Football, at its core, is a really subjective sport to analyze. Other than the issues that come with judging individuals in a team sport, the complications of understanding if a player is good or bad are plenty and can probably never be stated outright in that form. But that doesn’t mean we stop rating players, does it? There is assessment going on, regardless of the difficulties in assessment. Often, the judgment comes down to – is a player doing what he’s supposed to and doing it well? Which then demands the understanding of what he/she is supposed to do, which in turn leads to the demands of understanding team tactics and instructions of other players. It’s not an easy process.
But today, I’m going to try and make that process a little easier. I’m going to classify Europe’s top 5 leagues’ midfielders into roles and rank them on the basis of how well they performed that role last season. I’ll explain the methodology below, and then open up a request line on Twitter, for anyone to be able to ask for a specific player’s role rank chart. Let’s get into it.
I’ll spend more time explaining the midfield roles, since they are key to the results. The 5 roles I’ve decided to classify midfielders into are:
As you can see, I’m a huge fan of Football Manager. I just think they’ve nailed down names of player roles really well. They do have a few more, but I’ve decided to stick to these 5 for simplicity. An explanation of each role:
1. Deep-lying Playmaker: The midfielder tasked with progressing from deep. We’re looking at someone who is good at build up, involved in possession, spreads play well, dictates tempo and progresses from deep. Some of the stats that will carry high weightage are ‘Progressive Passes’, ‘Passes into final third’, ‘Pass completion %’, ‘Progressive Carries’ etc. Some good 21/22 references for players in this category would be Kroos and Verratti.
2. Defensive Midfielder: Initially I had named this role as ‘Anchor Man’ but it felt it was too reductive in function. The player most adept at holding, shielding the back 4 or 5, defending transitions and good positioning, makes it here. An aspect of retention and ball safety will also be focused on. Some stats that have been used are ‘% of dribblers tackled’, ‘Pressure Success %’, ‘Miscontrols’, ‘Pass Targets’ etc. References would be players like Busquets and Casemiro from last season.
3. Ball-winning Midfielder: The midfielder who operates with high defensive intensity, presses a lot, wins the ball back and is more about workrate and getting stuck in, than any technical aspects of the game, is covered here. Some high-weightage stats used for this are ‘Pressures’, ‘Tackles’, ‘Interceptions’, ‘Pass blocks’ etc. Good references for this role are Kante and Fred in 21/22.
4. Box-to-box Midfielder: I’ve covered players who love to join the attack in this one. These are midfielders who boast a high goal threat from midfield and routinely link up with attackers without much care for involvement deeper in midfield. Stats like ‘Carries into final third’, ‘npxG’, ‘Shots’, and ‘Dribbles’ have been focused on. References for this role are Naby Keita and Ilkay Gundogan of last year.
5. Advanced Playmaker: These might be slightly tricky to separate from box-to-box mids and deep-lying playmakers, but the reference here is of players who have high final third creation. Instead of deep playmaking, they focus on finding attackers regularly and have good rates for assists. Some focus stats for these players are ‘xA’, ‘Passes into penalty area’, ‘Key passes’, ‘Shot-creating Actions’ etc. Good references from 21/22 might be Luis Alberto and Rodrigo de Paul.
Well, that was all the theory. The rest is pretty much manual work.
Step 1: I downloaded stats of all outfield players from fbref.com
Step 2: I segregated ‘Central Midfielders’ and ‘Defensive Midfielders’ form this list using Transfermarkt filters
Step 3: I cut off all players who haven’t played at least 10 league 90s
Step 4: I create possession-adjusted and per 90 versions of each stat so that we can bring all the stats to a comparable level playing field
Step 4: I converted each stat into a percentile version within this data set. Eg. The midfielder with the highest ‘possession-adjusted per 90 xA’ gets 100 percentile for ‘xA’ and so on. One caveat here is that I am comparing midfielders across leagues for this exercise. So someone with a 90 percentile is better than 90% of Europe’s top 5 league midfielders on that stat, not just his own league. It’s the only way I can get a Europe level ranking.
Step 5: I used the role logic from earlier to come up with scores for each of the 5 roles. I’ve used 13 data points for each role and weighted them on the basis of which stats are more relevant. Step 6: I use percentiles once again within the role scores to rank them, and then assign each player their best role based on the final percentiles.
The results look like this:
The percentile scores indicate how good the midfielder is at that role. Eg. Kroos is the best deep-lying playmaker in Europe’s top 5 leagues based on 21/22 data, but two-thirds of the same midfielders are better than him for the ball-winning midfielder role. The 25 players in this list have a top 1 percentile score on at least one role.
Let’s look at the role wise ratings. Here are the top 25 players for each specific role.
Those were the best players in each role based on season data.
Now, let’s take a look at some player profiles that cover their score and suitability for each role. It’s the same data, but from a single player point of view.
Firsty, Toni Kroos.
The role scores that we calculated earlier, have been used to plot marks along the pentagon to show how good a player is at that role. As discussed before, Kroos claims the top spot for ‘Deep-lying Playmaker’ with a solid 100, but he also looks good for ‘Advanced Playmaker’ and ‘Box-to-box Midfielder’ which hints at what a good 21/22 he has had in terms of playmaking and driving the game. He looks decent on ‘Defensive Midfielder’ and is in the bottom third for ‘Ball Winner’.
Let’s look at another example. Frenkie De Jong.
Now, the data will only reflect what a player has done in 21/22 and not what he CAN do. If a player was played out of position or tasked with a different role, the chart will change accordingly. Frenkie’s best roles appear for ‘Deep-lying Playmaker’, ‘Box-to-box midfielder’ and ‘Advanced Playmaker’ which probably speaks of the various roles he has been asked to play last year. His low defensive output and shielding ability are clear from his inferior scores in the other 2 roles.
Koopmeiners was largely touted as a Defensive Midfielder prior to his move to Italy. While that tag is debatable, his usage at Atalanta has been anything but. He’s been deployed as an attacking midfielder or roaming #8 on many occasions, which is probably why his 21/22 stats look good for ‘Advanced Playmaker’ and ‘Box-to-box midfielder’ while also showing a good score for ‘Deep-lying Playmaker’.
A final example to end this article with a bang. Thiago Alcantara.
He progressed play, he playmaked, he won the ball back, he supported the attack, he shielded the defence – Thiago did everything in 21/22. There’s almost nothing to separate the 5 role scores. Thiago was the most well-rounded midfielder in terms of my calculations.
Well, that’s a wrap. I’ll be opening a request line on our Twitter handle after releasing this article. Comment with the name of the player you want to look at and I’ll RT with the pentagon-shaped role rank style chart like the 3 above.
If there is high interest, I might do a similar exercise for the other positions as well, but I’m not sure of the interest of 21/22 rankings since 22/23 has already begun.
At the time of the writing of this article, Manchester United have embarked on their pre-season tour with only 1 summer signing finalized – Tyrell Malacia. The aggressive rebuild isn’t really going as per plan and to make matters worse, the red side of Manchester has been shaken by Cristiano Ronaldo’s absence from pre-season due to “a family issue”. Rumors say that the Portuguese is looking for a way out of the club in a bid to play Champions League football next season – something that really doesn’t come as a big surprise, knowing the man. Regardless of where you stand on the Ronaldo debate, one thing is clear – United need a proper center-forward who suits Ten Hag’s style.
Over the past 3 years, the club has brought in 32-year-old Ighalo, 34-year-old Edinson Cavani and 36-year-old Ronaldo in the name of a top center-forward. Martial’s inconsistency and the declining status of these signings has meant that the club hasn’t seen a consistent central forward presence since Lukaku under Jose Mourinho. Even if Ronaldo hadn’t shaken the boat, his age and limitations to be able to play as a well-rounded center-forward that can spearhead an Erik Ten Hag attack, mean that United should be looking hard for a young/peak CF anyway. Rangnick even mentioned that Ronaldo himself indicated that he’s better playing off a proper CF in a front 2, although given the latest circumstances, a direct replacement and upgrade on Ronaldo is probably the best course of action for the club.
United need a long-term CF and in today’s piece, I’m going to use data to create a shortlist for the same and cover the top 6 options in detail. Let’s get into it.
Creating the Shortlist
I’ve done this a few times now in case you caught our CM, RB or RW shortlist before. I’m going to keep this part short in the interest of spending more time with our shortlisted candidates.
1. I downloaded data from Fbref for all outfield players in Europe
2. I converted all stats to ‘per 50 touches’ to better represent what the players do in possession
3. I filtered in players labeled as ‘Center-forward’ or ‘Support-striker’ as per Transfermarkt
4. I filtered in players who have played at least 20 league 90s in 21/22
5. I created percentiles within this dataset to order all relevant stats from 0 to 100 percentile
5. I used a weighted formula to create a score from the relevant stat percentiles to rank our desired profiles
Further expanding on point 5, these are the stats I used to create the weighted score:
NpxG – 20% weightage
Pressures – 15% weightage
xA – 15% weightage
Shots – 15% weightage
Progressive passes received – 10% weightage
NpxG/Shot – 10% weightage
Possession losses – 10% weightage
Aerial Win % – 5% weightage
Our first responsibility is to find a great goalscorer. ‘NpxG’, ‘Shots’ and ‘NpxG/Shot’ together almost make up half the overall score in terms of weight. This will ensure we get a top goal threat who can get into the box regularly, take shots created by playmakers like Bruno, Shaw and Sancho and deliver high non-penalty output. We also want someone who moves well in the attacking third and receives a lot, which is why ‘Progressive passes received’ is a factor. ‘xA’ denotes our need for someone with a good final ball to also be able to play in the wingers or oncoming midfielders when possible. Our pressing structure woes are well documented and the addition of Ronaldo and Sancho and departure of Daniel James were big reasons why the high press completely failed in 21/22. We can’t afford that again, so the new CF has to be a decent presser. Finally, he should be able to keep possession losses to a minimum (this guarantees a good level of close control and decision making in the final third) and be decent aerially, since Ten Hag does like to use his CF as an aerial out-ball from time to time.
