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!

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

Sensible Targets: Nikola Milenkovic

The Balkans are known to have some of the best hidden gems in the footballing world. The Croatias, The Serbias of our world have given us many footballing prodigies in the last 2 decades. One such prodigy found his way to Italy at a very young age, right under the noses of European Giants. Now, mature enough to make a big switch- we will take a look at La Viola’s Serbian Centre Back- Nikola Milenkovic and how he can be a good partner to Harry Maguire in the long run and provide healthy competition to current centre back pairing at the English club. 

 

(Photo credit should read ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP via Getty Images)

Background

Nikola Milenkovic was born in Belgrade in October 1997 and spent his entire youth career at Partizan Belgrade who are known to unearth many talented youngsters in the Balkans (one such player which Manchester United were seriously interested in was Filip Stevanovic, who eventually chose Manchester City). After spending some time on loan at Teleoptik, Milenkovic made his debut for Partizan in the Serbian SuperLeague in the 2015/16 season. He appeared four times, largely because of a four-game suspension following a red card. He still managed to score his first goal for the club that year. 

The following season, 2016/17, saw Milenkovic establish himself as first choice option at centre back as he made 32 appearances in the league, scoring twice, as Partizan completed a domestic double. At the end of the season, Fiorentina’s sporting director Pantaleo Corvino, famous for snapping up budding players in the Balkans, brought the defender to Firenze. Milenkovic had a good debut season in Italy with 16 appearances in Serie A. His performances also earned him a spot in Serbia’s World Cup squad where he played all of their three games at the heart of defence.

Playing Style 

Nikola Milenkovic has been one of only a few standout performers for Fiorentina this season. The Serbian is a right-footed defender, who stands at 6 ft 5 and was initially signed from Partizan Belgrade for £4.5m in 2017/18. The Serbian has played in over 3,000 minutes in each of his last two Serie A campaigns, highlighting his importance to the team. Fiorentina often rely on Nikola’s defensive ability. Milenkovic often lines up as the right centre-back and has also played as a right back in the past for La Viola and Partizan.  The Serbian ventures very less towards the left-hand side of the 18-yard box, fixed to the central area and the right-hand side wide space.

 

Nikola Milenkovic’s heat map for the season 2019-20

The heat map also implies that Milenkovic is comfortable advancing with the ball when Fiorentina are in possession, a confident user of the ball who can often be found looking for a progressive pass to break the lines of the opposition’s defensive structure.

Defensive Aspect

Milenkovic is kind of an old school, no-nonsense defender, combining the old school centre back principles with modern day approach; amalgam of the intelligent reading of the game and positioning with strength and superb aerial ability. His height and physical built helps him to dominate in the air, last season the Serbian won 77% of all aerial battles, a figure which positioned him in the 95th percentile of centre-backs in Serie A.

 

Nikola Milenkovic’s 2019-20 season breakup

This season also, he is averaging upwards of 80% in successful aerial duels, putting him in topmost percentile in this metric, not only in Serie A but in top 5 leagues of Europe. One aspect of Milenkovic’s impressive defensive game is his individual defending. He’s got a very good technique when defending on his own and for his age shows a great wealth of experience in terms of his decision making. Milenkovic possesses an innate sense of positioning with the ability to angle his body perfectly to cover passing options while also maintaining the balance needed to defend against the opposition attacking players.

 

Nikola Milenkovic’s 2020-21 season breakup

Ball Playing Ability

In modern day football, the ball playing and ball progression ability of centre backs is becoming a necessary trait in order to thrive at elite level since teams, rather than sitting deep and counter-attacking from flanks, now try to press/counter-press higher up the pitch and try to dominate the possession in half wing spaces. There has been a myth in the scouting circuit that Nikola isn’t very comfortable with ball playing and ball progression due to his “athletic built” (just like Harry Maguire). 

Here, we see an example of how Nikola Milenkovic is with the ball at his feet in the image taken from the game against Udinese below.

The opposition are well organised and their press has closed all forward passing lanes, leading to Fiorentina playing the ball back towards their own goal. As soon as Milenkovic receives the ball in this position his first thought is to drive forward at the opposition.

This movement of the central defender towards the opposition forces the opposition to move out of their positional slots to close Milenkovic down. This movement towards the ball opens a forward passing lane, allowing Nikola to progress the ball into the opposition’s half to the feet of Patrick Cutrone.

Another example of the Serbian’s confidence on the ball and vision to breaking opposition’s lines with his passes with the ball can be found against Sampdoria. I Bluerchiati, led by Mister Claudio “Dily Ding, Dily Dong” Ranieri, are known to deploy a low block with two banks of four spanning the width of the penalty area, and pressing the opposition’s centre backs through their strikers.

