These have been the players signed by Manchester United to lead their attack in the past 4 years. Currently none of them are at the club. The lack of seriousness in plugging a major starting XI gap has finally been addressed this summer. 20 year old Danish wonderkid, Rasmus Hojlund was unveiled at Old Trafford before the pre-season friendly vs Lens to an excited Old Trafford crowd.
Thanks to the deal costing €75m as a package, the hype and expectations from an excited fanbase who have been yearning for a young high ceiling line-leading CF, are quite high. In this article I break down every aspect of Hojlund’s game and point out his key strengths and the areas he needs to improve on.
Career so far
Born in Copenhagen, he joined their youth system in 2020 at the age of 17. He made his debut for them later that year and went on to feature 27 times over the next season. Sturm Graz picked him up for €1.8m in Jan 2022 and he recorded an impressive 12 goals in 21 appearances for them across 2022. That was enough for Atalanta to shell out €17m in August 2022. 22/23 was his breakout year where he bagged 10 goals and 2 assists in 21.1 90s for the Serie A club which was enough for United to come knocking. He has also started playing regularly for Denmark in the past 2 years racking up 6 goals in 6 games for his country so far.
22/23 Stats Before we begin, let’s take a look at his stats for 22/23. I will dissect them in detail soon, but here’s a snapshot.
Excellent movement and shooting, great carrying and good passing – is how I’d summarize this chart. This already paints a good picture of the type of striker we want to lead our line. Let’s get into his traits now.
NOTE: For the match examples in this article I’ve stuck to two full games – Atalanta vs Salernitana from Serie A GW37 and Denmark vs Kazakhstan 2023 Euro qualifier. I wanted to highlight all of Rasmus’ pros and cons using two full 90s instead of cherry-picking good moments across a year.
Let me say upfront that this is Hojlund’s best trait and the one I think he’s already at par with compared to the best strikers in the world. His consistency, willingness, IQ and variety of movement are all top-class and this is one of the main reasons I’d say his profile is so attractive for a top team.
Now, let me back these positive statements with some proof.
This is how Atalanta lined up in the end-season league game vs Salernitana and generally how they’ve lined up in Serie A last season. There are some variations where they play a front 2 with an AM behind them but largely speaking they fielded 3 narrow attackers with Hojlund most central among them as a line leader.
Atalanta play a very attacking and transition-based brand of football. The wingbacks provide the width while the back 3 and pivot take care of the build up and progression. The front 3 have a lot of license to roam in the opponent half to pick spaces between the lines, on the wings or half-spaces between defenders. The 2 support strikers are usually narrow like attacking midfielders. Hojlund was usualy the line leader CF, playing on the shoulder of the last opposition defender.
Now let’s look at some movement patterns Hojlund often executes.
This is his bread-and-butter move. Hojlund curves around a defender to attack the channel or half-space between the center-back and the fullback. The support striker responsible for that halfspace usually takes Hojlund’s central spot to prepare for the cutback or offer a box target. Lookman often shared this equation with Hojlund and this is something we could see a lot with Rashford at United. When Hojlund runs the channel, he provides an immediate outlet for the team to pick out, stretches the opposition defence and creates space for his support attackers to occupy.
Let’s look at some match examples.
A bursting Hojlund run into the right channel attracts the defender towards him, which creates space for him to play the channel pass to his teammate who runs there. Notice how Hojlund also attacks the box after his pass, expecting a 1-2 or someone to find him there later. Offers the channel run but immediately wants to attack the box as well – that’s Hojlund.
Notice the sharpness of the run here. The space isn’t big and there is a narrow window to angle his run to avoid being offside and yet beat his man and receive the ball. Hojlund’s movement IQ and awareness is excellent enough to nail that window consistently all game. It’s one reason I’d put him up there with the best movers in the game already. His pass could probably have been better, which is an erratic part of his game, but the support wasn’t great too.
Once again, notice how Hojlund starts peeling away from his marker the moment his teammate is about to receive the ball on the flank. That enables the first-time pass into the right channel. His movements are so quick and sharp, they are designed to attack those short moments when the space is available. United’s players will have to be quick in noticing those moments and playing him early when he has the run on the opposition defender.
An example on the left side. Notice how good Hojlund’s control and carrying is after receiving wide. To end up with a strong shot on goal from that wide position highlights what a good dribbler and shot-creator for himself Hojlund is.
This is a great example of his movement. Notice how he tears away from his CB with the perfect angled run that not only beats the CB, but also lets him receive cleanly behind the RB.
An example from the Denmark game. Notice how he suddenly changes direction and darts towards the channel, inviting even the simplest of chips in the half space to become a great tool of progression. A hold up action and pass to winger later, Denmark are in the final 3rd.
Let’s get into his second movement pattern.
A more direct move where Hojlund stands in front of his CB marker and turns him to run into the space right behind facing the goal. This usually ends up in a shot on goal or final ball or foul won. It is one major avenue for Hojlund’s shots. The acceleration he generates from a standing start to a turn-and-run behind his man is what sets him apart from other strikers who do this.
Let’s look at some scenarios.
Classic move ahead of the CB where he turns around him for a clear path to goal with his left foot in striking position. The CB has no option but to take him down. Hojlund wins a penalty which is dispatched by Boga. In general, he’s drawn 32 fouls and won 2 penalties in his 20 90s for Atalanta this year. It’s tough to handle someone as smart and quick a mover as Hojlund. Bruno could be taking some extra penalties this coming year.
Another example where his turn-and-run leads to a foul drawn in a dangerous area.
An example from the Denmark game where he darts across the CB and uses his pace and physicality to maintain his run and emerge goalside. A random long ball punt becomes a 1-on-1 with the GK thanks to Hojlund’s run. He also has the composure to chip and earn his goal.
Let’s move to another pattern.
This is the one you all must be waiting for. The classic poacher move – Penetrative run between defenders when the ball is in wide areas. Hojlund is excellent at this and keeps making these runs often. Many of his goals are from this movement and often finished with a speedy dart and an extended leg to tap in a pure striker’s goal.
Let’s see some examples from the same games.
The Boga low cross wasn’t able to beat the CB in this case, but look at Hojlund’s acceleration and extension attempt. Would have been a poacher’s goal if not for the interception.
Another example where you can see his patience to wait for the final ball before executing the quick burt-and-stretch in front of goal.
From the same game. Hojlund is always attacking the ball across the face of the goal. This time the goalkeeper being brave prevented a tap-in.
Here,within 2 seconds, Hojlund attacks the gap between both defenders and finds himself in pole position for a 2-yard finish. A last-ditch interception prevents the shot, but Hojlund will keep making that run all day, which is a reason why he gets goals.
As you can see from the examples, there’s a good reason Hojlund is at 99 percentile for ‘Progresses passes received’ in his Serie A pizza chart. Here’s how his movement compares to attackers in Europe.
In summary, he’s an excellent mover with many various movements to receive dangerous balls in good areas. The output of these moves are usually excellent – either a shot on goal, or foul won or final ball chance or space for another attacker to finish. Movement is Hojlund’s best trait and what makes him so valuable. Especially in the context of playing ahead of progressors like Bruno Fernandes, Luke Shaw, Mason Mount, Lisandro Martinez and Casemiro, who have the passing range to pick him out regularly, It’s a finger-licking aspect of his profile.
We’ve seen how he gets into shooting positions. But how does he shoot after getting there?
These are his fbref shooting stats. What is very promising is the combination of ‘shot on target %’, ‘NPxG’ and ‘NPxG/Sh’. Together they indicate a player who gets his shots on target often and racks up high shot quality with each attempt, and this results in him accruing a healthy amount of non-penalty expected goals. It’s a very attractive shooting profile. I personally don’t mind the total shots percentile being a little low. It just indicates he’s not very trigger-happy and prefers to move or carry to get into good positions and attempt high quality shots. It meshes well with our attack since we already have shoot-heavy profiles in Bruno and Rashford. A third attacker who prefers to move or carry closer to goal and enhance chance quality is welcome.
He was 5th when it came to collecting non-penalty xG on a per 90 basis in Serie A last year. Moving with established strikers on this metric as a 20-year-old in his debut league season says a lot.
Let’s look at his shot map.
These are all his open play shots in Serie A in 22/23. What’s most satisfying is the number of shots inside the box. Only 3 shots are outside the box. He does have a slight preference to shoot from the left half-space compared to right. But his major chunk of shots being in the central zone around the penalty area is a clear signal of the kind of striker he is. 7 of his 9 goals have come from shots within the central zone and within the box – the area you want your line leader to score from, whether it’s from clever movement, a strong carry or just being in the right position after a penalty box scrimmage. An example of that last point from the Denmark Kazakhstan game:
I have a final viz to present before rounding up the shooting section.
This is another representation of what I was saying earlier – Hojlund doesn’t need too many shots to score. He roughly scores a goal every 6 shots. The only player who is in the same range and surpasses Hojlund on shots and goals per 90 is – you guessed it – Victor Osimhen. He’s the red dot on the far top-right corner. I know that we all wanted Osimhen at Manchester United, but I’m here to tell you that we’re probably getting the second-best option when it comes to shooting profile.
Carrying and dribbling
Let’s move on to another trait of Hojlund which I consider a big strength. I’m referring to dribbling as the action to try and beat a man or get into a good area and carrying as a generic ball control in any direction regardless of opponent.
These are his carrying stats from fbref. Firstly, his touches geared largely towards the penalty area and then the attacking third are a huge plus. And if you read those in combination with take-ons attempted (i.e. dribbles), we can understand that Hojlund attempts many dribbles in dangerous areas close to goal. These are not random dribbles in deeper or wide areas. They have goal scoring or assisting intent to them and are often in crowded areas where most opposition defenders are parked. This is also why his ‘Miscontrols’, ‘Dispossessed’ and ‘Times tackled’ look bad. Not only is he attempting a lot of take-ons, he’s also attempting them in areas usually swarming with defenders. So the success rates might seem low but the reward element is high, usually resulting in a game-opening move. The low percentiles make sense in that context and aren’t an issue of concern in any way.
Let’s see some match examples.
Another example of his turn-and-run move, but here he has the ball control ability to take down an awkward bouncing ball and push it in a dangerous area, beating both the men putting pressure on him. The result – he’s taken down in the box to earn another penalty.
This example is a good combination of the three traits we have discussed so far – the movement to dart between the CBs in transition, the carrying power to dribble and put distance from them and the intention to get close to goal before shooting with the knowledge that he will score – a microcosm of everything Hojlund is about.
Hold up and link up play
So far, the 3 traits I discussed are clear strengths of Hojlund, which he’s touching top attacker levels for. But from now, we’re starting to go into the territory of traits he can improve more on.
I’m referring to hold up play as the act of holding onto the ball until support arrives, often when back-to-goal and while battling a defender. I’m defining link-up play as the ability to see a pass and execute it after receiving or holding the ball.
And with that i need to say this – Hojlund’s hold up is average.
I’ve seen a lot of takes citing his hold-up as excellent, but I think a lot of it is based on an imagination of how his profile combination of physique, technique and speed will ensure that in the near future. It’s probably not a representation of what he’s shown so far. Let me show you some examples to explain what I mean.
Hojlund tries to use his body to do a leave-and-run move on a high ball and loses possession. He often tries to use his physicality and speed on the break to tackle high balls but the results are pretty inconsistent.
Another example where Hojlund tries to push back on his man instead of going towards the ball and using his chest to control. The defender wins the ball with an outstretched leg.
Here, he’s again focused on using his physique, but judges the ball poorly again and ends up giving it away after a mistimed header.
The issue isn’t limited to aerials alone. Even on the ground, Hojlund often loses the ball with an awkward touch.
A simple pass that he fumbles and ends up losing possession.
Another comparatively straightforward pass to his legs that he’s unable to hold on to. To be fair, this is a tougher ask, but the point is to highlight how his technique when faced back to goal needs more work. He can get more consistent in trapping balls at an angle away from goal at a standing start.
Next, let’s move to link-up play. Is Hojlund a good passer? Can he find others with good vision and execution?
There isn’t much to read in his passing stats. We can conclude that hes no great creator or progressor on the ball, but all his stats also indicate that he’s above average at most passing metrics and can handle his own easily.
Let’s see some match examples.
One of those instances where Hojlund does control the ball very neatly and releases a player highlighting good vision and technique. He has it in his locker for sure, even if he’s not very consistent in all situations yet.
A smart move where Hojlund recognizes his teammate stuck in a bad spot and offers short support. A cool 1-2 flick is executed smartly. These are the touches and flicks Hojlund is better at compared to aerial ball battles with CBs.
Probably my favorite example in this section. Hojlund controls and holds the ball in time for his teammate to make the run, before executing a brilliant backheel key pass that almost led to a goal.
Pressing and defending
This is another trait which has been blown a little out of proportion. While Hojlund is a very willing defender and showcases bursts of intense pressing from time to time, his consistency and reading of the game when pressing is pretty lacking, while his success of actions is also very hit-and-miss.
His fbref section for defending stats compared to Serie A attackers doesn’t indicate much in terms of defensive actions. While this doesn’t give us any idea of his pressing numbers or reading of the press, it would have looked better if he was actually winning the ball from the front and generating turnovers for this team. It’s safe to say that he’s not great at that.
Let’s look at some match examples.
This is the kind of press you can expect from Hojlund. He can use his speed to bear down on the last CB or GK with single-minded intention. At the very least, he will offer this simple movement in the high press.
In many other games, he’s instructed to not press too much and just cover his marker. This happens a lot for Atalanta who don’t press too high, since they want to encourage the opponent to advance before hitting them in the spaces they leave behind. Hojlund often clings to the central CB to deter passes from wider players or GK to this CB. Another simplistic man-marking job that Hojlund can pull off without fuss.
In summary, we don’t have too much evidence of a great front defender. His defensive output is below average while his pressing, while intense, lacks intelligence. That said, it’s also fair to say that Atalanta’s tactics to not press too high or engage in the counter-press play a big part in these stats. It’s something that can be easily coached and I don’t think there should be an issue if he’s asked to press high and regularly.
Another aspect of Hojlund’s game that can be better. We’ve already seen some examples from the hold up section where he struggles a bit to take down the aerial ball.
His stats for aerials read average. His win rate doesn’t seem to be particularly high or low.
But there’s more to this than meets the eye. I’m going to take the help of my good friend Ben Griffis for this next viz.
These are all the passes leading to Rasmus Hojlund aerials in Serie A in 22/23. Within the box, Hojlund has received 7 aerial balls successfully from a total of 10. That’s pretty good for a striker. Many of his aerial duel losses are in the middle of the pitch where he has to contest outballs and clearances from his GK and backline.
Like this for example.
For aerial duels, I’d be a little less harsh on Hojlund, although I think he will keep getting better as his physicality improves.
If I had to summarize all of Hojlund’s traits discussed so far, I’d score them as:
With 10 being best, and 1 being worst, in the top 5 leagues at that trait.
The good news is that the first 3 traits are harder to find, have a great synergy with what we have in attack and are simply more important for a line leading CF. It’s also easier to expect a lot of the other traits to improve as Hojlund ages. Pressing is very coachable, link-up should get better as he matures and aerial and hold-up might never become a 10 but they can definitely improve to the point of being a non-issue. For a 20 year-old, this is a great set of traits to have.
