After a rude invitation to Premier League football in his first 2 games in charge versus Brighton and Brentford, Erik Ten Hag has steadied the ship at Manchester United. With 4 wins in 4, including emphatic victories against Champions League spot rivals Liverpool and Arsenal, Ten Hag seems to have brought back confidence, intensity and hope to his players and the fans as well. But, it has to be said, that this has come at the cost of sacrificing some principles of play that Ten Hag strongly believes in. This is not his ideal gameplay, and definitely not something he will be looking to repeat the next time the side meets the same teams half-a-year down the line.
In this article, I’ll first explain the current gameplan that Ten hag has used to steady the ship and why he has chosen certain players above others and then go into the long-term limitations of the tactic.
The current gameplan’s pros
Let’s first look at the formation being used in the last few games. There have been no major changes to this lineup in the 4 victories.
Antony started the previous game against Arsenal, and it’s a good assumption that he’s going to be started at RW from now on, given how clearly Ten Hag mentioned about the balance Antony provides to the attack as a wide outlet on the right was important to the team. Also, goes to show how another manager believes that Sancho’s best role is on the left, something we’ve been banging on for more than a year now.
Anyways, to understand the current gamepan, like all good football tactical breakdowns, we start at the back. I had posted the the same tweet on our handle a while ago, and this is a good starting point:
% of passes launched by David De Gea
GW1 – BRI (H) – 23% GW2 – BRE (A) – 38% GW3 – LIV (H) – 94% GW4 – SOU (A) – 45% GW5 – LEI (A) – 68% GW6 – ARS (H) – 82%
After the debacle of the first 2 games, Ten Hag has instructed de Gea to go long instead of attempting short build up. This is probably the biggest sacrifice Ten hag is making on his usual gameplay ideals, and everything else largely flows from here. As a result of going long on most occasions, the whole team bypasses the build up phase, which is currently a weak area for United, and engages in 50-50s higher up the pitch. The idea is to win the first ball or second ball and then force transitions quickly to catch the opponent defense line off-guard. Out of possession, the idea is to drop deeper and engage in a lot of reactive or last-ditch defending, with a heavy focus on intense pressing in the middle and defensive areas instead of higher up the pitch, where United doesn’t have good high pressers.
It’s a gameplan that suits United’s current players and a lot of the team selections make sense based on this understanding. Raphael Varane is one example. After the dropping of Harry Maguire, Varane has come in and done well. That’s largely because he is very suitable for the type of last-ditch intense defending that the current gameplan requires. If dropping deep and heading away crosses or putting pressure on strikers to dribble past is the only requirement, Varane is good. But it has to be noted that Varane totals just 4 progressive passes in the 4 games he’s played – an average of 1 progressive pass per game. This weakness has been masked thanks to the choice of ignoring short build up. If build up and a high line possession game are not the requirements, then Harry Maguire’s importance reduces and Varane’s increases. It’s a smart reading of both player’s strengths from Ten hag.
The same logic extends to Tyrel Malacia over Luke Shaw. Shaw was key to progression from the back under Ole gunnar Solskjaer and regularly topped the progression and chance creation charts in the last 3 years. But his defending, especially in the sense of intensity, has always been a question mark. Too often, he lets opponents dribble past or run past easily. This is where Malcia is strong. While he doesn’t have the technical skills of Shaw, he’s a very intense player who makes it hard for his man to get past. He’s also really good at pressing opponents in midfield areas once he inverts there. In fact, Malacia averages 13.3 pressures per 90, which is the second highest in the squad after Scott McTominay for all players who have played at least 3 90s.
Without explaining much, the same logic also holds good for Scott McTominay. If winning second balls and making a nuisance of yourself is the goal, Scott is a very good option. He’s been instrumental in breaking play both on the ground and in the air (the latter being one big reason he is starting over Fred) and laying it off to a more technical partner in Eriksen or Dalot or Bruno. Rashford is another one who thrives off a transition-based steal-and-run system where his off-the-ball pros are maximized and his hold-up and creative cons are minimized.
In summary, most of Ten Hag’s current selections center around good defending, intensity and effort, which other than a tactical gain, also promote a few mental directines like ‘never giving up’, ‘outrunning the opponent’, ‘fighting for every ball’ etc. It has worked well, but it has its limitations long-term.
The limitations of this approach
United have been ceding a lot of possession with this gameplan.
BRI (H) – 63% BRE (A) – 67% LIV (H) – 30% SOU (A) – 51% LEI (A) – 47% ARS (H) – 40%
The possession drop from the first 2 games is clear. While possession isn’t everything in football, it is a measure of control over the game. Ten Hag would ideally want his team to have more of the ball. The short build up would ensure United build attacks on their terms, move up the pitch in the pace they want without fear of conceding a counter, and have the authority to position players where they need to defend when the opponent does steal the ball, hopefully in a higher part of the pitch farthest from goal. If United’s opponents sit back in a more disciplined manner to not allow spaces for the forced transitions to work, then it might become easy for them to defend and hit the Red Devils on the break. We must also remember that 2 of these wins have come against big teams against whom such an approach usually works well (Did someone say Ole ball? No? Okay).
No matter how good the back 4 and Scott McTominay are at ball-winning, there is a risk in dealing with counters and 50-50 situations. We saw Eriksen getting mugged by Arsenal in a goal that was disallowed recently, while Maddison and Barnes did have some inroads around the midfield pivot in the Leicester game. Malacia and Eriksen struggled to deal with Saka’s threat on their side in the last game. On a different day, these are moments that could have led to troublesome situations.
So far, the intensity and freshness of playing under a new manager and the good start of the new signings Lisandro Martinez, Christian Eriksen, Tyrell Malacia and Antony, has kept the playing tempo good and ensured we are winning more second balls than not. But this can’t be the long-term vision. The worst-case scenario of such a gameplay would be defenders losing form and confidence if they concede too many transitions – an effect we have already seen on Harry Maguire last season. Being a defender in a team where the attackers don’t press and midfielders aren’t great at shielding is a nightmare. Ten Hag’s structures in pressing and defending are ensuring the pressure on the defenders isn’t as bad as last season. But it’s all hanging by a thread. United have already allowed 64 passes and 16 crosses into the penalty area so far, both of which are the 4th highest in the Premier League. We are allowing a lot of inroads into our penalty box and are hanging on thanks to the last-ditch defending of the current back 4. It’s not a sustainable approach to defend, especially for a team that’s aiming for trophies.
