Mid-season report: The numbers behind MUFC

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

 

 [Goals vs G-xG, EPL 20/21]

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

[Carries vs Progressive Distance, MUFC 20/21]

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

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

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

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

The Importance of Victor Lindelof

The Importance of Victor Lindelof

A flashback to November 21, 2017. Manchester United were having a tough time breaking down lowly Huddersfield as they trailed 1-0 and were forced to make a defensive sub thanks to Phil Jones’ injury. Victor Lindelof came on and within just 10 minutes found himself forced into a sticky situation from goalkeeper Jonas Lossl’s long clearance. Lindelof missed the header, allowing Depoitre to sweep up the easy loose ball and make it 2-0. Paul Merson said on Soccer Saturday after the game: “The lad Lindelof came on, and wow. If you watch Christopher Schindler for Huddersfield, you’d take him all day long over Lindelof.” The error marked the latest in a string of defensive mistakes that led to manager Mourinho becoming reluctant to give Lindelof a Premier League start until 6 months after signing him in the summer of 2017. Fans were already calling for the sale of the Swede in a bid to recoup the £31m fee, which they clearly felt was a bad investment.

Fast forward to the present and Victor Lindelof is one of the first names on the team sheet for Manchester United. A forced half-time withdrawal against Istanbul this week in the Champions League thanks to a niggling back injury was lamented by fans as they prayed for his recovery and fitness in time for the weekend clash against Southampton. The perception of Lindelof has come a full 360 and after more than 2 years of consistent performances, the £31m fee is starting to look more like a bargain than wasted investment. Forget Christopher Schindler, most United fans would not swap Lindelof even for Toby Alderweireld now. The ‘iceman’, a nickname popularised by United fans, has been credited in bringing the Red Devils out of the Jones-Smalling era and form a more progressive partnership with Harry Maguire to great effect. We analyse the importance of Lindelof and why he is one of the most underrated cogs in the current United machine.

Journey so far:

It was in the second-half of 2015-16 that Lindelof began playing regularly for the Benfica senior team and ultimately earned a callup from the Sweden senior team to be a part of their squad for Euro 2016. His stock has steadily been on the rise ever since and earned him a transfer to United in the summer of 2017. 

 

After an initially rocky start in Manchester, with Eric Bailly being the preferred option, Lindelof has slowly become the mainstay in the Manchester United XI while Bailly has spent most of his time on the shelf with injuries. In the 2018/19 campaign, Lindelof asserted himself as United’s best centre-back option. He was the leader in the defence making 30 league appearances. He thrived as confidence was put in him to be the number one centre-back. But a few errors at the start of the 19/20 campaign brought back doubts on his ability. He was beaten in the air for Crystal Palace’s first goal when they wound up 2-1 winners at Old Trafford in August, and the same happened again when he was completely out-jumped by Jannik Vestergaard as Southampton held United to a 1-1 draw the following month. But, as his understanding with new partner Harry Maguire kept growing, the duo fell upon a formula which covered for both players’ weaknesses and enhanced their strengths. The remainder of the season saw Lindelof put together another impressive run which played a huge part in United climbing up in the league to finish at an impressive 3rd place. Lindelof started 35 out of a possible 38 Premier League games and only conceded 32 goals, which was an improvement over the 2018/19 season where he conceded 40 goals in 30 starts.

Harry Maguire summed it up perfectly in a MUTV interview before the end of the 19/20 season: ”We’ve had a good season up to now together. When you form partnerships, it takes time. I’m learning his game and he’s learning mine and I think we’re getting better. We’re keeping a lot more clean sheets than we were at the start of the season. We’ve had a couple of great goals scored against us from outside the box, but we haven’t really been having games where David [De Gea] has had to make saves apart from maybe the Carabao Cup second leg against City when David was brilliant. It’s a partnership that’s building and I think we’ll get better and better, and start keeping more clean sheets like we have been doing recently.”

United fans were ambushed with a quick reminder of his weakness towards the end of the season as Lindelof was to blame (along with Wan-Bissaka) for the goal against Sevilla that brought to fore a furious argument with Bruno Fernandes. But, in the larger scheme of things 19/20 marked the end of 2 consistently solid seasons for the Swede. 

His impressive stats and the way he has fought tooth and nail for his spot at Manchester United since 2017 haven’t gone unnoticed, earning him a new deal in September 2019. The 20/21 season hasn’t offered up much for analysis so far as Lindelof has had a stop-start season thanks to his back injury. After a frustrating start shipping goals against Palace and Brighton, the Iceman has found his usual groove with imperious displays against PSG, Chelsea, RBL and Arsenal. 

