Search for a young DM: Summer 2023 Shortlist
How good has Casemiro been for United since signing on? Superlatives fall short while describing the veteran midfielder’s contribution in his first season in the Premier League. He has undoubtedly been among United’s best players, plugged a defensive transition issue that plagued as for the past few seasons, delivered elite levels of ball winning and also contributed well in terms of advancing the game with his forward thinking passing. But with great importance comes great gap during absence. The 3 games Casemiro sat out due to suspension made the team revert to it’s Rangnick days issues while defending transitions with neither of Fred and Sabitzer being good at playing a holding role. Even the times when Scott Mctominay (the designated backup for Casemiro role) comes on for Casemiro later in games, he cleary looks ill-suited to the requirements, being a better box-to-box midfielder himself. United’s midfield shake up definitely requires a Casemiro partner who can start immediately (I cover that profile here) but it wouldn’t be wrong to say that another midfielder who can rotate with Casemiro and take over once the 31-year-old fades, is also necessary.
Today, I hunt for young DMs (I’m calling the Casemiro role as DM or Defensive Midfielder for ease of speech) who can relieve and eventually take over from Casemiro. In short, I’m searching for young Casemiros. Not an easy task, but let’s get into it.
Before we begin, in case you are a new visitor to my site/account and were wondering about the more critical positions, I want to highlight my previous target pieces that make sense for summer 2023 – DLP (Casemiro partners), GK (DDG replacements), CF (Check long-term ones for summer) and RB (Dalot competition).
The Stats considered
Before diving into the process, let me explain the stats that have been considered and the logic to why they are good or bad for our assessment. This will help confirm what we are looking for.
1) Defensive Volume – 35% weightage
This includes tackles, shot blocks, pass blocks, interceptions and aerials. Just the attempted volume, not the successful ones. Usually, it’s not right to judge players by the number of defensive actions. More actions doesn’t necessarily mean a better player. But for this role, we are specifically looking for a midfielder who participates in various defensive actions with purpose. Casemiro scored a 98 percentile on this and the Europe leader in our set was Edson Alvarez.
2) Duel Success – 10% weightage
This is the success value associated with both aerial and tackle duels. I haven’t given it a very high weightage since many players who attempt less duels manage to score well on success, which we want to avoid. So this becomes a secondary measure for us. A player who attempts a lot of duels first and is also decently successful, second. Casemiro scored a 71 percentile for this. The leader in the top 7 leagues in my dataset was Anton Stach.
3) Dribblers Tackled – 35% weightage
I’ve given special importance to this stat. One of the main traits we need in our DM is transition defence since Casemiro excels at that. While it’s hard for a stat to exactly describe such a situational action, I think Dribblers Tackled comes close. Players playing central and deep usually face dribblers in transition and usually stop them by tackling them. It’s not the most ideal logic but after spending hours on fbref, I feel this metric comes closest to describing a good transitional defender along with the next metric. Casemiro scored 96 percentile on this and the Europe leader was Manuel Ugarte.
4) Dribblers Tackled Success – 10% weightage
Very similar logic to the 2nd success metric, this is the success version of Dribblers Tackled. But we can’t give it too much importance since players who engage less could have high success. Serves as a secondary metric. Casemiro scored 83 percentile. Top 7 leagues leader was Francis Coquelin.
5) Progressive Passing Distance – 10% weightage
Finally, I wanted just one non-defensive metric to ensure our DM isn’t a dud in possession and has enough technique to play for United. I picked Progressive Passing Distance since it shows how much the midfielder looks to progress in terms of distance accumulated instead of number of progressive passes racked. This is something Casemiro is really good at and routinely attempts switches, through balls and expansive passes to advance the game. We don’t need to go beyond this basic ability since playmaking should ideally be taken care of by the pivot partner to the DM. Casemiro scored 87 percentile and unsurprisingly, Toni Kroos scored highest in Europe in our set.
NOTE: Before we move on, I must state one important caveat. A few of these stats are highly dependent on team tactics. A midfielder might be playing in a different role to adjust for team tactics or have poor stats on some metrics due to his pivot partner or other teammates not being complementary to his style of play. So, for the sake of clarity, it might be best to take the results of this ranking as to not reflect midfielder ability, but rather reflect midfielder suitability to United’s needs. In short, the score won’t measure absolute talent, but will identify midfielders who are doing well at the the role that we want this season. There could be other talented players who just aren’t playing enough or are being shackled by team tactics. With that clear, let’s move on.
