Andre Onana: The Catalyst

Andre Onana: The Catalyst

Rarely has a Manchester United summer transfer window seen the clarity and execution that 2023 summer has so far. The biggest gaps in the squad have been tackled head on and so far, successfully so. One of those issues was the goalkeeper situation. In the end, after season-long speculation, United have done the right thing by releasing David de Gea and buying Andre Onana. 

The move from a goalkeeper who’s best attribute of shot-stopping has been under par for 4 years and other attributes of distribution, claiming and sweeping have regularly been among the worst in the league, to a goalkeeper who’s on-ball technicals and execution rival some of the best playmakers in the game – teases a massive upgrade and play style change for Erik Ten Hag’s Red Devils.

But apart from the vague expectation that Onana is an upgrade, especially on distribution, the understanding of his ability and potential for each goalkeeping trait and how his performances could translate from his previous teams – is still a bit of an unknown

In this piece, I analyze every aspect of Onana’s game and try to explain why he will be the catalyst to a new era at Manchester United.

Career history

Born in Cameroon, Onana joined Barcelona from the Samuel Eto’o academy at the age of 14 in 2010. He was loaned twice due to non-EU limits before finally switching to Ajax in 2015. 39 apps for Jong Ajax later, Onana was made the starting keeper of the Ajax main team for the 16/17 season at the age of 20 by manager Peter Bosz. He had 46 appearances in that season and his first team status continued for 4 seasons after that, most notably under Erik Ten Hag from 2017 to 2022.

In February 2021, Onana was banned from playing for 12 months by UEFA after testing positive for Furosemide, a banned substance. Onana said he took his wife’s medicine by mistake and Ajax joined him in appealing against the decision. The ban was reduced to nine months by the CAS in June. In the summer of 2022, Inter Milan picked up Onana on a pre-agreed free transfer. 22/23 was a confirmation of Onana’s abilities as he completed a successful season which culminated in Onana showing his abilities in the Champions League final in May 2023. A bid of £43.8m plus potential £3.4m in add-ons later, the Cameroonian finds himself united with Ten Hag in the red side of Manchester.

Distribution

I’ll be going through the 4 major aspects of a goalkeeper’s game and highlight how good Onana is at each one of them. I’ll start with the aspect our previous #1 was often criticized for – distribution.

No better way to show the improvement United will be making in distribution, than the pass maps of their previous and current goalkeeper in each respective season-end finals versus the same opposition. Onana attempted more passes with better success & his pass map shows his comfort in short distribution, esp to wide players, which de Gea is poor at. De Gea went long most of the time. Also, note the pass start locations. Half of Onana’s passes are from outside his penalty box, while a few are from outside Inter’s defensive third! 90% of De Gea’s passes are from within his box. 

Being better than de Gea is one thing, but where does Onana stand in Europe?

Among the very best. In open play, not only does he boast high pass volume but he also plays a lot of short passes. This number could only go up as he often went long to Dzeko, Lukaku or Lautaro at Inter, which might not be the case at United. Statistically speaking, Onana is very comfortable handling large pass volumes while executing many short passes as well.

His distribution radar for Inter compared to Serie A goalkeepers in 22/23 confirm much of the same – he’s an excellent passer. The xGBuildUp and positive outcome stats especially stand out and that brings me to our next point. (Credit: Statsbomb)

What really stands out with Onana’s distribution is that he’s not just a good passer, he is a proper playmaking element in build up. His sense of movement to receive, ball manipulation to drag opponents where he wants and then make the best decision is akin to how deep-lying playmaker midfielders dictate the game. Onana puts himself in good positions, baits opponents and then picks out the best pass to advance the game, whether it’s a simple sideways pass to the CB, a longer pass to a fullback or midfielder or an ambitious ball to an attacker.

I’ve picked out a few match examples from Inter’s final 22/23 league game versus Atalanta.

This sequence explains a lot of what makes Onana a great build up goalkeeper. He waits initially after receiving to drag an attacker towards him before passing to the fullback. When the ball comes back to him, notice how he moves to position himself to receive comfortably in space. Another pass to the opposite side opens up space at the center, which Onana quickly picks out and helps his team burst through the space created at the center and reach the halfway line.

A simple example of how Onana waits for the opponent to press before displaying the ability to whip out a pass around the angled run in the space that the striker was trying to block. Onana always finds the empty man even under pressure from forwards.

Another interesting sequence. Onana stands to bait the opponent to press him and pulls multiple attackers on either side to press the defence with some short crisp passes to his center-backs. With the opponent midfielders pressing high and leaving space behind them, Onana has the composure and vision to pick out a direct long pass to Lukaku amidst all the chaos and create a pseudo-transition for his team with the Atalanta goal in sight.

In summary of this section, I haven’t seen distributors as good as Onana in my lifetime and the control and technique  at which he operates borders on playmakers of old like Xabi Alonso and Michael Carrick. Onana runs the build up, baits the opponent and always finds a way for his team to progress.

I’m going to rate all 4 goalkeeping traits on a scale of 1 (worst in Europe’s top 7 leagues) to 10 (best in Europe) in this article. The first trait is blemishless.

Distribution: 10/10

Shot-stopping

Andy Cole on André Onana: “I don’t care if you can do 10 kick-ups, a goalkeeper needs to be able to save the ball.” [MUTV]

We’ve seen some version of this statement often on social media, that aims to deride a goalkeeper who is a great distributor for not having the trait that is seemingly a goalkeeper’s main job – saving goals. For one, the concept of shot prevention needs to be understood. A proactive action from a goalkeeper like a good sweep, a strong claim or enabling good build – can prevent a shot from being taken in the first place. 

As per John Harisson of goalkeeper xG fame, 68 per cent of De Gea’s workload last season was shot stopping, 28 per cent was shot prevention and just four per cent was distribution. A well-rounded keeper can provide more value in preventing shots other than relying on shot-stopping alone. With Onana, the percentages for shot prevention and build up will definitely go up, reducing the burden on shot-stopping.

That said, shot-stopping needs to be good for a team to compete for titles. But is Onana bad at it? Not quite.

One measure of shot-stopping is PSxG-GA. PSxG refers to post-shot expected goals that a goalkeeper is expected to concede. When you subtract this from the goals they actually concede, you get a sense of how much value they are adding with their shot-stopping. The statistic has a few gaps (like not accounting for goals without shots) but over many seasons, it largely tells a consistent tale.

Let’s look at Onana’s PSxG-GA per 90 and percentile compared to league’s goalkeepers for the last few years.

22/23: -0.11 (42 percentile in Serie A)

21/22: ~Not enough data~

20/21: +0.21 (89 percentile in Eredivisie)

19/20: +0.23 (85 percentile in Eredivisie)

18/19: +0.02 (77 percentile in Eredivisie)

He played less than 10 games in 21/22 due to his ban. If we look at the rest, fbref data seems to suggest that Onana was comfortably in the top quarter during his time at the Dutch league and has dropped to average in the Italian league last year. But there’s more to this than meets the eye. Inter suffered 3 own goals in 22/23 which simply assigned Onana a –3 without him actually having had any chance to save it. If we account for that in the data, his 22/23 Serie A PSxG-GA per 90 jumps to +0.1 and his percentile rises to 62 percentile.

Now let’s take a look at this stat in the Champions league for each year.

22/23: +0.58 (94 percentile in UCL)

21/22: ~Not enough data~

20/21: +0.40 (85 percentile in UCL)

19/20: +0.83 (99 percentile in UCL)

18/19: +0.43 (88 percentile in UCL)

The Champions league data seems to suggest a much clearer top 15 percentile shot-stopper across 4 seasons. At the very least, we have a GK who seems to be excellent for shot stopping across 4 seasons in the Eredivisie and Champions League, while being above average in the Serie A.

Let’s take a look at his 22/23 Serie A save plot to see if there’s any issues there.

This doesn’t seem to suggest anything out of the ordinary except the fact that Onana conceded some really tough shots in the red zones and was largely safe in saving in the blue zones. It seems from this map that opponents finished a lot better than expected against Onana in 22/23.

And we have the data for that too.

Inter’s opponents overperformed their shooting by +2.5 over their expected goals in 22/23. Inter were also 8th for crosses allowed into the penalty area. They sat deep and invited a lot of pressure and suffered shooting overperformance by opponents in the league. These factors coupled with the own goal anomaly indicate that a lot of Onana’s perceived shot-stopping drop in the league for Inter were due to factors outside his control.

I took a look at many Onana matches last season to confirm this and the results only confirmed the same – Onana is a good shot-stopper. There wasn’t any glaring deficiencies in his game to write home about.

His most impressive display from a shot-stopping POV came in the UCL group game against Bayern where Onana suffered 11 shots on target and 3.5 xG but ended up saving 10 of those shots in a game where Bayern completely battered the Inter defence. Here’s a montage of all his saves from that game.

A variety of saves here. What is noticeable is Onana’s ability to hold on to the ball if it’s anywhere near his body. This was apparent in many other games too. Only shots that were towards a corner required a parry and usually it would be a safe parry away from danger. 

To close this section, I see no issues with Onana’s shot stopping from footage and after diving into the data, he seems like a clear top 20 percentile shot-stopper in Europe, so that’s how I’m going to rate him.

