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)

Scout Report: Cody Gakpo

Since the announcement of Erik Ten Hag as Manchester United manager, a host of talents related to Ajax or Dutch football have dominated the transfer rumor mill. The summer window did include 3 former Ajax players and 1 Dutch international among the 6 incomings, so it’s probably not wrong to say that players whom Ten Hag is familiar with have a higher chance of being signed at this point. One such player who has dominated transfer reports and also the headlines for all the right reasons is Cody Gakpo.

Today we’ll be taking an in-depth look into Cody Gakpo’s profile, strengths, traits and fitment for Manchester United.

Player Details

Date of Birth: 07/05/1999
Position: LW/SS/CF/AM
Strong Foot: Right
Height: 1.89 m (6ft 2in)
Current contract start: Jan, 2022
Contract end date: June, 2026
Current Market Value: £32m

Career History

Cody was born in Eindhoven, and has since featured in every youth level for PSV Eindhoven. He made his debut for the famed Jong PSV in the 2016/17 season, but it was the 17/18 season for them where he scored 7 goals in 12 appearances that announced his arrival. He made the bench for the senior team at the end of that year. He regularly started making the bench for the senior side in the 18/19 season. By mid-season he was getting more gametime, and the hat-trick against Go Ahead Eagles in December 2018 catapulted him to first team regular. The 19/20 season saw him finally breakthrough at the senior level as he made 39 appearances for the PSV senior side and bagged 8 goals and 7 assists. Gakpo has only gone from strength to strength since that breakthrough year, boasting 21 goals and 13 assists in 47 appearances in the 21/22 season that saw him win the Dutch Footballer of the Year 2021-22. With many top clubs chasing him in summer 2022, Cody decided to remain at PSV and has started the 22/23 season in scintillating form, with 12 goals and 9 assists in just 15 appearances. A move to a top club seems inevitable at this point.

Position and movement

Gakpo’s position is often debated on Twitter, especially by Manchester United fans who hope he can play as a central striker. Let’s dive into that.

As per Transfermarkt, so far in his career, Gakpo has played LW 154 times, RW 20 times and CF/SS 19 times. This season, Gakpo has played LW in all his 15 appearances for PSV. But in his 5 appearances for Netherlands, he has played in a central role (CF/SS) 4 times. I analyzed his Eredivisie and Netherlands games of 22/23 for all the viz in this article. Here’s his pass reception map.

From the pass reception map, we can clearly see a touchline winger who loves to receive the ball wide. And this goes in line with what Gakpo does on the pitch. He loves to stay wide, away from crowded areas, receive the ball and then use his strong carrying to dribble inwards while looking for a breakthrough. In that sense, he is your typical isolation left winger who stays wide and loves to beat his man, or seeks the run on transition behind the defense line in the left half-space. But his starting point is usually on the left touchline.

Even if we consider the heat map of his Netherlands games in the Nations League where he has started in central positions for most part, this is how it looks:

Although there are some hotspots in central areas, there is still a clear left-leaning tendency. For example, in his latest game for the Netherlands, Gakpo lined up as an AM behind Depay and Bergwijn on paper, but was often found in LW areas to create a front 3 with Depay as the CF. He has an excellent burst into central areas when the CF drops to create space for him (similar to how Rashford or Salah ghost in when Martial or Firmino drop from a central area), but he rarely starts from a central position, preferring to stay wide and make the run when the space is created on the transition or through clever movement from a central player.

Carrying & Dribbling


Gakpo’s biggest strength is his carrying. He’s a very powerful dribbler of the ball, with a right mix of power, skill and pace helping him beat his man or dribble into dangerous areas constantly. It’s one of the main reasons why Gakpo is comfortable staying wide and waiting for his chance. It’s because he knows he has the skill and pace to cut inside and create havoc in the defensive shape with his dribbling. Here’s a chart of his progressive carries in a team sequence this season:


As you can see, a lot of them are in those high advanced positions on the left wing where Gakpo receives the ball. A direct correlation from the previous viz, one can almost see how each time Gakpo receives on the left wing touchline, he decides to progress inwards with the ball at his feet. He’s a very strong entrant into the penalty box, often carrying into the left half-space to force situations that defenses are uncomfortable to deal with. For reference of volume, his dribbles per 90 in Eredivisie was the same as Antony in 21/22.

Shooting & Goal-scoring

As discussed before, Gakpo’s scoring rate is phenomenal. He already has 54 goals in 150 appearances for PSV with 33 coming in the last 62 games. Below is the shotmap for this season:

What is expected based on the previous viz are the shots from the left half-space area. After carrying into the box from the left, he has the skill to test the keeper from that angle. 7 of the 11 goals shown here are from that area, while many other shots seem to test the keeper at the very least. This indicates a very consistent and reliable shooter from an angle that helps the right-footed player.

More than half of Gakpo’s goals are from this style of shooting after carrying into the danger area. Here are 2 examples.

In this example, Gakpo sees himself isolated against the fullback with space to cut into. Before the defence can recover, he has the power and strength to cut past the man and fire a far-post curler with precision.