The ideal gameplay is to control the game enough to not have to face transitions and build play and progress in a way that is able to break down all kinds of defences. Defence and attack have to work in unison. The way the team keeps the ball and progresses to retain it as high up the pitch as possible is also the way in which they defend, once they lose the ball as far from their own goal as possible, and make it tough for opponents to traverse that space and enter their area. That is the ideal tactical heaven Ten Hag will aspire to reach soon, and the current gameplan is far from it. Summary I don’t want to seem like a person who brings up issues without solutions, especially when the team is actually going through a good phase. In a follow up article to this, I will explain the tactic I feel Ten hag will move towards and the personnel changes and transfer requirements that will follow as a result of it. Who knows? We might even see that change tonight against Real Sociedad.
For now, Ten Hag needs to be credited for this inspiring comeback after 2 disastrous games. He has turned things around, got points on the board and got the players and fans buzzing for more. But somewhere in his mind, and possibly the training pitch, he must already be planning for a tactic that is more front-foot, progressive, proactive and suitable to get Manchester United to being a top club competing for titles.
Let’s roll back a few years into 2019, the pre-pandemic year where everything was just perfect. Newcastle, at that time, were struggling for PL status having been relegated in the recent past only for Rafa Benitez to bring them back up and arguably overachieve with the resources at hand and keep the Toon afloat in the PL. It was not a secret that Newcastle fans were fed up with Mike Ashley and his ‘lack of ambition’. So, when Steve Bruce replaced the club favourite, Rafa Benitez, there was already a heavy backlash that followed. Newcastle needed to win the fans over and the way the owners responded was by splashing a club record fee of £40m on Joelinton from Hoffenheim.
Steve Bruce initially signed the Brazilian with the intention of playing him as a striker. Indeed, that was his actual position if you look at the season he had at Hoffenheim scoring 7 goals and contributing 5 assists. Not exactly great, but Newcastle were struggling a bit during that time so it was still a good signing all things considered.
So, 5-4-1, Joelinton as the lone target man, low blocks, Saint-Maximin and Almiron running down the wings, the plan was perfectly clear. It cannot get more Steve Bruce than this if you tried. The only problem was that Joelinton struggled to play as a target man. He just could not score enough goals and contrary to what Liverpool fans would tell you in 2020, a striker’s job IS to score goals. Especially if you are a club’s record signing and one of the few goalscoring threats in the squad.
This trend continued, Joelinton never really got firing playing as the striker. Managing to score a grand total of 2 goals in 2019/20. So much so that Newcastle had to sign another striker in Callum Wilson to compensate for their lack of goal threat. Joelinton then got shifted out wide after the arrival of Callum Wilson in 2020. But, the Brazilian’s fortunes did not change and he would still struggle to find the net on a consistent basis. And that would be a constant feature under the leadership of Steve Bruce.
Now, we all know what happened at Newcastle United last year with the *slightly* controversial takeover. Steve Bruce was sacked and Eddie Howe was appointed as his replacement in November 2021. Joelinton was always ever present in the starting lineup under Howe but what happened during the match against Norwich on 1st December changed the course of history. Ciaran Clark was sent off in the 9th minute and Howe had to shift Joelinton from the wide forward position to the midfield and seeing his performance was equivalent to discovering fire for the English manager. That was the start of a remarkable, unlikely and highly unorthodox role and position change. And the rest, as they say, is history.
So, how has the Brazilian managed this highly improbable transition from being a striker to essentially into a ball-winning midfielder? We’ll have a look.
Joelinton, the midfielder
The credit for Joelinton’s redemption arc somewhat goes to Ciaran Clark. No red card in that game, no Joelinton in midfield, blah blah blah, you get the idea. In fact, he was so successful as a midfielder that he managed to keep Newcastle’s star signing in January, Bruno Guimaraes, out of the starting lineup for the first weeks. Joelinton started lining up in a 3 man midfield alongside Jonjo Shelvey and Joe Willock, also known as Jonjo-JoeJoe. Eventually, Bruno came into the lineup replacing either Willock or Shelvey while Joelinton became a midfield mainstay, a fantastic turnaround from once being dubbed as the worst signing in PL history.
If we take a look at his numbers, we can actually see that the 26-year-old Brazilian always had a bit of a midfielder inside him all along. His attacking numbers are not great. Pretty poor in fact for someone who is a striker. However, his defensive numbers were incredible for an attacker.
As you can see, he ranks in the 22nd percentile for goals scored by forwards in Europe. Not only that, all the rest of his stats are subpar for someone who was brought in as a striker. However, you look at the defensive side of his game and it’s a whole different story altogether. He is among the best in Europe in terms of the defensive side of forwards.
If we roll the days back to his time in the Bundesliga, we can get a clearer picture of just the type of player that Joelinton was under Julian Nagalsmann at Hoffenheim. Joelinton usually lined up as the deep-lying forward in a 2 man strike force. Nagalsmann always appreciated Joelinton’s physicality, tenacity and work rate. So, Joelinton’s traits have not changed at all.
“He has a tactical understanding and the technical capabilities,” Howe said. “He’s been brilliant defensively. His work rate and the amount of ground he covers is incredible. He’s a real team player.”
Joelinton has always had the underlying numbers for a deeper lying forward ever since his days at Hoffenheim. His defensive side of the game for a forward has always been among the best in Europe. However, his transition from a deep-lying forward to a ball-winning midfielder is pretty incredible. Prior to Howe, Joelinton had never started any match as the no.8 for Newcastle. And, the Brazilian had started only one match in the midfield in his whole career spanning 223 appearances, for Rapid Wien vs Austria Vienna. He was sent off in that match in the 67th minute.