Shot-stopping: 8/10

Sweeping

When I did my ‘Search for a GK’ article earlier this year, Onana didn’t come up with a high score. One reason was the above mentioned shot-stopping drop. The other was very low values for sweeping stats. And once again, I’m here to tell you that it is simply a conscience of Inter’s gameplay. Again, let’s look at his numbers across seasons.

Sweeping actions per 90:

22/23: 0.5 (5 percentile in Serie A)

21/22: ~Not enough data~

20/21: 1.85 (89 percentile in Eredivisie)

19/20: 1.71 (94 percentile in Eredivisie)

18/19: 1.14 (73 percentile in Eredivisie)


Avg distance of sweeping actions:

22/23: 12.5 (18 percentile in Serie A)

21/22: ~Not enough data~

20/21: 18.6 (95 percentile in Eredivisie)

19/20: 17.3 (98 percentile in Eredivisie)

18/19: 15.6 (81 percentile in Eredivisie)

Once again, we see a clear difference between Ajax numbers and Inter numbers. This stat has a huge correlation with how high a team’s defensive line is. The lower the line, the lesser the space and opportunity to rack up sweeping actions. 

A good example of his sweeping came at the Qatar 2022 World Cup where Onana broke the record for the most touches (26) outside the box by a goalkeeper in a single game at the World Cup in a 1-0 loss to Switzerland. 


Onana does have the odd mistake when he sweeps as a result of overzealous activity outside the box. But he’s slowly been improving on that compared to a few years ago and there was no instance of such a mistake in the 22/23 season. Overall, once again, I’d give a safe 8.

Sweeping: 8/10

Cross claiming

Once again, let’s dive into the data head-first.

Crosses stopped %:

22/23: 5.3% (58 percentile in Serie A)

21/22: ~Not enough data~

20/21: 6.0% (95 percentile in Eredivisie)

19/20: 9.2% (94 percentile in Eredivisie)

18/19: 6.2% (90 percentile in Eredivisie)

This is a stat that is dependent on crosses faced. The larger the number of crosses faced, the tougher it is to boast a high cross stop %. Inter faced 439 crosses in 22/23 in the league. In 20/21 Ajax faced just 283 crosses. This massive increases in crosses faced is the reason, Onana’s cross stop % seems lower than before. 

From footage analysis, I noticed a few gaps in his cross-claiming technique

  1. He isn’t as proactive as one would think. There are some occasions where he doesn’t attack the aerial ball when he could have. Obviously, he’s still miles better than David de Gea, but I’d say that someone like Diogo Costa is a more aggressive claimer than Onana
  2. He often doesn’t attempt to catch high balls, instead preferring to punch or slap them away. While a few out-of-reach crosses are understandable, it does seem like Onana often goes this route when a clean claim isn’t an option. The technique where he flaps at the ball especially doesn’t seem very reliable and the ball does wind up in the box to an opponent at times. It doesn’t happen often, but it is one cause for concern

As you can see from this montage of cross claims, for almost 70% crosses, he is able to collect cleanly. But the few that are in a crowd or face some competition to beat, he ends up punching or flapping at the cross. The end result is often okay, so I wouldn’t be too harsh. But if a flapped cross dropping to a dangerous area happens 1 in 10 times, I wouldn’t be surprised.

Overall, I’m not worried about his claiming. He is proactive, gets most of them cleanly and often parries the ones he doesn’t. It’s good without being great. I’d have to rate it a step below his other traits.

Cross claiming: 7/10

Summary

To sum up my scores on the four major goalkeeping traits for Andre Onana,

Distribution: 10/10
Shot-stopping: 8/10
Sweeping: 8/10
Cross claiming: 7/10

I’d say that Onana is comfortably in the top 20 percentile of Europe’s op 7 leagues, with a good chance that he could be in the top 10 percentile as well. This puts him at 2nd to 4th best in the Premier League and I think that’s a fair conclusion – he comes in as the top 4 keepers in the league and has a chance to be in the top 2 (Alisson being unshakable at top spot would be my guess for the future). Which makes the £43.8m+£3.4m fee Manchester United paid for Onana seem like a very good deal. At the very least, United fans can sleep with the knowledge that they are getting a massive upgrade on their previous #1. 

(Credits: Statsbomb, fbref, Optaanalyst, Flixier)

Search for a CB: RCB & LCB Shortlists

Welcome to another one of these scouting exercises. In case you missed them, I’ve previously done RB, GK, CF, DLP and DM lists for Manchester United. Today, I’ll be diving into a position which might not seem as urgent as some of the aforementioned critical starting gaps, but is a genuine area to be addressed in coming windows – Centerback.

I’m going to go out on a limb here to make a prediction – I think Ten Hag will want a new right-sided centerback (RCB) and left-sided centerback (LCB) within the next 2 years. 

The LCB need comes from his preference of wanting a set of 2 left-footed CBs and 2 right-footed CBs for each side. We have seen that he likes this setup for 2 reasons 

1. For the passing angles a left-footer provides from LCB
2. Based on the recent reveal of why he plays Lindelof at LCB instead of Maguire – for rest defence reasons when a CB has to press ahead and cover his side with his dominant foot.

The LCB would ideally be a backup to Lisandro Martinez, who’s had an excellent season and looks set to remain our mainstay for a few years, so we can afford a younger or more raw backup type profile here.

The RCB need has a more starter-level concern. While Raphael Varane has been excellent in helping United defend in their box, the concerns on the ball have shown up from time to time, especially in the last few months without Eriksen ahead of the defence. Varane is limited in build up and that coupled with De Gea being poor at it, often puts heavy responsibility on Lisandro to get us out of our half. Ten Hag’s plan of keeping club captain Harry Maguire as the designated RCB backup to give him the chance to usurp Varane and partner Lisandro, hasn’t worked either. Maguire hasn’t seemed as good from RCB as he used to be from LCB under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. There is a RCB gap. A high ceiling wonderkid or straight up starter level talent who can take over sooner rather than later would be one idea on Ten Hag’s mind.

The shortlists

If you’ve read any of my previous scouting pieces, it might come as a surprise to you that I’m not going to follow the same stats-heavy process for center-backs. My reasons:

1. Defensive stats make no sense for CBs
A player with more tackles or interceptions doesn’t make him a better defender. Defensive volume is a bad way to judge defensive quality. Usually top CBs have the lowest defensive volume in the league. It could also really vary based on their roles (stopper, cover). And even less doesn’t mean good. There is just no correlation

2. Fbref’s progression stats are not ideal to judge defenders

Fbref’s new definitions of progression cut the defensive 40% of the pitch and include passes to the byline. Defenders and especially center-backs suffer the most from these changes and only very high line CBs who pass a lot from the center of the pitch (usually top team CBs) accrue.

Taking these out of the equation leaves almost nothing for a stats-based methodology, which is why I’m going with the eye test (rejoice, eye test > stats folks!) for this position. I have gone through center-backs in the top 7 leagues who were U27 and right-footed or U25 and left-footed and scored the realistic options on 4 basic criteria based on hours of footage of each of them.

1. Progression – Their ability on the ball both in terms of passing and carrying to handle build up and advance the game comfortably and consistently 

2. Security – Their security on the ball during progression

3. Aerial duels – Ability in the air to win duels and be a set piece threat

4. Ground duels – Ability and positioning on the ground to press, cover or tackle well

Without further ado, here are the results. 

Let’s take a look at the RCBs first. Probably not a big reveal, but I was most impressed by Napoli’s Kim Min-Jae and think he’s the closest thing to a full package, who is also near the peak age for a CB. Nianzou impressed me more than I thought. Timber is a name that has been thrown around a lot and he looks good. 

It’s really tough to pick just a few players to highlight. But I’m going to do mini profiles for the best + realistic options: 

RCB 1: Kin Min-Jae

RCB 2: Jurrien Timber

RCB 3: Kevin Danso

RCB 4: Antonio Silva

Next, let’s take a look at the LCB list.

The LCB list is shorter due to two issues – our restriction of players under age 25 and there being less left-footed players in general. Lot of teams play with multiple right footers in the back line. I’ve already done a scout report for Facundo Medina here. Other than him, I will be detailing the 3 best options: 

LCB 1: Goncalo Inacio
LCB 2: Castello Lukeba 
LCB 3: Calvin Bassey

Mini Reports

As mentioned before, since I’m not using stats to assess CBs in this piece, I won’t be posting pizza charts either. They’ll just be misleading. I’ll try to detail the reports a bit more to compensate for that.

Let’s start with the RCB targets first.

RCB 1: Kim Min-Jae, Napoli, 26

Career History: Born in South Korea, Kim made his way to K League club Jeonbuk by the age of 19. A key player for the 17/18 season, his performances earned him a K League Young Player of the Year and K League Best XI for the year. In January 2019, he moved to Beijing Guoan in the CSL. His impressive performances caught the eye of Europe with Tottenham strongly linked but unable to negotiate a transfer fee. Fenerbache was the club to profit from his services as he played the 21/22 season for the Turkish club and was once again impressive, making it to the Süper Lig Team of the Season. In July 2022, Napoli paid €18m to replace the outgoing Kalidou Koulibaly and have since been enjoying a great year from the South Korean who should again make the Serie A team of the season easily. There’s no surprise every top club wants him.