In the above example, Gakpo once again finds himself 1v1 with space and is immediately able to cut past his man with a quick burst from a standing position to give himself the space to shoot. On this occasion, he pulls back his leg to unleash a Mbappe-esque drilled near post shot that beats the keeper cleanly. Once in those positions to shoot, he has the skill to pick between a far post curler and near post drilled shot. 


But what is also interesting is Gakpo’s shots from central and right-side areas. He has enough of them to speak about. These (and some of the left half-space shots too) are largely a byproduct of his excellent off-the-ball running when space is created in central areas. Gakpo has the awareness and movement to run into central areas behind the opposition defense when the chance presents itself. Let’s look at some examples of this movement. 

From the halfway line itself, Gakpo has the awareness to begin a strong run knowing that there is space behind the defense line to take advantage. He has the acceleration to cover that distance quickly as the ball is in the air and then the technique to control it and set himself up for a 1-on-1 with the keeper. Needless to say, this move ended up with him scoring.


In this sequence, Gakpo has the sense to drift into the central striker area when his CF drops to receive the ball. This is immediately noticed and one pass later, Gakpo finds himself with a straight angle to shoot, which he rarely misses from. 

Other than these 2 avenues of scoring, Gakpo also has a strong header thanks to his height and strong frame. Roughly 1 out of his 6 goals are from a strong header from the back post or in central areas, when the crosser is on the right side. Given his height, he should probably be more scoring headed goals.

Passing & Creativity

While primarily a dribbler and scorer, Gakpo also has decent passing technique. He has 37 assists in his career so far, which suggest a strong final ball. Here’s his progressive passes for this season.

A few things are clearly noticeable. The volume isn’t as high as his progressive carries, suggesting that he isn’t as progressive in his passing. Most of the progressive pases here also double as his key passes (passes that lead to shots) and assists. This indicates that he’s a very final ball focused player. From those positions in the left half-space, he is able to cross into good central areas for his teammates to score from. The disruption that is created thanks to his strong dribbling into the area from the left side, creates space for his teammates to score from when the defenders are attracted to Gakpo. This allows him to pick them on occasions when he isn’t able to score himself. Last season in the Eredivisie, the Eindhoven winger created 11 big chances and also averaged 2.6 key passes per 90 minutes played and that shows he’s capable of playing passes to split open defenses and create goal-scoring opportunities for his teammates.

In short, he isn’t a progressor from his passing in the true sense, with most of his creativity being of the final-ball variant after a strong carry to create space for others.

If we look at the expected threat of attackers from the 21/22 season for all the top 7 leagues’ attackers, Gakpo looks really good. For clarity, xT is the Increase in probability of scoring by a pass or carry.

While he delivers a higher threat from carries, his xT from passes is almost as high thanks to his strong final ball and advanced positions from where he plays those balls. Only a handful of attackers in Europe better him in either aspect. When it comes to goal threat, Gakpo is among the best. 

Defending & ball-winning

If the impression so far was of a player who waits on the touchline and cuts in to shoot/pass but doesn’t defend much, then you’d be mistaken. Gakpo is a strong defender when his team doesn’t have the ball. Here’s his defensive action map of this season:

On the outset, what is clear is that he has more defensive actions in his half than the opposition half. Most of them are on the left side of the pitch but there’s also a strong presence at the center of the pitch. While ball recoveries dominate the most, he also boasts a lot of tackles, interceptions and challenges across the pitch and even many aerial clearances in his own box, thanks to his height and frame. Overall, he’s a very useful defender who is willing to come deep and central to win the ball for the team and has the workrate and pace to then position himself wide on the touchline to receive when the team has the ball. His running is constant and helpful to the team in both phases of defending and attacking.

Areas to Improve

While Gakpo is a very well-rounded winger who ticks most of the boxes for a strong, technical inside forward with a high goal threat, he isn’t without weaknesses. One major issue is his first touch being erratic. He stays aways from crowded areas since his hold up and touch in tight situations isn’t great. When he has space on the wings and time to control the ball and settle into his preferred form facing a defender, he is most comfortable. Expecting a lot of back-to-goal control and first touch in central areas where low blocks are dense, might not end well. This makes his long-term potential as a central CF in a front 3, especially for a possession-based top team that faces a lot of low blocks, a little tough.



Given his height and strength, he should be adding more headed goals to his collection. He does have value when defending aerially as evidenced from his clearances but doesn’t have as many goals from headed situations, with the few being more placed than powerful.

At times, his decision-making is also not great. The confidence Gakpo has in his skill, dribbling and technique often makes him make over-ambitious dribbles in situations where he might be better off holding the ball and picking out a pass instead. While this hasn’t been an issue when playing for PSV, who rely on him in transition and don’t mind the occasional ball loss during an attack, once again, playing for a top team that’s more concerned about keeping the ball, progressing and not losing it cheaply might require some more maturity from the 23-year-old Dutchman.

What does the future hold?

In the face of huge interest from many clubs, instead of moving in January 2022, Gakpo signed a new deal with PSV that runs through 2026, so the club won’t feel under any pressure to part with him. After another round of heavy interest in the summer, he once again decided to stay at PSV. A large part of this could simply be him ensuring he continues his red hot form while starting for PSV in the build up to the winter 2022 World Cup in Qatar. As things stand, his scintillating form means that he starts in most games for Netherlands. There’s a very good chance he will be much more willing to move after the World Cup.

