Man Utd Midfield Rebuild: Part 3 – Hybrid DM targets

If you missed the previous parst of this series, you can catch up on them here: 

Rebuilding Man Utd’s Midfield: Part 1 – Profiles, tasks & gaps

Rebuilding Man Utd’s Midfield: Part 2 – Build up DM targets

In part 1, I defined the 6 broad tasks of a midfielder, scored the long-term 4 members of Manchester United on those tasks and created 2 player profiles based on the gaps that the club should target to create the ideal 6-man top team midfield – a Build up DM and a Hybrid DM. In part 2, I covered the Build up DM shortlist and 5 mini reports of the role. Today, I’ll do the same for Hybrid DMs and then end this series with a summary of the best combinations for Man Utd.

The Hybrid DM Shortlist

You know the drill by now. Without wasting time, here’s the Hybrid DM shortlist.

Lots of interesting names here. Now, which ones would I cover mini reports of? 

  • Wieffer and Fofana are high on the list and have been linked to us. I’ll be covering them.
  • Stach is someone interesting who also has a low rumoured price.
  • After this, I have subjectively picked 2 players whom I think make sense for a Hybrid DM role, but have scored low due to issues beyond their control. Morten Frendrup and Amadou Onana haven’t scored great, largely because Genoa and Everton haven’t been great, but I think they could be good for us.

Mats Wieffer, 25, Feyenoord

Career: A youth product of FC Twente, Weiffer made only one appearance for the main team before Excelsior picked him up on a free transfer in summer 2020 when the player was 21. What followed were two impressive years where Weiffer was the mainstay for Excelsior. This was convincing enough for Feyenood to buy him in summer 2022. Weiffer quickly achieved starter status in the 2022/23 season playing beside Kokcu in midfield. Recently, he has been playing  with more progression duties in the 2023/24 season post Kokcu’s departure.


  • Progressive passing consistency and range
  • Ground coverage and intensity
  • In-possession movement IQ
  • Decision-making and awareness
  • Vertical carrying burst
  • Aerial duels technique, reach and strength
  • Ground duels physicality and doggedness


  • Limited back-to-goal play but safe
  • Overly front-foot defending
  • Reliance on upper body strength in duels, sometimes clumsy
  • Limited carrying range and agility

In possession: Wieffer’s stand-out quality is his excellent forward-minded passing range and consistency. Whether it’s switches to a fullback, a pinged through ball to a winger, a punchy grounded ball to a striker or a chipped lob to put someone through on goal, Weiffer has the full range of progressive passing and constantly controls the game with good execution and timely decisions. He uses his body well for carrying in bursts, displaying better deftness and control than you would expect. The lack of top tier close control and body agility is visible when he’s back-to-goal in tight situations, but he often navigates it well with a first-time release to a wide player or a safe pass-back to the CB/GK. His overall game IQ is a defining feature, as he’s constantly in good positions in all three phases of play and keeps making inch-perfect decisions to help the team progress. He also has a decent goal threat with the odd well-struck goal from the edge of the box or dominating header from an attacking set piece. Reminds me of Rakitic in possession.

Out of possession: Wieffer is a dogged defender who’s constantly running, tackling and making a nuisance of himself in a game. There’s a good reason all his defensive stats in the pizza chart look so good. He boasts both quantity and quality of defensive actions, constantly getting in duels and coming out the winner. I do feel that he relies a bit too much on his upper body strength in ground duels. Often, it’s just a case of him using his hands and shoulders to barge someone or sliding on the ground to use his reach to win the ball. It does come across as clumsy at times and I do have a fear that with the step up to a league where dribblers are more physical and adept at turning, these tackles may turn into fouls. That lack of sheer top speed across the ground that he makes up with good strides and reach may prove a bit more costly in a superior league. He also strikes me as a very proactive defender. He’s a lot more comfortable stepping forward and winning the ball early, rather than shielding the back 4 with more positional composure even in the games he plays as the deepest player in midfield. Aerially, he’s as dominant as they come with a great mix of physicality, technique and timing always ensuring that he’s competitive. Reminds me of Fred out of possession.

Verdict: Wieffer is exactly the hybrid DM profile we are looking for. Very competent as DM or CM and very able in all three phases in possession while being good at the defensive side of things. The few question marks I have about how his front-footedness, unclean tackling and press-resistance translate to a tougher league can be mitigated by coaching. Overall, this is a great player for the quoted price. 

The Devil’s DNA Score: 8.5/10 

Youssouf Fofana, 25, Monaco

Career: A Strasbourg youth product, Fofana was involved in the main team at the start of the 2018/19 season and occupied a rotational role in midfield for a year before establishing himself as a key starter in the following season. Monaco couldn’t wait for the season to get over and bought him in the winter window of 2019/20, following which Fofana took time to settle. But from 2020/21 onwards, Fofana has been a regular starter and is now on track to complete 4 years of 40+ appearances each for Monaco. With his current contract ending in 2025, it seems like the French international is open for a cut-price move in summer 2024. 


  • Defensive range and workrate
  • Physicality in ground duels
  • Recovery pace and reach when tracking back
  • Close control and carrying under pressure
  • Verticality in possession
  • Passing range, vision and technicality


  • Passing security and retention
  • Heavy forward-mindedness in possession
  • Odd ill-disciplined tackle especially when chasing dribblers
  • Positional IQ and defensive awareness when sitting

In possession: Fofana is a very vertical player in possession and executes actions with immense technical quality and physical control. He’s a good progressive passer and I especially enjoy his through balls and quick ground passes to the attackers. But he can also pull off nice switches, crosses and lobs when required. His dribbling is also aggressively vertical, always trying to beat players with a mazey run through the middle before playing a game-advancing pass. What he isn’t is a retention focused player. Even when playing as the more defensive partner in a pivot, Fofana doesn’t exercise the composure and calm to circulate the ball and prioritize safety. He’s constantly in forward-thinking mode and this could be a reason why he’s always deployed in a pivot and rarely left alone as the deepest player. Reminds me of young Yaya Toure in possession.

Out of possession: Again, a lot of the pros of Fofana in defence align very well with a proactive defensive midfielder who uses his physicality to win the ball. He has an excellent reverse-running engine on him, which means he often tracks back and tackles dribblers easily using his ground-coverage and reach. But this also means that at times he’s late and concedes a needless foul. 4 red cards and 23 yellow cards in the last 4 seasons at Monaco indicate that these moments, though not very regular, could pose a bigger question in the Premier league where teams use transitions more. I’m also not a big fan of his positional awareness and ability to sit and shield the defence in a composed manner. He’s far better as a proactive aggressor who can recover with his pace and coverage. Reminds me of Wataru Endo out of possession. 

Verdict: Fofana feels like a player who would be better beside a sitter that allows him to progress vertically in possession and defend proactively out of possession with small acts of support in deeper areas when required like press-resistance carrying and recovery defending. In that sense, while he is a wonderful player, I think he’s far more tilted towards the #8 slot than the #6 one for our hybrid needs. Still, he’s a good option for his low price, especially if we constantly pair him with a #6 type who can cover for his gaps.

The Devil’s DNA Score: 7/10 

Anton Stach, 26, Hoffenheim

Career:  Stach has played for Werder Bremen until the B-youth. He joined the U19-team of VfL Osnabrück. His career began with SSV Jeddeloh from Regionalliga Nord, the fourth-highest level in Germany.and later VfL Wolfsburg’s second team in the same division. His big break came in 2021, when he joined Mainz 05. He impressed for Mainz for 2 full seasons. In 2023, Stach signed a four-year contract with TSG Hoffenheim, whom he has been a mainstay for this season.


  • Ground coverage and span
  • Defending intensity and engagement
  • Clean and consistent ball-winning technique
  • Aerially dominant and reliable
  • Strong switch and long ball to aid wide progression
  • Strong vertical carrying with long strides and deft touches
  • Very two-footed
  • Constant engine capable of two-way running
  • High positional IQ and defensive awareness in deeper areas


  • Passing range and execution attempts
  • Retention and circulation ability
  • Back-to-goal comfort and build up sense
  • Involvement in build up to show, receive and progress consistently

In possession: What is immediately noticeable is Anton’s excellent switch ball or long ball that his team utilizes to constantly progress. Capable of executing in 1 or 2 touches with either feet, Stach pings good balls to his fullbacks or wingers and also has the odd vertical progressive ball to find attackers. But that aside, his passing variety is a little low and he doesn’t try things that he isn’t sure of. He isn’t a natural controller who handles high pass volumes, prioritizes retention and circulation and moves to receive the ball constantly from teammates. He does display the ability to drop into the back 3 or pull away to a wing to help progress but these are one-off patterns rather than constant movements to be involved. He avoids back-to-goal situations and usually relies on his good first-touch passing to navigate under-pressure situations. He has deceptive ball control for his lanky physique and is able to display vertical carrying bursts while using his upper body strength to keep markers away. But this doesn’t happen regularly or with more variety than described. Very similar to peak Casemiro in possession. 