 

Tactical Analysis:

Lindelof is clearly a ball-playing defender but his pace, composure and game-reading make him very suitable to play as a cover defender. Most modern centre-back pairings operate in a stopper-cover partnership. The stopper is the one who aggressively engages in duels with attackers and often steps into the DM area to win the ball early before the clear-cut chance can be created by the opponents while the cover CB drops deeper to sweep up the loose balls and contest the duels that the stopper misses. The relevance for this style of partnership has only increased in modern times as many attackers are adept at dropping in the hole to create (like Firmino, Messi, Kane) as they draw out defenders and create space for their more attacking partners (like Salah, Suarez, Son) to attack the space. With the stopper-cover setup, the stopper engages the former type while the cover player tracks the latter type to give the team a double opportunity to weed out threats. For reference, Ferdinand Cover and Vidic Stopper or Ramos stopper and Varane cover would be good examples.

For Manchester United, Maguire is the clear stopper and enjoys stepping into midfield to contest with opponents. His strong frame and heading ability make him a great asset to win the ball early and stop opponent moves while his lack of pace and agility are also made up for when he engages early without giving the attacker a chance to collect the ball and run at him. In contrast, Lindelof avoids the early aerial scruff and drops patiently to pick up the quick poacher or loose ball from Maguire’s duel. This often puts him in the right place to sweep up balls with control and calm or contest a forward’s dribble or pacey run which he is well suited to win most of the time. On the rare occasions Maguire is dribbled past or Lindelof is forced into an aerial battle which he loses, United concede a chance. But given the combinations and the fact that both players are adept defenders, this leads to very few chances on goal. As a duo, Maguire and Lindelof’s combined individual errors leading to goals was 0 in 19/20 which was the best in the Premier League. They also let in the least through balls from open play into the D box in the league. While either may not have been as good as Virgil Van Dijk individually, together they have been as good as any CB pairing in Europe in 19/20.

A good example of their combination is the game against Everton where Maguire went ahead to engage the midfielder while Lindelof smartly tracked the run of the incoming winger. Maguire lost the duel getting stranded ahead and the ball was played perfectly in the danger area but Lindelof’s reading and pace enabled him to cut across and clear the ball before it entered the D box.

Lindelof is a strong ball-player constantly looking for line-breaking passes that find midfielders and attackers in good positions. While finding the holding midfielder with a quick short pass or spreading the play with a through ball on the wings to the fullback is like bread and butter for him, he also possesses the vision and technique to pick out the front 3 with a perfect midfield-splitting grounded ball.

A good example is against Wolves last season where Lindelof stepped in to stop the danger, trapped the ball perfectly before giving himself time to pick out a free player in a dangerous situation where he was being pressed before finally finding Jesse Lingard, who dropped deep to help, with a precise pass through the crowd.

Lindelof always keeps looking for more direct routes to goal as evidenced by this move against WBA where instead of opting for the conservative pass to the right-back, he dribbles forward and finds striker Martial with a quick grounded pass. 

 

 

 

 Another example of his directness and technique against Burnley as he goes wide on the right before belting a strong grounded pass through the midfield to find striker Martial once again:

 

 

His technique and vision aren’t limited to his right foot alone as in this example he receives the ball in a high-pressed crowded area near his D before turning and releasing the attacker on the halfway line with a left-footed through ball, turning a dangerous situation for United into an opportunity to counter.

 

 

 

Strengths:

In 2018/19, Lindelof finished the Premier League campaign with no errors leading to goals, a 68% tackle success rate and just one yellow card. In 19/20, he was even more impressive with a 98% tackle success rate which was the highest in the league. He again finished the league season with 0 errors leading to goals. What Victor lacks in strength and aerial ability, he makes up for with a proficient reading of the game. The Swede is intelligent, and knows when to make that slide challenge and when not to. In the 19/20 season, he made 170 recoveries and won 103 duels in the Premier League, which is testament to his reading of the game. His dribbled past stat per game was 0.3 in 18/19 and 0.1 in 19/20, both being second in league after Van Dijk, who had been having Ballon D’or level seasons. Lindelof’s dispossessed stat (Times player was dispossessed of the ball by an opponent) is consistently just 0.1 across the last 3 seasons which is a league leader stat, showing his strength on the ball. It is also telling how accurate and reliable Lindelof is during the tackle. He picked up only 1 yellow card in his senior Benfica career while his total yellow cards for Manchester United are only 9. The Swede is yet to be shown the red card in his playing career. 

 

Lindelof is a performer for the big stage. His performances against sides like Juventus, RBL and Paris Saint Germain were really commendable as he marshalled the likes of Mbappe with ease. The Swede can be called the quintessential big-game defender as he defends calmly against technically-gifted world-class forwards retaining confidence and composure in his pace and game-reading. Lindelof’s fitness and consistency is a largely underrated factor. Given the injury issues of Jones and Bailly, United badly needed someone resilient, robust and stable and Lindelof is all of that. He started 79 out of a possible 93 games in all competitions over the 18/19 and 19/20 seasons, mostly being rested because of chances to Tuanzebe and Bailly in Europa or Cup games. After being overplayed by club and country without any pre-season or rest this year, the Swede has picked up a back injury after 2.5 years of first-class fitness. But such is his tenacity and natural fitness that he’s managed to appear for Sweden and United even with the back niggle. He has become one of the players fans can always count on to be fit and ready most of the time.  

