benefits more when attacking from the right side compared to the center. Finishing is his best trait but the requirement of space he needs to run into and his poor off-the-ball movement make him better suited to use that finishing while carrying the ball from the right. The proof can be found in games this season where Greenwood lined up as a CF and never made the off-the-ball runs between the CBs like Ole expected him to. Numerous post-match comments about Greenwood not ‘breaking his nose’ or being a ‘pretty boy’ attest to this expectation not being met – as of yet anyway. While this combination could be the long-term dream of most United fans and even Ole and Greenwood themselves, the coming season might be too soon to see a developed CF version of Greenwood, which is why I am placing this option a little lower than some might have expected. 

Pros:

  • The pros of the dynamism and positional fluidity of option 1 are retained here

Cons:

  • The stability issue of options 2 and 3 of flank defence when Rashford and Sancho are on either wing comes up here
  • Additionally, Greenwood not being a line-leading poacher CF brings up the ‘too many SS’ players issue of option 1 as well

These last 2 options find themselves lowest in our list thanks to the absence of Rashford. Given his high playing time under Ole, a safe assumption would be to predict him to start, whenever fit. That last phrase is important though, which is why I brought up this option in the first place. If Rashford does opt for the corrective surgery which he currently seems to be pondering on as per own quotes before the Euros, he might miss the start of the 21/22 season. In such a scenario, the above 3 could line up as predicted. 

Pros:

  • Each player gets his most preferred role maximising their traits and individual goal and assist threat
  • Sancho can simply mirror Rashford’s highly attacking LW pattern of the previous season and combine with Shaw and the midfield to wreak havoc
  • The left sided attacking tilt ensures tactical stability with Shaw-Sancho being more dominant than AWB-Greenwood

Cons:

  • Other than missing the excellent traits of Rashford (like his understanding with Shaw and runs behind the defence) this lineup offers no real cons and could result in the best possible output from each of the 3

I round up our options with a variant of 5. Cavani replaces Martial to give us another option when Rashford stays out due to injury or fatigue. 

Pros:

  • Possibly the best replication of what Sancho enjoyed with Haaland in the previous season, he can use his creativity to find an elite poacher and run into the spaces offered by the defence-pushing movement of that person as well
  • Stability wise, possibly the best option on this list. The left-tilt strategy can help one side remain compact while Cavani’s intense pressing also supports the high press
  • Best role for each player once again

Cons:

  • Like option 5, there is no real con to this lineup as it boasts the perfect mix of creativity, goal threat, off-the-ball movement and defensive stability

Well, that wraps up our predictions for the attacking lineup United might opt for in 21/22. Thanks for sticking around so far. What do you think would be the option we see most in the coming season? Do you think we have completely missed an option in this analysis? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below or reply to the article tweet. 

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.
.
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!

Sensible Targets: Alexander Isak

According to multiple reliable sources in the UK and in Europe, Manchester United are in the market this summer to buy a striker. Forwards, especially strikers, this season haven’t been great for Manchester United –  Edinson Cavani has had to deal with problems both professionally and personally, Mason Greenwood is still learning the trade as a striker and Anthony Martial is struggling to get any kind of consistent form going. It is also rumoured that the Uruguayan veteran may well leave Old Trafford at the end of the season which leaves the club with only one recognized striker in Anthony Martial. While the goals have flown in this season from Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford, it is no secret that the Red Devils need another solid attacking option to take them to the elite level. 

That attacking reinforcements are speculated to be either of the Dortmund duo, Jadon Sancho or Erling Haaland. Sancho would come in on the wings instead of the centre forward position, that would allow Greenwood to move into the striker role. But, due to spending upwards of 40m on two young right wingers in Facundo Pellistri and Amad Diallo, Solskjaer and newly appointed DOF John Murtough could look to bolster the striker position itself. It is rumoured that United have the budget to make only one marquee signing and the heavily rumoured signing is Erling Haaland. It will be tough for Manchester United to sign the Norwegian as he is on the radar of many other top European clubs such as Chelsea, FC Barcelona and rivals Manchester City. 

In this piece, we will cover an alternative Manchester United could sign on the cheaper side and focus on spending the marquee signing money on some other position. We will take a look at the Swedish striker Alexander Isak who is making quite a name for himself at Real Sociedad in Spain. 

History

Born in central Stockholm, Isak made inroads with his local club AIK Stockholm (or simply known as AIK) at a very young age and gathered a lot of attention for his physique and good technique. Being a good young striker from Sweden and having a strong physique, it was natural that Isak drew comparisons to Zlatan Ibrahimovic at a very young age after his breakthrough at AIK. 

He made his professional debut in a cup game against a fourth tier side for AIK on 28th February 2016 at age 16. The Swede scored a goal in a 6-0 victory. He was then named in the starting lineup in a league game for the first time a month later and he scored again in a 2-0 victory en route to becoming the youngest goalscorer in AIK history at 16 years and 199 days old. He soon became a first team regular having impressed in the limited time he got on the pitch. He signed his first professional contract later on in May. 

He scored 10 goals in his breakthrough season which helped him earn a 9 million euros transfer to German giants, Borussia Dortmund. His stint at Dortmund didn’t quite go according to plan as he made only 5 league appearances for the club and didn’t score any goal. After failing to make even a single appearance in the 2018-19 season for Borussia Dortmund, he was shipped on loan to Dutch side Willem II in January. 