On-ground defending: Kim’s biggest strength is his defending on the ground. He is very positionally aware and mixes aggression, speed and strength to constantly flush out dangers when the opposition has the ball. He is very comfortable stepping out and tackling an oncoming dribbler. He ranks 97 percentile for % of dribblers tackled and 96 percentile for challenges lost. It is really tough to get past him. He has a very keen sense of the game and challenges the moment he sees a bad touch or an opponent he can overpower by speed or physicality. Using a mix of defensive combinations like this, he is able to come out best against different types of attacking players. His good positioning also allows him to make many shot blocks.

Aerial defending: Aerially, Kim is good. He ranks 75 percentile for Aerial win % even after facing a lot of aerial duels. He doesn’t shy away from them at all and from what I’ve noticed, even the duels he doesn’t win cleanly, his upper body strength destabilizes the opponent enough for it not to become a problem. His willingness to get into duels and trouble the attacker as much as he can or simply win it cleanly, make getting into a tussle with Kim almost a zero-reward situation.

In possession: Kim is an excellent passer. He is a volume passer (ranks 99 percentile for passes attempted and completed) while being very safe (ranks 93 percentile on pass %) and progressive (99 percentile on progressive passing distance). He can constantly receive the ball in good areas and pass out of them, whether it’s crisp short passes or long switches to the wing. Having played a lot of LCB this year, he loves the switch to the right flank. Combined with his excellent carrying, Kim is really a modern CB who is very comfortable with the ball. He boasts 99 percentile on carries and 96 percentile on progressive carry distance as well. He is very comfortable playing out under pressure or driving into space if he isn’t under pressure and then picking out smart passes of all ranges. 

Verdict: I didn’t highlight any cons for Kim, because honestly, there are none. What you’re looking at is a complete CB, capable of defending on the ground and in the air, has the physicality to match his defensive IQ, is a dream on the ball in terms of passing and carrying, has the technical range and execution to be a starter for a top possession based team and is at the perfect peak age to take a gamble on. And it’s not even a big gamble! Apparently, Kim has a release clause of €45m that activates for 15 days when the summer transfer window starts. At that price, this is simply a steal for a world-class player. Such opportunities don’t come around often. Manchester United have to consider this. I rarely score a prospect 10, but this is as perfect as it gets from all angles.

Devil’s DNA Score: 10/10

RCB 2: Jurrien Timber, Ajax, 21

Career History: Born in the Netherlands, Timber joined the Feyenoord academy at 6, but was picked by the Ajax academy at 13. At 18, he made his Ajax debut in the 19/20 season. Since then, his importance and involvement have only increased as he featured 30 times in 20/21, 43 times in 21/22 and has already featured 41 times in 22/23. With 100+ appearances for Ajax, 15 appearances for the national team, a contract till 2025 and constant links to top clubs, a summer 2023 move is likely.

On-ground defending: Timber reads the game well and has a good command of his area. His pressing, speed of coverage and intensity in the duel, help him step out and flush out danger early. His anticipation is at a very good level. You can expect the proactiveness and pressing ability of Lisandro Martinez here. One issue though is Timber’s positioning and concentration. He is prone to the odd error which usually stems from either poor positioning, over-zealous pressing or simply a lapse in concentration that allows a runner or a pass in his blind space. It’s one area he needs to improve on, but given his young age, it seems realistic for this to get better as he gains experience and maturity.

Aerial defending: Timber is below average in the air. While he has a good jump and willingness to duel, he loses aerial duels more often than not (Aerial win % of just 48% this season in the Eredivisie). His balance, upper body strength and heading technique seem to be the major issues that limit him. He doesn’t generate enough power even in the few times he wins the ball in the air. Like Lisandro, he tries to avoid the necessity for aerial duels via proactive challenges and pressing, but he’s comparatively less effective at it, as of now.

In possession: This is where Timber really shines. His passing, close control and carrying technique are reliable and on the higher side for center-backs. He ranks 99 percentile in the Eredivisie for progressive passes, progressive carries, carries, passes completed, pass completion % and passes received, which indicates a technically sound defender who can guarantee progression and safety in volume. He is the epitome of the new breed of center-backs (like John Stones) who are simply so good on the ball, they are as good as midfielder playmakers in build up. His press resistance is a big reason why he rarely loses the ball in possession. His tactical awareness when playing out from the back, in terms of positioning to receive passes or movement to create spaces for the team to progress, is excellent.

Verdict: I have read many takes online on Timber as a RB or DM for United, and I have to say that I don’t see it. He’s not played RB more than 6 times in any given season and didn’t look any better than he does for CB. The mental math to want him to join, but keep him away from CB due to the combined height issue with Lisandro, doesn’t have a great tactical justification. I think we’re looking at a new age wonderkid CB and if United do buy him, Ten Hag will utilize him at RCB most. A few years of rotation with Varane, as Timber gains some experience and maturity to work on his weaknesses, would be a decent deal, all things considered.

Devil’s DNA Score: 7.5/10

RCB 3: Kevin Danso, Lens, 24

Career History: Danso was born in Austria before moving to the MK Dons academy at 6. His first taste of senior football came at Augsburg where he was a rotation player for 3 years until the age of 20. Then came the ill-fated Southampton loan term where he had only 10 appearances. But RC Lens took a punt at him in 2021 and they have been rewarded handsomely. Danso has finally found a home at Lens and has appeared 36 times in 21/22 and 31 times so far in 22/23 for the French club while being their mainstay in defence. At 24, he seems to be peaking and this might be the right time for a top club to take a chance on him.

On-ground defending: Danso is very good at engaged defending. He has good physicality and pace which helps him close down dangers early, win the ball with good strength and outmuscle opponents when they try to dribble past him. He’s an aggressive tackler and very aware blocker. Once Danso has locked on to the attacker, it’s really hard to get past him. But Danso can be better when it comes to positioning and defensive space, when he doesn’t have an obvious opponent to lock on to. His reading of the game, especially when there are quick passes and switches going on, can be improved. He often recovers with his physicality and speed, even if he judges the danger late, but on some occasions, that isn’t enough.

Aerial defending: Danso is strong in the air. Not only does he boast a very good aerial win % (72.2% in Ligue 1 this year) but he also does so after attempting many aerial duels. And it’s no surprise when you see him in action. He boasts a great mix of jump, strength and technique to constantly outmuscle and head cleanly. He has a few headed goals from set pieces as well. This is one category with no issues at all.

In possession: Danso is deceptively technical. His lanky frame and running style don’t suggest so, but he’s very good on the ball and has the confidence to carry and pass under pressure. He often dribbles his way out of tense situations and is able to kickstart the attack from the back with an aggressive carry and pass. He comes across as a better carrier than passer, capable of driving his way through the middle easily. His passing is good without being great. He is safe, tidy and progressive enough. He has some signature passes through the middle, but probably isn’t as varied in his switches and passing angles on either side. His passing is definitely good, but maybe not as strong as some of the others on our list.

Verdict: Danso came across better than I imagined. He’s improved leaps and bounds at Lens and is well-rounded enough to not have any weaknesses to his game. He has slight improvements to make in his defensive awareness and passing, to really be at home in a top team, but he has enough quality, traits and personality to take a chance on.

Devil’s DNA Score: 7.5/10

RCB 4: Antonio Silva, Benfica, 19

Career History: Born in Viseu, Portugal, Antonio played in multiple Portuguese youth clubs until being picked up by Benfica academy at the age of 12. He made his professional debut for Benfica B in April, 2022 and was a key player for the side that won the 2021-22 UEFA Youth League. He defied expectations by impressing manager Rodger Schmidt in the 22/23 season and leapfrogging Tomás Araujo and Jan Vertonghen to play for the senior team. An Otamendi suspension gave him the chance to start in August, 2022 and since then he hasn’t been dropped even after the return of Otamendi. He’s racked up 39 appearances this season and won Primeira Liga Defender of the Month for September 2022 and October/November 2022. His performances made him sign a contract extension to 2027, increasing his buyout clause to €100m. At the rate at which he’s going, a top team could be tempted to pay that amount soon.

On-ground defending: Antonio loves a tackle. He ranks very highly for dribblers tackled and has a very no-nonsense approach to get stuck in and not allow dribblers past him. His strength, aggression and defensive awareness are key to ensure he comes up with the ball more often than not. That said, Antonio isn’t the fastest player in the world. At times, very quick dribblers have shown to beat him especially if he’s dragged into wider areas on the right. Antonio avoids such situations with proactive tackling and smart positioning IQ. His body orientation and awareness always give him a great chance to avoid getting beaten, as he showed many times in Benfica’s game against PSG, where Mbappe couldn’t beat Antonio as often as he would have liked. Antonio is also very smart in playing the offside trap and is usually the positionally-aware cover player beside Otamendi, who is more aggressive. His maturity in marshaling the defence even at such a young age, shines through.

Aerial defending:.Antonio is aerially good. His positioning and tall frame usually put him in the right spot to clear away danger. He’s great at winning headers at both ends, boasting 5 goals this season with 4 of them being strong headers and 1 being a cheeky backheel in a crowd during a set piece. He has generated 18 shots from set pieces, which is more than what Maguire, Lindelof and Varane have generated combined this season. His aerial ability in defence isn’t as great as his on-ground defending. His 62% aerial win % this year isn’t that high and it can be argued that for a well-built tall defender, he can be more physical in the air to put off competitors, but that can be expected to improve since he’s just a teenager.