Weakness:

It’s an obvious issue that needs addressing; as much as Lindelof likes to command play from the floor, a core weakness is his aerial abilities which has proved costly a few times now. The fact that Maguire is aerially sound doesn’t help his cause, either. Errors in the air as a centre-back aren’t taken well, which has often led to harsh finger-pointing by fans in Lindelof’s case. Ironically, Lindelof looks more confident keeping up with top-class attackers like Aubameyang or Neymar than contesting a looping header against Olivier Giroud or Troy Deeney. But, there is a clear growth trend even in this department as his aerial mistakes have only reduced since his arrival at the club. Lindelof’s aerial duels won per game in the league were 1.3 in 17/18, 2.3 in 18/19 & 2.7 in 19/20. Having just turned 25, it is clear he has been working hard with the aim of cutting down those errors completely from his game and wants to become the complete finished product for the next few years.

 

For a defender who just turned 26 years old, Lindelof’s best years are only ahead of him. Showing considerable growth and consistency in the 3.5 years he has been at United, the Swede is starting to look more and more like the capable centre-back United fans have been craving for since the Ferdinand-Vidic days. A good comparison to his growth can be made with Gerard Pique. Like Lindelof, Pique started off as an agile, lanky ball-player who was very quick, composed and reliable on the ball but made the occasional mistake in aerial battles often leaving them to his stopper partner Puyol during his early days. But as Pique entered his peak and earned more responsibility, he developed to weed out those issues from his game and has now become a key figure for Barcelona over the past decade. Lindelof can take a few notes from this growth pattern since he seems to be walking on the same path. There is no stopping Lindelof being a world-class elite footballer if he continues his improvement and grows as a defender. The iceman has the potential to reach the snow-capped heights every defender dreams of.

 

The Importance of Bruno Fernandes

It was around 30 mins into the Manchester derby at Old Trafford when the ball went out for a Manchester City throw in and the man wearing no.18 on his back had an exchange of words with the City manager, Pep Guardiola. A bit of back and forth ended with Bruno Fernandes practically shushing the Catalonian. A short 5 second altercation showed exactly what Manchester United were missing prior to the Portuguese’s arrival in the January transfer window. 

Manchester United’s 19/20 season up until the end of the January transfer window had been a huge roller coaster ride. This was a team which could go toe-to-toe with Europe’s finest on their day but fail to win a match they should be comfortably winning on some other day. The young squad assembled by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had potential which was clear to see, but after a few good performances and results, their inconsistent form again dipped and a 2-0 loss to Burnley showcased just how poor United looked on their bad days. The performance was lacklustre and uninspiring much like the season till that point, and if United were down, there was usually no coming back from it. 

“When the going gets tough, the tough gets going” – United lacked someone ‘tough’. A strong personality, a vocal leader, someone who can make a difference when the chips are down and in that process rally everyone around him too. The 2-0 loss to Burnley was followed by United acting swiftly in the transfer window and securing the signature of Bruno Fernandes from Sporting Lisbon for a reported 47m pounds fee (excluding add-ons). Fernandes made his Manchester United debut the following weekend against Wolves at Old Trafford and his impact was easily seen. 

The match ended 0-0 but Fernandes was the best player on the pitch. Constantly demanding the ball, finding pockets of spaces to drift into, Bruno was taking charge. In fact, he was even constantly instructing and talking to teammates and telling them what to do, something about his personality that is known by everyone close to him. This was the type of impact he had after training only for a single day. The goalless draw was followed by 2 consecutive league wins against Chelsea and Watford with Fernandes having a say in both those games. Early signs suggested that the red devils had made a wise investment. Two comfortable wins in the FA Cup and Europa League and a tough draw at Goodison Park followed and then it was time for the Manchester derby.

Fernandes had set up Anthony Martial from a quick freekick earlier in the game and then came the altercation with Guardiola. It was at that moment some started to think United had finally found their talisman, their leader, their ‘strong personality’ in the dressing room. The match ended with United winning 2-0 and they looked comfortable in doing so. The 26 year old’s impact had made the team play better and everything around Old Trafford looked like it was falling into place.

The Derby was the last game played at Old Trafford before the pandemic put a stop on all the footballing activities. After the resumption of football, Manchester United were arguably the best team in the league for the remainder of the season.

Manchester United went unbeaten for the remainder of the campaign upon resumption. In fact, the red devils didn’t lose a single game in the league since Fernandes made his debut against Wolves on the deadline day of the winter transfer window. The first match they lost which involved the Portugese was the 3-1 defeat to Crystal Place on the opening day of the 2020/21 season. His immediate impact was for everyone to see. The 26 year old contributed to 8 goals and 7 assists in the Premier League last season, no other midfielder in the league contributed to more since his debut last season. 

