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)

Scout Report- Noni Madueke

One name which has dominated headlines in the last 1 year is that of Jadon Sancho. Everywhere you look, it is all ‘Jadon Sancho’- Whether he will move to Manchester United or not, will he cost 100 million euros or more (or less which the chiefs running the football turned American franchise thought before). Even though there has been a verbal agreement of personal terms between the player and buying party, the buying party (in this case Manchester not so United under the current ownership), there has been a haggling over the price from Manchester United’s side over the impact of Covid-19 on football finances (but all of that went down the gutter during the unveiling of the European Super League). 

Now that the summer of 2020 is past us and 2 years are left on Jadon Sancho’s contract, this summer will be the best opportunity for Borussia Dortmund to command a price worthy of the Englishman’s talent and experience. Whatever club ends up getting the South London born Jadon will end up with a gem of a player and person which can elevate their attacking unit to new heights. But what will happen to BVB after Sancho’s departure? Going by the news in Germany (and adjoining Netherlands), BVB are after yet another Englishman who plies his trade in Eindhoven. In case of Jadon Sancho’s potential departure, BVB have their eyes set on PSV Eindhoven’s Noni Madueke. In this data driven scout report, a glimpse will be shown at how another Londoner is thriving outside of England and how he can replicate the heights of Jadon Sancho. 

(Photo by Photo Prestige/Soccrates/Getty Images)

Player Background 

The 19 year old Noni Madueke plays as a right winger for PSV Eindhoven, led by the German Roger Schmidt. The youngster spent the entirety of his youth career at Tottenham where he led the Under 16 side and also made his debut for the under-18 side as a 15-year-old. After being declared Player of the Tournament at the Sonnenland Cup in Germany in 2017, the youngster started attracting interest from the likes of clubs in England and abroad. However, Madueke decided to make a move to PSV instead where he had a better chance of playing regular first-team football.

(Photo by Photo Prestige/Soccrates/Getty Images)

Playing Style

Noni is a winger who likes to cut in on his stronger left foot and also use the width of the pitch, in order to stretch out the defense. It is pretty evident given the tactics Roger Schmidt uses, a high octane version of 4-4-2- taking the shape of expansive 4-2-2-2 in attacking phase and reverting to a narrower version of 4-4-2 in defensive phase. Even if he is positioned as a right-sided winger, Madueke prefers moving in a central role since it allows him to see more of the ball whilst also improving his involvement in games. Moreover, the youngster doesn’t mind going in the deeper positions where he can be quite effective in helping with the buildup and also being an extra defender when the team is under pressure.

(Madueke’s heatmap for 2020-21 season)

Madueke is blessed with great pace and agility combined with good technical ability which allows him to be a very annoying presence for the opposing players. His ability to constantly move around the edge of the penalty area while far away from the buildup always keeps defenders on their toes. The youngster knows exactly how to free himself up and when to free himself up, meaning a good off the ball movement which you expect from a winger (and what new BVB Boss Marco Rose demands from his attacking players)

(Madueke making a run with his good off the ball movement into free space)

During most of his outings either as a starter or as a sub, Madueke has proven to be a very accomplished player when it comes to creating space and making himself available to teammates. The youngster does like to cut inside but you will mostly find him scanning for possible areas where he can be a better option for one of his teammates. This can cause a lot of problems for teams especially those who look to go for a man-marking system. The youngster’s ability to play potential scenarios in his head help him be more effective in buildup play. You will always see him trying to fill a pocket of space which allows his teammates to have more options to go for.For a winger, perhaps the most important attribute (arguably) would be how good he is when it comes to dribbling the ball and carrying it deep inside enemy territory. Madueke does love to dribble quite a lot. The Englishman has great close control and excellent pace which allows him to penetrate and stretch defences. The winger boasts a 64% rate of successful dribbles- amassing a 1.7 successful dribble per 90 minute. Meanwhile on defensive end, he has won 52% of his contested duels- winning 3.2 duels per 90 minute. He has stats to back him up both in attacking and defensive end, no wonder why a player of ability will be loved by Marco Rose if this potential transfer goes forward. Since he is predominantly left-footed, Madueke tends to position his body in such a way that it makes it easy for him to make a pass from his preferred foot. While it isn’t necessarily a bad thing, relying on his left foot has seen the youngster make the wrong decisions which is something he would need to work on.