Out of possession: Defensively, Anton shines much brighter. He has a unique combination of a tall lanky physique, a strong well-built frame and an acute sense of timing and awareness that combined make him a very strong dueller, ball-winner and defensive fulcrum of the side. Often left as the lone pivot when his team attacks, Anton deals with transitions regularly and comes out on top, showcasing great ground-coverage thanks to his long strides and deceptive agility. He’s also a very clean tackler, constantly winning ground duels with minimal effort thanks to his good awareness and smart usage of body. He also showcases very smart positioning to shield the defence, intercept opponent passes and mop up loose balls in dangerous areas consistently. Aerially, he’s close to unbeatable, thanks to his strong jump, upper body usage and heading technique. He’s also got an excellent engine on him, covering large distances with a mix of jogs and sprints, which ensures he’s always present when running both ways of the pitch and can do so until the end of games and for many games in a row. Feels like Claude Makelele out of possession.

Verdict: Anton is defensively everything we need in our DM, boasting a great combination of physical and technical traits to be an elite level dueller and ball-winner. In possession, while he has an eye-catching game-advancing pass, he might need a partner who handles more of the first phase work of build up, pass security and circulation. Those are the reasons I cut marks, but with the right pairing, this is a very good option, especially if the price isn’t high. 

The Devil’s DNA Score: 7.5/10

 Morten Frendrup, 23, Genoa

Career: The Brøndby youth product broke into the main team at just the age of 16 in 2018, becoming the youngest senior debutant for the club. After 1.5 years of backup apps and learning from the first team, he started playing regularly in the 2019/20 season. What followed was 2.5 impressive years which many clubs in Europe noticed. Genoa completed a winter window deal in 2022 for €3.5m. Since then Morten has been a regular starter and racked up 76 appearances for Genoa in 2.5 years. At the age of 23, with a lot of potential to fulfill, a move to a bigger club appears close. 


  • Combative, energetic and intense dueling
  • Agility and speed across ground to cover space quickly
  • Close control and mobility to get out of tight situations with ball
  • Vertical burst carrying into space when available with good success
  • Positioning and awareness to intercept, block and shield defence – constant scanning
  • Front-footed pressing and opponent disruption when higher up
  • Movement to wide/deep areas to show himself or open lanes for others
  • Punchy grounded progressive pass to advance game quickly
  • Final ball IQ – cutback, through ball or 1-touch release into space
  • Offensive runs into box or in wide areas where space is available


  • Low passing range – lacks switches, lobs, chips
  • One-footed and doesn’t use outside foot either – limits passing angles
  • Smaller frame means sometimes he gets bullied especially in air but usually makes up
  • At times carries too much or holds on to ball instead of passing
  • Not a natural tempo control playmaker – more quick-release or carry-first intent

In possession: Playing for Genoa means Frendrup doesn’t get on the ball much and when he does it’s often a forward-minded counter-enabling action. And he’s great at those. His go-to moves are a crisp, well-directioned grounded pass to his attacker or a strong vertical dribble to get out of pressure as he searches for an option to pass to. And he’s great at both. He’s press-resistant enough to use smart close control to escape markers, his favorite move being the Iniesta-special La Croqueta. I do think his scope for good retention and circulation passes is good and will be seen more in a team that keeps the ball more. He’s a great mover when his team has the ball whether it’s dropping deep to show for the ball, moving wide to receive on wings or making offensive runs into the box in the final phase. He has an underrated final ball which usually occurs as a cutback from the right half-space or punchy through ball from central areas. This is reflected by his 5 assists this year. Some issues include having a low passing range and variety due to being one-footed and not attempting any switches or lobs. This makes a right-sided role more ideal. He also doesn’t seem like a pausa player, often thinking of a carry or quick pass first, but this could be influenced by team tactics too. Feels like Gavi in possession. 

Out of possession: He looks even better out of possession. His dogged intensity combined with his speed on the ground make him a very tough customer to get past. He’s in your face in seconds and then has the physicality and technique to win duels and help his team counter. Without the ball, he is constantly scanning his surroundings and expertly plugging gaps, helping teammates and being in the right place at the right time. This combo of defensive IQ and energy is the reason he racks up a lot of defensive stats with good success. He’s as good as a high pressing 8 as he is as the lone sitter. Even when he isn’t actively winning the ball, his marshaling of space and step-ups to pressure the ball carrier disrupt the opposition move. His frame means that there are times when he is simply outmuscled especially in the air but largely speaking he uses his energy, physicality and timing to make such situations rare. Feels like Roy Keane out of possession. 

Verdict: Frendrup is a classic case of the stats looking mid for a player who plays in a weak team. His in-possession metrics are simply a result of him getting on the ball very less. But when he does get on the ball, his progression, control and ability to advance the game reliably is clear, while his movement when his team has the ball is excellent too. Without the ball, he is close to elite, capable of playing as a high-pressing ball-winner as well as positionally good shielding sitter equally well. 

The Devil’s DNA Score: 8/10

Amadou Onana, 23, Everton

Career: A Hoffenheim youth product, Onana joined Hamburger in mid-2020 and played close to every game for the side until Lille picked him up in summer 2021. A great season for Lille was enough for Everton to pay £33m including add-ons in August 2022. His development has only continued at the Premier League club and is now attracting the eyes of Europe’s best clubs.


  • Ground-coverage due to athleticism and strides
  • Physicality and application in ground duels
  • Aerial domination thanks to physique and jumping power
  • Forward-minded passing – through balls, switches, cutbacks
  • Close control to wriggle out of man-marked pressure
  • Verticality in passing and carrying to drive team into opponent half
  • Ball-striking technique when passing or shooting
  • Set piece threat in attacking set pieces especially corners


  • Overzealous in the tackle, often sliding to ground or lunging
  • Defensive awareness and positioning leading to marking mistakes
  • Tendency to press higher and rely on pace and reach to recover
  • Avoids back-to-goal reception and involvement in first phase
  • Positioning in possession to free himself or open lanes

In possession: Onana’s in-possession game is very underrated. He has excellent technique which combined with his mental and physical traits, make him a very skilled and consistent passer and carrier. He has a very good progressive pass in him, often belting out a perfectly executed switch, cross-pass or through ball. His close control and carrying are also very intricate for his frame and he often unleashes a dribble burst through the middle of the park in transition. Whether it’s passing or carrying, Onana is elite in the 2nd phase progression actions of getting his team from their third to the opponent third – an amazing midfield linker. He does have some gaps in deeper areas. I have concerns over his positioning and awareness when his team has the ball. Onana often doesn’t free himself up or think in advance and relies heavily on his ability to receive under pressure and power his way out instead. He also avoids first reception duties from the GK/CB on the few occasions he plays as the deepest player, but some part of this could be tactical. Feels like peak Arturo Vidal in possession. 

Out of possession: Onana is very good as a proactive defender. He presses and tackles early and always comes out on top in duels. He has enough physicality and technicality to win duels without being clumsy. His ground-covering is probably his best trait. An engine like his combined with body span means he’s always a few large steps away from stopping a dribber or thwarting a transition. Aerially, he is one of the most dominant players in the league. At both ends, he has impact in the boxes and has picked up some goals from attacking corners and regularly clears danger from his box as well. One issue I found with his tackling is his propensity to go to ground. He does slide or lunge a bit too easily and while it’s not a big issue since he wins the ball most of the time, on the rare occasions he doesn’t, he’s left on the floor bypassed. I also think he needs to improve his awareness and positioning. He’s often roaming in no man’s land and missing runs or players. Again, it rarely leads to anything because once he notices it, he recovers with great speed and long strides to make up. But that consistent habit of pushing up or roaming from his position and then relying on recovery pace to tackle from behind (often a sliding tackle) doesn’t bode well for a lone pivot role. Feels like Declan Rice in defence. 

Verdict: I think Onana is much better in possession than his pizza stats or Everton’s tactics suggest, while he isn’t as elite in defence as many imagine. In both cases, I think he has gaps in deeper areas that throw doubt on his reliability as a lone 6. The good news is that a lot of it seems mental or habit related which means that it can be coached when he moves to a top team. The physical and technical traits are all there, so the gaps should be coverable. I’m cutting 2 marks for the need for this development.

