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/)

5 clubs that nailed the transfer window

It was always going to be an uphill battle planning transfers for the summer window, given the financial impact of COVID-19 on most football clubs. To think a powerful club like Real Madrid, usually in the top 3 in the Forbes’ list of most valuable clubs, made zero signings this summer for the first time in 40 years and still had to sell for £88.65m to maintain finances, makes you realise how tough it has been all around. But among all the doom and gloom, a few clubs have had the opportunity to make shrewd transfers and build a good platform for their manager to achieve his aims while keeping an eye on the bank balance. We highlight 5 of these clubs who have had a praise-worthy 2020 summer window.

1. Everton FC

Ins:

Name Age Pos From Fee
Ben Godfrey 22 CB Norwich £24.75m
Allan 29 CM Napoli £22.50m
Abdoulaye Doucoure 27 CM Watford £19.89m
James Rodriguez 29 AM Real Madrid Free
Robin Olsen 30 GK AS Roma Loan

Sum: £67.38m

Outs:

Name Age Pos To Fee
Morgan Schneiderlin 30 DM OGC Nice £2m
Kieran Dowell  22 AM Norwich £1.98m
Luke Garbutt 27 LB Blackpool Free
Maarten Stekelenburg 37 GK Ajax Free
Sandro Ramirez 25 ST SD Huesca Free
Moise Kean 20 ST Paris SG Loan
Theo Walcott 31 RW Southampton Loan
Leighton Baines 35 LB Retired
Cuco Martina 30 RB Released
Oumar Niasse 30 ST Released
Djibril Sidibe 28 RB AS Monaco End of loan

Sum:  £3.98m

Net Spend: £63.4m

The Premier League clubs have had it better than the rest of Europe when it comes to the financial burdens due to COVID. The Premier League clubs together spent a whopping €1.37 Billion with a net spend of €892.05 million this summer. But when it comes to gaining high value for deals and creating a competent team to support their manager, nobody did it better than Everton. The Blues bought a completely new midfield in workhorses Allan and Doucoure and creative genius James Rodriguez, who had his best spell under Carlo Ancelotti in Real Madrid. The manager-player duo has reconnected to great effect with James starting the season strong with 3 goals and 2 assists already to his name. Manager Ancelotti is enjoying great performances from the 3 midfielders, an area where Everton have been desperately lacking in for many years. In addition to that, the shrewd acquisition of Ben Godfrey has gone unnoticed. A high potential defender, he is one player who can fix the back line issues that have plagued the Merseyside club in recent years. Coupled with the in-form strikers, the Italian manager now boasts of a very competent squad that already sits at the top of the table with 4 wins in 4 games. All this while letting go of many deadwood players, Everton have managed to streamline their squad and give their manager a great platform to build on. A top 4 finish? The dream is on!


(Photo by NICK POTTS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

2. Stade Rennais FC

Ins:

Name Age Pos From Fee
Jeremy Doku 18 RW RSC Anderlecht £23.40m
Serhou Guirassy 24 ST Amiens SC £13.50m
Martin Terrier 23 LW Olympique Lyon £10.80m
Alfred Gomis 27 GK Dijon £9.00m
Nayef Aguerd 24 CB Dijon £3.60m
Dalbert 27 LB Inter Loan
Daniele Rugani 26 CB Juventus Loan

Sum: £63.90m

Outs: 

Name Age Pos To Fee
Edouard Mendy 28 GK Chelsea £21.60m
Raphinha 23 RW Leeds £16.72m
Armand Lauriente 21 RW FC Lorient £2.70m
Souleyman Doumbia 23 LB SCO Angers £2.70m
Jordan Tell 23 ST Clermont Foot Free
Sacha Boey 20 RB Dijon Loan
Lilian Brassier 20 RB Stade Brest 29 Loan
Jeremy Morel 36 CB FC Lorient Free
Jakob Johannson 30 CM IFK Goteborg Free
Hakim El Mokeddem 21 AM FC Sete 34 Loan
Rafik Guitane 21 AM Maritimo Loan
Metehan Guclu 21 ST Valenciennes FC Loan
Jeremy Gelin 23 CB Royal Antwerp Loan
Jordan Siebatcheu 24 ST BSC Young Boys Loan
Joris Gnagnon 23 CB Sevilla FC End of loan