From a Manchester United POV, the links have intensified in recent months. The Dutch connection and Gakpo’s red-hot form mean that the rumors won’t go away anytime soon. In one sense, it is understandable. For Ten Hag’s tactics, an isolation wide winger strong at dribbling and final third shot creation from dribbles, is a perfect match. Such a profile combined with an inverted fullback completes the wing dynamics for a Ten Hag XI. Antony is a good example, who shares much of the movements and traits of Gakpo from RW. Ten Hag’s insistence to buy Antony even at £82m is explained by that desire of profile to combine with Dalot, who is a good progressive inverted fullback, and United’s lack of a profile who’s best role is as RW.

At LW, things are more complicated. While Gakpo could be a good Ten Hag profile in a standalone manner, United already have Rashford, Sancho, Elanga and Garnacho in terms of profiles who’s best role is at LW. The bigger lack is at CF, where United need a good box presence that can offer hold up, which doesn’t seem to be Gakpo’s long term calling. This presents a lot of confusion on where Gakpo really fits. 



But one can’t rule out Ten Hag’s insistence to go for the perfect profile. His chase and acquisition of Lisandro Martinez proves that even though United had 3 top center-backs to choose from, Ten Hag badly wanted a left-footed progressive CB with an aggressive ball-winning profile. The results of that are clear to see this season. In a similar vein, if Ten Hag deems all 3 of Rashford (better as an off-the-ball mover than wide isolation dribbler), Sancho (better as a narrow creator) and Elanga (similar to Rashford) as imperfect fits and would rather quickly move towards a profile he knows will work for his team, then this could become another transfer which comes before more pertinent gaps in the XI (like CF, DLP, GK), just because a player is available and is well-known by the manager.


Personally, I do think there are ways in which Rashford, Sancho and Elanga can still fit into Ten Hag’s tactics or that the Dutch manager’s flexibility can find a way to make them work. But if Ten Hag is insistent on buying a wide isolation LW with strong dribbling, high goal threat, great final ball, and high threat on transition, he won’t find a better available profile than Cody Gakpo.

21/22 Midfield Role Ranking System

Football, at its core, is a really subjective sport to analyze. Other than the issues that come with judging individuals in a team sport, the complications of understanding if a player is good or bad are plenty and can probably never be stated outright in that form. But that doesn’t mean we stop rating players, does it? There is assessment going on, regardless of the difficulties in assessment. Often, the judgment comes down to – is a player doing what he’s supposed to and doing it well? Which then demands the understanding of what he/she is supposed to do, which in turn leads to the demands of understanding team tactics and instructions of other players. It’s not an easy process.

But today, I’m going to try and make that process a little easier. I’m going to classify Europe’s top 5 leagues’ midfielders into roles and rank them on the basis of how well they performed that role last season. I’ll explain the methodology below, and then open up a request line on Twitter, for anyone to be able to ask for a specific player’s role rank chart. Let’s get into it.



The Roles

I’ll spend more time explaining the midfield roles, since they are key to the results. The 5 roles I’ve decided to classify midfielders into are:

Deep-lying Playmaker
Defensive Midfielder
Ball-winning Midfielder
Box-to-box Midfielder
Advanced Playmaker

As you can see, I’m a huge fan of Football Manager. I just think they’ve nailed down names of player roles really well. They do have a few more, but I’ve decided to stick to these 5 for simplicity. An explanation of each role:

1. Deep-lying Playmaker: The midfielder tasked with progressing from deep. We’re looking at someone who is good at build up, involved in possession, spreads play well, dictates tempo and progresses from deep. Some of the stats that will carry high weightage are ‘Progressive Passes’, ‘Passes into final third’, ‘Pass completion %’, ‘Progressive Carries’ etc. Some good 21/22 references for players in this category would be Kroos and Verratti.

2. Defensive Midfielder: Initially I had named this role as ‘Anchor Man’ but it felt it was too reductive in function. The player most adept at holding, shielding the back 4 or 5, defending transitions and good positioning, makes it here. An aspect of retention and ball safety will also be focused on. Some stats that have been used are ‘% of dribblers tackled’, ‘Pressure Success %’, ‘Miscontrols’, ‘Pass Targets’ etc. References would be players like Busquets and Casemiro from last season.

3. Ball-winning Midfielder: The midfielder who operates with high defensive intensity, presses a lot, wins the ball back and is more about workrate and getting stuck in, than any technical aspects of the game, is covered here. Some high-weightage stats used for this are ‘Pressures’, ‘Tackles’, ‘Interceptions’, ‘Pass blocks’ etc. Good references for this role are Kante and Fred in 21/22.

4. Box-to-box Midfielder: I’ve covered players who love to join the attack in this one. These are midfielders who boast a high goal threat from midfield and routinely link up with attackers without much care for involvement deeper in midfield. Stats like ‘Carries into final third’, ‘npxG’, ‘Shots’, and ‘Dribbles’ have been focused on. References for this role are Naby Keita and Ilkay Gundogan of last year.

