Man Utd Midfield Rebuild: Part 3 – Hybrid DM targets

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

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

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

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

The Hybrid DM Shortlist

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

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

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

Mats Wieffer, 25, Feyenoord

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


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


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

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

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

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

The Devil’s DNA Score: 8.5/10 

Youssouf Fofana, 25, Monaco

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


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


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

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

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

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

The Devil’s DNA Score: 7/10 

Anton Stach, 26, Hoffenheim

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


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


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

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

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

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

The Devil’s DNA Score: 7.5/10

 Morten Frendrup, 23, Genoa

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


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


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

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

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

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

The Devil’s DNA Score: 8/10

Amadou Onana, 23, Everton

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


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


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

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

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

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

The Devil’s DNA Score: 8/10

Completing the elite midfield set of 6 players

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous parts: 

Part 1 – Profiles, tasks & gaps

Part 2 – Build up DM targets 

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

(All stats from Opta via fbref.)

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

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

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

The Build up DM Shortlist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exequiel Palacios, 26, Bayer Leverkusen

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


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


  • Injury prone
  • Aerial duels
  • Front-footed defending

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

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

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

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

The Devil’s DNA Score: 7.5/10 

João Neves, 19, Benfica

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

The Devil’s DNA Score: 9/10 

Daniel Boloca, 25, Sassuolo

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


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


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

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

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

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

The Devil’s DNA Score: 9/10

 Aster Vrankcx, 22, Wolfsburg

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


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


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

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

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

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

The Devil’s DNA Score: 7/10

Marten Hjulmand, 24, Sporting CP

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


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


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

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

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

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

The Devil’s DNA Score: 8/10

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

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

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

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

(All stats from Opta via fbref.)

Rasmus Højlund: The Spark

Wout Weghorst – Age 30 – Loan

Cristiano Ronaldo – Age 37 – €17m

Edinson Cavani – Age 34 – Free

Odion Ighalo – Age 31 – Loan

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

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

Career so far

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

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

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

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

Attacking Movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s look at some match examples.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s get into his second movement pattern.

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

Let’s look at some scenarios.

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

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

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

Let’s move to another pattern.

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

Let’s see some examples from the same games.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Let’s look at his shot map.

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

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

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

Carrying and dribbling

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

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

Let’s see some match examples.

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

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

Hold up and link up play

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s see some match examples.

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

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

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

Pressing and defending

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

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

Let’s look at some match examples.

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

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

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

Aerial duels

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

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

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

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

Like this for example.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Search for a CB: RCB & LCB Shortlists

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

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

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

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

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

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

The shortlists

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Security – Their security on the ball during progression

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

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

Without further ado, here are the results. 

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

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

RCB 1: Kin Min-Jae

RCB 2: Jurrien Timber

RCB 3: Kevin Danso

RCB 4: Antonio Silva

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

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

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

Mini Reports

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

Let’s start with the RCB targets first.

RCB 1: Kim Min-Jae, Napoli, 26

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

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

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

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

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

Devil’s DNA Score: 10/10

RCB 2: Jurrien Timber, Ajax, 21

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

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

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

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

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

Devil’s DNA Score: 7.5/10

RCB 3: Kevin Danso, Lens, 24

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

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

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

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

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

Devil’s DNA Score: 7.5/10

RCB 4: Antonio Silva, Benfica, 19

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

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

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

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

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

Devil’s DNA Score: 8/10

Now let’s move on to the LCB targets.

LCB 1: Goncalo Inacio, Sporting, 21

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

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

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

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

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

Devil’s DNA Score: 9/10

LCB 2: Castello Lukeba, Lyon, 20

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

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

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

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

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

Devil’s DNA Score: 7.5/10

LCB 3: Calvin Bassey, Ajax, 23

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

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

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

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

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

Devil’s DNA Score: 7/10


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

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

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


Data: fbref

Images: Getty

Transfer details: transfermarkt)

Search for a young DM: Summer 2023 Shortlist

How good has Casemiro been for United since signing on? Superlatives fall short while describing the veteran midfielder’s contribution in his first season in the Premier League. He has undoubtedly been among United’s best players, plugged a defensive transition issue that plagued as for the past few seasons, delivered elite levels of ball winning and also contributed well in terms of advancing the game with his forward thinking passing. But with great importance comes great gap during absence. The 3 games Casemiro sat out due to suspension made the team revert to it’s Rangnick days issues while defending transitions with neither of Fred and Sabitzer being good at playing a holding role. Even the times when Scott Mctominay (the designated backup for Casemiro role) comes on for Casemiro later in games, he cleary looks ill-suited to the requirements, being a better box-to-box midfielder himself. United’s midfield shake up definitely requires a Casemiro partner who can start immediately (I cover that profile here) but it wouldn’t be wrong to say that another midfielder who can rotate with Casemiro and take over once the 31-year-old fades, is also necessary.

