Tactical Analysis: Frenkie de Jong at Manchester United

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

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

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

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

Career History

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

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

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

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

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

Style of Play

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

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

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

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

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

Fitment at Manchester United

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Thoughts

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

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

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

Tactical Analysis: Boubacar Kamara at Aston Villa

Since many users had found out that there is an issue with the original scout report of Boubacar Kamara, I have fixed the issue (you can read the original report here- Scout Report: Boubacar Kamara). But again, due to another technical glitch, I couldn’t merge the changes I had made in the article (had updated the visualizations and added extra content since I wrote this article back in January).

So, I thought; why not make this into an extended article and provide my 2 cents on how he can be used by Steven Gerrard at Aston Villa.

Boubacar Kamara at Aston Villa: a tactical analysis

Aston Villa have it all at this time; an ambitious owner who is ready to pump cash in the team- a progressive, proactive up and coming manager at the helm, a revamped youth system which taps into the local and diverse community of Birmingham and nearby areas. Advantage of staying in Premier League means healthy amount of cash coming in all thanks to the lucrative financial deals of the original Super League which is running since 1990s and the record sale of Jack Grealish last season meant that club can easily spend good amount of money for few years and some sales here and there to balance the books without any issues. This summer they have already got Diego Carlos and Boubacar Kamara and are in the market for few other players as well (depending on outgoings)- along with some high-quality youth prospects already coming from the ranks and knocking on the doors of the senior team.

Diego Carlos is an aggressive centre back who likes to play as a ‘dog’ (basically a stopper CB). Tyrone Mings being error prone, Kourtney Hause being injury prone and backup player at best (same case with Chambers whose versatility means that he will be a good rotational cover at RCB slot and RB) and a long-term injury to Villa’s best CB: Ezri Konsa can see Kamara play at CB as well, instead of playing in his preferred role in the midfield; as the deepest midfielder. 

In midfield, Kamara’s competition will be with Douglas Luiz who is the out-right starter at defensive midfielder position for the club (but an expiring contract and interest from a host of Premier League clubs including the likes of Arsenal and Manchester City who have the right to refusal option on him can see the Villans cash out on him). Marvellous Nakamba is another option for that slot. Meanwhile for that 2nd midfield slot (Gerrard mostly lined up with 4-2-3-1, but also switched to 4-3-3 depending on the situation at Rangers; at Villa he has gone for a 4-3-1-2, 4-3-2-1 as well), Villa usually have midfielders who are comfortable playing a box to box midfielder profile: hence the likes of John McGinn and Morgan Sanson (all thanks to Andre Villas Boas who converted him from a deep lying playmaker and orchestrator into a combustive, tenacious, all-rounder box to box midfielder at Marseille) are available at the club. The third midfield slot belongs to their new recruit, Phillipe Coutinho (along with Emi Buendia who ended up playing as attacking midfielder when Gerrard switched to 4312/4321) and last midfield slot is a toss-up between the up-and-coming Jacob Ramsey and Carney Chukwuemeka (who is also adept at playing as a box to box mid and as a defensive midfielder: most of his time in youth ranks saw him playing as a #6). Tim Iroegbunam is another youth prospect in midfield who has risen up the ranks, already making his debut for senior team under Steven Gerrard and regularly training with the senior side as well.  

John McGinn’s tenacity and high defensive output can provide an extra layer of security during transitions where Kamara can end up being isolated at times.

Aston Villa have more than decent depth and quality in midfield and with the addition of Boubacar Kamara means that they can line up with a brilliant midfield (on paper as of now, cannot comment about future in the present because I’m not Doctor Who) and have quality options as rotation/back up. Plus, many players in that midfield are flexible and malleable, something which Steven Gerrard likes a lot as well in his players; especially in midfield.  In case, Douglas Luiz ends up getting sold (will fetch a good profit in the end), Kamara will be the #1 option as defensive midfielder, ideally slotting in straight away and being comfortable playing in a possession-based system. The Zimbabwe international, Marvellous Nakamba will act as a decent backup in either case.