(Madueke’s dribble map in the final third)

Every speedy winger blessed with a bag of tricks needs to be a great reader of the game, especially when his team is transitioning from defence to attack. While he has a breakthrough season in terms of first team football at PSV, Madueke knows exactly how to make use of his excellent dribbling skills and ability to bring teammates into play. Madueke likes to set things in motion quickly and there are instances where he would go for a first-time pass to his teammate if he’s in space or is in a better position. The England youth international does not like to complicate things and would simply put a teammate through. In the long run, this ability will help him become a team player and his passing accuracy for first-time passes will also improve considerably.Being a winger, one can expect Madueke to be a good crosser. However, the youngster still has a lot of work to do on his crosses inside the penalty area. The Englishman definitely doesn’t cover himself in glory when it comes to delivering crosses and this should be a major concern going forward. While we do understand that he is a different type of winger, one who wants to be closer to the action, he will be required to whip in crosses more often than he does. But then again, the youngster isn’t exactly a highly experienced first-team player so he is bound to come up short in a few instances.  The youngster plays as an inverted winger so it becomes abundantly clear that the teenager likes to stay close to the penalty area, especially when his team is finding a way past the opposition in or around the final third. This ability has also seen Roger Schmidt use him as a second striker at times, staying close to the 18 yard box, trying to find space in order to either pick up the main #9 with a pass or make space for him or take a late run in the box to trouble the opposition’s defense.

(Madueke’s positioning during one of the counter attacking transitions-1)
(Madueke’s positioning during one of the counter attacking transitions-2)

Conclusion

With his dribbling ability, off the ball movement and most importantly, his flexibility in terms of positional sense coupled with his ability to handle pressure when it comes to playing outside of his comfort zone, make him an ideal Jadon Sancho replacement. If this summer, Jadon Sancho’s departure is sealed then it makes sense for BVB to make a move for Noni Madueke given the abilities (both on and off the pitch) which the youngster brings with him. Marco Rose will love a player of his ability and tactical discipline, while Noni will also not find it extremely difficult to settle down since he has played under Roger Schmidt who also uses a similar tactical skeleton as Marco Rose. Only time will tell whether Noni Madueke will explode like Jadon Sancho or not but the underlying talent and hard working attitude exist. The next step will be to amplify this to the best of the player’s ability and in turn’s the team’s advantage which should reflect in terms of progressive football and positive results – the ethos on which BVB works. A modest fee of 10-15 million euros will be enough for PSV to part ways with Noni Madueke which can be used to recruit able replacement(s) – a good move for all parties involved if it were to go through in yet another topsy-turvy summer window.

(Photo by NESImages/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

Scout Report: Patson Daka

Last few days in the footballing world have seen some mind-boggling developments: from the abomination called European Super League (and the new UCL Reforms) to Hansi Flick going public about his discontent with the upper management of FC Bayern Munich.  A domino effect has been observed in Germany with clubs experiencing a mass exodus of managers and sporting directors alike leaving for greener pastures. It all started when Borussia Dortmund decided to approach Marco Rose, manager of their arch rivals Borussia Monchengladbach. A ruling in the German ownership/voting model; which is another hot topic in footballing world after the ESL fiasco, dictates the clubs to officially announce such incomings and outgoings to the shareholders/voting members who hold the upper hand in running of the club directly or indirectly-all thanks to 50+1 model. This midseason announcement derailed the campaign of Gladbach. A similar event happened at Eintracht Frankfurt who announced the departure of their influential Sporting Director Ferdi Bobic to fellow Bundesliga side Hertha Berlin and Gladbach then poaching Adolf Hutter from Eintracht Frankfurt. Same scenario has triggered the movement between Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig which saw the Bavarian club agreeing to pay a world record compensation fee for a boyhood Bayern Munich fan and current RB Leipzig’s manager- Julian Nagelsmann. 

