Scout Report: Tyrell Malacia

Yet another ‘mercato’ is underway and this is a period where teams either go full throttle with due diligence and planning or go full throttle with nitro boosters without any succession plan. Manchester United have been on the latter side for quite a few years but for once, there is a feeling that even a rigid institution like them is trying to be more flexible in their approach towards the transfer market. Only time will tell if they have actually learned from their past mistakes or are they just their usual self. Erik ten Hag has officially taken over the reins of the team with his first ever training session at the club taking place on 27th June. The current squad is far, far away from the ideal Ten Hag one and some massive gaping holes are needed to be fixed, especially in the areas from where his playing XI likes to build up the game.

Fullback department is one such place, Ten Hag or not, where the club needed a massive investment (and the right kind of investment). One player which the club is actively pursuing is Tyrell Malacia of Feyenoord. In this scout report, I will try to analyze the strengths, weaknesses of the player and how those will be affected if he chooses Manchester United over Lyon. 

Player Profile

Born and brought up in Rotterdam, Tyrell joined the famed Varkenoord academy of his boyhood club Feyenoord in 2008 as a 9 year old kid with the ambitions of making it big with his hometown club. Malacia rose through the ranks of the academy over the years, eventually signing his first ever professional contract with the club in 2015. Tyrell impressed in his short stay at Jong Feyenoord, the reserves side of Feyenoord and was promoted to the senior side at the start of 2017-18 season. He made his debut in the Champions League in a famous 2-1 victory against Napoli where he played the entirety of 90 minutes. A week later, he made his Eredivisie debut in a 1-1 draw against SC Heerenveen. 

He has become a regular for the team over the years while representing the Oranje at every youth level. He was also eligible to play for Curacao and Suriname due to his parents and also got a call up to the Curacao national team for 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup, making the preliminary squad but the Oranje eventually capped him, picking him to play 2022 World Cup qualifiers against Norway, Turkey and Montenegro.

Malacia has enjoyed moderate success with his hometown club, winning the KNVB Cup in his first ever season as a senior player, also winning the Johan Cryuff Schaal (the Dutch version of Community Shield: league winners vs domestic cup winners). But his best season came under Arne Slot who took a Feyenoord side to the finals of the inaugural UEFA Europa Conference League, eventually bowing down to the AS Roma side led by Jose Mourinho. But this younger Feyenoord side went down fighting till the very end, the same mentality shown by Malacia over the years as a professional. He was selected in the team of the tournament as a result of his stellar performances.

Playing Style

For a fullback, being athletic and having brilliant stamina is a plus in the modern game because of the way the game has evolved for good (or worse?). You can’t be just ‘failed Centre Backs’ and protect the wide areas and let the winger ahead of you do his thing. Modern football requires the fullbacks to be involved on the entire flank, right from the start till the very end; the entirety of 105 meters. For a young player like Malacia, this stamina and athleticism was present right from the start which made his transition to the senior side very easy. This athleticism feeds into his defensive strengths as well: a brilliant recovery pace and the understanding of the situation which makes him a menace in one vs one situations. When you have the combination of not just the brute strength but the brains and the mental condition to make these skills work, you have a brilliant fullback on your hands.

Malacia has good anticipation skills but often he gets caught out of position during transitions. He will avoid the opposition’s wingers to get into their preferred areas of the pitch pro-actively but get caught lacking, which somewhat is a concentration issue and can be fixed with experience.

In terms of attacking game, he has that burst of pace and acceleration to beat his man and a good control on the ball to make dribbles down that left flank. His athletic build and good ball control makes him a brilliant ball carrier. He likes to stay wide and use the width of the pitch, sitting deep into the opposition half to receive the ball wide, allowing the winger on the same flank to keep the fullback of opposition busy and narrow and Malacia using this created space to exploit in order to gain advantage. Crossing is one of his decent facets of the attacking game, knowing when to cross, where to cross. With a competent pair of wingers and a striker who has brilliant off the ball movement, Malacia’s deliveries into the box can yield him a lot of assists.

In terms of progressive passing, Malacia was lacking but the past season has seen him improve a lot in terms of progressive passing and it is down to the coaching under Arne Slot. Earlier, Malacia at times used either under-hit a pass or over-complicate a simple pass when bombing forward but this season has seen him fix this glaring issue in his game and completely take a U-turn in the possession phase of the game. There was also a reason for this part of his game being under-developed. Malacia made his debut under Giovanni van Bronckhorst but his stay was short when he jumped onto the scene, after that he has went on from Jaap Stam to Dick Advocaat who didn’t emphasize a lot on possession phase of the game but with the introduction of Arne Slot on the sidelines, it’s not just Tyrell Malacia who has seen massive improvement in his overall game, his team-mate Lutsharel Geertruida has also improved his overall gameplay.

If we compare Malacia’s expected threat with fullbacks from the top 7 leagues, he doesn’t look bad at all. While league differences play a part, and in the Premier League, this could reduce, Malacia still looks good in the top-right quadrant of the above visualization, being strong at creating threat both from carries and passes. Within the Under-24 age bracket, keeping aside the 2 ground-breaking wonderkids, Alexander-Arnold and Alphonse Davies, Malacia looks the next best. All indications are that he will become a well-balanced fullback who offers good attacking threat at his peak for a top team.

Another facet of his game which he requires attention is the positions where he should receive the ball. Malacia has always been instructed to stay wide and receive the ball deep into the opposition’s final third. But for Oranje and bigger teams where he will need to see more of the ball, he will need to learn when to invert in-field while receiving the pass. Some improvement has been made in this aspect under Arne Slot last season but there is still some way to go.

Transfer Situation

A brilliant 2021-22 campaign has seen him win plaudits from a lot of his critics and has attracted the attention of teams from abroad. Lyon have already made an agreement with Feyenoord for a transfer worth 15 million euros but Manchester United have now tried to hijack the deal. Malacia is himself in a similar situation to his Oranje teammate Jurrien Timber. Both players are rated a lot by Louis van Gaal and are preferred in their respective roles as well. A move to a big club just months before the World Cup can dampen the chances if playing time isn’t managed well at new clubs. At Lyon, Malacia will be guaranteed playing time given Malacia is rated highly by their head coach and fellow country man, Peter Bosz.

But at Manchester United, there will be a fight for a place with Luke Shaw being a senior player and Brandon Williams and Alex Telles also there at the club. Malacia’s skillset is scalable to both Lyon and even Manchester United but the settling period at Manchester United will be more given the jump from Eredivisie to Premier League is very challenging in comparison to the jump from Eredivisie to Ligue 1. At both clubs, Malacia has managers who rate him very well and know very well about his playing style, but at Lyon, Malacia has a shot at the starting XI from day 1, which isn’t the case at Manchester United. 

A sensible decision will be needed from the player’s camp, who has the same agent as Frenkie de Jong, another player who Erik ten Hag and Manchester United are pursuing. Whatever club Tyrell Malacia may choose, this is a player who has the tools to become a well-rounded fullback/wingback and play at the top level at both club and international level for years to come. 

TL;DR: He got dat dawg in him

Search for a RW: Summer 2022 Shortlist

United’s summer business for 2022 has been a case of a lot of noise, but no actual results. What was hailed and expected to be a quick and intense rebuilding of a team that was the subject of huge disappointment and embarrassment in 21/22, has resulted in a complete lack of movement in terms of sales and buys. Coupled with rival teams strengthening proactively, and attempting to build deeper squads as protection against a season that will include a winter World Cup in the middle of it, United’s lack of movement for key starter positions that have issues, is demotivating to say the least.

Defensive midfielder remains a priority position but that seems nowhere close to being addressed, with rumors of Frenkie De Jong and Eriksen doing the rounds, neither of whom fit the archetype. Our top targets based on the shortlist created this year contained Grillitsch, Kamara, Tchouameni and Doucoure, all of whom have moved or are set to move soon. While the midfield search seems focused on a chase behind Frenkie De Jong, today we turn our attention to another problem area of the squad – Right Winger.

Why is RW a problem area?

