How to get the best out of Lisandro Martinez

In this article I will cover:
– Licha’s strengths, weaknesses & traits
– Suitable tactical roles in & out of possession
– Pros & cons of each

Lisandro’s strengths

  1. Build up ability – Positioning sense to show or create lanes for others + close control to recieve, turn & carry
  2. Progression – Passing range & technique to progress into attacking half
  3. Duels once locked – Pressing, intensity & physicality esp on ground

Lisandro’s weaknesses

  1. Defensive coverage – Low span, agility & speed to defend across large distances
  2. Aerial duels – Avoidance of aerial duels & failure when attempted
  3. Aggression – Tendency to lunge, over-press or over-commit to try & win proactively to paper coverage issue

I think strengths are obvious to anyone seeing Licha regularly but let’s talk a bit on weaknesses. His short stature & lack of burst make wide or channel defending a struggle – a reason ETH doesn’t isolate Licha wide at LCB vs opponent attackers by committing our LB to the high press.

Which is why when there are large distances to cover or dribbling attackers to stop, Licha often goes to ground or overcommits in a bid to win the ball proactively & not get forced into a turn-and-run race towards his own goal. It works many times but at other times, it’s costly.

With this understanding of Licha’s profile, I have 2 suggestions for how he can be used long-term to bring out his strengths & limit his weaknesses. The good news is that ETH’s usages of Licha at Ajax & Man Utd also indicate both options. Let’s go over them with match examples.

1. Lisandro as central CB in possession

ETH has many build up patterns but back 3 is common to reach desired 3-1-6 shape. Licha as CCB can avoid channel defending, dictate build up & find attackers via short & long passes. Only issue – defending central transitions/crosses.

Between a LB who tucks in (Blind at Ajax, Shaw here) & a RCB who defends channels, Licha has the cushion to progress the game from CCB. His speed of thought & execution on the ball usually means he’s the one to get us out of our half with a sharp pass even against pressing teams.

Whether it’s incisive ground passes between the lines to CM/CF or switches to winger/FB, Licha has the range to dictate from CCB. But needs composure & positioning to not lunge when oppo dribbler runs at him in transition + handle target men CFs aerially. Which brings me to…

2. Lisandro stepping up to pivot in possession

He has the press-resistance & playmaking power to dictate from midfield. This move also keeps him away from the back 3 in the 3-2 rest defence. His ground duel prowess, pressing & intensity might even be a better fit for pivot 2.

We saw this tried in pre-season like vs Madrid. Licha stepping into pivot makes good use of his ability to carry, switch or play vertical passes to the attackers. It also reduces the pressure to defend channels & aerials. Might even suit Licha’s proactive pressing & ball-winning.

But this has a few issues like the 3 below. Demands a lot from rest of the team to be setup suitably, needs Licha to be composed anyway, requires a suitable DM partner & will require both FBs to tuck in. Might need time, coaching & recruitment to perfect.

I’m expecting “What about inverted LB?” Might work in possession since its similar to 2nd option of dictating from pivot, but out of possession, places Licha at LB vs pacey/dribbley RWs. Inverted FBs like Zinchenko, Dalot, Cancelo & Udogie have the pace for that. Licha doesn’t.

In summary, I think ETH already has the right idea to limit Licha’s gaps & use his strengths in central areas. CCB role is consistent while CB->CM was also attempted in pre-season & game 1 vs Wolves. As better conditions emerge (fitness, buys, confidence) we might see more of it.

Erik ten Hag’s biggest weakness – Rest defence

In this article I’ll cover:

— The importance of rest defence
— Manchester United’s structure & issues
— Top team examples
— Potential solutions

What is rest defence?
Based on the German Restfeldsicherung, rest defence refers to the defensive structure that “rests” (remains) when a team is in the attacking phase. Basically how a team attacks knowing they can defend transitions when they lose ball
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ru3KcF6OCNc

Example below. When red team attacks they leave the deeper 5 in a narrow shape that can prevent central transitions of blue team when possession is lost. This either leads to red team winning back ball or blue team being forced wide giving time for red team to drop into a block.