5. Advanced Playmaker: These might be slightly tricky to separate from box-to-box mids and deep-lying playmakers, but the reference here is of players who have high final third creation. Instead of deep playmaking, they focus on finding attackers regularly and have good rates for assists. Some focus stats for these players are ‘xA’, ‘Passes into penalty area’, ‘Key passes’, ‘Shot-creating Actions’ etc. Good references from 21/22 might be Luis Alberto and Rodrigo de Paul.

The Ranking

Well, that was all the theory. The rest is pretty much manual work.

Step 1: I downloaded stats of all outfield players from fbref.com

Step 2: I segregated ‘Central Midfielders’ and ‘Defensive Midfielders’ form this list using Transfermarkt filters

Step 3: I cut off all players who haven’t played at least 10 league 90s

Step 4: I create possession-adjusted and per 90 versions of each stat so that we can bring all the stats to a comparable level playing field

Step 4: I converted each stat into a percentile version within this data set. Eg. The midfielder with the highest ‘possession-adjusted per 90 xA’ gets 100 percentile for ‘xA’ and so on. One caveat here is that I am comparing midfielders across leagues for this exercise. So someone with a 90 percentile is better than 90% of Europe’s top 5 league midfielders on that stat, not just his own league. It’s the only way I can get a Europe level ranking.

Step 5: I used the role logic from earlier to come up with scores for each of the 5 roles. I’ve used 13 data points for each role and weighted them on the basis of which stats are more relevant.
Step 6: I use percentiles once again within the role scores to rank them, and then assign each player their best role based on the final percentiles.

The results look like this:

The percentile scores indicate how good the midfielder is at that role. Eg. Kroos is the best deep-lying playmaker in Europe’s top 5 leagues based on 21/22 data, but two-thirds of the same midfielders are better than him for the ball-winning midfielder role. The 25 players in this list have a top 1 percentile score on at least one role. 

Let’s look at the role wise ratings. Here are the top 25 players for each specific role.

Deep-lying Midfielder

Defensive Midfielder

Ball-winning Midfielder

Advanced Playmaker

Box-to-box midfielder

Those were the best players in each role based on season data.

Now, let’s take a look at some player profiles that cover their score and suitability for each role. It’s the same data, but from a single player point of view.

Firsty, Toni Kroos.

The role scores that we calculated earlier, have been used to plot marks along the pentagon to show how good a player is at that role. As discussed before, Kroos claims the top spot for ‘Deep-lying Playmaker’ with a solid 100, but he also looks good for ‘Advanced Playmaker’ and ‘Box-to-box Midfielder’ which hints at what a good 21/22 he has had in terms of playmaking and driving the game. He looks decent on ‘Defensive Midfielder’ and is in the bottom third for ‘Ball Winner’.

Let’s look at another example. Frenkie De Jong.

Now, the data will only reflect what a player has done in 21/22 and not what he CAN do. If a player was played out of position or tasked with a different role, the chart will change accordingly. Frenkie’s best roles appear for ‘Deep-lying Playmaker’, ‘Box-to-box midfielder’ and ‘Advanced Playmaker’ which probably speaks of the various roles he has been asked to play last year. His low defensive output and shielding ability are clear from his inferior scores in the other 2 roles.

Another example.

Koopmeiners was largely touted as a Defensive Midfielder prior to his move to Italy. While that tag is debatable, his usage at Atalanta has been anything but. He’s been deployed as an attacking midfielder or roaming #8 on many occasions, which is probably why his 21/22 stats look good for ‘Advanced Playmaker’ and ‘Box-to-box midfielder’ while also showing a good score for ‘Deep-lying Playmaker’.

A final example to end this article with a bang. Thiago Alcantara. 


He progressed play, he playmaked, he won the ball back, he supported the attack, he shielded the defence – Thiago did everything in 21/22. There’s almost nothing to separate the 5 role scores. Thiago was the most well-rounded midfielder in terms of my calculations.

Well, that’s a wrap. I’ll be opening a request line on our Twitter handle after releasing this article. Comment with the name of the player you want to look at and I’ll RT with the pentagon-shaped role rank style chart like the 3 above.

If there is high interest, I might do a similar exercise for the other positions as well, but I’m not sure of the interest of 21/22 rankings since 22/23 has already begun. 

See you on Twitter.

(Data: Statsbomb via fbref

Pentagon viz help: Ken Flerlage and Nigel Shaw)

Search for a CF: Summer Shortlist 2022

At the time of the writing of this article, Manchester United have embarked on their pre-season tour with only 1 summer signing finalized – Tyrell Malacia. The aggressive rebuild isn’t really going as per plan and to make matters worse, the red side of Manchester has been shaken by Cristiano Ronaldo’s absence from pre-season due to “a family issue”. Rumors say that the Portuguese is looking for a way out of the club in a bid to play Champions League football next season – something that really doesn’t come as a big surprise, knowing the man. Regardless of where you stand on the Ronaldo debate, one thing is clear – United need a proper center-forward who suits Ten Hag’s style.