In possession: On the ball Antonio is extremely secure. He boasts 98 percentile for pass completion while having pass attempts in the 90 percentile. But it’s his passing range that stands out well too. He loves playing switches and diagonals and executes medium and long passes with precision. He has played the most accurate long balls per 90 in the league (6.2). Antonio is great in the 1st phase. He asks for the ball and uses smart positioning and carrying to beat the press. For a tall guy, he dribbles out of pressure well and is able to be decisive in build up. His composure and intellect show in possession nicely.

Verdict: Antonio’s profile is excellent and he is a very high IQ and technical CB. His mental aspects in terms of taking the opportunity he got this year, staying in the team and displaying top consistency, composure and game reading, are excellent for a youngster. The few aspects he can get better on are just a function of experience and maturity. While he may not perform as an elite top team starter immediately next year, he could become one of Europe’s best in 2 years time. Any interested club’s main decision revolves around spending €100m with that caveat in mind. The price and immediate readiness are the only reasons I cut 2 marks.

Devil’s DNA Score: 8/10

Now let’s move on to the LCB targets.

LCB 1: Goncalo Inacio, Sporting, 21

Career History: Born in Almada, Portugal, Inacio played for his local youth team until Sporting’s famed academy picked him up when he was 12. Making his debut in July 2020 for the senior team at the age of 18, Inacio hasn’t looked back since, racking up 115 appearances by the age of 21. After his debut season where he rotated a fair bit, he’s now had 2 seasons as key starter with 42 and 48 appearances each and a league title win under his belt. With Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool linked, the time for a step up may be close.

On-ground defending: During defence, stepping into midfield is one of Inácio’s top qualities. He’s a player with excellent mobility and body shape. He anticipates play well and is prepared to intervene. For someone who lacks the size of a typical centerback, showing the aggressiveness to step into midfield and end plays is critical. Inácio is a very good athlete who covers ground well. He adapts his positioning and body orientation at an above-average frequency, putting him in a better position to scan his surroundings and identify potential threats. He’s very aggressive, very confident in the tackle and is quick to apply pressure on his opponents without leaving his teammates vulnerable. On the ground, he is a very good defender.

Aerial defending: Inacio isn’t great aerially. His 185 cm frame and weaker upper body strength are big reasons for why he has a low 60% aerial win % this year, which puts him at 45 percentile among Primeira Liga centerbacks. It is one aspect he needs to improve on and it also shows in attacking set pieces where he isn’t a great threat. While one can expect him to gain some strength as he ages, it might be worth noting that he will have to learn to get around his height the way other shorter CBs (Like Lisandro) do and he definitely has the traits for that.

In possession: Inacio is a gem in possession. He boasts 95+ percentiles for Passes attempted, progressive passing distance, progressive passes, passes into final third, carries, progressive carrying distance, progressive carries and carries into final third. If that doesn’t convince you, let me detail further on why he’s one of the best CBs in possession in Europe. He likes to dribble to draw out the opposition towards him, which goes in line with what top coaches like Pep Guardiola and Robert de Zerbi are doing. As he dribbles, he has the technique and vision to scan for teammates and play a pass between the lines or a switch to a wide area to release a winger or fullback. He does this often and that’s the reason he’s trusted a lot with the ball and is often the main receiver in the first phase. What sets him apart from other CBs who are just good passers, is that Inacio knows how to break a press with careful movement, baiting, skill and foresight on where the ball needs to go to progress up the pitch. In that sense, he is the leader in build up – something United need badly

Verdict: Inacio is a gem on the ball and is versatile enough to play as wide center back or central CB in a back 3 or LCB in a back 4. A build up leader and on-ground defensive monster, the aerial gap is the only reason he doesn’t get a 10 from me, but I feel that’s a gap that can be improved on and mitigated via team defence . In fact, he’s probably the most similar player to Lisandro Martinez in terms of profile and potential. With that in mind, it would be a great signing to alleviate Ten hag’s needs for 2 high-level left-footed center-backs in the squad.

Devil’s DNA Score: 9/10

LCB 2: Castello Lukeba, Lyon, 20

Career History: Born in Lyon itself, Lukeba joined the academy at age 8 and has featured for the club at every level since then. He made his professional debut for the senior team in Aug 2021 and hasn’t looked back since, racking up 29 appearances last year and already clocking 30 this season, all while being nominated for 2021/22 Ligue 1 Young Player of the Year award. With Chelsea, Manchester United and Inter Milan linked, the youngster is catching attention all over Europe.

On-ground defending: Castello is a fighter. He has confidence and attitude in spades and never shies away from a duel. His standout attribute is his pace. He is lightning quick on the ground and that solves a lot of problems on its own. He’s able to press proactively knowing he can cut out danger early. He is able to commit to a tackle knowing he can win it and even on the chance his aggression or positioning fails him, his recovery pace to handle the situation is great. As a result he’s a great 1v1 duel winner and a smooth sweeper of the back line. He boasts a lot of interceptions and recoveries thanks to these traits. His positioning can still go up a level as there are rare occasions where his reliance on his pace and composure isn’t enough, but that’s normal for his age.

Aerial defending:.Castello is aerially weak. He records a 51% aerial win % in Ligue 1 this season which puts him in the bottom 20 percentile for centerbacks. Lukeba can improve aerially and all-around in terms of physicality, with strength, size and jumping height standing out as particularly weak areas of his game right now. His timing of the jump is also an issue – often seeming late or early in a duel. While he has time to fill out physically and find better ways to get around this weakness, he will have to actively do so in the near future to not let this be a gap.

In possession: Lukeba is a very progressive passer and carrier and is capable of handling a lot of passes as well. I’d say he’s a better passer than carrier, preferring to pass his way out of trouble than dribble. He has a good passing range and can comfortably pick out wingers or midfielders. His build up ability is good without being great. He’s a decent carrier but his receiving back to goal and his ability to carry under pressure can improve more. I think he’s a good passer and able carrier but modern demands at the highest level could require more improvement in this regard.

Verdict: Lukeba is good without being great. A lot of his game needs more maturity. His positioning, aerial prowess and build up play can all do with improvement with aerial duels especially needing massive improvement. But his pace, energy, on-ground dueling and technical floor on the ball are good traits to work on. For a backup role with potential to improve, it’s not a bad move at all.

Devil’s DNA Score: 7.5/10

LCB 3: Calvin Bassey, Ajax, 23

Career History: Born in Italy, Bassey is a product of Leicester City’s youth system but didn’t make a senior appearance before joining Rangers on a free transfer in July 2020. He made 65 appearances over 2 seasons for Rangers and won the Scottish Premiership and Scottish Cup. In July 2022, he signed for Ajax, with Rangers receiving the highest transfer fee in their history. Slotting straight in as the departing Lisandro Martinez’s replacement, he’s racked up 37 appearances in the same role. Should Lisandro’s replacement become Lisandro’s deputy? Let’s find out.

On-ground defending: The Nigerian is brilliant at tackling, intercepting, and helping his team in pressing the opposition. He is not just a no-nonsense defender and has a method to his madness. His exceptional ball reading skills allow him to time his move ideally to stop the opposition. At Rangers, Van Bronckhorst’s decision to play a more attacking side has inadvertently helped Calvin become a brilliant defender, who is at his best in one-on-one situations. Bassey has great strength and physically dominates a lot of opponents. His tackles won and recoveries are in the 90+ percentile this season, showcasing his great awareness coupled with his ready aggression. The Nigerian defender steps up very often and is a very proactive and aggressive defender. Bassey relies on his physical strength a lot and probably needs to be more cautious in duels especially higher up the pitch, where the chances of getting caught up and conceding a turnover are high. But overall, he has the right mindset and a good reading of the game, coupled with great physicals. Some maturing in terms of timing and willingness to duel is all that’s needed.

Aerial defending: Calvin Bassey is pretty strong in aerial duels, he has a good leap and often jumps higher than his opponent. He defends set-pieces really well and is almost always well-positioned. For most part, Bassey has great anticipation when dealing with crosses and his positioning is great. He is composed and comfortable in his own box and looks very dominant. In fact, it can be said that this year Bassey has improved upon an Ajax squad gap of being aerially vulnerable, an issue with the previous pairing of Lisandro-Timber.

In possession: On the ball, Calvin Bassey is not a very adventurous passer. In build up, he mainly goes for the safe option which means that he plays plenty of sideways passes or even backwards to the goalkeeper. When he receives the ball in the build-up, he often takes a few touches forward assessing his options. Bassey has decent vision – he spots his teammates in space well, but his delivery is pretty inaccurate, despite having a good long passing technique. His short passing technique is also good and is capable of playing one-touch passes with both his right and left foot. Sometimes he seems to take too long before releasing the ball. It has happened a few times that he got himself into trouble as the opponent managed to pressure Bassey into making mistakes on the ball. Despite this, Bassey generally is pretty composed on the ball and does not panic if he is being put under pressure near his own penalty box. His receiving skills from ground passes are good, but he occasionally struggles to control aerial passes. This can be a problem if he’s put under high pressure. He needs to be more comfortable playing forward passes and release the ball sooner at times. It would take some time to get used to playing progessive passes, but I think he has the potential to get better at this. This is one aspect he lacks a bit compared to Lisandro/Timber.