You’ll often see shapes like 3-2/2-3/3-1/2-1 mentioned for rest defence but just like build up notations these are vague. More important is shape, timing, width & height of structure. Here’s an episode of me & 2 experts talking rest defence with examples: https://x.com/GetFootballEU/status/1719772354803351911

Manchester United defensive stats ranked in EPL 23/24 (as of Jan 2024):
Shots conceded: 16th
Shots conceded distance: 12th
NPxG conceded: 16th
NPxG/Shot conceded: 15th
Shot-creating actions conceded: 16th

Our defence has been abysmal & a large reason is the poor rest defence structure.


Whenever we enter the attacking phase we start to take aggressive shapes like a 3-1-6 commiting numbers forward or wide to aid progression or counter-pressing in higher areas. When the ball is lost this leads to an immediate counter in acres of space vs few players to defend.

Let’s look closely at the Billing goal conceded in the 2nd half vs BOU. LB Reguilon joins the attack leaving Shaw-Maguire-Dalot in a situational back 3 in possession. Bruno & Scott mostly park high or wide to aid the attack, leaving Amrabat as lone DM ahead of the back 3.

But when Bruno drifts wide & Amrabat moves into the LHS channel to recieve Shaw’s ambitious pass, the center is vacant. In the moment the ball is won, BOU have beaten all midfielders & have a run at a recovering back 3. A 3v3 which leads to switch+cross for an easy header goal.

Here against Gala, we’re high in a 3-1-6. This time AWB as the RB has license to join the attack as Shaw-Maguire-Lindelof form the back 3. Amrabat is DM. In the moment we lose the ball, Amrabat charges to counter-press (instructional, Casemiro did this a lot too) vacating center.

Again Gala have a run at the space ahead of the 3 with Amrabat, CMs & AWB tryng desperately to catch up. 2 issues in the back 3: (a) They dont press to compress space when ball is lost (b) Maguire tries to step up creating a gap which is where next Gala pass is played. Bad sync

Another BOU example. This time play’s on the left side as Garnacho has dropped wide & deep to help progress while Scott has also drifted to the left to recieve from Bruno. A poor pass from Scott leads to a BOU interception & counter. The issue is Shaw having stepped up a lot.

Shaw’s step up, Reguilon’s deeper position & Maguire’s attempt to cover creates a huge space between the 3. Again, a very disjointed shape where Solanke can run & receive into. He’s goal side with space in one easy pass. Saved by the post & no United player was even close.

Another BOU example. The ball is lost by Garnacho very high & wide in their half. Should be easy, right? Amrabat has pushed high to the left to support the attack. He’s closer to BOU’s RB when they win the ball. The massive gap between him & back 3 is noticed & ball played there.

With Dalot inverted, Reguilon wide & Amrabat high, the 2 CBs are deep creating a massive gap for 3 BOU players to enter, control an aerial ball & release the pass. A 3v2 situation almost. In the end, a good Maguire tackle saves the day but another poor rest defence episode.

Summary of our rest defence gaps:
— High vertical gap: Deep back line + midfield drifting high/wide for progression/press
— High horizontal gap: Spread-out back 3 (again to aid wide progression)
— Smaller vertical gaps: Lack of sync/strategy between defenders to step up or cover

Opponent benchmark
Before solutions, let’s look at how our top team rivals do it. Here’s an example from Arsenal vs Spurs from this season. Odegaard loses the ball in the RHS when 5 Arsenal attackers have entered Spurs final 3rd. Spurs want to counter immediately & find Son.

RB White is narrow in possession while Saliba has drifted wide to check Son. The LCB & LB are there for cover & DM Rice is also backtracking to support. They’ve blocked the center as a unit & forced Spurs wide. Son can only pass centrally by which time Rice & others recover.

Here’s an example from City vs Liverpool this year. City have a different setup where a CB steps up into pivot. Here LCB Akanji is up with DM Rodri when City have the ball. When ball is lost, they congest the center forcing Liverpool wide. RCB Dias engages Nunez wide on flank.