If I had to predict how Hojlund’s 23/24 could go, I’d say that 15 goals in 30 games would be a great start. He will take time to settle, has a lot to perfect in his game and has just come off 1 Serie A season of 10 goals in 21 90s. Extrapolating the same form to 30 games out of a possible 60 for United in the coming season would be a good Premier League debut season at this age.
(Credits: fbref, Opta Analyst, Ben Griffis, Understat, Manchester United Twitter)
“@ManUtd, please hire a Sporting Director #GlazersOut #FullSaleOnly”,
“Hire Michael Edwards while he is free, I am on my knees @ManUtd”,
“Hire Paul Mitchell @ManUtd and we are cooking”.
You must have seen such a trend of tweets getting spammed down your throat if you are active on Football Twitter. Even at times, you must have had a question that what even is a Sporting Director, what even he does and why is such a position becoming a norm at not only the top level but even at lower levels of modern-day football, that even clubs at bottom tiers are now hiring the same to help them punch above their weight in an efficient and sustainable manner on small fractions of operating budget.
What is a Sporting Director?
As the name suggests, a Sporting Director means a person at Director level responsible for the sporting activities. In Basketball (especially College Basketball), you have Athletic Directors who work closely with the coaches, analysts to see the progress and readiness of the college players and also spot up and coming superstars in order to lure them to represent their respective colleges on scholarships. And also help the young and budding college players to land professional contracts through their contacts with professional teams.
In baseball, you usually have your General Managers (GMs) who operate as a managerial/directorial level professional to oversee the sporting activities for a franchise. That means working with the coaches, scouts and analysts to solve both performance and recruitment related problems and come up with efficient solutions by working in tandem with the aforementioned departments.
In football, there is actually no such direct definition for a Sporting Director because of how rapidly this sport evolves and takes up influences from everywhere. Sure, you have a Director of Football or DoF (which has become a new trending lingo among the fans, casuals and die-hards alike). But not every Director of Football is alike because of so many variations when it comes to day-to-day operations of a Football Club. There is no defined way of ownership model in Football. Every club has a different way in which the operations are carried out, hence different hierarchies and different roles. Types of ownership models
For example, you have some local businessman who made it big and wants to pump the money into his local side in order to break the barren streak of no trophies and buy off the competition as soon as possible using the age-old flawed logic of buying best players = winning trophies left right and centre straight away; fail at this attempt, lose your own wealth in the process and putting your beloved club in peril of folding off from existence because of financial irregularities.
Then you have your usual Sugar Daddyowner, some hot-shot billionaire of a mega corporation owning various Franchises in USA, thinking that demographics of sports culture in Europe is same as in USA, make the institution which has been there for years, a personal cash-cow of the theirs by bleeding the fanbase dry and alienating the working class people who piss blood and sweat all week long just to enjoy a game of football on the weekend: a young man stuck in his dead end desk job who wants to enjoy some quality time with his mates in either a pub or in the stands by watching the game or a single parent of two who has to work an extra shift in one of their jobs just to earn that extra bit of money so that they can surprise their kids by taking them to their first ever match and buy official merchandise from the club shop or an elderly couple who has been going to watch every home game for decades but cannot renew their season ticket because of unregulated pricing.
Or some Venture Capitalist owning a hedge fund ready to take over the club which was brought down to its knees by the previous owners who wanted to scratch their itch of being the alpha by taking decisions in capacity of a role about which they had no qualification or experience; at a cut price deal in order to make it their personal investment just to be sold off for a profit later or used in some financial deal to get any other coveted asset.
And then you have the imperialistic, despotic and murderous regimes of some country who made their wealth by exploitation of their own people; who have the realization that the natural resources which they sold to the world in return for money and political favors are depleting fast. So, they are now ready to diversify their own wealth into various other sectors, ready to pump billions in order to earn not just the money back but also buy off political favors for the future and mask their bloody stains of generations of exploitation, discrimination through goodwill and positive PR. In short, sportswashing. And football as an industry has provided a great opportunity for actual nations to pump off clubs and bypass the financial rules which have been put to make It an even ground for all to compete, money made by exploitation, while pushing their own degrading political and discriminating beliefs under the pretence of religion and the banner of “Sports and Politics must not be mixed together”
Last but not the least, you have fan owned, fan funded clubs as well with various different types of fan-led coalitions and ownership models. The co-operative model in Germany where the club members, i.e. the fans have the final say by having more voting rights just that the institution cannot be overtaken by a hostile takeover from any external body. Then, you have the Socios of the club in Spain and Portugal; who vote to elect the sporting body who will then run the operations of the club.
I don’t want to generalize that external ownership is BAD and fan ownership is GOOD. There are various cases of external ownerships being good and delivering results by not putting the club at peril by gross mismanagement. And there are various cases of fan-led clubs who had best interests of the club and the community they represented but weren’t fit for running the club. One major difference maker in such situations can be a competent Sporting Director.
But how do you know that a Sporting Director is competent and the ‘right fit’. And again, I have to be the bearer of bad news; that there is no straight answer to that.
Types of sporting director models
Various factors are involved in finding the right person fit for the role of a Sporting Director in Football. But the biggest factor is to know what you actually want the club to be! Yes, the basic SWOT analysis is needed to be done by the administration by keeping in mind all the other factors (I’ll come to some of those in a while, later on in the article) in mind before choosing the candidate.
Do you want the club to be a self-sustainable one, which earns of money through some initial investment at start but then you need to wait for some years to get the return, both in terms of prestige (i.e. trophies) and money through organic growth of the club so that it can fund itself and be competitive both and off the pitch?
Or go for the short-term route by straight-away investing huge sums and win the lot but also comply with financial rules of the competitions it takes part in by selling and buying strategically and not lose the competitive edge?
Or invest in youth by revamping the grassroot level programmes to nurture the next generation of superstars such that they make up the core of the team for years to come and this cycle keeps on repeating. Is it also another way of becoming self-sustainable?
Or if you have a plan of implementing a multi-club model where you want to theorize a certain brand of football and strategically target to buy youngsters and train them in same kind of football; right from youth teams to senior team by providing a pre-planned development plan for them to grow and move up the ladder by joining the bigger club as part of the multi-club model?
There are pros and cons of every kind of model which the said club wants to implement as a ‘philosophy’ and that has to be weighed down first and foremost by the administration. Then, only you can hire a person who may be familiar with that philosophy. Or hire someone who may have a set philosophy of their own (similar to what you wanted) and the experience plus qualification to mould the club in the way you want (given you have the clarity yourself beforehand about what you want) but at the expense of that candidate, i.e., handing him the key responsibilities of sporting matters and at times, even some key financial matters. Or maybe someone with contacts in the industry who will get you brilliant deals on players and sell off assets on profit; to keep the cash flowing into the club for the investment on players and coaches. Or someone, who knows it all- right from managing stingy bosses who have the tendency to scratch their itch by poking their noses where it is not required to managing the needs of coaches and players; and also, coordinating with the recruitment staff to plan for upcoming seasons.
In all of this, the tendency to do proactive planning and being transparent to every stakeholder is of utmost importance for a Sporting Director.
Why do Manchester United need a Sporting Director?
Now, coming to the curious case of Manchester United. A legacy club with a lot of prestige, hailing from a major town with working class roots who take pride in having a tradition of integrating young and budding youngsters from nearby areas of Manchester into the senior team, the tradition which has been diluted under the current ownership of Glazers Family from USA. Their cross-town rivals, Manchester City have completely overtaken them in a lot of areas; a state-of-the-art training and youth facilities, a world class modern stadium. All of that, although has been funded by every kind of financial doping known to mankind and it goes unchallenged because their owners have bought off the people who govern not only the sport in the country but also the leaders who actually run the country. But their owners knew what they wanted from day 1 and got the right set of personnel to execute it, which Manchester United owners haven’t done in their entire span of ownership. And they still don’t know what they actually want from the club; hence the strong backlash (18 years too late) from the fanbase to sell off and not dilute the identity of the club while their rivals keep on outclassing them on and off the pitch.
This year may finally be the year where the huge fanbase of Manchester United will see the end of the ownership of Glazer Family and their gross negligence in keeping the club competitive on and off the pitch despite spending 1+ billion pounds of the club’s own organic financial resources and still getting inconsistent results. But then, their options for replacement are also limited; final shortlist of new stewardship being the INEOS group led by Sir Jim Ratcliffe (who is a proclaimed Manchester United “supporter”) and “Sheikh” Jassim, a mysterious Qatari bank manager (not associated to Qatari state fund and royal family as per his own claims), who just happens to have 6 billion pounds (asking price set by the Glazers Family to sell their entire stake in the club) of the King’s finest pounds in a bank account somewhere, also a proclaimed Manchester United supporter. The fanbase is so angry with the ownership of Glazers Family (which is justified given the mismanagement) that they will even go in favour for some Regen of Hitler/Mussolini as owner of their beloved club, just to see the back of Glazers. In that comparison, some Qatari bank manager whose real identity isn’t even known to the masses or a Petrochemical conglomerate is just a level 1 evil boss. But “we want our club back”, eh? (Via some superficial external party as “owner”).
While both parties have laid out their plans of redeveloping club from scratch: redevelop the facilities and stadium, write off debt (by debt, the debt put on the club by Glazers as part of their leveraged buyout back in 2005 and not the transfer debt because it can’t be written off in one go), back the manager in every possible manner and taking the Alice back to Wonderland but there is still no coherence in how they exactly want to achieve all this. It’s like selling a project to potential clients at high margins but without any set deadlines and not enough clarity of requirement for the development.
And that’s where they will need the expertise of Sporting Directors: not just a Director of Football (focused more towards recruitment side and finding best possible finds as per the needs of the manager and his preferred coaching philosophy) but also a Technical Director (who should be the main person to identify and negotiate the contracts for the staff as per the “philosophy” and push for the said “philosophy” at all levels of the organization. Darren Fletcher and John Murtough are not at all qualified to play their respective roles) in order to gather that functional requirement in order to kickstart the development; so that once all the development is done- it can go through QA testing and then finally getting deployed in the Production environment.
And there has to be complete transparency between all the stakeholders here, from clients about what they actually want from their downstream application (the fanbase) to the parent company (the prospective new owners) about how they want to develop the required application and the developers (Sporting Directors) hired to do the requirement gathering and do the development using best possible and effective industrial practices; keeping their leads and client informed at regular intervals about everything and also help the junior developers (The coaching staff, performance and recruitment analysts, scouts) at all steps possible.
What Manchester United have:
A great grassroots structure which helps them to scout and provide scholarships to budding schoolboys, providing them with the opportunity to earn a full-time professional contract with the club and rise up the ranks.
A more than decent scouting system (both in the UK, Ireland and abroad). Just, that they lack the structure above them to make the final decisions as per the basic reports handed over by the scouts.
Current manager in Erik ten Hag. He knows what he wants and till now, has shown flexibility to get results but at the end of the day, he is a specialist manager and will always need certain players with a specific skill set in some positions without which his plan A may become redundant. Hiring such managers means you will eventually buy into their philosophy (which you think will yield you results that you want), not the other way round.
What Manchester United don’t have:
Idea about what they actually want the club to be. And this discussion has to happen, and the executives have to initiate it. And they cannot neglect the fans in this, because the identity of the club is because of the community. Of course, a club this successful wants to win trophies but how to reach that stage? How to reform the club so that they can reach the stage of challenging in all competitions every year. Such kind of discussions.
Lack of Coherence from executives. The current ones, the prospective new owners. Just blank promises but when you go to ask how they will achieve those? No strategy, just plain old; throw the money and buy success.
Lack of any sporting structure. Letting people do things, which they are not qualified to do and eventually that affects their own job. For example: Erik ten Hag knows about what he wants in the players but he can’t identify the best possible player (not just tactical fitment but financial package as well, which you don’t expect a manager to know) as per his expectations. And that isn’t the role of managers. Jurgen Klopp with Michael Edwards and Jurgen Klopp without Michael Edwards is yet another example; the way Liverpool have done transfers which haven’t fixed their gaping holes and the financial package offered to players going against the structure set by Michael Edwards. With. more money spent; Liverpool still looks bereft of challenging.
Wrong kind of appointments done at administration level: For example- Ed Woodward before and John Murtough, Richard Arnold, Darren Fletcher et al now. All are good at the commercial side but that doesn’t equate to them calling all the shots at recruitment and do that without any qualifications and/or experience for it and also without scrutiny from higher ups when the club has spent upwards of one billion pounds without any efficiency. Money isn’t an unlimited commodity, no matter how big of a club you are, no matter how prestigious you are. As someone said, “the dildo of consequences never comes with lubrication” (Pardon my French)
Patience. Neither do the fans have enough patience, nor do the people running the club. Everyone just wants more of this, more of that. Too many ingredients but not enough time for them to cook together (and most of the time, even ingredients are also wrong. Or the amount of each ingredient is wrong. Or sometimes, even the recipe itself is altogether wrong).
What kind of Sporting Director do Manchester United need?
Now that we know of the dos and don’ts, let’s look at the certain qualities which are a must in finding a Sporting Director for Manchester United, no matter who is the owner of Manchester United.
Should have great knowledge about scouting, recruitment (yes scouting isn’t equal to recruitment, both are different but both terms are thrown around very casually). Candidates should be flexible enough to learn about new innovations being implemented in the industry which can help the club provide a cutting edge against their opposition.
Ability to work with the manager, understand his requirements and then work in tandem with the recruitment team to deliver those targets. Not just the new shiny toys but new shiny toys who are best possible fit as per the tactics/playing style and the best possible option financially as well.
Candidates shouldn’t just be good at buying but equally good at selling as well. This is one area where Manchester United have struggled a lot. Selling when opportunity arises is also an important factor in order to keep healthy finances and raise the transfer kitty as well in order to upgrade the squad.
Candidates are required to have a great Talent ID. Sometimes, the player you want may just be laying there in the academy, just that you need to create a pathway for the player and a positive environment for the prospect to thrive in. Plan transfers in the position of the prospect in such a way that his playing time isn’t neglected or that the pathway you had devised isn’t affected with future signings.
Knowledge of not just Sports but knowledge of Business side of the Sport and Management is also a must. Candidates will not just be working closely with the coaching staff and recruitment team but even with the executives who work directly with the owners. The job of the candidate will be to keep everyone on the same page and define boundaries whenever possible, so that work doesn’t get spilled over and picked up by people who don’t know how to do it.
We know about the Michael Edwards’s, Paul Mitchells, Luis Campos of the world and while everyone of those is a great Director on their own and if hired; will easily fix many underlying issues when it comes to football matters at the club. But I want to look at other (you can say ‘gone under the radar’) Director of Footballs who can work with either ownership (given they are aware about the direction in which they want to go in order to meet the targets, as promised by them to the fanbase).
So, here we go.