The Devil’s DNA Score: 8/10

Completing the elite midfield set of 6 players

Okay, that was a lot of scouting and reporting. Now, let’s get to the real reason we did all this – finalizing the two DMs that complete our elite set of 6. Firstly, let me summarize my scouting thus far in this series in one snapshot:

Neves and Boloca bowled me over among the build up DMs while Onana and Wieffer stood clear among the hybrid ones. With the idea of Man United only deserving the best,  I’m going to stick to these 4 for now.

There are 2 main logical arguments to decide the final pair:

  1. Budget: Let’s face it. None of us really know what budgets INEOS will operate with and how much of that will be spent on two midfielders. As a result, what I’m going to do is split my suggestions in three tiers depending on the budget United are willing to spend to mix their midfield issues.
  2. Combinations: Although the larger logic of Build up and Hybrid DMs and how they fit with United’s midfielders remains, within these options, there are some synergies that might pan out better than others. For eg. Even though I back Neves’ ability as a shielder and dueller, having some height besides Mainoo and Neves might be a smart idea to cover for all situations and opposition. 

With this, let me reveal my 3-tier solution for Manchester United’s DMs. Here goes:

Gold tier option: Joao Neves and Amadou Onana for €170m

This is clearly the ‘splash the cash’ option. If we decide to go big to obtain the 2 best DMs in the market that cover all traits in deep midfield and promise high ability and potential, then Neves + Onana is the best possible option. Neves brings the build up control, playmaking and defensive awareness that Onana lacks and Onana brings the aerial dominance that Neves lacks while together they guarantee elite vertical progression, defending intensity, ground-coverage and carrying power that United’s midfield lacks. I can see both play beside Mainoo and Mount regularly while also playing together at times. This pair would solve our midfield gaps for a long time.

Silver tier option: Daniel Boloca and Amadou Onana for €120m

I was a bit more willing to cut Neves as an option since I find it hard to convince myself that Man United should be spending anything close to €100m for a single player at this stage of the rebuild. But keeping Amadou in, the build up DM I scored almost as good as Neves is Boloca and I think he makes a fine pairing with Amadou as well. What Boloca lacks in physical traits, intensity and aerial prowess, Amadou has, while Boloca can more than make up for the 1st phase excellence, playmaking power and passing range that Amadou lacks. It’s a very complimentary pair that fits with the existing players as well. 

Bronze tier option: Daniel Boloca and Mats Wieffer for €80m

Last but not least, as a club, if we move towards an era where we only want to pick smart value young options for <€50m (a transfer strategy I wouldn’t mind at all) then there still exists a combination that ticks all the boxes while leaving us with ample room to bolster other squad gaps as well. Wieffer is almost as good as Onana in bringing the defensive intensity, duel prowess and advanced progression that would be a great foil to Boloca’s deep-lying playmaker abilities. It would be a great signal of the smart business that has eluded Man Utd for a decade if 2 high ceiling DMs are closed within €100m.

And that’s all I had folks. I hope you enjoyed this series. I feel that my decision to split this into 3 parts instead of stuffing everything in one has allowed us to dive deeper into the reports and discuss a lot of things about what goes into midfield scouting. Hope the added time and energy made this as enjoyable to you as it was for me. Let me know on twitter of your thoughts on this series and any future suggestions for articles.

Previous parts: 

Part 1 – Profiles, tasks & gaps

Part 2 – Build up DM targets 

If you’re here from any other place other than Twitter then follow me on @TheDevilsDNA and interact with me there.

(All stats from Opta via fbref.)

Rebuilding Man Utd’s Midfield: Part 2 – Build up DM targets

If you missed the first part of this series, you can catch up on it here: Rebuilding Man Utd’s Midfield: Part 1 – Profiles, tasks & gaps

In part 1, I defined 6 broad tasks of a midfielder, scored the long-term 4 members of Manchester United on those tasks and created 2 player profiles based on the gaps that the club should target to create the ideal 6-man top team midfield – Build up DM and Hybrid DM. Today, we’re going to discuss the shortlist and some mini reports for the Build up DM role.

The Build up DM Shortlist

At the end of part 1, I previewed the data-led process that led me to create scored for both roles based on the 23/24 season stats of all top 7 league midfielders who have played more than 7 league 90s. It looked something like this.

From here on, I spent a lot of time cleaning the data. Steps I undertook:

1) Removed non DM players like Bernardo Silva, Gavi etc.

2) Removed impossible top team players like Rodri, Rice etc

3) Set a max age limit of 26. Part of the solution is to lower the average age of the midfield and invest in about-to-peak starlets who can win with us at their peak

4) Saw a lot of 90s from the resulting list to divide the remaining into Build up DM and Hybrid DM just to add an eye test layer to what the data suggests. There were a few minor changes.

5) Created a 16-member Build up DM list and 16-member Hybrid DM list

So without further ado, here’s the Build up DM shortlist.

Lots of interesting names here. Now, which ones should I cover mini reports of? 

I have already covered some players in previous articles and scouting pieces while I’m not sure on some others moving:

  • Individual reports on Boubacar Kamara and Cheick Doucoure before they moved to their current EPL clubs (Big missed opportunities that I had advocated for). Not much has changed about their profile
  • Florentino Luis in last year’s DM article and Zubimendi in last year’s DLP article
  • Perrone being a Man City loanee makes a sale to us tough, so skipping him. Lovely player though
  • Rovella could make his move permanent to Lazio by triggering the €20m obligation to buy, so skipping him
  • Lots of talk around Barrenechea either being recalled to Juventus or used as a bargaining chip with a Serie A club to buy another player. I doubt we get him in all of this confusion
  • Angelo Stiller just recently moved and has stated his pleasure at being at Stuttgart or moving back to Bayern in future. I’m just not sure he moves to the EPL anytime soon

So, going from the top, the first 5 realistic options are Exequiel Palacios, Joao Neves, Daniel Boloca, Aster Vrankcx and Morten Hjulmand. I’ll be covering each in more detail.

Exequiel Palacios, 26, Bayer Leverkusen

Career: A youth product of River Plate, Palacios spent 6 years at the club at senior level with slowly increasing appearances. He signed for Leverkusen in the middle of the 19/20 season. After a slow 1.5 years, Palacios enjoyed regular gametime from 21/22. He’s been slowly moving from an attacking midfield role to a box-to-box role to a now holding playmaker role under Xabi Alonso and has found great success in the latter in recent years.


  • Defensive intensity
  • Pass volume and retention
  • High progression, playmaking power and passing range
  • Pressing and interception IQ
  • Press-resistance and strength to hold off
  • Carrying and ball control in tight spaces


  • Injury prone
  • Aerial duels
  • Front-footed defending

In possession: Palacios is a gem in possession. He’s the rare type whom you can repeatedly pass to and even when he’s under immense pressure, he’ll turn, pick the right decision and use his technique to safely progress the game. He almost never loses the ball and mixes high retention and safety with high vertical power and playmaking. Whether it’s a switch, a through ball to release a wide player or a vertical punchy pass to an attacker, he has the full range of passes once he receives cleanly and picks his choice. Very Toni Kroos like in possession.

Out of possession: Palacios is a very intense and able defender. He’s a good ground dueller and puts in a lot of tackles and interceptions. He’s a very aware presser and joins his team’s counter-press intent smoothly. He rarely gets dribbled past when faced with a clear opponent. I do feel that there are some gaps in the way he recovers to shield the defence. His front-foot style sometimes sees him vacate the deepest slot or drift sideways to win the ball back. It makes sense in Leverkusen’s system of an equal pivot ahead of a back 3, but I’d be wary of his positioning as a single pivot ahead of a back 4. He can also be beaten in aerial duels but tries to make himself a nuisance. Reminds me of Ander Herrera out of possession. 

Others: Finally, his injury record isn’t great. As per transfermarkt he has suffered 6 injuries in the last 2.5 years that made him miss 166 days and a lot of them seem to be muscle-related ones, which isn’t a great sign.

Verdict: Palacios is a gem on the ball and a brilliant front-foot defensive midfielder. The doubts around conservative anchorman actions, aerial ability and fitness are the reasons I’m cutting a few marks.

The Devil’s DNA Score: 7.5/10 

João Neves, 19, Benfica

Career: A youth product of Benfica, Neves started getting chances in the senior team at the young age of 18 last year post the departure of Enzo Fernandez and impressed in the second half of the season. This season he’s seen a lot more gametime as a regular starter and is already attracting the attention of Europe’s elite.