With an additional age filter to keep in players under the age of 27, when sorted by weighted score, this is what we ended up with:
Going by vibes as well, if someone said Erling Haaland is the type of CF United need (Ole certainly seemed to think so 2 years ago), then our formula is on the right track. Next, I filtered out players who will not move to United at this point (like Haaland) or do not play CF (like Moffi).
Our list is starting to shape up nicely. A final requirement for filtering can be seen here, though. We don’t want a player who is poor in a certain aspect. Eg. Schick and Isak are at the bottom 20 percentile for pressures and David, for Aerial Win %. We’ve already discussed how the new CF cannot be poor in these aspects. I used a minimum 20 percentile filter on each stat.
This rounds up our shortlist neatly to 6 options. This seems good for now. Let’s get into the details of each candidate.
Before we get into the shortlisted 6, I want to post 2 profiles to preface an understanding of what we want to upgrade on and what the ideal candidate could look like.
Firstly, Cristiano Ronaldo.
While Ronaldo’s goal-scoring was decent, his profile is littered with issues that hold the team back. The biggest one being pressing. His ‘Pressures’ reading 0 percentile is indicative of him being the worst presser in Europe in our dataset of center-forwards and support-strikers who have played at least 20 league 90s. His pressure success is also average. His passing stats paint him as someone too uncreative to assist others, a safe pass % being the only pro. Ronaldo being average for ‘Npxg/Shot’ and ‘Progressive Passes Received’ also hints at his poor CF movement to receive the ball in dangerous areas close to goal, with him often drifting off to the left or deep to take low quality shots from distance.
Next, as a contrast, let’s look at Erling Haaland’s profile, who ranked highest in the set before the realism filters.
While Haaland’s shooting and goal-scoring are world-class (which is the biggest reason he ranked so highly for us given the extra weightage for shooting stats), he looks good for many other metrics too. His final ball is deceptively strong, with this ability to pick out a key pass the reason he has 8 and 10 assists in his last 2 seasons. His excellent ‘Progressive passes received” and “Aerial Win %” indicate his strong box presence and option to be a consistent target. While his pressures applied are below average, he makes up with a high pressure success, which indicates a willingness to wait patiently for the right moment to win the ball for a turnover. He’s not a great dribbler though, which probably indicates you just can’t have everything. As long as most of the boxes are ticked and there is a fitment with the existing setup, it can work.
With this in mind, let’s begin the breakdown for each of our shortlisted candidates in order of the weighted score.
Age: 24 Club: Inter Milan Nation: Argentina Position: CF, SS Foot: Right (84% usage) Contract ends: June, 2026 Current market value: £72m Rumored transfer value: £60m to £90m
Even though he’s still just 24, Lautaro already feels like a household name in Europe following 3 back-to-back seasons of 25+ goal contributions as a key starter for Inter Milan, which include 3 trophies as well. Whether it’s under Conte or Inzaghi or when paired with Lukaku or Dzeko, Lautaro delivers. And 21/22 has just been his best season yet. Prying him away from Inter is a costly affair given his form and status, but given the financial constraints of the Italian club, and Lukaku and potentially Dybala returning, a strong bid could satisfy all parties.
Strengths: Probably the most well-rounded striker for his age, Lautaro boasts immense shooting skills with his goal threat among the best in the list. One of the reasons he’s a great finisher is because of his intense concentration and consistency. He rarely misses chances and is very aware of what’s happening on the pitch all the time. He has a very ‘precision over power’ approach to his shooting. He’s also a decent shot-creator and safe passer, given his experience in operating in deeper areas. He’s able to drop deep, hold the ball with his back to goal and facilitate others cleanly with smart one-touch passes or disguised passes. In the attacking phase, he has amazing movement to be able to run the channels, provide final man runs and get into the box to create shots for himself as well. He is really quick and really adept in tight spaces. His metrics for ‘NpxG/Shot’ and ‘Progressive passes received’ would have been more if he wasn’t sharing attacking duties with a more advanced striker. His movements on transitions and while breaking down low blocks are so good, that he’s always at the right place at the right time to unlock the defense, create a gap, find a teammate or fashion himself a shooting chance. He’s also deceptively strong in the air, finishing many chances with his head and having the ability to win aerial duels for his teammates. His ‘Aerial Win %’ only reads low thanks to the high amount of aerial duels he engages in.
Weaknesses: Lautaro is comfortable as a left-sided striker in a front 2. As a natural right-footer, he finds the left-sided angle to pass and carry easier. This adds to a plethora of United attackers who also have a left-sided bias. He’s well rounded enough to pull off a lone striker role, but the evenness to be able to progress and facilitate play on either side from a central position at all times, is in doubt. He also needs to be more aggressive in racking up high xG chances closer to goal, but this could largely be due to him being partnered with a more advanced striker so far.
Overall Devil’s DNA Score: 9.5/10
Age: 24 Club: Clermont Foot Nation: Guinea Position: CF Foot: Right (88% usage) Contract ends: June, 2024 Current market value: £10.8m Rumored transfer value: £8m to £12m
I can guarantee that no one would have guessed Bayo of Clermont Foot was making our shortlist when this process began. And it’s not anyone’s fault. Until 2021, Bayo was playing in the second division of France. A youth product of Clermont, Bayo needed reserve team games and loan spells until the age of 22 to develop himself. In 20/21, he made the starting spot his own and helped his hometown achieve Ligue 1 promotion via 22 goals and 7 assists. In 21/22, he followed this up with another stellar season of 14 goals and 5 assists in 27 starts to help Clermont escape relegation. This has led to him being courted by stronger clubs in Europe this summer. The rumors include Everton looking at him as a Richarlison replacement and West Ham considering him as competition to Antonio, but recent reports have seen Lille lead the race.
Strengths: Clermont only scored 38 league goals this season, 37% of which have been scored by Bayo, showing his importance as a goal threat to the relegation-battling side. Bayo’s best trait is his movement. He is constantly running, looking for spaces in the opponent backline and gets at the end of chances consistently. His high values for ‘NPxG’ and ‘NPxg/Shot’ indicate a striker who gets into good positions and takes high value shots. He has a very strong one-touch finish and is very skilled at close-range finishes, often aiming for the roof of the net with power to give goalkeepers no chance. He’s also a strong dribbler, using his agility and pace to beat opponents rather than technique or flair. He also has a good final ball, boasting 12 assists in 2 years.
Weaknesses: Bayo isn’t very technically gifted. He looks good as the sharp and pacey outlet for a counter-attacking unit (which makes the West Ham rumors make so much sense) but the ability to play back to goal and showcase close control against crowded low blocks for a possession-based team, is in doubt. His pressing and aerial prowess are also not too great, which greatly limit what he can do when the team doesn’t have the ball. While he could prove to be an upgrade in terms of consistent movement and box presence that Ronaldo doesn’t offer, much of the other limitations of the veteran could be repeated with Bayo. If Ronaldo does stay for a year or United are unable to close a better striker, Bayo could serve as a cheap pick up who offers poacher traits that the attack currently doesn’t have, but might need upgrading on with a starter-level forward in a year.
Overall Devil’s DNA Score: 7/10
Age: 25 Club: Lyon Nation: France Position: CF Foot: Right (82% usage) Contract ends: June, 2023 Current market value: £45m Rumored transfer value: £10m to £20m
Moussa’s strong 21/22 (22 goals and 5 assists in 31 starts) couple with his contract situation (1 year left) and the arrival of Lacazatte on a free transfer, have meant that the 25 year-old has seen himself be linked to many clubs, like Southampton, for as less as £10m. But, the player recently announced that he wished to stay, among rumors that Bosz could field both Lacazatte and Moussa in a front 2 for the coming season. A bid from a big club, especially if Moussa finds himself benched for the high-profile Lacazatte, could change all that very quickly.
Strengths: Playing the CF in Lyon’s 4-2-3-1 for most of the 21/22 season, Moussa’s best traits paint him as a strong poacher. His 4 shooting stats, ‘Progressve Passes Received’metric and ‘Aerial Win %’ collectively scream of his ability to be a great mover in the final third, an amazing outlet with box presence and a superb finisher. He is among the best runners-in-behind in world football and has a very central tendency to his movement unlike many left-biased right-footed strikers. His great acceleration and composure in front of goal make him frustrating to stop. He’s already had 4 20+ goal seasons before turning 26. He’s also really good at in-to-out and out-to-in movements, leading defenders away from their positions to create space for himself or a teammate. Before his loan move to Atletico, 93% of his goals had come from inside the box. Can liken him to someone like Jamie Vardy.