While in defence, Kamara can also slot in as an able partner to Diego Carlos at times. Carlos as a stopper CB with Kamara as cover CB in an ideal scenario (because in reality, Kamara is very aggressive in terms of duelling; a Diego Carlos, Boubacar Kamara, Douglas Luiz and Matty Cash will make a brilliant rest defence which can allow Aston Villa to play higher up the pitch and win back the ball again higher up the pitch.). Carlos has decent-ish ball progression ability but Kamara is notches above in that aspect in comparison to Carlos and can provide a decent outlet of ball progression from the back along with their fullbacks: Lucas Digne and Matty Cash. Villa usually lacked this ball progression from deeper areas into the midfield. In Boubacar Kamara, this problem can be crossed out.

(for comparison, I have taken the advanced data from 2018-19 and 2019-20 season because Kamara played majority of his minutes in both seasons as a center back. While, Diego Carlos spent his 2018-19 season as a standout performer in an underwhelming FC Nantes side and 2019-20 season at Sevilla, argeubly his best season in Spain in my opinion. All thanks to fbref and statsbomb and the kind people behind the scenes who have made the availabiity of advanced data and it’s access very easy and making the work of analysts: armchair ones like me and professionals at various football clubs alike; very easy)

Now comes to biggest question, can he thrive in Premier League (the usual ‘is he ready to handle the pHySiCaLiTy and iNtEnSiTy of the eNgLiSh gAmE)

Players coming from France usually haven’t had difficulty settling in England. Kamara will have an old friend in Morgan Sanson (if he stays put) at the club along with fellow national mate in Lucas Digne. So, that question of being alone in a new club and country should be out of the question (plus he is moving to a city which has a great mix of cultures). Also, players coming from Ligue 1 usually end up adapting to the intensity, speed of the English game in lesser time and again for this, there is a brilliant track record so I don’t think that there should be any major issue as such. Plus, he is coming to a club like Aston Villa where he will have guaranteed playing time (may that be as CB or as DM) and no ‘unwanted’ pressures of big club which fights for titles and have impatient fanbases, ready to pounce on players the moment they do a mistake like hungry pack of wolves.  Aston Villa, in a nutshell is an ideal club for Kamara to choose at this stage, while it will seem weird that player left Champions League football for ‘money’ but what most people don’t realize is that players don’t have a long career, one nasty injury and it’s over; and players have to end up neglecting formal education and social life at times in order to make it as a professional footballer. It makes complete sense from their point of view to chase a fat paycheck in compensation for that missing education and social skills and risk of a short span of career but in this case, it isn’t just a fat paycheck; opportunity to play in England, play in Premier League, grow as a player at a club where you will be guaranteed minutes and grow as a player without unwanted pressures of big club (no disrespect meant to Aston Villa here) and eventually move to a club which is a regular participant in UCL (in case Aston Villa project tanks).

Tactical Analyis: Ange Postecoglou

Every revolution is born in order to change the status quo. And it is born out of a collective idea, a unique impression to unite the masses for eternity. For a revolution to become successful, you need to have not just the brains behind the idea but the brute strength to support that idea and bring everyone together. You need to have a Leader to make It possible, who knows how to connect on a mental level with the followers to put them on the same page and keep them motivated towards the fulfilment of the ultimate goal

The history will never forget the Greeks for what they achieved and their contribution to various fields will be unforgettable for time immemorial. In Sports, many thought that the Greek victory in Euros 2004 (article link) was the pinnacle. But what they didn’t know that this was just the beginning. While, the progress in football slowed down; the country progressed in other sports: especially basketball and tennis. Antentokounmpo brothers have taken the NBA by storm (the back story about their rise to the top can make even the most cold-hearted person shed a tear), Olympiakos and Panathinaikos has lit the brazier in EuroLeague. Stefanos Tsitsipas is breaking many records at a young age for a Greek tennis player. But it is the Greek export who has proved his doubters wrong (and as Jurgen Klopp once said: converted ‘doubters into believers’).

The man under the spotlight? Ange Postecoglou.

A relatively unknown football manager outside the Euro-bubble, the Australian-Greek manager has made a big name of himself in his native country and Japan over the years. Born in Athens, his family emigrated to Melbourne, Australia when the 1967 coup in Greece completely destroyed his father’s business. A move half-way around the world and the culture shock that comes with it is not easy to handle which the Postecoglou family also faced. It is these experiences which made a young Ange learn about humility and the value of hard-work (which he has shown in his entire professional career). People say they go to another country for a better life. My parents did not have a better life, they went to Australia to provide opportunities for me to have a better life.