RB Walker ideally forms the back 3 but seeing Dias step wide he charges to dissuade Nunez at first before taking up a central position to cover for Dias. By the time Nunez is forced back, Rodri & Akanji have recovered, Walker cover enables Dias to press & win ball as Nunez delays

Were ten Hag’s Ajax better in this regard?
Not quite. It happened lesser coz of league quality & Ajax having better in-possession controllers. But the principles were largely the same. To support an aggressive 3-1-6 even the lone DM would press high when possession was lost.

Here DM Edson pressing high to support the front 5 (which has both CMs) means that the 2 CBs are backtracking alone in acrres of space with the RB closest to helping out. A 3v3 situation that is thwarted in the end by a last ditch Lisandro tackle. Very similar to us currently.

Solutions to improve
Structural:
1. Better timing of rotations: Eg. If DM goes to LW to help, RCM drops deep
2. Playing a synced-up higher line: Push up line & step up together to compress space or catch offside
3. Prioritize center: Delay opponent by forcing wide

Good example:

Recruitment:
1. Buy defenders who can defend channels: In above examples, what Saliba & Dias offered vs Son & Nunez enables a high + aggressive rest defence
2. Buy space-covering midfielders: Casemiro coverage papered cracks last year. 1-2 similar young profiles for OOP needed

And one last thing. I think 3 big differences from the 22/23 season were:
1. Casemiro was in good form papering the cracks
2. Defence line was lower and in good box defending form
3. We didn’t press so high to leave space in midfield when midfielders backed the press

Thank you for reading. Follow me on Twitter if you don’t already. Feedback and engagement there is appreciated!

Man Utd Midfield Rebuild: Part 3 – Hybrid DM targets

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

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

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

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

The Hybrid DM Shortlist

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

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

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

Mats Wieffer, 25, Feyenoord

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

Pros:

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

Cons: 

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

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


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

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

The Devil’s DNA Score: 8.5/10 

Youssouf Fofana, 25, Monaco

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

Pros:

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

Cons: 

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

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

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

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

The Devil’s DNA Score: 7/10 

Anton Stach, 26, Hoffenheim

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

Pros:

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

Cons: 

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

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

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


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

The Devil’s DNA Score: 7.5/10

 Morten Frendrup, 23, Genoa

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

Pros:

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

Cons: 

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

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

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


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

The Devil’s DNA Score: 8/10

Amadou Onana, 23, Everton

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

Pros:

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

Cons: 

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

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

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

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

The Devil’s DNA Score: 8/10

Completing the elite midfield set of 6 players

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous parts: 

Part 1 – Profiles, tasks & gaps

Part 2 – Build up DM targets 

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

(All stats from Opta via fbref.)

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

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

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

The Build up DM Shortlist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exequiel Palacios, 26, Bayer Leverkusen

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

Pros:

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

Cons: 

  • Injury prone
  • Aerial duels
  • Front-footed defending

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

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

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


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

The Devil’s DNA Score: 7.5/10 

João Neves, 19, Benfica

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

Pros:

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

Cons: 

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

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

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

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


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

The Devil’s DNA Score: 9/10 

Daniel Boloca, 25, Sassuolo

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

Pros:

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

Cons: 

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

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

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


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

The Devil’s DNA Score: 9/10

 Aster Vrankcx, 22, Wolfsburg

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

Pros:

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

Cons: 

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

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

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


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

The Devil’s DNA Score: 7/10

Marten Hjulmand, 24, Sporting CP

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

Pros:

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

Cons: 

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

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

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


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

The Devil’s DNA Score: 8/10

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

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

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

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

(All stats from Opta via fbref.)

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

For my first scouting exercise of 2024, I decided to go in a different direction from the usual method. My scouting articles from last year included DM, DLP and CB

This time, I’m going to tackle Manchester United’s midfield rebuild as a whole and cover the following in a step-by-step manner:
1) Analyze what encompasses a good midfield in terms of tasks and duties
2) Figure out what Manchester United already have in terms of profiles
3) Identify gaps to build required profiles
4) Use data to create shortlists to uncover targets based on above logic
5) Go through some mini scout reports of the best and most realistic targets 

As you can see, this already sounds like a long read, which is why I’m going to be dividing this exercise into 3 parts. In this part, we will focus on what we have in our midfield and what we need.