  • Pressing and tackling power
  • Mazy vertical carrying
  • Ground and aerial duels
  • Defensive coverage
  • Passing involvement and reception
  • Progressive passing and range
  • Tactical understanding and movement


  • Consistency
  • Price tag
  • Decision-making sharpness
  • Timing of ball release

In possession: Watching Neves in possession is a treat. His incredible ball control and dribbling is noticeable first. He is highly press-resistant and can wriggle his way out of any situation. He’s a proper playmaker and has the range and playmaking brain to consistently progress and find advanced players or safely retain the ball. I would say he’s not as metronmous as some of the others on this list and can pick the wrong pass or hold on to the ball longer than expected at times. His tactical understanding already seems very mature. Able to drop into CCB/LCB areas or receive between lines or drift wide and receive, he is constantly moving and finding space which is shown by his high passes attempted stat. Reminds me of Thiago in possession. 

Out of possession: I’ve come away more impressed with Neves’ defending than attacking. Don’t be fooled by his stature. Neves is a world-class dueller. His pace, energy and body usage ensure he dominates ground duels while his agility, jump and heading technique make him aerially strong. He has high defensive coverage which coupled with great positional and pressing IQ make him a complete nuisance to deal with. Even the deeper anchor duties are performed well by him as he can shield the defence, intercept cutbacks and defend transitions comfortably. Neves’ jump and agility make his height a non-issue. Neves’ speed, ground-coverage intensity and physicality make his short stature on ground a non-issue. This is a top defensive midfielder. Feels like peak N’golo Kante in defence. 

Others: Neves has the typical Benfica release clause of 120m with a contract till 2028. Even if Benfica reduce this, I don’t see why they would sell for less than 80m given his talent and demand.

Verdict: Neves is even better out of possession than he is in possession, and he’s absolutely divine in possession. Cutting 1 mark coz of decision-making and consistency which are a function of age largely and the transfer fee. 

The Devil’s DNA Score: 9/10 

Daniel Boloca, 25, Sassuolo

Career: Boloca is a Juventus youth product, who played for a number of Serie D teams before singing for Serie B club Frosinone. At Frosinone, Boloca quickly became a regular and eventually was one of the protagonists of the team that won the 2022–23 Serie B title under head coach Fabio Grosso. In summer 2023, Boloca joined fellow Serie A club Sassuolo where he’s been impressing as a starter.


  • Press-resistance especially back-to-goal
  • First touch, ball control and carrying even in tight spaces
  • Passing technique and range
  • Passing security and circulation
  • Positioning and covering IQ
  • Physicality to duel/press and not get dribbled past
  • Appreciation of passing angles and pass empathy
  • Tactical and off-ball movement IQ


  • Not a great final ball player
  • Not a big goal threat via shooting or attacking movement
  • Aerial engagement
  • Top speed and agility

In possession: Boloca is the type of midfielder you can watch all day. Inexplicably he combines the glide and grace of a gifted dribbler and passer with the robustness of a classical defensive midfielder. You’ll often see him receive back-to-goal under pressure, turn his man, carry in a gliding fashion and release a pin-point pass with perfect power and curve for his teammate when Sassuolo build up. Even against tough opposition and in the end of games, the consistency and success of these actions remain as high as ever making him feel like a very mature and seasoned playmaker. The only con would be that he’s not a big final third threat with his shooting, final ball or vertical carrying into dangerous areas, but that doesn’t matter much for our build up DM role. Reminds me of Marco Verratti on the ball.

Out of possession: Without the ball you’ll also often see him use his awareness to cover spaces and physicality to tackle opponents as well. I love the way he uses his whole body to barge into players, unsettle them or tackle cleanly. He’s not the fastest player on the pitch by any means but It’s not easy to dribble past Boloca thanks to his combination of physicality and positioning sense. He takes up excellent shielding positions just ahead of the center-backs and is always in the right position to block, clear or intercept dangerous opponent attacks. One slight con is that he doesn’t engage aerially as enthusiastically as he should. He often just tries to disbalance his marker without jumping properly which could be a function of lack of agility and jumping power but he largely manages due to his physicality.

Verdict: The only reason Boloca’s stats don’t stand out is because Sassuolo are battling relegation. I’m confident that in a better team these stats scale up to elite level. He’s almost everything we need in and out of possession and the few gaps of quickness, agility and final third power can easily be mitigated by his role and other strengths. A winner for me, especially if the price is low.

The Devil’s DNA Score: 9/10

 Aster Vrankcx, 22, Wolfsburg

Career: A youth product of Mechelen, Aster was noticed by Wolfsburg in 2021. He had a decent first season for Wolfsburg but they decided to loan him to AC Milan in the following year, a move that didn’t result in much gametime. But on his return to Wolfsburg at the start of the 23/24 season, Aster claimed the starter spot in the deepest role.


  • Imposing physique that he uses well in and out of possession
  • Press-resistance and technique to navigate tight spaces
  • Pressing and ball-winning IQ + intensity
  • Upper body strength and dribbling technique make it hard to win ball off
  • Off-ball movement to receive in deeper or advanced areas
  • Ability to defend large spaces with body span and engine


  • Passing vision and creativity
  • Passing progression
  • Top end speed and agility
  • Verticality and range of carrying and passing
  • Goal threat and shooting

In possession: Aster is very good in close spaces, being able to consistently receive under pressure in tough central areas, turn and beat his man before passing safely and ensuring his team doesn’t lose the ball. Within these set of actions, Aster is as good as they come. But it’s beyond this where he has more to improve. His ability to be vertical and progress the game either via switches or through balls or slick grounded passes to attackers needs work while his carrying is also very reliant on his physical ability to power past his man and lacks range of usage. His shooting and box-crashing threat is also low. Reminds me of Naby Keita in possession.

Out of possession: His physicality causes a lot of problems and that combined with his tactical intelligence are the reasons he is a good ball-winner and is usually at the right place to intercept, block or tackle. But he does lack that extra agility which proves to be an issue when faced with top dribblers like Musiala and results in him getting a little leg-tied. On occasions, his average acceleration results in him being late to block a quickly played pass or cross. Feels like Axel Witsel out of possession.

Verdict: I’m not surprised Aster ranked well for the things we were looking for. On paper, he is great at P1 and D1 actions. But his overall package and other attributes didn’t add as much as I would have hoped. This is why we need to dive deeper after shortlisting via stats. There are visible limiters to being a world-class starter for Manchester United. But he’s 22 and could improve more too. All in all, I think there are better options but I wouldn’t mind a punt on Aster if he’s available for as cheap as rumoured. That would safeguard us in the situation he remains at his current level (aka Man Utd backup).

The Devil’s DNA Score: 7/10

Marten Hjulmand, 24, Sporting CP

Career: A Copenhagen youth product, Hjulmand’s first 5 senior years saw him function as the mainstay of Admira Wacker for 2 years and Lecce for 3 years. His final season with Lecce after they got promoted to Serie A especially grabbed a lot of attention and Sporting moved for him in summer 2023 as a Ugarte replacement. Within less than a year, Hjulmand has become a key member of a high-performing Sporting side. 


  • Ground coverage and physicality
  • Positioning and awareness
  • High volume retention passing
  • Ground duels
  • Off-ball movement to free himself and receive
  • Wide combination play and crossing
  • Ball shielding and foul-drawing
  • Great mix of aggression and composure when defending
  • Clean switches and lobs when in space


  • Aerially suspect
  • Vertical passing/carrying progression
  • Final third entry and creativity
  • Top end speed and agility
  • Too safe under pressure especially back-to-goal

In possession: Hjulmand does what we needed of our Build up DM well. He is very consistent and mature with his receiving, carrying and passing without being fantastical at any of it. He won’t be gliding like Frenkie De Jong or creating expansively like Pirlo but he keeps things sage and ticking in metronomous fashion. When in space, he does execute some nice clean switches, long balls and through balls but that isn’t his primary intent, especially when under pressure. He does lack a bit in terms of creativity and vision while his go-to move when back-to-goal and under pressure is to pass back safely, so don’t expect heavy progression or dribbling. But he has a good ability to shield the ball or draw a foul using his body expertly, so these instances rarely lead to any issues. He’s a nice pass-and-move player and likes to create triangles and combinations. Especially when these are in wide right-sided areas, he can put a nice cross in too. Very much like Pierre-Emile Højbjerg in possession.

Out of possession: This is where Hjulmand really shines. He’s a perfect mix of a terrier who’s constantly tackling, pressing and being a nuisance and also a composed high IQ defender who intercepts, shields and covers with a very nuanced understanding of space. He plugs gaps proactively, senses danger like it’s first nature to him and uses his physicality to come out better in duels time and time again. Sporting’s tactics also leave him with a lot of space to cover as he’s often the lone DM standing in a high-press tactic. But he still manages to cover space expertly, defend transitions, stop dribblers and clear danger from his box. My only con would be him not having the jump and agility to win aerial duels consistently, which is a shame given his frame. Reminds me of Patrick Vieira defensively. 