This movement creates an opportunity for Milenkovic to get a shot/pass off on goal, in this circumstance Patrick Cutrone reads the play like any good forward and is able to get on the end of the ball from Nikola.

Conclusion

In the above data driven and eye testing tactical analysis, we have seen that Nikola Milenkovic has all the traits to thrive at an elite level in modern day game, he has the physical build, the aggression of an ‘old school’ Centre Back, intelligence of a ‘modern day’ centre back and ability to play lots of games into the season (the Serbian has missed less than 10  matches in his entire career due to injury concerns till now). Given Manchester United’s defensive woes are more due to underlying structural issues which leave their centre backs without any good cover during transitions and the initial pairing of Harry Maguire-Victor Lindelof is also suspect at times: the Swede’s inability to impose himself on opposition’s attacking players sometimes add extra load on his English partner to do extra dirty work. A fast paced and aggressive centre back who can easily do the dirty work on and off the ball during transitions and also has the aggression and physical build to impose himself on the opposition is required to partner Harry Maguire in the long run. Nikola has all those traits and all the eye test and data analysis point out that he can be a good option to buy because of following factors: 

  • The Serbian’s contract with Fiorentina ends in 2022, with him being at a stage in his career where he wants to progress as a footballer at a bigger stage and contest for trophies- this may force Fiorentina to cash in on him during the summer window of 2021. A price between 20-40 million pounds will easily force Fiorentina to cash in on him. 
  • Manchester United do require a centre back but even before buying a Centre Back, they need to sort out the future of their back up Centre Backs first: Eric Bailly’s contract is ending in 2022 and Axel Tuanzebe needs regular playing time at his age too.  
  • Moreover, Manchester United need to buy a defensive minded versatile midfielder first who can play in multiple formations, complement the current midfield roster, try to take the load of creation from Bruno Fernandes and most important thing, don’t leave the centre backs exposed during transitions. With multiple loopholes in the squad and Manchester United’s inability to do the transfer business efficiently in comparison to their arch rivals (Manchester City FC and Liverpool FC), a cheaper alternative like Milenkovic may prove to be a bargain buy in longer run and also leave funds to strengthen the positions which require immediate and instant fix. 

Sensible Targets : Teun Koopmeiners

There have been a lot of questions asked about Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tenure at Manchester United. Is he the right man for the job? Will he bring Manchester United success? Is he capable enough of going toe to toe with the Guardiolas, Klopps and Mourinhos? The fanbase has been divided about Solskjaer’s reign as Manchester United manager ever since he was given the job on a permanent basis after the historic comeback against PSG in the Champions League Round of 16. While there are still some doubts about his credibility to win major trophies, it is fair to say that the Norwegian has managed to turn many doubters into believers. One aspect of his management that has received no doubts is his performances in the transfer market. 

Solskjaer knew the rebuild at Manchester United was a pretty big one. He sacrificed his short term in order to achieve long term goals. He always made a case to sign players who would put the club first and sold anyone who didn’t share the same interests. Solskjaer also sold a lot of deadwood left behind by the previous managers and brought in players who can all be considered as successful signings. Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Alex Telles, Bruno Fernandes, Edinson Cavani have all made a difference for club and while signings such as Donny van de Beek, Daniel James, Facundo Pellistri and Amad Diallo haven’t featured as much as the others, their potential is there for everyone to see. 

Today, we will be starting a series in which we will be covering some players Manchester United could have a look at in order to plug the holes in their squad and work towards improving the squad. It has been widely reported that Manchester United are looking to bring in a Right Winger,a Centre Back and a Defensive Midfielder. 

In this piece, we will cover a defensive midfielder Manchester United could look to bring in – Teun Koopmeiners. 

History

Koopmeiners grew up in Castricum, in North Holland. He joined the AZ youth set up at the u12 level and has been playing at AZ Alkmaar ever since. He rose through the ranks, and as a part of Jong AZ, he won the Dutch third tier title in 2016. In 2017, he made his professional debut for AZ when he came in for Alireza Jahanbaksh for the final 30 minutes in a 4-0 loss to Feyenoord. It didn’t take long for Koopmeiners to become a starter for AZ as he made 26 league appearances. At the end of that season, AZ finished 3rd in the league, qualifying for the Europa League.