5 Sporting Directors Manchester United should look at
Age: 38 years
Current Club: OGC Nice
Current Contract: 3.5-year contract running till 30th June, 2026
Previous Clubs: RC Lens, FC Lorient (as a coach)
Franck Haise led RC Lens has become a household name in not just France but even across the English Channel with his modest side punching well above weight in Ligue 1 ever since the side hailing from the North of France has won back the promotion to Ligue 1 in 2020. A major reason in Lens re-writing their underdog story has been their strategy in doing shrewd transfer business relying on not just purely old school method of scouting (the ‘eye test’) but also incorporating modern approach to scouting and then making their recruitment strategy. RC Lens have had a great grassroot programme which has yielded them many talented players over the years. Coupling that with strategically targeted players who have been undervalued and fit the manager’s game plan and promoting players from youth teams has yielded them great results; UCL Qualification is secured in just the 3rd season after getting promoted; that too by scoring 80+ and going neck-to-neck with Paris St. Germain (there is a possibility of ending just 1 point behind them)
The main man pulling the strings in the background? A 38-year-old ex-Footballer: Florent Ghisolfi. RC Lens appointed the former SC Bastia and Stade Reims player as Director of Football in 2019 right before their start of Ligue 2 season under Phillipe Montanier (yes, the current Toulouse manager who won them their first ever trophy recently- the Coupe de France). Ghisolfi’s first step as DoF was cashing in on their 2 youngsters- Modibo Sagnan and Jean-Rincer Bellegrade to Real Sociedad and RC Strasbourg respectively in order to raise some capital in order to invest into the squad. A cut-short 2019-20 season due to Covid-19 saw LFP call off the Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 and award the winners, European qualification, relegation, promotion spots as per the current standing. And RC Lens were 2nd in Ligue 2 at the time and a promotion was on the cards.
But Phillip Montanier departed to take over as manager for Standard Liege in Belgium. And, its your first season back in the top flight after a controversial period in the history of the club. Now, your gut feeling will say to go for some survival expert who can ensure that the club doesn’t get relegated and become a yo-yo team. Instead, Ghioslfi promoted the B team manager, Franck Haise to take over the vacant managerial position at senior team.
Some brilliant transfers followed after this, a certain Jonathan Clauss on a Bosman transfer from Arminia Bielefield, Loic Bade from Le Havre on a Bosman transfer again. Seko Fofana, Ignacius Ganago, Facundo Medina, Wulker Farinez, Arnaud Kalimuendo, Corentin Jean, Gael Kakuta also joined the team in order to make the squad competitive for top-flight football. And RC Lens surprised everyone with their free-flowing football, patiently waiting to hit the teams on the break through their use of wing backs as a primary source of creativity. A 7th placed finish was well above their pre-season targets. Yet another season in Ligue 1 beckoned. Although, team had to cash out on some players, Ghisolfi’s eye for undervalued players who fit into the manager’s playing style eased that transition very easily.
South America, lower divisions in France, Scandinavia and Polish players became the target for recruitment in order to replace the outgoings and keep a net positive in terms of expenditure. Yet another 7th placed finish followed and yet another successful transfer window saw the Lens side punch even above their ability and they are now looking at UCL qualification.
This great work in arguably your first ever job as a Director didn’t go unnoticed. That Petrochemical Conglomerate who is looking to buy the majority stake in Manchester United? Well, he owns OGC Nice as well. And, they hired Florent Ghisolfi as their new Sporting Director; especially with focus towards recruitment in December 2022.
Now, Sir Jim Ratcliffe is currently in pole position to take over as Manchester United with aims of making a strategic partnership with OGC Nice, given UEFA is looking ease their rules on having multi-club ownership model exist in the market (cough-cough Please the same despots, sugar daddies to pay UEFA their royalties and cut to make it even more of a closed shop cough-cough). Having Florent Ghisolfi as a Director overseeing the operations at each club isn’t that much a farsighted thing given both clubs have a big weakness; which are Ghisolfi’s strength: Recruitment. He has been able to deliver results with a modest budget, does a deep dive into the youth system to promote highly rated youngsters and work with the coaches to provide a pathway to the first XI of the senior team. Imagine the sheer potential of a relatively younger person who will stay for years with you as a Director of Football with a large kitty at his behest and letting him lay down a structure to provide his insights, a structure which both clubs lack.
Recruitment Knowledge: Central Europe, South America, North America, North Africa
Shared Vision with Board: Help the club to punch above weight by using the combination of smart transfers and utilizing the youth academy.
Pros: Good Talent ID, Knowledge of different markets and finances involved in the game
Cons: Relatively Inexperienced (but everyone is at one stage of their career), A possible Language and Cultural Barrier
Devil’s DNA Score: 7.5/10
Age: 49 years
Current Club: Stade Rennais
Current Contract: A contract running till 30th June, 2025
Previous Clubs: Lyon (as a scout)
Just like Florent Ghisolfi, Florian Maurice is an ex-footballer and in his first ever role as Director; managing the day-to-day operations of Stade Rennais. But, in comparison to Florent Ghisolfi; Florian Maurice has a lot of experience in working in other roles post playing career. A local boy from Lyon, Florian enjoyed a decent playing career, playing for OL, PSG and OM and also plying his trade in Spain with Celta Vigo. He also won 6 caps for Les Bleus, scoring one goal. Once, he hung up his boots; he straight away joined his local side, Lyon as a scout- with his main focus being spotting young players from various grassroot programmes deployed by the club.
He then rose up the ranks and became a chief scout for OL- before the start of 2014-15 season; a post he held till 2019-20 season. Meanwhile, in the same time period; Stade Rennais slowly grew as a club, from being one of the relegation fodders to mid table stability to challenging for European places, peak being the 2019-20 season where they secured a UCL spot.
In order to make the club grow even further and stick with their philosophy of using the club’s famed academy and policy of buying exciting U23 players for the first team. Rennes turned to Florian Maurice to take over as their Sporting Director. His official title with the club is that of a ‘Technical Director’ but he oversees not just the recruitment but also finding the manager and coaches for not just first team but B team and youth staff, to keep the continuum between the set philosophy by the executives of the club.
He is like the one -man army, sandwiched between the club owners and footballing division of the club. Under his tutelage as ‘Technical Director’, Rennes have grown in reputation; regularly challenging for European spots, promoting highly rated prospects from the academy and providing a clear-cut path for them to regular first team football and also signing some exciting U23 players from abroad. Although, many in the industry will call a club like Stade Rennais as a ‘stepping stone’ but with such kind of footballing operations, club is still investing like crazy in their own youth setup while doubling down on scouting budget to find great prospects from abroad, making the club self-sufficient in the process.
And some of the transfers done by Rennes against some stringent competition is all down to Florian Maurice being able to sell the project to prospective players and their camp. Jeremy Doku, when Liverpool was negotiating with Anderlecht and his camp; convincing Kamaldeen Sulemana to snub a club like Ajax to join Rennes; snooping right under the noses of various German clubs to seal the signing of Lovro Majer, getting a left footed ball playing center back in Arthur Theate for a cut price knowing very well how big the market for such players is and even to some extent, sealing the signing of Amine Gouiri under the noses of various PL Clubs is all down to Florian Maurice. Along with dipping their noses in the transfer market to find such gems and providing them with a pathway to take that next step in their budding careers, the ex-World Cup winner has also provided many youngsters from the academy with first team opportunities. The likes of Eduardo Camavinga, Mathys Tel, Desire Doue, Guela Doue, Lesley Ugochukwu have taken their chances to step up to the first team and make their place in the squad. And Camavinga, Tel have even sealed moves to Real Madrid and Bayern Munich respectively and made a name for themselves at the grandest stages of all. Even players like Martin Terrier and Benjamin Bourigeaud have seen a renaissance ever since Maurice has come at the club and hired coaches who prefer a patient possession-based setup, which suits the players and their technical skillset.
Now, Manchester United do need a commanding figure in between the manager and their new owner, who help them keep the continuation without losing any competitive edge. Someone who can appease the owners and the managers, keep them on the same page and listen to the fans as well; all while doing the thing they are good at. An already brilliant youth system in place, an already existing scouting system which is decent but can be improved and you get a person who has loads of experience when it comes to scouting and recruitment to lead the operations. Florian Maurice can be a decent punt to lead the footballing operations at Old Trafford.
Recruitment Knowledge: Central and Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, UK & Ireland, North Africa, South America
Shared Vision with Board: Help the club by appointing technical staff who help to impose the philosophy of integrating younger players with high potential in the First team and provide the team with undervalued, high potential youngsters from abroad who can be integrated into the playing style preferred by the club.
Pros: Brilliant Talent ID, Brilliant Negotiator, Knowledge of different markets and finances involved in the game, Highly experienced when it comes to recruitment
Cons: A possible language and culture barrier
Devil’s DNA Score: 8.5/10
Age: 47 years
Current Club: Brentford FC
Current Contract: A 3-year contract signed in 2022, lasting till 30th June, 2025
Previous Clubs: N.A.
I have nothing but respect for Brentford and how they have played a massive part in removing the stigma around the amalgam of Data and Football, delivering results left right and centre. What Matthew Benham (at Brentford) and Tony Bloom (at Brighton and Hove Albion) have done is nothing short of commendable. A decade back, both clubs were sitting in League 1 with nothing but dark and gloomy days ahead of them. But then both of them came with their different (but somewhat similar) theory to integrate the use of data in making efficient decisions and minimize the margin of error which has impacted their respective clubs and taken them to uncharted territories. Both clubs are flying high, albeit the route they have taken to reach the Premier League has been different but their main base of running footballing operations has been to include the use of Data. (No, they haven’t done a ‘Moneyball’. It’s a different concept altogether).
Both Matthew Benham and Tony Bloom made their investment in the sports betting industry, understanding the complex nature of a game as volatile and unpredictable as Football and broke it down through the use of the principles of Statistics and Probability. While Tony Bloom stuck through with Brighton, Matthew Benham first implemented his theory with Danish club FC Midtjylland. Once, he was able to find success there He turned to his boyhood club Brentford and completely restructured the running of the club.
And here comes the hero of this section of the article, Phillip Giles. A Mathematician by profession with interest in football, Phillip joined the sports betting industry in the hopes of combining his expertise in maths and football, eventually landing a job with SmartOdds, a company owned by Matthew Benham. Eventually, Benham got to know of the work done by Giles over the years in the industry and his theory of combining data with football; eventually landing him a job in football with Brentford.
After joining the club, Phillip realised one thing which was very different from his previous job, that in his previous role managing a ‘regular business’; they are trying to build a product and sell it off to interested buyers. But in football it’s about people management. Using the services of SmartOdds as a data vendor, Brentford under the leadership of Phillip Giles has used this data to hire people who are the most efficient in their roles and fit the club perfectly. At the end of the day, it’s about managing the people, just that you have used data to minimize your margin of error to get them. It counts from hiring technical staff to coaching staff to players. And his track record with such methods is there to speak.
When Brentford completely annihilated Manchester United at the start of the season, it was a tale of 2 very different clubs. Manchester United lack in all the departments where Brentford have become the experts. Manchester United have spent bucket loads of money without any efficiency for the last 10 years. They will keep on spending that kind of money irrespective of any ownership, just that they need someone to help them realize their inefficiency, rectify their mistakes and improve the efficiency of the process. For once, why not price out a certain Director who has developed into an expert in such a role. Club has no strategy and even lacks that human touch, that sense of togetherness and they desperately need such a personality who knows the best of both worlds.
Recruitment Knowledge: UK & Ireland, Scandinavia, Central Europe, Africa (through shared knowledge with FC Midtjylland)
Shared Vision with Board: Help achieve the objectives of the board on season-by-season basis by bringing in required personnels who align with the same objectives; who have an open mindset when it comes to integrating data with the conventional methods of recruitment and coaching, to take best possible decisions with minimum margin of error.
Pros: Extensive networking and contacts with the industry, Knowledge of different markets and finances involved in the game
Devil’s DNA Score: 9.5/10
Age: 41 years
Current Club: Bayer Leverkusen
Current Contract: A 2-year contract running till 30th June, 2024
Previous Clubs: N.A.
An industrious defensive midfielder in his playing days, now working his way up the corporate ladder at the club where he found success as a player. The rise of Simon Rolfes in his role as Sporting Director over the years may not have eclipsed the topsy turvy ride of Die Werkself on the pitch but many of his decisions when it comes to recruitment and defining the playing style has been a positive for the club.
The ex-Germany international hung up his boots after playing for 10 years with Bayer Leverkusen, spending 10 of his 12 years as a professional footballer with the club while enjoying a decent international career with Die Mannschaft, 26 caps and 2 goals with runners up medal in Euros 2008 and semi-finals in 2010 World Cup. After the retirement, the then 32-year-old wanted to get into an administrative role so he started to prepare for life after football. 1 year as a head of youth development for Bayern Leverkusen saw him attract the attention of higher ups at the club, especially that of Rudi Voller who was at that time Managing Director of Sports for the footballing division of the institution.
Simon was quickly appointed as Sporting Director of the club, working up close under the guidance of Rudi Voller and given the free roam at re-defining the direction of the club. In his 3.5 years as a Sporting Director, Rolfes has spearheaded the restructuring of the recruitment team. Inculcating modern practices of identifying not just the exciting U23 youngsters from abroad but even in his native country, especially in the region where the club is situated.
According to Rolfes, there are 3 key pillars to the ‘Leverkusen blueprint’: Atmosphere, Development, Performance.
When looking for the perfect player, Rolfes and his team have the club’s culture as much at the forefront of their mind as the potential signing’s ability and its threshold. That’s why Leverkusen’s player care department travels with Rolfes when he speaks to targets- not just for senior team but also for U19 and/or B team, immediately looking to make the fit as perfect as possible for both the club and player. This process of selection not only aids the dressing room harmony in the first team, but also provides young players at the club with both a welcoming environment to grow into, as well as model professionals to show them the way when they make the step up to senior football.
Club lost Julian Brandt to Borussia Dortmund and needed a new player who can fill in as #10, in came Kai Havertz (although both players are very different in terms of playing style but Rolfes helped to spearhead a change in playing style to get the best out of Havertz). Now, Kai Havertz was out so Rolfes easily could have spent megabucks which Leverkusen received from his transfer but he rather turned his attention to North Rhine Westphalia again, the province where Leverkusen are based. Rolfes travelled to Cologne to convince a 16-year-old local lad in Florian Wirtz, trying to sell the project to him and get him separated from Leverkusen’s arch rivals, FC Koln-promising him an accelerated pathway to senior football and straight away replace Kai Havertz. And boy, were Leverkusen successful in that!
And now comes the other 2 pillars in the picture- Development and Performance. Both go hand-in-hand. As per Rolfes, whether it’s a new arrival, an academy player or experienced pro, once someone is in the club, it is their development that takes precedence. As Leverkusen’s academy head, Thomas Eichin, puts it: “You can have the best strategy, the best philosophy but if you don’t have the best coaches, you cannot reach your goals. It’s crucial that we bring players to the next step.”.
In order to track the development and performance; Leverkusen have made in-house bespoke software, using data pipelines and workflows deployed using Amazon Web Services like EMR and EKS. (To give some clarification, AWS’s EMR is used to automate your bulky Big Data driven workflows and EKS- in simple words is a service to host the workflows developed for usability in multiple zones from around the world, without any hindrance). It has helped the club to identify a lot of players who may not have the experience under their belt but are still ready and well rounded for their age to play at a high level. The likes of Edmond Tapsoba (just half a season as a senior in Vitoria Guimaraes side), Piero Hincapie, Odilon Kossonou, Amine Adli, Jeremie Frimpong have risen to the occasion for Die Werkself and are making a name for themselves.