This domino effect has now provided the talented American manager Jesse Marsch to take over from Julian Nagelsmann at the start of new season. This merry go round of managers and directors will eventually result in the movement of some talented players from one destination to another to get reunited with known faces at the new club. One such player who might be embroiled in this domino effect is Patson Daka, the talented Zambian international who currently plays for RB Salzburg and is managed by Leipzig-bound Jesse Marsch.


(Photo by Michael Molzar/SEPA.Media /Getty Images)

Background

Born in the Zambian city of ChingolaPatson Daka provides an inspirational success story, going from the school playing fields in his native Zambia to now leading the attack at one of Europe’s most exciting teams.  Daka grew up with the benefit of having a father who played professional football – in fact Daka’s earliest memories of football are watching his father Nathtali taking on opponents out wide. Nathtali’s sad passing during Patson’s youth has provided a main source of motivation in his own footballing journey. The youngster was taking his school exams when trials to represent the local province were being held. Persuaded by a friend, Daka went along and made an immediate impression.

Less than 12 months after this trial he was captaining Zambia at youth tournaments and even earned a call-up to the senior national team aged just 16. Daka’s impressive performances for Zambia in the Under-17 Africa Cup of Nations(AFCON) in 2015 captured the attention of former Mali international Frederic Kanoute, which eventually led Daka to RB Salzburg after a loan spell at FC Liefering.


(Photo by Lars Baron – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

2017 proved to be a breakthrough for Patson Daka. The Zambian was a pivotal figure in RB Salzburg’s surprising UEFA Youth League success, scoring in the semi-final and final against FC Barcelona and Benfica respectively. At International level, Daka earned individual honours when named the 2017 Under-20 Africa Cup of Nations Best Player, in which he was also its top-scorer, the 2017 CAF Youth Player of the Year and the 2017 CAF Most Promising Talent of the Year. The latter especially is a very prestigious award, previously won by the likes of Mohamed Salah and John Obi Mikel.

In this scout report, an in-depth analysis of player’s game and his usage by Jesse Marsch will be covered which can also solve one issue which RB Leipzig has faced this season – the lack of a reliable striker up front. We analyse how the 22-year old can solve this issue if he were to get reunited with Marsch and one of his close friends off the pitch, Dominik Szoboszalai, in Leipzig.

Player Analysis

After taking the mantle from Erling Haaland, who moved to Germany in January 2020, Patson Daka exploded becoming the team’s top scorer in the Austrian Bundesliga with 24 goals and 6 assists in 21 starts and 10 substitute appearances. The current campaign has seen him net the same amount of goals in lesser number of appearances (24 with 18 starts and 6 substitute appearances) – scoring a goal every 71 minutes – an exceptional goal scoring frequency no matter what competition and standard in terms of difficulty. Till now in his professional career at senior level, Patson Daka has scored 0.64 goals per 90 minutes, after amassing an expected goal (xG) ratio of 0.54 per 90 minutes- again proving that he can be a reliable player in a suitable tactical setup – no matter what the quality and standards of the competition.

One of the main reasons he has such a great clinical streak in front of goal is the intelligence of his movement and how he positions himself before receiving the ball creating plenty of space for himself in optimal shooting positions, giving himself the best possible opportunity to convert his chances. Additionally, it does often seem as though the ball literally just finds him, due to how he often ends up on the end of a pass, loose ball or rebound in very favourable positions but this is a result of his excellent positioning and movement before the ball reaches him which creates such favourable conditions for the striker.

This intelligent movement and positioning go hand in hand with intelligent shot selection when it comes to Daka. He rarely takes on long-shots, with just one of his 19 shots at goal in the league this season coming from outside of the penalty area. He is a ‘fox in the box’. The benefit to this intelligent shot selection is seen in how often he hits the target with his shots. Daka has taken 4.69 shots per 90 minutes in the league this term, hitting the target with 56.22% of them. For reference, Haaland took 4.54 shots per 90 minutes in the Austrian Bundesliga last season, hitting the target with 48.08% of them. The 22-year-old is very two-footed and scores almost as many goals with his left foot as he does with his right foot, the latter being his alleged stronger foot. This two-footedness makes him even more difficult to defend against, especially in these central areas he likes to position himself, as he can shoot very effectively from either side and he’s an agile dribbler that can quickly shift the ball onto either foot when a potential shooting angle opens up.