Last season, Arne Slot’s AZ grabbed a lot of attention as they finished 2nd in the Eredivisie (tied on points with Ajax) which was ended prematurely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. AZ play an expansive, attacking style of football which boasts many talented academy players such as Calvin Stengs, Myron Boadu, Owen Wijndal and now club captain, Teun Koopmeiners. This season in the Eredivisie, Koopmeiners has scored 11 goals and 4 assists which is an impressive feat for a defensive midfielder. 

Scout Report

Teun Koopmeiners plays on the left side of a 4-2-3-1 formation mainly acting as the deeper lying midfielder of the double pivot. He can play as an advanced midfielder as well as a more defensive one and can also comfortably slot at Centre Back thanks to AZ academy’s philosophy of not defining a specific position for the young prospects. The 22 year old contributes equally in attack as well as in defence. Let’s take a look at each of his strengths in detail.

Passing
Possibly the biggest strength the Dutch midfielder possesses is his passing ability. Koopmeiners is a brilliant passer of the ball. Instead of going up the field in the double pivot, he usually stays back to link up play from deep midfield. He is very adept in playing long balls over the top as well playing progressive passes along the ground.
The Dutch midfielder averaged around 74 passes per match last season with an impressive 89% pass accuracy. Considering the fact that the average pass completion percentage for his position is 82% across Europe, his 89% passing accuracy shows how much of an accurate passer he is. Furthermore, he averaged around 25 forward passes per match with a 76% pass accuracy for the same. Koopmeiners also gave 9.2 deep progression passes per 90 last season showcasing his immense ability to start attacks from the back. 
He is a type of defensive midfielder who can control and dictate the tempo of the game. The 22 year old provided 0.73 xGbuildup ability last season which shows how much he can influence attacks and contribute to build up play. His dribbling and deep progression is also one his strengths which points to his ability to move the ball forward from either by passing from the deep or carrying it forward using his dribbling abilities.
Defensive Abilities
As a defensive midfielder, Koopmeiners has to adhere to his defensive responsibilities as well. Looking at his stats, it’s clear that he is not someone who ignores his defensive responsibilities. Koopmeiners averages 6.83 duels per game and wins 61% of them which shows he is not someone who shies away from a defensive duel and is someone who ‘gets stuck in’ on the pitch. Still, he wins well over half of his duels which is still impressive for a player playing in his position.
Adding to that, He also averages 3.3 PAadj tackles and interceptions per 90. (PAadj is a metric used to adjust stats according to the possession a team keeps). We can see his defensive stats in a graph made by StatsBomb (@StatsBomb)

Set Pieces
Teun Koopmeiners possesses a wand of a left foot and his set piece ability is one of his biggest strengths. Koopmeiners has converted 18 of 22 penalties attempted in his career with a conversion rate of 82%. He is currently the designated penalty taker at AZ and is improving day by day. In the 2019/20 season, the Dutch midfielder converted 9 out of 10 penalties. Besides that, he is also adept at hitting in free kicks and is a constant threat from his set pieces either from corners, indirect free kicks.

One weakness that Teun Koopmeiners does possess is his lack of pace off the ball. He makes up for it via his positioning and his footballing IQ but his lack of pace is something that must have been worrying for a lot of PL level clubs. He was linked to Leeds United, West Ham and most significantly to Everton but he ended up staying at AZ. 

Scouting score: 9/10

Tactical Fit

Ever since Bruno Fernandes came in at Manchester United, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has leaned towards dropping the counter attacking system and shifting towards a more possession based system. The tactical system that saw Manchester United arguably play the best football in the league after the lockdown ended last season seems to be the type of system the Norwegian prefers and recent matches in the PL is also a strong indication for that.

Speaking of that post lockdown system – Nemanja Matic was a big, big part of that system. Matic used to drop as a faux CB while in possession and look to start attacks from the deep via passing it through the vertical lines of opposition defence or by carrying it forward himself. Seeing how Koopmeiners plays in the exact same position at AZ, he could be a very capable replacement for Matic as the Serbian midfielder doesn’t have age on his side.

 As seen in the image above, Koopmeiners is very capable of breaking the vertical lines and starting attacks from the back.

 

Not only is he good at breaking vertical lines, he can also play accurate through balls and set up quick goal scoring opportunities for the forwards. Seeming how Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba and Donny van de Beek all like to play in between the midfield and defence vertical lines, the balls from the deep to them are very crucial to get Manchester United’s attacks going. Nemanja Matic did that exceptionally well and United have been looking at such a deeper lying playmaker to do that job ever since. 

Tactical Fit : 10/10

 Conclusion

Another aspect of the Dutch midfielder which cannot be ignored is that the 22 year old is a born leader. The fact that he was AZ’s captain at just 21 years old is a testament to that. Manchester United have lacked strong characters in the dressing room for a while and even though the addition of Bruno Fernandes and Harry Maguire has helped that, another name can only help. 