Verdict: A different profile from our other targets, Bassey is strong aerially and is a great, albeit slightly over-zealous, defender on the ground. Most of his improvements are required in carrying and passing, but even they are above average at the very least. He’s a well-rounded profile, who’s not elite at anything yet, but also has no weaknesses. It’s a decent option for a reliable backup with room to improve.

Devil’s DNA Score: 7/10

Summary

For the RCB role, with a view to immediately or eventually take over Raphael Varane, the best option is Napoli’s Kim Min-Jae. He is competent and consistent in all the parameters required for a top team CB today. At the rumoured release clause, United have to put in a bid for sure. Rated lower mainly because he’s more expensive and younger, Antonio Silva, Benfica’s wonderkid, is the next big thing and has amazing traits and elite potential, if United have the money for him. After them, Ajax’s Jurrien Timber and RC Lens’ Kevin Danso are great options who each have solid traits to fit in, with a view to getting better as they peak. Beyond these options, Tanguy Nianzou, Jean-Clair Todibo and Axel Disasi, should be monitored.

For the LCB role, with a view to obtain a backup for Lisandro Martinez who can satisfy Ten hag’s 2 left-footed CB options requirement, Goncalo Inacio of Sporting is the best option, who’s profile and ceiling are very similar to Lisandro. After him, Lyon’s Castello Lukeba is a good option who seems to have many desirable traits but needs maturity and improvement in some of them to shine. Finally, Calvin Bassey, Lisandro’s replacement at Ajax, also has good potential to be Lisandro’s backup at United. Facundo Medina, Arthur Theate and Stanley N’Soki should be monitored as well.

Thank you for reading this far. I hope the new style of scouting and assessing and the long detailed explanations were more help than a turn-off. Let me know your thoughts on Twitter. (@thedevilsdna


(Credits:

Data: fbref

Images: Getty

Transfer details: transfermarkt)

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 

Summary

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)

Search for a DLP: Summer 2023 Shortlist

While Erik ten Hag has been doing a brilliant job of papering over the cracks this season and delivering results beyond expectations (like the Europa League first leg performance vs Barcelona), with every display the gaps that he’s papering over are also visible. One of these gaps is a midfielder. Specifically, one who can build up play, offer security in progression, handle high pass volumes with good receiving skills and have the ability to carry his way out of pressure situations. Christian Eriksen has been playing that role in a makeshift role and while he is doing a decent job, the fact that he’s an attacking midfielder attempting to be a build up midfielder is obvious on many occasions. While he offers good progression in his passing and is able to show himself to receive the ball well, his security in possession and carrying strength are clear weak points that limit him from being the elite option Ten Hag would like for that role. The other options are even worse, a fact that has become clear since Eriksen’s injury. Fred, Scott and even the new signings Sabitzer have a few more gaps compared to Eriksen for the role. Ten Hag has largely bypassed the midfield in the first phase of possession since Eriksen’s injury.

Casemiro’s form has been undeniably brilliant, but the traits mentioned above are still not something he’s great at. I wrote in detail about what Casemiro is good at and not so good at in possession, for Analytics FC here. In summary, he needs a partner capable of build up, carrying and volume passing traits to create the perfect pivot that covers all defensive and possessional requirements for United. In other words, a midfielder who can run the first phase build up for United, thereby enhancing our ability to progress, keep the ball more and get the front 4 into better positions in attack. For simplicity’s sake, I’m labeling this unicorn as a DLP – Deep-lying playmaker, just for the sake of this article. But keep in mind the traits mentioned above. Those are key.

The Stats considered

I’ve done this exercise a few times before, my recent iterations being Summer 2023 GK targets and Short-term and long-term CF targets. This one largely follows the same structure.

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) Passes Attempted – 15% weightage

Firstly, we need a midfielder who can handle large pass volumes. Eriksen boasts 85 percentile on this metric, which isn’t bad, and shows how reliant we are on him during progression. Someone who can upgrade on this and handle a large amount of passes would be ideal. Marco Verratti and Toni Kroos are per 90 leaders for this stat among Europe’s Top 5 leagues.

2) Pass Completion % – 15% weightage

While handling large volume, this player needs to be secure in his passing. This is a huge gap in our current midfield with Bruno Fernandes (74%), Casemiro (78%), Eriksen (79%) and Fred (80%) all being below average retention players, largely offering progression at the cost of passing security. The Europe leaders for his stat (Like Stanislav Lobotka and Marco Verratti) are comfortably clocking 90%+ on an average.

3) Progressive Passes – 20% weightage

And while boasting large pass volumes and high pass security, the player also needs to be progressive in their passing. We don’t want a high retention anchor man who passes too safely just to recycle possession. We want someone who is technical enough to progress the game regularly while being secure. Once again, Toni Kroos and Marco Verratti top the per 90 versions for these stats.

4) Total Carry Distance – 10% weightage

We get into some carrying metrics now. Firstly, someone who carries a lot. Simple logic. This player shouldn’t be shy of carrying the ball often, which will force our formula to negate players who prefer to pass quickly instead of carrying in space. This is also a huge squad gap. The midfielder who tops this for United is Bruno Fernandes, and he ranks just 37 percentile in the Premier League for it. The other midfielders are even worse. We badly need carrying power in the midfield. Verratti and Vitinha are Europe leaders for this stat among Top 5 league midfielders.

5) Progressive Carries – 20% weightage

Similar to the passing logic, we need a volume carrier who’s also progressive while carrying, being able to advance the game towards goal. Again, Bruno who tops this for United, is just 28 percentile in the league. Huge gap from Europe leaders like Azzedine Ounahi and Brahim Díaz.

6) Miscontrols – 5% weightage

The security version of carries, this refers to actions when a player fails to control the ball of their own accord. These are usually high for midfielders who receive in crowded areas or under intense pressure during build up. It largely speaks of a good first touch and strength to hold on to the ball, which we need in our midfielder. Casemiro is best in United’s midfield with a decent 66 percentile in the league, but that also stems from him not attempting to receive in tight situations back to goal too often. If we combine the above aggressive passing and carry metrics with this one, we’ll get someone who receives and carries and passes a lot and does so without many mistakes. The Europe leaders for this stat are Julian Weigl and Axel Witsel.

7) Dispossessed – 5% weightage

Largely the same logic as the above stat, but this counts possession losses while controlling the ball due to a clear opponent action like a tackle or pressure.Once again, Casemiro ranks well with a 68 percentile in the league.

8) Passes Received – 10% weightage

Our final stat is a simple one. Volume of passes received. This simply measures how much a player is found during possession and can give us a good indication of his showing himself for the ball during build up and also his teammates’ trust in his technical ability to receive in all situations. Once again, Casemiro tops this with an average 46 percentile in the league. Verratti and Kroos top this in Europe.

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 8 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 605 players who can play in midfield, who make up the data set on which we will be doing further calculations

3. I converted the 8 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. Eriksen with a 86 percentile on ‘Passes Attempted’ indicates that he’s better than 86% of the midfielders in our data set for this particular stat. I’ve also accounted for the reversed percentiles on the stats for which a lower value is desirable. E.g. Low values of ‘Miscontrols’ were ranked with a higher percentile. In summary, all high percentiles now mean ‘better’, for this assessment

4. Finally, I created a weighted formula using these 8 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:

Rodri, Bernardo Silva, Ilkay Gundogan and Toni Kroos are the best midfielders based on this score and that’s not a bad indication at all of what we’re trying to go for. Reece James and a few other non-midfielders have also snuck in thanks to fbref assigning them a ‘MF’ status due them playing it in the past.

Okay, now comes the hard part and I need to explain this clearly, since it’s tricky. While filtering out players who don’t make sense, I considered 4 things:
a) Age: I kept a limit of 27 years old, since we want a young/young-ish starter for the long term

b) Players who don’t play midfield: 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, Pedri and Aurelien Tchouameni were cut off

d) Players who aren’t playing a build up role: This was the tough one. After using the above 3 filters, I went one by one from the top of the list to remove players who aren’t handling build up duties. The caveat of the exercise is that we could end up with midfielders who are good at carrying, passing and retention but display these skills higher up the pitch as a box-to-box midfielder or advanced playmaker or adopt more defensive roles in the pivot and actually leave their team’s build up duties to someone else. This resulted in me filtering out a lot of popular choices like Jude Bellingham, Declan Rice, Edson Alvarez, Kouadio Kone, Maxence Cacqueret, Youri Tielemans and Khephren Thuram-Ulie, since they aren’t the ones who are the key playmakers in the first phase for their teams. This doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of it, but just that we are trying to identify players who are already doing what we want at a high level. If there’s an argument that Rice or Bellingham could potentially play the role in a different system, that’s fine, but I’ve removed them with the clause that they aren’t doing so currently and are probably better in a different role (In this case, I feel both are better as advanced box-to-box midfielders)

These filter criteria removed a lot of the usual suspects and odd fits, but I’m fairly confident that the players who are left are elite at what we want, 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 Casemiro partner needs for summer 2023:

If you hadn’t thought of Frenkie de Jong even once, when I was explaining the role and picking the metrics, I’ve probably done a poor job so far. Because, that is the player who ticks all the boxes and a huge reason why Erik ten Hag wanted the player last summer. Even though the chances of signing the Dutch player seem low, I’ve included the player thanks to our recent chase and Ten Hag’s connection. Frenkie is the ideal Casemiro partner and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that acquiring him would solve a majority of our build up issues and create one of the best pivots in Europe.