Weaknesses: Moussa is at his best when facing the goal. He’s limited when it comes to back-to-goal play and can lose the ball when pressured in crowded areas. He’s not really progressive, either via passing or carrying, and can’t be called extremely safe in his close control either. Dembele shone when Lyon had creators like Fekir and Ndombele feeding him constantly from midfield, but after their departure and the emergence of good movers in the attack like Ekambi and Kadewere, a lot of Moussa’s traits didn’t seem critical enough, often leading to him being dropped. He did win back his place eventually, but the caveats of his success as a player relying heavily on his movement and the requirement of the team to be very service-oriented to get the best out of him, needs to be noted. With United overloading creators like Eriksen and De Jong to help Bruno and Sancho, a service-demanding and low ball-affinity CF like Dembele could work a charm, but a second CF option who provides what Moussa cannot (maybe Martial?), might have to be considered as well.
Overall Devil’s DNA Score: 7.5/10
Age: 24 Club: Roma Nation: England Position: CF Foot: Right (90% usage) Contract ends: June, 2026 Current market value: £45m Rumored transfer value: £67m to £90m
Becoming a great advert for English youngsters finding Serie A as a developmental home, Tammy has grown from his Chelsea days into a much more well-rounded and impactful striker, boasting 27 goals and 5 assists in 48 starts in 21/22. Chelsea have a buyback option of €80m (£67m), but Tammy’s insistence of being happy at Roma and Roma’s demands of a €100m fee make this seem like a tough transfer. But with the constant links with Premier League sides like Arsenal and Man United and rumors of Tammy being open to return to his home country, a mouth-watering bid has the potential to see the striker return to England.
Strengths: Tammy’s goal-scoring is world-class. Even before the Roma move, his values for ‘Goals’, ‘NpxG’ and ‘NpxG/Shot’ were always superb, on a per 90 basis. He’s now just gotten a full season to see them translate to top-class season numbers. His shot quality has always been a hallmark and he ranks the best for ‘NpxG/Shot’ in our dataset. This refers to his ability to get into very good areas and take high value shots close to the goal. Good movement and positioning, whether it’s to get into the box between defenders or to get at the end of a searching ball or to pick the space to receive when the team is attacking in transition – Tammy has a natural flair for purposeful movement. Tammy receives 20% of his passes inside the box while 48% of his touches in the box lead to a shot. These highlight what a strong central box presence he is. While not really creative, Tammy has the strength to hold off defenders, play back-to-goal and lay off quick one-touch passes to advancing teammates. He also has the ability to release wide players in transition if the space is there, being more progressive in his passing than one might imagine. He’s very diligent in tracking back and covering passing lanes during the opposition build-up – things he has learnt well under Jose Mourinho.
Weaknesses: Tammy isn’t the fastest on the ground, his height and lanky frame taking off some acceleration. He has a tendency to drift in and out of games, often coming to life in decisive moments, but also seemingly going missing in other moments. His hold up play and ball control, especially in deeper areas of the pitch, can do with improvement. He’s efficient and neat but the requirements of technical play when far from goal and faced with low blocks, might be tough on him in a possession-based side. Tammy’s carrying is below average, with the player often opting for a quick pass instead of carrying towards goal. This means that he needs to be supported well in attack and cannot be expected to keep hold of the ball for long using close control, until teammates arrive.
Overall Devil’s DNA Score: 9/10
Age: 23 Club: Napoli Nation: Nigeria Position: CF Foot: Right (90% usage) Contract ends: June, 2025 Current market value: £58.5m Rumored transfer value: £70m to £90m
Like Lautaro Martinez, even at the young age of 23, Osihmen already feels like an established star, boasting double-digit goals for 4 consecutive seasons now, the last 2 being at Napoli. His 21/22 season ended with 18 goals and 2 assists in 26 starts. Napoli signed the Nigerian for a club record fee of potentially €80m. The chances of them letting go of their prized possession for anything less than that amount, considering he has 3 more years left on his contract, are slim.
Strengths: Physically, Osihmen is probably the most impressive striker in our list. His height, strength, pace, agility and energy speak of a combination that is really rare to find. This leads to him getting to the ball often – whether it’s a dynamic leap or a burstful run across the ground or a sprint across the opposition box – Osihmen is usually there, outmuscling or outrunning opponents with a childish ease. His speed and acceleration enable him to make start-stop or direction-changing runs that are hard to track. He’s also really adept at carrying, using his physical traits to power through with the ball, when faced with defenders. His hold up and close control are also strong, thanks to the combination of his physical traits and ball control technique. Similar to Lukaku, he’s easily able to hold defenders off, shield the ball and play it off to his teammate without losing it. His high IQ movement is the reason for his high ‘Progressive passes received’ stat. He is adept at finishing from his head as well as left foot.
Weaknesses: Most glaringly, Osimhen is yet to cross 33 starts in a season. His 2 seasons for Napoli have seen 19 and 26 starts in all competitions, respectively. Repetitive injuries of different nature have plagued the player. While his scoring rate is great on a per 90 basis, he is still yet to cross 18 goals a season, thanks to his fitness record. Also, Osihmen isn’t really creative on the ball. He’s not a great passer and is poor at progression and creation from passes. His strong carrying and physical ability to hold the ball until he can pick out a straightforward pass, is what helps him keep the game going, but don’t expect him to create for others.
Overall Devil’s DNA Score: 8.5/10
Age: 23 Club: Sassuolo Nation: Italy Position: CF Foot: Right (91% usage) Contract ends: June, 2026 Current market value: £26m Rumored transfer value: £40m to £50m
With his imposing frame, eye-catching tattoos and excellence for Sassuolo this season, Scamacca’s potential movement to a Champions League club has been one of the stories of the summer. With various clubs linked at many points, the consensus seems to be that Paris Saint-Germain have got their man for €50m. But with the deal still not official, one can never rule out anything. I mean, what if PSG target the frustrated Ronaldo, leaving Scamacca open to join United? A man can dream.
Strengths: Scamacca’s most noticeable trait is his imposing 6’5” frame. Likened to Zlatan, the Italian is very strong in the air, but combines that physicality with a good first touch and close control. He probably has the best hold up and close control in our list. Scamacca can pluck balls out of thin air, bring them down with finesse, shield it against defenders and then find a teammate easily. He is very versatile in terms of contribution in open play, having the ability to run the channels or wide areas, stay in the box like a target man or drop deep to help connect play. While not being too creative, Scamacca is a very aware and deceitfully skillful shot creator utilizing smart flicks, dummies, tap-downs, cutbacks, through balls and crosses to find his teammates in good situations. He also has a wonderful shooting technique, able to rifle it from distance or tap it in precisely from close-range.
Weaknesses: His great shooting technique and eagerness to do too much, make him take some bad shooting decisions, especially from distance. He’ll often be found releasing one from afar, when a better choice could have been made. This is the reason for his below average ‘NPxG/Shot’. Scamacca doesn’t have the poaching pedigree of some of the others on our list. This is the first time in his career he has got double digit league goals, while his profile feels a bit too well-rounded and all-over-the-place at times, which might not be ideal for a club wanting a consistent goal threat capable of being the league’s top scorer.
Overall Devil’s DNA Score: 8/10
A final summary of our summer 2022 CF shortlist:
Movement, Mentals, Finishing, Link-up
Left-sided bias, Untested as lone CF
Movement, Finishing, Transition game
Hold up, Consistency, Creativity
Physicals, Movement, Carrying
Fitness, Passing, Creativity
Hold up, Versatility, Technique
Shooting decisions, Poaching, Final ball
Movement, Finishing, Proven
Hold up, Creativity, Need for service, Progression
Movement, Finishing, Agility
Hold up, Technique, Defending
Roughly speaking, the summary implies that if United want a top CF for years to come, they’re gonna have to pay up. Either of Lautaro, Tammy and Osimhen would prove to be a costly affair. Given their skill sets, it seems like a big swing for the Inter Milan man makes most sense for United. A low-price pickup for Dembele or Bayo would prove to be very cost-effective and immediately give United the poacher option they are missing, but might require an upgrade again in a year or two. These 2 players could work in tandem with Ronaldo or Martial or any future CF. Scamacca, on the other hand, offers something different at a decent price and could be really instrumental in bringing others into play in a unified attack.
All said and done, there are good options. United should ideally take advantage of the Ronaldo uproar and start looking at some of these names as a replacement. They need to do it anyway, whether it’s now or next year. A 37 year-old fading limited striker is not the face of a youth-focused rebuild. United need to go for the inevitable upgrade. The more they delay it, the lesser the options remain in the market, an effect we have seen when it comes to getting a defensive midfielder.
Thanks for reading so far. If there are any specific requests that are linked to United, please inform us and we can do them separately.
United’s summer business for 2022 has been a case of a lot of noise, but no actual results. What was hailed and expected to be a quick and intense rebuilding of a team that was the subject of huge disappointment and embarrassment in 21/22, has resulted in a complete lack of movement in terms of sales and buys. Coupled with rival teams strengthening proactively, and attempting to build deeper squads as protection against a season that will include a winter World Cup in the middle of it, United’s lack of movement for key starter positions that have issues, is demotivating to say the least.