Daka is strong enough to back into a defender and hold the ball up in these situations, which he often does, but he’s also quick and agile enough to potentially spin out and get around the defender on his own in this type of situation. On this occasion, Daka’s receiving the ball with one teammate running towards goal inside of him who he could potentially pass to, but with so much more space on the outside and no teammate out there, he opts to collect the ball and go alone and the Zambian reaps the benefits of this decision. He intelligently uses his body positioning to keep the defender guessing as the pass comes to him, initially feinting forward on his left leg before quickly switching his weight onto his right leg, receiving the ball and spinning in behind, exploiting this space and creating a good shooting angle.

Daka has an impressive defensive work-rate for a striker. Daka keeps himself very active without the ball both when his team are in possession and when they’re without possession. Without possession, whether he’s required to track back into deep areas or whether he’s trying to help his side to win the ball back high up the pitch, Daka generally works hard and performs his required role diligently. He could never be described as a lazy player by any means. He’s also diligent at helping his side to defend against a counter when the ball is further up the pitch and tracking back is not a problem for Daka, with his pace also coming in handy there.

Conclusion

Jesse Marsch plays a high octane version of 4-4-2 which can take the shape of an expansive 4-2-2-2 (which Ralph Hasenhuttl deployed at RB Leipzig during his successful tenure) in attacking transitions. But RBL have struggled in the attacking department this season. With the departure of Timo Werner to Chelsea and their new recruits in Hwang Hee Chan (who played with Daka at RB Salzburg) and Alexander Sorloth taking time to settle in, RBL lacked a reliable #9 who can take the mantle of goal scoring. With the talks of Yusuf Poulsen, Marcel Sabitzer looking to find new challenges and Hwang Hee Chan apparently to be put on the market (with interest coming from London based West Ham United), RB Leipzig will need some firepower in their arsenal. Even though, they have secured the Bosman signing of another talented youngster- Brian Brobbey from AFC Ajax, his inexperience at senior level will end up putting excessive pressure on a youngster leading a side as competitive as RB Leipzig. An able partner and senior player in Patson Daka (whose current RB Salzburg contract ends in 2022) and Alexander Sorloth will enable RB Leipzig and Jesse Marsch to build his new tactical approach and perfect it with signings of his choice-which RB Leipzig can provide with ease given their healthy financials and also avoid a pretty inexperienced yet talented youngster in Brian Brobbey being ‘thrown under the bus’.


(Photo by Peter Lottermoser/SEPA.Media /Getty Images)

What will happen to RB Salzburg? Their extensive scouting network will again enable them to find capable replacements without compromising on competitive streak at domestic and continental level. Best bet will be the promotion of talented 17-year old Slovenian youngster Benjamin Sesko who has come to life at FC Liefering this season with 15 goals and 5 assists in 26 outings. Current FC Liefering manager and successor to Jesse Marsch, the 33-year old Matthias Jaissle clearly prefers the Slovenian youngster and looking at the model RB Salzburg follows, there are high chances that the young striker will be promoted to first team. German youth international Karim Adeyemi is also knocking down on the door as first choice winger/striker. A potential strike force of Megrim Berisha, Sekou Koita, Karim Adeyemi and Benjamin Sesko can replicate the consistent goal scoring record of Patson Daka if he were to depart in coming summer, without losing any competitive edge and providing a win-win situation for every party involved in such a complex situation, made easy by the Red Bull Sporting Model. 


. (Photo by Markus Tobisch/SEPA.Media /Getty Images)

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

Scout Report: Anel Ahmedhodzic

According to reputed Italian journalist Fabrizio Romano, English Giants Chelsea and Manchester United have extensively scouted this talented Bosnian center back but it is the underdog Italian side Atalanta who are in advanced talks with him, beating their local rivals AC Milan along the way. The player under spotlight today is Anel Ahmedhodzic of Malmo. 