Among the other options, Kenneth Taylor, Nicolo Rovella, Salis Abdul Ahmed, Ismael Bennacer (€50m release clause activates only in summer 2024) and Johann Lepenant are excellent options that we should be monitoring, but their recent contract situations mean that a summer 2023 move may be tough.

This brings our focus to 4 targets after Frenkie, whom I deem realistic and capable.



Mini Scout reports


Before we dive into the scout reports, let’s first see what we are upgrading on.

Eriksen scored 74% on our exercise, which indicates a good-but-not-great profile for what we want. This matches up with the eye test too and the above stats individually confirm where the gaps are. While he’s done a great job in terms of pass volume, receiving passes and progression via passing, his pass completion, security and carry metrics are all around the average mark.

Fred scored 52% on the exercise and his issues are also clear with the pizza split. While he’s decent at being involved and progression via passing, his retention and carry metrics are poor. Scoring just 18 percentile on miscontrols probably sums up a large part of the frustration associated with Fred when he plays a build up role. He is simply not the player you want receiving under pressure and is prone to miscontrols as a reason. I do think Fred is much better as an advanced midfielder free from build up duties (like the phases under Rangnick and Ten Hag with McTominay/Casmeiro taking the deepest role)

Finally, Scott scored a 14% on our exercise, which really looks bad for the 26 year old. Again, an argument can be made that his role as Casemiro backup this year hasn’t given him any opportunity to score well on build up metrics, but Scott’s unsuitability to either role in the pivot puts his long-term spot in danger, as things stand.

That wraps up the United midfielders. Let’s take a look at our top target in brief.

I’m not going to go into great detail about our ideal target, Frenkie De Jong, since much has been said about him already and the evidence of what he can do for us is available aplenty, not the least the 2 matches he’s playing against us in the Europa League. The only metric Frenkie isn’t elite on is his dispossessed stat, which is a result of him being targeted by opponents to stop Barcelona’s build up this year.

Let’s get into details with the real targets now.

Maxime Lopez, 26, Sassuolo

Career: Starting his youth career in Marseille, Lopez managed to break into the main team at the age of 18. What followed were 4 reasons of consistent gametime as a key player that saw him rack up 150 appearances. Sassuolo moved for him in 2020. The first year, he often partnered Locatelli and sometimes dropped to the bench to make way for Pedro Obiang, but post Locatelli’s move to Juventus in 2021, Lopez has been a key starter, running the build up for Sassuolo. 

Pros: Playing in a pivot (initially with Locatelli, currently with Davide Frattesi), Lopez is elite on the ball. He is a top-tier technician capable of progression via carrying and passing and doing it all with high security, volume and consistency. He’s extremely comfortable receiving in the first phase under pressure and carrying or passing his way out of situations. As his pizza chart shows, he’s superb on all the  metrics we’ve picked and doesn’t have any weakness on the ball. Sassuolo finished 11th last year and are currently 15th, making these stats even more impressive. There’s good reason to believe his stats will all hit elite levels in a better team. While usually running the build up for his team, Lopez also has great awareness in creation and advanced playmaking, often getting ahead or drifting to the wings in some match situations. His managers have also played him as an AM or advanced CM on occasions to good effect. 

Cons: He isn’t a great ball-winner. Lopez doesn’t engage in too many duels preferring to mark the space and use his good positioning to sense danger and block passing lanes instead. He isn’t very strong in duels but tries to engage in them in good volume, indicating he isn’t a pushover or absent in the defensive phase.

Verdict:
If you’ve followed my account, you’ll know that I’ve mentioned Lopez many times and he has made my CM shortlists in previous iterations as well. Previously, as a Matic replacement, he was lower on the shortlist thanks to the above con, but with Casemiro as his partner and build up abilities being more important for our current needs, he becomes a top tier target for our next midfielder. He was rumored to be linked to Serie A teams like Napoli and Roma for as low as €16m. Even assuming some Manchester United tax, it’s a steal for such a top player at his peak. I can’t see many issues with this one.

The Devil’s DNA Score: 9/10 

Orkun Kökçü, 22, Feyenoord

Career: A youth product of Feyenoord, Kokcu broke into the main team at the age of 17 in 2018. But it was the following 19/20 campaign where he became a key member featuring 35 times for the club as a 18 year old. That has continued since then as the Turkish international has racked up 150 appearances over 5 years for his maiden club. With his contract ending in 2025 and Slot’s Feyenoord grabbing the attention of top clubs this year, a move to a bigger club seems imminent.

Pros: Kokcu is a very versatile player often given (and justifying) “complete midfielder” tags. I would liken him to Enzo Fernandez in that sense. He can play as a 10 who is the chance creating engine of the team, a box-to-box 8 who can offer workrate, ball-winning, pressing and link defence to attack, or as a build up 6 who orchestrates for the team in possession and defends transitions. His technical ceiling is elite, with progression along with volume of passes and carries almost a guarantee in whatever role he plays. Compared to other options in this list, his ball-winning and attacking output in terms of late surging runs into the box or spotting a good final ball or shot, are good. That’s the reason he has 27 goals and 23 assists in his career so far. As he has matured, managers have used him in deeper roles more often, where his technical proficiency and reading of the game are utilized more. For the past year or so, he has mostly featured in a double pivot as the LCM responsible for build up and has reached new heights to his game, which fits perfectly with what United need. He’s very comfortable dropping between the CBs or in the FB spaces during build up and enters the opponent third only in the last phase after ensuring the team has progressed well.

Cons: As the pizza chart indicates, his only 3 stats that are below average are all security related. This largely stems from the games he plays more advanced. He’s played 9 games this season higher up on the wings or as a 10. Kokcu can’t be called a reliable lone 6. As a Casemiro partner, the combination will work fine, but in games where Casemiro is out, handling lone 6 duties alone for Kokcu might be an issue. Also, although his press resistance is largely good, it could be better. In some high pressure scenarios, he plays the ball long or loses it, which is another reason for his lower security compared to the other options.

Verdict: Kokcu is a gem and given his well-roundedness and age, he can be developed into the role we need, since he’s already ticking most boxes and showing the movement, understanding and technical ability to play as a build up CM. His security aspects are a small concern but could be ironed out in a good system as he matures, if he plays the deeper role consistently. It’s a good bet to make.

The Devil’s DNA Score: 7.5/10

Samuele Ricci, 22, Torino

Career: A youth product of Empoli, Ricci broke into the first team at the young age of 17 in 2019 and became a key member immediately playing on the left side of a diamond as a LCM mezzala tasked with vertical coverage, progression and ball-winning. After 2 years of doing well in the Serie B, the team earned promotion and Ricci’s first Serie A campaign was noticed by Torino, who took him on a loan in the middle of the 21/22 season and then made it permanent at the end of the season. With 29 appearances for Torino over the past year, he’s been their mainstay and has played in a pivot tasked with more playmaking and build up duties.

Pros: Having played as an box-to-box 8 at Empoli and then settled into a Pirlo-esue playmaker role in a pivot for Torino beside Sasa Lukic this season, Ricci is very well rounded and offers almost everything we are looking for, as his pizza chart indicates. Torino have been flying high and are 9th in the league this year. Ricci has been a major part of that revolution, completely looking at home in the top flight in his new role. The Italian is a deceptive athlete. At around six feet tall, he looks like a rangy figure but immediately surprises with his robust approach to physical duels, both on the ground and in the air.  His robustness also extends to his ability to shield and protect the ball in possession, giving the 22-year-old the confidence to receive the ball under pressure, especially in positions close to the sideline. Meanwhile, the slightness of Ricci’s build is advantageous in possession; he is very light on his feet, making him a tidy dribbler in tight spaces and a great ball-carrier when driving through midfield. Ricci is active and reliable in all phases of play, meaning that he can be plugged into any system and instantly provide value without needing an architecture built around his skillset or style of play. He’s the latest in line of well-rounded playmakers Italy has produced – Verratti, Locatelli, Jorginho – and can take their paths and play at the highest level.

Cons: Ricci isn’t elite at advanced progression. He’s more like a consistent progressor type who gets out of situations with good agility and ball control and picks neat tidy passes easily. But the top-tier flair or defence-breaking ball probably might be missing. He isn’t a great final third threat with 4 goals and 6 assists in his career so far, largely from set pieces. 


Verdict: The above con ideally shouldn’t be a big issue at United with Bruno, Eriksen and many other players adept at goal threat and final third creation. What we really need from the build up CM – progression, press resistance, carrying power and passing security – Ricci has that in spades. Even though his contract just started in 2022, Torino is a club that is usually open to sell and he does have an oddly short contract which further indicates that willingness from the club. I don’t think a transfer would cost much due to his comparatively low hype, making this a sensible move overall. I would love a punt on Ricci.

