Tactical Analysis: Frenkie de Jong at Manchester United

A new manager, a new CEO, a newly appointed DOF and technical directors and loads of changes in the backroom staff plus board level at Manchester United – the message is that a new era will commence from the start of the 22/23 season. And as always, the transfer rumors for the next season have already started with United rumored to be looking at signing the whole Ajax squad including Jari Litmanen.  

Jokes aside, Erik ten Hag has identified the midfield as the primary area of reinforcement and it doesn’t require rocket science to figure out why. With the departures of Nemanja Matic and Paul Pogba, Manchester United only have Scott McTominay, James Garner and Fred capable of playing the deeper midfield role. Bruno Fernandes and Donny van de Beek are also there, but they are more suited to playing the no.10 role.  

No matter what formation Erik ten Hag wants to play, he is going to, ideally, need 2 midfielders.  According to reports, Manchester United have, so far, identified Frenkie de Jong, Ibrahim Sangare, Kalvin Phillips, Christian Eriksen, Ruben Neves, N’golo Kante and Vitinha as potential midfield recruitments. Vitinha and Phillips have already secured moves elsewhere, but we can get an idea of the profile ten Hag is targeting. I will elaborate on this later, but all of them, to an extent, would fit with what Erik ten Hag seems to be planning currently. 

If we are to go by the rumors, a deal for Frenkie de Jong to switch from Barcelona to Manchester United is currently at an advanced stage. So, today, we will take a look at how Frenkie de Jong will fit in at Manchester United and under what circumstances would de Jong flourish the most. 

Career History

Frenkie de Jong was a part of the Willem II academy growing up. He was transferred to Ajax for €1 million when he was 18 years old and was loaned back to Willem II for the first half of the 2015/16 season. Upon his return to Ajax in January 2016, De Jong was in and out of the first team for the 15/16 and 16/17 seasons and made a majority of his appearances for the B team, aka Jong Ajax. He made a few substitute appearances here and there, with one being in the Europa League final against Manchester United. 

In the 2017/18 season, de Jong primarily played as a center-back in a back 4 alongside Matthijs de Ligt, after the club lost Davinson Sanchez to Spurs in the subsequent summer. He also played in a 3 man midfield from time to time, proving his versatility.

The 2018/19 season was the big breakthrough for the Dutch midfielder. Ajax had a brilliant season under current Manchester United manager, Erik ten Hag, with the Amsterdam-based club winning the domestic double and reaching the UEFA Champions League semi final for the first time in 22 years. Aged 21, De Jong was one of the most crucial players in that season and also started to receive praise from all around Europe, with Rafael van Der Vaart claiming that de Jong was one of the best midfielders in Europe with the ball at his feet. 

Due to his stellar performances for Ajax in the middle of the park, de Jong attracted interest from the top European clubs with Paris Saint Germain, Manchester City and Manchester United all eyeing the young midfield sensation’s signature. Ultimately, de Jong chose FC Barcelona as his next club and on 23rd January 2019, it was announced that de Jong would be joining Barcelona, effective from the 1st of July 2019. 

De Jong has endured a tough time at FC Barcelona so far with his performances not having the impact people would have expected from him. Barcelona’s financial situation and uncertainty haven’t exactly helped him either. This summer, it has been reported that due to the club’s deteriorating financial situation, Barcelona would be open to selling de Jong and it looks like Manchester United are the one who have blinked first. 

Style of Play

Frenkie de Jong can best be described as a deep-lying playmaker. He has previously said that he likes to be the first one to receive the ball from the defence while building up the play and also likes to join the attack and be closer to the goal in the attacking phase of play. The Dutchman is generally the primary ball carrier and the deep-lying playmaker for the team. 

His stats reflect his preference for his own style of play. The 25-year-old had a 91% pass completion and an 82% long pass completion in La Liga last season. He also averaged 5.22 progressive passes p90 along with 7.24 progressive carries in the league. The stats also line up with the eye test that De Jong is an elite ball Progressor. He also averaged only 0.6 bad touches p90 which means he can be classified as a press-resistant midfielder. 

Now, on face value, de Jong is exactly the type of profile United have missed. Manchester United, especially under Ole, have struggled to break down low blocks and have really lacked a midfielder who is able to progress the ball from deep. However, would just signing Frenkie de Jong solve all of United’s issues?

The answer is – probably not.While being an elite ball progressor, the Dutchman’s defensive stats aren’t the greatest. In fact, they are among the worst in  Europe’s top 5 leagues in the last 365 days. So, while he might probably be the best profile to solve United’s issues in ball progression, he is probably going to need help alongside to win the ball back.

As you can see, de Jong is world-class in passing and possession and for someone of his profile, his attacking stats aren’t that bad either. His defensive stats look very bad at first glance, but we should remember that Barcelona, on average, keep almost 60% possession in the league. If we adjust his stats for possession, his defensive abilities are not as bad as they look in this graph but they are not that good either that he is able to play as a lone DM or a number 6. His defending, even after adjusting for possession, is still a notable weakness in his profile. 

Fitment at Manchester United

Now that we know what type of profile de Jong is, we will try to figure out how he would fit in at Manchester United under Erik ten Hag. 

Erik ten Hag can still be credited as the manager who got the best out of Frenkie de Jong during the 18/19 season at Ajax. To understand the type of role de Jong was playing under ten Hag, we first need to understand how Ajax played in the 18/19 season under the Dutch manager. 

In the 18/19 season, Ajax lined up in a 4-2-3-1 with Donny van de Beek as an attacking midfielder and Frenkie de Jong partnered by Lasse Schone in the midfield pivot. De Jong, as mentioned before, used to drop in the backline as a faux CB to receive the ball. As you can see below:

(You can also see that I am really bad at editing images)

De Jong was the heartbeat of this Ajax side – all the progression in the defensive third and mid third was carried out by de Jong by either progressive passes or progressive carries. Contrary to popular belief, ten Hag is not a ‘possession-hungry’ manager. He likes to build up from the back and has some characteristics similar to Pep Guardiola, but his philosophy is more towards domination. He likes his teams to move the ball up the field much quicker than someone like Guardiola would. De Jong definitely helped in this regard with his progression..

When de Jong would drop deep, Schone would take up an advanced position to help with creating more passing options while building up the play. Once, the ball was moved past the mid-third, de Jong used to then act as the advanced mid while Schone used to drop deeper to cover for the advancing wingers and de Jong. Schone was the engine of this team while de Jong was the primary creator. As Fred once said, ‘I am the person who carries the piano for artists to play’. Schone was that for this Ajax side. 

Now, this is where the second midfield profile is crucial for Manchester United. Comparing the style of plays and the profiles, it seems as if ten Hag wants to recreate his 18/19 tactic at Ajax which was immensely successful. Let’s look at the names that Manchester United have been linked with: N’golo Kante, Kalvin Phillips, Ibrahim Sangare. These are usually the primary ball-winners and engines of any midfield. Phillips is probably on his way to Manchester City but the initial target identification by Manchester United points towards Erik ten Hag wanting to recreate a similar style of play to his 2018/19 Ajax side. 