I’m going to lay out a statement that might cause some debate.

United have no viable right winger starter

Let me explain. Rashford, Elanga, Sancho, Garnacho all prefer playing from the left while Amad Diallo and Pellistri are too raw to command a starting RW position having played just a combined 15 senior team 90s in Europe in their career so far.

The most debated statement here will be Sancho’s. As much as fans would like to believe Sancho can be the permanent RW solution for United, his stats suggest he’s better at LW, while his playing profile also indicates much more comfort playing from the left and cutting in. Laurie Whitwell revealed on his podcast this year that Ole bought Sancho for the LW position, while the decisions of Ole and Rangnick to play Sancho predominantly on the left this season have confirmed these thoughts as well. There is a strong chance that Sancho continues playing off the left, and even if he does take the right side temporarily for a season, it might be in United’s best interest to acquire a permanent RW that fits Erik Ten Hag’s tactics.

What kind of RW should we target?

A tougher question to answer. But if we are going by Erik Ten Hag’s preferences, we have a few hints to go on. At Ajax, he used inverted wingers who were good at wide play. The wingers often held width to stretch play and then had the ability to cut in and create/score when presented with isolation situations (1-on-1s with fullbacks after overloading the opposite side). There are variations to this. Tadic was a more narrow support striker type LW when he played there (A role Sancho or Rashford could mirror), Antony was closer to the isolation winger archetype, holding width and using his dribbling to cut in while Ziyech was more creative attempting to roam inside and pick out passes for his other attackers and midfield runners. But largely speaking, they were all inverted and well-rounded enough to offer wide play and cut in, work with other attackers and provide output in terms of assists or goals when in dangerous areas. This is what I’ll be going on in terms of statistics that I’ll pick out to create a shortlist.

 

Creating a shortlist

I’ll keep this brief so that we can spend more time on the final targets. A summary of my actions:

  • I downloaded data from Fbref (You can find a drive here where I’ve uploaded all player stats and team logos)
  • I converted all stats to per 50 touches to better reflect what players do with the ball
  • I filtered out players with low 90s (>12 league 90s played) and all positions other than wingers
  • I converted all stats to percentiles within this group (Note: This will be very different from Fbref percentiles thanks to a more narrow dataset.)

I used the following 5 stats to create a weighted formula:

Dribbles attempted: 30% weightage

Progressive Carries: 20% weightage

NpxG: 10% weightage

Pressures: 20% weightage

xA: 20% weightage

50% of the weightage is purely towards the 2 carrying stats. The reason is simply because we want a strong dribbler, first and foremost. Pressing and expected assists carry the next most importance because we want a winger who can press (Rashford, Sancho, CR are all very poor pressers) and has a good final ball. The last weightage for NPxG is to ensure that our winger has some good movement to get into the box and generate scoring chances for himself, something that can be of value considering the creativity of Sancho and Bruno.

The final filter was age. We want someone under the age of 25 so that this position is sorted for a long time. The results were as follows:

Kulusevski and Vinicius Jr. topping our list gives us a good indication. Even by the eye test, Kulusevski is one RW who has the perfect mix of carrying, creation, scoring and pressing that would benefit a top team, as Spurs are finding out in recent times, while an inverted version of what Vinicius is doing this year would be a godsend.

So, we’re on the right track. The next step is to find out who can realistically work as a permanent RW for us. We need to filter out players who are better off the left (Ali Cho, Holtmann etc.) and players who would not move to United at this point (Salah, Kulusevski etc.). I also used some minimum filters (10%-20%) on each stat to avoid players who are really poor at 1 aspect (Eg. Someone who is very poor at pressing like Chukwueze).

After these filters, the results are as follows:

These are the top 6 by weighted score who can play RW permanently and are realistic to pursue. This becomes our shortlist. Yay!

Let’s get into the details of each attacker to further figure out their potential to be Manchester United’s right winger.

Note: The pizza charts from here on are based on the same percentiles I calculated on a per 50 touch basis in our narrow dataset of Europe’s wingers who have played >15 90s. They are not Fbref percentiles. These percentiles will seem a bit more extreme (highs and lows) due to the narrow dataset, and will serve to let us know how good/bad someone is for a given stat as compared to the others in the same set of players. 

Nico Williams

Club: Athletic Bilbao
Nation: Spain
Age: 19
Position: RW, LW
Foot: Right (74%)
Contract end: June, 2024
Market Value: £10.80m
Rumored transfer fee: £40m-£50m

The brother of club teammate Inaki Williams, Nico made it as a permanent RW candidate in our shortlist because he has played RW 44 times and LW 6 times in his senior career so far. As you can see, it’s not been a vast career. The Spaniard only had 2 sub appearances last season. This season has been his breakout one as he made 40 appearances across all competitions. Only 14 of these were starts. Bilbao have played a consistent 4-4-2 this season with Bereneguer starting the year as RM, but Nico has been pushing him hard for that spot, often rotating with him. By season end, Nico was featuring more often, ending 21/22 with 5 continuous league starts at RM, seemingly having made that spot his own. 

Pros: If you’ve been missing a throwback electric orthodox right winger, look no further. Nico’s best trait is his dribbling. Using his electric pace, tight ball control and quick direction shifts, Nico is a heavy take-on winger. He stays wide to receive smartly and then has a go at his fullback which will really suit the wide isolation winger Ten Hag enjoys. Additionally, Nico has the combination ability to play give-and-gos and carve out threatening openings with short passes and brisk movement. His off-the-ball workrate is also superb as he fits into Bilbao’s famous pressing ethic. He’s a dream in attacking transition situations, getting into good areas with and without the ball and is a very intense ball-chaser if he loses the ball or the team needs him to help out on the wings.

Cons: Most of Nico’s weaknesses stem from the simple fact that he’s too raw. This was his first season of note in which more than half his appearances were subs. He barely became a Bilbao starter by season end, so a jump to immediate starter at Manchester United might be too soon. If someone questioned how much of an immediate upgrade 19-year-old Nico offered over 19-year-old Amad Diallo or 20-year-old Pellistri, it would be a valid question. Nico’s end product is lacking, merely as a function of his rawness. As the pizza chart shows, he doesn’t boast great final third numbers or final pass threat and is yet to score a league goal (He has 3 in cups). Given his talent, these stats are bound to improve as he keeps developing, but a call for an immediate RW starter might be too early for him. Probably, a year or two down the line, if required.

Overall Score: 7/10

Takefusa Kubo

Club: Mallorca (on loan from Real Madrid)
Nation: Japan
Age: 21
Position: RW, AM
Foot: Left (86%)
Contract end: June, 2024
Market Value: £27m
Rumored transfer fee: £10m-£20m

Kubo came with a lot of fanfare to Real Madrid at the tender age of 18. What started out as 1-2 loans for development has now stretched to 4 loans at Mallorca, Villareal, Getafe, and Mallorca again this season. The Japanese international is now 22 and staring at the last 2 years of his Madrid contract, as Madrid block their 3 non-EU slots with established youngsters, Vinicius, Rodrygo and Militao. The chances of Kubo pushing for a permanent move are higher than ever and as per rumors, Madrid are willing to part with the wonderkid for as low as £15m.

Kubo has played RW in Mallorca’s 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 this season, racking up 19 starts and 31 appearances. In his whole career, he has started 63 times at RW, followed by 23 times at AM, his second best position. The parallels with Mata in terms of profile are obvious.

Pros: Kubo is technically sound. His ball control, passing, playmaking and carrying are excellent as seen in the pizza chart. He’s a very good progressor and shot-creator, while his ability to dribble into dangerous areas is outstanding. He also takes a good number of shots thanks to his ability to carry into good areas and get in sight of goal. Overall, he’s a very Mata-ish profile or, from a Ten Hag perspective, a potential Ziyech type.