Verdict: Defensively, Hjulmand is almost everything you want in a DM while in possession he ticks the basic criteria of what we wanted in terms of retention, circulation and safety. I’m going to cut two marks due to the lack of vertical progression, aerial prowess and creativity.

The Devil’s DNA Score: 8/10

To sum up the Build up DM targets, I came out most impressed with Joao Neves and Daniel Boloca. The former is a superstar but so is his fee. Boloca feels like an absolute no-brainer and I’d start putting low bids on him immediately if I were Manchester United. After them, Hjulmand is a superb no-nonsense option. Palacios can do the job as well, with a few adjustments to cover what he can’t do. I’d keep Aster Vranckx as the last option with caveats of his ceiling. 

In the final piece of this 3-part series, I will take a look at the Hybrid DM list before spending some time on the ideal Build up DM + Hybrid DM combination that would make Manchester United’s midfield elite again.

Previous part: Part 1 – Profiles, tasks & gaps
Next part: Part 3 – Hybrid DM targets 

If you’re here from any other place other than Twitter then follow me on @TheDevilsDNA and interact with me on there.

(All stats from Opta via fbref.)

Rebuilding Man Utd’s Midfield: Part 1 – Profiles, tasks & gaps

For my first scouting exercise of 2024, I decided to go in a different direction from the usual method. My scouting articles from last year included DM, DLP and CB

This time, I’m going to tackle Manchester United’s midfield rebuild as a whole and cover the following in a step-by-step manner:
1) Analyze what encompasses a good midfield in terms of tasks and duties
2) Figure out what Manchester United already have in terms of profiles
3) Identify gaps to build required profiles
4) Use data to create shortlists to uncover targets based on above logic
5) Go through some mini scout reports of the best and most realistic targets 

As you can see, this already sounds like a long read, which is why I’m going to be dividing this exercise into 3 parts. In this part, we will focus on what we have in our midfield and what we need.

The tasks and duties of a midfield

While there are a million things a player playing in midfield might be tasked with doing, I’ve tried to divide the universe of midfield duties into 6 broad tasks which encompass the numerous duties associated with it. Here they are:

3 possession and 3 defending tasks have been split as per the areas/phases in which they occur. Let me give a bit more explanation of each.

P1: 1st phase progression – Basically duties that help the team go from their defensive third to the middle third safely. These include receiving back-to-goal from GK or defenders, being able to retain the ball under pressure, being able to circulate possession safely and handling large volumes of passes consistently. Highest safety task.

P2: 2nd phase progression – Duties that help the team advance from the middle third of the pitch to the attacking third. These involve being progressive while being safe, being able to play switches, line-breaking passes or long balls that help the team enter the opposition territory and having vertical passing/carrying power to break lines. An even mix of safety and risk-taking.

P3: 3rd phase progression – Duties that help the team create or score. These include playing killer balls, finding attackers in high xG locations, having game-breaking ability to unlock defences, having good off-the-ball movement to get into dangerous areas and having shooting ability to score. Most risk-taking task.

D1: Deep defending – Out of possession, this task coincides with the deepest midfielder who has duties that can range from shielding the back 4 or joining the defence line, forming the rest defence i.e. defending transitions when his team loses the ball, being positionally sound to intercept, block and recover dangerous opponent passes and having the strength and defending technique to stop dangerous dribblers and off-ball movers when 1v1 with them.

D2: Middle defending – Ideally the second deepest midfielder out of possession who has duties that include large space-covering ability to be able to run, press, tackle and recover the ball consistently, being able to provide extra defensive security to the deepest midfielder and coming out on top of duels in the middle of the park.

D3: High defending – Out of possession, this relates to the midfielder who joins the high press, has a good sense of how to disrupt the opposition’s build up and progression, has the tenacity to press, chase and man-mark key opponent players and the ability to lead his team’s counter-press strategy.

You’ll notice that I’m defining tasks instead of profiles. This is because of the numerous ways in which profiles can fit together. You can have various combinations of these 6 tasks fitting together in a midfield to make it work. If it’s a 4-2-3-1, the base midfielders might have more tasks deeper while the AM might dominate most of the P3 and D3 duties. If it’s a 4-3-3 the DM might dominate most P1 and D1 duties. But there could also be cases where build up duties are split or transition defence duties are shared. For these combinations to exist, I’ve preferred to think in terms of tasks rather than profiles. The profiles get created based on how good players are at these tasks.

Taking stock of Manchester United’s midfield

So, how does all of this apply to us? Let’s get into that.

But firstly, let me simply put down all the midfield options at the club currently with their respective ages and contract end dates.

While this looks like a large group of midfielders, the ones we can count on to remain at the club for the near future are actually very few.

Casemiro and Eriksen are now 32. The struggles for both in terms of physicality, fitness and intensity in games has been clear for a year. In general, moving them on to reinvest in younger players makes sense. I’m assuming they’re not here beyond the summer or at most a year. Not counting both.

Amrabat hasn’t really set the stage on fire in his loan spell. In general, this feels like one of those loan deals that ten Hag simply likes to make to have injury cover and won’t really sign on (like Weghorst and Reguilon). Not counting him.

Donny van de Beek has not seen regular United first-team activity in many years. There’s a good chance the club will hope his loan deal converts to a permanent move. In case it doesn’t,  we can assume he’ll be sold or sent on loan again until his contract expires. Not counting him.

Mejbri and Gore are a little more tricky. There’s a good argument they can come back and stake claim for a spot in midfield especially, as a backup. Mejbri even got some first-team involvement. I’m not sure if either makes it here under ten hag or a new manager. For now. I’m not including them in the main calculations. If they do make it back, they can be extra cover beyond the first-team midfield that we plan for. 

Essentially that leaves us with Bruno, Scott, Mount and Mainoo as midfielders we can count on for the next 2-3 years. Mount and Mainoo are simple to explain – they’re young and have just started their United careers. They should be around for a while. Although Bruno is 29, I don’t think the time to move on from him is near. He’s at his peak and nothing about his physical or technical abilities have taken a hit. Building around him is sensible for 2-3 years. After that, he can be replaced if needed. Scott probably invites most discourse. I would have got why he was sold to West Ham last year if that move panned out. But over the course of this season, he has shown his value. He is an academy player with certain reliable traits that are unique and impactful when used well. I would keep him around for at least 2 years until the major gaps are sorted and then look to upgrade him.

Analyzing the midfield by tasks

With that in mind, I’m going to divide the 4 midfielders we have into the aforementioned tasks. Let’s look at it.

First, some notes on the scoring. I have taken a 5-point scale from ‘4’ to ‘0’ with 4 referring to a player who is highly capable at the mentioned task and 0 referring to incapable. These aren’t absolute ability scores. All 4 midfielders scoring 12 doesn’t mean they are equal in ability. It’s just a notation to indicate what they’re good and bad at. For example, Scott scoring 4 for D2 doesn’t mean there are no midfielders who are better at D2 than Scott. It simply means within his skillset, Scott is best doing D2 compared to D1 and D3. So, please read the chart as task capability within a player’s skill set and not as a comparison to all midfielders. 

A few notes on each player’s scores.

Bruno Fernandes: Probably the simplest one to divide. Bruno is worse as he goes deeper, both in and out of possession and best as he goes higher up the pitch. He gets a straight 0-2-4 split in both categories. He’s best in the final third whether it’s creating, scoring or leading the high press. He is fairly capable in the middle third with his passing range to enter final 3rd or ball-winning intensity. He’s highly incapable in the deepest third whether it’s build up or transition defending.

Kobbie Mainoo: Another easy one to analyze. In possession, Mainoo is remarkable in the deepest third thanks to his press-resistance, carrying and composed circulation ability, decent in the middle third when tasked to progress and probably not a final 3rd player. Out of possession is almost similar, but I wouldn’t say that he isn’t the best at defending deepest due to his small physical frame and tendency to get dribbled past when 1v1. I also think he’s shown decent high pressing ability in recent games when he was the highest deployed midfielder.

Mason Mount: Contrary to popular perception, I do not think Mount is a Bruno copy or that their skill sets overlap highly making them tough to play together. I don’t think Mount is as effective in the final 3rd as Bruno, but I think he’s very underrated in 2nd phase progression and has shown that in games this year. Out of possession, I’d say they are similar in that both are great high pressers and decent middle third defenders.