Over the past 3 years, the club has brought in 32-year-old Ighalo, 34-year-old Edinson Cavani and 36-year-old Ronaldo in the name of a top center-forward. Martial’s inconsistency and the declining status of these signings has meant that the club hasn’t seen a consistent central forward presence since Lukaku under Jose Mourinho. Even if Ronaldo hadn’t shaken the boat, his age and limitations to be able to play as a well-rounded center-forward that can spearhead an Erik Ten Hag attack, mean that United should be looking hard for a young/peak CF anyway. Rangnick even mentioned that Ronaldo himself indicated that he’s better playing off a proper CF in a front 2, although given the latest circumstances, a direct replacement and upgrade on Ronaldo is probably the best course of action for the club.

United need a long-term CF and in today’s piece, I’m going to use data to create a shortlist for the same and cover the top 6 options in detail. Let’s get into it.

Creating the Shortlist

I’ve done this a few times now in case you caught our CM, RB or RW shortlist before. I’m going to keep this part short in the interest of spending more time with our shortlisted candidates.

1. I downloaded data from Fbref for all outfield players in Europe

2. I converted all stats to ‘per 50 touches’ to better represent what the players do in possession

3. I filtered in players labeled as ‘Center-forward’ or ‘Support-striker’ as per Transfermarkt

4. I filtered in players who have played at least 20 league 90s in 21/22

5. I created percentiles within this dataset to order all relevant stats from 0 to 100 percentile

5. I used a weighted formula to create a score from the relevant stat percentiles to rank our desired profiles

Further expanding on point 5, these are the stats I used to create the weighted score:


NpxG – 20% weightage

Pressures – 15% weightage

xA – 15% weightage

Shots – 15% weightage

Progressive passes received – 10% weightage

NpxG/Shot – 10% weightage

Possession losses – 10% weightage

Aerial Win % – 5% weightage

Our first responsibility is to find a great goalscorer. ‘NpxG’, ‘Shots’ and ‘NpxG/Shot’ together almost make up half the overall score in terms of weight. This will ensure we get a top goal threat who can get into the box regularly, take shots created by playmakers like Bruno, Shaw and Sancho and deliver high non-penalty output. We also want someone who moves well in the attacking third and receives a lot, which is why ‘Progressive passes received’ is a factor. ‘xA’ denotes our need for someone with a good final ball to also be able to play in the wingers or oncoming midfielders when possible. Our pressing structure woes are well documented and the addition of Ronaldo and Sancho and departure of Daniel James were big reasons why the high press completely failed in 21/22. We can’t afford that again, so the new CF has to be a decent presser. Finally, he should be able to keep possession losses to a minimum (this guarantees a good level of close control and decision making in the final third) and be decent aerially, since Ten Hag does like to use his CF as an aerial out-ball from time to time.

With an additional age filter to keep in players under the age of 27, when sorted by weighted score, this is what we ended up with:

Going by vibes as well, if someone said Erling Haaland is the type of CF United need (Ole certainly seemed to think so 2 years ago), then our formula is on the right track. Next, I filtered out players who will not move to United at this point (like Haaland) or do not play CF (like Moffi).

Our list is starting to shape up nicely. A final requirement for filtering can be seen here, though. We don’t want a player who is poor in a certain aspect. Eg. Schick and Isak are at the bottom 20 percentile for pressures and David, for Aerial Win %. We’ve already discussed how the new CF cannot be poor in these aspects. I used a minimum 20 percentile filter on each stat.

This rounds up our shortlist neatly to 6 options. This seems good for now. Let’s get into the details of each candidate.

Player profiles

Before we get into the shortlisted 6, I want to post 2 profiles to preface an understanding of what we want to upgrade on and what the ideal candidate could look like.

Firstly, Cristiano Ronaldo.

While Ronaldo’s goal-scoring was decent, his profile is littered with issues that hold the team back. The biggest one being pressing. His ‘Pressures’ reading 0 percentile is indicative of him being the worst presser in Europe in our dataset of center-forwards and support-strikers who have played at least 20 league 90s. His pressure success is also average. His passing stats paint him as someone too uncreative to assist others, a safe pass % being the only pro. Ronaldo being average for ‘Npxg/Shot’ and ‘Progressive Passes Received’ also hints at his poor CF movement to receive the ball in dangerous areas close to goal, with him often drifting off to the left or deep to take low quality shots from distance.

Next, as a contrast, let’s look at Erling Haaland’s profile, who ranked highest in the set before the realism filters.

While Haaland’s shooting and goal-scoring are world-class (which is the biggest reason he ranked so highly for us given the extra weightage for shooting stats), he looks good for many other metrics too. His final ball is deceptively strong, with this ability to pick out a key pass the reason he has 8 and 10 assists in his last 2 seasons. His excellent ‘Progressive passes received” and “Aerial Win %” indicate his strong box presence and option to be a consistent target. While his pressures applied are below average, he makes up with a high pressure success, which indicates a willingness to wait patiently for the right moment to win the ball for a turnover. He’s not a great dribbler though, which probably indicates you just can’t have everything. As long as most of the boxes are ticked and there is a fitment with the existing setup, it can work. 

With this in mind, let’s begin the breakdown for each of our shortlisted candidates in order of the weighted score.