Currently, it is also very difficult to predict how Manchester United will line up next season considering a big chunk of the transfer window is still remaining. But if we were to guess, considering the current squad, our best bet would be that de Jong will line up alongside Fred in a 4-2-3-1 with Bruno Fernandes as the attacking midfielder. If we draw parallels between Lasse Schone and the current crop of midfielders at Old Trafford, Fred would probably be the closest to the Danish midfielder’s style of play. So, naturally a midfield of de Jong  – Fred – Bruno would be Erik ten Hag’s first choice provided that United are able to secure the signing of de Jong. 

The above viz exemplifies what we have discussed so far. Firstly, it probably describes Frenkie De Jong in a nutshell – amazing progressively but very poor in terms of ball-winning. Frenkie is clearly in the top 10 midfielders for progressive actions, but he’s also in the bottom 5 for on-ground ball winning actions. He can give you great progression, but needs a ball-winner beside him to balance the midfield. This is where we look at players above the average line for defensive actions. As theorized before, Philips seems like a perfect compliment, diagonally opposite on the viz and one of the best ball-winners in the business. Kante also looks well above the average line and boasts similar progression to Frenkie as well, a nice reference to his world-class ability with and without the ball, when he is 100% fit. Fred is a decent option, just above the average line. All other United midfielders are below the average line. 

Even though a Fred – de Jong partnership has a chance of working out, the Red Devils really should look at signing another midfielder. Fred, while being a good ball-winner, lacks the positional discipline required from a no.6. The shielding ability that someone like Matic brings to the team helps the team be less susceptible to counter-attacks. If you have observed Manchester United in any capacity last season, you would know that it was one of the biggest issues the club faced on the pitch. Fred may be able to do a job alongside de Jong but he is better as an 8 than a 6, as his role under Rangnick and for the Brazil team proved. If Manchester United are looking to compete with the Liverpools and Manchester Ctiys, they should invest money in a defensive midfielder who can partner de Jong and help improve United’s defensive transitional issues – something ‘McFred’ has failed to achieve so far. The Fred – de Jong pivot, while not exactly bad, will have its limitations.

Final Thoughts

To summarize, Jong would be a real coup for Manchester United, especially for the price being quoted recently. He is the type of midfielder Manchester United have lacked in recent years. United have not had such a strong deep-lying midfielder in terms of progression – someone who can break opposition lines and help the team move the ball forward. The last 2 seasons have seen Luke Shaw emerge as the primary deep-lying progressor of the team, since Matic has not made a large number of appearances due to his declining ability. But Shaw has very limited range and scope for progression from the left flank which has made Manchester United’s attacking structure a bit predictable. Frenkie de Jong’s skill set would definitely help the Red Devils in solving this issue. 

Although, he will need certain profiles around him to make this signing work. McTominay, Garner or Fred are more of box-to-box midfielders. Since Matic’s departure, Manchester United are lacking a recognised defensive midfielder. The current midfielders at the club just aren’t defensively disciplined enough to partner with de Jong in the middle of the park and cover for his weaknesses. If Manchester United are unable to sign the right profile that can partner with the Dutch midfielder, there is a huge risk that the club would fail to get the best out of de Jong.

(Image credits: Getty Images
Stats credits: Statsbomb via Fbref)

The Rise of AC Milan

Red flags were flying high, the ultras were singing loud as 16,000 travelling fans watched as Franck Kessie scored a left footed thunderstrike to clinch Milan’s first title in 11 years at the Mapei stadium. It was a long wait, filled up with many ups and downs but the dark era of the club was finally over. AC Milan were champions of Italy again and this Scudetto might be the sweetest of them all. 

After Massimiliano Allegri returned to Juventus, all pre-season predictions were in the favour of the Old Lady regaining her crown. But Allegri’s return hasn’t quite gone to plan. Early season bad form saw them in the relegation zone in mid-September. Then, the attention turned towards Luciano Spalletti’s Napoli and Simone Inzaghi’s Inter who were flying high in the league. Few people predicted Milan to go all the way. The continuous upwards trajectory since Pioli’s arrival wasn’t enough. The second placed finish last season, also, wasn’t enough to convince people that Milan can be champions this season. 

However, this Serie A season has laughed at all the predictions made during the start of it. Napoli dropped off after injuries in November and losing key players such as Victor Osimhen and Andre-Franck Zambo Anguissa in January as they travelled to Cameroon to take part in the African Cup of Nations. Simone Inzaghi was still finding his feet at a big club when Napoli were soaring till November but the Nerazzurri were more than ready to take over the top spot from Napoli during the turn of the year and it looked like they would win the Scudetto again. 

Milan, though, were staying within touching distance of Inter as they had to navigate injury issues of their own. Mike Maignan missed a month in Autumn through wrist surgery. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has barely played in the last 4 months. Simon Kjaer was ruled out for the season after tearing his ACL in early January while star defender, Fikayo Tomori, had to fix his meniscus in his left knee. Even after all that, Milan managed to stay consistent on the pitch and their results guaranteed that they would stay within touching distance of their rivals. 

The turning point in their route to the Scudetto was when Olivier Giroud turned the Milan derby around on its head within a matter of seconds. Inter were in a comfortable 1-0 lead, and looked like they were going to run away with the win, and eventually, the Scudetto. Giroud’s quickfire brace resulted in a 2-1 win for the Rossoneri and then the title race was truly on. Ionut Radu’s mistake against Bologna in Inter’s game in hand in late April was the final nail in the coffin in this title race for Inter. Milan’s consistency, after that, ensured the Scudetto will come back to the red side of Milan this season. 

Milan’s fall from grace 

To fully gauge how Milan have won the title this season, we have to back up a bit. When Milan last won the Scudetto in 2011, it can probably be seen as the beginning of the end. Milan lost Gattuso, Nesta and the omnipresent Seedorf. Kaka made his way to Spain to practice his trade with Real Madrid. Milan’s legendary owner, Silvio Berlusconi, just could not keep up with the financial strength of the big clubs in Europe. 

Milan still had a good squad in early 2010s and Massimiliano Allegri was a very competent manager. However, after Berlusconi’s tax scandal in 2013 coupled with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva’s departures to PSG and Allegri moving to manage Juventus in the span of 2 years close to the scandal, Milan went into free fall. Berlusconi was still one of the richest owners in Europe but there is still uncertainty of why the investment dried up post 2011. Reports suggest he was advised against investing money in the football club owing to the corruption charges and political reasons. In the end, Berlusconi sold the club to a Chinese consortium in 2017. 

Following Allegri’s departure in 2014, Milan recorded 2 of their worst finishes in Serie A history with them dropping down as low as 10th in the 2014-15 season. A giant of Italian football had fallen and it looked a long way back to the top from the situation they were facing with a club high in debt. It was reported that Milan were facing a €91.1M loss in the financial year of 2014. 

