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 recognised 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 next 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- 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)

Cult Heroes: Ji-Sung Park

From being rejected by clubs in Seoul in his early days due to his lack of physical prowess, to becoming the most successful Asian footballer to ever play in Europe, Park Ji-Sung has had a remarkable career. We take a look at Manchester United’s cult hero, Park Ji-Sung, and the impact he has had at the Theatre of Dreams.

EARLY DAYS (1998-2000)

Park’s ambition of becoming a professional footballer emerged early. In 1998, he led his high school team to a victory in the Korean National Sports Festival. This success prompted him to apply for several professional clubs and universities. Due to his small physical stature, he was rejected several times before finally getting into Myonji University. However, in January 1999, his university team was given a chance to train with the South Korean Olympic team. His performance during these training sessions attracted the attention of the South Korean Olympic team and national team manager Huh Jung-moo. Thereafter, he became a formal member of the Olympic team. His continuingly impressive performances earned him a spot in the national team and he made his debut on 5th April 2000, in an AFC Asian Cup qualification game against Laos. In his early days, Park operated predominantly as an attacking midfielder but could also play on the left-hand side, as well as the right-hand side of midfield. He was known for his tenacity and tremendous work rate which eventually earned him the nickname ‘Three-lunged Park’.

Kyoto Purple Sanga and PSV Eindhoven (2000-2005)

The first professional club that Park signed for was the Kyoto-based J1 league side, Kyoto Purple Sanga. He joined the club in June 2000 and in his first season itself, Sanga was demoted to the J2 league. However, in 2001, Sanga won the J2 league and instantly earned back promotion. Park’s stellar performance in the 2002/03 season led Sanga to their first-ever Emperor’s Cup victory. He ended up scoring the equalizer in the final which they went on to win 2-1. This was Park’s last game for Sanga and he left the club as one of its greats.

After South Korea failed in the 2000 Olympics, Gus Hiddink was appointed as the manager by the Korean national team. During his time with the Korean national team, he made Park a more versatile player by playing him on the wings in a 4-4-2 formation, as well as often playing him as a wide forward in a 4-3-3 system. This led to an increase in Park’s goal tally for the national team and his performances against England and France leading up to the 2002 world cup grabbed international attention. After managing the national team for two years, Hiddink invited Park to play for him at PSV Eindhoven. In January 2003, Park joined PSV. However, the South Korean struggled during his initial days in the Netherlands due to injuries. He underwent an operation to remove his meniscus and this affected his first season at PSV. But the departure of Arjen Robben to Chelsea in 2004 led to increased opportunities at the club for the Korean. He instantly proved his worth to the team by producing stellar performances in a campaign that saw PSV reach the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League. He was a pivotal part of that PSV midfield due to his tremendous burst of pace while breaking on the counter and his crisp and accurate passing. He was the top contributor of goals and assists for PSV that season and even scored against AC Milan in the Champions League semi-final. These world-class performances at the highest level are what grabbed the attention of Manchester United in 2005.
Manchester United (2005-2012)
Impressed by his performances at PSV, Sir Alex Ferguson signed Park in July 2005 for 4 million pounds. In a team full of superstars the Korean’s role was hardly ever well-defined. He was neither a prolific goal-scorer who started regularly nor a physically dominant midfielder. In his early days at United, many were skeptical about Ferguson’s decision; especially in an era when stats like distance covered, progressive carries, etc. weren’t a part of the ‘meta’. But over the years, Ferguson truly utilized Park’s full potential by playing him all across the midfield as well as a wide forward in a front three. While playing in the midfield, he was more of a box-to-box midfielder. Ferguson often turned to Park in big games because of the defensive solidity the Korean brought to the side. 
Park’s first goal for the Red Devils came against Birmingham City in a league cup game in which United won 3-1. In his first season at the club, Park was a regular fixture off the bench in both domestic as well as European competitions, but started sparingly. However, the trust Ferguson had in him was evident, as Park took the armband off Ryan Giggs in a Champions League home game against Lille on 18th October 2005. He thus became the first Asian to captain Manchester United. Park netted his first Premier League goal against Arsenal in a 2-0 home victory on 9th April 2006. This was the first of five goals he scored against Arsenal, making him an arch-nemesis for the gunners over the years.