The tasks and duties of a midfield

While there are a million things a player playing in midfield might be tasked with doing, I’ve tried to divide the universe of midfield duties into 6 broad tasks which encompass the numerous duties associated with it. Here they are:

3 possession and 3 defending tasks have been split as per the areas/phases in which they occur. Let me give a bit more explanation of each.

P1: 1st phase progression – Basically duties that help the team go from their defensive third to the middle third safely. These include receiving back-to-goal from GK or defenders, being able to retain the ball under pressure, being able to circulate possession safely and handling large volumes of passes consistently. Highest safety task.

P2: 2nd phase progression – Duties that help the team advance from the middle third of the pitch to the attacking third. These involve being progressive while being safe, being able to play switches, line-breaking passes or long balls that help the team enter the opposition territory and having vertical passing/carrying power to break lines. An even mix of safety and risk-taking.

P3: 3rd phase progression – Duties that help the team create or score. These include playing killer balls, finding attackers in high xG locations, having game-breaking ability to unlock defences, having good off-the-ball movement to get into dangerous areas and having shooting ability to score. Most risk-taking task.

D1: Deep defending – Out of possession, this task coincides with the deepest midfielder who has duties that can range from shielding the back 4 or joining the defence line, forming the rest defence i.e. defending transitions when his team loses the ball, being positionally sound to intercept, block and recover dangerous opponent passes and having the strength and defending technique to stop dangerous dribblers and off-ball movers when 1v1 with them.

D2: Middle defending – Ideally the second deepest midfielder out of possession who has duties that include large space-covering ability to be able to run, press, tackle and recover the ball consistently, being able to provide extra defensive security to the deepest midfielder and coming out on top of duels in the middle of the park.

D3: High defending – Out of possession, this relates to the midfielder who joins the high press, has a good sense of how to disrupt the opposition’s build up and progression, has the tenacity to press, chase and man-mark key opponent players and the ability to lead his team’s counter-press strategy.

You’ll notice that I’m defining tasks instead of profiles. This is because of the numerous ways in which profiles can fit together. You can have various combinations of these 6 tasks fitting together in a midfield to make it work. If it’s a 4-2-3-1, the base midfielders might have more tasks deeper while the AM might dominate most of the P3 and D3 duties. If it’s a 4-3-3 the DM might dominate most P1 and D1 duties. But there could also be cases where build up duties are split or transition defence duties are shared. For these combinations to exist, I’ve preferred to think in terms of tasks rather than profiles. The profiles get created based on how good players are at these tasks.

Taking stock of Manchester United’s midfield

So, how does all of this apply to us? Let’s get into that.

But firstly, let me simply put down all the midfield options at the club currently with their respective ages and contract end dates.

While this looks like a large group of midfielders, the ones we can count on to remain at the club for the near future are actually very few.

Casemiro and Eriksen are now 32. The struggles for both in terms of physicality, fitness and intensity in games has been clear for a year. In general, moving them on to reinvest in younger players makes sense. I’m assuming they’re not here beyond the summer or at most a year. Not counting both.

Amrabat hasn’t really set the stage on fire in his loan spell. In general, this feels like one of those loan deals that ten Hag simply likes to make to have injury cover and won’t really sign on (like Weghorst and Reguilon). Not counting him.

Donny van de Beek has not seen regular United first-team activity in many years. There’s a good chance the club will hope his loan deal converts to a permanent move. In case it doesn’t,  we can assume he’ll be sold or sent on loan again until his contract expires. Not counting him.

Mejbri and Gore are a little more tricky. There’s a good argument they can come back and stake claim for a spot in midfield especially, as a backup. Mejbri even got some first-team involvement. I’m not sure if either makes it here under ten hag or a new manager. For now. I’m not including them in the main calculations. If they do make it back, they can be extra cover beyond the first-team midfield that we plan for. 