In 2017, Chinese investor Li Yonghong, bought 99.93% stake in AC Milan and the Rossoneri Sport Investment Lux became the parent company of the club. Li took out a loan of €303M from American hedge fund Elliott Management Corporation to go through with the acquisition of AC Milan. By July 2018, Li failed to keep with the repayments of his loan and eventually the Rossoneri Sport Investment Lux was removed as the parent company of the club with all the control now going with the Elliott Management corp. 

Till 2017, Milan were a club with 0 stability. They had as many as 5 managers in 3 years until Gennaro Gattuso came back to the club as a manager replacing Vincenzo Montella. Gattuso defied expectations and did much better than what was expected of him. Milan spent the majority of the 2018-19 season in the top 4. However, Milan stumbled towards the end and finished 5th and Gattuso resigned after failing to make it to Champions League football. Marco Giampaolo was hired from Sampdoria to be Gattuso’s replacement. But his reign lasted only 4 months and was sacked after 4 losses in his first 7 games and fans were not at all convinced with the manager. Stefano Pioli was hired as his replacement and a new era began. 

Pioli and Maldini era

Paolo Maldini will always remain a Milan legend. Ever since the downfall started in 2011, Milan have been flirting with the idea of bringing back Maldini at the club in some capacity. However, Maldini has continued to decline the approaches up until 2018, when sporting director Leonardo hired Maldini to become the head of strategic development at the club. It came as a surprise to Maldini when Leonardo announced his departure from Milan while naming Maldini as his successor.  Maldini was unsure about his new job but learned as the time passed and is now doing a stellar job. It was around the same time that Ivan Gazidis joined the club as the new CEO while Ricky Massara came in as the DOF a year later, truly commencing a new era at the club. 

“I didn’t feel safe having to negotiate with agents and clubs. Then I started having to do it myself and it became the most natural thing in the world. I figured out what to say and what not to say. How to change register based on the interlocutor, those with whom you need to speak clearly and those with whom you need to use more diplomacy. If you have always been in this world and you use common sense these things are very easy. And it’s nice to do them.” –  Maldini

Maldini’s philosophy as a sporting director is the same as it was when he donned the no.3 shirt at the San Siro – Nothing is more important than AC Milan. There is a clear pattern of his philosophy coming into play as he never caves into a player’s demands. The most recent example of this being the departure of Gianluigi Donnarumma. Milan offered Donnarumma a new contract and a wage hike but it was not enough for the Italian goalkeeper. Normally, one would be tempted to offer one of their best players whatever they want in order to keep them at the club. However, Milan and Maldini didn’t cave into the demands of their player and as the deadline for Donnarumma to extend his contract came near, the club called the 23-year old to inform him that they have signed a new goalkeeper in Mike Maignan. And thus, Donnarumma went to PSG. 

Franck Kessie and Hakan Calhanoglu have experienced a similar fate to that of Donnarumma. Calhanoglu switched colours and joined Inter in the summer on a free transfer. The Ivorian may have scored the goal that sealed the title, but he will be on his way to Barcelona when his contract expires in June. Milan, in this new era, have elected to go with a data-driven recruitment approach. The club feels like every player is replaceable through the correct scouting and correct analysis. In fact, one of Maldini’s first signings as a sporting director was the French left-back Theo Hernandez. Maldini flew to Ibiza to convince the Frenchman to join Milan and while Hernandez first struggled, he is now shining and has formed one of Europe’s best left-flank partnerships with Rafael Leao. 

There are many examples as to why this data driven approach has worked for AC Milan. The Rossoneri have recently adapted to a counter-pressing, fast transition system. Winning the ball back in such situations is very crucial and something Milan were struggling with when the opposition bypassed their midfield press. Hence, Milan signed Fikayo Tomori from Chelsea. Tomori’s aggressive front foot defending coupled with his athleticism has helped the club to improve on their existing system and progress even further as a team. 

Many other signings have gone under the radar at Milan. Alexis Salamaekers has proved to be a very useful outlet on the right flank. Rafael Leao and Sandro Tonali have shrugged off their initial struggles and are now flourishing. Mike Maignan has replaced Donnarumma seamlessly. Almost to a point where the departure of a superstar player has not affected Milan at all. The versatile Pierre Kalulu has formed a formidable partnership with Tomori so as to a point where Milan are wondering whether they even need a new centre-back. Brahim Diaz had barely played before his loan move to Milan in 2020 but has improved massively and is showing signs of replacing Calhanoglu as the primary creator in the final third. 

One signing that has helped them massively has been Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Often, you would see veterans and legends going to big clubs in the twilight of their careers and helping the team strive on and off the pitch at the same time. Ibrahimovic had a similar impact at Manchester United. If we don’t count Ibrahimovic, Giroud and Tatarusanu, Milan have the youngest squad in the Serie A. Ibrahimovic has come in, and has helped this fairly young side find their way and improve themselves as footballers. A true leader of the pack, Ibrahimovic’s impact upon his return, which saw him score 15 Serie A goals in 18 games, set the tone for others to improve as footballers. His presence and return also helped to take the pressure off from the young shoulders of his teammates, allowing them to work and better themselves in silence. A type of personality that everyone gravitates towards, signing Zlatan, even considering his age, has helped Milan massively.

As for Stefano Pioli, this Scudetto will feel like vindication. From the very first day that Pioli was appointed as the manager for Milan, he was doubted. The hashtag #PioliOut was trending on Twitter on the first day that he was appointed and he has been doubted every step of the way since. From an outside perspective, the 56 year old always seemed like a stop-gap solution rather than a long term one, something Milan were lacking for a while with their constant chop and change of managers. In fact, Pioli’s form till the COVID-19 outbreak in March 2020 didn’t convince Ivan Gazidis that he is the man to take the team forward. So much so, all the steps were taken by the CEO to appoint Ralf Rangnick as the manager and sporting director starting from the 2020-21 season. Which would’ve put Maldini’s tenure in threat as well. 

You could hardly blame fans for doubting Pioli when he was first appointed, though. The Italian’s track record doesn’t really inspire a lot of people. However, after football resumed in June 2020, Pioli’s Milan were flying and he did enough to convince Gazidis that the current structure in place is the right way to go forward. 

Maldini, though, always trusted Pioli. And he always trusted players with rocky starts too. Theo Hernandez, Rafael Leao, Sandro Tonali, have all experienced rough starts to their life in Milan ever since they were brought into the club. But, with a crystal clear recruitment policy of buying players who suited the team more than anything else, along with Stefano Pioli bringing the best out of them, Milan have been making positive strides towards getting back to the top. Milan finished 5th in Pioli’s first season, and secured European football after their 2-year ban in the previous seasons. Pioli’s Milan followed that up with a 2nd placed finish last season, in a typical Antonio Conte style league domination season with Inter.