Managerial profile

Ange had a modest playing career, playing in it’s entirety in Australia for his hometown team, South Melbourne; winning 2 league titles with them while also earning 4 caps for the Socceroos. He ventured into football management; eventually becoming the manager of South Melbourne in 1996. He led them to 2 consecutive league championships in 1997-98 and 1998-99 season and also winning the 1999 version of Oceania Club Championship, thus taking a tiny team from South of Melbourne to FIFA Club World Cup. His work as manager of South Melbourne didn’t go unnoticed and the Socceroos soon came with an offer of managing the U17 Australian side, a young side with it’s high coming a year before where they reached the finals of FIFA U17 World Cup, hosted by New Zealand- only to bow down to the mighty Brazilians in the final. He achieved a total domination in the OFC Championships, winning the 2001, 2003 and 2005 versions and even reached the quarter finals of the 2003 version of FIFA U17 World Cup.

He was then promoted to the U20s setup where he managed the likes of Robbie Kruse, Adam Federici and Danny Vukovic who went on to make a decent career in Europe. A victory in OFC U20 Championships was marred by failure to qualify for FIFA U20 World Cup due to poor display in the inaugural AFC U20 Championship saw Socceroos relieve Ange of his duties.

Ange then embarked on a new adventure, returning to his roots, to Greece. He took up his first ever job in Europe, as manager of 3rd division side Panachaiki. He kept the side in contention of promotion but a falling out with the directors led to his departure inside 9 months. A short break from management did him a great deed when he came back with a renewed vigour to take reigns at Brisbane Roar. 3 Trophy laden years at Brisbane saw him move further up with Melbourne Victory. His stay at Melbourne Victory was a short one when Socceroos approached him once again, this time to appoint him the manager of senior team.

Ange took the reigns of the remnants of the Golden Generation when Australia played at 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil; pitted against the previous edition finalists: Netherlands, defending champions Spain and South American champions Chile. It was a difficult group but Australia still delivered some respectable performances.

A thrilling AFC Asian Cup campaign in 2015 saw Australia lock horns with South Korea in the final, which Australia won 2-1 after extra time. Once, qualification for 2018 FIFA World Cup was confirmed, Postecoglou resigned from his position which shocked many Socceroos fans.

(Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

His next destination? Japan. Yokohama F Marinos approached him to take over as manager, a position which he did take over at the end of 2017. He guided the team to their maiden league title in 15 years once he settled down in Japan and moulded the team in the way he wanted them to play. There was an active interest from Greek national team to sway him away from his job at Marinos but he eventually signed a short-term extension to stay put in Japan.

Tactical setup

Postecoglou’s success in the A-League with Brisbane Roar and Melbourne Victory led to him getting the Australia job. He took the national team to the 2014 World Cup, playing an attack first oriented 4-2-3-1. Wide forwards and full backs were the key to modest success as Socceroos boss. Mile Jedinak and his partner in the midfield stay put so that fullbacks could bomb forward and the wide forwards came in-field to play in between the lines. When the central midfielders got on the ball in deep positions, they either looked to play direct balls up to Cahill, or targeted the wide midfielders.

(Credits: The Coaches’ Voice)

He used 4-3-3 as well which provided the team with more balance and extra cover in the centre of the pitch and Postecoglou evolved to put more emphasis on keeping a structured possession system instead of just playing on transitions. Ange even used a 3-4-2-1 while keeping the tactical skeleton same, complex rotations in order to isolate the opposition in various zones on the pitch.

But it is at Yokohama F. Marinos where he perfected his system; which eventually led him to another league title in his budding career and Japanese club’s first major honour in 15 years. At Marinos, he used a 4-3-3 but instead of bombarding full backs and narrow wide forwards, he chopped the system. Instead, he used fullbacks in a more unconventional way. Instead of making just overlapping runs, Ange instructed them to make more underlapping runs into the central channels. Instead, wingers stayed wide instead of being narrow and central midfield became very fluid to accommodate the inverting full backs, with one of the #8s going wide to press back the opposition and carve out an opening using either a cut back or by pinging a pass into the opposite half space. Postecoglou selected wide forwards who could beat an opponent and could therefore occupy two defenders, which would then free up another player elsewhere.