Background 

Born in Malmo, Sweden to parents of Bosnian heritage, Anel joined the youth academy of his hometown club which he left to play abroad, eventually landing at Nottingham Forest in January 2016. He made his professional debut against Newcastle United on 30th December, 2016- at the age of 17. This was his first and last start for the English side. He returned to Malmo FF in the winter window of 2018-19 season for an undisclosed fee. He made his first team debut for Malmo FF against their arch rivals- Helsingborg on 2nd June, 2019. 

Anel joined Danish Superliga side Hobro IK in a loan arrangement for 2019-20 season. He made his first start for his new club against fellow Superliga side Esbjerg on 21st July, 2019. He was called back to Malmo in January 2020 since his presence was deemed necessary at first team level and he has never looked back ever since. He extended his contract with Malmo FF until December 2023 and already has won the league with his home town club.

Ahmedhodzic has represented Sweden at all youth levels and even won his first senior cap for the Swedes in 2020 but he always had his heart set to represent Bosnia and Herzegovina. With the latest change of ruling by FIFA when it comes to representation at international level, this made Ahmed’s dream come true since his application for change of representation was accepted and he has now 2 caps for Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

Playing Style

He is a right footed center back with a good built and height for a center back. He is the epitome of a modern day center back with underlying principles of those old school ‘no-nonsense’ center backs. Malmo’s head coach and former English Premier League and La Liga striker, Jon Dahl Tomasson, prefers a 4-4-1-1 formation. Ahmedhodžić (#15) is deployed at right centre-back in a back four. The majority of his touches, as you would expect for a defender, are in his team’s half of the pitch.

His tall built (6’4”) gives him an advantage over his opposition and it is reflected in statistics too. He has a success rate of 73% when it comes to aerial duels, the highest in Allsvenskan. But Ahmedhodžić is not quite as dominant in the air in his team’s penalty area. In this area, he wins 62.1% of his aerial duels.

Anel is a good ball playing center back too, boasting a good accuracy of 91.9% successful passes and most of his passes are forward passes, progressing into wide areas of the pitch. His progressive pass accuracy is 79%. Ahmedhodžić is competent at both keeping possession safe and playing forward into attacking areas.

The above image shows the moments after Ahmedhodžić has received the ball from LB. As soon as he receives the ball, he tries to attack the vacant space in front of him. Despite having easier and safer passing options available, he takes the responsibility of looking for an opening and tries a line breaking pass. By dribbling into the space in front of him at speed, he causes disruption to the opposition. Travelling up the pitch also makes a through ball easier to complete due to the shorter distance the ball will have to travel. Whilst being pressed, he has the awareness and ability to break the opposition’s press and pick out his striker’s clever run. This play is typical of the young defender. He doesn’t run away from responsibility. His first thought, even when receiving the ball in his own half, is how to put the opposition on their back foot and create a goal-scoring opportunity for his team. Not only does he possess an aggressive attacking mentality but also has the technical ability to pull it off.

Tackling is one of Ahmedhodžić’s mains strengths and at the same time one of his biggest liabilities. There are moments, usually when covering for a teammate, that he is able to use a slide tackle to recover the ball in a desperate situation. These challenges are perfectly timed and have often prevented clear goalscoring opportunities for the opposition.

However, too often when the situation requires patience, Ahmedhodžić is too eager to regain possession and dives in. This has cost his team by conceding freekicks in dangerous areas, showing his brave and aggressive streak. This is one area where the talented Bosnian has to improve and try to keep a calm and level head in such heated situations. His slide tackles are a good attribute to have but too often they are used as his first choice rather than a last resort. Should he go on to play at a higher level, going to ground so readily will have him found out quickly.

Overall, Ahmedhodžić’s movements off the ball are good. When keeping possession, he is aware of where the ball is and where he wants it to go next. He adopts a good position and body shape to achieve this. As covered in the previous section, when progressing the ball, he is aggressive with his runs and creates and joins in counter-attacks.