The Devil’s DNA Score: 8/10

Martin Zubimendi, 24, Real Sociedad

Career: Zubimendi’s path has been a straight dream route. He was born in San Sebastian and joined the Real Sociedad academy in 2011 at the age of 12. After featuring for them at all levels, he made his debut for the main team in 2018 at the age 19. The 20/21 campaign was his breakthrough season where he featured 41 times and since then that has continued consistently with the Spaniard having racked up 125 club appearances so far. With a €60m release clause and the likes of Barcelona and Arsenal interested, a move to a big club looms close.

Pros:  Playing at the base of a star-studded diamond, Zubimendi holds his own among Laliga’s best as a very secure DM through whom the majority of the build up and progression goes through. He is extremely efficient in duels with only Gudelj ranking better among La Liga midfielders for aerial and tackle success. His positioning and man-marking make him a top class shielder and transition defender, while his passing progression and security make him reliable. He is very adept at controlling the tempo and sets the pace of a very patient passing structure that Sociedad adopt, which will tie in well with Ten Hag’s ideal system. As a single lone pivot tasked with progression, tempo control, transition defence and build up movement, Zubimendi is elite.

Cons: Zubimendi isn’t the most agile or dynamic midfielder. He feels at home as a central lone 6, but probably lacks the flair and carrying power to nail a pivot role, where he has license to playmake with Casemiro beside him. In that sense, a lot of Zubimendi’s good traits of defending transitions, positional excellence and man marking are shared by Casemiro, while some of the requirements of carrying disruption, joining the attack and creating for the front 4 might be missing.

Verdict: There is a reason Barcelona want Zubimendi as a Busquets replacement. The 24 year old would be at home at the base of a midfield (which contains the profile we actually want in Frenkie de Jong playing further ahead). I would have loved Zubimendi as a Matic replacement 2 years ago, but with Casemiro in the squad, there are more overlaps than before and a few gaps might still exist as a pair, especially carrying power. At a release clause of €60m, that’s probably on the expensive side, but one can also argue that this gives us the flexibility of using Zubimendi even when Casemiro sits out or eventually declines, thereby offering cover for both midfield roles without being an amazing fit for either. All in all, it’s a good option, but not the best one.

The Devil’s DNA Score: 7/10

Final Thoughts

In summary of this exercise, I do think United going all out for Frenkie de Jong makes total sense. He is the perfect fit, but his price and insistence to stay at Barcelona could be factors against a move. In that case, I think we should move hard for Maxime Lopez. The Frenchman ticks all the boxes, plays the role we want and would be a great Casemiro partner, all for a very affordable price. After that, a transfer for Samuele Ricci should be entertained, thanks to his great fitment and his profile not being too high-end to cause any issues for a move. Beyond that, Orkun Kokcu and Martin Zubimendi are also two top tier technicians with both not being an exact fit (one being a little more attacking and one a little more defensive) but can do the role to a great effect and be molded into it for sure. Other than these realistic summer 2023 targets, a close track on Kenneth Taylor and Nicolo Rovella should be maintained, given their high suitability and traits for the role.

Thank you for reading this far. I hope you enjoyed this one. Let me know your thoughts on the options and if I’ve missed any, on my Twitter handle. I will be doing more scout reports and tactical pieces in the near future as well.

(All stats from fbref via Opta)

Search for a GK: Summer 2023 Shortlist

Fans and analysts who have followed United’s issues in the past few years and are also aware of the principles of play Ten Hag likes to implement, would have come across one concern immediately – David de Gea.

The Spanish goalkeeper has proven most of what any keen observer would have told you when Ten Hag was announced as Manchester United manager – De Gea is not fit for the Dutchman’s goalkeeper needs. The difficulties in build up is one key issue, while the inability to proactively sweep and claim crosses only further multiplies the adverse effect the Spaniard has on team tactics. After two games of seeing de Gea fumble, stay on his line, not attack crosses, hesitate to sweep and make mistakes in distribution, Ten Hag employed a kick-it-long system which bypassed the need to build up, and relied on his defence dropping deep to limit the cons of de Gea’s poor sweeping and claiming.

But in recent games, especially post the World Cup, the team has been slowly building towards a more high line high press game with focus on retaining the ball and de Gea has just not looked like a good cog in that system. The game against Arsenal was the most clear example, when both teams were implementing a similar 3-man high press, which meant a fullback was always free during build up. Ramsdale always nailed the cross ball to his fullback and helped Arsenal beat the United press, but on the other end, de Gea routinely failed to find his fullbacks and put them under pressure when he did.



There are many more examples of de Gea not being it, but I’m going to move past that and focus on today’s exercise – finding a starter level goalkeeper for Manchester United who suits Ten Hag’s tactics.

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.

1) Save %
High=Good
Weightage: 10%

A high save % is good, since we want our goalkeeper to be able to make as many saves as he can, with respect to the shots he faces. A caveat here is that the save % for a keeper conceding too many shots usually drops, while it’s easier to maintain a higher save % when you face fewer shots. One example would be Illan Meslier, who faced the most shots in the league in 21/22, thanks to the chaos in defence before Marcelo Bielsa’s sacking.

2) PSxG Differential:
High=Good
Weightage: 25%

PSxG or Post-Shot Expected Goals is a measure of the quality of shots faced (xG faced by GK one can say). The difference of PSxG and Goals allowed is called PSxG differential or PSxG +/-. A high positive value for this denotes high quality saves. David de Gea is a prime example of (usually) scoring well on this stat, thanks to his dramatic saves from positions most keepers usually aren’t able to. I’m giving this the highest weightage, since it’s critical for a GK.

3) Cross Stop %:
High=Good
Weightage: 15%

This is calculated by dividing crosses stopped by crosses faced. A high value denotes good cross claiming ability. Again, the caveat here is that a keeper bombarded with crosses might find it tougher to maintain a high Cross Stop % compared to one that isn’t.

4) OPA or Defensive Actions outside Penalty Area: 

High=Good
Weightage: 10%

A measure of sweeping, a high value on this denotes the ability of the keeper to perform actions outside his area.

5) OPA Avg Distance:
High=Good
Weightage: 10%

The average distance from goal of all defensive actions outside the penalty area. Similar to the above stat, a higher value is good, for the keeper that we need.

6) Launched Passes Completion %:
High=Good
Weightage: 5%

When a keeper decides to launch a ball from open play, does he complete the pass accurately or is it a random boot-out under pressure that goes to an opposition? This stat answers that question. It separates purposeful long kicks to a teammate from random hoofs under pressure. One caveat here is that having a great target man could result in many ambitious long kicks getting a completion status as well. One example is Samir Handanovic topping this chart two years ago, thanks to Edin Dzeko being the target of most of his long passes.

7) Passes Attempted:
High=Good
Weightage: 5%

For the GK we are looking for, we want someone who isn’t afraid to get on the ball, during open play. A higher value for this is better for us.

8) Pass Launch %:
Low=Good
Weightage: 5%

This denotes the percentage of passes a keeper decides to launch, instead of playing on the ground. For our ideal keeper needs, we want a lower value for this – a keeper who has the technique, press-resistance  and composure to avoid booting the ball long and instead tries to find a player close by.

9) Pass Avg Length:
Low=Good
Weightage: 5%

Quite self-explanatory, the preference is for a keeper who has a lower average pass length, which indicates his priority to find a player closer via a shorter pass, rather than kicking it long.

10) Goal Kick Launch %:
Low=Good
Weightage: 5%

The goal kick version of ‘Pass Launch %’. Again, we want a keeper who executes a short pass from a goal kick more often than not, which is the ideal Ten Hag goal kick routine.

11) Goal Kick Avg Length:
Low=Good
Weightage: 5%

The goal kick version of ‘Pass Avg Length’. We want someone who has a low value on this.

NOTE: Before we move on, I must state one important caveat. A few of these stats are highly dependent on team tactics. A goalkeeper may not be playing short, because the manager has instructed him to kick it long (like ETH did with de Gea after the first 2 losses) or a GK may not be able to score well on sweeping actions, because his team doesn’t play a line high enough for him to get the opportunity to sweep. So, for the sake of clarity, it might be best to take the results of this ranking as to not reflect goalkeeper ability, but rather reflect goalkeeper suitability to United’s needs. In short, the score won’t measure absolute talent, but will identify goalkeepers who are doing well at the the role that we want this season. There could be other talented keepers 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 goalkeeping stats from fbref.com for Europe’s top 7 leagues for the 22/23 season and picked out the above 11 stats of interest to this assessment

2. I filtered out all goalkeepers who didn’t even manage to play 5 90s in 22/23. This left us with 160 goalkeepers, who make up the data set on which we will be doing further calculations

3. I converted the 11 stats into per 90 versions and then percentile versions. This means that each stat was divided by the number of 90s played by that goalkeeper, and then converted into a percentile stat. E.g. David de Gea with a 40 percentile on ‘PSxG Differential’ indicates that he’s better than 40% of the keepers in our data set for this particular stat. I’ve also accounted for the reversed percentiles on the stats for which a lower value is desirable. E.g. Low values of ‘Pass Avg Length’ were ranked with a higher percentile. In summary, all high percentiles now mean ‘better’, for this assessment

4. Finally, I created a weighted formula using these 11 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 goalkeeper scores a 100% and the worst one scores a 1%

The top goalkeepers, based on this, are as follows:

Manuel Neuer scores a majestic 100% on our metric, closely followed by Kepa, who’s having a resurgent season and Alisson, who still stands tall as Liverpool’s best player this year. This could be considered as a fair assessment of sweeper keeper performances in Europe’s top 7 leagues in 22/23 and Neuer is exactly the kind of keeper we need.