Another thing to notice from the pizza chart of his Hoffenheim days is that his passing and possession numbers are also good. Of course, as always, Joelinton the forward has never had good goal scoring numbers. But, his overall game is vastly different from his numbers at Newcastle. It depends on a lot of factors, his role, Hoffenheim’s system, the league’s susceptibility of leaving open spaces, but this does prove that Joelinton is able to progress and pass the ball as well. So, he is specifically being used as a ball-winning midfielder by Eddie Howe. It probably might be the weirdest position and role change of all time. From a target man to a ball winning midfielder. That’s equivalent to Didier Deschamps asking Karim Benzema to do Kante’s job. Although, I wouldn’t put it past the French manager.
This viz confirms our previous analysis. Joelinton is among the very best in terms of defensive actions. But, just having good defensive numbers doesn’t automatically mean that you are a good midfielder. Joelinton’s other attributes such as his tactical understanding and other traits such as his work rate, tenacity and determination which made him a good defensive forward are what helped him in this transition. The Brazilian has also partnered with a data analysis firm from Brazil to help improve fast track his transition into a midfielder. All this, coupled with Howe’s excellent coaching and Newcastle’s system has helped Joelinton transform into a midfielder, and he’s currently thriving in that role.
The Brazilian forward-turned-midfielder now regularly forms a duo with his compatriot Bruno Guimaraes in the midfield for the Magpies. The Brazilian duo have formed a formidable partnership in the middle of the park with Joelinton offering bags of energy and winning the ball back while Bruno offers the calm and composure of a traditional deep-lying playmaker. Both of them complement each other well and have been crucial in the upturn of Newcastle United. Only Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham have earned more points than Newcastle since Howe was appointed as the manager. Howe has struck a good balance between his attacking and defensive structure at Newcastle as he prepares to transition a team designed around being the ultimate underdog into his philosophy and ideas. Newcastle’s midfield isn’t as easily getting bypassed as it was being done previously and they have improved tenfolds in attack as well. There is still a long way to go before Newcastle go where everyone expects them to go but Howe has proven his worth as the right man for this job. And decisions such as Joelinton’s position change only helps his case.
The credit, along with Howe, goes to Joelinton for studying and adapting his game to suit his new role. It is one thing for a coach to identify a role for a player, it is totally different for a player to perform well in that role. So much so, that any plans that Newcastle may have had at signing another midfielder to support Bruno Guimaraes must have been totally scrapped off with the way Joelinton’s been playing.
The Brazilian ‘midfielder’ is the prime example of how scouting should be done. The underlying numbers were always there of his ability to play in the midfield. Joelinton was largely misprofiled by Steve Bruce where he used him as a lone forward whereas his strengths always lay in playing a deeper role. Credit to Eddie Howe for recognising the 26-year-old’s best position, and credit to Joelinton for adapting to his new role like a duck to water. The Newcastle fans used to hound Joelinton earlier. Now, they couldn’t possibly love him more.
My previous article segregated all top 5 league midfielders into 5 playing styles and used their stats from 21/22 to rank them on each role. You can find the full methodology here and the tweet with the request line for the role rank charts here. The response to that was very positive, which is why I have decided to extend the same exercise for strikers using 21/22 data.
The choice for picking strikers as the next position to analyze was down to 2 things. One, people love strikers. It’s always been the case. They get the headlines, they score the goals and garner the attention of audiences more. Secondly, and more to do with my intent, strikers are the one position after central midfielders, that offer a vast amount of tactical variation. Teams use their last line attackers in various ways, offering the chance for a 5-way role segregation just like midfielders. Without further ado, let’s dive into it.
I’ll spend more time explaining the striker roles, since they are key to the results. The 5 roles I’ve decided to classify center-forwards into are:
Target Man Poacher Deep-lying Creator Explosive Dribber Defensive Forward
Once again, the Football Manager influence is clear. Why reinvent the wheel?
An explanation of each role:
1. Target Man: The out-ball of the team – someone with aerial presence who can score, assist or hold up, when direct balls are purposefully launched at him by his teammates. The high weightage stats taken for this role were Aerials won, Aerial win %, Pass Targets, etc. Some examples of players who excelled in this role last season are Zlatan Ibrahimović, Christian Benteke and Chris Wood.
2. Poacher: The finisher – the one who plays off the shoulder of the last opponent defender, continuously looking at running behind, finishing from as close to the goal as possible and offering constant penalty box threat to push defences behind. The focus stats here are NPxG, NPxG/Shot, Penalty area touches, etc. Some examples from 21/22 are Erling Haaland, Patrick Schick, and Ciro Immobile.
3. Deep-lying Creator: A striker acting as a creator for others. Whether as a deep-lying forward or false nine or wide forward, this player has a sense of assisting and helping others score, in addition to scoring himself. Some key stats taken for this were xA, Passes into penalty area, Shot-creating actions etc. Players who played this role well last season were Alassane Plea, Thomas Muller, and Max Kruse.
4. Explosive Dribbler: A forward who loves taking on defenders – whether it’s by drifting wide to isolate and dribble past defenders, or by dropping deep into midfield to drive towards the goal. High weightage stats for this were Dribbles, Players dribbled past, Shots created from dribbles etc. Players who topped this role in 21/22 were Kylian Mbappe, Rafael Leao and Emmanuel Dennis.
5. Defensive Forward: Itmight sound like an oxymoron, but modern football has found a place for an attacker who begins the team’s defense from the front, by pressing and ball-winning high up the pitch. Key stats for this included Pressures, Attacking 3rd tackles, Pressure Success %, etc. Some of the examples from 21/22 for this type are Amine Adli, Roberto Firmino, and Mark Uth.
Well, that was all the theory. The rest is pretty much manual work.
Step 1: I downloaded stats of all outfield players from fbref.com
Step 2: I segregated ‘Center Forwards’ and ‘Support Strikers’ from this list using Transfermarkt filters.
Step 3: I cut off all players who haven’t played at least 10 league 90s. 220 players made the cut and this becomes the roster we will do all our calculations on.