Coaching Philosophy

Ange Postecoglou is very flexible when it comes to management. He puts equal emphasis on the coaching aspect and well the management aspect of dealing with the emotions. He has a set tactical philosophy and he likes the player recruitment to complement his coaching style but he is flexible in chopping up systems according to changing situations. He has always been a performance first manager. Results can be churned out but in long term, you need to prefer the performances. According to him, good performances will eventually lead to consistently good results.

He likes to integrate youth with experience, always ready to give younger players a chance; not just giving minutes to youth for the sake of it but phasing them in favourable surroundings which don’t hamper their development and destroy their confidence. These are 2 very important aspects to maximize the output from younger players.

His man-management style has been moulded from his experiences as a Greek immigrant growing up in Australia, learning the value of hard-work and humility from his family and instilling the same at the clubs where he has managed. He is very direct, honest person and has a way with his words when it comes to presenting his ideas, improving not just the playing attributes of his players but also emphasizing on the human element of his players as well, striving for them to not only become a better player but a better human being as well.

Ange was always attracted to the Australian rules football from a young age and he found his motivation to become a professional player (and afterwards) manager because of his love for the game and his father, “My motivation,” he would say when he’d become a football manager, “is always to produce teams [my] dad would enjoy watching.”

(Ange with his father)

Formed by Brother Walfrid as a means to help curb the poverty among the Irish immigrants living in East End of Glasgow, Celtic Football Club was eventually set up as a private limited company with a select few families seeing their descendants taking their place in the board of directors. Even after seeing success come their way over the years, this family dynasty at the club was making it run on fumes. Jock Stein and his ‘Lisbon Lions’ made history but they were often underpaid in comparison to their counterparts at Rangers (and even the Edinburgh based clubs: Hearts and Hibernian).

(Jock Stein with his ‘Lisbon Lions’: a team built from local Glasgow players who defeated Inter Milan in Lisbon in order to win Champions League)

The club was less than 24 hours of going bankrupt in 1990s when it was sold to a Canadian-Scot businessman: Fergus McCann who bought the club for 9 million and ensured that club can ‘modernize’ with the changing times: funding the major re-development of ‘The Paradise’: Celtic Park and also re-structuring the way club was run: changing it into a public listed company and even offering the fan led coalition to become the major share-holder after 5 years of his ownership.

With this re-structuring, 90s was for Rangers to enjoy but the appointment of Martin O’Neil turned a new chapter in Celtic’s history. Led by the mercurial Henrik Larsson, a club which was looking at getting erased from history was lining up in sunny Seville for a major European final in less than 10 years. Though, McCann owned the club for just 5 years but he sold his share for a profit of 40 million to the next biggest share-holder: Dermot Desmond (ironically it was Dermot who sold his share in Manchester United which ensured that the Glazers family became the principal owners of the club in 2005).

While the family dynasty at Celtic was a thing of past but the way they ran the club, was very much evident under Desmond’s stewardship as well. In 2012, it was Rangers who faced the similar fate which was hanging on Celtic’s head in 1990s. In this case, there was no one to save their parent company from getting liquidated and the club staring at rock bottom: 4th tier of Scottish football pyramid. And there was absolutely no one to give competition to Celtic due to disparity of funds distributed in Scottish football (and football in general nowadays). Despite the mismanagement, Celtic did find success come relatively easy with Rangers out of the picture, starting in 4th tier of Scottish Football.

Neil Lennon, Ronny Delia and Brendan Rodgers brought about a domination at domestic level but Celtic was lacking success at European stage (partly due to no direction in running the club and partly due to poor distribution of funds at European level, rich becoming richer scenario).

While Rangers, starting from absolute bottom learnt from their past mistakes and came back to Premiership in 4 years, but this time they had a direction, a plan to reach the heights of the past. A direction in how they want to play, how they want to recruit, how they want to grow at European stage.

All of that happened under Steven Gerrard’s reign: deep runs into Europa League and eventually winning the Premiership, bringing in 55th Championship in club’s history (or 1st as many hardcore Bhoys will say). Not only did Rangers win the league but they stopped the dream of a 10th consecutive title for Celtic (just like they did when they stopped Jock Stein from winning a 10th league title in a row). And there are a lot of parallels in these.