For sure, Milan’s group stage exit in the Champions League this season might have helped them and Milan could still do with more players in terms of squad depth. In fact, if you’d ask Maldini, he would say this Scudetto was earlier than what was mapped in their project. Nonetheless, in a football world dominated by who throws the most money, Milan have proved that their reluctance to bow down to player power and their data-driven approach for recruitment can still achieve success. 

“At Milan, they only remember the players who won the Scudetto or the Champions League ”, Ibrahimovic said. “If we want to be remembered, we have two games left, let’s give it our all.” Zlatan promised a title upon his return to Milan. And he delivered. Pioli went from ‘Pioli out’ to ‘Pioli’s on fire.’

For only the third time in this century, Milan are champions of Italy. 

FM Predicts: Erik ten Hag at Manchester United

Unless you have been living under a rock, you must have come across the news that the Dutchman, Erik ten Hag will be the first team manager of Manchester United come the 2022/23 season. Ten Hag has signed a 3 year contract with United, with an option to extend another year. United fans seem to be chuffed about this appointment and so are we at The Devil’s DNA. 

Considering the fact that 30% of my adult life has gone into playing this game, and the editor feature available, I decided to put Erik ten Hag in charge of Manchester United from the 2022/23 season on the game and simulate a few seasons to get an idea of how he gets along in his new role (virtually). 

A few notes before we deep dive into the details of this simulation. I made ten Hag the manager at Manchester United starting from the 2022 season. I also cleared out Chris Armas, Mike Phelan, and a few other coaches. I was not able to find Mitchell van der Gaag in the game for some reason so he did not join ten Hag as an assistant manager at Manchester United. I also ran this sim a few times for testing purposes and noticed that Paul Pogba was signing a new contract in every one of them. So, I made a change using the editor so that Pogba doesn’t sign a new contract in order to make this a bit realistic. I also made sure that Lingard, Matic, and Mata leave the club in July of 2022 using the same feature. Finally, it has been widely reported that ten Hag will get a significant budget to rebuild the team at Old Trafford so I also gave him a budget of £200m. 

So, Erik ten Hag, the chosen one, the tactical one, the sensible one (?). The one who has been given the task to rebuild the commercial entity otherwise known as Manchester United Football Club. Let’s now take a look at how the virtual Erik ten Hag got on at Old Trafford. 

First things first, FM22 obviously starts with the 2021/22 season so the first season was simulated on this save with Rangnick as the manager. I also made sure using the editor that United doesn’t sign anyone new or sell anyone and the rebuilding is totally left up to the Dutchman. In the first season, Manchester United finished 4th with Champions League football going into ETH’s first season. Pretty unrealistic if you ask me. 

Anyway, Its just a game. Ten Hag now has the world at his feet, he has everything he could’ve wished for. A 200m budget, De Gea with a contract extension, one of the best players in the world and since this is a game, he doesn’t have the Glazers holding him back. It should be easy to rebuild from here, right?

…….. Uh, maybe not. 

I am sorry, but WHAT? What is that window? Ralf Rangnick didn’t spend countless press conferences saying that we need 500 new players for this. Sir Alex Ferguson didn’t bring Cristiano Ronaldo back for this. Roy Keane and Paul Scholes didn’t almost break down on National TV for this.

Don’t get me wrong, Christian Eriksen is a solid, solid player and Luka Jovic also makes a good backup option but if this happened in real life, I am sure 99% of our fanbase would be disappointed. Especially considering the fact that Manchester City are signing…. KYLIAN MBAPPE on a free transfer. Liverpool made moves to add Franck Kessie to an already world class team. And the best we could do was Christian Eriksen on a free transfer? 

Anyway, just like a 16 year old after his first heartbreak in high school, we have to move on. ETH’s first game in charge is against Leeds United. Raphinha and Rodrigo score in the first 14 mins and United are losing 2-0. A warm Premier League welcome for the Dutchman. But this is a new era, a new Manchester United, a new messiah, and Erik ten Hag proves he is worthy of spearheading this new era after an inspired comeback which sees his Manchester United team score 3 goals and win the game 3-2. The next game against Chelsea is also a high-scoring one, a 4-3 win. Jorginho gets sent off for the visitors, Eriksen gets injured in the second minute, Maguire gets sent off for the home side and McTominay picks up a red in the 90th minute. United end the match with 9 men but still manage to win the match 4-3. 

I simulated this save till December and Ten Hag’s Manchester United were 4th in the table with only 3 losses and wins against Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea. Ten Hag also managed to come second in the Champions League group but a showdown clash against AC Milan to decide the 2nd qualifying team awaited. Which United won 3-1 and successfully qualified for the RO16 of the Champions League. 

Now, hand to your heart, most Manchester United fans would take this after 15 games. A boxing day clash against Liverpool at Old Trafford awaits us. But, that game ended up in heartbreak for Manchester United. Fabinho opened the scoring for the visitors early in first half while Roberto Firmino doubled the lead after a rabona assist from Mo Salah down the right wing. 2-0 at HT. United did manage to pull one back early in the second half through Marcus Rashford and threatened the Liverpool goal more often than not but it wasn’t enough. At least the performance was good. Encouraging signs. 

January was a good month for Erik ten Hag. He somehow managed to convince Erling Haaland that he, indeed, is going to bring the glory days back at the red side of Manchester. Dortmund weren’t that friendly though, and they got a hefty sum from Manchester United – 130m Great British Pounds. Nikola Milenkovic was added for extra security in the defence considering the fact that Harry Maguire once picked up a red card, served his suspension and again picked up a red card in the first game after his suspension was lifted. Sebastian Bornauw also came in from Wolfsburg to shore up the defence considering Victor Lindelof’s exit to Atletico Madrid. Bornauw was part of a player exchange deal with Donny van de Beek going the other way. Somewhere in UK, Mark Goldbridge is bawling his eyes out as we speak. ETH also managed to sell Alex Telles (god bless us) to Fiorentina. 

United aren’t doing too badly either. Maintaining a consistent form and solidifying their place in top 4. Liverpool and City are well away in the distance but promising signs so far. The Dutchman might be onto something. 

Although, Erik ten Hag now faces the biggest test of his tenure so far. A RO16 CL clash against the defending champions Bayern Munich. 

After a 1-0 loss at Old Trafford it all comes down to the clash at the Allianz Arena in the reverse leg. Jadon Sancho scores early in the second half but Bayern Munich recover through Robert Lewandowski. Manchester United bow out of the Champions League in the first knockout stage. At least this time United fans were happier for more than 22 seconds. 

Just like Newton’s cradle, United’s form swings back and fourth after the CL exit against Bayern Munich to the end of the season. Unsurprisingly, United drop down to 5th in the table and it all comes down to the final day of the season. The Red devils are level on points with Chelsea but have a poorer goal difference. United need to better Chelsea’s result against Leeds United while they face Newcastle United away from home. 