Step 4: I create possession-adjusted and per 90 versions of each stat so that we can bring all the stats to a comparable level playing field
Step 4: I converted each stat into a percentile version within this data set. Eg. The Striker with the highest ‘possession-adjusted per 90 xA’ gets 100 percentile for ‘xA’ and so on. One caveat here is that I am comparing strikers across leagues for this exercise. So someone with a 90 percentile is better than 90% of Europe’s top 5 league strikers on that stat (i.e. Only 22 strikers performed better than him for that role) not just his own league. It’s the only way I can get a Europe level ranking.
Step 5: I used the role logic from earlier to come up with scores for each of the 5 roles. I’ve used 13 data points for each role and weighted them on the basis of which stats are more relevant. Another caveat here is that since these are based on actual stats, they are highly dependent on what role they were deployed in and to an extent, how the team helped them perform that role as well. In a different setup, or in a different role, they could have very different stats, and, as a result, very different role rankings.
Step 6: I use percentiles once again within the role scores to rank them, and then assign each player their best role based on the final percentiles.
Let’s look at the role wise ratings. Here are the top 25 players for each specific role.
Those were the best players in each role based on season data.
Now, let’s take a look at some player profiles that cover their score and suitability for each role. It’s the same data, but from a single player point of view.
Firstly, Erling Haaland
Haaland is viewed as the quintessential poacher, and the data backs it up. He scored the highest in Europe for that role. His next best scores are for deep-lying creator and target man, 72 percentile on each. This means that 28% of strikers, or 62 strikers of the 220 in our dataset, are better than him for these 2 roles.
Let’s take a look at a few more examples. Kylian Mbappe.
Funnily, that looks like the eiffel tower. Jokes aside, Mbappe topped our set for explosive dribbler, which isn’t a surprise for anyone who has followed his game, but he also ranks very highly for poacher and deep-lying creator, highlighting his strengths at those roles. But that comes at the cost of his scores in the other 2 roles, which are a result of him being a poor target man and not being a great defender from the front.
Next, Thomas Muller.
Muller sneaked into the set as a ‘Support Striker’ as per Transfermarkt. His traits and play style from a deeper area are reflected in his high scores for defensive forward and deep-lying creator, given his high creativity to provide for Bayern’s front 3 and involvement in pressing and ball-winning in deeper areas.
Finally, I’m posting Ronaldo, because I’m pretty sure I’ll get a request for it.
Ronado’s fall from grace and difficulties while playing for United last season are apparent. Even for his best role as a target man (largely due to his aerial strength, which he now relies heavily on), 27% strikers, or 60 players, performed better than him. The other roles are even worse, with his poor defending assigning him a 4 percentile as a defensive forward.
Well, and that’s a wrap. I’ll be opening a request line on our Twitter handle after releasing this article. Comment with the name of the player you want to look at and I’ll RT with the pentagon-shaped role rank style chart, like the 4 above.
If there is high interest, I might do a similar exercise for the other positions as well, but I’m not sure of the interest of 21/22 rankings, since 22/23 has already begun.
Football, at its core, is a really subjective sport to analyze. Other than the issues that come with judging individuals in a team sport, the complications of understanding if a player is good or bad are plenty and can probably never be stated outright in that form. But that doesn’t mean we stop rating players, does it? There is assessment going on, regardless of the difficulties in assessment. Often, the judgment comes down to – is a player doing what he’s supposed to and doing it well? Which then demands the understanding of what he/she is supposed to do, which in turn leads to the demands of understanding team tactics and instructions of other players. It’s not an easy process.
But today, I’m going to try and make that process a little easier. I’m going to classify Europe’s top 5 leagues’ midfielders into roles and rank them on the basis of how well they performed that role last season. I’ll explain the methodology below, and then open up a request line on Twitter, for anyone to be able to ask for a specific player’s role rank chart. Let’s get into it.
I’ll spend more time explaining the midfield roles, since they are key to the results. The 5 roles I’ve decided to classify midfielders into are:
As you can see, I’m a huge fan of Football Manager. I just think they’ve nailed down names of player roles really well. They do have a few more, but I’ve decided to stick to these 5 for simplicity. An explanation of each role:
1. Deep-lying Playmaker: The midfielder tasked with progressing from deep. We’re looking at someone who is good at build up, involved in possession, spreads play well, dictates tempo and progresses from deep. Some of the stats that will carry high weightage are ‘Progressive Passes’, ‘Passes into final third’, ‘Pass completion %’, ‘Progressive Carries’ etc. Some good 21/22 references for players in this category would be Kroos and Verratti.
2. Defensive Midfielder: Initially I had named this role as ‘Anchor Man’ but it felt it was too reductive in function. The player most adept at holding, shielding the back 4 or 5, defending transitions and good positioning, makes it here. An aspect of retention and ball safety will also be focused on. Some stats that have been used are ‘% of dribblers tackled’, ‘Pressure Success %’, ‘Miscontrols’, ‘Pass Targets’ etc. References would be players like Busquets and Casemiro from last season.
3. Ball-winning Midfielder: The midfielder who operates with high defensive intensity, presses a lot, wins the ball back and is more about workrate and getting stuck in, than any technical aspects of the game, is covered here. Some high-weightage stats used for this are ‘Pressures’, ‘Tackles’, ‘Interceptions’, ‘Pass blocks’ etc. Good references for this role are Kante and Fred in 21/22.
4. Box-to-box Midfielder: I’ve covered players who love to join the attack in this one. These are midfielders who boast a high goal threat from midfield and routinely link up with attackers without much care for involvement deeper in midfield. Stats like ‘Carries into final third’, ‘npxG’, ‘Shots’, and ‘Dribbles’ have been focused on. References for this role are Naby Keita and Ilkay Gundogan of last year.
5. Advanced Playmaker: These might be slightly tricky to separate from box-to-box mids and deep-lying playmakers, but the reference here is of players who have high final third creation. Instead of deep playmaking, they focus on finding attackers regularly and have good rates for assists. Some focus stats for these players are ‘xA’, ‘Passes into penalty area’, ‘Key passes’, ‘Shot-creating Actions’ etc. Good references from 21/22 might be Luis Alberto and Rodrigo de Paul.
Well, that was all the theory. The rest is pretty much manual work.
