Sensible Targets: Alexander Isak

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

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

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

History

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

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

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

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

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

Scout Report

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

Link Up Play 

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

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

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

Dribbling, Progression and Half Turn

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

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

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

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

Shooting

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

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

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

(Credits: footyscouts.com/Liam Lam)

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

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

Off the Ball Movement

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Devil’s DNA score: 9/10

Sensible Targets : 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. 

 

 

The Importance Of Edinson Cavani

Owing to fitness issues due to Quarantine and not playing much football in the last few months, Edinson Cavani had to wait before he could get his first start for Manchester United since his free transfer on deadline day. While most fans were frustrated by another underwhelming transfer window, Cavani was welcomed at the club with open arms and there was a lot of curiosity on how this transfer may pan out. United fans were put out of their misery when the Uruguayan finally made his first start in the 4-1 win against Istanbul Basaksehir at Old Trafford last week. Cavani didn’t score but he was the most influential player on the pitch, constantly on the move, pressing defenders and expertly linking up play. The signs were promising. 

The Red devils then travelled to the south coast to face Southampton, a tricky tie away from home. United went 2-0 down at half time thanks to some James Ward-Prowse magic which spurred Solskjaer to bring on Cavani at half-time to try and turn the tide. Funnily, Cavani was late to step onto the pitch as he apparently had the wrong boots on. But once he stepped on the pitch, it was clear he was wearing the right boots. He whipped in a cross for Bruno Fernandes to score the first goal past the impressive Alex McCarthy. A few minutes later, Cavani put himself on the scoresheet via a diving header from a deflected shot. And then in stoppage time, The 33 year old scored his second to complete the comeback and give Manchester United the 3 points. It may have taken a while, but ‘El Matador’ had finally arrived at Manchester United. 

Today, we dive deeper into the Uruguayan’s career and what makes him such a good striker. 

Career History

Born in northwestern Uruguay, Cavani first earned accolades after impressing for Uruguay in the 2007 South American Youth Championships. This prompted many top clubs to take a closer look at him. Eventually, it was Palermo who gave him his move to Europe in 2007. He scored 34 times for Palermo encouraging Walter Mazzarri to buy Cavani for Napoli at the start of 2009/10 season. 

Cavani’s Napoli career was a revelation. Along with fellow teammates Marek Hamsik and Ezequiel Lavezzi, Cavani helped the Partenopei propel from a mid table Serie A side to Champions League regulars. He scored 33 goals in each of his first two seasons, including the winning goal in the Coppa Italia final against Juventus which brought Napoli silverware glory for the first time in over 20 years. He managed to score 20+ goals for 3 consecutive seasons in Serie A, a feat managed only by Gabriel Batistuta and Antonio Di Natale in the past. 

In 2013, it became apparent that Cavani would be moving away from the club and reportedly, Manchester United CEO Ed Woodward was keen on signing the Uruguayan. Sir Alex Ferguson had just retired and David Moyes was at the helm. Moyes liked the idea of having Cavani at the club which led to discussions and talks with his agent. Cavani, only 26 at the time, would’ve been more than happy to move to England. However, David Moyes went to watch Cavani 3 times and was unimpressed with what he saw. Ed Woodward still wanted to sign Cavani but Moyes refused which led to Cavani joining his teammate Lavezzi in moving to the French capital. 

PSG, at the time, were just starting to splash the cash in order to build a team capable of winning the Champions League. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva were already at the club, and Cavani and Lavezzi were added to the list of elusive signings the Paris-based club would make over the coming years. Ibrahimovic being the main man meant Cavani would play from the left, but that didn’t stop El Matador from scoring goals. He continued his goalscoring form by crossing the 20 goal mark in each of his first 3 seasons before PSG went through a lot of changes in 2016. Ibrahimovic and Blanc left the club, Neymar was still at Barcelona and Unai Emery was hired as manager. The following season was the one in which Cavani was the main striker at the club. He scored 49 goals in 50 appearances across all competitions with 35 of them being in the league which won him the golden boot. An impressive return, the transition was something similar to how Karim Benzema came into his own when Cristiano Ronaldo left Real Madrid. 