Cons: His output is lacking. For all his great underlying metrics, Kubo doesn’t trouble the goals and assists charts often enough. He has only 2 goals and 2 assists in all competitions this season and just 18 goal contributions in his 4 years in Europe so far. Some of it can be attributed to playing for teams that don’t dominate regularly and him not getting consistent runs in them, but he also lacks the aggression and mentality to take the game by the scruff of its neck and force the issue when the team needs it. This lack of output is a major reason why he gets dropped at times for someone who is a lot more direct and why Madrid are sending him out on loan repeatedly in hopes he can develop an end product. Additionally, Kubo is not the best presser in the world and his defensive intensity to win the ball back and help out in deeper areas is not that great either. His off-the-ball movement to receive in wide and dangerous areas is also average. With the ball, a gem, without it, not so much.

Overall Score: 7.5/10

Nicolo Zaniolo


Club: AS Roma
Nation: Italy
Age: 22
Position: RW, AM
Foot: Left (88%)
Contract end: June, 2024
Market Value: £49.50m
Rumored transfer fee: £40m-£50m

Zaniolo started his career as a midfielder, often playing in a box-to-box role or attacking midfielder role. He has played attacking midfielder 83 times and right winger 51 times in his career so far. But over time, he has been deployed more on the right wing. This season, he played 20 times as a right winger in a front 3 and 18 times as a right-sided support-striker in a front 2 and it seems like the right-wing spot is where he’ll make a permanent home at, whether it is at Roma or any other club. The recent switches to a back 5 have resulted in Zaniolo getting dropped more often, due to not getting his RW slot, which has apparently prompted an altercation with manager Mourinho.

As per the rumors, Zaniolo is expecting a system where he can play RW in a front 3 and a new contract that matches Tammy Abraham’s wages, failing which he would consider moving away. Roma want €50m for the Italian if such a situation comes to pass.

Pros: Zaniolo’s best traits are his carrying and shooting. He feels very comfortable with the ball, driving into half-spaces and fashioning shooting chances for himself. With 12 goal contributions in 30 90s this year, he is an output-based player and those numbers could improve further in a  settled system where he plays RW in a front 3. He has very good positioning IQ to receive between the lines or wide and is a good defender, not shy of getting into tackles and making recoveries in deeper areas. He has an imposing physique (190cm, 79 kg) that helps him in duels and dribbling ability. He is also a good shot-creator from open play, possessing a nice long ball. All of this suits Ten Hag’s winger requirements nicely.

Cons: One of the main reasons he has been moved away from central roles is that he isn’t super creative. His ability to break blocks via through balls and visionary passes is below average. He does have a nice final ball (cross or cutback) that can be developed further, making him better suited to a wide inverted role. His fitness is also one concern, but a large part of that was the ACL injury he suffered in 2020 that took him out for a full season. This year, he’s clocked 40 appearances, and the drops to the bench were largely tactical. His fitness issues could be behind him and his passing progression is a very small issue given United have Bruno and Sancho for that.

Overall Score: 9.5/10

Alexis Saelemaekers

Club: AC Milan
Nation: Belgium
Age: 22
Position: RW, LW
Foot: Right (80%)
Contract end: June, 2026
Market Value: £18m
Rumored transfer fee: £15m-£20m

Alexis moved from Anderlecht to Milan on loan when he was 20 and impressed enough for Milan to pay the  €3.5m fee to make his stay permanent. Over the last 2 seasons, the Belgian has been unable to lock a starting spot appearing 83 times, but starting only 59 times. His 12 goal contributions haven’t been enough for Milan’s ambitious setup to consider him unsellable. The Rossoneri are similarly dissatisfied with Castillejo and Rebic, with none able to hold their spots on the wing. They are looking at targets like Lang, Asensio, Zaniolo and Berardi and would be willing to part with Alexis for as low as £15m to fund a new-look attack alongside Rafeal Leao.

Pros: Alexis is a very direct and intense player. He loves to take on his opponent and has the ability to go out wide and cut inside as well. His consistent and passionate carrying ability profiles him like a classical right winger. He’s also a strong defender, boasting high pressures, dribblers tackled, interceptions and passes blocked. Pioli has also used him as right wing-back and right-back on occasions showing how useful the player is in such situations and where his strengths lie. Even as a right-winger, it’s Alexis’ workrate, wide play and defending that allows Milan to adopt a left-leaning formation which helps Leao and Theo Hernandez to shine in attack. This is similar to how Ole would use Daniel James to let Shaw and Rashford flourish. Considering United’s riches of left-leaning attackers, Alexis could provide a similar base for them to perform.

Cons: While Alexis is better as a wide high-workrate deep winger, he lacks the output, technique and creation metrics that come with an advanced attacker. He might be better as a RM in a 4-4-2 or RWB in a back 5 than a RW in a front 3. He lacks the final ball, creativity and goal threat to trouble defenses. He has never scored more than 2 goals in a season, while his assisting is largely thanks to crosses from deeper and wider areas, rather than creative penetration of the half-spaces. He doesn’t get into dangerous central areas to even give himself the chance to score or create. It’s not a question of opportunity, it’s just not in his skillset. If an inverted winger role with final third impact is the expectation, Saelemaekers falls a little short.

Overall Score: 6.5/10

Yeremi Pino

Club: Villarreal
Nation: Spain
Age: 19
Position: RW, LW, CF
Foot: Right (89%)
Contract end: June, 2027
Market Value: £36m
Rumored transfer fee: £26m (Release clause)

Yeremi rose from the youth ranks of Villarreal, breaking into the senior team at the age of 17 with 12 first-team starts in 20/21. This year he’s taken that to the next level with 28 starts and 40 appearances in all competitions. Still just 19, Pino has made the right wing slot his own, whether in a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3, while also turning up as a striker on occasions. A host of top clubs are chasing Pino with the €30m release clause in his contract being a very reasonable price for his talents.

Pros: Even though he’s a right-footer playing on the right, often in a 4-4-2, Pino isn’t like an orthodox defensive winger at all. His best trait is his goal-scoring. He has among the best values in our dataset for NPxG and NPxG/Shot and his high progressive passes received stat indicates his amazing movement to receive in good areas. His xA also hints at a strong final ball in advanced positions closer to goal. A lot of this reads like the profile of a goal-scoring striker like Benzema or Nkunku this season. Pino is very efficient, rarely losing the ball by attempting audacious passes and dribbles, more inclined to using his intelligence, movement and awareness to find spaces in the final third and utilize his composure and maturity to finish. In that sense, he’s not a ball-hogger, preferring to be an outlet instead, which could really suit Ten Hag’s preferences of combination movements in the final third.

Cons: Pino isn’t really creative with the ball. While smart cutbacks and quick dribbles add to his efficient nature, the flair for a visionary pass or mazey dribble is probably missing. He might not be able to unlock defenses on his own from deeper areas, rather preferring to be the one on the end of such passes. He’s also not a great presser or ball-winner without the ball, but that could be developed as he grows, since he’s just 19. As long as expectations of what he can do with the ball are tempered and a solution to the high press can be found, Pino could complement the likes of Bruno and Sancho well and offer United something they need badly – movement and goal-scoring.

Overall Score: 8.5/10

Michael Olise

Club: Crystal Palace
Nation: England
Age: 20
Position: RW, AM
Foot: Left (86%)
Contract end: June, 2026
Market Value: £19.8m
Rumored transfer fee: £35m-£50m

Crystal Palace have been nailing some Championship starlet signings recently and Olise is probably the best among their picks. For someone who came from Reading when he was just 19, Olise has forced his way into Vieira’s plans faster than some might have imagined, picking up 31 appearances and 16 starts in his maiden Premier League season. By the second half of the season, he was the go-to RW in the 4-3-3, starting 14 out of Palace’s last 19 games in the league. Given his recent move and the ambition of the Palace project under Vieira, it might be tough to prise Olise away, but there are rumors that if a top team came calling and offered a significant improvement on the £8.5m Palace paid for him, the Eagles would sell.

Pros: Olise is a dream on the ball. Possessing high ball control, natural flair and the directional change of a seasoned dribbler, he is great at receiving in tight areas, turning defenders with pace and driving into dangerous areas with purpose. His technical expertise also extends to his passing, with Olise possessing very good switches, through balls and game–advancing passes in his locker, that can help progress the game or unlock defenses. Everything Olise does on the ball is expert level, and in that sense he is probably closest to the Antony archetype that Ten Hag enjoyed recent success with. Additionally, he is also a good presser who is very willing to work hard when the team needs it, which is a pleasant departure from inverted winger wonderkids who don’t defend.