A Rangers team with renewed strategy to progress as a club, Celtic marred with complacency and mismanagement, a team bereft of any direction. Disconnect between fans and club ever growing. And again, to mention: your arch rivals looking ready to dominate the domestic scene and even having the tools to have modest success at European stage.

Whoever was going to be the next Celtic manager had a MASSIVE task on his hands. And that’s where the protagonist of our article comes in.

Ange Postecoglou and Celtic: a bond meant to be  

When Brendan Rodgers was poached away by Leicester City, Celtic turned their heads to then Hibernian manager Neil Lennon to once again take over as Celtic Manager. Pitting him against Steven Gerrard and first major managerial role. Gerrard used a patient possession-based system which brought the best out of the long serving full back James Tavernier. While Lennon relied on playing a transitional based brand of football with more emphasis on individual brilliance at times. This was reflected in Celtic’s recruitment as well, buying individuals for the sake of it, without any planning. While Rangers filled the holes in their squad with some thought process behind it, Celtic did the exact opposite. Not only Celtic had no clear direction in their player recruitment, they also didn’t know when to cash out on players at right time, also costing a lot of money at times after under-selling a lot of their assets by keeping them for too long. Rangers went on an upward trajectory while Celtic went on a downward trajectory, silly mistakes from everyone costing a 10th consecutive title and fans and the team growing apart day by day.

In order to select the next manager, club tried to look at various profiles: some at board level wanted to tackle this possession-based approach used by Steven Gerrard at Rangers with the anti-dote: direct and aggressive brand of transition-based football: hence looking at coaches who had experience in Germany and Austria- Jesse Marsch was one on the shortlist (but a pipe dream), Valerien Ismael was also looked at one stage but he was already employed by Barnsley- taking them very close to a promotion to Premier League. While some in the board wanted to go with more British, man-management oriented approach. Again, club started looking at almost unattainable names: Eddie Howe being one in this kind of approach.

When the board had exhumed all their possible shortlist options (almost every name in that list being unattainable in first place), Celtic turned their heads to Japan- specifically to Yokohama where Ange was managing Marinos. A completely unknown name, an ‘outsider’ taking reigns of a club as revered as Celtic in such a delicate situation, many fans were discontent with the appointment and Ange had a massive task to not only coach the team in his philosophy but also win the approval of fans and repair this breaking relationship with the fanbase.

So, he packed his bags and came to Glasgow, without any coaching staff of his own and even at one stage, UEFA making extra background checks whether his coaching badges would make him eligible to manage in Europe or not. Once, all of this bureaucratic stuff was sorted; Ange took the reigns of the club on a one year rolling contract.

The thick South Melbourne accent meets the Glaswegian accent. The ‘Straya’ meets the ‘fitbaw and patter’. A blend of 2 different worlds. A mini rebuild of sorts started at Celtic; but this time they weren’t targeting the ‘big name’ signing but signings suitable for the manager to build a team capable of challenging the rise of Rangers. A young lad from Israel by the name of Liel Abada came, Ange used his connections in Japan to bring Kyogo Furuhashi from Vissel Kobe to Celtic. He then turned his attention to Benfica to lure in once highly rated Jota to join on loan (with option to buy on a permanent basis). Celtic had been leaking a lot of goals under Lennon due to mis-profiling of centre backs Julien Stephen and Nir Bitton and also the Greek goalkeeper Vasilis Barkas. In order to fix the defensive issues on a personnel basis, Ange looked at Tottenham Hotspurs and picked up out of favour Cameron Carter Vickers (now a full time USA international) and Joe Hart. Josip Juranovic came from Polish club, Legia Warsaw. Celtic had a major gap to fill in the centre of the field with the fan favourite and a cult legend, leader and captain, Scott ‘Broony’ Brown leaving the club; creating a major leadership void to fill. Ange turned to Callum McGregor to take the arm band, fitting that a local lad from East Glasgow who has been a boyhood Celtic supporter and came from the youth ranks, also being one of the longest serving player in the current squad take up the duties of a captain.