Step 1: I downloaded stats of all outfield players from fbref.com
Step 2: I segregated ‘Central Midfielders’ and ‘Defensive Midfielders’ form this list using Transfermarkt filters
Step 3: I cut off all players who haven’t played at least 10 league 90s
Step 4: I create possession-adjusted and per 90 versions of each stat so that we can bring all the stats to a comparable level playing field
Step 4: I converted each stat into a percentile version within this data set. Eg. The midfielder with the highest ‘possession-adjusted per 90 xA’ gets 100 percentile for ‘xA’ and so on. One caveat here is that I am comparing midfielders across leagues for this exercise. So someone with a 90 percentile is better than 90% of Europe’s top 5 league midfielders on that stat, not just his own league. It’s the only way I can get a Europe level ranking.
Step 5: I used the role logic from earlier to come up with scores for each of the 5 roles. I’ve used 13 data points for each role and weighted them on the basis of which stats are more relevant. Step 6: I use percentiles once again within the role scores to rank them, and then assign each player their best role based on the final percentiles.
The results look like this:
The percentile scores indicate how good the midfielder is at that role. Eg. Kroos is the best deep-lying playmaker in Europe’s top 5 leagues based on 21/22 data, but two-thirds of the same midfielders are better than him for the ball-winning midfielder role. The 25 players in this list have a top 1 percentile score on at least one role.
Let’s look at the role wise ratings. Here are the top 25 players for each specific role.
Those were the best players in each role based on season data.
Now, let’s take a look at some player profiles that cover their score and suitability for each role. It’s the same data, but from a single player point of view.
Firsty, Toni Kroos.
The role scores that we calculated earlier, have been used to plot marks along the pentagon to show how good a player is at that role. As discussed before, Kroos claims the top spot for ‘Deep-lying Playmaker’ with a solid 100, but he also looks good for ‘Advanced Playmaker’ and ‘Box-to-box Midfielder’ which hints at what a good 21/22 he has had in terms of playmaking and driving the game. He looks decent on ‘Defensive Midfielder’ and is in the bottom third for ‘Ball Winner’.
Let’s look at another example. Frenkie De Jong.
Now, the data will only reflect what a player has done in 21/22 and not what he CAN do. If a player was played out of position or tasked with a different role, the chart will change accordingly. Frenkie’s best roles appear for ‘Deep-lying Playmaker’, ‘Box-to-box midfielder’ and ‘Advanced Playmaker’ which probably speaks of the various roles he has been asked to play last year. His low defensive output and shielding ability are clear from his inferior scores in the other 2 roles.
Koopmeiners was largely touted as a Defensive Midfielder prior to his move to Italy. While that tag is debatable, his usage at Atalanta has been anything but. He’s been deployed as an attacking midfielder or roaming #8 on many occasions, which is probably why his 21/22 stats look good for ‘Advanced Playmaker’ and ‘Box-to-box midfielder’ while also showing a good score for ‘Deep-lying Playmaker’.
A final example to end this article with a bang. Thiago Alcantara.
He progressed play, he playmaked, he won the ball back, he supported the attack, he shielded the defence – Thiago did everything in 21/22. There’s almost nothing to separate the 5 role scores. Thiago was the most well-rounded midfielder in terms of my calculations.
Well, that’s a wrap. I’ll be opening a request line on our Twitter handle after releasing this article. Comment with the name of the player you want to look at and I’ll RT with the pentagon-shaped role rank style chart like the 3 above.
If there is high interest, I might do a similar exercise for the other positions as well, but I’m not sure of the interest of 21/22 rankings since 22/23 has already begun.
At the time of the writing of this article, Manchester United have embarked on their pre-season tour with only 1 summer signing finalized – Tyrell Malacia. The aggressive rebuild isn’t really going as per plan and to make matters worse, the red side of Manchester has been shaken by Cristiano Ronaldo’s absence from pre-season due to “a family issue”. Rumors say that the Portuguese is looking for a way out of the club in a bid to play Champions League football next season – something that really doesn’t come as a big surprise, knowing the man. Regardless of where you stand on the Ronaldo debate, one thing is clear – United need a proper center-forward who suits Ten Hag’s style.
Over the past 3 years, the club has brought in 32-year-old Ighalo, 34-year-old Edinson Cavani and 36-year-old Ronaldo in the name of a top center-forward. Martial’s inconsistency and the declining status of these signings has meant that the club hasn’t seen a consistent central forward presence since Lukaku under Jose Mourinho. Even if Ronaldo hadn’t shaken the boat, his age and limitations to be able to play as a well-rounded center-forward that can spearhead an Erik Ten Hag attack, mean that United should be looking hard for a young/peak CF anyway. Rangnick even mentioned that Ronaldo himself indicated that he’s better playing off a proper CF in a front 2, although given the latest circumstances, a direct replacement and upgrade on Ronaldo is probably the best course of action for the club.
United need a long-term CF and in today’s piece, I’m going to use data to create a shortlist for the same and cover the top 6 options in detail. Let’s get into it.
Creating the Shortlist
I’ve done this a few times now in case you caught our CM, RB or RW shortlist before. I’m going to keep this part short in the interest of spending more time with our shortlisted candidates.
1. I downloaded data from Fbref for all outfield players in Europe
2. I converted all stats to ‘per 50 touches’ to better represent what the players do in possession
3. I filtered in players labeled as ‘Center-forward’ or ‘Support-striker’ as per Transfermarkt
4. I filtered in players who have played at least 20 league 90s in 21/22
5. I created percentiles within this dataset to order all relevant stats from 0 to 100 percentile
5. I used a weighted formula to create a score from the relevant stat percentiles to rank our desired profiles
Further expanding on point 5, these are the stats I used to create the weighted score:
NpxG – 20% weightage
Pressures – 15% weightage
xA – 15% weightage
Shots – 15% weightage
Progressive passes received – 10% weightage
NpxG/Shot – 10% weightage
Possession losses – 10% weightage
Aerial Win % – 5% weightage
Our first responsibility is to find a great goalscorer. ‘NpxG’, ‘Shots’ and ‘NpxG/Shot’ together almost make up half the overall score in terms of weight. This will ensure we get a top goal threat who can get into the box regularly, take shots created by playmakers like Bruno, Shaw and Sancho and deliver high non-penalty output. We also want someone who moves well in the attacking third and receives a lot, which is why ‘Progressive passes received’ is a factor. ‘xA’ denotes our need for someone with a good final ball to also be able to play in the wingers or oncoming midfielders when possible. Our pressing structure woes are well documented and the addition of Ronaldo and Sancho and departure of Daniel James were big reasons why the high press completely failed in 21/22. We can’t afford that again, so the new CF has to be a decent presser. Finally, he should be able to keep possession losses to a minimum (this guarantees a good level of close control and decision making in the final third) and be decent aerially, since Ten Hag does like to use his CF as an aerial out-ball from time to time.