Cons: On the flipside, Olise is poor in attack without the ball. His movement is lacking, as can be seen by his progressive passes received stat. He doesn’t have the off-the-ball intelligence to read the game, get at the end of other’s passes in threatening areas and be a goal threat, which is reflected in his poor shooting metrics. He prefers to stay wide, receive simple passes on the wing and then use his technique to drive in, which could make him predictable. This is an aspect that usually improves with age though and under the right guidance, especially given Ten Hag’s structural plays that utilize movements in the final third, Olise could pick up this skill. 

Overall Score: 9/10

A final summary of our summer 2022 RW shortlist:

Rank Name Club Age Pros Cons Score
1 Nicolo Zaniolo Roma 22 Dribbling, Shooting, Physicals, Output Creativity, Positional clarity 9.5
2 Michael Olise Palace 20 Dribbling, passing, Flair, Antony-ish Movement, Shooting, Output 9
3 Yeremi Pino Villarreal 19 Goalscoring, Movement, IQ Creativity, Progression, Defense 8.5
4 Takefusa Kubo Mallorca 21 Creativity, Progression, Technique Defense, Output, Physicals 7.5
5 Nico Williams Bilbao 19 Dribbling, Flair, Workrate Output, passing, Maturity 7
6 Alexis Saelemakers Milan 22 Workrate, Defense, Dribbling, RWB/RB Creativity, Final 3rd impact, Output 6.5

And that’s that! Thanks for reading. If there’s anyone you think the stats have missed or is just a gut feeling from your side to be a United RW, do tag us on Twitter and mention so; we might do a scout report on him too (We did one for Raphinha recently. Here).

Scout Report: Raphinha

Leeds United in 21/22:

Most goals: Raphinha (11)
Most shots: Raphinha (85)
Most shots on target: Raphinha (21)
Highest xG: Raphinha (11.2)
Highest xA: Raphinha (6.8)
Most chances created: Raphinha (65)
Most passes into penalty area: Raphinha (48)
Most progressive passes: Raphinha (169)
Most shot-creating actions: Raphinha (119)
Most players dribbled past: Raphinha (70)
Most carries into penalty area: Raphinha (33)
Most passes received: Raphinha (1193)
Most progressive passes received: Raphinha (191)

It would be no understatement to say that Raphinha has carried Leeds United in 21/22. The Brazilian forward has dominated every relevant attacking stat this season. Not only is he bagging the Leeds’ player of the season award by a mile, his performances have been so huge, that top Champions League clubs like FC Barcelona and Bayern are now strongly linked to the 25-year-old, who is in the prime of his life.

In this article, we’ll analyze the one-army for Leeds this season – Raphael Dias Belloli.

Movement – A wide isolation right winger

Raphinha has started 31 times on the right wing in his 34 starts this season. He has been an ever-present for Leeds this year, boasting the 3rd highest minutes played after Meslier and Dallas. Whether it’s Bielsa’s 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 or Marsch’s 4-2-2-2, Raphinha has almost always started on the right wing.

Raphinha’s heat map conveys exactly what he is – a touchline wide winger. It’s actually a very in-demand profile and one of the reasons why Raphinha is being chased by top clubs. In general, good left-footed right wingers are rare compared to right-footed left wingers. On top of that, the nature of many left wingers being narrow creators and combining with central players means that managers prefer a right winger who can stay wide and stretch play to compensate. 

For example, Barcelona’s left half space is routinely dominated by the likes of Depay, De Jong, Pedri, Torres, Aubameyang, Fati and Gavi which makes play concentrated on the left side. This gives a wide winger like Dembele or Adama Traore the chance to hold width on the right hand side, receive in space when the play switches and run at opponents. This is exactly what Raphinha does and probably why Barcelona have identified him as a key target.

For Leeds, Raphinha does have to track back, as shown in the heat map, but largely speaking, he is the main outlet in attack. He receives the most passes and progressive passes, as seen in the stat attack at the start of this article. Raphinha’s clever movement out wide ensures he always gets the ball in good areas and then has the ball control and movement to cut into dangerous areas and score or assist in equal measure. Movement wise, it’s a very valuable profile and one of the reasons why he has found great success in the league.

Shooting – A great mover and reliable shooter

As mentioned before, Raphinha is Leeds’ top shot taker and goal scorer as well. For the right winger in the team, who starts from a wide position, Raphinha’s ability to move into good areas to score from both with the ball and without, is tremendous. Raphinha is in the top 20 percentile in the league for both shots taken and expected goals (xG), even after playing for a club that was in a relegation scrap till the last day. This, in itself, speaks of his skill when it comes to getting into good areas and shooting.

If we look at his shot map, his right-sided shot-taking is visible, especially the shots attempted from the edge of the box in the right half-space. But he also has many shots from central areas and inside the box as well, which makes him different from the wingers that just take shots from distance from their preferred angle. Raphinha actually has the movement to get into the box regularly like a striker and fashion himself high value shots from central areas.

Another aspect is the number of saves he forces from his shots. He often gets shots on target, showcasing his technique and ability to hit the target. Not only is he a good mover to get into good areas but he also has the technique to hit the target regularly. It’s a deadly combination that very few attackers can claim to have. 

Chance creation – Huge creator needing a finisher

If Raphinha’s wide movement and goal-scoring painted him as a dribble-and-shoot merchant like many wingers often are, it wouldn’t be further from the truth. Raphinha has excellent passing technique. It’s probably his stand-out trait. He is a strong creator in addition to being a good goal-scorer. Only 6 players in the Premier League have created more chances than Raphinha with 5 of them being the main creators of the top 5 teams and James Ward-Prowse jumping ahead thanks to a lot of set piece creation. It wouldn’t be wrong to call Raphinha the best open play creator outside the top 6 in the Premier League.

Once again, most of his chance creation comes from that right wing and half-space area. What is very clearly noticeable is the amount of short cutbacks from the right side into dangerous central areas. Raphinha is very adept at picking out those smart short passes that find a teammate. It has been Leeds’ misfortune that there was no consistent central threat this season to finish off those chances. With Bamford’s injury, winger  James’ poor attempts to play as a striker and Gelhardt being too raw for a starter role, there was no finisher to capitalize on Raphinha’s creativity. The result sees Raphinha end the league season with just 3 assists. Raphinha’s expected assists tally alone merited 7 assists (6.8 xA). It’s a good argument that alongside a better finisher, Raphinha will be troubling the assist charts. This is precisely what his suitors are banking on.

Progression – Elite and versatile progressor

Raphinha’s skills still have some space for progression as well. He boasts an immense 97 percentile on progressive passes among attackers in the league. Only 10 players have more progressive passes than him this year in the league and the only attacker among those 10 is Bruno Fernandes. 

His high technique levels ensure he is able to find players in a very wide range. Again, it would be easy to assume that, as a right winger who likes to cut in, he might be favoring just a few areas on the right and certain angles to progress. But Raphinha is a lot more talented than that. Whether it’s a pass down the line, an angular ball across the pitch or a diagonal into the box, he has a wide array of passes that can progress the game from different positions on the pitch. The whole pitch is his playground and it shows in his progressive pass map. You can’t ask for more variety and numbers from a winger.

Final thoughts

 

Raphinha’s pizza chart is a good summary of all that we have discussed so far. An elite passer, adept goal scorer and intense dribbler. The stats that look weak in this chart are his shot quality, dribble success, carries into dangerous areas and pressing. The former 4 are bound to improve in a better team, if he gets the opportunity to play further ahead and closer to goal. His below average pressing might be a slight issue for a team that is reliant on a high press. At Leeds, both Bielsa and Marsch stress on a strong pressing ethic which is carried out by most of the outfield players, barring Raphinha. His managers have often let him be the only attacker with comparatively lesser pressing duties, since he makes up for it in all the ways that we have seen so far. In short, he was the one hero player they gave a free pass to. This might not be true for a top team Raphinha moves to. The hero player might be someone more experienced and talented than him or he might join a top team that doesn’t believe in such a concept and wants a coherent high press from all its attackers. It remains to be seen if this proves to be a stumbling block for Raphinha in a top team.