Today, I hunt for young DMs (I’m calling the Casemiro role as DM or Defensive Midfielder for ease of speech) who can relieve and eventually take over from Casemiro. In short, I’m searching for young Casemiros. Not an easy task, but let’s get into it.

Before we begin, in case you are a new visitor to my site/account and were wondering about the more critical positions, I want to highlight my previous target pieces that make sense for summer 2023 – DLP (Casemiro partners), GK (DDG replacements), CF (Check long-term ones for summer) and RB (Dalot competition).

The Stats considered

Before diving into the process, let me explain the stats that have been considered and the logic to why they are good or bad for our assessment. This will help confirm what we are looking for.

1) Defensive Volume – 35% weightage

This includes tackles, shot blocks, pass blocks, interceptions and aerials. Just the attempted volume, not the successful ones. Usually, it’s not right to judge players by the number of defensive actions. More actions doesn’t necessarily mean a better player. But for this role, we are specifically looking for a midfielder who participates in various defensive actions with purpose. Casemiro scored a 98 percentile on this and the Europe leader in our set was Edson Alvarez.

2) Duel Success – 10% weightage

This is the success value associated with both aerial and tackle duels. I haven’t given it a very high weightage since many players who attempt less duels manage to score well on success, which we want to avoid. So this becomes a secondary measure for us. A player who attempts a lot of duels first and is also decently successful, second. Casemiro scored a 71 percentile for this. The leader in the top 7 leagues in my dataset was Anton Stach.

3) Dribblers Tackled – 35% weightage

I’ve given special importance to this stat. One of the main traits we need in our DM is transition defence since Casemiro excels at that. While it’s hard for a stat to exactly describe such a situational action, I think Dribblers Tackled comes close. Players playing central and deep usually face dribblers in transition and usually stop them by tackling them. It’s not the most ideal logic but after spending hours on fbref, I feel this metric comes closest to describing a good transitional defender along with the next metric. Casemiro scored 96 percentile on this and the Europe leader was Manuel Ugarte.

4) Dribblers Tackled Success – 10% weightage

Very similar logic to the 2nd success metric, this is the success version of Dribblers Tackled. But we can’t give it too much importance since players who engage less could have high success. Serves as a secondary metric. Casemiro scored 83 percentile. Top 7 leagues leader was Francis Coquelin.

5) Progressive Passing Distance – 10% weightage

Finally, I wanted just one non-defensive metric to ensure our DM isn’t a dud in possession and has enough technique to play for United. I picked Progressive Passing Distance since it shows how much the midfielder looks to progress in terms of distance accumulated instead of number of progressive passes racked. This is something Casemiro is really good at and routinely attempts switches, through balls and expansive passes to advance the game. We don’t need to go beyond this basic ability since playmaking should ideally be taken care of by the pivot partner to the DM. Casemiro scored 87 percentile and unsurprisingly, Toni Kroos scored highest in Europe in our set.

NOTE: Before we move on, I must state one important caveat. A few of these stats are highly dependent on team tactics. A midfielder might be playing in a different role to adjust for team tactics or have poor stats on some metrics due to his pivot partner or other teammates not being complementary to his style of play. So, for the sake of clarity, it might be best to take the results of this ranking as to not reflect midfielder ability, but rather reflect midfielder suitability to United’s needs. In short, the score won’t measure absolute talent, but will identify midfielders who are doing well at the the role that we want this season. There could be other talented players who just aren’t playing enough or are being shackled by team tactics. With that clear, let’s move on.

The Ranking process

The rest of the process is largely mechanical. A quick run-down of the steps:

1. I downloaded all stats from for Europe’s top 7 leagues for the 22/23 season and picked out the above stats of interest to this assessment

2. I filtered out all midfielders who didn’t even manage to play 8 90s in 22/23. This left us with 648 players who can play in midfield, who make up the data set on which we will be doing further calculations

3. I converted the stats into per 90 versions and then percentile versions. This means that each stat was divided by the number of 90s played by that midfielder, and then converted into a percentile stat. E.g. Toni Kroos with a 75 percentile on ‘Defensive Volume’ indicates that he’s better than 75% of the midfielders in our data set for this particular stat

4. Finally, I created a weighted formula using these stats using the above weights. I then factored in league difficulty using UEFA league coefficients for 22/23 giving it a 15% weightage. The last step was to create a percentile version of this weighted score, to ensure our top ranked midfielder scores a 100% and the worst one scores a 1%

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

Well, it figures that the player closest to being Casemiro is Casemiro himself. No surprises he scores a clean 100 percentile. Probably, a good indicator that we’re on the right track.