The Ranking process
The rest of the process is largely mechanical. A quick run-down of the steps:
1. I downloaded all stats from fbref.com for Europe’s top 7 leagues for the 22/23 season and picked out the above stats of interest to this assessment
2. I filtered out all midfielders who didn’t even manage to play 8 90s in 22/23. This left us with 648 players who can play in midfield, who make up the data set on which we will be doing further calculations
3. I converted the stats into per 90 versions and then percentile versions. This means that each stat was divided by the number of 90s played by that midfielder, and then converted into a percentile stat. E.g. Toni Kroos with a 75 percentile on ‘Defensive Volume’ indicates that he’s better than 75% of the midfielders in our data set for this particular stat
4. Finally, I created a weighted formula using these stats using the above weights. I then factored in league difficulty using UEFA league coefficients for 22/23 giving it a 15% weightage. The last step was to create a percentile version of this weighted score, to ensure our top ranked midfielder scores a 100% and the worst one scores a 1%
The top players, based on this, are as follows:
Well, it figures that the player closest to being Casemiro is Casemiro himself. No surprises he scores a clean 100 percentile. Probably, a good indicator that we’re on the right track.
Okay, now comes the shortlist creation. While filtering out players who don’t make sense, I considered 4 things:
a) Age: I kept a limit of 24 years old, since we want a young rotation player who would be okay playing backup to Casemiro in the short term but can take over in the long term
b) Players who don’t play midfield: Benjamin Henrichs, Reece James, Leroy Sane, Achraf Hakimi and a few others had the ‘MF’ tag but haven’t played there regularly. I cut them off.
c) Players who won’t transfer to United: Players already playing for top teams or rivals like Eduardo Camavinga, Leon Goretzka and Aurelien Tchouameni were cut off
These filter criteria removed a few players, but I’m fairly confident that the players who are left tick all the boxes we need and have a good recent history of playing the role for their respective teams. Without further ado, here’s the final shortlist for United’s young DM needs for summer 2023:
Tyler Adams was visible in the long list too. He scores just a few decimal points behind Casemiro. One of the major issues of most of our targets is that their contract years start in 2022 or 2023 making a summer move tough. This meant that only 3 players have credible rumours for a summer 2023 move – Florentino Luis, Manuel Ugarte, and Samu Costa. I’ll be covering their reports in detail.
Mini Scout Reports
Before we get into the reports of the targets, let’s look at the chart of the man of the hour. All the pizza charts that follow have been expanded using fbref stats to get a more holistic picture of the player. Let’s start with Casemiro.
As we have seen from our filters so far, defensively, Casemiro is a beast. The ‘Challenges Lost’ metric is a little misleading since he attempts many challenges. Our version of ‘Dribblers Tackled Success’ gave Casemiro a better success at it. Even in terms of passing, Casemiro is very progressive and expansive. Only his pass % and his carrying power are low and that largely should be taken care of by his ideal partner (as discussed in the DLP article).
Next, let’s look at the player who has played as Casemiro’s deputy for most of this season. Scott McTominay has been the designated backup for the DM role, playing there before Casemiro started and often coming on to play that role when Casemiro has had to rest in recent months. Let’s take a look at his pizza chart.
It’s not looking good, friends. Scott lacks a lot on the ball with none of his passing and carrying stats being up to the mark. Probably a good reason why Ten Hag has been using Scott in the DM role is because the 26-year-old has decent defensive attributes, mainly his height leading to good aerial success. But a new player who takes over as the deputy DM is clearly required. Let’s get into the best options for the same.
Florentino Luis, 23, Benfica
Career: Luis was born in Lisbon and spent 8 years in the Benfica youth setup before getting a look into the senior team in 2018. Dovetailing between a backup role at the club and loans at Monaco and Getafe, Luis impressed manager Schmidt in 2022 pre-season so much that he became a starter beside Enzo Fernandez at the start of the season. Enzo’s hype over half a season has been widespread and earned him a big move, but it was Luis providing the balance in that pivot and the day Florentino gets his own big move doesn’t seem too far as well.
Pros: Luis is the perfect partner to a playmaker like Enzo. He’s excellent as a holding midfielder with his awareness, anticipation and positional sense very good while his defensive output and ball-winning is also top class. He’s no pushover on the ball either, being very involved in possession, boasting many passes and carries in open play, while also offering progression and high security as well. He’s not a great dribbler and isn’t a final third impact player either, but in all phases in and out of possession as the deepest player in a midfield, he looks as good as anyone in Europe for his age.
Cons: Luis not being a disruptive dribbler or final ball expert don’t really rate as cons given the role we are scouting. He has no weaknesses in his game. In fact the major con, after hours of research, are him already being too good for us. I mean this both in terms of quality and also price range. His release clause is €120m and he looks too high-level to accept a backup role behind the in-form Casemiro for a few years.
Verdict: Luis was a good find. The problem is that he’s too good a find. Turning 24 in August, his ability and that release clause seem better suited to a starting DM role in a UCL club that badly needs a high quality first choice player. It doesn’t make sense for us. If the RC reduces or Luis is open to a backup role for a while, things could change, but as it stands, I’m cutting 3 marks for transfer realism and giving Luis 7 for being an amazing profile fit.