The Swede impressed in Eredivisie by becoming the first player in the league history to score 12 goals in his first 12 league games. He even scored an equaliser and a winning penalty against AZ Alkmaar to take Willem II to their first KNVB Cup final since 2005. He ended his loan spell having scored 13 goals in 16 games. 

His impressive loan form drew a lot of attention from many other European clubs. The 21 year old signed for Spanish club Real Sociedad in the summer of 2019 for a reported fee of €6m. 

Scout Report

Alexander Isak has continued his impressive form and development ever since signing for Real Sociedad. He scored 9 goals in 14 starts in the 2019/20 season as he shared the striker role with Willian Jose. This season, Isak has taken his game up a level scoring 12 goals in 20 starts. We will take a look at his biggest strengths. 

Link Up Play 

Isak plays mostly as a lone striker in a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1. He is very good at dropping deep and receiving the ball and linking up play for his teammates. Real Sociedad play in a way that attracts the opposition press in the middle which allows them to release wide runners in either the wingers or the fullbacks pushing forward. Isak is a great outlet for them as he sucks in defenders and his good hold up play and strength coupled with his good passing allow him to release the runners in the wide areas. 

He is very adept at finding little pockets of spaces in and around the final third which allows him to expertly link up play with his midfielders and wide players. The Swede has a pass completion rate of 75% which is very good for a striker where he doesn’t have all the time in the world to release the ball to keep the move going. 

As seen in the above images, Isak frequently drops deeper to link up play with one touch  or two touch passing which allows Sociedad to retain possession and continue their build up play. The Swede acting as a focal point is very crucial in Sociedad’s possession-friendly tactical setup. 

Dribbling, Progression and Half Turn

Continuing with the theme of Isak dropping deep, if he hasn’t got a passing option available, he simply carries it forward himself. He is fast, strong, is a good dribbler and is very quick on the half turn. He draws in the opposition defenders with his back to them and then quickly turns away from them opening up space for him to either pass or to carry it forward. 

As seen in the images below, Isak is very quick on the half turn and drawing defenders in before quickly turning them and progressing the ball forward. Isak averages 19.9 carries per 90 with a progressive distance of 125.9 yards per 90. 

In the below image, he expertly draws the defender to get close to him which leaves a lot of space behind the defender, which the Swede runs into after quickly turning the defender. 

Here is another example where he attracts the defender towards him and exploits the space left behind by the defender to progress the ball forward using his excellent dribbling skills.

Shooting

Alexander Isak boasts the highest npxG (Non penalty expected goals) per 90 in the whole of La Liga which shows that he is as lethal in the box as he is outside. He also ranks among the highest in touches taken in the penalty area. So not only is he adapt at playing away from the box, he is very lethal in the box as well. 

The Swede has scored 12 goals in the La Liga this season with none of them coming from the spot. He has accumulated a npxG of 11.4 which shows that he is actually outperforming his expected goals tally by a bit. This shows that he is a very lethal finisher and his quality of shots are very good instead of taking wayward shows which many strikers his age tend to do as they have a point to prove. Isak is composed and chooses his moments which is a very good sign for a young striker. 

Here is a chart comparing his shooting with some of the top strikers.  

(Credits: footyscouts.com/Liam Lam)

Isak ranks among the very best in the business in terms of shot quality, volume and npxG. 

This is a graph comparing his npxG and touches inside the penalty area among all the La Liga strikers. As it is evident, he is again one of the best in that sense. 

Off the Ball Movement

We’ll take a look at his off the ball movement to understand how he is able to create space for himself inside the box. 

Isak sees that Oyarzabal is winning the duel vs Carvajal, so he expertly peels away from  Sergio Ramos who is caught ball watching and exploits the space behind the Spanish defender. This allows him to be free in the box to receive the cross from his teammate and he smashes in a beautiful volley past Areola in goal.  

This image is another example of he can find space using his off the ball movements. He waits for the very last moment to make a run while isolating the defender against him and due to his quick change of pace, the defender is left behind and Isak, being onside, is able to run behind the defensive line and receive a beautiful pass from Odegaard which lands him in a 1v1 with the keeper which he expertly slots away.

There are also areas where Isak needs to improve on such as his decision making. Due to been given freedom to either dribble or shoot or pass, Isak often makes poor decision in the final third in whether to pass the ball, take a shot or dribble it himself which leads to the attack breaking down even when a better option was available. However, we can cut the 21 year old some slack as he is still very young and learning the trade of the game.

Conclusion

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has wanted a striker who can drop deep and link up play while being effective in the final third as well. He often asks Martial to drop deep and hold up play or release the fast wingers such as Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood and Daniel James. Seeing what the Norwegian manager asks of his strikers to do, Isak seems to fit the profile perfectly. He is fast, strong, has got good pace, good dribbling and is very lethal in and around the final third. He would suit a counter attacking system as well as a possession-friendly one. With a little improvement in some areas, Isak can develop into a complete centre forward. 

While Erling Haaland would be the dream signing for Manchester United, they could take a look at the young Swede for a cheaper alternative with a view of developing his game even further. 

Devil’s DNA score: 9/10