Scott McTominay: I’m sure this will be debatable, but hear me out. In-possession, I think Scott is decent in all 3 phases but really shines higher up the pitch. While he doesn’t have the creativity or passing technique of Bruno, his game-breaking ability in terms of being a good target man, having great ball-striking ability and possessing an underrated hold-up trait make him a very useful final 3rd player as shown many times this season. Out of possession, he’s excellent at the middle 3rd defensive aspects of duel-winning, space coverage and second-ball pick ups. I’d rate him much lower for deep defending and high pressing due to his poor positioning and awareness.

Now, look at the totals. What we are left with are huge gaps in the deeper third tasks in and out of possession. Which makes sense since the DMs for our current season, Casemiro and Amrabat, aren’t included in the assessment. We’re well covered in other tasks.

The midfield profiles that United need

If we assume an ideal midfield of 6 players for 3 slots, then we need two more players to complete the above set. The best fitment would be if they could cover the task gaps adequately enough to result in a wholesome midfield set of 6 befitting a treble-aiming club.

Here’s what we get.

Simply entering the numbers to create a wholesome total of 12 across the board vertically and horizontally results in the profiles of 2 new players that I feel United should buy to complete their set.

The common denominator for both comes out of possession. Both score a 4-1-1 in defence which hints at both needing to be extremely capable deep defenders to stop transitions, shield the back 4 and be positionally solid. That’s the reason I’ve called both positions DM since without the ball they will be the deepest player in midfield. It makes sense too considering them as replacements for Casemiro and Amrabat.

In possession is where the differences arise. The first player needs to be extremely adept at first phase progression aka build up so I’ve named him the Build up DM. This is the player who will most likely play exclusively as the deepest player in and out of possession. You can think of him as the #6 with two #8s ahead of him or the deeper member of a pivot. 

The second player can have distributed tasks in possession and reads like an all-phase player. This represents a player who has the defensive ability to sit like a #6 if needed but can also play as the #8 beside a #6 and contribute in advanced phases of progression. As a result I’ve named him as the Hybrid DM. 

So there you have it. These are the 2 profiles of players I feel United should target to have a well-rounded high-impact midfield for the next 2 years.

Finding our targets – A preview

Before I wrap up part 1 of this series, I’d like to explain how I’m going to go about finding these players so that you have something to look forward to for part 2 and 3.

We already know the tasks to look for and the duties associated with them. That leads us to looking at the stats that indicate the successful execution of such duties. So, the next step will be stats-led where I’ll use data to crunch numbers for the 6 tasks I defined above and then create a shortlist using weighted formulas for the Build up DM and Hybrid DM.

The stats I’ve used for each task:
P1: Pass %, Passes Attempted, Miscontrols

P2: Progressive passes, Progressive carries, Dispossessed

P3: Key passes, Shot-creating actions, Shots

D1: Dribblers tackled, Dribblers tackled %

D2: Tackles, interceptions

D3: Attacking third tackles

All the data for midfielders from Europe’s top 7 leagues was downloaded from fbref and the stats were converted to per touch or possession-adjusted versions to eliminate big team bias. Each task percentile was created by weighting the above mentioned individual stat percentiles. Two formulas for Build up DM and Hybrid DM were created using the weightages for the tasks that we mentioned before. Finally a league coefficient weighting was used to boost performances in tougher leagues among the top 7 leagues.

Here’s a preview of how it’s coming out.

In the next 2 articles, I will create shortists for both profiles and then cover some mini scout reports that make most sense for Manchester United.

Watch out for the upcoming pieces in this series.

Part 2: Man Utd Midfield Rebuild: Part 2 – Build up DM Targets

Part 3: Man Utd Midfield Rebuild Part 3 – Hybrid DM Targets

Follow me on Twitter – @thedevilsdna and drop your feedback and suggestions there.

How to get the best out of Marcus Rashford

In this article, I’ll cover Rashford’s:
— Strengths, weaknesses & traits
— Suitable in-possession patterns
— Complimentary profiles to support

Before we dive into usage, let’s jot down what we know of his profile.

– Movement in-behind
– Ball-striking & execution of shots/crosses
– Dribbling when 1v1 especially in wide areas
– Finishing variety & consistency
– Athleticism & agility

– Ball control in tight spaces
– Back-to-goal play
– Vision when facing settled blocks
– Pressing & defensive engagement

Combined, this means that you’d rather have Rashford recieving in wide areas away from a block when his body is open & can trap & drive OR recieving when running in-behind in central areas. Recieving in central areas when back-to-goal is worst. Let’s go through the patterns now.

1A) Off-ball: Far side

When possession is on the far side, he should be narrow hanging on the opponent FB. This makes him a good target for crosses behind the defence line from the right half-space, either from RW or RB or RCM. He can run either side of FB depending on space.

Especially since adding an element of aerial threat to his game, crosses to the far post where he can beat his (usually short) FB marker in the air is one very easy avenue of goal-scoring we haven’t utilized often. A potent way to break organized low blocks as well.

The example above was on the outside of the FB which leads to direct shot/header or recieving & taking on. In cases where the space between opponent FB & CB is large (usually in transition vs unsettled blocks) Rashford drifting into this space & scoring is his bread-and-butter.

1B) Off-ball: Central

When the ball is in central areas during possession in latter phases, Rashford being even more narrow gets the best out of his run-behind strengths. This is the main attraction for managers to play him at CF or allowing him to stay high & central from LW.

When it comes to angled runs in the gap between RB & RCB to get through on goal, there’s no one better than Rashford in the PL. Coupled with Bruno’s ability to play those balls, it’s no surpise that most of our managers have relied on this pattern for goals, like ETH last year.

Even when pass is played in earlier phases of possession, it can be deadly. Here the ball is played from our half & Rashford recieves in the RB-RCB space, but is wide. He has still it in his locker to cut in & score. Doesn’t always have to be clean through. High guarantee move.

2A) On-ball: Overlap

Next, we go to on-ball situations. As discussed, it’s best for Marcus to position wide on the touchline to recieve, when possession is on his side of the pitch. After recieving cleanly & facing goal, the overlap is one form of support that can be given.

I’m sure the first person that comes to your mind when I say ‘overlap for Rashford’ is Shaw. We have seen this equation many times. Rashford has the ball control & passing tech to find overlapping runners consistently with good through-balls, slide-rule passes or even backheels.

Shaw being positioned high & wide from the start isn’t a good use of him. He doesn’t have the 1v1 ability or trickery to beat a man in high LW-esque positions. But when marauding from deeper, his running power, carrying & crossing vision are great tools to use on the overlap.

2B) On-ball: Underlap

Logical alternative to overlap. Rashford has a good slide pass into the left half-space channel that any runner can latch onto. This can be the CF, LCM or even LB again. From there, high-value chance (we’ve lacked recently) can be created from a cutback.

Rashford positioning himself wide & having great 1v1 ability often results in him dragging 2 opponents towards him. This creates a space for the underlap to work. We’ve had very few LHS underlappers for Rashford over the years. Here’s one example with Matic (of all people).

England friendlies in Oct 2023 highlighted this aspect of Rashford via 1 of the best channel runners today, Jude Bellingham, who’s been in top shadow striker form this year & was often found by a touchline Rashford in left half-space. In our squad Mason Mount is capable of this.

2C) On-ball: Angled cross

Another simple yet potent trait. While Rashford may not be very visionary like an Ozil or David Silva from the wings, he has good crossing execution especially when it’s a clear target. His angled cross to a box runner is a good avenue of goals.

We had seen a lot of this in the 20/21 season under Ole when Rashford was in a traditional LW role (like this year) & Cavani started many games. Cavani was excellent at making those runs & had aerial presence. Rashford had 13 assists that year – his career-highest in a season.

Sadly, I had to search a lot for non-Cavani examples. Had to go back to 2017 when Rashford had a few such assists to Fellaini. With Martial not being a target man or good runner, Rashford often being the outlet himself & our 23/24 tactics being poor, we haven’t seen this enough.

2D) On-ball: Carry to byline

The 1v1 dribbling ability comes into play here. After recieving wide on the touchline, he has the skills to beat his man on the outside, reach the byline & cutback. For 23/24 season, his 12 shot-creating actions from take-ons is the highest in EPL.

We saw this in full flow earlier in this season. He had 2 SCA from take ons each vs Forest, Arsenal & Brighton. After beating his man he’s able to reach byline & pass to a CF (often Hojlund this year). Looks bad when he’s not 1v1 & has to try this coz there’s no other support.

Our tactics this year have aimed at going direct to or switching to winger from deep without progressing patiently. This puts him in situations where he has no option but to try the take-on even when against multiple defenders or settled blocks. 2A, 2B, 2C support isn’t offered.

2E) Carry to center

Another pattern that makes good use of his dribbling & long shooting ability is lettim him cut inside instead of byline. This area can be opened with a simple decoy run that pulls away the CB. When 1v1, with space in center, Rashford can cut in & shoot.