The Devil’s DNA Score: 7/10
Manuel Ugarte Ribeiro, 21, Sporting CP
Career: Born in Uruguay, Ugarte moved to Portugal to sign up with Famalicao in 2020. But within half a season, he had piqued the interest of Sporting CP, who bought him in summer 2021. Initially signed as a backup to Joao Palhinha, Ugarte showed great form when he got a run of starts during Palhinha’s injury in 21/22. The pressure continued even after Palhinha returned, as manager Amorim heaped praise multiple times on Ugarte. The Uruguayan racked up 22 appearances in the season with many fans debating on who should be the starter for the defensive midfielder role. The debate sorted itself out as Palhinha left for Fulham for €20m in summer 2022. Sporting fans didn’t mind, as this meant Ugarte became the clear starter for the role. 32 appearances of high quality in 22/23 later, their faith has been justified.
Pros: Ugarte is an excellent transition defender. Sporting’s aggressive style in possession means that they need great transition defence when hit by opponents on the counter and Ugarte is the single best reason they deal with such threats well. He has great awareness and positional sense along with the strength in duels and tenacity to go with it. He’s also a great volume passer, comfortable recycling possession and keeping things safe. He also has great anticipation to win second balls and make loose ball recoveries in midfield. A very aware defensive presence combined with a very steady and safe passer
Cons: For the role we want, one con comes in the form of aerial duels. Ugarte isn’t very athletic in the air and is average in aerial combat. He’s not the most creative final third player or a strong carrier, but again these aren’t issues for the role we are looking for. Another point could be him not being extremely athletic or quick, but on the ground his tenacity, positional IQ and aggression more than make up for it.
Verdict: Ugarte has been linked to a host of top clubs. He would be a great fit as a partner for Enzo at Chelsea or successor to Fabinho at Liverpool. But his age (just 21), profile and asking price seem like an excellent fit for a Casemiro rotation player who also has the high ceiling to take over as United’s starting DM in 2-3 years time. It’s a great match.
The Devil’s DNA Score: 9/10
Samu Costa, 22, UD Almeria
Career: Samuel Almeida Costa, commonly known as Samu, is a Portuguese international who rose through the youth ranks of Braga. He was loaned to Segunda Division side, UD Almeria,for the 20/21 season. Despite losing the play-off final to miss out on promotion to La Liga, they made the deal permanent for a reported €5m, after being impressed in 33 starts by the youngster. His next season was even better; his 39 start involvement helped Almeria win promotion to La Liga. This season, he’s once again been one of the best players for the team that finds themselves in the bottom 3, but many have noticed Samu’s amazing displays and it seems like he’ll be bought by a better club and continue his growth in a top league while Almeria look to make a profit almost 4 times the amount they paid for Samu Costa.
Pros: Samu is an excellent defender in midfield. Both in terms of his aggression and intensity to take part in many duels, and also his success and capability to win a lot of them – he is already a high level ball-winner. His aerial prowess is among the best in our shortlist while his mental attributes like awareness, concentration and consistency are almost like a veteran’s.
Cons: Samu isn’t the most creative player in the world. He’s also not a great carrier of the ball. He’s not technically poor though – he is comfortable receiving and playing passes and doesn’t seem to have a weakness in terms of ball control. The issue really seems to be because he is in a relegation battling team that defend a lot more than attack. He’s the right-sided defensive partner of a pivot ahead of a back 5 that has allowed the 2nd most goals in La Liga. My guess is that he’d look much better on the ball in a better team.
Verdict: A right-sided DM who has elite ball-winning and positional traits with room to improve on the ball – I don’t see too many issues with this. Picking up a 22-year-old who will cost about €25m and giving him time to develop under Ten Hag until Casemiro fades, seems like a good idea to me. I’m only going to cut marks for the on-the-ball weakness, since that is an area that will need to be developed for sure. But this is a good option for sure.
The Devil’s DNA Score: 8/10
So, in summary of this exercise, I think Manuel Ugarte should be our top target. His age means that he can rotate with Casemiro for a while, but his ability and potential mean that he can become a key starter in future as well. All for a price under around €40m. After that, a low-price on Samu Costa, means that we can get a young upcoming ball-winner without fuss and immediately enjoy his great ball-winning traits with an aim to develop his on-ball traits until Casemiro fades. The likes of Florentino Luis and Tyler Adams would be amazing for the role but probably too amazing and too costly given their top team readiness, hype and age. That wraps up the list for a role which isn’t easy to scout for, given the age, profile and rotation conditions, but I hope I was able to do a decent job.
Hope you enjoyed this piece. Do comment/suggest on what you liked/disliked about this ad what future article you would like to see.
(Credits to fbref for stats and transfermarkt for contract details)