Unfortunately, Manchester United fall short on the final day of the season. Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City juggernaut continues to roll as they win yet another Premier League. 

But hey, it’s alright. We all knew it was going to get bad before it gets good. Why do we fall down, Bruce? So we can get back up again. You only know the importance of light when you have lived in the dark. You only miss the sun when it starts… okay that’s excessive and I apologize. 

Anyway, we keep the 16-year-old high schooler in our minds and we move on. 

I am going to speed this up a bit now. We simulated till the 1st of September to see how the summer transfer window unfolded and my oh my, what am I seeing here? Is this real? Well, it is not actually, it is a virtual simulation but I cannot believe my eyes. 

Manchester United have signed not 1 but 2, TWO Defensive midfielders. Leandro Paredes joins in from PSG and AURELIEN TCHOUAMENI joins in from Monaco. The countless hours spent on getting the event data, the countless days spent on drawing up the midfield shortlist, the countless weeks spent on writing about Tchouameni are all now worth it. We used to pray for times like these. Albeit the times are through a video game. 

Ten Hag is absolutely flying as well. A 4-0 win against Burnley and a 2-0 win against Southampton in his first two games. 

19 games in and the previous statement can still be considered true. Erik ten Hag’s Manchester United are 2nd in the table. 7 points behind Manchester City currently spearheaded by Kylian Mbappe. United also absolutely dominated their Europa League group and are also in the semi-finals of the EFL Cup. Whisper it quietly, but has it actually gone good after it went bad? Have we actually found the messiah? Are Manchester United…. Back?

United didn’t make that many moves in the Jan transfer window but there were some outgoings. Scott McTominay went to Juventus and Brandon Williams went to Arsenal. 

This is the revamped Manchester United squad by Erik ten Hag. Some questionable transfers but not a bad rebuild if I am being honest. 

Annnndddd, we are back to normal. Manchester United absolutely bottle their strong run of form in the second half of the season and end up finishing 5th in the Premier League. United also lost the EFL Cup semi-final to Liverpool, lost in the FA Cup third round vs Liverpool, and also lost the Europa League semi-final against Atletico Madrid. Looks like 5th is the level/threshold for Erik ten Hag

Aston Villa, led by Brendan Rodgers, finish 4th. Burnley finish 7th with Wout Weghorst winning the Premier League golden boot with 25 goals. Manchester City, led by Jurgen Klopp now (yes, you read that right), again win the Premier League. 

Maybe now it actually gets good after it has already gone bad. It is the hope that kills you, honestly. 

We go into the third season with new, refined hope. Hope that maybe, just maybe Erik ten Hag has now turned this around. I simulated till the 1st of September 2024 and here are the results of the transfer window.

The big one obviously is Raphael Varane’s departure to Chelsea. Andre Onana, by the looks of it, is now the first choice keeper. McNeil and Calvert-Lewin are also in as backups. This season, ten Hag has again started well. 3 wins out of 3, 8 goals scored, 0 conceded, and 1st in the table. Is this our year?

Okay, I am getting Deja vu now. The red devils are again 3rd by the halfway stage of the season. 7 points behind Manchester City in first and they have once again completely dominated their Europa League group with 6 wins in 6. United lost the quarter-finals of the EFL cup to Aston Villa. Aston Villa are also 2nd in the Premier League table. Brendan Rodgers doing a great job over there. United were linked with him before they hired ten Hag. I will leave it up to you to draw conclusions. 

Not much to report from the Jan window. United signed Frederik Bjorkan from Rennes as a LB backup while Alex Sandro, Harry Maguire, Ethan Laird, Kobbie Mainoo, and Hannibal all departed the club on a permanent basis. 

IT HAS HAPPENED. IT HAS FINALLY HAPPENED. Erik ten Hag qualifies for the Champions League by coming 4th in the Premier League. He also ends Manchester United’s 7 year trophy drought by winning the FA Cup after a 2-1 win over Sergio Conceicao’s Chelsea. Unfortunately, United lost to eventual winners Arsenal in the Europa League semi final. Arsenal’s first European trophy was won under the leadership of Diego Simeone. The Manchester City juggernaut continues as Jurgen Klopp’s team makes it a 5th title in a row. Will they ever be stopped? Oh, and Julian Nagelsmann’s Bayern Munich won their 3rd Champions League trophy in 4 years in 2025. 

I was initially going to simulate only 3 seasons but since ten Hag has finally managed to get CL football, we will simulate one more season and see what happens. 

Manchester United signed Dejan Kulusevski from Juventus for a whopping 110m pounds. No other significant ins or outs in the 4th season. United manage to climb up to 3rd in the Premier League by the end of January and win their Champions League group. Not a bad season so far. 

Here is a quick little squad update:

I feel like the same type of seasons are repeating now. Manchester United finish 4th in the Premier League and lose out in the quarter finals of the Champions League to PSG. Manchester City make it 6 in a row. Fiorentina win the Europa League while PSG win the Champions League. That is 3 seasons in a row where Manchester United have gone out of European competitions to the eventual winner. 

In domestic cups, Manchester United lost 3-1 to their neighbours, Manchester City in the quarter finals of the FA Cup. However, Erik ten Hag managed to win the second domestic cup in 2 seasons for Manchester United after winning the EFL Cup, defeating Chelsea (again) in the finals. 

So there you have it. In 4 seasons, Erik ten Hag finished 5th, 5th, 4th and 4th. A CL RO16 appearance and a CL quarter final appearance. 2 Europa League semi-final appearances. 1 FA Cup, 1 EFL Cup in 4 seasons. Make of that what you will. I, for one, would be hoping that the real life ten Hag does better than the virtual one. 

PS: If you want this save file then do contact us on twitter and we will send it to you. 

Search For A Manager: Mauricio Pochettino

Following a disappointing and a rather frustrating exit against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League RO16, Manchester United have shifted their focus towards appointing a new permanent manager for the 2022-23 season. The new manager will be replacing the outgoing Ralf Rangnick, who will be moving to a new consultancy role. According to various sources, Manchester United have narrowed down the role to four candidates –  Erik ten Hag, Luis Enrique, Julen Lopetegui and Mauricio Pochettino. However, it has also been widely reported that the Spanish duo from the shortlist are considered outsiders for the job as Enrique is preparing himself for the World Cup with Spain and Lopetegui is reluctant to leave Sevilla. 

So, it ultimately comes down to two – Erik ten Hag and Mauricio Pochettino. United have held talks with both of the candidates and are now expected to conduct further talks with both of them. We have already covered the Dutchman in this series (Here) so today, we will turn our focus to the Argentine, Mauricio Pochettino.

Background

Pochettino began his managerial career in January 2010 with Espanyol in Spain, where he was a player for many years during his playing career. He was their third manager of the 2009-10 season and took over when the team was last in the league table. The Argentinean had no prior coaching experience and had only recently completed his UEFA pro license when he became the manager of Espanyol. 