Once again, a recent example was during the friendly vs Italy when Bellingham took away a CB with a nice diagonal run. Rashford delays his carry until the gap is created & then cuts inside to shoot. Again, post-Cavani very few CFs have done this consistently.

Best part: Our squad already has all support elements.

— RCM who can cross from RHS or thread from centre
— LB who can overlap
— LCM who can underlap
— CF who can make channel/box runs

A patient tactic focused on utilising above attacking patterns will unlock Rashford & others.

I wanted to keep this article as a general blueprint regardless of manager & tactics but I think it’s visible that the years in which Rashford had the right dynamics, he thrived (like Ole 2 years & 22/23 ETH) & the years he didnt, he struggled (Like RR era & 23/24 ETH).

If you’re here from the web, follow me and chat with me on and let me know if you’re liking this series & who next to make one on.

Rasmus Højlund: The Spark

Wout Weghorst – Age 30 – Loan

Cristiano Ronaldo – Age 37 – €17m

Edinson Cavani – Age 34 – Free

Odion Ighalo – Age 31 – Loan

These have been the players signed by Manchester United to lead their attack in the past 4 years. Currently none of them are at the club. The lack of seriousness in plugging a major starting XI gap has finally been addressed this summer. 20 year old Danish wonderkid, Rasmus Hojlund was unveiled at Old Trafford before the pre-season friendly vs Lens to an excited Old Trafford crowd. 

Thanks to the deal costing €75m as a package, the hype and expectations from an excited fanbase who have been yearning for a young high ceiling line-leading CF, are quite high. In this article I break down every aspect of Hojlund’s game and point out his key strengths and the areas he needs to improve on.

Career so far

Born in Copenhagen, he joined their youth system in 2020 at the age of 17. He made his debut for them later that year and went on to feature 27 times over the next season. Sturm Graz picked him up for €1.8m in Jan 2022 and he recorded an impressive 12 goals in 21 appearances for them across 2022. That was enough for Atalanta to shell out €17m in August 2022. 22/23 was his breakout year where he bagged 10 goals and 2 assists in 21.1 90s for the Serie A club which was enough for United to come knocking. He has also started playing regularly for Denmark in the past 2 years racking up 6 goals in 6 games for his country so far.

22/23 Stats
Before we begin, let’s take a look at his stats for 22/23. I will dissect them in detail soon, but here’s a snapshot.

Excellent movement and shooting, great carrying and good passing – is how I’d summarize this chart. This already paints a good picture of the type of striker we want to lead our line. Let’s get into his traits now.

NOTE: For the match examples in this article I’ve stuck to two full games – Atalanta vs Salernitana from Serie A GW37 and Denmark vs Kazakhstan 2023 Euro qualifier. I wanted to highlight all of Rasmus’ pros and cons using two full 90s instead of cherry-picking good moments across a year.

Attacking Movement

Let me say upfront that this is Hojlund’s best trait and the one I think he’s already at par with compared to the best strikers in the world. His consistency, willingness, IQ and variety of movement are all top-class and this is one of the main reasons I’d say his profile is so attractive for a top team. 

Now, let me back these positive statements with some proof.

This is how Atalanta lined up in the end-season league game vs Salernitana and generally how they’ve lined up in Serie A last season. There are some variations where they play a front 2 with an AM behind them but largely speaking they fielded 3 narrow attackers with Hojlund most central among them as a line leader.

Atalanta play a very attacking and transition-based brand of football. The wingbacks provide the width while the back 3 and pivot take care of the build up and progression. The front 3 have a lot of license to roam in the opponent half to pick spaces between the lines, on the wings or half-spaces between defenders. The 2 support strikers are usually narrow like attacking midfielders. Hojlund was usualy the line leader CF, playing on the shoulder of the last opposition defender.

Now let’s look at some movement patterns Hojlund often executes.

This is his bread-and-butter move. Hojlund curves around a defender to attack the channel or half-space between the center-back and the fullback. The support striker responsible for that halfspace usually takes Hojlund’s central spot to prepare for the cutback or offer a box target. Lookman often shared this equation with Hojlund and this is something we could see a lot with Rashford at United. When Hojlund runs the channel, he provides an immediate outlet for the team to pick out, stretches the opposition defence and creates space for his support attackers to occupy.

Let’s look at some match examples.

A bursting Hojlund run into the right channel attracts the defender towards him, which creates space for him to play the channel pass to his teammate who runs there. Notice how Hojlund also attacks the box after his pass, expecting a 1-2 or someone to find him there later. Offers the channel run but immediately wants to attack the box as well – that’s Hojlund.

Notice the sharpness of the run here. The space isn’t big and there is a narrow window to angle his run to avoid being offside and yet beat his man and receive the ball. Hojlund’s movement IQ and awareness is excellent enough to nail that window consistently all game. It’s one reason I’d put him up there with the best movers in the game already. His pass could probably have been better, which is an erratic part of his game, but the support wasn’t great too.

Once again, notice how Hojlund starts peeling away from his marker the moment his teammate is about to receive the ball on the flank. That enables the first-time pass into the right channel. His movements are so quick and sharp, they are designed to attack those short moments when the space is available. United’s players will have to be quick in noticing those moments and playing him early when he has the run on the opposition defender.

An example on the left side. Notice how good Hojlund’s control and carrying is after receiving wide. To end up with a strong shot on goal from that wide position highlights what a good dribbler and shot-creator for himself Hojlund is.

This is a great example of his movement. Notice how he tears away from his CB with the perfect angled run that not only beats the CB, but also lets him receive cleanly behind the RB.

An example from the Denmark game. Notice how he suddenly changes direction and darts towards the channel, inviting even the simplest of chips in the half space to become a great tool of progression. A hold up action and pass to winger later, Denmark are in the final 3rd.

Let’s get into his second movement pattern.

A more direct move where Hojlund stands in front of his CB marker and turns him to run into the space right behind facing the goal. This usually ends up in a shot on goal or final ball or foul won. It is one major avenue for Hojlund’s shots. The acceleration he generates from a standing start to a turn-and-run behind his man is what sets him apart from other strikers who do this.

Let’s look at some scenarios.

Classic move ahead of the CB where he turns around him for a clear path to goal with his left foot in striking position. The CB has no option but to take him down. Hojlund wins a penalty which is dispatched by Boga. In general, he’s drawn 32 fouls and won 2 penalties in his 20 90s for Atalanta this year. It’s tough to handle someone as smart and quick a mover as Hojlund. Bruno could be taking some extra penalties this coming year.

Another example where his turn-and-run leads to a foul drawn in a dangerous area.

An example from the Denmark game where he darts across the CB and uses his pace and physicality to maintain his run and emerge goalside. A random long ball punt becomes a 1-on-1 with the GK thanks to Hojlund’s run. He also has the composure to chip and earn his goal.

Let’s move to another pattern.

This is the one you all must be waiting for. The classic poacher move – Penetrative run between defenders when the ball is in wide areas. Hojlund is excellent at this and keeps making these runs often. Many of his goals are from this movement and often finished with a speedy dart and an extended leg to tap in a pure striker’s goal.

Let’s see some examples from the same games.

The Boga low cross wasn’t able to beat the CB in this case, but look at Hojlund’s acceleration and extension attempt. Would have been a poacher’s goal if not for the interception.

Another example where you can see his patience to wait for the final ball before executing the quick burt-and-stretch in front of goal. 

From the same game. Hojlund is always attacking the ball across the face of the goal. This time the goalkeeper being brave prevented a tap-in.

Here,within 2 seconds, Hojlund attacks the gap between both defenders and finds himself in pole position for a 2-yard finish. A last-ditch interception prevents the shot, but Hojlund will keep making that run all day, which is a reason why he gets goals.

As you can see from the examples, there’s a good reason Hojlund is at 99 percentile for ‘Progresses passes received’ in his Serie A pizza chart. Here’s how his movement compares to attackers in Europe.

In summary, he’s an excellent mover with many various movements to receive dangerous balls in good areas. The output of these moves are usually excellent – either a shot on goal, or foul won or final ball chance or space for another attacker to finish. Movement is Hojlund’s best trait and what makes him so valuable. Especially in the context of playing ahead of progressors like Bruno Fernandes, Luke Shaw, Mason Mount, Lisandro Martinez and Casemiro, who have the passing range to pick him out regularly, It’s a finger-licking aspect of his profile.


We’ve seen how he gets into shooting positions. But how does he shoot after getting there?