Lautaro Martinez

Age: 24
Club: Inter Milan
Nation: Argentina
Position: CF, SS
Foot: Right (84% usage)
Contract ends: June, 2026
Current market value: £72m
Rumored transfer value: £60m to £90m

Even though he’s still just 24, Lautaro already feels like a household name in Europe following 3 back-to-back seasons of 25+ goal contributions as a key starter for Inter Milan, which include 3 trophies as well. Whether it’s under Conte or Inzaghi or when paired with Lukaku or Dzeko, Lautaro delivers. And 21/22 has just been his best season yet. Prying him away from Inter is a costly affair given his form and status, but given the financial constraints of the Italian club, and Lukaku and potentially Dybala returning, a strong bid could satisfy all parties.

Strengths: Probably the most well-rounded striker for his age, Lautaro boasts immense shooting skills with his goal threat among the best in the list. One of the reasons he’s a great finisher is because of his intense concentration and consistency. He rarely misses chances and is very aware of what’s happening on the pitch all the time. He has a very ‘precision over power’ approach to his shooting. He’s also a decent shot-creator and safe passer, given his experience in operating in deeper areas. He’s able to drop deep, hold the ball with his back to goal and facilitate others cleanly with smart one-touch passes or disguised passes. In the attacking phase, he has amazing movement to be able to run the channels, provide final man runs and get into the box to create shots for himself as well. He is really quick and really adept in tight spaces. His metrics for ‘NpxG/Shot’ and ‘Progressive passes received’ would have been more if he wasn’t sharing attacking duties with a more advanced striker. His movements on transitions and while breaking down low blocks are so good, that he’s always at the right place at the right time to unlock the defense, create a gap, find a teammate or fashion himself a shooting chance. He’s also deceptively strong in the air, finishing many chances with his head and having the ability to win aerial duels for his teammates. His ‘Aerial Win %’ only reads low thanks to the high amount of aerial duels he engages in. 

Weaknesses: Lautaro is comfortable as a left-sided striker in a front 2. As a natural right-footer, he finds the left-sided angle to pass and carry easier. This adds to a plethora of United attackers who also have a left-sided bias. He’s well rounded enough to pull off a lone striker role, but the evenness to be able to progress and facilitate play on either side from a central position at all times, is in doubt. He also needs to be more aggressive in racking up high xG chances closer to goal, but this could largely be due to him being partnered with a more advanced striker so far.

Overall Devil’s DNA Score: 9.5/10

Mohamed Bayo

Age: 24
Club: Clermont Foot
Nation: Guinea
Position: CF
Foot: Right (88% usage)
Contract ends: June, 2024
Current market value: £10.8m
Rumored transfer value: £8m to £12m

I can guarantee that no one would have guessed Bayo of Clermont Foot was making our shortlist when this process began. And it’s not anyone’s fault. Until 2021, Bayo was playing in the second division of France. A youth product of Clermont, Bayo needed reserve team games and loan spells until the age of 22 to develop himself. In 20/21, he made the starting spot his own and helped his hometown achieve Ligue 1 promotion via 22 goals and 7 assists. In 21/22, he followed this up with another stellar season of 14 goals and 5 assists in 27 starts to help Clermont escape relegation. This has led to him being courted by stronger clubs in Europe this summer. The rumors include Everton looking at him as a Richarlison replacement and West Ham considering him as competition to Antonio, but recent reports have seen Lille lead the race.

Strengths: Clermont only scored 38 league goals this season, 37% of which have been scored by Bayo, showing his importance as a goal threat to the relegation-battling side. Bayo’s best trait is his movement. He is constantly running, looking for spaces in the opponent backline and gets at the end of chances consistently. His high values for ‘NPxG’ and ‘NPxg/Shot’ indicate a striker who gets into good positions and takes high value shots. He has a very strong one-touch finish and is very skilled at close-range finishes, often aiming for the roof of the net with power to give goalkeepers no chance. He’s also a strong dribbler, using his agility and pace to beat opponents rather than technique or flair. He also has a good final ball, boasting 12 assists in 2 years.

Weaknesses: Bayo isn’t very technically gifted. He looks good as the sharp and pacey outlet for a counter-attacking unit (which makes the West Ham rumors make so much sense) but the ability to play back to goal and showcase close control against crowded low blocks for a possession-based team, is in doubt. His pressing and aerial prowess are also not too great, which greatly limit what he can do when the team doesn’t have the ball. While he could prove to be an upgrade in terms of consistent movement and box presence that Ronaldo doesn’t offer, much of the other limitations of the veteran could be repeated with Bayo. If Ronaldo does stay for a year or United are unable to close a better striker, Bayo could serve as a cheap pick up who offers poacher traits that the attack currently doesn’t have, but might need upgrading on with a starter-level forward in a year.

Overall Devil’s DNA Score: 7/10

Moussa Dembele

Age: 25
Club: Lyon
Nation: France
Position: CF
Foot: Right (82% usage)
Contract ends: June, 2023
Current market value: £45m
Rumored transfer value: £10m to £20m

Moussa’s strong 21/22 (22 goals and 5 assists in 31 starts) couple with his contract situation (1 year left) and the arrival of Lacazatte on a free transfer, have meant that the 25 year-old has seen himself be linked to many clubs, like Southampton, for as less as £10m. But, the player recently announced that he wished to stay, among rumors that Bosz could field both Lacazatte and Moussa in a front 2 for the coming season. A bid from a big club, especially if Moussa finds himself benched for the high-profile Lacazatte, could change all that very quickly.