His first game was against the high-flying FC Barcelona led by Pep Guardiola in the Copa del Rey. A difficult test but one which Pochettino passed with flying colours and pulled off an unexpected 0-0 draw showing a great intent to press and play an attractive style of play despite only being able to take 2 training sessions before the game. Espanyol finished that season comfortably in mid-table under Pochettino and that was the trend that continued till the end of his Espanyol tenure. 

Indeed, The Argentinean manager started the way he intended to continue. Espanyol quickly developed a reputation for playing a high-pressing, attractive style of football. Pochettino earned plaudits for his style of play from the media and fans in Spain. The 50 year old also received praise for his extensive use of the academy and the way he developed young players. He showed very little signs of changing his approach to management when he came to England in 2013 to replace Nigel Adkins at St.Mary’s stadium. 

Pochettino guided Southampton to 8th in his first season, their best finish in PL history (Bettered by Koeman the following season), getting wins over Liverpool and defending champions, Manchester City. Pochettino’s good work at Southampton earned him a job in London as the manager of Tottenham Hotspur.

We all know about his work at Spurs, finishing 5th, 3rd, 2nd (highest points tally in Spurs history), 3rd, 4th during his 5 year spell at the club and a Champions League final. Taking them from a club constantly chopping and changing with 0 stability to Champions League football mainstays. Many regard Pochettino’s spell at Spurs as an overachievement as he was always working on a budget and had very less spending capabilities compared to the other ‘big 6’ PL clubs. 

Pochettino made some big calls during his tenure at the club which worked out very well for him, such as dropping the Spaniard Roberto Soldado in favour of young Englishman, Harry Kane. I don’t need to elaborate more on this but it was definitely a gamble at the time. So was playing Dele Alli, straight from League One into the PL. He may not be living upto the promise he showed earlier in his career but we all know just how good Dele was when he first came onto the scene and Pochettino was a big part of that. He also earned praise for playing some of the most attractive football in Europe whilst continuing with his high-pressing philosophy. 

His great work at Spurs earned him a job at PSG, replacing the German Thomas Tuchel in 2020. It is a bit tricky to judge Pochettino’s time in the French capital as they have underperformed under him in the Champions League and even in the league when Christoph Galtier’s Lille pipped them to the title in 2021. PSG have been dominant in the league this season but went out of the Champions League RO16 at the expense of Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid – a massive underachievement as many people would have had them as one of the favourites looking at the transfer window they had where they signed Gianluigi Donnarumma, Achraf Hakimi, Sergio Ramos, Giorgino Wijnaldum and a certain Lionel Messi. PSG’s internal politics make it difficult to judge a manager but even then, PSG’s performances this season have often been underwhelming and contrary to Spurs, one can definitely make a case that Mauricio Pochettino is somewhat underachieving at PSG. 

Style of Play

Now, let’s get down to Pochettino’s style of play. As mentioned previously and is very widely known, Pochettino likes to play a high pressing, attacking, attractive style of football. Today, we will be looking at the 2016-17 Tottenham Hotspur team as that was the peak of Pochettino’s spell at White Hart Lane and his stint at PSG so far to understand what we can expect if he becomes the next Manchester United manager

Mauricio Pochettino used 2 main formations at Tottenham during his 5 year spell with the club, namely 4-2-3-1 and a 3-4-2-1. During the 16/17 season he mainly used these formations to implement his style of play and with the help of Eric Dier, who was capable of playing in the midfield and at Centre-Back, Pochettino was able to switch between these formations during games as well. 

Spurs mainly lined up like this in a 4-2-3-1. During buildup, Eric Dier used to drop into the backline creating a 3-4-2-1 formation with the fullbacks pushing up the field and Eriksen dropping in centrally from the RW leaving Son, Dele and Harry Kane as the narrow front 3. Something like this:

Pochettino emphasizes on his teams to build patiently from the back and Dier or Wanyama acting like a halfback allowed Spurs to have a numerical advantage while building up play from the back. Fullbacks used to push forward and provide width allowing Spurs to retain their main attacking threats centrally and closer to goal. All Spurs fullbacks during that time(Rose, Walker, Trippier, Davies) were comfortable at having the ball at their feet and progressing the ball, so Pochettino could easily trust them to do the job if Spurs were shut out centrally. 

The main creative outlets during buildup were the makeshift midfield duo of Christian Eriksen and Mousa Dembele. Dembele, arguably the best ball carrier in the PL at that time coupled with the intelligence and elegance of Eriksen made it very difficult for the opposition to stop Spurs from centrally progressing the ball. Due to their flexible team shape and Eriksen’s positional intelligence, Spurs used to form a 3-2-5 shape during buildup. 

As you can see over here, Spurs used to form a 5-man block centrally with Son and Dele occupying the half spaces which allowed them to overload the opposition midfield at times and play through centrally. Eriksen, being one of the best playmakers in the league, used to find spaces in the right-half channel and was able to dictate play and create chances thanks to the midfield superiority Spurs used to gain due to their flexible tactical shape. He scored 12 goals and assisted 21 in all competitions that season. Eriksen was, no pun intended, the heartbeat of this team.  

All their attackers were equally capable of playing in between the lines and behind the lines. Dele was the perfect Shadow Striker to complement Kane with his late runs into the box and his ability to find spaces in the final third made him one of the standout players for Tottenham that campaign. He scored 22 goals and assisted a further 10 in all competitions that season. Indeed, one of the most influential players in the Spurs squad at that time. 

And of course, who can forget the record breaking duo of Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son. Kane scored 35 goals in all competitions that season with Son scoring 24. Thanks to the positional rotations between the front 3 of Kane, Son and Dele, Spurs were able to develop a fluid trio up front. As mentioned previously, all of them were equally capable of dropping in behind and making runs in behind allowing Spurs to have plenty of goalscoring options even if some of them were to be nullified by the opposition. 

Pochettino was able to turn the Spurs team into a talented, well-drilled and an exciting team to watch. They scored the most goals and conceded the least in the PL in 2016-17. Their campaign of 86 points was only bettered by the then record-breaking Antonio Conte’s Chelsea. One could make a strong case that the 16-17 Spurs were one of the best PL teams to not win the title. 

At PSG, Pochettino has faced a different challenge with a team of superstars at his disposal. He has used a 4-3-3 and a 4-2-3-1 at PSG with the same principles as his Spurs side – Numerical advantages, quick attacking transitions, fullbacks providing width and wide players moving inside the half spaces. Neymar and Messi join the attack from the right and left and are given freedom to do what they do best. Mbappe is often the leader of the front 3 with him constantly making runs and playing on the shoulder of the defenders and looking for through balls from Messi and Neymar. Hakimi and Mendes, both can be considered as attacking fullbacks and are good going forward and providing width to the team shape. Verratti, if fit, one of the best midfielders in Europe, adds press-resistance and deep progression to the team making this an excellent team on paper. 