Raphinha has been Leeds’ go-to man this season, whether it’s scoring, progression or chance creation. He has done everything an attacker could have, for a troubled side. The main reason why top clubs are pining for him is because his right winger movement is very desirable and he has the movement and technique to dribble, shoot, create and progress in almost equal measure. A well-rounded consistent attacker, Raphinha finished this season with 14 goal contributions. For a top side, that number increasing to 25 while ensuring consistency, creativity and teamwork, is a good bet to make. Leeds would be very lucky to hold onto him for another year. They should consider themselves lucky they enjoyed his brilliance for 2 years in the first place. Whichever team gets Raphinha next, is going to enjoy a top-class well-rounded right winger.

Search for a CM: Cheick Doucoure

While rivals Manchester City and Liverpool are locked in a close battle to decide who takes home the major trophies in the last few remaining games of the season, Manchester United’s season has seem finished for a while now. With Champions League qualification mathematically out of reach, the team playing in complete disharmony and disinterest (as evidenced by the recent 4-0 loss to Brighton) and multiple players having already announced their departure with a few others considering the same, it’s safe to say that both fans and players have mentally moved on from this season. 

The midfield search has also been affected by the poor performances of the season. The Devil’s DNA curse of midfielders covered in this series being picked up by top clubs soon after (Locatelli, Guimaraes) seems to have worked its magic again, with Aurélien Tchouaméni being strongly linked to a move to Liverpool last week. Regardless of whether he moves to Liverpool or Real Madrid, it’s safe to say that his heightened reputation and United’s absence from the Champions League have probably put Tchouameni out of reach for the summer. With Matic and Pogba leaving, the need for a midfield progressor is higher than ever, and with multiple positions to cover within a limited budget and no Champions League to offer, a smart and cost-effective buy who fits the tactical requirements is the need of the hour. Enter Cheick Doucoure, our latest recommendation for the player who can solve United’s DM issues.

Career History

Born in his home country Mali in January, 2000, Doucoure consistently played for the academy AS Real Bamako in Mali until the 16/17 season. The famed academy is responsible for kickstarting the careers of many top footballers like Gervinho, Kolo Touré, Salomon Kalou and Jason Denayer. RC Lens, who were then in Ligue 2, scouted him and picked up in 2018, soon after which he became a mainstay in the side at the age of 19. He played a total of 34 games in his debut 18/19 campaign which is extraordinary for a youngster. 

125 appearances over 4 seasons for RC Lens have seen Doucoure make the journey from Ligue 2 to Ligue 1. With Lens finishing 7th last season and sitting at 7th again this season, it has been nothing short of a magical rise for the club, just as it has been for Doucoure. At the tender age of 22, he already seems like the calm and composed leader for the club who dictates play from a deeper midfield position. His consistent and well-rounded displays have started getting attention in Europe and he has been constantly linked with many clubs, especially Premier League ones, in the last 2 windows. With his contract expiring in 2024 and Doucoure seeming ready to take the next step, this summer presents a great opportunity for a club to bolster their midfield with one of Europe’s rising stars without spending a bomb.

 

Profile Details

Name: Cheick Doucouré
Position: CM, DM
Age: 22 (DOB: Jan 8, 2000)
Foot: Right (94% usage)
Height: 180 cm
Nationality: Mali

Strengths & Weaknesses

In our CM shortlist article for the January window, Doucoure came out looking strongest for Pass completion %, Progressive passes, Interceptions, Progressive carry distance and Progressive carries. He ranks in the top 25% among Europe’s midfielders for these metrics making him a great passer and carrier with a good knack of positioning. This is close to what we want for our DM. 

Let’s dive into more detail for his key stats. I created a pizza chart to expand the above stats to 16 key stats we need to check for a DM. Here’s the result:

The more we expand on Doucoure’s passing, the better it looks. He ranks comfortably in the top 25% for all passing metrics and looks especially impressive for progressive passes. And this is  a player playing for RC Lens. There’s a good chance his passing stats (Esp Pass %) go up if he plays in a more structured top team. These passing stats for a 22-year-old show no issues at all.

His carrying looks even more impressive now. While he doesn’t carry too frequently, when he does it often seems to be progressive or entering into the final third. This also fits in exactly with what we want. We don’t want a very dribble-happy DM, just one who knows how to pick his moment to progress via carrying. Doucoure seems exactly like that.

Lastly, his defending deserves a detailed look. His tackles and interceptions look good. It shows he’s not shy to win the ball back but very high percentiles for these would imply a mobile ball-winning type like Fred and McTominay which we don’t want. Similar logic for pressing. We don’t want a presser who leaves his position constantly to press ahead, but someone who archives high success when he presses so as to not let opponents bypass him. Doucoure looks good on that front, pressing very less but boasting a high pressure success %. That fits in with what we want. His dribbled past seems a little low for our criteria. Ideally we would want someone who is rarely dribbled past. This needs further introspection. His aerial win % also doesn’t really turn heads. His physique and height aren’t really that great, so it would be wise to not assume Doucoure will be an aerial monster.

All in all, Doucoure ticks many boxes for the kind of DM we want. His passing and carrying are highly progressive without being a dribble merchant while his defending is measured without being a press-happy midfielder, although his dribbled past stat needs further analysis and his aerial presence isn’t great.

Technical Fitment: 8/10

Tactical Analysis

Let’s dive into how these stats translate to actions on the pitch. We need to understand how RC Lens plays and Doucoure’s role for them this season. Lens have mostly lined up in a 5-2-3 or 5-2-1-2 this season with Doucoure forming the pivot with Fofana on most of those occasions. The duo have started together in a pivot 34 times this season, showcasing their unreal consistency and Lens’ reliance on them. The pair are the 2 of the 3 most played squad members for Lens. In a possible 39 90s (at the time of writing) Fofana has accumulated 38.1 90s and Doucoure has played 33.7. 

Doucoure is the one who holds among the pair as right-sided CM while Fofana is more aggressive as a left-sided box-to-box midfielder. The two have a great understanding of when to move ahead and when to drop back. With a back 5 behind and attacking 3 ahead, one would think that Fofana and Doucoure might find coverage tough, but such is their mobility, awareness and intensity that they dominate midfield against most teams all on their own. Both are highly progressive, see the ball a lot and have impeccable sideways and vertical movement to support play in all 3 phases.

Looking at Doucoure’s pass reception map, it is clear that he acts in a dual role as DM and RCM as well. It is clear that he drops into the DM area to receive passes from his defenders, which is a good sign of what we want from United’s new DM and what the likes of McTominay lack immensely. But other than being heavily involved in the first phase, Doucoure is also able to push up the pitch especially into right-sided areas to help in the second phase of build up and ensure his team enters into the final third. The only player who has more middle third touches and passes received than Doucoure is – you guessed it – Fofana. As the designated advanced playmaker Fofana ends up topping those stats, but Doucoure is a close second. Defender Medina is another one who enjoys a lot of touches and is a target of passes in build up, being key to get Lens out of their third.

But what does Doucoure do after he receives the ball in the positions above. This is what he does:

He progresses. Mind you, this is just a map of his progressive passes. As seen in his pizza chart, his progressive carries are also among Europe’s best. In terms of passes alone, Doucoure has immense variation and ability to spread play on both flanks, find runners wide, thread short grounded central balls and play dangerous balls into the final third as well. He can do it all. He obviously ranks first in his team for progressive passes highlighting Lens’ reliance on him for progression. He also boasts great ranks for long pass completion and passes under pressure showcasing his ability to switch and press resistance.