Bruno Fernandes has now scored 18 goals and provided 13 assists for Manchester United in 33 appearances across all competitions, that’s 31 goal involvements in 33 appearances – an outstanding record. In the Premier League, he has scored 13 goals, only Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah has scored more since Fernandes made his debut. He became notorious for ‘only scoring penalties’ towards the end of last season but he has scored more non-penalty goals than any other midfielder in the league since he made his debut. 

If we look past the goals and assists, he also became the first Manchester United player to win back to back Premier League Player of the month awards since Cristiano Ronaldo and was also named as Manchester United’s player of the year despite having been here only for half the campaign. Fernandes also has won 5 man of the match awards for Manchester United so far. He also has a 4.4 sca/p90 which ranks him 10th in the league. SCA means shot creating actions such as a pass, dribble or even a tackle.

Courtesy of Statsbomb and football Slices, Fernandes’ percentile rank compared to the midfielders in Europe’s top 5 leagues is exceptional. 

Some of the stats like the pass completion rate or his non-penalty xG per shot may look a bit low but that showcases his playing style. The Portuguese isn’t afraid to take risks. If there is even a slight chance of setting someone through on goal or even if he gets half a yard of space from a shooting area, he will go for it. 

In football, the great players have this exceptional ability to make everyone think that something is going to happen when they have the ball. Fernandes is one of them. He constantly demands the ball is played to him and wants everything to go through him. Players around Fernandes are prepared to go the extra mile too, making constant runs and finding spaces in dangerous areas for the 26 year old to pick them out with a pass, because they know he has the ability to do exactly that. 

Tactical Analysis

Francesco Guidolin managed Bruno Fernandes when he was at Udinese and the Italian manager claims that Fernandes is one of the most intelligent players he has ever managed. He isn’t the only one to heap praise on the Portugese midfielder, the sporting director who took Fernandes from Boavista’s academy to Novora says “he is the most intelligent person I have ever met”. From using post-it notes to learn new languages and watching the replays of his games right after it is over, Fernandes uses every shred of his brain and his natural talent to become the player he is. 

It is easy to see how intelligent he is. For example, the goal he scored against Newcastle shows how well he reads the game. 

Here, he starts United’s counter attack intelligently linking up with van de Beek with a backheel and sets of running. Van de Beek passes to Mata, who releases Rashford and the counter attack is in motion. 

Rashford receives the ball wide left and continues running into the vacant space which prompts Fernandes to go inside in case the Englishman decides to run it wide and put in a cross. 

Instead, Marcus Rashford decides to cut in and take on Jamaal Lascelles which makes Fernandes make a move towards the outside. In the image, the moment Rashford goes inside, Fernandes starts going towards the outside. 

The Portuguese continues his run and Rashford expertly finds him after drawing 3 defenders towards him. Fernandes then takes a touch and then finishes it into the top corner beating Karl Darlow. 

He reads and understands the game very well and even if his stats seem unbelievable, he can impact games and goals without being directly involved in the goals as well. 

In the 3rd goal that Anthony Martial scored against Sheffield United last season, Fernandes didn’t have an assist but was still involved heavily. 

He receives the ball from deep through Paul Pogba and instantly gives it to Martial behind with an expertly executed backheel, catching the Sheffield United defenders off guard. 

He then makes a move towards the box while Martial finds Rashford out wide in the left side half space. 

He sees Martial making a run inside the box and instantly drops back to provide another passing option to Rashford. 

This catches defender John Egan off guard, who is left ball watching and fails to cover Martial who expertly chips the keeper to complete his hattrick. 

One largely underrated aspect of Fernandes’ style of play is his heading ability and his ability to get into positions of scoring a free header. Now his heading ability isn’t as polished as that of the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo or Robert Lewandowski but his movement and his ability to understand the game allows him to find spaces in order to find a free header inside the box. 

He scored a headed goal against Everton by sliding in between the two centre backs and connecting from a Luke Shaw cross. 

Here, he is inside the box waiting for Shaw to deliver a cross, as soon as Shaw puts his foot to the ball, Fernandes flicks on the switch and makes a run in between the CBs

He meets the cross, fairly unmarked and then slots it home beating Jordan Pickford in the Everton goal. 

What makes Bruno Fernandes so special is his hunger and drive to always improve and be better. “He wants to be the best”, says Giraetta, speaking to Jack Lang for The Athletic. He watches his games in their entirety as soon as he reaches home, even if it’s 2:30 in the morning. He watches them irrespective of the result, when they have won, drawn or when they have lost. Especially, when they have lost. He has a constant drive to become better than he already is. 