Conclusion

Given his ability on and off the ball, he comes off as a typical modern day center back who can play in a very high defensive line and try to build the attacks from the back, shuffling possession from central to wide areas and vice versa. This is the reason why teams like Chelsea, Manchester United, AC Milan and Atalanta have extensively scouted him. 

All those teams have an extensive scouting network in Scandinavia, all 4 of those teams have a playing style which will complement his strengths and also nullify his weaknesses in longer run. If we were to go by chatter in the media, Atalanta lead the race for his signature and even the player prefers a move to the Lombardy based side which will be the best possible move for him. Atalanta may lose out on their star player Cristian Romero (who is currently on loan from Juventus) but they will get a good and reliable replacement in Anel Ahmedhodzic who can take the mantle from Romero and play in a system which will suit him very well and playing in a league like Serie A will hone his technical ability as well. 

Another brilliant example of Atalanta’s scouting who not only have the one of the best (if not the best) youth setup in Italy but their scouting model in Scandinavia and other fringe countries is also the best among Italian clubs- getting cheaper yet first team ready replacements, sell them for a great profit and again repeat the cycle whilst not losing the competitive edge. 

Scout Report- Yusuf Demir

The player under radar today is the one who Football Manager players must know inside out with a sure shot potential ability to become one of THE BEST on the game. But in real life, this ‘wonderkid’ is also making strides which has now attracted the attention of all European footballing superpowers to win his signature. We will take a deep dive to cover the up and coming Austrian Yusuf Demir.

Background

Yusuf Demir is a product of Rapid Vienna youth academy. In 2019, he signed his first professional contract with the club aged only 15. He made his first-team debut for Rapid in a 3-0 Austrian Bundesliga win over Admira Wacker Mödling on 14 December 2019. Yusuf is of Turkish descent, but he is a youth international for Austria. On 15 September 2020, Demir scored a goal for Rapid Wien in 1–2 defeat against KAA Gent in the 2020–21 UEFA Champions League third qualifying round, at 17 years, 3 months and 13 days old, to become the youngest Austrian scorer since Gerd Wimmer in 1994, aged 17 years, 10 months and 27 days. He was the first name in the Guardian’s Next Generation: class of 2020 list, touted as Austrian ‘Messi’ by the panel of journalists who shortlisted him along with 59 other players around the world who have the potential to become one of the best in coming years.

(Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images)

Playing Style

Demir can play in a number of positions across the frontline due to his versatility. He is also very adept at playing as an attacking midfielder, predominantly when his side utilize the 4-2-3-1 formation. The youngster has been utilized as a creative number 10 in 40% of the games he has featured in throughout his career, whilst he has played in any position variation on the right flank  40% of the time, with the other 20% being positions from anywhere off the left and even as a deep lying midfielder, dictating the gameplay from deeper areas of the midfield. However, this season, Rapid Vienna’s manager Dietmar Kühbauer has preferred to play this prodigy as an attacking midfielder mainly as it gets the best out of the 17-year-old, featuring in total of 22 games this season, quite a good number of games under the belt for a kid of his age at senior level. The most notable aspect is that Demir still prefers to operate slightly off to the right and in the right half space so that he can cut inside on his preferred left foot, which is where the youngster can be most dangerous.

Yusuf Demir’s heat map for 2020-21 season in Austrian Bundesliga

Demir’s all-round play is very impressive. He has a brilliant balance and pace along with exquisite technique and ball control for a player of his age. The teenager has been given quite a free role in the Wien side when he plays for them, especially as an attacking midfielder. This is reflected in his dribbling stats which put him among top 5 of Austrian Bundesliga with 10.62 dribbles per 90 minutes out of which he is completing 5.26 dribbles per 90, roughly completing 1 dribble out of 2 attempts. When in a 1v1 situation against an opponent, Demir’s natural instinct is to try and get himself into a central position which is where he is most dangerous on a football pitch. He does this by using body feints and a drop of the shoulder, combined with rapid changes of direction to ease past opponents. Demir’s preferred movement is from outside to inside on the right-flank as he can use his left-foot in the central areas providing he gets by his challengers.