Defensive midfielder remains a priority position but that seems nowhere close to being addressed, with rumors of Frenkie De Jong and Eriksen doing the rounds, neither of whom fit the archetype. Our top targets based on the shortlist created this year contained Grillitsch, Kamara, Tchouameni and Doucoure, all of whom have moved or are set to move soon. While the midfield search seems focused on a chase behind Frenkie De Jong, today we turn our attention to another problem area of the squad – Right Winger.
Why is RW a problem area?
I’m going to lay out a statement that might cause some debate.
United have no viable right winger starter
Let me explain. Rashford, Elanga, Sancho, Garnacho all prefer playing from the left while Amad Diallo and Pellistri are too raw to command a starting RW position having played just a combined 15 senior team 90s in Europe in their career so far.
The most debated statement here will be Sancho’s. As much as fans would like to believe Sancho can be the permanent RW solution for United, his stats suggest he’s better at LW, while his playing profile also indicates much more comfort playing from the left and cutting in. Laurie Whitwell revealed on his podcast this year that Ole bought Sancho for the LW position, while the decisions of Ole and Rangnick to play Sancho predominantly on the left this season have confirmed these thoughts as well. There is a strong chance that Sancho continues playing off the left, and even if he does take the right side temporarily for a season, it might be in United’s best interest to acquire a permanent RW that fits Erik Ten Hag’s tactics.
What kind of RW should we target?
A tougher question to answer. But if we are going by Erik Ten Hag’s preferences, we have a few hints to go on. At Ajax, he used inverted wingers who were good at wide play. The wingers often held width to stretch play and then had the ability to cut in and create/score when presented with isolation situations (1-on-1s with fullbacks after overloading the opposite side). There are variations to this. Tadic was a more narrow support striker type LW when he played there (A role Sancho or Rashford could mirror), Antony was closer to the isolation winger archetype, holding width and using his dribbling to cut in while Ziyech was more creative attempting to roam inside and pick out passes for his other attackers and midfield runners. But largely speaking, they were all inverted and well-rounded enough to offer wide play and cut in, work with other attackers and provide output in terms of assists or goals when in dangerous areas. This is what I’ll be going on in terms of statistics that I’ll pick out to create a shortlist.
Creating a shortlist
I’ll keep this brief so that we can spend more time on the final targets. A summary of my actions:
I downloaded data from Fbref (You can find a drive here where I’ve uploaded all player stats and team logos)
I converted all stats to per 50 touches to better reflect what players do with the ball
I filtered out players with low 90s (>12 league 90s played) and all positions other than wingers
I converted all stats to percentiles within this group (Note: This will be very different from Fbref percentiles thanks to a more narrow dataset.)
I used the following 5 stats to create a weighted formula:
Dribbles attempted: 30% weightage
Progressive Carries: 20% weightage
NpxG: 10% weightage
Pressures: 20% weightage
xA: 20% weightage
50% of the weightage is purely towards the 2 carrying stats. The reason is simply because we want a strong dribbler, first and foremost. Pressing and expected assists carry the next most importance because we want a winger who can press (Rashford, Sancho, CR are all very poor pressers) and has a good final ball. The last weightage for NPxG is to ensure that our winger has some good movement to get into the box and generate scoring chances for himself, something that can be of value considering the creativity of Sancho and Bruno.
The final filter was age. We want someone under the age of 25 so that this position is sorted for a long time. The results were as follows:
Kulusevski and Vinicius Jr. topping our list gives us a good indication. Even by the eye test, Kulusevski is one RW who has the perfect mix of carrying, creation, scoring and pressing that would benefit a top team, as Spurs are finding out in recent times, while an inverted version of what Vinicius is doing this year would be a godsend.
So, we’re on the right track. The next step is to find out who can realistically work as a permanent RW for us. We need to filter out players who are better off the left (Ali Cho, Holtmann etc.) and players who would not move to United at this point (Salah, Kulusevski etc.). I also used some minimum filters (10%-20%) on each stat to avoid players who are really poor at 1 aspect (Eg. Someone who is very poor at pressing like Chukwueze).
After these filters, the results are as follows:
These are the top 6 by weighted score who can play RW permanently and are realistic to pursue. This becomes our shortlist. Yay!
Let’s get into the details of each attacker to further figure out their potential to be Manchester United’s right winger.
Note: The pizza charts from here on are based on the same percentiles I calculated on a per 50 touch basis in our narrow dataset of Europe’s wingers who have played >15 90s. They are not Fbref percentiles. These percentiles will seem a bit more extreme (highs and lows) due to the narrow dataset, and will serve to let us know how good/bad someone is for a given stat as compared to the others in the same set of players.
Club: Athletic Bilbao Nation: Spain Age: 19 Position: RW, LW Foot: Right (74%) Contract end: June, 2024 Market Value: £10.80m Rumored transfer fee: £40m-£50m
The brother of club teammate Inaki Williams, Nico made it as a permanent RW candidate in our shortlist because he has played RW 44 times and LW 6 times in his senior career so far. As you can see, it’s not been a vast career. The Spaniard only had 2 sub appearances last season. This season has been his breakout one as he made 40 appearances across all competitions. Only 14 of these were starts. Bilbao have played a consistent 4-4-2 this season with Bereneguer starting the year as RM, but Nico has been pushing him hard for that spot, often rotating with him. By season end, Nico was featuring more often, ending 21/22 with 5 continuous league starts at RM, seemingly having made that spot his own.
Pros: If you’ve been missing a throwback electric orthodox right winger, look no further. Nico’s best trait is his dribbling. Using his electric pace, tight ball control and quick direction shifts, Nico is a heavy take-on winger. He stays wide to receive smartly and then has a go at his fullback which will really suit the wide isolation winger Ten Hag enjoys. Additionally, Nico has the combination ability to play give-and-gos and carve out threatening openings with short passes and brisk movement. His off-the-ball workrate is also superb as he fits into Bilbao’s famous pressing ethic. He’s a dream in attacking transition situations, getting into good areas with and without the ball and is a very intense ball-chaser if he loses the ball or the team needs him to help out on the wings.
Cons: Most of Nico’s weaknesses stem from the simple fact that he’s too raw. This was his first season of note in which more than half his appearances were subs. He barely became a Bilbao starter by season end, so a jump to immediate starter at Manchester United might be too soon. If someone questioned how much of an immediate upgrade 19-year-old Nico offered over 19-year-old Amad Diallo or 20-year-old Pellistri, it would be a valid question. Nico’s end product is lacking, merely as a function of his rawness. As the pizza chart shows, he doesn’t boast great final third numbers or final pass threat and is yet to score a league goal (He has 3 in cups). Given his talent, these stats are bound to improve as he keeps developing, but a call for an immediate RW starter might be too early for him. Probably, a year or two down the line, if required.
Overall Score: 7/10
Club: Mallorca (on loan from Real Madrid) Nation: Japan Age: 21 Position: RW, AM Foot: Left (86%) Contract end: June, 2024 Market Value: £27m Rumored transfer fee: £10m-£20m
Kubo came with a lot of fanfare to Real Madrid at the tender age of 18. What started out as 1-2 loans for development has now stretched to 4 loans at Mallorca, Villareal, Getafe, and Mallorca again this season. The Japanese international is now 22 and staring at the last 2 years of his Madrid contract, as Madrid block their 3 non-EU slots with established youngsters, Vinicius, Rodrygo and Militao. The chances of Kubo pushing for a permanent move are higher than ever and as per rumors, Madrid are willing to part with the wonderkid for as low as £15m.
Kubo has played RW in Mallorca’s 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 this season, racking up 19 starts and 31 appearances. In his whole career, he has started 63 times at RW, followed by 23 times at AM, his second best position. The parallels with Mata in terms of profile are obvious.
Pros: Kubo is technically sound. His ball control, passing, playmaking and carrying are excellent as seen in the pizza chart. He’s a very good progressor and shot-creator, while his ability to dribble into dangerous areas is outstanding. He also takes a good number of shots thanks to his ability to carry into good areas and get in sight of goal. Overall, he’s a very Mata-ish profile or, from a Ten Hag perspective, a potential Ziyech type.
Cons: His output is lacking. For all his great underlying metrics, Kubo doesn’t trouble the goals and assists charts often enough. He has only 2 goals and 2 assists in all competitions this season and just 18 goal contributions in his 4 years in Europe so far. Some of it can be attributed to playing for teams that don’t dominate regularly and him not getting consistent runs in them, but he also lacks the aggression and mentality to take the game by the scruff of its neck and force the issue when the team needs it. This lack of output is a major reason why he gets dropped at times for someone who is a lot more direct and why Madrid are sending him out on loan repeatedly in hopes he can develop an end product. Additionally, Kubo is not the best presser in the world and his defensive intensity to win the ball back and help out in deeper areas is not that great either. His off-the-ball movement to receive in wide and dangerous areas is also average. With the ball, a gem, without it, not so much.
Overall Score: 7.5/10
Club: AS Roma Nation: Italy Age: 22 Position: RW, AM Foot: Left (88%) Contract end: June, 2024 Market Value: £49.50m Rumored transfer fee: £40m-£50m
Zaniolo started his career as a midfielder, often playing in a box-to-box role or attacking midfielder role. He has played attacking midfielder 83 times and right winger 51 times in his career so far. But over time, he has been deployed more on the right wing. This season, he played 20 times as a right winger in a front 3 and 18 times as a right-sided support-striker in a front 2 and it seems like the right-wing spot is where he’ll make a permanent home at, whether it is at Roma or any other club. The recent switches to a back 5 have resulted in Zaniolo getting dropped more often, due to not getting his RW slot, which has apparently prompted an altercation with manager Mourinho.