Strengths: Playing the CF in Lyon’s 4-2-3-1 for most of the 21/22 season, Moussa’s best traits paint him as a strong poacher. His 4 shooting stats, ‘Progressve Passes Received’ metric and ‘Aerial Win %’ collectively scream of his ability to be a great mover in the final third, an amazing outlet with box presence and a superb finisher. He is among the best runners-in-behind in world football and has a very central tendency to his movement unlike many left-biased right-footed strikers. His great acceleration and composure in front of goal make him frustrating to stop. He’s already had 4 20+ goal seasons before turning 26. He’s also really good at in-to-out and out-to-in movements, leading defenders away from their positions to create space for himself or a teammate. Before his loan move to Atletico, 93% of his goals had come from inside the box. Can liken him to someone like Jamie Vardy.

Weaknesses: Moussa is at his best when facing the goal. He’s limited when it comes to back-to-goal play and can lose the ball when pressured in crowded areas. He’s not really progressive, either via passing or carrying, and can’t be called extremely safe in his close control either. Dembele shone when Lyon had creators like Fekir and Ndombele feeding him constantly from midfield, but after their departure and the emergence of good movers in the attack like Ekambi and Kadewere, a lot of Moussa’s traits didn’t seem critical enough, often leading to him being dropped. He did win back his place eventually, but the caveats of his success as a player relying heavily on his movement and the requirement of the team to be very service-oriented to get the best out of him, needs to be noted. With United overloading creators like Eriksen and De Jong to help Bruno and Sancho, a service-demanding and low ball-affinity CF like Dembele could work a charm, but a second CF option who provides what Moussa cannot (maybe Martial?), might have to be considered as well.

Overall Devil’s DNA Score: 7.5/10

Tammy Abraham

Age: 24
Club: Roma
Nation: England
Position: CF
Foot: Right (90% usage)
Contract ends: June, 2026
Current market value: £45m
Rumored transfer value: £67m to £90m

Becoming a great advert for English youngsters finding Serie A as a developmental home, Tammy has grown from his Chelsea days into a much more well-rounded and impactful striker, boasting 27 goals and 5 assists in 48 starts in 21/22. Chelsea have a buyback option of €80m (£67m), but Tammy’s insistence of being happy at Roma and Roma’s demands of a €100m fee make this seem like a tough transfer. But with the constant links with Premier League sides like Arsenal and Man United and rumors of Tammy being open to return to his home country, a mouth-watering bid has the potential to see the striker return to England.

Strengths: Tammy’s goal-scoring is world-class. Even before the Roma move, his values for ‘Goals’, ‘NpxG’ and ‘NpxG/Shot’ were always superb, on a per 90 basis. He’s now just gotten a full season to see them translate to top-class season numbers. His shot quality has always been a hallmark and he ranks the best for ‘NpxG/Shot’ in our dataset. This refers to his ability to get into very good areas and take high value shots close to the goal. Good movement and positioning, whether it’s to get into the box between defenders or to get at the end of a searching ball or to pick the space to receive when the team is attacking in transition – Tammy has a natural flair for purposeful movement. Tammy receives 20% of his passes inside the box while 48% of his touches in the box lead to a shot. These highlight what a strong central box presence he is. While not really creative, Tammy has the strength to hold off defenders, play back-to-goal and lay off quick one-touch passes to advancing teammates. He also has the ability to release wide players in transition if the space is there, being more progressive in his passing than one might imagine. He’s very diligent in tracking back and covering passing lanes during the opposition build-up – things he has learnt well under Jose Mourinho.


Weaknesses: Tammy isn’t the fastest on the ground, his height and lanky frame taking off some acceleration. He has a tendency to drift in and out of games, often coming to life in decisive moments, but also seemingly going missing in other moments. His hold up play and ball control,  especially in deeper areas of the pitch, can do with improvement. He’s efficient and neat but the requirements of technical play when far from goal and faced with low blocks, might be tough on him in a possession-based side. Tammy’s carrying is below average, with the player often opting for a quick pass instead of carrying towards goal. This means that he needs to be supported well in attack and cannot be expected to keep hold of the ball for long using close control, until teammates arrive. 

Overall Devil’s DNA Score: 9/10

Victor Osihmen

Age: 23
Club: Napoli
Nation: Nigeria
Position: CF
Foot: Right (90% usage)
Contract ends: June, 2025
Current market value: £58.5m
Rumored transfer value: £70m to £90m

Like Lautaro Martinez, even at the young age of 23, Osihmen already feels like an established star, boasting double-digit goals for 4 consecutive seasons now, the last 2 being at Napoli. His 21/22 season ended with 18 goals and 2 assists in 26 starts. Napoli signed the Nigerian for a club record fee of potentially €80m. The chances of them letting go of their prized possession for anything less than that amount, considering he has 3 more years left on his contract, are slim. 