Essentially that leaves us with Bruno, Scott, Mount and Mainoo as midfielders we can count on for the next 2-3 years. Mount and Mainoo are simple to explain – they’re young and have just started their United careers. They should be around for a while. Although Bruno is 29, I don’t think the time to move on from him is near. He’s at his peak and nothing about his physical or technical abilities have taken a hit. Building around him is sensible for 2-3 years. After that, he can be replaced if needed. Scott probably invites most discourse. I would have got why he was sold to West Ham last year if that move panned out. But over the course of this season, he has shown his value. He is an academy player with certain reliable traits that are unique and impactful when used well. I would keep him around for at least 2 years until the major gaps are sorted and then look to upgrade him.

Analyzing the midfield by tasks

With that in mind, I’m going to divide the 4 midfielders we have into the aforementioned tasks. Let’s look at it.

First, some notes on the scoring. I have taken a 5-point scale from ‘4’ to ‘0’ with 4 referring to a player who is highly capable at the mentioned task and 0 referring to incapable. These aren’t absolute ability scores. All 4 midfielders scoring 12 doesn’t mean they are equal in ability. It’s just a notation to indicate what they’re good and bad at. For example, Scott scoring 4 for D2 doesn’t mean there are no midfielders who are better at D2 than Scott. It simply means within his skillset, Scott is best doing D2 compared to D1 and D3. So, please read the chart as task capability within a player’s skill set and not as a comparison to all midfielders. 

A few notes on each player’s scores.

Bruno Fernandes: Probably the simplest one to divide. Bruno is worse as he goes deeper, both in and out of possession and best as he goes higher up the pitch. He gets a straight 0-2-4 split in both categories. He’s best in the final third whether it’s creating, scoring or leading the high press. He is fairly capable in the middle third with his passing range to enter final 3rd or ball-winning intensity. He’s highly incapable in the deepest third whether it’s build up or transition defending.

Kobbie Mainoo: Another easy one to analyze. In possession, Mainoo is remarkable in the deepest third thanks to his press-resistance, carrying and composed circulation ability, decent in the middle third when tasked to progress and probably not a final 3rd player. Out of possession is almost similar, but I wouldn’t say that he isn’t the best at defending deepest due to his small physical frame and tendency to get dribbled past when 1v1. I also think he’s shown decent high pressing ability in recent games when he was the highest deployed midfielder.

Mason Mount: Contrary to popular perception, I do not think Mount is a Bruno copy or that their skill sets overlap highly making them tough to play together. I don’t think Mount is as effective in the final 3rd as Bruno, but I think he’s very underrated in 2nd phase progression and has shown that in games this year. Out of possession, I’d say they are similar in that both are great high pressers and decent middle third defenders.

Scott McTominay: I’m sure this will be debatable, but hear me out. In-possession, I think Scott is decent in all 3 phases but really shines higher up the pitch. While he doesn’t have the creativity or passing technique of Bruno, his game-breaking ability in terms of being a good target man, having great ball-striking ability and possessing an underrated hold-up trait make him a very useful final 3rd player as shown many times this season. Out of possession, he’s excellent at the middle 3rd defensive aspects of duel-winning, space coverage and second-ball pick ups. I’d rate him much lower for deep defending and high pressing due to his poor positioning and awareness.

Now, look at the totals. What we are left with are huge gaps in the deeper third tasks in and out of possession. Which makes sense since the DMs for our current season, Casemiro and Amrabat, aren’t included in the assessment. We’re well covered in other tasks.

The midfield profiles that United need

If we assume an ideal midfield of 6 players for 3 slots, then we need two more players to complete the above set. The best fitment would be if they could cover the task gaps adequately enough to result in a wholesome midfield set of 6 befitting a treble-aiming club.

Here’s what we get.

Simply entering the numbers to create a wholesome total of 12 across the board vertically and horizontally results in the profiles of 2 new players that I feel United should buy to complete their set.

The common denominator for both comes out of possession. Both score a 4-1-1 in defence which hints at both needing to be extremely capable deep defenders to stop transitions, shield the back 4 and be positionally solid. That’s the reason I’ve called both positions DM since without the ball they will be the deepest player in midfield. It makes sense too considering them as replacements for Casemiro and Amrabat.

In possession is where the differences arise. The first player needs to be extremely adept at first phase progression aka build up so I’ve named him the Build up DM. This is the player who will most likely play exclusively as the deepest player in and out of possession. You can think of him as the #6 with two #8s ahead of him or the deeper member of a pivot. 