However, the Korean’s progress was halted in his second season when he injured his ankle in a game against Tottenham Hotspur in September. He recovered from that ankle injury in three months, but was sent to America for surgery in April due to a recurring knee problem. This was a chronic knee problem that would eventually accelerate his retirement. Side-lined with injuries for most of the season, Park said that he wasn’t happy with the Premier League medal he won in 2006/07 and assured the fans that he had much more to offer in the years to come.
Walking the talk, Park ensured he was a pivotal member of the United squad from 2007 to 2011 as United went on to win three league titles and played three Champions League finals while winning one of them. Park was hailed for his performances in the big games, where he always delivered. Multiple goals against big clubs like Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and AC Milan during this time soon made him a favorite amongst the Old Trafford faithful. Ferguson mostly deployed him on the left side of the midfield three where his workman-like attitude and intense pressing gave the likes of Paul Scholes, Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez the creative freedom which brought the best out of them. However when played in a front three as a wide forward Park came up with crucial goals and assists as he broke with immense pace on the counter. The goal and assist he got against Arsenal in the 2009 Champions League semi-final or his goal in AC Milan’s 4-0 thumping at Old Trafford in 2010 are a few examples. When it came to dubious Champions League fixtures, Park was a go-to player for Ferguson. He was pivotal in both legs while defending a 1-0 lead against Barcelona in the 2008 Champions League semi-final. His relentless work rate, off-the-ball movement and a knack for intercepting Barcelona’s quick passing earned him tremendous plaudits in that game. Ferguson later admitted in an interview that leaving Park out of the 2008 Champions League final squad was one of the toughest managerial decisions he has ever had to make. 
Perhaps his best performance in a United shirt came against AC Milan on the 10th of March 2010 at Old Trafford. Ferguson had deployed him in a midfield three with a very specific role. He was assigned to man-mark the Italian maestro Andrea Pirlo to curb the creative flow of that flamboyant AC Milan team. Park executed this role so well in United’s 4-0 thumping of Milan that the Italian later wrote in his autobiography, “The midfielder must have been the first nuclear-powered South Korean in history, in the sense that he rushed about the pitch at the speed of an electron.” Such praise from one of the best midfielders in the world just goes to show how pivotal Park was in that United team from 2007 to 2011.

Park made his 200th appearance for United on 5th February 2012 against Chelsea. During the 2011/12 season, Park had some memorable moments like scoring in the 8-2 victory against Arsenal, but his playing time had drastically reduced due to injuries and a dip in form. This led him to find a move away from Manchester to regain some game time.

Park ended up scoring 27 times for the Red Devils while making 205 appearances for the club. His relentless work ethic, energy and ability to adapt to several positions in a team filled with superstars is what made him special. In May 2020, Rooney said in an interview, “It’s crazy but if you mentioned Cristiano Ronaldo to a 12-year-old, they would immediately say, ‘Yeah, he was a brilliant player for Manchester United.’ But if you said ‘Ji-sung Park’ they may not know who he was. Yet all of us who played with Park know he was almost as important to our success”. This just goes to show how highly valued he was by his team-mates at United and continues to have great relationships with them.

QPR and the return to PSV (2012-14)

Due to the lack of regular playing time at United, Park moved to Queens Park Rangers on 9 July 2012. Park was made captain of the club, but due to his recurring knee problems combined with a lack of form, his time at QPR was quite unpleasant. The Hoops got relegated that season with Park only managing 20 league appearances and no goals.

With QPR playing in the second division of English football, Park returned to PSV during the 2013/14 season on loan. Perhaps the highlight of his return was when he captained PSV in a 4-0 win against Ajax while assisting twice and scoring once. In May 2014, Park announced his retirement due to the persistent knee problems he was facing. Reflecting on his career, he said, “I’m leaving with no regrets, I enjoyed playing football. I have achieved more than I thought I would. I’m truly grateful for all the support I have received and I will live the rest of my life thinking how I can pay it back.”

Legacy and post-retirement work

To this day Park continues to represent Manchester United as a global club ambassador for the club. Park is the founder of the charitable foundation, JS Foundation, set up in 2011, which develop and launch charity programs that will support football infrastructure and also the necessities of life. Park is remembered very fondly by the Old Trafford Faithful due to his contributions to a side that started from scratch and ended up winning everything. The Korean played a pivotal role in the rebuild that was brought about by Ferguson from 2005 to 2010. He was a perfect fit in a squad full of superstars who were raring to reach their prime and galvanized the squad by his hardworking and selfless attitude.

If we were to draw a parallel between Ji-Sung Park and a current member of the squad, the person whose name is most likely to come up in that particular conversation is Daniel James. A reliable, selfless player who would run his heart out for the team and can be used as a great tactical pawn to disrupt opposition, especially in the bigger games as mentioned previously. While James may still not be the final product, he has proven to be very useful in disrupting the opposition play with the help of his intelligent pressing and running. James, currently, may not be as good a player as Park was but their roles in the squad seem to be pretty similar.

Players like Ji-Sung Park don’t come around very often, but when they do, they leave a long lasting legacy behind them. 

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Sensible Targets: Nikola Milenkovic

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

 

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

Background

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

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

Playing Style 

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

 

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

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

Defensive Aspect

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

 

Nikola Milenkovic’s 2019-20 season breakup

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

 

Nikola Milenkovic’s 2020-21 season breakup

Ball Playing Ability

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Sensible Targets : Teun Koopmeiners

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

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

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

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

History

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

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

Scout Report

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

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

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

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

Scouting score: 9/10

Tactical Fit

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

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

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

 

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

Tactical Fit : 10/10

 Conclusion

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

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

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

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

 

Overall Devil’s DNA score: 9.5/10.