Cutting in and trying to find space to hold the ball

A text book move for Demir when playing for his club or country is to look to receive the ball between the lines with his back turned to the goal. Receiving his back turned to goal allows him to receive the ball on the half-turn and drive forward with the ball at defending players and combine it with his brilliant balance, agility and low center of gravity to beat the defenders with ease. From the above image, you can see that Demir has dropped into the space between the opposition’s line of pressure and midfield in order to receive the ball to his feet. By dropping deep, he has given his backline an extra option to deliver a line-breaking pass and exploit the space created by Demir with his off the ball movement. From here, the Austrian likes to receive the ball on the half-turn on his backfoot and drive forward, attacking onrushing players in 1v1 and sometimes even 2v1 duels. One of the most impressive stats from the teenager is his offensive duels per 90. Demir currently has the highest number of average offensive duels attempted per 90 in the league with 20.6 offensive duels per 90 minutes.

Dropping deep to hold up the ball and eventually free up space for others

Whilst he likes to drop very deep at times in front of the opposition’s midfield, his preferred area on the pitch to operate in is between the lines of the backline and midfield line, which allows him to put his attacking instincts to better use than in deeper areas. Demir generally opts to receive the ball in the right half-space, try to cut in with his stronger left foot and provide ample space for marauding fullback to stretch the opposition’s defense and provide overlaps for better crossing angles. Receiving in the right half space in between the lines allows him to have space to take the ball on the half-turn – as he loves to do – and drive inside before hitting curling shots outside the box. This only mainly applies when Demir is deployed as a number 10 or a right-sided player but since he has been used in these areas 80% of the time, receiving in between the lines in the right half-space is a very important part of the 17-year-old’s overall game.

Yusuf Demir’s Shot and Goal Creation Action Analysis

In terms of creative ability, his best comes from the left flank. The reason for this is because he excels at getting into the left half-space and cutting the ball backwards. As Demir is a left footer, pulling the ball across the box is more natural for him on the left side of the pitch. This is an example of an excellent chance created by Demir in the assist zone on the left side of the box. He receives the ball in the left half space again and drives towards the by-line. By being naturally left-footed, he is more suited to putting the ball across the box in these situations as opposed to the right side where he needs to cut back onto his stronger foot. Playing as a number 10 also gives him the freedom to roam into these types of positions at times to create as well as drifting towards the right – his preferred side.

Yusuf Demir trying to cross the ball into the 12 yard box with his stronger left foot

Demir is also well able to carve a defence open when the opportunity arrives as he has quite an innate ability of playing through gaps in an opposition’s defence to find running teammates. The Austrian’s creative stats are very solid for a player of his age Demir has averaged 0.71 key passes per 90 in all competitions and also currently averages 0.33 expected assists (xA) per 90 for current calender year.

Yusuf Demir attempting a line breaking pass to marauding winger

Conclusion

For a 17-year old teenage footballer, Yusuf Demir’s game is very mature and there is a reason that all of Europe is extensively scouting him, ever since he has broken into Rapid Vienna’s first team. Teams like Manchester United and Juventus have had scouted him in the past but their interest has been rekindled with his recent performances. On one hand, it is quite natural to give into the temptation when Europe’s most prestigious clubs are chasing for your signature but Yusuf is in that age category where experience at first team level without any added pressure is crucial for development, both physically and mentally. Players of his age group must strive for a healthy competitive environment.

Ideally, he should stay in Rapid Vienna and try to become a regular first team player in coming years, try to break the domestic domination of RB Salzburg and also help his hometown club to make a deeper run in Europa League and then take it one step ahead by switching to a side fighting for European places in Germany who also don’t hesitate to play younger players (preferably Borussia Dortmund or Borussia Monchengladbach since these 2 clubs can do with a player of his quality given the tactical setup they use complements his strengths). Once, he is mature enough, both physically and mentally- he can easily take the challenge to make a name for himself at the grand stage, both at club level and international level.

Yusuf Demir has the potential to become one of the all time greats for not only Austria but one of the all time greats of upcoming generation of footballers. But, with talent, you always need hardwork, dedication and the most important thing- Patience.  

(Photo by Vincent Mignott/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)