The second player can have distributed tasks in possession and reads like an all-phase player. This represents a player who has the defensive ability to sit like a #6 if needed but can also play as the #8 beside a #6 and contribute in advanced phases of progression. As a result I’ve named him as the Hybrid DM. 

So there you have it. These are the 2 profiles of players I feel United should target to have a well-rounded high-impact midfield for the next 2 years.

Finding our targets – A preview

Before I wrap up part 1 of this series, I’d like to explain how I’m going to go about finding these players so that you have something to look forward to for part 2 and 3.

We already know the tasks to look for and the duties associated with them. That leads us to looking at the stats that indicate the successful execution of such duties. So, the next step will be stats-led where I’ll use data to crunch numbers for the 6 tasks I defined above and then create a shortlist using weighted formulas for the Build up DM and Hybrid DM.

The stats I’ve used for each task:
P1: Pass %, Passes Attempted, Miscontrols

P2: Progressive passes, Progressive carries, Dispossessed

P3: Key passes, Shot-creating actions, Shots

D1: Dribblers tackled, Dribblers tackled %

D2: Tackles, interceptions

D3: Attacking third tackles

All the data for midfielders from Europe’s top 7 leagues was downloaded from fbref and the stats were converted to per touch or possession-adjusted versions to eliminate big team bias. Each task percentile was created by weighting the above mentioned individual stat percentiles. Two formulas for Build up DM and Hybrid DM were created using the weightages for the tasks that we mentioned before. Finally a league coefficient weighting was used to boost performances in tougher leagues among the top 7 leagues.

Here’s a preview of how it’s coming out.

In the next 2 articles, I will create shortists for both profiles and then cover some mini scout reports that make most sense for Manchester United.

Watch out for the upcoming pieces in this series.

Part 2: Man Utd Midfield Rebuild: Part 2 – Build up DM Targets

Part 3: Man Utd Midfield Rebuild Part 3 – Hybrid DM Targets

Follow me on Twitter – @thedevilsdna and drop your feedback and suggestions there.

How to get the best out of Marcus Rashford

In this article, I’ll cover Rashford’s:
— Strengths, weaknesses & traits
— Suitable in-possession patterns
— Complimentary profiles to support

Before we dive into usage, let’s jot down what we know of his profile.

Strengths:
– Movement in-behind
– Ball-striking & execution of shots/crosses
– Dribbling when 1v1 especially in wide areas
– Finishing variety & consistency
– Athleticism & agility

Weaknesses:
– Ball control in tight spaces
– Back-to-goal play
– Vision when facing settled blocks
– Pressing & defensive engagement

Combined, this means that you’d rather have Rashford recieving in wide areas away from a block when his body is open & can trap & drive OR recieving when running in-behind in central areas. Recieving in central areas when back-to-goal is worst. Let’s go through the patterns now.

1A) Off-ball: Far side

When possession is on the far side, he should be narrow hanging on the opponent FB. This makes him a good target for crosses behind the defence line from the right half-space, either from RW or RB or RCM. He can run either side of FB depending on space.

Especially since adding an element of aerial threat to his game, crosses to the far post where he can beat his (usually short) FB marker in the air is one very easy avenue of goal-scoring we haven’t utilized often. A potent way to break organized low blocks as well.

The example above was on the outside of the FB which leads to direct shot/header or recieving & taking on. In cases where the space between opponent FB & CB is large (usually in transition vs unsettled blocks) Rashford drifting into this space & scoring is his bread-and-butter.

1B) Off-ball: Central

When the ball is in central areas during possession in latter phases, Rashford being even more narrow gets the best out of his run-behind strengths. This is the main attraction for managers to play him at CF or allowing him to stay high & central from LW.

When it comes to angled runs in the gap between RB & RCB to get through on goal, there’s no one better than Rashford in the PL. Coupled with Bruno’s ability to play those balls, it’s no surpise that most of our managers have relied on this pattern for goals, like ETH last year.

Even when pass is played in earlier phases of possession, it can be deadly. Here the ball is played from our half & Rashford recieves in the RB-RCB space, but is wide. He has still it in his locker to cut in & score. Doesn’t always have to be clean through. High guarantee move.