For people close to him, they have said he has always been like this. It doesn’t matter if Bruno is playing street football with his elder brother and his mates or if he’s playing with Cristiano Ronaldo for the national team, if there is something he doesn’t agree with, he will say it. He is expressive, an extrovert, and very blunt about his feelings. When Luuk de Jong scored the winner to take Sevilla to the Europa League finals and knock Manchester United out of the competition in the process, a footage was floated around the social media sites of him arguing with Victor Lindelof. Another footage came across when he was seen kicking the door, much to the dislike of the security guard present, after he was sent off in a match he played for Sporting Lisbon. “I’ll pay for the door, you can go f*** yourself” were the words coming out of the 26 year old’s mouth. A true indictment of his personality, he just cannot keep it inside. 

The altercation with Pep Guardiola is no different and that moment totally summed up what Bruno Fernandes is all about and what Manchester United had been missing prior to his arrival. A strong personality who will constantly expect better from himself and from those around him and won’t be afraid to speak up whenever required. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said Bruno Fernandes brings the ‘X-Factor’ to the team and it’s easy to see how. 

If there ever was a “Manchester United player” then Bruno Fernandes is the best player to express. His high risk, high reward style of play, his relentless work rate, his constant drive to win the ball back and demanding the ball is played to him, he is everything that Manchester United players of the old were – a fighter. Fernandes is a fighter on and off the pitch and he won’t settle for anything but the best.

Fernandes isn’t fazed by the pressure that comes with the price tag or the expectations of the fans. He does his job and whenever his team needs someone to step up, he is the one to do it. Maybe he relishes the responsibility, maybe he thrives when the odds are stacked against him. 

Manchester United may have finally found their talisman in their journey back to the top. After all, the fans haven’t named him the ‘The Portugese Magnifico’ for no reason.  

Scout Report: Isak Bergmann Johannesson

Four years ago, Iceland’s FIFA ranking was 130. These days they are hovering around the 30 odd mark. A country with a population of just above 300,000 has been going through a wonderful phase of producing talented footballers and the next big name in that list might just be Isak Bergmann Johannesson. We shift the focus of our scout series from the new Red Devils wonderkids to someone who could potentially be a new Red Devils wonderkid in the near future as well.

Career History:

Isak comes from a glittering family of footballers some of whom you might be able to recognize. When he was just three years old back in 2006, his father Joey Gudjonsson was turning out for Leicester City. March 2006 saw Gudjonsson produce an iconic moment that will live long in the memory of Foxes fans, scoring a stunning goal from the halfway line against Hull. Gudjonsson enjoyed spells with Aston Villa, Wolves, Leicester, Burnley and Huddersfield among others. As for Isak’s grandfather, he is none other than Gudjon Thordarson, who managed Stoke City, Crewe, Barnsley and Notts County among others. Three of Isak’s uncles all played professional football at one point or another, while a fourth turned out in the Iceland leagues. Meanwhile, one of Isak’s cousins – on his mother’s side this time – is a team-mate of his at Norrkoping. Football is in his veins. All eyes are now on the youngster and whether he’ll become the third straight generation of his family to take his talents to England.

Isak may well be Icelandic, but he was actually born in Sutton Coldfield in England. The youngster was born not too far from Birmingham city centre, back in 2003 when his father was playing for Aston Villa. Isak actually also went on to briefly feature in Manchester City and Bolton Wanderers’ youth sides while Gudjonsson played for Burnley and Leicester.

Isak is a big Messi fan. He attended Barcelona’s Champions League clash with Borussia Dortmund back in September 2019, a game which Barça won 3-1. On that occasion, Messi scored once, provided two typically exquisite assists and generally ran the show. Taking to his Instagram after the game, Bergmann Johannesson summarised his experience at Camp Nou by writing: “Wow. We saw Barcelona at Camp Nou. We saw Messi. We saw Messi score. We saw Messi assist two. We saw Messi be too good. We saw the goat. We experienced our dream.” He was also wearing a Frenkie de Jong jersey, a player he has admitted to looking up to. The influence of the Dutchman on his game is clear, notably his composure on the ball and ability to dictate the game.

You would be forgiven for not necessarily keeping up to date with the goings-on in Swedish football. But to fill you in, Isak Bergmann Johannesson has impressed at youth levels at ÍA Akranes and IFK Norrköping where he earned numerous trophies and individual awards. He was awarded as the most promising youngster in men’s category at U14 level in 2015, U15 level in 2016 and U16 level in 2017. He then won the Icelandic championship at U19 level in 2018 before dominating the Svenska Mastare (Swedish Championship) at U21 level in 2019. His rise and impact was too hot to ignore and since the start of the Allsvenskan 2020 (Swedish top flight), which runs from March 2020 to April 2021, he has already become a key figure within IFK Norrköping senior team thanks to his impressive performances. The midfielder has made 26 appearances in all competitions this season, netting four times and providing a further ten assists as well, to fire Norrkoping to third in the Swedish top-flight with five games to play and within a great chance of a rare European competition berth for the Swedish side.

At international level, despite his age, he is already featuring for Iceland’s U21s, such is his talent, and should he continue to progress, a senior international call up won’t be too far away. But having not made his senior debut and being born and raised in England, Isak could still opt to play for The Three Lions.