Leverkusen are using all the cutting-edge innovations to not just player recruitment but even coaching appointments. Not just stuck to a fixed coaching style or tactical setup or playing style, Leverkusen have gone on from Roger Schmidt, famed for his heavy octane direct playing style to Petr Bosz, famed for his similar style but 3x and a structured possession shape to more pragmatic Gerardo Seoane. While Seoane’s first season was a successful one and he got the best out of players, his second season’s start was a cataclysmic one which eventually led him to get the sack- leaving Leverkusen in relegation spots and dropping down to Europa League. Now, Bayer Leverkusen and Rolfes could have easily replaced him with any coach who could have salvaged their season but they again took the risky option (but a calculated one, given all the tech. which they use to minimize that margin of error)- appointing a novice, Xabi Alonso. Now, everyone was raving that Xabi Alonso will be a manager who relies strictly on Juego de Posicion (Positional play), given his nationality and the managers he played under but then he took to the pitch in reality, everyone was proven wrong. His coaching philosophy is completely opposite to that of many of the “managers” he played under. A pragmatist who prefers to first create a defensive solidarity and then focus on dominating the possession. Leverkusen knew what they wanted and what Xabi Alonso had been doing as a manager, and backed it up with the tools which they developed to further strengthen their decision. And we have the results in front of us.
I mean you have an ex-footballer turned Sporting Director who is flexible to learn about Cloud Technology and Machine Learning to get cutting edge over their opponents, with the penchant of further strengthening his craft and still very young to have a long last career in football. Manchester United could do something here…………..
Recruitment Knowledge: Central Europe, South America, Scandinavia, England
Shared Vision with Board: Help the club by appointing technical staff who are flexible and pragmatic but also share the philosophy of building a competitive team with a mix of both: youth and experience. Hence providing the coaching team with players who align with the philosophy of everyone involved in the process
Pros: Extensive networking and contacts with the industry, Knowledge of different markets and finances involved in the game, highly flexible professional.
Devil’s DNA Score: 9.5/10
Age: 45 years
Current Club: RB Salzburg
Current Contract: A 3-year contract running till 30th June, 2026
Previous Clubs: N.A.
When the Red Bull group decided to venture into football, Dietrich Mateschitz turned to his native country and found various loopholes in the existing ownership models of football club in the country, which he exploited in order to form Red Bull Salzburg (and few years later in similar manner took over a club in Germany and renamed it- “RasenBallsport” Leipzig). What Dietrich Mateschitz didn’t know that he was on the verge of devising an ownership model which will become the base for many others to copy and perfect in near future and also devise their own, unique coaching philosophy which perfectly mimics the brand bankrolling millions through those same loopholes and creating an uneven competition.
But their starting journey was completely different altogether. When RB Salzburg was created; they wanted to win titles in the country straight away so they often went to buy veterans who were in the twilight years of their careers; same for coaching appointments. All of this changed when the management brought in Ralf Rangnick in 2012. Ralf Rangnick isn’t an unknown name in the industry anymore. He had a free hand to mould TSG Hoffenheim (again bankrolled in same manner Red Bull clubs are; by the German Billionaire and founder of SAP- Dietmar Hopp) from a regional side into a Bundesliga side in short time and building a core of talented youngsters- both from local areas and abroad; moulded into a specific playing style. And he was hired by the Red Bull group to do the same thing with the clubs under their management (Red Bull Salzburg and Red Bull Leipzig).
Ralf Rangnick took an unknown identity (back then) under his wing to oversee the “re-branding” of Red Bull clubs; Christoph Freund. While Rangnick isn’t associated with the Red Bull group anymore but Freund has taken the work done by him and Rangnick notches above and streamlined the kind of brand Dietrich Mateschitz wanted.
A retired footballer, Christoph Freund has a modest playing career; playing for a host of top division sides and lower regional sides before retiring and joining the Red Bull group as a sports coordinator. He straight away started working with Ralf Rangnick to change the structure of the club. Ralf Rangnick’s influence as a coach who relied on heavy octane direct and vertical football with intense counter pressing was imprinted on every level of the club, from youth teams to senior teams. Next step which Rangnick took was to completely change the recruitment model. Move away from the approach of buying veterans and invest in youth. In a short time (and with unlimited back-funding), RB Salzburg created the best youth system in the country and during the same time period have even invested heavily in youth academies in Africa- creating strategic partnership with academies in Mali, Zambia and providing the youngsters with a clear pathway to first team football.
While Rangnick was Sporting Director of RB Salzburg from 2012 to 2015, post that he moved to RB Leipzig (and then at company level role with Red Bull as an advisor). His protégé, Christoph Freund took over the responsibilities from the German, becoming the Sporting Director of Red Bull Salzburg Under his supervision RB Salzburg have become the club in its present-day form- a side built from heavy investment in youth, reaping the rewards for the same by winning titles, may it be the senior side dominating the domestic scene or their U19s winning not just at home but even in Europe. Both the Red Bull clubs have created a pipeline for players to move from Salzburg to Leipzig once they have matured enough, playing consistently in the same brand of football which eliminates the extra period of getting adjusted to new surroundings. But they have also sold players for massive profits to non-Red Bull clubs, encashing them at the right moment while keeping their replacements ready to take over immediately.
During this period, Freund has been successful in recruitment at both front- players and coaches. Pushing for implementing the Red Bull way of football- many coaches have made their breakthrough at Salzburg and then went on to do very well abroad- from Roger Schmidt to Adi Hutter to Marco Rose; while also coaching their replacements in-house. For example; current senior team manager, 32-year-old German Matthias Jaissle has managed the U-19 Side then FC Liefering (the club whose license Red Bull club bought and now use the club as their B-Team, playing 2nd division of Austrian footballing pyramid), now managing the senior side and under him, team has done very well in Europe as well.
Freund likes to work up close with the scouts, who use both the conventional methods of scouting as well as modern approach of data-driven video scouting, signing as many youngsters as possible; given they are a natural fit for their intense playing style and moulding them into superstars for the future.
The Red Bull story has given the world a glimpse into the multi-club model and its various advantages (at the cost of sporting integrity). No wonder, every big club now wants to implement it and even UEFA is also relaxing their rules around the same kind of ownership model. The prospective new owners of Manchester United have hinted at a possible multi-club ownership model. From that angle and the current landscape surrounding the club, it makes perfect sense for them to go for Christoph Freund; given Chelsea wanted to hire him for similar reasons a year back. His track record with player and coaching recruitment is there to speak for and his way of working will immediately fix the issue of managing transfers, a department where Manchester United have always struggled immediately.
Recruitment Knowledge: Central and Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, North and Central Africa
with that of Red Bull group or can be moulded into the same by investing resources on them. Same for player recruitment.
Pros: Brilliant Talent ID, Good negotiator, exposure to Multi-Club Model
Cons: Just knowing one kind of footballing ideology can be a con if you don’t evolve with time in a sport as volatile as football.
Devil’s DNA Score: 8/10
Cristiano Guintoli, Napoli(he has a verbal agreement with Juventus already so haven’t covered his work in detail, in the article)
Max Eberl, RB Leipzig
Pedro Marques, Benfica
Max Huiberts, AZ Alkmaar
Stuart Webber, Norwich
Pol-Eduard Caillot, Stade Reims
(Image Credits: Getty and social media handles of clubs
Welcome to another one of these scouting exercises. In case you missed them, I’ve previously done RB, GK, CF, DLP and DM lists for Manchester United. Today, I’ll be diving into a position which might not seem as urgent as some of the aforementioned critical starting gaps, but is a genuine area to be addressed in coming windows – Centerback.
I’m going to go out on a limb here to make a prediction – I think Ten Hag will want a new right-sided centerback (RCB) and left-sided centerback (LCB) within the next 2 years.
The LCB need comes from his preference of wanting a set of 2 left-footed CBs and 2 right-footed CBs for each side. We have seen that he likes this setup for 2 reasons
1. For the passing angles a left-footer provides from LCB 2. Based on the recent reveal of why he plays Lindelof at LCB instead of Maguire – for rest defence reasons when a CB has to press ahead and cover his side with his dominant foot.
The LCB would ideally be a backup to Lisandro Martinez, who’s had an excellent season and looks set to remain our mainstay for a few years, so we can afford a younger or more raw backup type profile here.
The RCB need has a more starter-level concern. While Raphael Varane has been excellent in helping United defend in their box, the concerns on the ball have shown up from time to time, especially in the last few months without Eriksen ahead of the defence. Varane is limited in build up and that coupled with De Gea being poor at it, often puts heavy responsibility on Lisandro to get us out of our half. Ten Hag’s plan of keeping club captain Harry Maguire as the designated RCB backup to give him the chance to usurp Varane and partner Lisandro, hasn’t worked either. Maguire hasn’t seemed as good from RCB as he used to be from LCB under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. There is a RCB gap. A high ceiling wonderkid or straight up starter level talent who can take over sooner rather than later would be one idea on Ten Hag’s mind. The shortlists
If you’ve read any of my previous scouting pieces, it might come as a surprise to you that I’m not going to follow the same stats-heavy process for center-backs. My reasons:
1. Defensive stats make no sense for CBs A player with more tackles or interceptions doesn’t make him a better defender. Defensive volume is a bad way to judge defensive quality. Usually top CBs have the lowest defensive volume in the league. It could also really vary based on their roles (stopper, cover). And even less doesn’t mean good. There is just no correlation
2. Fbref’s progression stats are not ideal to judge defenders
Fbref’s new definitions of progression cut the defensive 40% of the pitch and include passes to the byline. Defenders and especially center-backs suffer the most from these changes and only very high line CBs who pass a lot from the center of the pitch (usually top team CBs) accrue.
Taking these out of the equation leaves almost nothing for a stats-based methodology, which is why I’m going with the eye test (rejoice, eye test > stats folks!) for this position. I have gone through center-backs in the top 7 leagues who were U27 and right-footed or U25 and left-footed and scored the realistic options on 4 basic criteria based on hours of footage of each of them.
1. Progression – Their ability on the ball both in terms of passing and carrying to handle build up and advance the game comfortably and consistently
2. Security – Their security on the ball during progression
3. Aerial duels – Ability in the air to win duels and be a set piece threat
4. Ground duels – Ability and positioning on the ground to press, cover or tackle well
Without further ado, here are the results.
Let’s take a look at the RCBs first. Probably not a big reveal, but I was most impressed by Napoli’s Kim Min-Jae and think he’s the closest thing to a full package, who is also near the peak age for a CB. Nianzou impressed me more than I thought. Timber is a name that has been thrown around a lot and he looks good.
It’s really tough to pick just a few players to highlight. But I’m going to do mini profiles for the best + realistic options:
RCB 1: Kin Min-Jae
RCB 2: Jurrien Timber
RCB 3: Kevin Danso
RCB 4: Antonio Silva
Next, let’s take a look at the LCB list.
The LCB list is shorter due to two issues – our restriction of players under age 25 and there being less left-footed players in general. Lot of teams play with multiple right footers in the back line. I’ve already done a scout report for Facundo Medina here. Other than him, I will be detailing the 3 best options:
As mentioned before, since I’m not using stats to assess CBs in this piece, I won’t be posting pizza charts either. They’ll just be misleading. I’ll try to detail the reports a bit more to compensate for that.
Let’s start with the RCB targets first.
RCB 1: Kim Min-Jae, Napoli, 26
Career History: Born in South Korea, Kim made his way to K League club Jeonbuk by the age of 19. A key player for the 17/18 season, his performances earned him a K League Young Player of the Year and K League Best XI for the year. In January 2019, he moved to Beijing Guoan in the CSL. His impressive performances caught the eye of Europe with Tottenham strongly linked but unable to negotiate a transfer fee. Fenerbache was the club to profit from his services as he played the 21/22 season for the Turkish club and was once again impressive, making it to the Süper Lig Team of the Season. In July 2022, Napoli paid €18m to replace the outgoing Kalidou Koulibaly and have since been enjoying a great year from the South Korean who should again make the Serie A team of the season easily. There’s no surprise every top club wants him.
On-ground defending: Kim’s biggest strength is his defending on the ground. He is very positionally aware and mixes aggression, speed and strength to constantly flush out dangers when the opposition has the ball. He is very comfortable stepping out and tackling an oncoming dribbler. He ranks 97 percentile for % of dribblers tackled and 96 percentile for challenges lost. It is really tough to get past him. He has a very keen sense of the game and challenges the moment he sees a bad touch or an opponent he can overpower by speed or physicality. Using a mix of defensive combinations like this, he is able to come out best against different types of attacking players. His good positioning also allows him to make many shot blocks.
Aerial defending: Aerially, Kim is good. He ranks 75 percentile for Aerial win % even after facing a lot of aerial duels. He doesn’t shy away from them at all and from what I’ve noticed, even the duels he doesn’t win cleanly, his upper body strength destabilizes the opponent enough for it not to become a problem. His willingness to get into duels and trouble the attacker as much as he can or simply win it cleanly, make getting into a tussle with Kim almost a zero-reward situation.
In possession: Kim is an excellent passer. He is a volume passer (ranks 99 percentile for passes attempted and completed) while being very safe (ranks 93 percentile on pass %) and progressive (99 percentile on progressive passing distance). He can constantly receive the ball in good areas and pass out of them, whether it’s crisp short passes or long switches to the wing. Having played a lot of LCB this year, he loves the switch to the right flank. Combined with his excellent carrying, Kim is really a modern CB who is very comfortable with the ball. He boasts 99 percentile on carries and 96 percentile on progressive carry distance as well. He is very comfortable playing out under pressure or driving into space if he isn’t under pressure and then picking out smart passes of all ranges.
Verdict: I didn’t highlight any cons for Kim, because honestly, there are none. What you’re looking at is a complete CB, capable of defending on the ground and in the air, has the physicality to match his defensive IQ, is a dream on the ball in terms of passing and carrying, has the technical range and execution to be a starter for a top possession based team and is at the perfect peak age to take a gamble on. And it’s not even a big gamble! Apparently, Kim has a release clause of €45m that activates for 15 days when the summer transfer window starts. At that price, this is simply a steal for a world-class player. Such opportunities don’t come around often. Manchester United have to consider this. I rarely score a prospect 10, but this is as perfect as it gets from all angles. Devil’s DNA Score: 10/10
RCB 2: Jurrien Timber, Ajax, 21
Career History: Born in the Netherlands, Timber joined the Feyenoord academy at 6, but was picked by the Ajax academy at 13. At 18, he made his Ajax debut in the 19/20 season. Since then, his importance and involvement have only increased as he featured 30 times in 20/21, 43 times in 21/22 and has already featured 41 times in 22/23. With 100+ appearances for Ajax, 15 appearances for the national team, a contract till 2025 and constant links to top clubs, a summer 2023 move is likely.
On-ground defending: Timber reads the game well and has a good command of his area. His pressing, speed of coverage and intensity in the duel, help him step out and flush out danger early. His anticipation is at a very good level. You can expect the proactiveness and pressing ability of Lisandro Martinez here. One issue though is Timber’s positioning and concentration. He is prone to the odd error which usually stems from either poor positioning, over-zealous pressing or simply a lapse in concentration that allows a runner or a pass in his blind space. It’s one area he needs to improve on, but given his young age, it seems realistic for this to get better as he gains experience and maturity.