Koopmeiners is someone who puts his team first and is someone who makes everyone around him play better. He is a proper dressing room leader and a very strong character which will be very important if Manchester United have ambitions to win titles in the near future. 

All in all, Teun Koopmeiners seems like a perfect replacement for Matic. If anything, he plays and behaves like a younger version of Nemanja Matic. Considering the fact that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer prefers to play the possession system under which United have thrived previously and are still thriving under it, Koopmeiners seems like he would be an excellent addition to the squad. 

According to latest rumours, Leeds United, Fulham and Everton are still interested in bringing the AZ captain to England in the summer. AZ could demand a niche fee in the region of €25m to €40m. Considering the low asking price, and all that we have analysed in this report, we would rate Koopmeiners a ‘must buy’ for Manchester United for summer 2021. 

 

Overall Devil’s DNA score: 9.5/10. 

 

 

Manchester United Loan Report, Dec ’20

With the mid-season mark of 20/21 approaching soon, we take a look at how Manchester United’s first-team players out on loan have been doing so far. 

Diogo Dalot (AC Milan) 

Starts: 7
Subs: 2
Mins: 650
Positions played: RB, LB
Goals: 1
Assists: 2
MOTM: 1


Per game stats:
Tackles: 2.1
Interceptions: 2
Clearances: 1.6
Dribbled past: 0.7
Dispossesed: 0.1
Bad controls: 1.2
Key passes: 0.2
Dribbles: 0.3
Crosses: 0.2
Long balls: 1.6
Pass%: 83%

Failing to impress Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at United, Dalot’s loan spell at AC Milan has resulted in another period of being unable to convince the manager for game time. Stefano Pioli has settled on a 4-2-3-1 with the fullback roles being dominated by Calabria and Theo Hernandez. Among Dalot’s 7 starts, 6 have come in the Europa League clearly indicating his role as the cup option. He’s played equally on both sides of a back 4 impressing a lot more from left back where Milan have a shortage of options. All 3 of Dalot’s goal contributions have come from left back in the Europa League against the same opponent.

His game of the season so far was against Sparta Prague on 29th Oct where he scored and assisted in a 3-0 win. The reverse leg away to Sparta saw him pick up an assist as well. That game was followed by Dalot’s first start in the league against Genoa on December 16th at left back. The Portuguese had a torrid time in a 2-2 draw. His defensive fragility allowed striker Destro to attack repeatedly. Even the Europa game against Celtic saw Dalot’s poor positioning keep his man onside during Celtic’s second goal. In a roaring campaign that has largely gone to plan for Sampaoli’s men, Dalot’s mistakes stand out. Facing fixture congestion, the coming few weeks will be key for Dalot to impress and be counted as a valuable squad member. 

Given manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s lack of faith in Diogo Dalot and recent rumours of a move for Trippier to provide competition for Wan-Bissaka, United will be hoping Dalot impresses enough on his loan spell for Milan to put in a transfer bid. It has been claimed that the Rossoneri usually assess their loanees during the spring and are keen to stick to that policy in an attempt to afford themselves more time to consider Dalot. Dalot spoke to Sky Italia last week: “Let’s see what happens at the end of the season. For now I don’t want to think about that: I am 100% focused on Milan and that’s it.”

Loan spell score so far: 5/10

James Garner (Watford) 

Starts: 13
Subs: 6
Mins: 1091
Positions played: CM, AM
Assists: 1
MOTM: 1

Per game stats:
Tackles: 0.9
Interceptions: 0.7
Clearances: 0.8
Dribbled past: 0.9
Dispossesed: 0.4
Bad controls: 1.1
Shots: 1.1
Key passes: 0.8
Dribbles: 0.5
Crosses: 1.1
Long balls: 1.2
Pass%: 81%

Garner has been a regular feature for Watford starting 13 of the 22 games they have played so far. The majority of the unfeatured games and substitute appearances were towards the start of the campaign while he was settling in. Garner has started 8 of the last 9 games for the Hornets. Watford recently sacked manager Vladimir Ivic after just 4 months in charge following their 2-0 loss to Huddersfield on Dec 19th. Under Ivic, Watford played a 5-3-2 with 3 central midfielders. With Chalobah occupying the deepest role, Garner has often found himself playing a right-sided box-to-box role, alongside ex-United Tom Cleverly, with license to roam, create and shoot which explain his high shooting, crossing and long ball numbers. Garner’s game of the season so far came against Coventry in November where he ran the show with 2 dribbles, 3 key passes and one assist in an emphatic comeback 3-2 win. He was pushed to AM in one substitute appearance against Barnsley as Watford were chasing the game but has largely stuck to his B2B CM role other than that. 