Sum: £44.89m

Net Spend: £19m

It was always going to be interesting to see how Stade Rennais approached the summer transfer window. The French club finished 3rd in Ligue 1 last season – the highest in the club’s history. Suddenly faced with Champions League football and a challenge to follow up with a good league season, the onus was on Rennais to ace the transfer window. And that’s exactly what they did. Two extremely talented young wingers for either side in Doku and Terrier will have fans super-excited while the signing of Guirassy completes a new look attack. Using the lure of Champions League football, the club was able to loan in unwanted but talented stars, Rugani and Dalbert, who will be looking to prove themselves. Stade Rennais was able to capitalize on the big-spending desperation of Premier clubs Chelsea and Leeds by selling Mendy and Raphinha for a combined £38m. The shrewd capture of Gomis serves as a good GK replacement. All in all, the club sold well, bought players to fill in all the gaps and developed bench strength to compete in multiple competitions, all while rounding off a net spend of just £19m – a masterclass window!


(Photo by Philippe Le Brech/Icon Sport via Getty Images)

3. Bayern Munich

Ins:

Name Age Pos From Fee
Leroy Sane 24 LW Manchester City £40.50m
Marc Roca 23 DM Espanyol £8.10m
Bouna Sarr 28 RB Marseille £7.20m
Alexander Nubel 23 GK FC Schalke 04 Free
Tanguy Nianzou 18 CB Paris SG Free
Eric Choupo-Moting 31 ST Paris SG Free
Douglas Costa 30 RW Juventus Loan
Tiago Dantas 19 DM Benfica Loan

Sum: £55.80m

Outs:

Name Age Pos To Fee
Thiago 29 CM Liverpool £19.80m
Sven Ulreich 32 GK Hamburger SV Free
Sarpreet Singh 21 CM FC Nuremberg Loan
Lars Lukas Mai 20 CB SV Darmstadt 98 Loan
Christian Fruchtl 20 GK FC Nuremberg Loan
Michael Cuisance 21 CM Marseille Loan
Adrian Fein 21 DM PSV Eindhoven Loan
Ivan Perisic 31 LW Inter End of loan
Phillipe Coutinho 28 AM FC Barcelona End of loan
Alvaro Odriozola 24 RB Real Madrid End of loan

Sum: £19.80m

Net Spend: £36m

It won’t be ridiculous to say that Bayern Munich would make the top 5 clubs that nailed the transfer window every year in recent times. The Bavarians are well-run and have been showing astute planning and execution in the transfer market for a few years now and this summer was no less. The long-term strategy to acquire Leroy Sane for good value paid off this window. The Germans were able to bid goodbye to loanees Coutinho and Perisic who took care of the left-wing slot last season and finally welcomed one of Europe’s exciting wingers for just £40.5m. Coupled with the in-form Lewandowski and Gnabry, this puts Bayern’s attack among the best in Europe now. While they had to let go of superstar Thiago to Liverpool, they more than made up for it by acquiring one of Europe’s brightest deep-lying playmaker prospects for a measly £8.10m (not including add-ons). Marc Roca’s capture could quite possibly be the deal of the window and was included in our top 5 under-the-radar deals of the window as well. Trading a 29 year old want-away for a 23 year old potential star is exactly the kind of smart move the Bavarians are known for. Coupled with the existing high-performing midfield duo of Kimmich and Goretzka and the loan-in of wonderkid Tiago Dantas, Bayern now have enough quality midfield depth to the point where they could let go of Cuisance on loan for game time. The signing of Tanguy from PSG represents another insanely smart grab of one of Europe’s talented defender wonderkids for no fee at all. With backup loan-ins for Choupo Moting and Costa, the Bavarians seem to have made a Champions League winning squad seem stronger than before – all for a modest net spend of £36m. Announce them as the champions of the 2020 transfer window as well, please!