When Ange had assembled his squad, he tried to implement his high risk-high reward approach right from scratch. It was unrealistic to completely change the squad in one window so he integrated many players from previous years, some from academy and reserves. Many players who looked underwhelming under previous manager, looked reborn; especially the fullbacks Anthony Ralston and Greg Taylor: adapting to the instructions of manager and completely taking a 180 degree from being line-hugging full-backs to inverting, underlapping full-backs; comfortable in possession. Joe Hart who was phased out of Manchester City under Pep Guardiola for not being comfortable in sweeping and distribution also looked reborn. At an age where Goalkeepers start peaking out, Joe Hart picked up these new skills with relative ease. Another player who responded well to the tactical instructions was the recent acquisition of Georgios Giakoumakis from Dutch club VVV Venlo. A typical archetype of journeyman physical centre forward, often mis-profiled as a target man due to his built. Ange identified his knack of playing of the shoulder of centre backs and breaking the offside traps. Kyogo Furuhashi was adept at dropping deep to become a +1 in possession while Giakoumakis was lethal inside the box, giving a lot of flexibility in terms of getting goals out of the strikers. The midfield was also instructed to follow the similar principles which the Australian used as a Socceroos and Marinos coach: a flexible and fluid midfield; with McGregor being the deepest among the 3 midfielders, taking extra defensive duties. David Turnbull and Tom Rogic being the ‘free no 8s’, depending on the direction from where game was being built up, one of the midfielders pressed the opposition by going into wider areas, operating in half-space in order to isolate the opposition and free up space in order to be exploited.

(Credits: The Coaches’ Voice)

Along with this, the narrow full-backs’ positions help Celtic dominate possession by overloading the centre of the pitch, while also providing the single pivot with support at defensive transitions. They will help to lock the ball in the opponent’s half and prevent counter-attacks when the number eights are beyond the ball. In terms of defending and counter-pressing, Ange has been more pro-active than before when it comes to setting up a defensive structure. They press aggressively, often high up the pitch after having lost the ball. The wingers have been instructed to press high up the pitch with centre forward, making in-ward runs in order to force the ball into centre of the pitch so that the no. 8s can also activate pressing triggers to completely choke the opposition, but this often leaves space on the flanks at times if teams know how to circumnavigate through the press.

Credits: The Coaches’ Voice)

After a very long time, it looked like there is a set direction, a plan to execute not just good performances but get good results which are sustainable in long run. But all of this didn’t happen overnight, it is quite natural and humane for anyone to take time to adapt to changing scenario and it was the exact case at Celtic as well. Squad took it’s sweet time, gelling in and getting acquainted with the manager and his tactical instructions.

Early losses to Hearts, Rangers and Livingston in the league did amplify the rusty nature of the team adapting to new set of instructions along with elimination from Champions League qualification rounds to FC Midtjylland, being forced to go through a lengthy Europa League qualification round: battling Jablonec and AZ Alkmaar to book a place in Group Stages of UEL. Europe has been an achilles heel of Celtic in last decade. It was the same case when Celtic were pitted against Real Betis, Bayer Leverkusen and Ferencvaros. Yet another difficult group.

This transition period and a tough UEL group also added to the misery of tackling many off the pitch criticism from the not only fans but from so called ‘pundits’ for not being ‘fit’ to lead such a prestigious club (because Ange was a completely unknown entity in this Euro-bubble of football).

Although, Celtic tried to play to it’s new found strengths in Europe and produced some scintillating moves in those matches, results didn’t go their way, with the weaknesses of the new system being exploited a lot. Meanwhile at domestic level, there was also a mixed bag of results in the initial months. Some commendable wins but that rustiness was still there to see. But Ange stuck to his principles and eventually results also started flooding in.

Ange’s camaraderie and his down to earth attitude eventually started winning the approval of not just the players but even the fans as well. And when results also started going their way with an up-turn in performances, even the most critical of fans swallowed the bitter pill of being ‘wrong’ and started to back the manager unconditionally.

Winter window came and in came a host of signings, with skillsets tailor made to suit the Australian’s coaching style. Reo Hatate came from Kawasaki Frontale, Daizen Maeda got reunited with Ange, playing under him at Yokohama F. Marinos and Yosuke Ideguchi came from Gamba Osaka. This was his 2nd venture into Europe. Initially picked up by Leeds United as a youngster from Gamba Osaka only but a series of underwhelming loan spells at Cultural Leonesa and Greuther Furth along with a feeling of home sickness prompted him to return back to Japan.