Playing Style:

A versatile player, Isak can play on either wing or as a central midfielder, which is his preferred position. Oh, and he’s also filled in at left back this season as well. With a wand of a left foot, Johannesson is lethal cutting in from his favoured right-wing. His playing style and preference of playing on the right side or center as a playmaker draw comparisons to Giovani Lo Celso and Dejan Kulusevski.

The teenager plays with a maturity beyond his years, knowing when to drive forward and go for goal himself and when to pick out a teammate. Isak is most dangerous when finding pockets of space to work in and setting up his teammates with pinpoint passes. But he’s definitely not afraid of going for goal himself either. In a tight tussle with Helsingborg back in August, the youngster – who was playing left back on this occasion – made a bright run up field to support the attack. Feeding the ball to a teammate on the edge of the box, Bergmann Johannesson looked to play a clever one-two, receiving the ball back just inside the 18 yard box. Without hesitating, he unleashed a ferocious strike with his left foot, with the ball rifling into the top corner at the near post. The goalkeeper just stood there, what else was he supposed to do?

His greatest strengths are undoubtedly around his wand of a left foot. His passing range is astounding for someone his age as he mixes up measured through balls, floated crosses, drilled crosses, opposite flank switches and defence-splitting chips as easily as a precise short pass. He boasts of that rare ability when as a teammate you know that if you run into space, a pass from Isak will somehow find its way right in front of you laid on a platter with the correct speed and angle for you. Though he is very one-footed relying on his magic left foot for most part of his game, he is capable of covering for the angular issues by playing some glorious outside-the foot passes and crosses reminiscent of prime Mesut Ozil.

His positional versatility means that he can provide accurate dangerous crosses from the left side while playing at left back or left wing, or cut in and shoot for the far corner when deployed on the right wing or run the show as the heartbeat of the team,  creating chances and linking defence to attack, when played as a central midfielder. In all cases, he displays a great first touch and close control followed by an ability to quickly assess where his teammates or the goal are before picking his target with his left foot using pinpoint precision and immaculate technique. He’s also no slouch off the ball being a very willing runner when his teammates have the ball often engaging in smart 1-2s and channel runs when played in the middle of the park and belting out repeated threatening runs behind the opposition fullback when played as a wide player.

His technique and precision make him a threat in dead-ball situations given his ability to beat a goalkeeper like this. Standing at 180cm, Isak doesn’t fall prey to the common tropes of youngsters his age like poor physical strength and endurance. He boasts good body strength and balance, regularly shrugging off tackles and presses in midfield comfortably while running with the ball. He also displays good aerial threat during set pieces and shows off the stamina and workrate that often see him running hard even at the 90th minute of a game. His only weaknesses seem to be pure defensive traits like marking, tackling and positioning which make playing as a defensive midfielder seem unlikely for the time being. But he has high potential to develop into a consistent, intelligent and explosive attacking player in any position ahead of that for sure.

Transfer Saga:

A number of clubs have sat up and taken notice of Isak. In fact, Liverpool became the most recent club to send scouts to watch him in action on 25th October. Expressen reported that Liverpool scout Mads Jorgensen watched him as Norrköping played out a 2-2 draw with AIK. Though Liverpool’s scouting trip was widely reported, the fact is that they actually just joined a rather long list of suitors, which contains most of the top clubs in Europe, including Manchester United and Juventus. These sides have all decided to send scouts to see the youngster first hand in recent months, but due to COVID-19 measures, only six scouts are allowed to attend a game in Sweden. As a result, Norrköping director Jens Magnusson recently confirmed that they have had to start turning away scouts as there are simply far too many looking to see Bergmann Johannesson up close.

“I think there are six scouts who can be admitted per match. But we had an incredible number of more requests for this match [vs AIK],” he told FotbollDirekt. “So there is a limitation. There we had to pull the handbrake a bit now. Then you never know exactly which players they are there to watch, of course. But here at the end, it is no secret that many are there to see Isak.”

The club’s chief scout Stig Torbjörnsen confirmed that should a suitable offer come in, Norrköping could well part ways with the youngster. In late October, Stig claimed, “It’s hard to say if we can keep him in January. A club with a lot of money could come along now or in six months. Norrkoping have a lot of money and don’t need to sell, and Isak has a sensible agent and family. When something comes up that is good for all parties, something will happen.”

Isak recently gave an interview to Expressen where he used an often-quoted phrase that will excite United fans: “Manchester United is my dream club, along with IFK Norrköping. I lived in Manchester as a child and watched many matches there.” Despite this, however, he refused to rule out the possibility of joining either Man City or Liverpool should they come calling, adding: “You can not say so. They play good football. Manchester City and Liverpool have been great. But will I have the chance to move this winter? I’ll just concentrate on Norrkoping – we have five games left to get a European place”

What will get the hopes of United fans up is a recent Instagram post from Isak. Just 2 days after Manchester United’s Bruno Fernandes posted “I might lose, but I will never give up until I win again” on his Instagram after United’s impressive victory against Everton last weekend, this week Isak posted “We might lose, but we will never give up until we win again” after IFK Norrköping’s loss to Mjallby over the same weekend. The coincidence is too big to ignore considering he’s a self-proclaimed childhood United fan. Manchester United fans can only hope Isak decides to sign for his dream club soon and follows in the footsteps of the playmaker whose caption he copied.