Now, let’s talk about the major weakness Manchester United can face if they hire Pochettino and that is – Pressing. Being a disciple of Marcelo Bielsa, it is easy to see why Pochettino is so press-oriented in his approach to the team. But, this can prove to be a potential weakness in teams whose attackers do not like to press. 

Pochettino’s teams usually press in a 4-4-1-1 with the wide players occupying the opposition fullbacks and they press heavily in wide areas and in areas which would force the opposition to go back or play to an isolated player on the flanks. The striker, winger and the fullback all converge on the opposition wide player at the same time, while one of the midfielders drops deeper to cover the fullback. This is what mainly Pochettino’s style of pressing is, gaining numerical advantages by certain pressing triggers and creating a swarm of players around the opposition players. The Argentinean, however, doesn’t like to create pressing traps or even a structured pressing pattern. 

This worked well at Spurs where he had willing pressers of the ball in Son, Alli, Eriksen and even Kane but this is also why it hasn’t worked that well at PSG. And it could prove the same at Old Trafford since we can draw many similarities between PSG and Manchester United. Both teams have less-than willing pressers in the attack, both teams look heavily undercoached and both have assembled a squad of superstars who don’t necessarily fit well with each other. 

Pochettino’s suitability with Manchester United

Predicting how Pochettino may line-up at Manchester United is dependent on a lot of factors currently, of which, we don’t know the outcome to such as Pogba’s contract, Ronaldo’s future, Rashford’s future and the new signings that will be joining the club in the summer. 

But, we can at least get an idea of what he needs to implement his style of play if we draw a parallel between his best Spurs team and current United team. He would need good ball-playing centre backs which I think Manchester United have got it covered. Fullbacks pushing high and wide, probably would need an upgrade on Wan-Bissaka but Shaw, Dalot and Telles can do that for him (Although, the Brazilian left back shouldn’t for completely different reasons). He needs a deeper-lying midfielder to provide balance between defence and attack, not necessarily do the half back role as Dier or Wanyama but stay behind while the attackers do their thing. Basically, a DM and if you follow Manchester United in any capacity, you would know that they have been crying out for a DM since eternity. A creative midfielder and a B2B  – Bruno and Fred are the most suited to this role. And versatile attackers where Manchester United may need a ST and possibly a RW. 

So, a RW, ST, DM and a RB if we assume Rashford and Ronaldo both stay at the club. A transfer window which is definitely not unachievable. 

From a broader perspective, Pochettino seems like a perfect manager for Manchester United. He likes to develop young players and use the youth academy extensively which falls in place with United’s philosophy. He likes to play front-foot attack-oriented football while using quick transitions which again is in line with how they have played historically. He is a ruthless man-manager, if players don’t show him loyalty then he does not hesitate to kick them out which is, once again, something we have always seen a Scotsman do at Manchester United. 

But, Manchester United’s biggest problem with this squad is that they look heavily undercoached. Almost all players bar Fred and DDG having poor seasons has not helped either. This is a situation which is similar to Pochettino’s PSG and while they are dominating their domestic leagues, they falter at the big stage as they look a bit raw compared to other top teams and that’s what makes the difference in the big moments. The Argentinian’s style of swarm-pressing may prove to be the difference in big moments as the current crop of players at Manchester United aren’t the best pressers of the ball. 

All in all, Mauricio Pochettino will not be a bad appointment at all. He checks 4/5 boxes and is in accordance with the high-pressing philosophy Manchester United want to supposedly develop considering their appointment of Rangnick. While parts of his tactical ideologies may prove to be a hindrance, there is no doubt that Pochettino will be able to develop an identity to Manchester United’s style of play, and lift these players up who look bereft of confidence currently. 

Mauricio Pochettino will have his work cut out for him if he joins Manchester United, but so did he have it at Spurs and he was able to successfully build a long-lasting legacy over there. Here is hoping that he does something similar if he does get the job of becoming the next Manchester United manager. 

Why de Gea isn’t a long term solution

So far this season, Manchester United have changed 3 managers, struggled to gather any type of momentum and produced a string of subpar performances. After what has undoubtedly been an underwhelming first half of the season for Manchester United, only a select few players can make a case for being consistent throughout an abysmal run of form. David de Gea is one of them. The Spaniard has been consistent throughout this run of poor form, pulling out saves directly from the top drawer and winning matches on his own for the Red Devils. The type of form all Manchester United fans have always associated de Gea with from 3 years ago. 

In this piece, we will talk about how David de Gea’s abilities may not exactly complement Manchester United’s plans.

We will be analyzing 4 aspects of David de Gea in this piece, namely his shot-stopping, sweeping, distribution and overall command over the area. We would also be comparing his stats with Dean Henderson to give more of an objective view. 

Shot-Stopping

David de Gea has made 71 saves so far this season, with a 72% save percentage. The Spaniard has a PsxG-GA of +6 stat, meaning he has conceded 6 goals less than what has been expected of him. To put this into context, De Gea had a PsxG-GA of +9 in the whole of 2017-18 season, one of his best seasons in a United shirt. All the statistics and the ‘eye test’ suggest that the Spaniard is back to his best in terms of shot-stopping. 

If we compare this to other goalkeepers in this league, we can clearly see that de Gea has been one of the best shot-stoppers in the league.

Dean Henderson hasn’t played much this season but if we see his stats from the two seasons he played the most i.e 2019-20 for Sheffield United and 2020-21 for Manchester United, we can see that he is not a slouch when it comes to shot-stopping.

But is shot-stopping the only thing that matters for a Goalkeeper? 

Even though shot-stopping still remains one of the most important aspects of being a goalkeeper, the answer to the aforementioned question is no. In modern football, where the majority of the teams depend on building their attacks from the back and also depend on starting their defending from the front in terms of pressing the ball and winning it back, other aspects such as composure, passing and most importantly, sweeping are just as important as shot-stopping.

Distribution

In modern day football, distribution is a key aspect of a Keeper’s game. A few years ago, a keeper having good distribution may have been a luxury, but now, and going forward, it is a necessity. More and more teams are modeling their game around building attacks from the back and being patient and methodical to beat the opposition’s press. The fundamental thing while building up from the back is attracting the opposition press and beating it thus creating enough space for the midfielders to function. 

If we look at how Ederson plays for Manchester City then we can understand how crucial it is for a keeper to have good distribution and composure on the ball to build-up play. Ederson is arguably one of the best goalkeepers in terms of sweeping and passing but what makes him so good is his ability to pick out the right passes, beat the opposition press and help his team progress the ball further up the pitch. David de Gea’s distribution is a major weakness in his overall ability. 

In this instance, Matic makes a long pass back to De Gea. Telles makes himself available for the ball as seen below but de Gea takes a touch in the opposite direction and ends up kicking it long. 