Watford’s season hasn’t gone to plan as they find themselves 5th in the Championship in a year they desperately want to get back to the Premier League. Goal scoring has been an issue with only 23 goals scored in 20 games with ex-manager Ivic’s defensive 5-3-2 being targeted regularly by fans. Watford announced Xisco Munoz as their new head coach on 21st December who comes with a reputation of playing an attack-minded 4-2-3-1. It remains to be seen how this will affect Garner’s game time and performances, but given how the 19 year old has adapted so far, fans can remain positive of his continued development on loan and the chance to challenge for a first-team spot at United from next season. 

Loan spell score so far: 7/10

Tahith Chong (Werder Bremen) 

Starts: 3
Subs: 9
Mins: 309
Positions played: LW, CAM
Goals: 1
Assists: 1

Per game stats:
Tackles: 0.9
Interceptions: 0.3
Dispossesed: 0.7
Bad controls: 1.4
Shots: 0.8
Key passes: 0.5
Dribbles: 0.8
Crosses: 0.1
Long balls: 0.4
Pass%: 67%

Game time has been a major issue for Chong having featured for only 309 minutes in 1260 minutes of Werder Bremen’s season so far. Bremen have played mostly in a back 3 with Rashica and Bittencourt supporting striker Sargent in attack. With attackers Fulkrug, Osako and Schmid also featuring as rotation options, Chong has been held back only for occasions when Bremen deploy a back 4. Life at Bremen began with a bang as Chong’s first appearance in September saw him dribble past 2 defenders and finish from the right wing in the DFB Pokal opener. That initial high proved to be a false dawn. 

He started on the left side of a 4231 against Frankfurt rounding up a poor performance which saw him get dispossesed 3 times and unable to contribute in attack. He started as a right sided CAM in a 4-2-2-2 against Berlin where he attempted 4 dribbles but was unable to dictate play. His 3rd start came in December against Stuttgart on the left of a 4-2-3-1 again which saw him put up his worst performance of the season with 3 shots off target and 3 dispossesed moments. On the 7 occasions Chong came on as a substitute, 4 offered him less than 5 minutes each on the pitch while 2 were 17 minute cameos where he was unable to impact the game. His latest sub appearance fared better. On Dec 19th, he came on against Mainz to provide an assist for the winner in a crucial 1-0 win. Fans will be hoping this can spark a turnaround in the fortunes of the Dutchman if he is to have any future for the red devils. 

Loan spell score so far: 3/10

Andreas Pereira (Lazio) 

Starts: 2
Subs: 11
Mins: 319 
Positions played: CM, AM
Goals: 1

Per game stats:
Tackles: 0.6
Dribbled past: 0.6
Shots: 0.7
Key passes: 0.3
Dribbles: 0.3
Dispossesed: 0.5
Bad controls: 0.6
Crosses: 0.2
Long balls: 0.8
Through balls: 0.1
Pass%: 75%

Another one who has struggled for game time, Andreas’ plans to impress on loan and earn a move away from United – where Ole Gunnar Solskjaer seems to be enjoying the headache of choosing between Bruno, Van de Beek and Pogba for his role – hasn’t gone to plan so far. Lazio’s famous 3-5-2 system has seen manager Simone Inzaghi stick to Milinkovic-Savic and Luis Alberto ahead of Leiva in a mid 3. In fact, one of Andreas’ appearances was in a midfield diamond ahead of these 3, such is the unwillingness to drop them. With Parolo, Cataldi and Escalante serving as rotation competitors as well, Andreas has been forced into largely being an impact sub featuring in 319 out of 1710 minutes so far. 

Andreas’ first start in the league actually saw him score against Torino in November. But being 2-1 down and carrying a yellow card saw him substituted at half time which would eventually pave the way for a comeback 4-3 win. The decision was fair given he was dribbled past 3 times and gave away the ball cheaply often as well. A series of games followed where Andreas would get substitute runs of less than 20 minutes on the pitch and being unable to provide any impact. His next start in the league came against Spezia. This time he was given the full 90 minutes playing at the head of a diamond ahead of the 3 preferred starters. But Andreas was unable to take his chance to impress, the result of which has seen him get no further starts till date and even lesser time in his substitute appearances, the last 4 of which don’t even add up to 30 minutes in total. It’s only getting worse for the 24 year old and for United, who would have hoped for a better loan spell to be able to sell him for value.

Loan spell score so far: 3/10