(Image and video credits: Isak’s Instagram account: https://www.instagram.com/isak.bergmann.johannesson/)

The Importance of Fred – Season Report 19/20

Tactical Analysis: The importance of Fred – Season report 19/20

by Varun Vasudevan

Tactical Analysis

There are many Manchester United players who divide opinion among the passionate fanbase. None more so than Brazilian midfielder Frederico Rodrigues de Paula Santos, better known as Fred. After a torrid time under Jose Mourinho, Fred has found his feet under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and delivered some of his best performances in the first half of the 19/20 season before being shifted to a backup role after the return of Paul Pogba in the second half. From a failed transfer to Player of the year candidate to backup player, the last 18 months for Fred have been a whirlwind. The reality for the player is somewhere in between all these opinions. Let’s dive deeper to analyse Fred’s season, strengths and weaknesses and indulge in some conjecture over his Manchester United future.

Strengths & Weaknesses
We start with a simple analysis of what Fred brings to the team. The infographics below highlight Fred’s ranking of various statistics among all Premier League midfielders to have played 15 games or more over the 19/20 season. There are about 100 midfielders who fit this criteria.

We look at the defensive stats first since that’s been a huge part of Fred’s achievements this season and immediately we see that he ranks 8th, 2nd, 3rd and 5th for tackles won, pressures, steals (Number of times the squad gained possession within five seconds of applying pressure) and pass blocks respectively among Premier League midfielders this season. Additionally, he also ranks 6th for tackles in the defensive third and 2nd for steals in the defensive third. His defensive aura reduces in the middle third (ranking 11th for tackles and 6th for steals) while its almost non-existent in the attacking third (ranking 64th for tackles and 50th for steals) indicating much of his defensive work comes deeper than higher up the pitch. The reasons for this will be highlighted further when we discuss his tactical fitment. But the above table also points out a glaring weakness of Fred’s game. He ranks third in times dribbled past in the league suggesting that shielding the defence and positioning are big weaknesses. The amount of aggressive pressures he makes often lets opposition players slip by. It’s a catch-22 situation where the benefits of a successful pressure and opportunity to counter come at the cost of attackers getting past him.

Looking at the possession stats, we see positive rankings for successful dribbles, players dribbled past and carries (Number of times the player controlled the ball with their feet) indicating Fred’s strength as a dribbler. He is confident enough to make dashes with the ball after recovering them in midfield and a decent progressive distance (Total distance a player moved the ball towards the opponent’s goal) rank of 12th also indicates that most of these are purposeful vertical dashes towards goal. His pass target (Number of times a player was the target of an attempted pass) rank of 8th also indicates how the other United players have looked at him to carry the ball out of defence often. The big weakness here is the high dispossessed rank of 10th suggesting that often in these attempts he also loses the ball which is further confirmed with his miscontrols (Number of times a player failed when attempting to gain control of a ball) rank of 28th – suggesting that Fred isn’t the ‘safest’ option in midfield from a ball retention point of view. For a team that prioritizes keeping the ball this would prove to be an issue.

Finally, as we check the passing stats, there is a clear skew towards progressive passing rather than safe/short passing. Fred excels at purposeful passing ranking 8th best for passes into the final third, 6th for completed passes distance (Total distance, in yards, that completed passes have traveled in any direction), and 8th in progressive passes distance (Total distance that completed passes have traveled towards the opponent’s goal. Note: Passes away from opponent’s goal are counted as zero progressive yards) only being bested by pure attacking midfielders in these stats which is unique given the time he spends in his own third of the pitch while defending. He ranks 28th for short passes completed and 37th for short pass completion % indicating that he’s better at going long and direct instead of short and safe. His number of key passes are decent (rank 28) for his position while his zero assists statistic this season isn’t a huge surprise considering his defensive role.

To summarize the stats above, this is a midfielder who presses and wins the ball in his own third, progresses with the ball purposefully in the middle third and attempts and pulls off many direct passes into the attacking third – but all this comes at the cost of safe possession and control.

Tactical Fit
Our understanding of Fred will be further highlighted if we spend some time analysing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tactics for the season. Without diving too deep, (that can be a whole other article) it’s clear that Ole preferred to play on the counter in the first half of the season while going for a much more possession-oriented game in the second half of the season. The Norwegian made the best of what he had starting the season based on the strengths of his newly formed defence, pace of the attack and ball winning ability of his midfield. This was where Fred shined. The aim was to drop deep, absorb, press, steal, and play progressive passes to the front 4 who could then hit teams on the break. This was what Fred was good at. There was no pressure to keep possession or play safe. There was no playmaking burden placed on the Brazilian as he displayed his tenacity, energy and drive to consistently defend and initiate counter attacks at the cost of possession. By December, Fred was already a frontrunner for Manchester United’s Player of the year award.