His pass completion % is bested only by the 3 center-backs who play safe and Fofana. Even from his pizza percentile, his pass completion % was at 72 percentile in Europe. This is probably due to the system Lens play. Doucoure doesn’t have enough players in close proximity to aim at, due to playing a pivot. This probably gets fixed when he plays in a 3 man midfield or has closer options like an inverted wingback or progressive CB. At Lens, he carries all the load himself, leading to his pass % dropping ever so slightly. Overall, it’s not a real concern.

The movement is good, the passing is good, but what about the D in DM? Can he defend?

Yes, he can. As we saw in his pizza chart, Doucoure is great at winning his tackles and pressures. He comes out successful whenever he attempts a tackle or pressure and his dribbled past is decent on a team level too. His recoveries also show good defensive awareness. The reason Doucoure’s dribbled past stat compared to Europe seems a little weak is because Lens as a team are prone to transitions. The open 5-2-3 formation with 4 wide players often leaves the center unguarded. As great as Doucoure is, it leads to him being dribbled past in terms of stats, but his tackles won and pressure success highlight a player who definitely knows when to commit and come out winning. 

Again, logic dictates that with extra support like a 3 man midfield or inverted wingback, Doucoure could really take those numbers higher and become a solid DM. The comparison would be with someone like Rodri, who was a progressive gem at Atletico Madrid at a similar age of 22, but took around a year to adjust to the Premier League especially in terms of defensive transitions. But once that fine art of positioning (and fouling) was perfected, Rodri has looked like a world-class DM in the last 2 seasons. Doucoure can have a similar path in a new system that is structured like Ten Hag’s could be (hopefully) for United next season.

Let’s take a look at 2 examples that showcase all these traits in match situations.

In the first example, Doucoure receives the ball from his center-back while under pressure from the opponent striker. He has the strength to shield and awareness to turn and pick a smooth pass to his right wingback. Doucoure takes a few steps forward to offer support, but sees his wingback unable to progress and smartly holds back to give himself an option for the return ball. He positions himself between the 2 opponents so his wingback can see the pass and return it back to start the move again. Doucoure now has the vision and awareness to spot the gap on the left wing due to the opponent moving across the right to defend. He quickly pings the diagonal with perfect technique before the opponent backline can reorganize. His left winger takes it down perfectly. With the left wingback overlapping, Lens have carved open an attack, all thanks to Doucoure.

The above example was classic progressive DM play who starts the build up, is available for recycling and dictates play by switching and picking out wide players. The next incident is more of an example for when he helps in the advanced phase as a RCM.

Doucoure receives the ball in a tight area on the right side where opponents are crowding on him. He has the awareness to pick a quick short pass to his right wingback and the energy to power past his marker and receive the ball back. The touch from the receive alone takes him past 2 more players, giving him ample space to wait for the overlapping run and thread a through ball on the flank. The wingback is now in a dangerous crossing position. With 2 strong give-and-gos, Doucoure was able to bypass the 4 opponents players on the right flank, which showcases how good a support he can be in advanced and wide areas of the pitch as well.

In summary, Doucoure is adept at playing a nice mix of DM & CM and possesses the awareness and ability for build up, progression and defending. There is a slight improvement needed in reducing his dribbled past stat, which should be very doable in a good system as he develops with age.

Not much to nitpick here. It’s almost as good as it gets.


Tactical Fitment: 9/10

Transfer chances

Contract Start: Dec, 2019
Contract End: Jun, 2024
Weekly Wage: £3,000
Quoted Transfer Fee: £12m
Expected Transfer Fee: £12m-£17m

What’s even more exceptional about Doucoure’s current status is that for a player who boasts such impressive stats and consistency, his wages, transfer fee and media hype are criminally low. His £3,000 weekly wage is £17,000 less than United’s lowest earner, Tahith Chong. His rumored transfer fee is less than what United paid for a 19-year-old Dalot. This is genuinely a case of picking up a hidden gem, who will undoubtedly cost a lot more once he gets picked up by a mid-table club and proves himself for 1-2 years. 

And that’s exactly what is happening. Aston Villa were strongly linked with a £14m move in January and are returning for the Lens midfielder this summer, but they are facing competition from Crystal Palace who are willing to increase the bid to £17m to convince Lens. Let’s be honest – these are peanut fees for the likes of Manchester United. United can easily bid £20m and offer a 10x wage increase and still get a top footballer who is a tactical fit for a profile they desperately need and call it a steal. 

These are the kind of players who United later get linked with for heavy prices at their peak. One example is Michael Olise, whom Palace picked up last year from the Championship for just £8m, but is now being rumoured to cost upwards of £50m for a potential move. Doucoure will most likely have such an effect if he joins a mid-table EPL team this summer. If United have learnt anything from their transfer gaffes over the last decade and want to prove that the new transfer committee (after multiple sackings of the old guard in the last month) is truly a football-focused strategic one, they should be all over gems like Doucoure, before such players get too big for United.

The deal is an easy one. United can easily swoop in and offer a fee and terms better than Villa and Palace at any moment. It would take less than a day for Doucoure and Lens to accept the offer and United to get their man early for Ten Hag to start pre-season work on time. It all depends on intention though. Are United even looking for such a player? Is the scouting team even aware? Either way, it would be a huge miss if they don’t make a move this summer.

Thanks to the ease of a potential transfer, I’m rating the chances highly. This one should be a shut-and-closed case if United show intent.

Transfer Chances: 10/10

Final thoughts

In summary, Doucoure has none of the hype, wages and fee of a potential top DM, but he has the progression, consistency, defensive strength and intelligence of one. This is a classic case of ‘hidden gem’. A low-cost transfer and 1-2 years of settling into a system, can iron out the few gaps and make Doucoure a very top DM at his peak.

Technical Fitment: 8/10
Tactical Fitment: 9/10
Transfer Chances: 10/10
Overall Devil’s DNA Score: 9/10

Whom would you like to see covered next from our shortlist?

Bruno Guimarães – 8/10
Maxime Lopez
Ismaël Bennacer
Florian Grillitsch
Aurélien Tchouaméni – 8/10
Cheick Doucouré – 9/10
Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa

(Notes:
1. All playing stats are from Fbref.com
2. All contract information is from Transfermarkt.com
3. All viz are made using Opta data
4. All images are from Getty Images
5. All mentioned data is accurate till May 10th, 2022)

Loan Report: James Garner 21/22

A 4-0 thrashing at the hands of rivals Liverpool, Matic announcing his departure, Pogba getting injured and out for the reason, the sacking of 2 leaders in the scouting system, Erik Ten Hag’s announcement as new manager, Maguire’s family getting a bomb threat – just another week for everyone’s favourite club in red, Manchester United.

Amidst all the chaos, sticking to matters on the pitch, it wasn’t hard to notice that the absence of Fred and McTominay (a pair often slandered on social media for not being good enough) has led United to field midfield combinations that have featured Pogba, Matic, Lingard, Bruno and even Mata, in a midfield 3 in the last 3 games. 4 of those players could be leaving in a month and Bruno is hardly a midfielder strictly speaking. Such is the dire need for midfielders in this United squad.

But where there is management chaos and squad planning failure, there is opportunity. The monumental midfield gap, coupled with requirements in other positions, means that transfers won’t be enough to plug all the holes. How fortunate it is then that United have a 21-year-old midfielder on loan, who has been developing consistently and is now ready to play a part in the senior team.

James Garner has been impressive for Nottingham Forest this season and there are many rumors flying around about Nottingham wanting to keep him and Leeds United wanting to buy him. In this article, I explain why the Red Devils should integrate Garner into Erik Ten Hag’s plans this summer. I analyze Garner’s movement, passing, defending and his fitment into Ten Hag’s system.



Garner’s movement: An engine-like B2B

There has been some debate about Garner’s best role in recent years. He played for a few years at the U23 level for Manchester United as the deepest player in midfield – a classic deep-lying playmaker who dictates the game and shields the defence. This prompted many Manchester United fans to hail him as the second coming of Michael Carrick. 

While he was okay in that role for a while, it was the shift to a more aggressive box-to-box role in 2019 that really saw him come to life. He combined with Greenwood, Elanga and Shoretire to devastating effect for the U23s that season and proved that he had more to offer in an attacking midfield role.