Okay, now comes the shortlist creation. While filtering out players who don’t make sense, I considered 4 things:
a) Age: I kept a limit of 24 years old, since we want a young rotation player who would be okay playing backup to Casemiro in the short term but can take over in the long term

b) Players who don’t play midfield: Benjamin Henrichs, Reece James, Leroy Sane, Achraf Hakimi and a few others had the ‘MF’ tag but haven’t played there regularly. I cut them off.
c) Players who won’t transfer to United: Players already playing for top teams or rivals like Eduardo Camavinga, Leon Goretzka and Aurelien Tchouameni were cut off

These filter criteria removed a few players, but I’m fairly confident that the players who are left tick all the boxes we need and have a good recent history of playing the role for their respective teams. Without further ado, here’s the final shortlist for United’s young DM needs for summer 2023:

Tyler Adams was visible in the long list too. He scores just a few decimal points behind Casemiro. One of the major issues of most of our targets is that their contract years start in 2022 or 2023 making a summer move tough. This meant that only 3 players have credible rumours for a summer 2023 move – Florentino Luis, Manuel Ugarte, and Samu Costa. I’ll be covering their reports in detail.

Mini Scout Reports

Before we get into the reports of the targets, let’s look at the chart of the man of the hour. All the pizza charts that follow have been expanded using fbref stats to get a more holistic picture of the player. Let’s start with Casemiro.

As we have seen from our filters so far, defensively, Casemiro is a beast. The ‘Challenges Lost’ metric is a little misleading since he attempts many challenges. Our version of ‘Dribblers Tackled Success’ gave Casemiro a better success at it. Even in terms of passing, Casemiro is very progressive and expansive. Only his pass % and his carrying power are low and that largely should be taken care of by his ideal partner (as discussed in the DLP article). 

Next, let’s look at the player who has played as Casemiro’s deputy for most of this season. Scott McTominay has been the designated backup for the DM role, playing there before Casemiro started and often coming on to play that role when Casemiro has had to rest in recent months. Let’s take a look at his pizza chart.

It’s not looking good, friends. Scott lacks a lot on the ball with none of his passing and carrying stats being up to the mark. Probably a good reason why Ten Hag has been using Scott in the DM role is because the 26-year-old has decent defensive attributes, mainly his height leading to good aerial success. But a new player who takes over as the deputy DM is clearly required. Let’s get into the best options for the same.

Florentino Luis, 23, Benfica

Career: Luis was born in Lisbon and spent 8 years in the Benfica youth setup before getting a look into the senior team in 2018. Dovetailing between a backup role at the club and loans at Monaco and Getafe, Luis impressed manager Schmidt in 2022 pre-season so much that he became a starter beside Enzo Fernandez at the start of the season. Enzo’s hype over half a season has been widespread and earned him a big move, but it was Luis providing the balance in that pivot and the day Florentino gets his own big move doesn’t seem too far as well.

Pros: Luis is the perfect partner to a playmaker like Enzo. He’s excellent as a holding midfielder with his awareness, anticipation and positional sense very good while his defensive output and ball-winning is also top class. He’s no pushover on the ball either, being very involved in possession, boasting many passes and carries in open play, while also offering progression and high security as well. He’s not a great dribbler and isn’t a final third impact player either, but in all phases in and out of possession as the deepest player in a midfield, he looks as good as anyone in Europe for his age.

Cons: Luis not being a disruptive dribbler or final ball expert don’t really rate as cons given the role we are scouting. He has no weaknesses in his game. In fact the major con, after hours of research, are him already being too good for us. I mean this both in terms of quality and also price range. His release clause is €120m and he looks too high-level to accept a backup role behind the in-form Casemiro for a few years.

Verdict: Luis was a good find. The problem is that he’s too good a find. Turning 24 in August, his ability and that release clause seem better suited to a starting DM role in a UCL club that badly needs a high quality first choice player. It doesn’t make sense for us. If the RC reduces or Luis is open to a backup role for a while, things could change, but as it stands, I’m cutting 3 marks for transfer realism and giving Luis 7 for being an amazing profile fit.