Aerial defending: Timber is below average in the air. While he has a good jump and willingness to duel, he loses aerial duels more often than not (Aerial win % of just 48% this season in the Eredivisie). His balance, upper body strength and heading technique seem to be the major issues that limit him. He doesn’t generate enough power even in the few times he wins the ball in the air. Like Lisandro, he tries to avoid the necessity for aerial duels via proactive challenges and pressing, but he’s comparatively less effective at it, as of now.
In possession: This is where Timber really shines. His passing, close control and carrying technique are reliable and on the higher side for center-backs. He ranks 99 percentile in the Eredivisie for progressive passes, progressive carries, carries, passes completed, pass completion % and passes received, which indicates a technically sound defender who can guarantee progression and safety in volume. He is the epitome of the new breed of center-backs (like John Stones) who are simply so good on the ball, they are as good as midfielder playmakers in build up. His press resistance is a big reason why he rarely loses the ball in possession. His tactical awareness when playing out from the back, in terms of positioning to receive passes or movement to create spaces for the team to progress, is excellent.
Verdict: I have read many takes online on Timber as a RB or DM for United, and I have to say that I don’t see it. He’s not played RB more than 6 times in any given season and didn’t look any better than he does for CB. The mental math to want him to join, but keep him away from CB due to the combined height issue with Lisandro, doesn’t have a great tactical justification. I think we’re looking at a new age wonderkid CB and if United do buy him, Ten Hag will utilize him at RCB most. A few years of rotation with Varane, as Timber gains some experience and maturity to work on his weaknesses, would be a decent deal, all things considered. Devil’s DNA Score: 7.5/10
RCB 3: Kevin Danso, Lens, 24
Career History: Danso was born in Austria before moving to the MK Dons academy at 6. His first taste of senior football came at Augsburg where he was a rotation player for 3 years until the age of 20. Then came the ill-fated Southampton loan term where he had only 10 appearances. But RC Lens took a punt at him in 2021 and they have been rewarded handsomely. Danso has finally found a home at Lens and has appeared 36 times in 21/22 and 31 times so far in 22/23 for the French club while being their mainstay in defence. At 24, he seems to be peaking and this might be the right time for a top club to take a chance on him.
On-ground defending: Danso is very good at engaged defending. He has good physicality and pace which helps him close down dangers early, win the ball with good strength and outmuscle opponents when they try to dribble past him. He’s an aggressive tackler and very aware blocker. Once Danso has locked on to the attacker, it’s really hard to get past him. But Danso can be better when it comes to positioning and defensive space, when he doesn’t have an obvious opponent to lock on to. His reading of the game, especially when there are quick passes and switches going on, can be improved. He often recovers with his physicality and speed, even if he judges the danger late, but on some occasions, that isn’t enough.
Aerial defending: Danso is strong in the air. Not only does he boast a very good aerial win % (72.2% in Ligue 1 this year) but he also does so after attempting many aerial duels. And it’s no surprise when you see him in action. He boasts a great mix of jump, strength and technique to constantly outmuscle and head cleanly. He has a few headed goals from set pieces as well. This is one category with no issues at all.
In possession: Danso is deceptively technical. His lanky frame and running style don’t suggest so, but he’s very good on the ball and has the confidence to carry and pass under pressure. He often dribbles his way out of tense situations and is able to kickstart the attack from the back with an aggressive carry and pass. He comes across as a better carrier than passer, capable of driving his way through the middle easily. His passing is good without being great. He is safe, tidy and progressive enough. He has some signature passes through the middle, but probably isn’t as varied in his switches and passing angles on either side. His passing is definitely good, but maybe not as strong as some of the others on our list.
Verdict: Danso came across better than I imagined. He’s improved leaps and bounds at Lens and is well-rounded enough to not have any weaknesses to his game. He has slight improvements to make in his defensive awareness and passing, to really be at home in a top team, but he has enough quality, traits and personality to take a chance on.
Devil’s DNA Score: 7.5/10
RCB 4: Antonio Silva, Benfica, 19
Career History: Born in Viseu, Portugal, Antonio played in multiple Portuguese youth clubs until being picked up by Benfica academy at the age of 12. He made his professional debut for Benfica B in April, 2022 and was a key player for the side that won the 2021-22 UEFA Youth League. He defied expectations by impressing manager Rodger Schmidt in the 22/23 season and leapfrogging Tomás Araujo and Jan Vertonghen to play for the senior team. An Otamendi suspension gave him the chance to start in August, 2022 and since then he hasn’t been dropped even after the return of Otamendi. He’s racked up 39 appearances this season and won Primeira Liga Defender of the Month for September 2022 and October/November 2022. His performances made him sign a contract extension to 2027, increasing his buyout clause to €100m. At the rate at which he’s going, a top team could be tempted to pay that amount soon.
On-ground defending: Antonio loves a tackle. He ranks very highly for dribblers tackled and has a very no-nonsense approach to get stuck in and not allow dribblers past him. His strength, aggression and defensive awareness are key to ensure he comes up with the ball more often than not. That said, Antonio isn’t the fastest player in the world. At times, very quick dribblers have shown to beat him especially if he’s dragged into wider areas on the right. Antonio avoids such situations with proactive tackling and smart positioning IQ. His body orientation and awareness always give him a great chance to avoid getting beaten, as he showed many times in Benfica’s game against PSG, where Mbappe couldn’t beat Antonio as often as he would have liked. Antonio is also very smart in playing the offside trap and is usually the positionally-aware cover player beside Otamendi, who is more aggressive. His maturity in marshaling the defence even at such a young age, shines through.
Aerial defending:.Antonio is aerially good. His positioning and tall frame usually put him in the right spot to clear away danger. He’s great at winning headers at both ends, boasting 5 goals this season with 4 of them being strong headers and 1 being a cheeky backheel in a crowd during a set piece. He has generated 18 shots from set pieces, which is more than what Maguire, Lindelof and Varane have generated combined this season. His aerial ability in defence isn’t as great as his on-ground defending. His 62% aerial win % this year isn’t that high and it can be argued that for a well-built tall defender, he can be more physical in the air to put off competitors, but that can be expected to improve since he’s just a teenager.
In possession: On the ball Antonio is extremely secure. He boasts 98 percentile for pass completion while having pass attempts in the 90 percentile. But it’s his passing range that stands out well too. He loves playing switches and diagonals and executes medium and long passes with precision. He has played the most accurate long balls per 90 in the league (6.2). Antonio is great in the 1st phase. He asks for the ball and uses smart positioning and carrying to beat the press. For a tall guy, he dribbles out of pressure well and is able to be decisive in build up. His composure and intellect show in possession nicely.
Verdict: Antonio’s profile is excellent and he is a very high IQ and technical CB. His mental aspects in terms of taking the opportunity he got this year, staying in the team and displaying top consistency, composure and game reading, are excellent for a youngster. The few aspects he can get better on are just a function of experience and maturity. While he may not perform as an elite top team starter immediately next year, he could become one of Europe’s best in 2 years time. Any interested club’s main decision revolves around spending €100m with that caveat in mind. The price and immediate readiness are the only reasons I cut 2 marks.
Devil’s DNA Score: 8/10
Now let’s move on to the LCB targets.
LCB 1: Goncalo Inacio, Sporting, 21
Career History: Born in Almada, Portugal, Inacio played for his local youth team until Sporting’s famed academy picked him up when he was 12. Making his debut in July 2020 for the senior team at the age of 18, Inacio hasn’t looked back since, racking up 115 appearances by the age of 21. After his debut season where he rotated a fair bit, he’s now had 2 seasons as key starter with 42 and 48 appearances each and a league title win under his belt. With Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool linked, the time for a step up may be close.
On-ground defending: During defence,stepping into midfield is one of Inácio’s top qualities. He’s a player with excellent mobility and body shape. He anticipates play well and is prepared to intervene. For someone who lacks the size of a typical centerback, showing the aggressiveness to step into midfield and end plays is critical. Inácio is a very good athlete who covers ground well. He adapts his positioning and body orientation at an above-average frequency, putting him in a better position to scan his surroundings and identify potential threats. He’s very aggressive, very confident in the tackle and is quick to apply pressure on his opponents without leaving his teammates vulnerable. On the ground, he is a very good defender.
Aerial defending: Inacio isn’t great aerially. His 185 cm frame and weaker upper body strength are big reasons for why he has a low 60% aerial win % this year, which puts him at 45 percentile among Primeira Liga centerbacks. It is one aspect he needs to improve on and it also shows in attacking set pieces where he isn’t a great threat. While one can expect him to gain some strength as he ages, it might be worth noting that he will have to learn to get around his height the way other shorter CBs (Like Lisandro) do and he definitely has the traits for that.
In possession: Inacio is a gem in possession. He boasts 95+ percentiles for Passes attempted, progressive passing distance, progressive passes, passes into final third, carries, progressive carrying distance, progressive carries and carries into final third. If that doesn’t convince you, let me detail further on why he’s one of the best CBs in possession in Europe. He likes to dribble to draw out the opposition towards him, which goes in line with what top coaches like Pep Guardiola and Robert de Zerbi are doing. As he dribbles, he has the technique and vision to scan for teammates and play a pass between the lines or a switch to a wide area to release a winger or fullback. He does this often and that’s the reason he’s trusted a lot with the ball and is often the main receiver in the first phase. What sets him apart from other CBs who are just good passers, is that Inacio knows how to break a press with careful movement, baiting, skill and foresight on where the ball needs to go to progress up the pitch. In that sense, he is the leader in build up – something United need badly
Verdict: Inacio is a gem on the ball and is versatile enough to play as wide center back or central CB in a back 3 or LCB in a back 4. A build up leader and on-ground defensive monster, the aerial gap is the only reason he doesn’t get a 10 from me, but I feel that’s a gap that can be improved on and mitigated via team defence . In fact, he’s probably the most similar player to Lisandro Martinez in terms of profile and potential. With that in mind, it would be a great signing to alleviate Ten hag’s needs for 2 high-level left-footed center-backs in the squad.
Devil’s DNA Score: 9/10
LCB 2: Castello Lukeba, Lyon, 20
Career History: Born in Lyon itself, Lukeba joined the academy at age 8 and has featured for the club at every level since then. He made his professional debut for the senior team in Aug 2021 and hasn’t looked back since, racking up 29 appearances last year and already clocking 30 this season, all while being nominated for 2021/22 Ligue 1 Young Player of the Year award. With Chelsea, Manchester United and Inter Milan linked, the youngster is catching attention all over Europe.
On-ground defending: Castello is a fighter. He has confidence and attitude in spades and never shies away from a duel. His standout attribute is his pace. He is lightning quick on the ground and that solves a lot of problems on its own. He’s able to press proactively knowing he can cut out danger early. He is able to commit to a tackle knowing he can win it and even on the chance his aggression or positioning fails him, his recovery pace to handle the situation is great. As a result he’s a great 1v1 duel winner and a smooth sweeper of the back line. He boasts a lot of interceptions and recoveries thanks to these traits. His positioning can still go up a level as there are rare occasions where his reliance on his pace and composure isn’t enough, but that’s normal for his age.
Aerial defending:.Castello is aerially weak. He records a 51% aerial win % in Ligue 1 this season which puts him in the bottom 20 percentile for centerbacks. Lukeba can improve aerially and all-around in terms of physicality, with strength, size and jumping height standing out as particularly weak areas of his game right now. His timing of the jump is also an issue – often seeming late or early in a duel. While he has time to fill out physically and find better ways to get around this weakness, he will have to actively do so in the near future to not let this be a gap.
In possession: Lukeba is a very progressive passer and carrier and is capable of handling a lot of passes as well. I’d say he’s a better passer than carrier, preferring to pass his way out of trouble than dribble. He has a good passing range and can comfortably pick out wingers or midfielders. His build up ability is good without being great. He’s a decent carrier but his receiving back to goal and his ability to carry under pressure can improve more. I think he’s a good passer and able carrier but modern demands at the highest level could require more improvement in this regard.
Verdict: Lukeba is good without being great. A lot of his game needs more maturity. His positioning, aerial prowess and build up play can all do with improvement with aerial duels especially needing massive improvement. But his pace, energy, on-ground dueling and technical floor on the ball are good traits to work on. For a backup role with potential to improve, it’s not a bad move at all.
Devil’s DNA Score: 7.5/10
LCB 3: Calvin Bassey, Ajax, 23
Career History: Born in Italy, Bassey is a product of Leicester City’s youth system but didn’t make a senior appearance before joining Rangers on a free transfer in July 2020. He made 65 appearances over 2 seasons for Rangers and won the Scottish Premiership and Scottish Cup. In July 2022, he signed for Ajax, with Rangers receiving the highest transfer fee in their history. Slotting straight in as the departing Lisandro Martinez’s replacement, he’s racked up 37 appearances in the same role. Should Lisandro’s replacement become Lisandro’s deputy? Let’s find out.
On-ground defending: The Nigerian is brilliant at tackling, intercepting, and helping his team in pressing the opposition. He is not just a no-nonsense defender and has a method to his madness. His exceptional ball reading skills allow him to time his move ideally to stop the opposition. At Rangers, Van Bronckhorst’s decision to play a more attacking side has inadvertently helped Calvin become a brilliant defender, who is at his best in one-on-one situations. Bassey has great strength and physically dominates a lot of opponents. His tackles won and recoveries are in the 90+ percentile this season, showcasing his great awareness coupled with his ready aggression. The Nigerian defender steps up very often and is a very proactive and aggressive defender. Bassey relies on his physical strength a lot and probably needs to be more cautious in duels especially higher up the pitch, where the chances of getting caught up and conceding a turnover are high. But overall, he has the right mindset and a good reading of the game, coupled with great physicals. Some maturing in terms of timing and willingness to duel is all that’s needed.
Aerial defending: Calvin Bassey is pretty strong in aerial duels, he has a good leap and often jumps higher than his opponent. He defends set-pieces really well and is almost always well-positioned. For most part, Bassey has great anticipation when dealing with crosses and his positioning is great. He is composed and comfortable in his own box and looks very dominant. In fact, it can be said that this year Bassey has improved upon an Ajax squad gap of being aerially vulnerable, an issue with the previous pairing of Lisandro-Timber.
In possession: On the ball, Calvin Bassey is not a very adventurous passer. In build up, he mainly goes for the safe option which means that he plays plenty of sideways passes or even backwards to the goalkeeper. When he receives the ball in the build-up, he often takes a few touches forward assessing his options. Bassey has decent vision – he spots his teammates in space well, but his delivery is pretty inaccurate, despite having a good long passing technique. His short passing technique is also good and is capable of playing one-touch passes with both his right and left foot. Sometimes he seems to take too long before releasing the ball. It has happened a few times that he got himself into trouble as the opponent managed to pressure Bassey into making mistakes on the ball. Despite this, Bassey generally is pretty composed on the ball and does not panic if he is being put under pressure near his own penalty box. His receiving skills from ground passes are good, but he occasionally struggles to control aerial passes. This can be a problem if he’s put under high pressure. He needs to be more comfortable playing forward passes and release the ball sooner at times. It would take some time to get used to playing progessive passes, but I think he has the potential to get better at this. This is one aspect he lacks a bit compared to Lisandro/Timber.