As per the rumors, Zaniolo is expecting a system where he can play RW in a front 3 and a new contract that matches Tammy Abraham’s wages, failing which he would consider moving away. Roma want €50m for the Italian if such a situation comes to pass.
Pros: Zaniolo’s best traits are his carrying and shooting. He feels very comfortable with the ball, driving into half-spaces and fashioning shooting chances for himself. With 12 goal contributions in 30 90s this year, he is an output-based player and those numbers could improve further in a settled system where he plays RW in a front 3. He has very good positioning IQ to receive between the lines or wide and is a good defender, not shy of getting into tackles and making recoveries in deeper areas. He has an imposing physique (190cm, 79 kg) that helps him in duels and dribbling ability. He is also a good shot-creator from open play, possessing a nice long ball. All of this suits Ten Hag’s winger requirements nicely.
Cons: One of the main reasons he has been moved away from central roles is that he isn’t super creative. His ability to break blocks via through balls and visionary passes is below average. He does have a nice final ball (cross or cutback) that can be developed further, making him better suited to a wide inverted role. His fitness is also one concern, but a large part of that was the ACL injury he suffered in 2020 that took him out for a full season. This year, he’s clocked 40 appearances, and the drops to the bench were largely tactical. His fitness issues could be behind him and his passing progression is a very small issue given United have Bruno and Sancho for that.
Overall Score: 9.5/10
Club: AC Milan Nation: Belgium Age: 22 Position: RW, LW Foot: Right (80%) Contract end: June, 2026 Market Value: £18m Rumored transfer fee: £15m-£20m
Alexis moved from Anderlecht to Milan on loan when he was 20 and impressed enough for Milan to pay the €3.5m fee to make his stay permanent. Over the last 2 seasons, the Belgian has been unable to lock a starting spot appearing 83 times, but starting only 59 times. His 12 goal contributions haven’t been enough for Milan’s ambitious setup to consider him unsellable. The Rossoneri are similarly dissatisfied with Castillejo and Rebic, with none able to hold their spots on the wing. They are looking at targets like Lang, Asensio, Zaniolo and Berardi and would be willing to part with Alexis for as low as £15m to fund a new-look attack alongside Rafeal Leao.
Pros: Alexis is a very direct and intense player. He loves to take on his opponent and has the ability to go out wide and cut inside as well. His consistent and passionate carrying ability profiles him like a classical right winger. He’s also a strong defender, boasting high pressures, dribblers tackled, interceptions and passes blocked. Pioli has also used him as right wing-back and right-back on occasions showing how useful the player is in such situations and where his strengths lie. Even as a right-winger, it’s Alexis’ workrate, wide play and defending that allows Milan to adopt a left-leaning formation which helps Leao and Theo Hernandez to shine in attack. This is similar to how Ole would use Daniel James to let Shaw and Rashford flourish. Considering United’s riches of left-leaning attackers, Alexis could provide a similar base for them to perform.
Cons: While Alexis is better as a wide high-workrate deep winger, he lacks the output, technique and creation metrics that come with an advanced attacker. He might be better as a RM in a 4-4-2 or RWB in a back 5 than a RW in a front 3. He lacks the final ball, creativity and goal threat to trouble defenses. He has never scored more than 2 goals in a season, while his assisting is largely thanks to crosses from deeper and wider areas, rather than creative penetration of the half-spaces. He doesn’t get into dangerous central areas to even give himself the chance to score or create. It’s not a question of opportunity, it’s just not in his skillset. If an inverted winger role with final third impact is the expectation, Saelemaekers falls a little short.
Yeremi rose from the youth ranks of Villarreal, breaking into the senior team at the age of 17 with 12 first-team starts in 20/21. This year he’s taken that to the next level with 28 starts and 40 appearances in all competitions. Still just 19, Pino has made the right wing slot his own, whether in a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3, while also turning up as a striker on occasions. A host of top clubs are chasing Pino with the €30m release clause in his contract being a very reasonable price for his talents.
Pros: Even though he’s a right-footer playing on the right, often in a 4-4-2, Pino isn’t like an orthodox defensive winger at all. His best trait is his goal-scoring. He has among the best values in our dataset for NPxG and NPxG/Shot and his high progressive passes received stat indicates his amazing movement to receive in good areas. His xA also hints at a strong final ball in advanced positions closer to goal. A lot of this reads like the profile of a goal-scoring striker like Benzema or Nkunku this season. Pino is very efficient, rarely losing the ball by attempting audacious passes and dribbles, more inclined to using his intelligence, movement and awareness to find spaces in the final third and utilize his composure and maturity to finish. In that sense, he’s not a ball-hogger, preferring to be an outlet instead, which could really suit Ten Hag’s preferences of combination movements in the final third.
Cons: Pino isn’t really creative with the ball. While smart cutbacks and quick dribbles add to his efficient nature, the flair for a visionary pass or mazey dribble is probably missing. He might not be able to unlock defenses on his own from deeper areas, rather preferring to be the one on the end of such passes. He’s also not a great presser or ball-winner without the ball, but that could be developed as he grows, since he’s just 19. As long as expectations of what he can do with the ball are tempered and a solution to the high press can be found, Pino could complement the likes of Bruno and Sancho well and offer United something they need badly – movement and goal-scoring.
Overall Score: 8.5/10
Club: Crystal Palace Nation: England Age: 20 Position: RW, AM Foot: Left (86%) Contract end: June, 2026 Market Value: £19.8m Rumored transfer fee: £35m-£50m
Crystal Palace have been nailing some Championship starlet signings recently and Olise is probably the best among their picks. For someone who came from Reading when he was just 19, Olise has forced his way into Vieira’s plans faster than some might have imagined, picking up 31 appearances and 16 starts in his maiden Premier League season. By the second half of the season, he was the go-to RW in the 4-3-3, starting 14 out of Palace’s last 19 games in the league. Given his recent move and the ambition of the Palace project under Vieira, it might be tough to prise Olise away, but there are rumors that if a top team came calling and offered a significant improvement on the £8.5m Palace paid for him, the Eagles would sell.
Pros: Olise is a dream on the ball. Possessing high ball control, natural flair and the directional change of a seasoned dribbler, he is great at receiving in tight areas, turning defenders with pace and driving into dangerous areas with purpose. His technical expertise also extends to his passing, with Olise possessing very good switches, through balls and game–advancing passes in his locker, that can help progress the game or unlock defenses. Everything Olise does on the ball is expert level, and in that sense he is probably closest to the Antony archetype that Ten Hag enjoyed recent success with. Additionally, he is also a good presser who is very willing to work hard when the team needs it, which is a pleasant departure from inverted winger wonderkids who don’t defend.
Cons: On the flipside, Olise is poor in attack without the ball. His movement is lacking, as can be seen by his progressive passes received stat. He doesn’t have the off-the-ball intelligence to read the game, get at the end of other’s passes in threatening areas and be a goal threat, which is reflected in his poor shooting metrics. He prefers to stay wide, receive simple passes on the wing and then use his technique to drive in, which could make him predictable. This is an aspect that usually improves with age though and under the right guidance, especially given Ten Hag’s structural plays that utilize movements in the final third, Olise could pick up this skill.
Overall Score: 9/10
A final summary of our summer 2022 RW shortlist:
Dribbling, Shooting, Physicals, Output
Creativity, Positional clarity
Dribbling, passing, Flair, Antony-ish
Movement, Shooting, Output
Goalscoring, Movement, IQ
Creativity, Progression, Defense
Creativity, Progression, Technique
Defense, Output, Physicals
Dribbling, Flair, Workrate
Output, passing, Maturity
Workrate, Defense, Dribbling, RWB/RB
Creativity, Final 3rd impact, Output
And that’s that! Thanks for reading. If there’s anyone you think the stats have missed or is just a gut feeling from your side to be a United RW, do tag us on Twitter and mention so; we might do a scout report on him too (We did one for Raphinha recently. Here).
Most goals: Raphinha (11) Most shots: Raphinha (85) Most shots on target: Raphinha (21) Highest xG: Raphinha (11.2) Highest xA: Raphinha (6.8) Most chances created: Raphinha (65) Most passes into penalty area: Raphinha (48) Most progressive passes: Raphinha (169) Most shot-creating actions: Raphinha (119) Most players dribbled past: Raphinha (70) Most carries into penalty area: Raphinha (33) Most passes received: Raphinha (1193) Most progressive passes received: Raphinha (191)
It would be no understatement to say that Raphinha has carried Leeds United in 21/22. The Brazilian forward has dominated every relevant attacking stat this season. Not only is he bagging the Leeds’ player of the season award by a mile, his performances have been so huge, that top Champions League clubs like FC Barcelona and Bayern are now strongly linked to the 25-year-old, who is in the prime of his life.
In this article, we’ll analyze the one-army for Leeds this season – Raphael Dias Belloli.
Movement – A wide isolation right winger
Raphinha has started 31 times on the right wing in his 34 starts this season. He has been an ever-present for Leeds this year, boasting the 3rd highest minutes played after Meslier and Dallas. Whether it’s Bielsa’s 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 or Marsch’s 4-2-2-2, Raphinha has almost always started on the right wing.