With an additional age filter to keep in players under the age of 27, when sorted by weighted score, this is what we ended up with:
Going by vibes as well, if someone said Erling Haaland is the type of CF United need (Ole certainly seemed to think so 2 years ago), then our formula is on the right track. Next, I filtered out players who will not move to United at this point (like Haaland) or do not play CF (like Moffi).
Our list is starting to shape up nicely. A final requirement for filtering can be seen here, though. We don’t want a player who is poor in a certain aspect. Eg. Schick and Isak are at the bottom 20 percentile for pressures and David, for Aerial Win %. We’ve already discussed how the new CF cannot be poor in these aspects. I used a minimum 20 percentile filter on each stat.
This rounds up our shortlist neatly to 6 options. This seems good for now. Let’s get into the details of each candidate.
Before we get into the shortlisted 6, I want to post 2 profiles to preface an understanding of what we want to upgrade on and what the ideal candidate could look like.
Firstly, Cristiano Ronaldo.
While Ronaldo’s goal-scoring was decent, his profile is littered with issues that hold the team back. The biggest one being pressing. His ‘Pressures’ reading 0 percentile is indicative of him being the worst presser in Europe in our dataset of center-forwards and support-strikers who have played at least 20 league 90s. His pressure success is also average. His passing stats paint him as someone too uncreative to assist others, a safe pass % being the only pro. Ronaldo being average for ‘Npxg/Shot’ and ‘Progressive Passes Received’ also hints at his poor CF movement to receive the ball in dangerous areas close to goal, with him often drifting off to the left or deep to take low quality shots from distance.
Next, as a contrast, let’s look at Erling Haaland’s profile, who ranked highest in the set before the realism filters.
While Haaland’s shooting and goal-scoring are world-class (which is the biggest reason he ranked so highly for us given the extra weightage for shooting stats), he looks good for many other metrics too. His final ball is deceptively strong, with this ability to pick out a key pass the reason he has 8 and 10 assists in his last 2 seasons. His excellent ‘Progressive passes received” and “Aerial Win %” indicate his strong box presence and option to be a consistent target. While his pressures applied are below average, he makes up with a high pressure success, which indicates a willingness to wait patiently for the right moment to win the ball for a turnover. He’s not a great dribbler though, which probably indicates you just can’t have everything. As long as most of the boxes are ticked and there is a fitment with the existing setup, it can work.
With this in mind, let’s begin the breakdown for each of our shortlisted candidates in order of the weighted score.
Age: 24 Club: Inter Milan Nation: Argentina Position: CF, SS Foot: Right (84% usage) Contract ends: June, 2026 Current market value: £72m Rumored transfer value: £60m to £90m
Even though he’s still just 24, Lautaro already feels like a household name in Europe following 3 back-to-back seasons of 25+ goal contributions as a key starter for Inter Milan, which include 3 trophies as well. Whether it’s under Conte or Inzaghi or when paired with Lukaku or Dzeko, Lautaro delivers. And 21/22 has just been his best season yet. Prying him away from Inter is a costly affair given his form and status, but given the financial constraints of the Italian club, and Lukaku and potentially Dybala returning, a strong bid could satisfy all parties.
Strengths: Probably the most well-rounded striker for his age, Lautaro boasts immense shooting skills with his goal threat among the best in the list. One of the reasons he’s a great finisher is because of his intense concentration and consistency. He rarely misses chances and is very aware of what’s happening on the pitch all the time. He has a very ‘precision over power’ approach to his shooting. He’s also a decent shot-creator and safe passer, given his experience in operating in deeper areas. He’s able to drop deep, hold the ball with his back to goal and facilitate others cleanly with smart one-touch passes or disguised passes. In the attacking phase, he has amazing movement to be able to run the channels, provide final man runs and get into the box to create shots for himself as well. He is really quick and really adept in tight spaces. His metrics for ‘NpxG/Shot’ and ‘Progressive passes received’ would have been more if he wasn’t sharing attacking duties with a more advanced striker. His movements on transitions and while breaking down low blocks are so good, that he’s always at the right place at the right time to unlock the defense, create a gap, find a teammate or fashion himself a shooting chance. He’s also deceptively strong in the air, finishing many chances with his head and having the ability to win aerial duels for his teammates. His ‘Aerial Win %’ only reads low thanks to the high amount of aerial duels he engages in.
Weaknesses: Lautaro is comfortable as a left-sided striker in a front 2. As a natural right-footer, he finds the left-sided angle to pass and carry easier. This adds to a plethora of United attackers who also have a left-sided bias. He’s well rounded enough to pull off a lone striker role, but the evenness to be able to progress and facilitate play on either side from a central position at all times, is in doubt. He also needs to be more aggressive in racking up high xG chances closer to goal, but this could largely be due to him being partnered with a more advanced striker so far.