But, it has to be said, he seemed like the best piece of a team that wasn’t doing all that well. While results came in big games where the counter approach suited United, it was games against the bottom half where the lack of creativity cost them heavily keeping them far from the top 4 where they aimed to be. Bruno’s arrival and Pogba’s return offered Solskjaer a great opportunity to change that.

Now armed with creativity in the middle of the park, Ole resorted to a possession based system. While the shape remained a 4-2-3-1 on paper it resembled the classic 4-3-3 possession-oriented shape in game. The perfect foil for a midfield containing Pogba and Bruno was Nemanja Matic. The Serbian, though aged, possesses a few things Fred doesnt – positioning, build up play and safety in passing. Using the same data and scope given earlier, Matic ranked 6th in passes completed and 8th in pass completion % while playing the 8th most passes into the final third. He was tailor-made to play the deepest role in a possession-based tactic. This system now meant Matic’s lack of aggression, pressing and progressive dribbling was not an issue. His ball retention, safety on the ball, positioning and shielding offered things Fred could not. 

 

The images show the average position of the players in two games picked out from both halves of the season. Earlier in the season against Bournemouth, the 4-2-3-1 shape is more prominent with Fred (#17) and Scott Mctominay (#39) shielding the back four as a pivot. The formation is skewed towards the left as Rashford remained the threat on the counter. In comparison the other image is from the game against Leicester towards the end of the season which clearly shows a deep-lying Matic (#31) giving Pogba (#6) and Bruno (#18) creative control at the center of the park. The attacking pattern and shape is much more uniformly distributed thanks to the possession and positional play of Matic.

As United blazed through an unbeaten trail of 14 games to clinch an important 3rd placed finish, Fred watched from the sidelines. And he would have watched knowing he doesn’t fit anymore. The few times Fred took to the pitch as a substitute during this run, the team’s ball retention dropped heavily as they ceded possession and invited pressure. One of these occasions cost the team 2 points against Southampton as the substitutes Fred and James couldn’t imitate the ball retention of Pogba and Greenwood. The FA cup semi-final saw Ole revert to a back five with Fred in midfield in an attempt to channel the counter-based successes from the first half of the season. But it backfired horribly as United failed to create anything of note and Fred had another poor outing. 

What does the Future hold?
United ended the league season on a hugely positive 3rd placed finish and three respectable, if not emphatic, semi-final finishes. It won’t be a big surprise if Fred isn’t as ecstatic as the others in these celebrations. If the possession-based tactic remains Ole’s blueprint for long-term success, the Brazilian has enough cause for worry. He is neither as creative as Pogba, nor as output-oriented as Bruno nor as safe and effective as Matic in possession. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to say Fred now feels like a square peg in a round hole. Turning 27 this year, the opportunities to be a starter for a big club at his peak will only reduce from hereon, increasing the doom and gloom around his current situation.

But can a run of 20 games be that damning for a player? Probably, but if football has proven anything, it is that short-term judgements often remain just that. Fred has done enough this season to stay and get chances to prove himself. With Matic’s age and Pogba’s slightly-concerning injury patterns, Fred will find himself in Manchester United’s midfield a few more times for sure. Fred can improve on the things he lacks to prove useful in a possession-based system. It’s not unheard of for ball-winning midfielders to adapt and obtain a pro-possession orientation especially later in their career. Jordan Henderson comes to mind. The Englishman mostly operated as a ball-winner or box-to-box player for most of his career but has displayed unrivalled maturity and reliability in a deeper role in recent seasons under Jurgen Klopp. Nemanja Matic himself started as an attacking midfielder, then played as a ball-winning midfielder for large parts of his Chelsea career before his current stint as an efficient deep-lying playmaker at the age of 32.

Fred can take faith in these transformations and add a possession-oriented dimension to his game which most top teams demand in some way or the other. If Manchester United are going to improve as a team under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s leadership, it will require players like Fred to improve and be counted as well. Additionally, Fred can also take faith in the fact that he still remains United’s best option if a counter-based approach is needed. He had a good outing against Sevilla in the Europa semi-finals where the red devils’ adopted a more counter-pressing style of play, ending his personal season on a positive note. United are still some way off to dominating the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool in terms of possession and with Champions League teams to face from next season onwards, the chances of playing on the counter and relying on Fred’s strengths will never be too low.

A combination of these 2 factors can see Fred extend his United career and still be a contributing member of a grand new era under Solskjaer. All said and done, Fred has already shut up those who doubted him after the 18/19 season by standing tall as one of United’s best players in the 19/20 season. It won’t be a surprise if he shuts up the ones (like me) who doubt whether he can improve even further.