Raphinha’s heat map conveys exactly what he is – a touchline wide winger. It’s actually a very in-demand profile and one of the reasons why Raphinha is being chased by top clubs. In general, good left-footed right wingers are rare compared to right-footed left wingers. On top of that, the nature of many left wingers being narrow creators and combining with central players means that managers prefer a right winger who can stay wide and stretch play to compensate.
For example, Barcelona’s left half space is routinely dominated by the likes of Depay, De Jong, Pedri, Torres, Aubameyang, Fati and Gavi which makes play concentrated on the left side. This gives a wide winger like Dembele or Adama Traore the chance to hold width on the right hand side, receive in space when the play switches and run at opponents. This is exactly what Raphinha does and probably why Barcelona have identified him as a key target.
For Leeds, Raphinha does have to track back, as shown in the heat map, but largely speaking, he is the main outlet in attack. He receives the most passes and progressive passes, as seen in the stat attack at the start of this article. Raphinha’s clever movement out wide ensures he always gets the ball in good areas and then has the ball control and movement to cut into dangerous areas and score or assist in equal measure. Movement wise, it’s a very valuable profile and one of the reasons why he has found great success in the league.
Shooting – A great mover and reliable shooter
As mentioned before, Raphinha is Leeds’ top shot taker and goal scorer as well. For the right winger in the team, who starts from a wide position, Raphinha’s ability to move into good areas to score from both with the ball and without, is tremendous. Raphinha is in the top 20 percentile in the league for both shots taken and expected goals (xG), even after playing for a club that was in a relegation scrap till the last day. This, in itself, speaks of his skill when it comes to getting into good areas and shooting.
If we look at his shot map, his right-sided shot-taking is visible, especially the shots attempted from the edge of the box in the right half-space. But he also has many shots from central areas and inside the box as well, which makes him different from the wingers that just take shots from distance from their preferred angle. Raphinha actually has the movement to get into the box regularly like a striker and fashion himself high value shots from central areas.
Another aspect is the number of saves he forces from his shots. He often gets shots on target, showcasing his technique and ability to hit the target. Not only is he a good mover to get into good areas but he also has the technique to hit the target regularly. It’s a deadly combination that very few attackers can claim to have.
Chance creation – Huge creator needing a finisher
If Raphinha’s wide movement and goal-scoring painted him as a dribble-and-shoot merchant like many wingers often are, it wouldn’t be further from the truth. Raphinha has excellent passing technique. It’s probably his stand-out trait. He is a strong creator in addition to being a good goal-scorer. Only 6 players in the Premier League have created more chances than Raphinha with 5 of them being the main creators of the top 5 teams and James Ward-Prowse jumping ahead thanks to a lot of set piece creation. It wouldn’t be wrong to call Raphinha the best open play creator outside the top 6 in the Premier League.
Once again, most of his chance creation comes from that right wing and half-space area. What is very clearly noticeable is the amount of short cutbacks from the right side into dangerous central areas. Raphinha is very adept at picking out those smart short passes that find a teammate. It has been Leeds’ misfortune that there was no consistent central threat this season to finish off those chances. With Bamford’s injury, winger James’ poor attempts to play as a striker and Gelhardt being too raw for a starter role, there was no finisher to capitalize on Raphinha’s creativity. The result sees Raphinha end the league season with just 3 assists. Raphinha’s expected assists tally alone merited 7 assists (6.8 xA). It’s a good argument that alongside a better finisher, Raphinha will be troubling the assist charts. This is precisely what his suitors are banking on.
Progression – Elite and versatile progressor
Raphinha’s skills still have some space for progression as well. He boasts an immense 97 percentile on progressive passes among attackers in the league. Only 10 players have more progressive passes than him this year in the league and the only attacker among those 10 is Bruno Fernandes.
His high technique levels ensure he is able to find players in a very wide range. Again, it would be easy to assume that, as a right winger who likes to cut in, he might be favoring just a few areas on the right and certain angles to progress. But Raphinha is a lot more talented than that. Whether it’s a pass down the line, an angular ball across the pitch or a diagonal into the box, he has a wide array of passes that can progress the game from different positions on the pitch. The whole pitch is his playground and it shows in his progressive pass map. You can’t ask for more variety and numbers from a winger.
Raphinha’s pizza chart is a good summary of all that we have discussed so far. An elite passer, adept goal scorer and intense dribbler. The stats that look weak in this chart are his shot quality, dribble success, carries into dangerous areas and pressing. The former 4 are bound to improve in a better team, if he gets the opportunity to play further ahead and closer to goal. His below average pressing might be a slight issue for a team that is reliant on a high press. At Leeds, both Bielsa and Marsch stress on a strong pressing ethic which is carried out by most of the outfield players, barring Raphinha. His managers have often let him be the only attacker with comparatively lesser pressing duties, since he makes up for it in all the ways that we have seen so far. In short, he was the one hero player they gave a free pass to. This might not be true for a top team Raphinha moves to. The hero player might be someone more experienced and talented than him or he might join a top team that doesn’t believe in such a concept and wants a coherent high press from all its attackers. It remains to be seen if this proves to be a stumbling block for Raphinha in a top team.
Raphinha has been Leeds’ go-to man this season, whether it’s scoring, progression or chance creation. He has done everything an attacker could have, for a troubled side. The main reason why top clubs are pining for him is because his right winger movement is very desirable and he has the movement and technique to dribble, shoot, create and progress in almost equal measure. A well-rounded consistent attacker, Raphinha finished this season with 14 goal contributions. For a top side, that number increasing to 25 while ensuring consistency, creativity and teamwork, is a good bet to make. Leeds would be very lucky to hold onto him for another year. They should consider themselves lucky they enjoyed his brilliance for 2 years in the first place. Whichever team gets Raphinha next, is going to enjoy a top-class well-rounded right winger.
While rivals Manchester City and Liverpool are locked in a close battle to decide who takes home the major trophies in the last few remaining games of the season, Manchester United’s season has seem finished for a while now. With Champions League qualification mathematically out of reach, the team playing in complete disharmony and disinterest (as evidenced by the recent 4-0 loss to Brighton) and multiple players having already announced their departure with a few others considering the same, it’s safe to say that both fans and players have mentally moved on from this season.
The midfield search has also been affected by the poor performances of the season. The Devil’s DNA curse of midfielders covered in this series being picked up by top clubs soon after (Locatelli, Guimaraes) seems to have worked its magic again, with Aurélien Tchouaméni being strongly linked to a move to Liverpool last week. Regardless of whether he moves to Liverpool or Real Madrid, it’s safe to say that his heightened reputation and United’s absence from the Champions League have probably put Tchouameni out of reach for the summer. With Matic and Pogba leaving, the need for a midfield progressor is higher than ever, and with multiple positions to cover within a limited budget and no Champions League to offer, a smart and cost-effective buy who fits the tactical requirements is the need of the hour. Enter Cheick Doucoure, our latest recommendation for the player who can solve United’s DM issues.
Born in his home country Mali in January, 2000, Doucoure consistently played for the academy AS Real Bamako in Mali until the 16/17 season. The famed academy is responsible for kickstarting the careers of many top footballers like Gervinho, Kolo Touré, Salomon Kalou and Jason Denayer. RC Lens, who were then in Ligue 2, scouted him and picked up in 2018, soon after which he became a mainstay in the side at the age of 19. He played a total of 34 games in his debut 18/19 campaign which is extraordinary for a youngster.
125 appearances over 4 seasons for RC Lens have seen Doucoure make the journey from Ligue 2 to Ligue 1. With Lens finishing 7th last season and sitting at 7th again this season, it has been nothing short of a magical rise for the club, just as it has been for Doucoure. At the tender age of 22, he already seems like the calm and composed leader for the club who dictates play from a deeper midfield position. His consistent and well-rounded displays have started getting attention in Europe and he has been constantly linked with many clubs, especially Premier League ones, in the last 2 windows. With his contract expiring in 2024 and Doucoure seeming ready to take the next step, this summer presents a great opportunity for a club to bolster their midfield with one of Europe’s rising stars without spending a bomb.
Name: Cheick Doucouré Position: CM, DM Age: 22 (DOB: Jan 8, 2000) Foot: Right (94% usage) Height: 180 cm Nationality: Mali
Strengths & Weaknesses
In our CM shortlist article for the January window, Doucoure came out looking strongest for Pass completion %, Progressive passes, Interceptions, Progressive carry distance and Progressive carries. He ranks in the top 25% among Europe’s midfielders for these metrics making him a great passer and carrier with a good knack of positioning. This is close to what we want for our DM.
Let’s dive into more detail for his key stats. I created a pizza chart to expand the above stats to 16 key stats we need to check for a DM. Here’s the result:
The more we expand on Doucoure’s passing, the better it looks. He ranks comfortably in the top 25% for all passing metrics and looks especially impressive for progressive passes. And this is a player playing for RC Lens. There’s a good chance his passing stats (Esp Pass %) go up if he plays in a more structured top team. These passing stats for a 22-year-old show no issues at all.
His carrying looks even more impressive now. While he doesn’t carry too frequently, when he does it often seems to be progressive or entering into the final third. This also fits in exactly with what we want. We don’t want a very dribble-happy DM, just one who knows how to pick his moment to progress via carrying. Doucoure seems exactly like that.