Verdict: A different profile from our other targets, Bassey is strong aerially and is a great, albeit slightly over-zealous, defender on the ground. Most of his improvements are required in carrying and passing, but even they are above average at the very least. He’s a well-rounded profile, who’s not elite at anything yet, but also has no weaknesses. It’s a decent option for a reliable backup with room to improve.
Devil’s DNA Score: 7/10
For the RCB role, with a view to immediately or eventually take over Raphael Varane, the best option is Napoli’s Kim Min-Jae. He is competent and consistent in all the parameters required for a top team CB today. At the rumoured release clause, United have to put in a bid for sure. Rated lower mainly because he’s more expensive and younger, Antonio Silva, Benfica’s wonderkid, is the next big thing and has amazing traits and elite potential, if United have the money for him. After them, Ajax’s Jurrien Timber and RC Lens’ Kevin Danso are great options who each have solid traits to fit in, with a view to getting better as they peak. Beyond these options, Tanguy Nianzou, Jean-Clair Todibo and Axel Disasi, should be monitored.
For the LCB role, with a view to obtain a backup for Lisandro Martinez who can satisfy Ten hag’s 2 left-footed CB options requirement, Goncalo Inacio of Sporting is the best option, who’s profile and ceiling are very similar to Lisandro. After him, Lyon’s Castello Lukeba is a good option who seems to have many desirable traits but needs maturity and improvement in some of them to shine. Finally, Calvin Bassey, Lisandro’s replacement at Ajax, also has good potential to be Lisandro’s backup at United. Facundo Medina, Arthur Theate and Stanley N’Soki should be monitored as well.
Thank you for reading this far. I hope the new style of scouting and assessing and the long detailed explanations were more help than a turn-off. Let me know your thoughts on Twitter. (@thedevilsdna)
How good has Casemiro been for United since signing on? Superlatives fall short while describing the veteran midfielder’s contribution in his first season in the Premier League. He has undoubtedly been among United’s best players, plugged a defensive transition issue that plagued as for the past few seasons, delivered elite levels of ball winning and also contributed well in terms of advancing the game with his forward thinking passing. But with great importance comes great gap during absence. The 3 games Casemiro sat out due to suspension made the team revert to it’s Rangnick days issues while defending transitions with neither of Fred and Sabitzer being good at playing a holding role. Even the times when Scott Mctominay (the designated backup for Casemiro role) comes on for Casemiro later in games, he cleary looks ill-suited to the requirements, being a better box-to-box midfielder himself. United’s midfield shake up definitely requires a Casemiro partner who can start immediately (I cover that profile here) but it wouldn’t be wrong to say that another midfielder who can rotate with Casemiro and take over once the 31-year-old fades, is also necessary.
Today, I hunt for young DMs (I’m calling the Casemiro role as DM or Defensive Midfielder for ease of speech) who can relieve and eventually take over from Casemiro. In short, I’m searching for young Casemiros. Not an easy task, but let’s get into it.
Before diving into the process, let me explain the stats that have been considered and the logic to why they are good or bad for our assessment. This will help confirm what we are looking for.
1) Defensive Volume – 35% weightage
This includes tackles, shot blocks, pass blocks, interceptions and aerials. Just the attempted volume, not the successful ones. Usually, it’s not right to judge players by the number of defensive actions. More actions doesn’t necessarily mean a better player. But for this role, we are specifically looking for a midfielder who participates in various defensive actions with purpose. Casemiro scored a 98 percentile on this and the Europe leader in our set was Edson Alvarez.
2) Duel Success – 10% weightage
This is the success value associated with both aerial and tackle duels. I haven’t given it a very high weightage since many players who attempt less duels manage to score well on success, which we want to avoid. So this becomes a secondary measure for us. A player who attempts a lot of duels first and is also decently successful, second. Casemiro scored a 71 percentile for this. The leader in the top 7 leagues in my dataset was Anton Stach.
3) Dribblers Tackled – 35% weightage
I’ve given special importance to this stat. One of the main traits we need in our DM is transition defence since Casemiro excels at that. While it’s hard for a stat to exactly describe such a situational action, I think Dribblers Tackled comes close. Players playing central and deep usually face dribblers in transition and usually stop them by tackling them. It’s not the most ideal logic but after spending hours on fbref, I feel this metric comes closest to describing a good transitional defender along with the next metric. Casemiro scored 96 percentile on this and the Europe leader was Manuel Ugarte.
4) Dribblers Tackled Success – 10% weightage
Very similar logic to the 2nd success metric, this is the success version of Dribblers Tackled. But we can’t give it too much importance since players who engage less could have high success. Serves as a secondary metric. Casemiro scored 83 percentile. Top 7 leagues leader was Francis Coquelin.
5) Progressive Passing Distance – 10% weightage
Finally, I wanted just one non-defensive metric to ensure our DM isn’t a dud in possession and has enough technique to play for United. I picked Progressive Passing Distance since it shows how much the midfielder looks to progress in terms of distance accumulated instead of number of progressive passes racked. This is something Casemiro is really good at and routinely attempts switches, through balls and expansive passes to advance the game. We don’t need to go beyond this basic ability since playmaking should ideally be taken care of by the pivot partner to the DM. Casemiro scored 87 percentile and unsurprisingly, Toni Kroos scored highest in Europe in our set.
NOTE: Before we move on, I must state one important caveat. A few of these stats are highly dependent on team tactics. A midfielder might be playing in a different role to adjust for team tactics or have poor stats on some metrics due to his pivot partner or other teammates not being complementary to his style of play. So, for the sake of clarity, it might be best to take the results of this ranking as to not reflect midfielder ability, but rather reflect midfielder suitability to United’s needs. In short, the score won’t measure absolute talent, but will identify midfielders who are doing well at the the role that we want this season. There could be other talented players who just aren’t playing enough or are being shackled by team tactics. With that clear, let’s move on.
The Ranking process
The rest of the process is largely mechanical. A quick run-down of the steps:
1. I downloaded all stats from fbref.com for Europe’s top 7 leagues for the 22/23 season and picked out the above stats of interest to this assessment
2. I filtered out all midfielders who didn’t even manage to play 8 90s in 22/23. This left us with 648 players who can play in midfield, who make up the data set on which we will be doing further calculations
3. I converted the stats into per 90 versions and then percentile versions. This means that each stat was divided by the number of 90s played by that midfielder, and then converted into a percentile stat. E.g. Toni Kroos with a 75 percentile on ‘Defensive Volume’ indicates that he’s better than 75% of the midfielders in our data set for this particular stat
4. Finally, I created a weighted formula using these stats using the above weights. I then factored in league difficulty using UEFA league coefficients for 22/23 giving it a 15% weightage. The last step was to create a percentile version of this weighted score, to ensure our top ranked midfielder scores a 100% and the worst one scores a 1%
The top players, based on this, are as follows:
Well, it figures that the player closest to being Casemiro is Casemiro himself. No surprises he scores a clean 100 percentile. Probably, a good indicator that we’re on the right track.
Okay, now comes the shortlist creation. While filtering out players who don’t make sense, I considered 4 things: a) Age: I kept a limit of 24 years old, since we want a young rotation player who would be okay playing backup to Casemiro in the short term but can take over in the long term
b) Players who don’t play midfield: Benjamin Henrichs, Reece James, Leroy Sane, Achraf Hakimi and a few others had the ‘MF’ tag but haven’t played there regularly. I cut them off. c) Players who won’t transfer to United: Players already playing for top teams or rivals like Eduardo Camavinga, Leon Goretzka and Aurelien Tchouameni were cut off
These filter criteria removed a few players, but I’m fairly confident that the players who are left tick all the boxes we need and have a good recent history of playing the role for their respective teams. Without further ado, here’s the final shortlist for United’s young DM needs for summer 2023:
Tyler Adams was visible in the long list too. He scores just a few decimal points behind Casemiro. One of the major issues of most of our targets is that their contract years start in 2022 or 2023 making a summer move tough. This meant that only 3 players have credible rumours for a summer 2023 move – Florentino Luis, Manuel Ugarte, and Samu Costa. I’ll be covering their reports in detail.
Mini Scout Reports
Before we get into the reports of the targets, let’s look at the chart of the man of the hour. All the pizza charts that follow have been expanded using fbref stats to get a more holistic picture of the player. Let’s start with Casemiro.
As we have seen from our filters so far, defensively, Casemiro is a beast. The ‘Challenges Lost’ metric is a little misleading since he attempts many challenges. Our version of ‘Dribblers Tackled Success’ gave Casemiro a better success at it. Even in terms of passing, Casemiro is very progressive and expansive. Only his pass % and his carrying power are low and that largely should be taken care of by his ideal partner (as discussed in the DLP article).
Next, let’s look at the player who has played as Casemiro’s deputy for most of this season. Scott McTominay has been the designated backup for the DM role, playing there before Casemiro started and often coming on to play that role when Casemiro has had to rest in recent months. Let’s take a look at his pizza chart.
It’s not looking good, friends. Scott lacks a lot on the ball with none of his passing and carrying stats being up to the mark. Probably a good reason why Ten Hag has been using Scott in the DM role is because the 26-year-old has decent defensive attributes, mainly his height leading to good aerial success. But a new player who takes over as the deputy DM is clearly required. Let’s get into the best options for the same.
Florentino Luis, 23, Benfica
Career: Luis was born in Lisbon and spent 8 years in the Benfica youth setup before getting a look into the senior team in 2018. Dovetailing between a backup role at the club and loans at Monaco and Getafe, Luis impressed manager Schmidt in 2022 pre-season so much that he became a starter beside Enzo Fernandez at the start of the season. Enzo’s hype over half a season has been widespread and earned him a big move, but it was Luis providing the balance in that pivot and the day Florentino gets his own big move doesn’t seem too far as well.
Pros: Luis is the perfect partner to a playmaker like Enzo. He’s excellent as a holding midfielder with his awareness, anticipation and positional sense very good while his defensive output and ball-winning is also top class. He’s no pushover on the ball either, being very involved in possession, boasting many passes and carries in open play, while also offering progression and high security as well. He’s not a great dribbler and isn’t a final third impact player either, but in all phases in and out of possession as the deepest player in a midfield, he looks as good as anyone in Europe for his age.
Cons: Luis not being a disruptive dribbler or final ball expert don’t really rate as cons given the role we are scouting. He has no weaknesses in his game. In fact the major con, after hours of research, are him already being too good for us. I mean this both in terms of quality and also price range. His release clause is €120m and he looks too high-level to accept a backup role behind the in-form Casemiro for a few years.
Verdict: Luis was a good find. The problem is that he’s too good a find. Turning 24 in August, his ability and that release clause seem better suited to a starting DM role in a UCL club that badly needs a high quality first choice player. It doesn’t make sense for us. If the RC reduces or Luis is open to a backup role for a while, things could change, but as it stands, I’m cutting 3 marks for transfer realism and giving Luis 7 for being an amazing profile fit.
The Devil’s DNA Score: 7/10
Manuel Ugarte Ribeiro, 21, Sporting CP
Career: Born in Uruguay, Ugarte moved to Portugal to sign up with Famalicao in 2020. But within half a season, he had piqued the interest of Sporting CP, who bought him in summer 2021. Initially signed as a backup to Joao Palhinha, Ugarte showed great form when he got a run of starts during Palhinha’s injury in 21/22. The pressure continued even after Palhinha returned, as manager Amorim heaped praise multiple times on Ugarte. The Uruguayan racked up 22 appearances in the season with many fans debating on who should be the starter for the defensive midfielder role. The debate sorted itself out as Palhinha left for Fulham for €20m in summer 2022. Sporting fans didn’t mind, as this meant Ugarte became the clear starter for the role. 32 appearances of high quality in 22/23 later, their faith has been justified.
Pros: Ugarte is an excellent transition defender. Sporting’s aggressive style in possession means that they need great transition defence when hit by opponents on the counter and Ugarte is the single best reason they deal with such threats well. He has great awareness and positional sense along with the strength in duels and tenacity to go with it. He’s also a great volume passer, comfortable recycling possession and keeping things safe. He also has great anticipation to win second balls and make loose ball recoveries in midfield. A very aware defensive presence combined with a very steady and safe passer
Cons: For the role we want, one con comes in the form of aerial duels. Ugarte isn’t very athletic in the air and is average in aerial combat. He’s not the most creative final third player or a strong carrier, but again these aren’t issues for the role we are looking for. Another point could be him not being extremely athletic or quick, but on the ground his tenacity, positional IQ and aggression more than make up for it. Verdict: Ugarte has been linked to a host of top clubs. He would be a great fit as a partner for Enzo at Chelsea or successor to Fabinho at Liverpool. But his age (just 21), profile and asking price seem like an excellent fit for a Casemiro rotation player who also has the high ceiling to take over as United’s starting DM in 2-3 years time. It’s a great match.
The Devil’s DNA Score: 9/10
Samu Costa, 22, UD Almeria
Career: Samuel Almeida Costa, commonly known as Samu, is a Portuguese international who rose through the youth ranks of Braga. He was loaned to Segunda Division side, UD Almeria,for the 20/21 season. Despite losing the play-off final to miss out on promotion to La Liga, they made the deal permanent for a reported €5m, after being impressed in 33 starts by the youngster. His next season was even better; his 39 start involvement helped Almeria win promotion to La Liga. This season, he’s once again been one of the best players for the team that finds themselves in the bottom 3, but many have noticed Samu’s amazing displays and it seems like he’ll be bought by a better club and continue his growth in a top league while Almeria look to make a profit almost 4 times the amount they paid for Samu Costa.
Pros: Samu is an excellent defender in midfield. Both in terms of his aggression and intensity to take part in many duels, and also his success and capability to win a lot of them – he is already a high level ball-winner. His aerial prowess is among the best in our shortlist while his mental attributes like awareness, concentration and consistency are almost like a veteran’s.
Cons: Samu isn’t the most creative player in the world. He’s also not a great carrier of the ball. He’s not technically poor though – he is comfortable receiving and playing passes and doesn’t seem to have a weakness in terms of ball control. The issue really seems to be because he is in a relegation battling team that defend a lot more than attack. He’s the right-sided defensive partner of a pivot ahead of a back 5 that has allowed the 2nd most goals in La Liga. My guess is that he’d look much better on the ball in a better team.
Verdict: A right-sided DM who has elite ball-winning and positional traits with room to improve on the ball – I don’t see too many issues with this. Picking up a 22-year-old who will cost about €25m and giving him time to develop under Ten Hag until Casemiro fades, seems like a good idea to me. I’m only going to cut marks for the on-the-ball weakness, since that is an area that will need to be developed for sure. But this is a good option for sure.
The Devil’s DNA Score: 8/10
So, in summary of this exercise, I think Manuel Ugarte should be our top target. His age means that he can rotate with Casemiro for a while, but his ability and potential mean that he can become a key starter in future as well. All for a price under around €40m. After that, a low-price on Samu Costa, means that we can get a young upcoming ball-winner without fuss and immediately enjoy his great ball-winning traits with an aim to develop his on-ball traits until Casemiro fades. The likes of Florentino Luis and Tyler Adams would be amazing for the role but probably too amazing and too costly given their top team readiness, hype and age. That wraps up the list for a role which isn’t easy to scout for, given the age, profile and rotation conditions, but I hope I was able to do a decent job.