2A) On-ball: Overlap

Next, we go to on-ball situations. As discussed, it’s best for Marcus to position wide on the touchline to recieve, when possession is on his side of the pitch. After recieving cleanly & facing goal, the overlap is one form of support that can be given.

I’m sure the first person that comes to your mind when I say ‘overlap for Rashford’ is Shaw. We have seen this equation many times. Rashford has the ball control & passing tech to find overlapping runners consistently with good through-balls, slide-rule passes or even backheels.

Shaw being positioned high & wide from the start isn’t a good use of him. He doesn’t have the 1v1 ability or trickery to beat a man in high LW-esque positions. But when marauding from deeper, his running power, carrying & crossing vision are great tools to use on the overlap.

2B) On-ball: Underlap

Logical alternative to overlap. Rashford has a good slide pass into the left half-space channel that any runner can latch onto. This can be the CF, LCM or even LB again. From there, high-value chance (we’ve lacked recently) can be created from a cutback.

Rashford positioning himself wide & having great 1v1 ability often results in him dragging 2 opponents towards him. This creates a space for the underlap to work. We’ve had very few LHS underlappers for Rashford over the years. Here’s one example with Matic (of all people).

England friendlies in Oct 2023 highlighted this aspect of Rashford via 1 of the best channel runners today, Jude Bellingham, who’s been in top shadow striker form this year & was often found by a touchline Rashford in left half-space. In our squad Mason Mount is capable of this.

2C) On-ball: Angled cross

Another simple yet potent trait. While Rashford may not be very visionary like an Ozil or David Silva from the wings, he has good crossing execution especially when it’s a clear target. His angled cross to a box runner is a good avenue of goals.

We had seen a lot of this in the 20/21 season under Ole when Rashford was in a traditional LW role (like this year) & Cavani started many games. Cavani was excellent at making those runs & had aerial presence. Rashford had 13 assists that year – his career-highest in a season.

Sadly, I had to search a lot for non-Cavani examples. Had to go back to 2017 when Rashford had a few such assists to Fellaini. With Martial not being a target man or good runner, Rashford often being the outlet himself & our 23/24 tactics being poor, we haven’t seen this enough.

2D) On-ball: Carry to byline

The 1v1 dribbling ability comes into play here. After recieving wide on the touchline, he has the skills to beat his man on the outside, reach the byline & cutback. For 23/24 season, his 12 shot-creating actions from take-ons is the highest in EPL.

We saw this in full flow earlier in this season. He had 2 SCA from take ons each vs Forest, Arsenal & Brighton. After beating his man he’s able to reach byline & pass to a CF (often Hojlund this year). Looks bad when he’s not 1v1 & has to try this coz there’s no other support.

Our tactics this year have aimed at going direct to or switching to winger from deep without progressing patiently. This puts him in situations where he has no option but to try the take-on even when against multiple defenders or settled blocks. 2A, 2B, 2C support isn’t offered.

2E) Carry to center

Another pattern that makes good use of his dribbling & long shooting ability is lettim him cut inside instead of byline. This area can be opened with a simple decoy run that pulls away the CB. When 1v1, with space in center, Rashford can cut in & shoot.

Once again, a recent example was during the friendly vs Italy when Bellingham took away a CB with a nice diagonal run. Rashford delays his carry until the gap is created & then cuts inside to shoot. Again, post-Cavani very few CFs have done this consistently.

Best part: Our squad already has all support elements.

— RCM who can cross from RHS or thread from centre
— LB who can overlap
— LCM who can underlap
— CF who can make channel/box runs


A patient tactic focused on utilising above attacking patterns will unlock Rashford & others.

I wanted to keep this article as a general blueprint regardless of manager & tactics but I think it’s visible that the years in which Rashford had the right dynamics, he thrived (like Ole 2 years & 22/23 ETH) & the years he didnt, he struggled (Like RR era & 23/24 ETH).

If you’re here from the web, follow me and chat with me on https://twitter.com/TheDevilsDNA and let me know if you’re liking this series & who next to make one on.

Verified by MonsterInsights