Lastly, his defending deserves a detailed look. His tackles and interceptions look good. It shows he’s not shy to win the ball back but very high percentiles for these would imply a mobile ball-winning type like Fred and McTominay which we don’t want. Similar logic for pressing. We don’t want a presser who leaves his position constantly to press ahead, but someone who archives high success when he presses so as to not let opponents bypass him. Doucoure looks good on that front, pressing very less but boasting a high pressure success %. That fits in with what we want. His dribbled past seems a little low for our criteria. Ideally we would want someone who is rarely dribbled past. This needs further introspection. His aerial win % also doesn’t really turn heads. His physique and height aren’t really that great, so it would be wise to not assume Doucoure will be an aerial monster.
All in all, Doucoure ticks many boxes for the kind of DM we want. His passing and carrying are highly progressive without being a dribble merchant while his defending is measured without being a press-happy midfielder, although his dribbled past stat needs further analysis and his aerial presence isn’t great.
Technical Fitment: 8/10
Let’s dive into how these stats translate to actions on the pitch. We need to understand how RC Lens plays and Doucoure’s role for them this season. Lens have mostly lined up in a 5-2-3 or 5-2-1-2 this season with Doucoure forming the pivot with Fofana on most of those occasions. The duo have started together in a pivot 34 times this season, showcasing their unreal consistency and Lens’ reliance on them. The pair are the 2 of the 3 most played squad members for Lens. In a possible 39 90s (at the time of writing) Fofana has accumulated 38.1 90s and Doucoure has played 33.7.
Doucoure is the one who holds among the pair as right-sided CM while Fofana is more aggressive as a left-sided box-to-box midfielder. The two have a great understanding of when to move ahead and when to drop back. With a back 5 behind and attacking 3 ahead, one would think that Fofana and Doucoure might find coverage tough, but such is their mobility, awareness and intensity that they dominate midfield against most teams all on their own. Both are highly progressive, see the ball a lot and have impeccable sideways and vertical movement to support play in all 3 phases.
Looking at Doucoure’s pass reception map, it is clear that he acts in a dual role as DM and RCM as well. It is clear that he drops into the DM area to receive passes from his defenders, which is a good sign of what we want from United’s new DM and what the likes of McTominay lack immensely. But other than being heavily involved in the first phase, Doucoure is also able to push up the pitch especially into right-sided areas to help in the second phase of build up and ensure his team enters into the final third. The only player who has more middle third touches and passes received than Doucoure is – you guessed it – Fofana. As the designated advanced playmaker Fofana ends up topping those stats, but Doucoure is a close second. Defender Medina is another one who enjoys a lot of touches and is a target of passes in build up, being key to get Lens out of their third.
But what does Doucoure do after he receives the ball in the positions above. This is what he does:
He progresses. Mind you, this is just a map of his progressive passes. As seen in his pizza chart, his progressive carries are also among Europe’s best. In terms of passes alone, Doucoure has immense variation and ability to spread play on both flanks, find runners wide, thread short grounded central balls and play dangerous balls into the final third as well. He can do it all. He obviously ranks first in his team for progressive passes highlighting Lens’ reliance on him for progression. He also boasts great ranks for long pass completion and passes under pressure showcasing his ability to switch and press resistance.
His pass completion % is bested only by the 3 center-backs who play safe and Fofana. Even from his pizza percentile, his pass completion % was at 72 percentile in Europe. This is probably due to the system Lens play. Doucoure doesn’t have enough players in close proximity to aim at, due to playing a pivot. This probably gets fixed when he plays in a 3 man midfield or has closer options like an inverted wingback or progressive CB. At Lens, he carries all the load himself, leading to his pass % dropping ever so slightly. Overall, it’s not a real concern.
The movement is good, the passing is good, but what about the D in DM? Can he defend?
Yes, he can. As we saw in his pizza chart, Doucoure is great at winning his tackles and pressures. He comes out successful whenever he attempts a tackle or pressure and his dribbled past is decent on a team level too. His recoveries also show good defensive awareness. The reason Doucoure’s dribbled past stat compared to Europe seems a little weak is because Lens as a team are prone to transitions. The open 5-2-3 formation with 4 wide players often leaves the center unguarded. As great as Doucoure is, it leads to him being dribbled past in terms of stats, but his tackles won and pressure success highlight a player who definitely knows when to commit and come out winning.
Again, logic dictates that with extra support like a 3 man midfield or inverted wingback, Doucoure could really take those numbers higher and become a solid DM. The comparison would be with someone like Rodri, who was a progressive gem at Atletico Madrid at a similar age of 22, but took around a year to adjust to the Premier League especially in terms of defensive transitions. But once that fine art of positioning (and fouling) was perfected, Rodri has looked like a world-class DM in the last 2 seasons. Doucoure can have a similar path in a new system that is structured like Ten Hag’s could be (hopefully) for United next season.
Let’s take a look at 2 examples that showcase all these traits in match situations.
In the first example, Doucoure receives the ball from his center-back while under pressure from the opponent striker. He has the strength to shield and awareness to turn and pick a smooth pass to his right wingback. Doucoure takes a few steps forward to offer support, but sees his wingback unable to progress and smartly holds back to give himself an option for the return ball. He positions himself between the 2 opponents so his wingback can see the pass and return it back to start the move again. Doucoure now has the vision and awareness to spot the gap on the left wing due to the opponent moving across the right to defend. He quickly pings the diagonal with perfect technique before the opponent backline can reorganize. His left winger takes it down perfectly. With the left wingback overlapping, Lens have carved open an attack, all thanks to Doucoure.
The above example was classic progressive DM play who starts the build up, is available for recycling and dictates play by switching and picking out wide players. The next incident is more of an example for when he helps in the advanced phase as a RCM.
Doucoure receives the ball in a tight area on the right side where opponents are crowding on him. He has the awareness to pick a quick short pass to his right wingback and the energy to power past his marker and receive the ball back. The touch from the receive alone takes him past 2 more players, giving him ample space to wait for the overlapping run and thread a through ball on the flank. The wingback is now in a dangerous crossing position. With 2 strong give-and-gos, Doucoure was able to bypass the 4 opponents players on the right flank, which showcases how good a support he can be in advanced and wide areas of the pitch as well.
In summary, Doucoure is adept at playing a nice mix of DM & CM and possesses the awareness and ability for build up, progression and defending. There is a slight improvement needed in reducing his dribbled past stat, which should be very doable in a good system as he develops with age.
Not much to nitpick here. It’s almost as good as it gets.
Tactical Fitment: 9/10
Contract Start: Dec, 2019 Contract End: Jun, 2024 Weekly Wage: £3,000 Quoted Transfer Fee: £12m Expected Transfer Fee: £12m-£17m
What’s even more exceptional about Doucoure’s current status is that for a player who boasts such impressive stats and consistency, his wages, transfer fee and media hype are criminally low. His £3,000 weekly wage is £17,000 less than United’s lowest earner, Tahith Chong. His rumored transfer fee is less than what United paid for a 19-year-old Dalot. This is genuinely a case of picking up a hidden gem, who will undoubtedly cost a lot more once he gets picked up by a mid-table club and proves himself for 1-2 years.
And that’s exactly what is happening. Aston Villa were strongly linked with a £14m move in January and are returning for the Lens midfielder this summer, but they are facing competition from Crystal Palace who are willing to increase the bid to £17m to convince Lens. Let’s be honest – these are peanut fees for the likes of Manchester United. United can easily bid £20m and offer a 10x wage increase and still get a top footballer who is a tactical fit for a profile they desperately need and call it a steal.
These are the kind of players who United later get linked with for heavy prices at their peak. One example is Michael Olise, whom Palace picked up last year from the Championship for just £8m, but is now being rumoured to cost upwards of £50m for a potential move. Doucoure will most likely have such an effect if he joins a mid-table EPL team this summer. If United have learnt anything from their transfer gaffes over the last decade and want to prove that the new transfer committee (after multiple sackings of the old guard in the last month) is truly a football-focused strategic one, they should be all over gems like Doucoure, before such players get too big for United.
The deal is an easy one. United can easily swoop in and offer a fee and terms better than Villa and Palace at any moment. It would take less than a day for Doucoure and Lens to accept the offer and United to get their man early for Ten Hag to start pre-season work on time. It all depends on intention though. Are United even looking for such a player? Is the scouting team even aware? Either way, it would be a huge miss if they don’t make a move this summer.
Thanks to the ease of a potential transfer, I’m rating the chances highly. This one should be a shut-and-closed case if United show intent.
Transfer Chances: 10/10
In summary, Doucoure has none of the hype, wages and fee of a potential top DM, but he has the progression, consistency, defensive strength and intelligence of one. This is a classic case of ‘hidden gem’. A low-cost transfer and 1-2 years of settling into a system, can iron out the few gaps and make Doucoure a very top DM at his peak.
Technical Fitment: 8/10 Tactical Fitment: 9/10 Transfer Chances: 10/10 Overall Devil’s DNA Score: 9/10
Whom would you like to see covered next from our shortlist?