Since then, on his loan spells at Watford and Nottingham Forest, he has retained a similar role often playing as a linker midfield player or a box-to-box locomotive with license to run, roam, create and press, instead of playing a holding role in midfield. His 21/22 season with Forest has confirmed the same movement. Here’s a viz of this season.

Forest have lined up in a 5-2-3 for most part this season with Garner and Yates forming the midfield pivot when fit. Garner usually takes the left-sided CM role with more license to move up and connect with the front 3, while Yates takes up the more defensive RCM role often holding to provide cover when Garner and the wingbacks are caught up. 

Garner’s all actions heat map confirms how active he is all over the pitch. He barely has a red hot zone on the pitch but a lot of blue all over it, showcasing the freedom he gets to roam around the pitch, whether it’s to create in the final 3rd, put pressure in the middle 3rd or defend in his own 3rd. This is a midfielder who isn’t bound to any zones on the pitch and loves to constantly run up and down and also go wide for support.

His pass reception map gives us a stronger clue to the areas he likes to get into when he has to receive the ball from his teammates. There is a clearer insight of his left-leaning role with almost an even split of the red hot zone between receptions in his half during the build up phase and receptions in the opponent half when the team is attacking. The latter zone especially being spread out and including wide areas on the left shows how ready Garner is to go to the wings to provide support during the attack. During attack, he loves drifting into the left half-space area and receiving from his wingback or winger to then turn his body towards goal and obtain the angle to pass or shoot almost like a creative no.10 player.

In summary, Garner’s movement indicates how he doesn’t sit or hold in midfield, but loves to run all over the pitch. This includes build up receptions in his half and almost AM-style wide and high receptions during attack. If we had to assign a name to this role, it would be: box-to-box midfielder.

Garner’s passing: A set-piece demon

Even if his role did change, the fact that Garner is inherently creative hasn’t. What has caught the eye of social media followers are Garner’s videos of an assist or goal which often includes a set piece. It’s unsurprising that both his assists and 3 of his goals this season have all come from set pieces. He is a real threat when it comes to dead-ball situations.


Let’s take a look at his pass maps.

Other than the 2 assists, Garner has created many chances, most of them coming from set pieces. The dozen corners are visible in the viz while some of the balls into the box are also from free kicks.

Other than dead-ball situations, his chances created from open play often originate from the left side of the pitch where he angles in a diagonal ball into the box or towards the right wing, once again confirming his preference to create from the left or central zones like a left-leaning AM during attack.

Moving to the map of his progressive passes, it’s clear to see the variation Garner has. His passing range is good. He is able to provide switches to the opposite wing, through balls to the wide players and long balls to the attackers, when he has time and space. Garner’s progression isn’t the metronome deep-playmaking kind containing short passing and central penetration, but is more like the spreading-the-play kind, where a team moves forward or gets into empty spaces thanks to his game-progressing balls into good advanced areas.

This once again ties in well with our theme of Garner being a box-to-box midfielder who prefers to open up the game and help his team advance, rather than progress from deep and help build up. His set piece threat and creativity in the final third from a left-leaning angle are his main chance creation weapons.

Garner’s defending: Intense and willing participant

From his movement and passing if you expected Garner to be defensively shy, you couldn’t have been more wrong.

The best word to describe Garner’s defending is intense. His constant running isn’t limited to when his team has the ball. He puts in a hard shift when his team doesn’t. What’s particularly impressive is the number of recoveries and the spread of them. Garner is constantly picking up second balls across the pitch. He has a host of clearances in his box and many aerial wins outside the box as well showing one area of his game that has improved massively – his physicality. He’s not shy to get into an aerial duel anymore. 

His tackles, interceptions and challenges especially in the middle third are also impressive, once again showing how far ahead he is willing to go to win the ball back. Garner is a constant presser and is prepared to hunt high and wide for the ball.

If there was some doubt about which type of box-to-box player Garner was – the attacking kind like Pogba or Gundogan or the defensive kind like Fred or Kante – though Garner is capable of playing both roles well, it might be safer to assume given his intensity and ball-winning focus, that he’s closer to the second kind. His days as a DM in the academy have given him a good sense of defensive awareness. While his positioning might not be enough for a holding role, it helps him note the flow of the attack, get stuck in and win the ball back for his team consistently. 

In summary of this section, Garner is a constant presser, runner, tackler and ball-winner in defence, boasting a wide area of operation and various means to win the ball back – something which would fit really well with Erik Ten hag’s pressing ethos and midfield demands.

One aspect that hasn’t been covered so far is his goal-scoring. Most of Garner’s goals are either long-range shots from a left-sided AM position or direct free kicks from distance. He has managed to score 8 goals for Nottingham over the past 1.5 years. 

Fitment for Erik Ten Hag tactics

We have already written a detailed article on Erik Ten Hag’s tactics here. To summarize his formation, he enjoys a sweeper keeper, progressive defenders with 2 fullbacks who invert, holding DM who shields the aggressive defence, 2 intense CMs who offer support to the attack, 2 inverted wingers who provide width and one CF capable of linking play with the front 5. Assuming Ten Hag recreates much of the current Ajax tactic to United next season, the main candidates for the B2B CM role (Gravenberch currently) and AM role (Berghuis currently) are probably Fred and Bruno respectively. The anchor man DM role (Alvarez currently) is a real head-scratcher and probably needs a new signing instead of risking McTominay there.

Among these 3 midfield options from all that we have discussed so far, Garner would fit best in the B2B role. He has the pressing intensity, ability to link play from defence to attack and movement to connect with the front 3, to pull off that role to perfection. The AM role could be a nice second option since Garner additionally has the creativity and shooting threat to contribute there as well. The DM role needing high levels of positioning, transition defence and physicality, makes that a far 3rd choice option in case of an emergency need. 

So, in summary a rotation option for Fred and Bruno would probably suit him the most. In an ideal world, McTominay and Mejbri also should be competing for the same 2 roles as backup as well. This leads to the major ask for the window to be the DM United have been crying out for for 2+ years now. If United can buy a consistent DM and integrate Garner for the advanced midfield roles, the current paper-thin midfield could start looking strong really quick.

What happens next

A lot still depends on whether Manchester United include Garner in the squad next year. Garner still has a contract until 2024, with the option of an extension, so there is no danger of losing him for free or cheap anytime soon. A few weeks ago, Phil Hay of the Athletic mentioned the possibility of Leeds signing Manchester United’s James Garner, despite the rivalry between the clubs.


“It’ll be interesting to see who Leeds target. James Garner, the Manchester United midfielder who’s on loan at Nottingham Forest in the Championship and having a very good year, is someone I’ve heard mentioned recently,” Hay told The Athletic.

This is the latest rumor in a line of many over the past few months with outlets like Telegraph and DailyMail carrying stories of strong interest from Leeds United to bolster their midfield in the coming summer with James Garner.

In an interview with Footballleagueworld, transfer guru Dean Jones reflected that the Englishman would intend to continue as starter wherever he goes next. “Garner’s having a great time this season, and he doesn’t want to be on the fringes anywhere else at the moment. He’s shown his value, and he wants to kick on next season and be a big part of a team, wherever that is.”

If United are unable to convince one of their brightest academy midfield prospects of the last decade to be a part of the senior team setup, especially when their midfield badly needs some bodies and he fits really well in Ten Hag’s philosophy, it would be a real shame.

Scout Report: Darwin Nunez

Charles Darwin put together his ‘Theory of Evolution’ in 1869. What he didn’t know is that 153 years later and 11,000 kilometres apart, another guy with the same name will be making a mark for himself in another profession, justifying the theory put forward by Charles. And this guy goes by the name of Darwin Núñez. 

Before this takes a turn towards a thesis on evolution, let’s take a look at current media darling and Benfica forward Núñez’ career and how he has burst onto the scene, with the likes of PSG, Chelsea and Manchester United being frontrunners for his signature this summer.