Hope you enjoyed this piece. Do comment/suggest on what you liked/disliked about this ad what future article you would like to see.
(Credits to fbref for stats and transfermarkt for contract details)
Fans and analysts who have followed United’s issues in the past few years and are also aware of the principles of play Ten Hag likes to implement, would have come across one concern immediately – David de Gea.
The Spanish goalkeeper has proven most of what any keen observer would have told you when Ten Hag was announced as Manchester United manager – De Gea is not fit for the Dutchman’s goalkeeper needs. The difficulties in build up is one key issue, while the inability to proactively sweep and claim crosses only further multiplies the adverse effect the Spaniard has on team tactics. After two games of seeing de Gea fumble, stay on his line, not attack crosses, hesitate to sweep and make mistakes in distribution, Ten Hag employed a kick-it-long system which bypassed the need to build up, and relied on his defence dropping deep to limit the cons of de Gea’s poor sweeping and claiming.
But in recent games, especially post the World Cup, the team has been slowly building towards a more high line high press game with focus on retaining the ball and de Gea has just not looked like a good cog in that system. The game against Arsenal was the most clear example, when both teams were implementing a similar 3-man high press, which meant a fullback was always free during build up. Ramsdale always nailed the cross ball to his fullback and helped Arsenal beat the United press, but on the other end, de Gea routinely failed to find his fullbacks and put them under pressure when he did.
There are many more examples of de Gea not being it, but I’m going to move past that and focus on today’s exercise – finding a starter level goalkeeper for Manchester United who suits Ten Hag’s tactics.
The Stats considered
Before diving into the process, let me explain the stats that have been considered and the logic to why they are good or bad for our assessment.
1) Save % High=Good Weightage: 10%
A high save % is good, since we want our goalkeeper to be able to make as many saves as he can, with respect to the shots he faces. A caveat here is that the save % for a keeper conceding too many shots usually drops, while it’s easier to maintain a higher save % when you face fewer shots. One example would be Illan Meslier, who faced the most shots in the league in 21/22, thanks to the chaos in defence before Marcelo Bielsa’s sacking.
2) PSxG Differential: High=Good Weightage: 25% PSxG or Post-Shot Expected Goals is a measure of the quality of shots faced (xG faced by GK one can say). The difference of PSxG and Goals allowed is called PSxG differential or PSxG +/-. A high positive value for this denotes high quality saves. David de Gea is a prime example of (usually) scoring well on this stat, thanks to his dramatic saves from positions most keepers usually aren’t able to. I’m giving this the highest weightage, since it’s critical for a GK.
3) Cross Stop %: High=Good Weightage: 15% This is calculated by dividing crosses stopped by crosses faced. A high value denotes good cross claiming ability. Again, the caveat here is that a keeper bombarded with crosses might find it tougher to maintain a high Cross Stop % compared to one that isn’t.
4) OPA or Defensive Actions outside Penalty Area:
High=Good Weightage: 10%
A measure of sweeping, a high value on this denotes the ability of the keeper to perform actions outside his area.
5) OPA Avg Distance: High=Good Weightage: 10% The average distance from goal of all defensive actions outside the penalty area. Similar to the above stat, a higher value is good, for the keeper that we need.
6)Launched Passes Completion %: High=Good Weightage: 5% When a keeper decides to launch a ball from open play, does he complete the pass accurately or is it a random boot-out under pressure that goes to an opposition? This stat answers that question. It separates purposeful long kicks to a teammate from random hoofs under pressure. One caveat here is that having a great target man could result in many ambitious long kicks getting a completion status as well. One example is Samir Handanovic topping this chart two years ago, thanks to Edin Dzeko being the target of most of his long passes.
7) Passes Attempted: High=Good Weightage: 5% For the GK we are looking for, we want someone who isn’t afraid to get on the ball, during open play. A higher value for this is better for us.
8) Pass Launch %: Low=Good Weightage: 5% This denotes the percentage of passes a keeper decides to launch, instead of playing on the ground. For our ideal keeper needs, we want a lower value for this – a keeper who has the technique, press-resistance and composure to avoid booting the ball long and instead tries to find a player close by.
9) Pass Avg Length: Low=Good Weightage: 5%
Quite self-explanatory, the preference is for a keeper who has a lower average pass length, which indicates his priority to find a player closer via a shorter pass, rather than kicking it long.
10) Goal Kick Launch %: Low=Good Weightage: 5% The goal kick version of‘Pass Launch %’. Again, we want a keeper who executes a short pass from a goal kick more often than not, which is the ideal Ten Hag goal kick routine.
11) Goal Kick Avg Length: Low=Good Weightage: 5% The goal kick version of ‘Pass Avg Length’. We want someone who has a low value on this.
NOTE: Before we move on, I must state one important caveat. A few of these stats are highly dependent on team tactics. A goalkeeper may not be playing short, because the manager has instructed him to kick it long (like ETH did with de Gea after the first 2 losses) or a GK may not be able to score well on sweeping actions, because his team doesn’t play a line high enough for him to get the opportunity to sweep. So, for the sake of clarity, it might be best to take the results of this ranking as to not reflect goalkeeper ability, but rather reflect goalkeeper suitability to United’s needs. In short, the score won’t measure absolute talent, but will identify goalkeepers who are doing well at the the role that we want this season. There could be other talented keepers who just aren’t playing enough or are being shackled by team tactics. With that clear, let’s move on.
The Ranking process
The rest of the process is largely mechanical. A quick run-down of the steps:
1. I downloaded all goalkeeping stats from fbref.com for Europe’s top 7 leagues for the 22/23 season and picked out the above 11 stats of interest to this assessment
2. I filtered out all goalkeepers who didn’t even manage to play 5 90s in 22/23. This left us with 160 goalkeepers, who make up the data set on which we will be doing further calculations
3. I converted the 11 stats into per 90 versions and then percentile versions. This means that each stat was divided by the number of 90s played by that goalkeeper, and then converted into a percentile stat. E.g. David de Gea with a 40 percentile on ‘PSxG Differential’ indicates that he’s better than 40% of the keepers in our data set for this particular stat. I’ve also accounted for the reversed percentiles on the stats for which a lower value is desirable. E.g. Low values of ‘Pass Avg Length’ were ranked with a higher percentile. In summary, all high percentiles now mean ‘better’, for this assessment
4. Finally, I created a weighted formula using these 11 stats using the above weights. I then factored in league difficulty using UEFA league coefficients for 22/23 giving it a 15% weightage. The last step was to create a percentile version of this weighted score, to ensure our top ranked goalkeeper scores a 100% and the worst one scores a 1%
The top goalkeepers, based on this, are as follows:
Manuel Neuer scores a majestic 100% on our metric, closely followed by Kepa, who’s having a resurgent season and Alisson, who still stands tall as Liverpool’s best player this year. This could be considered as a fair assessment of sweeper keeper performances in Europe’s top 7 leagues in 22/23 and Neuer is exactly the kind of keeper we need.
The reason we’re here is to find a suitable young/peak keeper who is worthy of starting for United in the short and long term. I use age to filter out all goalkeepers above the age of 29 and add a few important contract details and transfer rumors. I also eliminated some GKs who barely crossed the 5 90s played threshold and some unrealistic options like Donnarumma, who surely won’t move from PSG.
The results are as follows:
Gregor Kobel has been having a great season at Dortmund for the second year running. Even last year, his stats were pretty good. United should really be enquiring if he’s available. There are no rumors of him wanting to leave or Dortmund entertaining such a thought, so maybe he’s well settled there.
There are similarly no rumors for Diouf and Vaessen in the market, but it might be wise to keep a track of them given their great stats while having a low profile.
The real targets who have been rumored to move and seem to be available for the right price are Bijlow, Raya, Costa and Meret. I’ll be doing mini reports on the first 3 below.
Mini Scout Reports
Before we dive into the reports of the targets, I want to highlight the holy grail – the profile that we are going for. Here’s Manuel Neuer’s pizza chart using the same 11 stats and assessment detailed above. Remember, the percentiles are adjusted based on what I mentioned (Eg. High percentile for Avg Pass Length means he’s passing short and so on)
What’s immediately noticeable is that Neuer scores well on almost every metric except cross stopping. He’s stopped only 4 crosses from 103 this year, which seems to be surprisingly low. But keeping that aside, it’s as good as it gets. Playing for a league leader team that maintains a high line and engages in short build up, does help the stats, of course, but Neuer has shown what a modern sweeper keeper is all about.
On the other end of the spectrum, let’s take a look at Manchester United’s current starter – David de Gea.
David de Gea scored 16.4% in the above exercise. Only 26 goalkeepers in Europe’s top 7 leagues scored lower than him and only 1 Premier League keeper (Mark Travers, Bournemouth’s backup GK) scored lower than him. It’s safe to say that de Gea is among the worst keepers in the league. What’s even more shocking is that, even keeping aside stats that might be dependent on team tactics, he’s below average for both shot-stopping metrics. He’s 33 percentile on PSxG +/-, which is apparently his strongest stat. The less said about the claiming, the better.
David de Gea is probably the weakest starting member in the United XI currently. Our aim should be to buy someone who represents a massive upgrade on de Gea in the short-term and has the potential to get close to that Neuer pizza chart in the long-term.
Let’s dive into the 3 targets that I recommend the most for this.
Justin Bijlow, 25, Feyenoord
Career History: Bijlow’s rise has been a fairytale one. Representing Feyenoord at all youth levels, he got his break at the end of the 17/18 season at the young age of 19. In the following season, he played a huge part, starting 20 times for the club. With 97 starts across 5 years since his debut, Bijlow is one of Feyenoord’s key players and has already become a household name in the Eredivisie. In 2021, he was called up to the national team by van Gaal and was doing well in World Cup qualification. An unfortunate injury that kept him out for the games in the run-up to the World Cup, ended up with him not being selected for the Finals in Qatar.
Pros: Bijlow is a very well-rounded profile. His eye-catching and strong saves are immediately noticeable, while spending more time on his games gives a clear indication of a good distributor who likes to be involved, and a good claimer who is authoritative in the air. In general, the two words that come to mind when seeing Bijlow are – aggressive and athletic. He almost feels like an energetic midfielder, with the physical ability and determination in most of his actions being a large driver to his good stats.
Cons: The major con with Bijlow is – his fitness. He’s missed almost 50 games for Feyenoord over the years with various injuries related to foot, knee and toe. It cost him a World Cup Finals spot, and has left Feyenoord missing their key starter in important games as well. 22/23 has been good so far, with no injuries yet, and one can hope that his fitness improves in his peak.Also,his aggression leads to the odd error in passing or claiming, thanks to an overzealous or over-proactive action, but I would say that in the long run, it’s still much better than having a keeper who’s rooted to the line or scared of picking the right pass.
Verdict: I think Bijlow has everything in his locker for a modern GK, and at the age of 25, is already well-rounded and performing at a good level. These pros far outweigh the slight cons of fitness and rashness, both of which should be fixable as he matures. Should be a strong consideration.
Devil’s DNA Score 8/10
David Raya, 28, Brentford
Career History: Raya started out as a youth player for Blackburn Rovers and after a few years of bit-part appearances for the side, at the age of 21, he broke into the first XI and enjoyed 2 years as an undisputed starter for Rovers. His performances earned him a pick up from the smart scouting team at Brentford in 2019. It’s only been up and up since that move, with great performances in the Championship, only followed by great performances in the Premier League. In 2022, his rise earned him 2 caps to Spain ahead of De Gea and that change should probably happen at club level too.
Pros: At age 27, Raya is probably the closest to peak in terms of development, among our shortlist options. And that shows in his game. He is a very consistent shot-stopper, excellent cross claimer and strong sweeper. In terms of overall goalkeeping ability, he has no weakness. Even his distribution is a strong trait. The main reason why his pizza chart scores low on 4 distribution stats is largely due to Brentford adopting a long ball strategy this year. They often go direct to Ivan Toney in the final third thanks to the striker’s excellent hold up play (United should look to him for CF too). The 2 distribution stats which are more in his control score well. Back when he was in the Championship and Brentford dominated possession, Raya would play very short and often boss the build up. So, if you disregard the 4 stats he ranks low on, as issues that won’t matter in a top team playing a short build up style, Raya’s overall ability probably ends up being the best on the shortlist.
Cons: It’s very hard to pick any cons for Raya. As explained before, his distribution is simply not a negative. He’s excellent at it. If I had to nitpick, the only con I could pick from watching a lot of Raya is that he sometimes tries too many ambitious counter-starters with low-percentage throws after claiming, which lead to the opponent getting the ball, but they also help start some great counters. It’s a minor thing.
Verdict: No matter how hard I look, I cannot see any reason why Raya shouldn’t be a top target. He has all the traits, is already showing them at a high level in the league and will only look better in a top team. His price also seems affordable since he has just 1.5 years left in his contract. At the rumored price, this is a no-brainer. If United don’t seal this, I’m positive that Spurs or Chelsea will pick Raya up this summer. For the first time since I’ve been doing scout reports for United, I’m giving someone a 10.
Devil’s DNA Score: 10/10
Diogo Costa, 23, Porto
Career History: Having just turned 23 last September, it’s fascinating to realize that Costa has already started 72 times for Porto in 2 years as a key starter and got 12 national call-ups for Portugal which includes starting every game in World Cup 2022. It speaks of his monumental talent as a player. 4 years with Porto B leading to 2 years at Porto and reaching the point of every top team wanting you, is as good a career goes till this age.
Pros: Aiming to be a well-rounded sweeper keeper, Costa is an excellent distributor and claimer and a decent shot-stopper. Standing tall at 6’4”, he has excellent aerial reach and the agility to go with it. He is really good at beating the opponent press by playing smart passes to the fullbacks or midfielders, effortlessly starting attacks for his team, no matter what the situation. He is also ever-ready to come off his line and sweep or claim with good control, without being too overzealous or too rooted on his line either.
Cons: There are no obvious weaknesses to Costa, except the fact that due to his young age, he still feels raw. There is the odd mistake in him, especially when it comes to saving. His positioning might need some extra maturing to bump up his save %. He has also made some high profile errors in Champions League and World Cup games, which could suggest a slight requirement of nerves to handle big games.
Verdict: In terms of profile, Costa is a legitimate wonderkid who has all the traits, but his rawness means that he isn’t the most starter-ready on the list. The ideal top team move probably comes 1-2 years early for the young GK and with a huge Release Clause of £65m, does a summer 2023 move become a case of “too expensive for too raw a player”? I’m inclined to think so. Don’t get me wrong, I think he’s a fabulous talent and would still take him if there isn’t anyone in the top 5 shortlist names willing to come. But the price and rawness make me feel that there are a few, if not many, better options out there that would help us save some money for other targets like a striker or midfielder.