These are his fbref shooting stats. What is very promising is the combination of ‘shot on target %’, ‘NPxG’ and ‘NPxG/Sh’. Together they indicate a player who gets his shots on target often and racks up high shot quality with each attempt, and this results in him accruing a healthy amount of non-penalty expected goals. It’s a very attractive shooting profile. I personally don’t mind the total shots percentile being a little low. It just indicates he’s not very trigger-happy and prefers to move or carry to get into good positions and attempt high quality shots. It meshes well with our attack since we already have shoot-heavy profiles in Bruno and Rashford. A third attacker who prefers to move or carry closer to goal and enhance chance quality is welcome.

He was 5th when it came to collecting non-penalty xG on a per 90 basis in Serie A last year. Moving with established strikers on this metric as a 20-year-old in his debut league season says a lot.

Let’s look at his shot map.

These are all his open play shots in Serie A in 22/23. What’s most satisfying is the number of shots inside the box. Only 3 shots are outside the box. He does have a slight preference to shoot from the left half-space compared to right. But his major chunk of shots being in the central zone around the penalty area is a clear signal of the kind of striker he is. 7 of his 9 goals have come from shots within the central zone and within the box – the area you want your line leader to score from, whether it’s from clever movement, a strong carry or just being in the right position after a penalty box scrimmage. An example of that last point from the Denmark Kazakhstan game:

I have a final viz to present before rounding up the shooting section.

This is another representation of what I was saying earlier – Hojlund doesn’t need too many shots to score. He roughly scores a goal every 6 shots. The only player who is in the same range and surpasses Hojlund on shots and goals per 90 is – you guessed it – Victor Osimhen. He’s the red dot on the far top-right corner. I know that we all wanted Osimhen at Manchester United, but I’m here to tell you that we’re probably getting the second-best option when it comes to shooting profile.

Carrying and dribbling

Let’s move on to another trait of Hojlund which I consider a big strength. I’m referring to dribbling as the action to try and beat a man or get into a good area and carrying as a generic ball control in any direction regardless of opponent.

These are his carrying stats from fbref. Firstly, his touches geared largely towards the penalty area and then the attacking third are a huge plus. And if you read those in combination with take-ons attempted (i.e. dribbles), we can understand that Hojlund attempts many dribbles in dangerous areas close to goal. These are not random dribbles in deeper or wide areas. They have goal scoring or assisting intent to them and are often in crowded areas where most opposition defenders are parked. This is also why his ‘Miscontrols’, ‘Dispossessed’ and ‘Times tackled’ look bad. Not only is he attempting a lot of take-ons, he’s also attempting them in areas usually swarming with defenders. So the success rates might seem low but the reward element is high, usually resulting in a game-opening move. The low percentiles make sense in that context and aren’t an issue of concern in any way.

Let’s see some match examples.

Another example of his turn-and-run move, but here he has the ball control ability to take down an awkward bouncing ball and push it in a dangerous area, beating both the men putting pressure on him. The result – he’s taken down in the box to earn another penalty.

This example is a good combination of the three traits we have discussed so far – the movement to dart between the CBs in transition, the carrying power to dribble and put distance from them and the intention to get close to goal before shooting with the knowledge that he will score – a microcosm of everything Hojlund is about. 

Hold up and link up play

So far, the 3 traits I discussed are clear strengths of Hojlund, which he’s touching top attacker levels for. But from now, we’re starting to go into the territory of traits he can improve more on. 

I’m referring to hold up play as the act of holding onto the ball until support arrives, often when back-to-goal and while battling a defender. I’m defining link-up play as the ability to see a pass and execute it after receiving or holding the ball.

And with that i need to say this – Hojlund’s hold up is average.

I’ve seen a lot of takes citing his hold-up as excellent, but I think a lot of it is based on an imagination of how his profile combination of physique, technique and speed will ensure that in the near future. It’s probably not a representation of what he’s shown so far.
Let me show you some examples to explain what I mean.

Hojlund tries to use his body to do a leave-and-run move on a high ball and loses possession. He often tries to use his physicality and speed on the break to tackle high balls but the results are pretty inconsistent.

Another example where Hojlund tries to push back on his man instead of going towards the ball and using his chest to control. The defender wins the ball with an outstretched leg.

Here, he’s again focused on using his physique, but judges the ball poorly again and ends up giving it away after a mistimed header.

The issue isn’t limited to aerials alone. Even on the ground, Hojlund often loses the ball with an awkward touch.

A simple pass that he fumbles and ends up losing possession.

Another comparatively straightforward pass to his legs that he’s unable to hold on to. To be fair, this is a tougher ask, but the point is to highlight how his technique when faced back to goal needs more work. He can get more consistent in trapping balls at an angle away from goal at a standing start. 

Next, let’s move to link-up play. Is Hojlund a good passer? Can he find others with good vision and execution?

There isn’t much to read in his passing stats. We can conclude that hes no great creator or progressor on the ball, but all his stats also indicate that he’s above average at most passing metrics and can handle his own easily.

Let’s see some match examples.

One of those instances where Hojlund does control the ball very neatly and releases a player highlighting good vision and technique. He has it in his locker for sure, even if he’s not very consistent in all situations yet.

A smart move where Hojlund recognizes his teammate stuck in a bad spot and offers short support. A cool 1-2 flick is executed smartly. These are the touches and flicks Hojlund is better at compared to aerial ball battles with CBs.

Probably my favorite example in this section. Hojlund controls and holds the ball in time for his teammate to make the run, before executing a brilliant backheel key pass that almost led to a goal.

Pressing and defending

This is another trait which has been blown a little out of proportion. While Hojlund is a very willing defender and showcases bursts of intense pressing from time to time, his consistency and reading of the game when pressing is pretty lacking, while his success of actions is also very hit-and-miss.

His fbref section for defending stats compared to Serie A attackers doesn’t indicate much in terms of defensive actions. While this doesn’t give us any idea of his pressing numbers or reading of the press, it would have looked better if he was actually winning the ball from the front and generating turnovers for this team. It’s safe to say that he’s not great at that.

Let’s look at some match examples.

This is the kind of press you can expect from Hojlund. He can use his speed to bear down on the last CB or GK with single-minded intention. At the very least, he will offer this simple movement in the high press.

In many other games, he’s instructed to not press too much and just cover his marker. This happens a lot for Atalanta who don’t press too high, since they want to encourage the opponent to advance before hitting them in the spaces they leave behind. Hojlund often clings to the central CB to deter passes from wider players or GK to this CB. Another simplistic man-marking job that Hojlund can pull off without fuss.

In summary, we don’t have too much evidence of a great front defender. His defensive output is below average while his pressing, while intense, lacks intelligence. That said, it’s also fair to say that Atalanta’s tactics to not press too high or engage in the counter-press play a big part in these stats. It’s something that can be easily coached and I don’t think there should be an issue if he’s asked to press high and regularly. 

Aerial duels

Another aspect of Hojlund’s game that can be better. We’ve already seen some examples from the hold up section where he struggles a bit to take down the aerial ball.

His stats for aerials read average. His win rate doesn’t seem to be particularly high or low.

But there’s more to this than meets the eye. I’m going to take the help of my good friend Ben Griffis for this next viz.

These are all the passes leading to Rasmus Hojlund aerials in Serie A in 22/23. Within the box, Hojlund has received 7 aerial balls successfully from a total of 10. That’s pretty good for a striker. Many of his aerial duel losses are in the middle of the pitch where he has to contest outballs and clearances from his GK and backline. 

Like this for example.

For aerial duels, I’d be a little less harsh on Hojlund, although I think he will keep getting better as his physicality improves.


If I had to summarize all of Hojlund’s traits discussed so far, I’d score them as:

Movement: 9/10
Shooting: 8/10
Carrying: 7/10
Link-up: 6/10
Pressing: 5/10
Aerial: 4/10
Hold-up: 4/10

With 10 being best, and 1 being worst, in the top 5 leagues at that trait.

The good news is that the first 3 traits are harder to find, have a great synergy with what we have in attack and are simply more important for a line leading CF. It’s also easier to expect a lot of the other traits to improve as Hojlund ages. Pressing is very coachable, link-up should get better as he matures and aerial and hold-up might never become a 10 but they can definitely improve to the point of being a non-issue. For a 20 year-old, this is a great set of traits to have.

If I had to predict how Hojlund’s 23/24 could go, I’d say that 15 goals in 30 games would be a great start. He will take time to settle, has a lot to perfect in his game and has just come off 1 Serie A season of 10 goals in 21 90s. Extrapolating the same form to 30 games out of a possible 60 for United in the coming season would be a good Premier League debut season at this age.

(Credits: fbref, Opta Analyst, Ben Griffis, Understat, Manchester United Twitter)

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