But, PSG were knocked out in the Champions League Round of 16 and finished second to Kylian Mbappe’s high-flying Monaco which led to PSG signing Mbappe and Neymar for a combined fee of 357 million pounds the following season. Tensions started to rise when Neymar and Cavani were seen fighting over who would take the penalty duties at the club leading to rumours of a rift between the Brazilian and the Uruguayan. But Cavani was not a diva so he didn’t complain at all, something that has been synonymous with him throughout his career- He always kept the team before himself. 

The 19/20 season was Cavani’s lowest in his career. He started only 7 Ligue 1 games and his year was marred with injuries. PSG decided not to renew his contract and signed the younger Mauro Icardi on a permanent deal after a successful loan spell at the club. In fact, Cavani did not travel with the rest of the PSG squad to Portugal to complete the remaining Champions League games as his contract at the club was almost over. Cavani didn’t want to risk one last move to a top European club due to injuries and it turned out to be the right decision. Cavani was set to join Benfica on a free transfer but the Portugese club could not put together a financial package to bring the Uruguayan to Liga NOS. In the end, Manchester United got their man and even though it’s early signs, it looks like a good deal. 

Tactical Analysis

The one thing that Cavani is recognised the most by is his terrific off-the-ball movement. His attacking movement and positional sense is what makes him such a great striker. Yes, he has a reputation of missing easy chances and sometimes he takes multiple attempts to score but he is able to create those many chances for himself due to his excellent movement. Cavani is always on the move, he wants to be on the end of every pass, every cross, and every long ball. 

It is also very evident in the two goals he scored vs Southampton 

Here, you can see how Cavani is the only one making a move from both the teams as Bruno Fernandes takes a shot from the edge of the box. Cavani’s movement is based on the off chance of getting an easy tap-in from a rebound or a deflection. 

And that is exactly what happens. Fernandes’ shot is deflected and it falls nicely for the Uruguayan to head it in. 

In the second goal, as soon as Rashford gets in a crossing position, Cavani makes a near post run catching Vestergaard by surprise. Rashford finds him with an inch-perfect cross which ends up being the winning goal to complete Manchester United’s comeback. 

Whoscored.com lists Headed attempts as one of Cavani’s strengths but says Aerial duels are one of his weaknesses. Yet, he scores most of his goals from headers. In the calendar year 2019, Cavani had an xG of 5.20 after crosses and also scored 4 headed goals. In fact, the two headed goals he scored against Southampton were the most any Manchester United player has scored since 2018/19.  His movement enables him to get away from the defenders and find free spaces in the penalty box. 

In this image, Kurzawa receives the ball wide left. Cavani makes a fake run towards the inside making the defender commit to marking that area leaving a lot of space behind. 

As soon as there is a possibility of a cross, Cavani attacks the free space left behind by the defender and as the defender has already committed to marking the central area, he is late in tracking Cavani’s run. 

Look at how far Cavani has pulled away from the defender. He gets a lot of free space and expertly heads in the cross. 

His movement is only one aspect of his on-field game though. Cavani has excellent hold-up and link-up play. He brings the wingers and the midfielders in the game through his link up and hold up play. He had a 72% pass completion rate in the penalty area in the Ligue 1 last season. His excellent passing and hold-up play coupled with his brilliant movement also helps him drag defenders away towards him enabling other players to attack that free space and score goals. 

At 33 years of age, El Matador may be past his best but his experience and mentorship will help the young Manchester United attack line a lot. His strengths are exactly the traits Rashford, Martial and Greenwood have lack. 

“He will bring energy, power and leadership. But most importantly, he will bring goals” was what Solskjaer said on Manchester United’s acquisition of Edinson Cavani and that is exactly what Cavani brings to this team.