Devil’s DNA Score: 7/10
In summary of this exercise, for the summer transfer window of 2023, I feel Manchester United should pull out all the stops to sign David Raya from Brentford. He seems ready to move with an appealing price and his profile only suggests that he can become one of Europe’s best. If that doesn’t work out or someone else snaps him up, United should enquire about Gregor Kobel, who has also been having a fabulous 1.5 seasons at Dortmund. After those 2, a move for Justin Bijlow of Feyenoord has to be entertained, given the Dutch GK’s skillset and potential. As a final throw of the dice, an expensive move for Diogo Costa that seals the GK role for many years, is a good option as well.
Thank you for reading this far. I hope you enjoyed this one. Let me know your thoughts on the options and if I’ve missed any, on my Twitter handle. I will be doing more scout reports in the near future, with a Casemiro partner playmaker carrier style midfielder next on my to-do list. Cheers.
The last time I did a CF shortlist exercise in the summer of 2022, the idea was to replace an aging Cristiano Ronaldo, who was missing from pre-season due to personal reasons. About 6 months later, after a walkout, a public interview against the manager and a contract termination, we are back in the same place. Only this time, it’s in a more precarious situation, bang in the middle of a season, right after a tiring World Cup, with everything to play for in the remainder of the season. Manchester United need a striker again, and the requirement is further complicated by objectives of the current season while keeping the future of the club in mind.
Well, it’s time to uncomplicate it. Today, I’ll take a look at data from Europe’s Top 7 leagues (One of the best things about Opta taking over fbref) to create, not one, but two shortlists: a short-term list focussing on targets for January that can do an immediate job and a long-term list of candidates who can carry the great burden of leading the line at Old trafford for the next decade. Let’s get into it.
Creating the Shortlist
I’ve done this a few times now in case you caught my previous CF, CM, RB or RW shortlist exercises. I’m going to keep this part short in the interest of spending more time on our shortlisted candidates.
These are the stats I used to create the weighted score:
NpxG – 10% weightage
NpxG/Shot – 10% weightage
Shots – 10% weightage
Shots on target % – 10% weightage
Pass Completion % – 10% weightage
xA – 10% weightage
Penalty area touches – 10% weightage
Miscontrols – 5% weightage
Dispossessed – 5% weightage
Progressive passes received – 10% weightage
Aerials won – 5% weightage
Aerial win % – 5% weightage
Explanation: Our first responsibility is to find a great goalscorer. ‘NpxG’, ‘Shots’, ‘Shots on target %’ and ‘NpxG/Shot’ together almost make up half the weighted score. 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 Eriksen 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. He should be able to keep possession losses to a minimum (this ensures a good level of close control and decision making which indirectly indicates good hold up play) which is why ‘Pass Completion %’, ‘Miscontrols’ and ‘Dispossessed’ have been taken. Finally, he needs to be decent aerially, since Ten Hag does like to use his CF as an aerial out-ball from time to time.
Now, onto the calculations.
1. I downloaded data from fbref for all outfield players in Europe
2. I converted all stats to per 90 versions and then possession-adjusted them to better reflect the stats assuming a 50% squad possession across the board
3. I filtered in players labeled as ‘FWD’, basically forwards
4. I filtered in players who have played at least 4 league 90s in 22/23 (I’ve kept this low mainly for the short-term list to uncover backup strikers who aren’t playing much but have done well in limited gametime)
5. I created percentiles within this dataset to order all relevant stats from 0 to 100 percentile
6. I used a weighted formula to create a score from the relevant stat percentiles to rank our desired profiles
7. Finally, in a new addition to my usual method, I give 25% weightage to UEFA league coefficients and 75% to the above weighted score to create a final score
Here’s what we get:
Going by vibes as well, if someone said that Erling Haaland is the type of CF United need, then our formula is on the right track. Kylian Mbappe being 2nd confirms it.
Next, I filtered out players who are impossible to sign (like Mbappe and Nunez) and those who don’t play CF regularly as per transfermarkt positions (like Fati and Gnabry). FYI Cody Gakpo got cut due to the second criteria because…..he’s not a CF! Anyways, not our problem anymore.
From the remaining list, I create two shortlists:
Long term: Aged under 27 + Played at least 7 league 90s in 22/23
Short term: Aged above 27 + Haven’t joined their club recently
Let’s take a look at the long-term list first along with some contract and rumored fee details:
Brian Brobbey leads the pack based on the ‘Final Score’. At the young age of 20, while having a strong link to Erik Ten Hag, the striker recently admitted that playing for Manchester United is a dream. The big issue is that he signed for Ajax only in summer 2022 and has a 5-year contract that makes him “not available” for a while, at least.
That takes us to the remaining targets, all of whom represent good options. Let’s run through some of them.
Long-term Option 1: Marcus Thuram
Recent History: Aged 25, Thuram has started as CF in Gladbach’s 4-2-3-1 tactic 17 times this season and has bagged an incredible 13 goals and 4 assists in this period. He has played a lot of LW in his career but has slowly been making the shift to CF. In the 3 seasons before this one, his playing time between LW and CF was almost split equally, but towards the end of last season, he began playing as a striker consistently and was rewarded with a World Cup 2022 call-up ahead of Anthony Martial.
Pros: Having played as a winger for most of his developing years, Thuram is a strong dribbler who not only attempts many dribbles, but is also very successful in beating his man. Last season, he was in the top 10 percentile both for dribbles attempted and dribble success in the Bundesliga. Even as a striker, this year he’s in the top 20 percentile for both. His off-the-ball movement is very strong, highlighted by his strong xG and shot numbers. He gets many shots away from good areas of the pitch thanks to either his strong dribbling or good movement to get behind the defence line, which is something United need. His best work comes as an outlet in transitions, which has proved very important for Untied in recent times and might continue to do so with Bruno and Rashford in the team. In that sense, Thuram fits right in.
Cons: He isn’t really a creative player. His lowest percentile among the metrics we used was for xA. His ability to play back-to-goal against settled low blocks is not poor, but not great either. In the Bundesliga, he is able to enjoy more moments in transition where he’s deadly in comparison to navigating against a rest defence with hold-up play and passing sense. He’s also average aerially and an okay-ish defender from the front.
Verdict: All in all, this probably doesn’t make him as ideal a CF target as our score initially predicted, but with his contract ending in June 2023 and Gladbach looking for a final opportunity to cash in, he could be available for as cheap as €20m this January or for free in the summer, which could pave the way for a more top-tier CF profile later or help with money for other key areas to invest in. In that sense, this probably ends up looking more like a good affordable rotation option with potential resale value, rather than a world-class line leading CF. Devil’s DNA Score: 5/10
Long-term Option 2: Lois Openda
Recent History: Openda burst onto the scene with an impressive 21/22 campaign for Vitesse, where he bagged 24 goals and 5 assists in 44 appearances, only bested by Sebastian Haller for goals in the league. This prompted RC Lens to splash out €9.80m for his services. Playing the lone CF in Lens’ 3-4-3 this season, Openda has continued his form with 7 goals in 11 starts. His rise has been so remarkable, that the likes of Leicester and Milan have him on their radar for summer 2023.
Pros: He is an excellent dribbler. This helps him play on the wing too. Whether he is attacking centrally or from the sides, he effortlessly dribbles the ball around and gets it on his strong foot, before passing it to a teammate or taking a shot. He offers a lot of transition threat and rarely disappoints with his finishing ability. He is in the top 5 percentile for shots, shots on target and NPxG in Ligue 1, which highlights his ability in front of goal at just the age of 22. He wins a lot of set-pieces for the team since he gets fouled very often. The defenders usually can’t cope with his acceleration.
Cons: In terms of weaknesses, Openda likes to play on the ground and is weak in the air. There are question marks over his back-to-goal play as well. He also gets caught offside often, which shows a slight need of maturity in movement. He’s also not the safest passer in the world, often attempting ambitious passes to teammates which don’t always execute well, but this makes him a decent final ball player and is the main reason he has 9 assists in the last 1.5 years.
Verdict: Overall, Openda represents another reasonable <€50m option for the summer, with a much larger upside and potential, given he’s just 22. His speed, goal-scoring technique and ability to create shots for himself could reach world-class levels at his peak, but his poor aerial presence, hold up doubts and the need for maturity in his game are factors against him.
Devil’s DNA Score: 6/10
Long-term Option 3: Ivan Toney
Recent History: Toney did not make my summer CF shortlist, because of his deeper role last season behind Mbeumo. This season, Brentford are playing a 4-3-3 with Toney as CF and Mbeumo as RW, which has allowed Toney’s natural qualities as a line leader to shine. The result is 12 goals and 3 assists in 16 starts. He’s third in the league for goals and xG behind Erling Haaland and Harry Kane.
Pros: Toney’s best quality is his well-roundedness. He has the hold-up ability, back-to-goal play and aerial presence to play as a target man, the movement, speed and anticipation to play as a poacher and the passing range, progression and teamwork to play as a deeper support striker. It’s a special set and lets him be effective in many ways against different types of opposition. Erik Ten Hag might appreciate such a flexible attacker, and it’s not far-fetched to say that Toney is the most comparable young CF to Sebastian Haller in terms of profile. Toney has the highest aerial win % among our shortlisted players and the only reason he lost marks in the final score was due to low pass % and high miscontrols, both of which are a consequence of Brentford using him regularly as an out ball to get out of their half. In a better team like United, those will look better too.
Cons: Toney doesn’t have any real weakness. If anything, his only weakness is not being elite at any one quality. The major issue to signing him is the ongoing betting allegation against him. He has until January to respond, and could face a ban if found guilty. Even if he doesn’t, there is the issue of image, especially given the Greenwood incident last year. United and other teams might want to wait a bit for this to play out, before assessing a move in the summer. But if that becomes a non-point, at the age of 26, the well-rounded Toney could be a top class starting option for many years, without costing a bomb.
Devil’s DNA Score: 8/10
Long-term Option 4: Goncalo Ramos
Recent History: The 21-year-old Ramos was finding his footing last season with Benfica but since the departure of Darwin Nunez to Liverpool in summer 2022, having been thrust with sole line leading responsibility, Ramos has shone, bagging 10 goals and 1 assist in 13.3 90s played. His displays for Portugal after replacing Ronaldo as a starter showcased his quality as a box CF. Maybe United should follow suit.
Pros: Ramos is the quintessential box striker. His best work comes in the penalty box. It’s where he comes alive and his awareness, movement and finishing come to the fore. That said, having played multiple positions in his developmental phase, he has good traits for hold-up and back-to-goal play and is a good linker when he drops deep. He’s also probably the best defensive worker in our shortlist, willing to press intensely off the ball, which is something United badly need in their attack. His strong curving runs from wide and sharp movements between center-backs make him really tough to mark when he wants to get behind the defence line.
Cons: Ramos isn’t super well-rounded. He can’t be called creative and the further he gets from goal, the lesser of an impact he has. He prefers staying high up ahead and is comfortable in either direction, facing goal or back to goal. This fits well with United’s needs.
Verdict: The only issue with Ramos seems to be his high popularity and Benfica’s insistence on wanting his €120m release clause paid out or even topped. At that cost, United may be deterred, although if the price reduces, there probably isn’t a better box CF option that compliments what the team needs.
Devil’s DNA Score: 9/10
That covers some of the best long-term options for summer 2023. I have covered Tammy Abraham, Victor Osimhen and Lautaro Martinez in the summer 2022 CF shortlist article before. Some of the others like Patson Daka and Brian Brobbey have only recently moved to their clubs and might be tough to pry.
Let’s move on the short-term list. These are a lot more tricky to pick out. It’s tough to understand which players will be available on a budget fee or loan in January 2023. I’ve picked the players who are aged 27+ and scored the best ones from the list and put down their details. Here’s the result:
Next, I pick 3 players to highlight, who have either been linked to Manchester United recently or have been among the market rumors and could move. The others might just not move in the middle of the season.
Short–term Option 1: Wissam Ben Yedder
Recent History: Since moving to Monaco in 2019, Ben Yedder has scored 81 goals and made 21 assists in just 109 90s. It’s almost a goal-contribuion-a-game rate. Last season, his 25 league goals were only eclipsed by Kylian Mbappe, and he was the league leader for goals per 90. This year, he has played in a front 2 with Breel Embolo and let the Swiss take up more poaching duties, resulting in a deeper role for Ben Yedder.
Profile: The deeper role is the reason Wissam’s pizza chart showcases a player who has taken shots from distance, not attempted many aerials and shown good stats for progression. It speaks of his well-rounded skillset after many years of experience. Yet, even after not playing as a poacher, Ben Yedder has bagged 10 goals and 2 assists in 14 90s. Ben Yedder has both the poaching skills and the passing and carrying traits to play back-to-goal, progress from deep and be a finisher inside the box.
His only weaknesses are aerial presence and defending from the front. He has never been a good presser and at this declining part of his career, it shouldn’t be expected.
Verdict: Ben Yedder has been linked to a final hoorah back at Sevilla and Monaco seem open to selling him before his contract ends in 2024. An experienced and well-rounded European heavyweight, Ben Yedder could be a great short-term option for United until they figure out the sale of the club, set up a new structure and target a long-term option.
Devil’s DNA Score: 8/10
Short–term Option 2: Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting
Recent History: With 29 goals in 29 90s for Bayern Munich across 2.5 years, Eric Maxim Choup-Moting has been on fire for the Bavarians. Since Lewandowski’s departure, he has gotten a bit more gametime than before, and his output hasn’t reduced a bit, with 11 goals and 3 assists in just 9 starts in 22/23.
Profile: Eric can be described as a safe poacher. He is great at box movement and gets into really good poaching positions. He’s not a very aggressive shot-taker and is average in the air, but his technique is good enough to control the ball well and be secure and progressive in his passing. He rarely gets dispossessed and is able to keep things ticking in a safe manner while offering constant goal threat and efficient finishing.
Verdict: With 6 months left on his contract, things are getting intense for Choup-Moting’s signature. He is the one linked most strongly to United among the short-term options, but Bayern want to renew and keep him, especially with Sadio Mane injured for a while. If United do get Eric this winter, it could be a great boost to their top 4 chances.
Devil’s DNA Score: 8/10
Short–term Option 3: Niclas Füllkrug
Recent History: At 29, Fullkrug is among the younger options in the short-term list. After his move to Bremen in 2019, it took 2 seasons to settle, with him being unable to displace Josh Sargent as starter. Last season, after the departure of Sargent, Fullkrug got his chance to prove himself and responded with 19 goals and 6 assists in 28 starts. He has started this season in similar fashion, with 10 goals and 3 assists in 16 starts, his form earning him a World Cup 2022 ticket, where he also made a big impression when Germany called upon him.
Profile: Fullkrug is an interesting profile. He is very strong aerially, generates a lot of shots, but is yet able to pass and progress well. A target man with good technique is a good way to sum him up – similar to Wout Weghorst. He has the skills to hold up and play back-to-goal, while being an out ball target. He also has good, even if not elite, movement in the box. His passing is underrated, with him having the presence to pick out good passes. He’s just not someone pacey or quick.
Verdict: As per rumours, Werder Bremen are looking to cash in on the striker to ease their financial woes. Even a fee of €20m could convince them. At that price, United can obtain a strong but gifted target man whom the likes of Bruno can aim at.
Devil’s DNA Score: 8/10
And that’s a wrap. Apologies for the long-ish article, but I wanted to cover the mini reports in good enough detail as well. Let me know your thoughts on Twitter.
(Player data: Opta via fbref.com, Market data: transfermarkt.com)