Player Profile

From the likes of Luis Suarez to Diego Forlan to Edison Cavani to Enzo Francescoli to Alvaro Recoba to Gus Poyet, Darwin Núñez is in the pipeline with the potential to become not only one of the best Uruguayan forwards but one of the best forwards in the world. 

Born in Artigas (named after the Liberator of Latin America: Jose Gervasio Artigas Arnal), 550 km south of Montevideo, Darwin joined the famed academy of Penarol. He suffered a couple of serious knee injuries in his development years in the academy, but still progressed through the ranks and eventually made his debut for the first team, coming on for Maxi Rodriguez in a 2-1 loss against River Plate Montevideo. Although he managed just 14 appearances for his beloved Penarol, scoring 4 goals in the process, he attracted the attention of a host of clubs in Europe. He eventually ended up in the South of Spain in the province of Andalusia. Almeria CF, who plied their trade in Segunda Division snapped him up beating a host of Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and German teams in the process thanks to their good relationship with Penarol. A modest fee of €13 million (because the club is bankrolled by the Saudi Arabian Government) was enough for Darwin to pack his bags and start his European journey, becoming the record sale for a teenager in Uruguay and the costliest transfer in the 2nd division of Spain.

A 16-goal haul in just 30 appearances was enough to earn him a move to Benfica worth €24 million, again becoming the costliest buy in Portuguese League history and biggest sale from the Spanish 2nd division, that too in a period where world was hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Darwin’s start in Benfica wasn’t one he expected. A couple of injuries and getting infected by the Coronavirus kept him on the sidelines and there was no regular, consistent playing time in the first few months. But this period of transition helped him evolve and improve his physical self. 

His second season in Lisbon has proven to be the breakthrough at the big stage. Consistent playing time coupled with playing in his preferred spaces on the pitch has seen him score goals consistently. He has been praised for his off the ball movement and defensive work rate: culminating the fact that he has come from the land fabled for indigenous Charrua people. Him being Uruguayan automatically means that he is the epitome of “Garra Charrua”: no matter what the odds and what adversities are existing, there is sheer tenacity to take on any obstacle head-on and come home as victors. 

Playing Style

Darwin has evolved into a well-rounded forward, carrying the lineage of his Uruguayan ancestors and combining that mentality with the modern game. His athletic frame – upright in posture, defined in shape, rangy in length – is his distinguishing feature. Excellent acceleration and sprinting speed is the defining facet of his athletic skill set. His athleticism is a game-changer and is only enhanced by incisive movement and intelligent instincts.

I will now look more at the tactical instructions and the player’s strengths and weaknesses which has made him a hot property, combining my analysis with data and visualizations from our good friend Anuraag (Twitter: @Anuraag027. Check his work out if you haven’t). 

Benfica have used a host of formations under Jorge Jesus and Nelson Verissimo – 4-4-2, 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, 3-5-2, 3-4-3. Darwin has played in a number of roles – as a primary forward, with him being the focal point of the game in counter-attacking situations or on the left flank, interchanging positions with the Ukrainian Romain Yaremchuk or playing off the shoulder of talented Second-Striker/Attacking Midfielder Goncalo Ramos. 

Núñez doesn’t restrict himself to remaining in the central channel. Whilst he can play in this space, working the centre-backs, and running into central channels, Núñez looks to explore wider spaces.

In doing so, he can find space to receive where he can provide a line-breaking pass option, but he can also draw the opposition defenders well out of position as he does this. Núñez doesn’t frequently use the width of the pitch to provide an option during build-up play but regularly shifts into these areas to act as a creator sometimes. Núñez shows quality in 1v1 duels as a dribbler too. This season he has averaged 6.05 dribbles per 90 and has completed 50% of these. He usually doesn’t overdo the dribble. He instead releases the ball quickly after beating an opponent.

Núñez is able to play quick touches away from defenders and can comfortably play one touch passes, however, he also shows an ability to hold up possession. He backs into defenders effectively and uses his full frame to protect the ball when doing this. Núñez has the ability to create enough space to turn in tight areas. He rolls defenders easily using the frame to get across them and allow the ball to roll past him, shielding the ball as he turns. He scans with frequency and his awareness of space for himself or the positioning of others is well beyond his young age.His natural tendency to drift leftwards which makes him more efficient as a wide forward at times. A player of his quality is a real threat on counter-attacks where his athletic frame and speed plus acceleration is a real menace to deal with on defensive transitions for the opposition’s high defensive line. 

In the above visualization, it can be clearly seen that the majority of his touches are in the left half space. Neither are they deep and wide enough to be classified as a LW movement nor are they central enough to be classified as a proper Center Forward. His progressive carries also confirm this aspect. He prefers to drift to the left and take on players using the angle for his preferred right foot.

Finishing is one facet of the game which requires a lot of improvement if he is to become a lethal finisher for a top team. Despite getting into brilliant positions, thanks to his great off-the-ball movement coupled with a burst of pace, he doesn’t have the calm and composure to regularly put the ball past the keeper yet. He is a volume shooter who ends up getting into good positions, but he is yet to master his aggression where it matters the most – in front of the goal. This aggression ends up getting the better of him at times during one vs one situations. 

In comparison to his single season in Spain and his first season in Portugal, Darwin has shown some signs to improve this aspect of his game with some improvement seen this season. He now takes more shots where he tries to bury the ball into the corner, may it be top one or bottom one instead of hitting straight at the keeper or taking an extra touch.

Once again, from the visualization, it can be clearly seen that his pass reception is also very left half-space dominated but the verticality and box presence should also be noted. It is much closer to a striker’s pass reception map than a winger’s, just a very left-leaning one. His shot map is a bit more well spread and 20 non-penalty goals from 71 shots is a good return for sure. He comfortably sits at the top of the Primeira Liga scoring charts with 24 goals, 9 ahead of the next best scorer. There are goals in this exciting forward, especially if he keeps improving his composure and if a team plays to his strengths like Benfica have done this year.

Tactical Fitment

A failed bid of €50 million on deadline day in January 2022 by West Ham United apparently sparked something inside Darwin, who recently changed his agent, aligning with one of the agencies run by super-agent Jorge Mendes. There is a reason why Chelsea, Paris St. Germain and Manchester United are frontrunners when it comes to Darwin’s signature this summer (As per the reliable David Ornstein).

But does Manchester United need yet another left-leaning wide forward who likes to play on the break? United have been trying to align to a more structured possession-based game for a few years, and this will be even more true if the Erik Ten Hag rumours come through. The squad already has Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, Anthony Elanga and Cristiano Ronaldo who all prefer the left wing or left half-space at the very least. The team badly needs a proper right winger and a Central Forward who provides central box presence and hold up, something which Ronaldo has struggled to do all year despite his intermittent goal-scoring. Núñez is neither of those and given his personality and traits, he would naturally drift to the left and utilize his pace, physicality and right-footed angle to beat defenders and take shots. It might be quite similar to Marcus Rashford when he plays striker for United.

At a reported price of a whopping €80m, when United have many glaring issues to sort, not only in the squad but in the day-to-day running of the club, it probably doesn’t make any sense to go for Darwin Núñez. This would quickly become yet another example of mis-profiling players and getting caught in the over-the-top hype created by media and fans. United should turn their efforts to scouting attackers that fit their needs instead of getting caught up in this high profile chase.

Final call: This is one transfer United should simply side step without thought. As good as Núñez is, It doesn’t make sense from a financial or tactical angle.

Summary

In summary, Núñez has the tools to grow into a brilliant striker and the mentality to adapt to new tactical setups and new cultures. He commands a big asking price given his red-hot form and potential. He now has Jorge Mendes as his agent who can broker deals for even dead players. Benfica have a healthy period of time (Darwin signed a 5-year contract with the club in 2020) to earn a hefty profit, knowing that he is attracting the interest of the elites. An absence from the Champions League may just push them to cash in on him. 

Football has become very cut-throat as an industry at the top level. If you are paid top bucks, you are expected to deliver instant goods. Darwin still needs a year or two to ease into that transition to a top team as of now – time which he will not get at those top clubs if he moves straight away. 

As his namesake suggests, it all comes back to “Survival of the Fittest.”