The Shortlist

The reason we’re here is to find a suitable young/peak keeper who is worthy of starting for United in the short and long term. I use age to filter out all goalkeepers above the age of 29 and add a few important contract details and transfer rumors. I also eliminated some GKs who barely crossed the 5 90s played threshold and some unrealistic options like Donnarumma, who surely won’t move from PSG.

The results are as follows:

Gregor Kobel has been having a great season at Dortmund for the second year running. Even last year, his stats were pretty good. United should really be enquiring if he’s available. There are no rumors of him wanting to leave or Dortmund entertaining such a thought, so maybe he’s well settled there.

There are similarly no rumors for Diouf and Vaessen in the market, but it might be wise to keep a track of them given their great stats while having a low profile.

The real targets who have been rumored to move and seem to be available for the right price are Bijlow, Raya, Costa and Meret. I’ll be doing mini reports on the first 3 below.

Mini Scout Reports

Before we dive into the reports of the targets, I want to highlight the holy grail – the profile that we are going for. Here’s Manuel Neuer’s pizza chart using the same 11 stats and assessment detailed above. Remember, the percentiles are adjusted based on what I mentioned (Eg. High percentile for Avg Pass Length means he’s passing short and so on)

What’s immediately noticeable is that Neuer scores well on almost every metric except cross stopping. He’s stopped only 4 crosses from 103 this year, which seems to be surprisingly low. But keeping that aside, it’s as good as it gets. Playing for a league leader team that maintains a high line and engages in short build up, does help the stats, of course, but Neuer has shown what a modern sweeper keeper is all about.

On the other end of the spectrum, let’s take a look at Manchester United’s current starter – David de Gea.

David de Gea scored 16.4% in the above exercise. Only 26 goalkeepers in Europe’s top 7 leagues scored lower than him and only 1 Premier League keeper (Mark Travers, Bournemouth’s backup GK) scored lower than him. It’s safe to say that de Gea is among the worst keepers in the league. What’s even more shocking is that, even keeping aside stats that might be dependent on team tactics, he’s below average for both shot-stopping metrics. He’s 33 percentile on PSxG +/-, which is apparently his strongest stat. The less said about the claiming, the better.

David de Gea is probably the weakest starting member in the United XI currently. Our aim should be to buy someone who represents a massive upgrade on de Gea in the short-term and has the potential to get close to that Neuer pizza chart in the long-term.

Let’s dive into the 3 targets that I recommend the most for this.

Justin Bijlow, 25, Feyenoord

Career History: Bijlow’s rise has been a fairytale one. Representing Feyenoord at all youth levels, he got his break at the end of the 17/18 season at the young age of 19. In the following season, he played a huge part, starting 20 times for the club. With 97 starts across 5 years since his debut, Bijlow is one of Feyenoord’s key players and has already become a household name in the Eredivisie. In 2021, he was called up to the national team by van Gaal and was doing well in World Cup qualification. An unfortunate injury that kept him out for the games in the run-up to the World Cup, ended up with him not being selected for the Finals in Qatar. 


Pros: Bijlow is a very well-rounded profile. His eye-catching and strong saves are immediately noticeable, while spending more time on his games gives a clear indication of a good distributor who likes to be involved, and a good claimer who is authoritative in the air. In general, the two words that come to mind when seeing Bijlow are – aggressive and athletic. He almost feels like an energetic midfielder, with the physical ability and determination in most of his actions being a large driver to his good stats.

Cons: The major con with Bijlow is – his fitness. He’s missed almost 50 games for Feyenoord over the years with various injuries related to foot, knee and toe. It cost him a World Cup Finals spot, and has left Feyenoord missing their key starter in important games as well. 22/23 has been good so far, with no injuries yet, and one can hope that his fitness improves in his peak. Also, his aggression leads to the odd error in passing or claiming, thanks to an overzealous or over-proactive action, but I would say that in the long run, it’s still much better than having a keeper who’s rooted to the line or scared of picking the right pass.

Verdict: I think Bijlow has everything in his locker for a modern GK, and at the age of 25, is already well-rounded and performing at a good level. These pros far outweigh the slight cons of fitness and rashness, both of which should be fixable as he matures. Should be a strong consideration.

Devil’s DNA Score 8/10

David Raya, 28, Brentford

Career History: Raya started out as a youth player for Blackburn Rovers and after a few years of bit-part appearances for the side, at the age of 21, he broke into the first XI and enjoyed 2 years as an undisputed starter for Rovers. His performances earned him a pick up from the smart scouting team at Brentford in 2019. It’s only been up and up since that move, with great performances in the Championship, only followed by great performances in the Premier League. In 2022, his rise earned him 2 caps to Spain ahead of De Gea and that change should probably happen at club level too.


Pros: At age 27, Raya is probably the closest to peak in terms of development, among our shortlist options. And that shows in his game. He is a very consistent shot-stopper, excellent cross claimer and strong sweeper. In terms of overall goalkeeping ability, he has no weakness. Even his distribution is a strong trait. The main reason why his pizza chart scores low on 4 distribution stats is largely due to Brentford adopting a long ball strategy this year. They often go direct to Ivan Toney in the final third thanks to the striker’s excellent hold up play (United should look to him for CF too). The 2 distribution stats which are more in his control score well. Back when he was in the Championship and Brentford dominated possession, Raya would play very short and often boss the build up. So, if you disregard the 4 stats he ranks low on, as issues that won’t matter in a top team playing a short build up style, Raya’s overall ability probably ends up being the best on the shortlist. 


Cons: It’s very hard to pick any cons for Raya. As explained before, his distribution is simply not a negative. He’s excellent at it. If I had to nitpick, the only con I could pick from watching a lot of Raya is that he sometimes tries too many ambitious counter-starters with low-percentage throws after claiming, which lead to the opponent getting the ball, but they also help start some great counters. It’s a minor thing.


Verdict: No matter how hard I look, I cannot see any reason why Raya shouldn’t be a top target. He has all the traits, is already showing them at a high level in the league and will only look better in a top team. His price also seems affordable since he has just 1.5 years left in his contract. At the rumored price, this is a no-brainer. If United don’t seal this, I’m positive that Spurs or Chelsea will pick Raya up this summer. For the first time since I’ve been doing scout reports for United, I’m giving someone a 10.

Devil’s DNA Score: 10/10

Diogo Costa, 23, Porto

Career History: Having just turned 23 last September, it’s fascinating to realize that Costa has already started 72 times for Porto in 2 years as a key starter and got 12 national call-ups for Portugal which includes starting every game in World Cup 2022. It speaks of his monumental talent as a player. 4 years with Porto B leading to 2 years at Porto and reaching the point of every top team wanting you, is as good a career goes till this age.


Pros: Aiming to be a well-rounded sweeper keeper, Costa is an excellent distributor and claimer and a decent shot-stopper. Standing tall at 6’4”, he has excellent aerial reach and the agility to go with it. He is really good at beating the opponent press by playing smart passes to the fullbacks or midfielders, effortlessly starting attacks for his team, no matter what the situation. He is also ever-ready to come off his line and sweep or claim with good control, without being too overzealous or too rooted on his line either. 


Cons: There are no obvious weaknesses to Costa, except the fact that due to his young age, he still feels raw. There is the odd mistake in him, especially when it comes to saving. His positioning might need some extra maturing to bump up his save %. He has also made some high profile errors in Champions League and World Cup games, which could suggest a slight requirement of nerves to handle big games.


Verdict: In terms of profile, Costa is a legitimate wonderkid who has all the traits, but his rawness means that he isn’t the most starter-ready on the list. The ideal top team move probably comes 1-2 years early for the young GK and with a huge Release Clause of £65m, does a summer 2023 move become a case of “too expensive for too raw a player”? I’m inclined to think so. Don’t get me wrong, I think he’s a fabulous talent and would still take him if there isn’t anyone in the top 5 shortlist names willing to come. But the price and rawness make me feel that there are a few, if not many, better options out there that would help us save some money for other targets like a striker or midfielder.

Devil’s DNA Score: 7/10


Final Thoughts

In summary of this exercise, for the summer transfer window of 2023, I feel Manchester United should pull out all the stops to sign David Raya from Brentford. He seems ready to move with an appealing price and his profile only suggests that he can become one of Europe’s best. If that doesn’t work out or someone else snaps him up, United should enquire about Gregor Kobel, who has also been having a fabulous 1.5 seasons at Dortmund. After those 2, a move for Justin Bijlow of Feyenoord has to be entertained, given the Dutch GK’s skillset and potential. As a final throw of the dice, an expensive move for Diogo Costa that seals the GK role for many years, is a good option as well. 

Thank you for reading this far. I hope you enjoyed this one. Let me know your thoughts on the options and if I’ve missed any, on my Twitter handle. I will be doing more scout reports in the near future, with a Casemiro partner playmaker carrier style midfielder next on my to-do list. Cheers.

(All stats from fbref via Opta)

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