(Photo by CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP via Getty Images)

4. Villareal

Ins:

Name Age Pos From Fee
Pervis Estupinan 22 LB Watford £14.76m
Francis Coquelin 29 DM Valencia £5.85m
Geronimo Rulli 28 GK Real Sociedad £4.50m
Jorge Cuenca 20 CB FC Barcelona B £2.25m
Takefuso Kubo 19 RW Real Madrid Loan
Mario Gonzalez 24 LW Clermont Foot Free
Dani Parejo 31 CM Valencia Free
Juan Foyth 22 CB Spurs Loan

Sum: £29.61m

Outs:

Name Age  Pos To Fee
Karl Toko Ekambi 27 ST Olympique Lyon £10.35m
Enes Unal 23 ST Getafe £8.10m
Alvaro Gonzalez 30 CB Marseille £3.60m
Akram Afif 23 LW Al-Sadd SC Free
Javi Ontiveros 23 LW SD Huesca Loan
Andres Fernandez 33 GK SD Huesca Free
Santi Cazorla 35 CM Al-Sadd SC Free
Jorge Cuenca 20 CB UD Almeria Loan
Zambo Anguissa 24 DM Fulham End of loan
Bruno Soriano 36 DM Retired

Sum: £23.99m

Net Spend: £5.6m

It has been a tougher period for La Liga teams compared to the others in the top 5 leagues. Put together, La Liga clubs spent €411.80m in the window which is lesser than what Serie A and Ligue 1 clubs spent and less than 1/3rd of the Premier League clubs. They were also the only league in the top 5 to close with a positive net spend (€82.45m profit) showing how there just wasn’t enough money to spend for Spanish teams this summer. But, in crisis comes opportunity and the yellow submarine danced around the pitfalls of the summer window impressively. They had to bid goodbye to the ageing midfield duo of Cazorla and Bruno but picked up highly impressive replacements in Coquelin and Parejo. Taking advantage of the turmoil at Valencia, Villareal acquired one of Europe’s best playmakers for free. Coupled with the very smart loan-ins of Foyth and Kubo and high-value sales of Ekambi, Unal and Gonzalez, Villareal were able to round up their window with just a £5.6m net spend while improving a squad that finished 5th last season. Finance students,take notes!


(Photo by Jose Miguel Fernandez/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

5. RB Leipzig

Ins:

Name Age Pos From Fee
Alexander Sorloth 24 ST Crystal Palace £18.00m
Hee-chan Hwang 24 ST RB Salzburg £8.10m
Josep Martinez 22 GK UD Las Palmas £2.25m
Justin Kluivert 21 LW AS Roma Loan
Lazar Samardzic 18 AM Hertha BSC U19 Free
Benjamin Henrichs 23 RB AS Monaco Loan

Sum: £29.70m

Outs:

Name Age Pos To Fee
Timo Werner 24 ST Chelsea £47.70m
Adeomola Lookman 22 LW Fulham Loan
Hannes Wolf 21 AM Monchengladbach Loan
Jean-Kevin Augustin 23 ST FC Nantes Free
Yvon Mvogo 26 GK PSV Eindhoven Loan
Ethan Ampadu 19 CB Chelsea End of loan
Patrik Schick 24 ST AS Roma End of loan

Sum: £50.85m

Net Spend: -£21.15m (Profit)

RB Leipzig are the only club in this list to churn out a negative spend i.e. profit based on their summer activity. Bundesliga clubs have had it rough due to COVID and together spent the least among the top 5 leagues with a total spend of €323.20 million. They sold for almost the same amount, roughly breaking even for the window. In such conditions, RBL were able to generate immense revenue from their most valuable asset in Timo Werner who was the 7th most expensive transfer of the 2020 summer window. Losing Timo and Schick upfront meant a need for firepower and RBL delivered replacements in the form of Sorloth who comes from the back of a strong goal-scoring season and the highly-rated duo of Hwang and Kluivert. With the rest comprising loan deals, they have managed to generate an important £21.15m without letting the team quality suffer. The club has started strong this season, already racing to the top of the table, and look on course to finish close to their previous season’s strong 3rd palace finish. A profitable window without letting squad quality suffer – now that’s business!


(Photo by ODD ANDERSEN/AFP via Getty Images)