Overall Devil’s DNA Score: 9.5/10
Age: 24 Club: Clermont Foot Nation: Guinea Position: CF Foot: Right (88% usage) Contract ends: June, 2024 Current market value: £10.8m Rumored transfer value: £8m to £12m
I can guarantee that no one would have guessed Bayo of Clermont Foot was making our shortlist when this process began. And it’s not anyone’s fault. Until 2021, Bayo was playing in the second division of France. A youth product of Clermont, Bayo needed reserve team games and loan spells until the age of 22 to develop himself. In 20/21, he made the starting spot his own and helped his hometown achieve Ligue 1 promotion via 22 goals and 7 assists. In 21/22, he followed this up with another stellar season of 14 goals and 5 assists in 27 starts to help Clermont escape relegation. This has led to him being courted by stronger clubs in Europe this summer. The rumors include Everton looking at him as a Richarlison replacement and West Ham considering him as competition to Antonio, but recent reports have seen Lille lead the race.
Strengths: Clermont only scored 38 league goals this season, 37% of which have been scored by Bayo, showing his importance as a goal threat to the relegation-battling side. Bayo’s best trait is his movement. He is constantly running, looking for spaces in the opponent backline and gets at the end of chances consistently. His high values for ‘NPxG’ and ‘NPxg/Shot’ indicate a striker who gets into good positions and takes high value shots. He has a very strong one-touch finish and is very skilled at close-range finishes, often aiming for the roof of the net with power to give goalkeepers no chance. He’s also a strong dribbler, using his agility and pace to beat opponents rather than technique or flair. He also has a good final ball, boasting 12 assists in 2 years.
Weaknesses: Bayo isn’t very technically gifted. He looks good as the sharp and pacey outlet for a counter-attacking unit (which makes the West Ham rumors make so much sense) but the ability to play back to goal and showcase close control against crowded low blocks for a possession-based team, is in doubt. His pressing and aerial prowess are also not too great, which greatly limit what he can do when the team doesn’t have the ball. While he could prove to be an upgrade in terms of consistent movement and box presence that Ronaldo doesn’t offer, much of the other limitations of the veteran could be repeated with Bayo. If Ronaldo does stay for a year or United are unable to close a better striker, Bayo could serve as a cheap pick up who offers poacher traits that the attack currently doesn’t have, but might need upgrading on with a starter-level forward in a year.
Overall Devil’s DNA Score: 7/10
Age: 25 Club: Lyon Nation: France Position: CF Foot: Right (82% usage) Contract ends: June, 2023 Current market value: £45m Rumored transfer value: £10m to £20m
Moussa’s strong 21/22 (22 goals and 5 assists in 31 starts) couple with his contract situation (1 year left) and the arrival of Lacazatte on a free transfer, have meant that the 25 year-old has seen himself be linked to many clubs, like Southampton, for as less as £10m. But, the player recently announced that he wished to stay, among rumors that Bosz could field both Lacazatte and Moussa in a front 2 for the coming season. A bid from a big club, especially if Moussa finds himself benched for the high-profile Lacazatte, could change all that very quickly.
Strengths: Playing the CF in Lyon’s 4-2-3-1 for most of the 21/22 season, Moussa’s best traits paint him as a strong poacher. His 4 shooting stats, ‘Progressve Passes Received’metric and ‘Aerial Win %’ collectively scream of his ability to be a great mover in the final third, an amazing outlet with box presence and a superb finisher. He is among the best runners-in-behind in world football and has a very central tendency to his movement unlike many left-biased right-footed strikers. His great acceleration and composure in front of goal make him frustrating to stop. He’s already had 4 20+ goal seasons before turning 26. He’s also really good at in-to-out and out-to-in movements, leading defenders away from their positions to create space for himself or a teammate. Before his loan move to Atletico, 93% of his goals had come from inside the box. Can liken him to someone like Jamie Vardy.
Weaknesses: Moussa is at his best when facing the goal. He’s limited when it comes to back-to-goal play and can lose the ball when pressured in crowded areas. He’s not really progressive, either via passing or carrying, and can’t be called extremely safe in his close control either. Dembele shone when Lyon had creators like Fekir and Ndombele feeding him constantly from midfield, but after their departure and the emergence of good movers in the attack like Ekambi and Kadewere, a lot of Moussa’s traits didn’t seem critical enough, often leading to him being dropped. He did win back his place eventually, but the caveats of his success as a player relying heavily on his movement and the requirement of the team to be very service-oriented to get the best out of him, needs to be noted. With United overloading creators like Eriksen and De Jong to help Bruno and Sancho, a service-demanding and low ball-affinity CF like Dembele could work a charm, but a second CF option who provides what Moussa cannot (maybe Martial?), might have to be considered as well.
Overall Devil’s DNA Score: 7.5/10
Age: 24 Club: Roma Nation: England Position: CF Foot: Right (90% usage) Contract ends: June, 2026 Current market value: £45m Rumored transfer value: £67m to £90m
Becoming a great advert for English youngsters finding Serie A as a developmental home, Tammy has grown from his Chelsea days into a much more well-rounded and impactful striker, boasting 27 goals and 5 assists in 48 starts in 21/22. Chelsea have a buyback option of €80m (£67m), but Tammy’s insistence of being happy at Roma and Roma’s demands of a €100m fee make this seem like a tough transfer. But with the constant links with Premier League sides like Arsenal and Man United and rumors of Tammy being open to return to his home country, a mouth-watering bid has the potential to see the striker return to England.
Strengths: Tammy’s goal-scoring is world-class. Even before the Roma move, his values for ‘Goals’, ‘NpxG’ and ‘NpxG/Shot’ were always superb, on a per 90 basis. He’s now just gotten a full season to see them translate to top-class season numbers. His shot quality has always been a hallmark and he ranks the best for ‘NpxG/Shot’ in our dataset. This refers to his ability to get into very good areas and take high value shots close to the goal. Good movement and positioning, whether it’s to get into the box between defenders or to get at the end of a searching ball or to pick the space to receive when the team is attacking in transition – Tammy has a natural flair for purposeful movement. Tammy receives 20% of his passes inside the box while 48% of his touches in the box lead to a shot. These highlight what a strong central box presence he is. While not really creative, Tammy has the strength to hold off defenders, play back-to-goal and lay off quick one-touch passes to advancing teammates. He also has the ability to release wide players in transition if the space is there, being more progressive in his passing than one might imagine. He’s very diligent in tracking back and covering passing lanes during the opposition build-up – things he has learnt well under Jose Mourinho.