Bruno Guimarães – 8/10
Aurélien Tchouaméni – 8/10
Cheick Doucouré – 9/10
Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa
(Notes: 1. All playing stats are from Fbref.com 2. All contract information is from Transfermarkt.com 3. All viz are made using Opta data 4. All images are from Getty Images 5. All mentioned data is accurate till May 10th, 2022)
A 4-0 thrashing at the hands of rivals Liverpool, Matic announcing his departure, Pogba getting injured and out for the reason, the sacking of 2 leaders in the scouting system, Erik Ten Hag’s announcement as new manager, Maguire’s family getting a bomb threat – just another week for everyone’s favourite club in red, Manchester United.
Amidst all the chaos, sticking to matters on the pitch, it wasn’t hard to notice that the absence of Fred and McTominay (a pair often slandered on social media for not being good enough) has led United to field midfield combinations that have featured Pogba, Matic, Lingard, Bruno and even Mata, in a midfield 3 in the last 3 games. 4 of those players could be leaving in a month and Bruno is hardly a midfielder strictly speaking. Such is the dire need for midfielders in this United squad.
But where there is management chaos and squad planning failure, there is opportunity. The monumental midfield gap, coupled with requirements in other positions, means that transfers won’t be enough to plug all the holes. How fortunate it is then that United have a 21-year-old midfielder on loan, who has been developing consistently and is now ready to play a part in the senior team.
James Garner has been impressive for Nottingham Forest this season and there are many rumors flying around about Nottingham wanting to keep him and Leeds United wanting to buy him. In this article, I explain why the Red Devils should integrate Garner into Erik Ten Hag’s plans this summer. I analyze Garner’s movement, passing, defending and his fitment into Ten Hag’s system.
Garner’s movement: An engine-like B2B
There has been some debate about Garner’s best role in recent years. He played for a few years at the U23 level for Manchester United as the deepest player in midfield – a classic deep-lying playmaker who dictates the game and shields the defence. This prompted many Manchester United fans to hail him as the second coming of Michael Carrick.
While he was okay in that role for a while, it was the shift to a more aggressive box-to-box role in 2019 that really saw him come to life. He combined with Greenwood, Elanga and Shoretire to devastating effect for the U23s that season and proved that he had more to offer in an attacking midfield role.
Since then, on his loan spells at Watford and Nottingham Forest, he has retained a similar role often playing as a linker midfield player or a box-to-box locomotive with license to run, roam, create and press, instead of playing a holding role in midfield. His 21/22 season with Forest has confirmed the same movement. Here’s a viz of this season.
Forest have lined up in a 5-2-3 for most part this season with Garner and Yates forming the midfield pivot when fit. Garner usually takes the left-sided CM role with more license to move up and connect with the front 3, while Yates takes up the more defensive RCM role often holding to provide cover when Garner and the wingbacks are caught up.
Garner’s all actions heat map confirms how active he is all over the pitch. He barely has a red hot zone on the pitch but a lot of blue all over it, showcasing the freedom he gets to roam around the pitch, whether it’s to create in the final 3rd, put pressure in the middle 3rd or defend in his own 3rd. This is a midfielder who isn’t bound to any zones on the pitch and loves to constantly run up and down and also go wide for support.
His pass reception map gives us a stronger clue to the areas he likes to get into when he has to receive the ball from his teammates. There is a clearer insight of his left-leaning role with almost an even split of the red hot zone between receptions in his half during the build up phase and receptions in the opponent half when the team is attacking. The latter zone especially being spread out and including wide areas on the left shows how ready Garner is to go to the wings to provide support during the attack. During attack, he loves drifting into the left half-space area and receiving from his wingback or winger to then turn his body towards goal and obtain the angle to pass or shoot almost like a creative no.10 player.
In summary, Garner’s movement indicates how he doesn’t sit or hold in midfield, but loves to run all over the pitch. This includes build up receptions in his half and almost AM-style wide and high receptions during attack. If we had to assign a name to this role, it would be: box-to-box midfielder.
Garner’s passing: A set-piece demon
Even if his role did change, the fact that Garner is inherently creative hasn’t. What has caught the eye of social media followers are Garner’s videos of an assist or goal which often includes a set piece. It’s unsurprising that both his assists and 3 of his goals this season have all come from set pieces. He is a real threat when it comes to dead-ball situations.
Let’s take a look at his pass maps.
Other than the 2 assists, Garner has created many chances, most of them coming from set pieces. The dozen corners are visible in the viz while some of the balls into the box are also from free kicks.
Other than dead-ball situations, his chances created from open play often originate from the left side of the pitch where he angles in a diagonal ball into the box or towards the right wing, once again confirming his preference to create from the left or central zones like a left-leaning AM during attack.
Moving to the map of his progressive passes, it’s clear to see the variation Garner has. His passing range is good. He is able to provide switches to the opposite wing, through balls to the wide players and long balls to the attackers, when he has time and space. Garner’s progression isn’t the metronome deep-playmaking kind containing short passing and central penetration, but is more like the spreading-the-play kind, where a team moves forward or gets into empty spaces thanks to his game-progressing balls into good advanced areas.
This once again ties in well with our theme of Garner being a box-to-box midfielder who prefers to open up the game and help his team advance, rather than progress from deep and help build up. His set piece threat and creativity in the final third from a left-leaning angle are his main chance creation weapons.
Garner’s defending: Intense and willing participant
From his movement and passing if you expected Garner to be defensively shy, you couldn’t have been more wrong.
The best word to describe Garner’s defending is intense. His constant running isn’t limited to when his team has the ball. He puts in a hard shift when his team doesn’t. What’s particularly impressive is the number of recoveries and the spread of them. Garner is constantly picking up second balls across the pitch. He has a host of clearances in his box and many aerial wins outside the box as well showing one area of his game that has improved massively – his physicality. He’s not shy to get into an aerial duel anymore.
His tackles, interceptions and challenges especially in the middle third are also impressive, once again showing how far ahead he is willing to go to win the ball back. Garner is a constant presser and is prepared to hunt high and wide for the ball.
If there was some doubt about which type of box-to-box player Garner was – the attacking kind like Pogba or Gundogan or the defensive kind like Fred or Kante – though Garner is capable of playing both roles well, it might be safer to assume given his intensity and ball-winning focus, that he’s closer to the second kind. His days as a DM in the academy have given him a good sense of defensive awareness. While his positioning might not be enough for a holding role, it helps him note the flow of the attack, get stuck in and win the ball back for his team consistently.
In summary of this section, Garner is a constant presser, runner, tackler and ball-winner in defence, boasting a wide area of operation and various means to win the ball back – something which would fit really well with Erik Ten hag’s pressing ethos and midfield demands.
One aspect that hasn’t been covered so far is his goal-scoring. Most of Garner’s goals are either long-range shots from a left-sided AM position or direct free kicks from distance. He has managed to score 8 goals for Nottingham over the past 1.5 years.
Fitment for Erik Ten Hag tactics
We have already written a detailed article on Erik Ten Hag’s tactics here. To summarize his formation, he enjoys a sweeper keeper, progressive defenders with 2 fullbacks who invert, holding DM who shields the aggressive defence, 2 intense CMs who offer support to the attack, 2 inverted wingers who provide width and one CF capable of linking play with the front 5. Assuming Ten Hag recreates much of the current Ajax tactic to United next season, the main candidates for the B2B CM role (Gravenberch currently) and AM role (Berghuis currently) are probably Fred and Bruno respectively. The anchor man DM role (Alvarez currently) is a real head-scratcher and probably needs a new signing instead of risking McTominay there.
Among these 3 midfield options from all that we have discussed so far, Garner would fit best in the B2B role. He has the pressing intensity, ability to link play from defence to attack and movement to connect with the front 3, to pull off that role to perfection. The AM role could be a nice second option since Garner additionally has the creativity and shooting threat to contribute there as well. The DM role needing high levels of positioning, transition defence and physicality, makes that a far 3rd choice option in case of an emergency need.
So, in summary a rotation option for Fred and Bruno would probably suit him the most. In an ideal world, McTominay and Mejbri also should be competing for the same 2 roles as backup as well. This leads to the major ask for the window to be the DM United have been crying out for for 2+ years now. If United can buy a consistent DM and integrate Garner for the advanced midfield roles, the current paper-thin midfield could start looking strong really quick.
What happens next
A lot still depends on whether Manchester United include Garner in the squad next year. Garner still has a contract until 2024, with the option of an extension, so there is no danger of losing him for free or cheap anytime soon. A few weeks ago, Phil Hay of the Athletic mentioned the possibility of Leeds signing Manchester United’s James Garner, despite the rivalry between the clubs.
“It’ll be interesting to see who Leeds target. James Garner, the Manchester United midfielder who’s on loan at Nottingham Forest in the Championship and having a very good year, is someone I’ve heard mentioned recently,” Hay told The Athletic.
This is the latest rumor in a line of many over the past few months with outlets like Telegraph and DailyMail carrying stories of strong interest from Leeds United to bolster their midfield in the coming summer with James Garner.
In an interview with Footballleagueworld, transfer guru Dean Jones reflected that the Englishman would intend to continue as starter wherever he goes next. “Garner’s having a great time this season, and he doesn’t want to be on the fringes anywhere else at the moment. He’s shown his value, and he wants to kick on next season and be a big part of a team, wherever that is.”
If United are unable to convince one of their brightest academy midfield prospects of the last decade to be a part of the senior team setup, especially when their midfield badly needs some bodies and he fits really well in Ten Hag’s philosophy, it would be a real shame.