Result: United lose possession as Greenwood is beaten in the air by Digne

Another instance when Telles was in lots of space and calling for the ball but the Spaniard again decides to kick it long, resulting in Manchester United losing possession  

Now here is arguably his worst moment from the match. He receives the ball at 53:50, keeps the ball for another 10 secs as no Aston Villa player was pressing him. Varane and Lindelof are available for a pass where he can pass it to them, re-adjust as to attract the press from Aston Villa players and then look for Matic through the middle for either of the fullbacks enabling him to beat Aston Villa’s first line of defence. 

Instead, de Gea holds the ball for too long and then eventually kicks it straight to the Villa player resulting in United losing possession of the ball. 

There was one moment in the match where de Gea did well. Here, Varane passes the ball back to De Gea. Lindelof gets wide to provide a passing option but instead de Gea picks a clever pass through the middle of the pitch to Fred, thus beating the Villa press.

Fred passes it sideways, Telles picks up the ball and United progress the ball after beating Villa’s first line of defence. 

It may not seem like a big thing but these small things are important in what Rangnick has been banging on about since he came in: More control. 

Recycling the ball, keeping possession and beating the press in a patient, methodical way is very important to gain control of the matches. This is the reason why Pep Guardiola switched 3 goalkeepers in 3 years when he first came into Manchester City. In modern football, goalkeepers are just as important as the defenders in building play from the back and keeping up the momentum by recycling possession and thus helping the team to have more control of the games. Having more control over matches means that there are fewer opportunities for the opposition to have shots at the goal resulting in the team being less dependent on their goalkeeper to make saves. Making a large number of saves is not a good sign for the goalkeeper or his team. 

Of course, Manchester City is way more well-drilled in this regard than Manchester United are. There are also many instances when de Gea wants to pass to someone and the outfield players don’t offer him a viable option. But, it has to be considered that distribution is not De Gea’s best suit and that Dean Henderson’s distribution qualities are better.

Sweeping

Over the past few years, the ‘sweeper-keeper’ role has gained a lot more prominence. Teams have started playing a higher line of defence considering that their goalkeeper can leave his line, get out of the penalty box if required and sweep up any long balls coming their way. It has become a crucial aspect for teams to maintain their shape and momentum. 

Sweeping has always been a major weakness in David de Gea’s style of play. If we look at the stats below from his last two seasons, it is evident that he doesn’t offer much in terms of sweeping the ball.  

As it is evident from the graphs. David de Gea’s sweeping actions or the defensive actions outside the penalty area are among the lowest percentiles compared with all the other keepers in the league for the last two seasons. His shot-stopping is good but all the other aspects of being a goalkeeper are pretty much below average. 

If we compare his sweeping with all the other goalkeepers in the Premier League, it makes for a pretty grim reading. 

De Gea ranks among the lowest sweepers in the whole league. Alisson and Ederson, unsurprisingly, among the best. And even at a team like Burnley, Nick Pope is excelling as a sweeper-keeper proving that sweeping is an important aspect of goalkeeping despite the system. 

Now here are Dean Henderson’s stats for the 2020-21 season and also the 2019-20 season.

Dean Henderson averages a lot more sweeping actions per90 than his Spanish counterpart while  at Manchester United so it is fair to say that we can eliminate the possibility of it being down to coaching instructions. Even at Sheffield United, in a much more conservative team than Manchester United, Dean Henderson had more sweeping actions than DDG. 

If we are to jot it down, de Gea would be labeled as an ‘on-the-line’ keeper who doesn’t offer much movement outside the 6-yard box. That is fine if the team depends on low blocks and a deeper defensive line. But, if a team is married to playing a high defensive line, then the goalkeeper must have good capabilities in sweeping long balls behind the defence. De Gea falters a lot in that aspect and it is evident that Dean Henderson is a much better ‘sweeper-keeper’ than David de Gea. 

Command of the Box

Now, this is one aspect of goalkeeping that is not synonymous with being a modern-day goalkeeper. Having command over the 6-yard box was just as important 12 years ago as it is today. But what does it actually mean?

Having command over the box means how much of the area around the goal can the goalkeeper cover. It might mean being as loud as you can while commanding the defenders to take up areas that might be out of scope for the goalkeeper. It might mean adjusting your starting position depending on the type of cross that comes in order to give yourself the best chance of claiming it or punching it. 

Having command over the box is most helpful while defending set plays and/or playing against a team that depends a lot on their crossing or long balls into the box to create their chances. Claiming crosses helps a goalkeeper in having to make fewer saves as it is an outlet that completely kills the opposition attack. 

A constant dialogue between the defenders and the goalkeeper can go a long way in having control over the box. Defenders can control the areas as instructed by the keeper and the goalkeeper can make sure he can command an area that might be difficult for the defenders to control. 

David de Gea claims 4.2% of the total crosses attempted by the opposition which ranks him the lowest percentile of goalkeepers in the whole league for the 2021-22 season. 

As we can see, David De Gea’s ability to collect crosses is quite poor compared to his counterparts in the Premier League. 

We will once again compare Dean Henderson’s stats with David de Gea in this regard. 

If we look at the blue sections in the above graphs, we can see that Dean Henderson is much more proactive when in goal. He sweeps more, claims more crosses and has a better overall presence in the box as a goalkeeper. 

Ideally, a goalkeeper should not be required to make a lot of saves. Obviously, this depends more on the defence in front of him but in today’s day and age, the overall style of play of a goalkeeper has as much of an impact too. While Dean Henderson may not be as good of a shot-stopper as De Gea, his shot-stopping is still very good and the Englishman seems to be better at the other aspects than his Spanish counterpart. 

Coming back to his shot-stopping, this below viz, courtesy of Rahul ( @exceedingxpuns on Twitter), makes for an interesting reading.

If we closely look at De Gea’s trend, we could see that the Spaniard massively underperforms his shot-stopping capabilities when Manchester United seemed to have more control whereas he was over-performing when the Red Devils face a lot of shots. In short, when Manchester United had more control of the games, De Gea faltered but when United don’t seem to have control, De Gea outperforms himself. This could be taken as an indication that De Gea might not be the man to take Manchester United forward if they are aiming to control more games.

Conclusion

The first thing that Manchester United need to figure out is what style of play they want to implement in the team. If the club wants someone who can defend leads, is a bit more pragmatic in his approach and likes to play a deeper defensive line as their next manager, then David de Gea should retain his no.1 spot. Otherwise, if they want to go with a manager who likes to keep a high line, likes to press higher and control the game in the sense of having more of the ball, something which you can say is expected of a ‘top team’, then evidence suggests that Dean Henderson would be a better option going forward. 

Currently, Manchester United’s style of play does not suit David de Gea’s style of play. There are indeed a lot of other issues Manchester United have such as lacking a deeper-lying progressive midfielder and various structural issues which leaves the team vulnerable to counter-attacks. The Spaniard’s presence as a shot-stopper is proving to be somewhat of a positive currently. But, if Manchester United want to have more of a presence as a team that likes to play on the front foot, then Dean Henderson’s as the no.1 goalkeeper would be a bigger net positive for the Red Devils compared to his Spanish counterpart.