Reo Hatate’s versatility to play a variety of roles in centre midfield, left wing and even left back: especially in the inverted fullback role was one of the reasons why Ange wanted to go for his signature. Daizen Maeda’s off the ball ability to counter press the opposition and Celtic’s poor depth in wings was also ticked off with this signature.

Callum McGregor had been playing non-stop and there was no suitable player to play his role in the team (Ideguchi slots right in this scenario). But crème de la crème of the winter signings has to be that of English/Danish youngster Matt O’Riley from MK Dons who usurped the role of Tom Rogic and completely provided a fresh breath of air to Celtic’s midfield.

The new recruits from Japan and Ange again faced the wrath from the conservative sections of British media with some racially driven reporting being done around the new recruits. The Australian did step in to defend his players and taking a right stand, which he has done a lot of times in a short span of time in Scotland: completely aligning with the ethos on which the club was founded.

(L to R: Yosuke Ideguchi, Daizen Maeda, Reo Hatate)

Now, with a replenished squad full of jolly good characters, Ange’s ability to attach to every player closely on a mental level and a team responding well to the manager’s instructions saw the team go on a massive 31 match unbeaten run in the league with a few upsets coming in Europe and Scottish Cup. Highlight of this unbeaten run has been the complete annihilation of their Old Firm rivals: Rangers on 2 occasions. A 3-0 drubbing at Celtic Park, preceded by one of the best atmospheres seen at Celtic Park in recent times, coming after such a difficult time when world came to it’s knees in front of the Covid pandemic and it’s effects on society and 1-2 win, away at Ibrox Stadium.

Celtic did get some help from Rangers as well in this period, who saw their manager Steven Gerrard leave his post in middle of the season to take up the vacant seat at Aston Villa. His replacement? Giovanni Van Bronckhorst. An ex-Rangers manager with a similar tactical setup to Gerrard eased the pain of losing Stevie G midway into the season. While Celtic went in a complete domination stage at domestic stage, Rangers had a memorable run in Europe; reaching the finals of UEL in a dramatic style, annihilating teams in their path.

When Ange had taken over the vacant seat at Celtic, no one could have thought that he would achieved a lot in such a short time for someone who had no experience in Europe and not only achieve great results through some exquisite performances but make the team feel connected with the fanbase again. Who would have thought that a bunch of Gaijins (a derogatory term in Japanese, meaning outsiders– also used by a certain you shall not be named newspaper in Britain in the context of Ange and the Japanese players at Celtic) will play a massive role in bringing a cultural shift at the club, which was lacking such an atmosphere in the dressing room for a long time? This world is full of talented people. If you have an open mindset, you will always find under-appreciated and under-valued gems. Ange and his Bhoys are one such example that if you want to find a niche, you have to broaden your horizon, break open from stereotypes and think out of the box in order to perfect this new found niche.

The onset of aggression from Russia on Ukraine has resulted in Russian football teams barred from playing in European competition. With Russian League out of the picture, the winner of Scottish Premiership will get a direct place in group stages of UEFA Champions League. Now, with Celtic winning the league and Rangers in the finals of UEFA Europa League, potentially we can see both the teams play against the elites in UCL next season, high time the Scottish football and arguably 2 of the best teams in terms of prestige in Europe get back to where they belong, while they usher into a new era and continue with their rivalry, free from any shoddy Sectarian elements which marred the Old Firm teams whenever they locked horns in the past

Celtic is a football club which has been deeply engrossed with it’s Irish roots and it was fitting that they needed a revolutionary character, someone who can lead them to new heights. In Ange Postecoglou, they have got the perfect character who can steer them into a new era. Long may the revolution continue. Viva la Posteglucion!

Search for a CM: Cheick Doucoure

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.

Career History

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.

 

Profile Details

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

Tactical Analysis

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

Transfer chances

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

Final thoughts

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
Maxime Lopez
Ismaël Bennacer
Florian Grillitsch
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)

FM Predicts: Erik ten Hag at Manchester United

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

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

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

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

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

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

…….. Uh, maybe not. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is a quick little squad update:

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

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

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

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

Loan Report: James Garner 21/22

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.