Weaknesses: Tammy isn’t the fastest on the ground, his height and lanky frame taking off some acceleration. He has a tendency to drift in and out of games, often coming to life in decisive moments, but also seemingly going missing in other moments. His hold up play and ball control, especially in deeper areas of the pitch, can do with improvement. He’s efficient and neat but the requirements of technical play when far from goal and faced with low blocks, might be tough on him in a possession-based side. Tammy’s carrying is below average, with the player often opting for a quick pass instead of carrying towards goal. This means that he needs to be supported well in attack and cannot be expected to keep hold of the ball for long using close control, until teammates arrive.
Overall Devil’s DNA Score: 9/10
Age: 23 Club: Napoli Nation: Nigeria Position: CF Foot: Right (90% usage) Contract ends: June, 2025 Current market value: £58.5m Rumored transfer value: £70m to £90m
Like Lautaro Martinez, even at the young age of 23, Osihmen already feels like an established star, boasting double-digit goals for 4 consecutive seasons now, the last 2 being at Napoli. His 21/22 season ended with 18 goals and 2 assists in 26 starts. Napoli signed the Nigerian for a club record fee of potentially €80m. The chances of them letting go of their prized possession for anything less than that amount, considering he has 3 more years left on his contract, are slim.
Strengths: Physically, Osihmen is probably the most impressive striker in our list. His height, strength, pace, agility and energy speak of a combination that is really rare to find. This leads to him getting to the ball often – whether it’s a dynamic leap or a burstful run across the ground or a sprint across the opposition box – Osihmen is usually there, outmuscling or outrunning opponents with a childish ease. His speed and acceleration enable him to make start-stop or direction-changing runs that are hard to track. He’s also really adept at carrying, using his physical traits to power through with the ball, when faced with defenders. His hold up and close control are also strong, thanks to the combination of his physical traits and ball control technique. Similar to Lukaku, he’s easily able to hold defenders off, shield the ball and play it off to his teammate without losing it. His high IQ movement is the reason for his high ‘Progressive passes received’ stat. He is adept at finishing from his head as well as left foot.
Weaknesses: Most glaringly, Osimhen is yet to cross 33 starts in a season. His 2 seasons for Napoli have seen 19 and 26 starts in all competitions, respectively. Repetitive injuries of different nature have plagued the player. While his scoring rate is great on a per 90 basis, he is still yet to cross 18 goals a season, thanks to his fitness record. Also, Osihmen isn’t really creative on the ball. He’s not a great passer and is poor at progression and creation from passes. His strong carrying and physical ability to hold the ball until he can pick out a straightforward pass, is what helps him keep the game going, but don’t expect him to create for others.
Overall Devil’s DNA Score: 8.5/10
Age: 23 Club: Sassuolo Nation: Italy Position: CF Foot: Right (91% usage) Contract ends: June, 2026 Current market value: £26m Rumored transfer value: £40m to £50m
With his imposing frame, eye-catching tattoos and excellence for Sassuolo this season, Scamacca’s potential movement to a Champions League club has been one of the stories of the summer. With various clubs linked at many points, the consensus seems to be that Paris Saint-Germain have got their man for €50m. But with the deal still not official, one can never rule out anything. I mean, what if PSG target the frustrated Ronaldo, leaving Scamacca open to join United? A man can dream.
Strengths: Scamacca’s most noticeable trait is his imposing 6’5” frame. Likened to Zlatan, the Italian is very strong in the air, but combines that physicality with a good first touch and close control. He probably has the best hold up and close control in our list. Scamacca can pluck balls out of thin air, bring them down with finesse, shield it against defenders and then find a teammate easily. He is very versatile in terms of contribution in open play, having the ability to run the channels or wide areas, stay in the box like a target man or drop deep to help connect play. While not being too creative, Scamacca is a very aware and deceitfully skillful shot creator utilizing smart flicks, dummies, tap-downs, cutbacks, through balls and crosses to find his teammates in good situations. He also has a wonderful shooting technique, able to rifle it from distance or tap it in precisely from close-range.
Weaknesses: His great shooting technique and eagerness to do too much, make him take some bad shooting decisions, especially from distance. He’ll often be found releasing one from afar, when a better choice could have been made. This is the reason for his below average ‘NPxG/Shot’. Scamacca doesn’t have the poaching pedigree of some of the others on our list. This is the first time in his career he has got double digit league goals, while his profile feels a bit too well-rounded and all-over-the-place at times, which might not be ideal for a club wanting a consistent goal threat capable of being the league’s top scorer.
Overall Devil’s DNA Score: 8/10
A final summary of our summer 2022 CF shortlist:
Movement, Mentals, Finishing, Link-up
Left-sided bias, Untested as lone CF
Movement, Finishing, Transition game
Hold up, Consistency, Creativity
Physicals, Movement, Carrying
Fitness, Passing, Creativity
Hold up, Versatility, Technique
Shooting decisions, Poaching, Final ball
Movement, Finishing, Proven
Hold up, Creativity, Need for service, Progression
Movement, Finishing, Agility
Hold up, Technique, Defending
Roughly speaking, the summary implies that if United want a top CF for years to come, they’re gonna have to pay up. Either of Lautaro, Tammy and Osimhen would prove to be a costly affair. Given their skill sets, it seems like a big swing for the Inter Milan man makes most sense for United. A low-price pickup for Dembele or Bayo would prove to be very cost-effective and immediately give United the poacher option they are missing, but might require an upgrade again in a year or two. These 2 players could work in tandem with Ronaldo or Martial or any future CF. Scamacca, on the other hand, offers something different at a decent price and could be really instrumental in bringing others into play in a unified attack.
All said and done, there are good options. United should ideally take advantage of the Ronaldo uproar and start looking at some of these names as a replacement. They need to do it anyway, whether it’s now or next year. A 37 year-old fading limited striker is not the face of a youth-focused rebuild. United need to go for the inevitable upgrade. The more they delay it, the lesser the options remain in the market, an effect we have seen when it comes to getting a defensive midfielder.
Thanks for reading so far. If there are any specific requests that are linked to United, please inform us and we can do them separately.
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.
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.
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)