Strengths: Physically, Osihmen is probably the most impressive striker in our list. His height, strength, pace, agility and energy speak of a combination that is really rare to find. This leads to him getting to the ball often – whether it’s a dynamic leap or a burstful run across the ground or a sprint across the opposition box – Osihmen is usually there, outmuscling or outrunning opponents with a childish ease. His speed and acceleration enable him to make start-stop or direction-changing runs that are hard to track. He’s also really adept at carrying, using his physical traits to power through with the ball, when faced with defenders. His hold up and close control are also strong, thanks to the combination of his physical traits and ball control technique. Similar to Lukaku, he’s easily able to hold defenders off, shield the ball and play it off to his teammate without losing it. His high IQ movement is the reason for his high ‘Progressive passes received’ stat. He is adept at finishing from his head as well as left foot.

Weaknesses: Most glaringly, Osimhen is yet to cross 33 starts in a season. His 2 seasons for Napoli have seen 19 and 26 starts in all competitions, respectively. Repetitive injuries of different nature have plagued the player. While his scoring rate is great on a per 90 basis, he is still yet to cross 18 goals a season, thanks to his fitness record. Also, Osihmen isn’t really creative on the ball. He’s not a great passer and is poor at progression and creation from passes. His strong carrying and physical ability to hold the ball until he can pick out a straightforward pass, is what helps him keep the game going, but don’t expect him to create for others.

Overall Devil’s DNA Score: 8.5/10

Gianluca Scamacca

Age: 23
Club: Sassuolo
Nation: Italy
Position: CF
Foot: Right (91% usage)
Contract ends: June, 2026
Current market value: £26m
Rumored transfer value: £40m to £50m

With his imposing frame, eye-catching tattoos and excellence for Sassuolo this season, Scamacca’s potential movement to a Champions League club has been one of the stories of the summer. With various clubs linked at many points, the consensus seems to be that Paris Saint-Germain have got their man for €50m. But with the deal still not official, one can never rule out anything. I mean, what if PSG target the frustrated Ronaldo, leaving Scamacca open to join United? A man can dream.

Strengths: Scamacca’s most noticeable trait is his imposing 6’5” frame. Likened to Zlatan, the Italian is very strong in the air, but combines that physicality with a good first touch and close control. He probably has the best hold up and close control in our list. Scamacca can pluck balls out of thin air, bring them down with finesse, shield it against defenders and then find a teammate easily. He is very versatile in terms of contribution in open play, having the ability to run the channels or wide areas, stay in the box like a target man or drop deep to help connect play. While not being too creative, Scamacca is a very aware and deceitfully skillful shot creator utilizing smart flicks, dummies, tap-downs, cutbacks, through balls and crosses to find his teammates in good situations. He also has a wonderful shooting technique, able to rifle it from distance or tap it in precisely from close-range.

Weaknesses: His great shooting technique and eagerness to do too much, make him take some bad shooting decisions, especially from distance. He’ll often be found releasing one from afar, when a better choice could have been made. This is the reason for his below average ‘NPxG/Shot’. Scamacca doesn’t have the poaching pedigree of some of the others on our list. This is the first time in his career he has got double digit league goals, while his profile feels a bit too well-rounded and all-over-the-place at times, which might not be ideal for a club wanting a consistent goal threat capable of being the league’s top scorer. 

Overall Devil’s DNA Score: 8/10

Final Thoughts

A final summary of our summer 2022 CF shortlist:

RankNameClubAgeProsConsScore
1Lautaro MartinezInter24Movement, Mentals, Finishing, Link-upLeft-sided bias, Untested as lone CF9.5
2Tammy AbrahamRoma24Movement, Finishing, Transition gameHold up, Consistency, Creativity9
3Victor OsimhenNapoli23Physicals, Movement, CarryingFitness, Passing, Creativity8.5
4Gianluca ScamaccaSassuolo23Hold up, Versatility, TechniqueShooting decisions, Poaching, Final ball 8
5Moussa DembeleLyon25Movement, Finishing, ProvenHold up, Creativity, Need for service, Progression7.5
6Mohamed BayoClermont Foot24Movement, Finishing, AgilityHold up, Technique, Defending7

Roughly speaking, the summary implies that if United want a top CF for years to come, they’re gonna have to pay up. Either of Lautaro, Tammy and Osimhen would prove to be a costly affair. Given their skill sets, it seems like a big swing for the Inter Milan man makes most sense for United. A low-price pickup for Dembele or Bayo would prove to be very cost-effective and immediately give United the poacher option they are missing, but might require an upgrade again in a year or two. These 2 players could work in tandem with Ronaldo or Martial or any future CF. Scamacca, on the other hand, offers something different at a decent price and could be really instrumental in bringing others into play in a unified attack.

All said and done, there are good options. United should ideally take advantage of the Ronaldo uproar and start looking at some of these names as a replacement. They need to do it anyway, whether it’s now or next year. A 37 year-old fading limited striker is not the face of a youth-focused rebuild. United need to go for the inevitable upgrade. The more they delay it, the lesser the options remain in the market, an effect we have seen when it comes to getting a defensive midfielder.

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