The Devil’s DNA Score: 7/10 

Manuel Ugarte Ribeiro, 21, Sporting CP

Career: Born in Uruguay, Ugarte moved to Portugal to sign up with Famalicao in 2020. But within half a season, he had piqued the interest of Sporting CP, who bought him in summer 2021. Initially signed as a backup to Joao Palhinha, Ugarte showed great form when he got a run of starts during Palhinha’s injury in 21/22. The pressure continued even after Palhinha returned, as manager Amorim heaped praise multiple times on Ugarte. The Uruguayan racked up 22 appearances in the season with many fans debating on who should be the starter for the defensive midfielder role. The debate sorted itself out as Palhinha left for Fulham for €20m in summer 2022. Sporting fans didn’t mind, as this meant Ugarte became the clear starter for the role. 32 appearances of high quality in 22/23 later, their faith has been justified.

Pros: Ugarte is an excellent transition defender. Sporting’s aggressive style in possession means that they need great transition defence when hit by opponents on the counter and Ugarte is the single best reason they deal with such threats well. He has great awareness and positional sense along with the strength in duels and tenacity to go with it. He’s also a great volume passer, comfortable recycling possession and keeping things safe. He also has great anticipation to win second balls and make loose ball recoveries in midfield. A very aware defensive presence combined with a very steady and safe passer

Cons: For the role we want, one con comes in the form of aerial duels. Ugarte isn’t very athletic in the air and is average in aerial combat. He’s not the most creative final third player or a strong carrier, but again these aren’t issues for the role we are looking for. Another point could be him not being extremely athletic or quick, but on the ground his tenacity, positional IQ and aggression more than make up for it.

Verdict: Ugarte has been linked to a host of top clubs. He would be a great fit as a partner for Enzo at Chelsea or successor to Fabinho at Liverpool. But his age (just 21), profile and asking price seem like an excellent fit for a Casemiro rotation player who also has the high ceiling to take over as United’s starting DM in 2-3 years time. It’s a great match.

The Devil’s DNA Score: 9/10 

Samu Costa, 22, UD Almeria

Career: Samuel Almeida Costa, commonly known as Samu, is a Portuguese international who rose through the youth ranks of Braga. He was loaned to Segunda Division side, UD Almeria,for the 20/21 season. Despite losing the play-off final to miss out on promotion to La Liga, they made the deal permanent for a reported €5m, after being impressed in 33 starts by the youngster. His next season was even better; his 39 start involvement helped Almeria win promotion to La Liga. This season, he’s once again been one of the best players for the team that finds themselves in the bottom 3, but many have noticed Samu’s amazing displays and it seems like he’ll be bought by a better club and continue his growth in a top league while Almeria look to make a profit almost 4 times the amount they paid for Samu Costa.

Pros: Samu is an excellent defender in midfield. Both in terms of his aggression and intensity to take part in many duels, and also his success and capability to win a lot of them – he is already a high level ball-winner. His aerial prowess is among the best in our shortlist while his mental attributes like awareness, concentration and consistency are almost like a veteran’s. 

Cons: Samu isn’t the most creative player in the world. He’s also not a great carrier of the ball. He’s not technically poor though – he is comfortable receiving and playing passes and doesn’t seem to have a weakness in terms of ball control. The issue really seems to be because he is in a relegation battling team that defend a lot more than attack. He’s the right-sided defensive partner of a pivot ahead of a back 5 that has allowed the 2nd most goals in La Liga. My guess is that he’d look much better on the ball in a better team.

Verdict: A right-sided DM who has elite ball-winning and positional traits with room to improve on the ball – I don’t see too many issues with this. Picking up a 22-year-old who will cost about €25m and giving him time to develop under Ten Hag until Casemiro fades, seems like a good idea to me. I’m only going to cut marks for the on-the-ball weakness, since that is an area that will need to be developed for sure. But this is a good option for sure.

The Devil’s DNA Score: 8/10 


So, in summary of this exercise, I think Manuel Ugarte should be our top target. His age means that he can rotate with Casemiro for a while, but his ability and potential mean that he can become a key starter in future as well. All for a price under around €40m. After that, a low-price on Samu Costa, means that we can get a young upcoming ball-winner without fuss and immediately enjoy his great ball-winning traits with an aim to develop his on-ball traits until Casemiro fades. The likes of Florentino Luis and Tyler Adams would be amazing for the role but probably too amazing and too costly given their top team readiness, hype and age. That wraps up the list for a role which isn’t easy to scout for, given the age, profile and rotation conditions, but I hope I was able to do a decent job.

Hope you enjoyed this piece. Do comment/suggest on what you liked/disliked about this ad what future article you would like to see.

(Credits to fbref for stats and transfermarkt for contract details)

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 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.

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)

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