At the time of the writing of this article, Manchester United have embarked on their pre-season tour with only 1 summer signing finalized – Tyrell Malacia. The aggressive rebuild isn’t really going as per plan and to make matters worse, the red side of Manchester has been shaken by Cristiano Ronaldo’s absence from pre-season due to “a family issue”. Rumors say that the Portuguese is looking for a way out of the club in a bid to play Champions League football next season – something that really doesn’t come as a big surprise, knowing the man. Regardless of where you stand on the Ronaldo debate, one thing is clear – United need a proper center-forward who suits Ten Hag’s style.
Over the past 3 years, the club has brought in 32-year-old Ighalo, 34-year-old Edinson Cavani and 36-year-old Ronaldo in the name of a top center-forward. Martial’s inconsistency and the declining status of these signings has meant that the club hasn’t seen a consistent central forward presence since Lukaku under Jose Mourinho. Even if Ronaldo hadn’t shaken the boat, his age and limitations to be able to play as a well-rounded center-forward that can spearhead an Erik Ten Hag attack, mean that United should be looking hard for a young/peak CF anyway. Rangnick even mentioned that Ronaldo himself indicated that he’s better playing off a proper CF in a front 2, although given the latest circumstances, a direct replacement and upgrade on Ronaldo is probably the best course of action for the club.
United need a long-term CF and in today’s piece, I’m going to use data to create a shortlist for the same and cover the top 6 options in detail. Let’s get into it.
Creating the Shortlist
I’ve done this a few times now in case you caught our CM, RB or RW shortlist before. I’m going to keep this part short in the interest of spending more time with our shortlisted candidates.
1. I downloaded data from Fbref for all outfield players in Europe
2. I converted all stats to ‘per 50 touches’ to better represent what the players do in possession
3. I filtered in players labeled as ‘Center-forward’ or ‘Support-striker’ as per Transfermarkt
4. I filtered in players who have played at least 20 league 90s in 21/22
5. I created percentiles within this dataset to order all relevant stats from 0 to 100 percentile
5. I used a weighted formula to create a score from the relevant stat percentiles to rank our desired profiles
Further expanding on point 5, these are the stats I used to create the weighted score:
NpxG – 20% weightage
Pressures – 15% weightage
xA – 15% weightage
Shots – 15% weightage
Progressive passes received – 10% weightage
NpxG/Shot – 10% weightage
Possession losses – 10% weightage
Aerial Win % – 5% weightage
Our first responsibility is to find a great goalscorer. ‘NpxG’, ‘Shots’ and ‘NpxG/Shot’ together almost make up half the overall score in terms of weight. This will ensure we get a top goal threat who can get into the box regularly, take shots created by playmakers like Bruno, Shaw and Sancho and deliver high non-penalty output. We also want someone who moves well in the attacking third and receives a lot, which is why ‘Progressive passes received’ is a factor. ‘xA’ denotes our need for someone with a good final ball to also be able to play in the wingers or oncoming midfielders when possible. Our pressing structure woes are well documented and the addition of Ronaldo and Sancho and departure of Daniel James were big reasons why the high press completely failed in 21/22. We can’t afford that again, so the new CF has to be a decent presser. Finally, he should be able to keep possession losses to a minimum (this guarantees a good level of close control and decision making in the final third) and be decent aerially, since Ten Hag does like to use his CF as an aerial out-ball from time to time.
With an additional age filter to keep in players under the age of 27, when sorted by weighted score, this is what we ended up with:
Going by vibes as well, if someone said Erling Haaland is the type of CF United need (Ole certainly seemed to think so 2 years ago), then our formula is on the right track. Next, I filtered out players who will not move to United at this point (like Haaland) or do not play CF (like Moffi).
Our list is starting to shape up nicely. A final requirement for filtering can be seen here, though. We don’t want a player who is poor in a certain aspect. Eg. Schick and Isak are at the bottom 20 percentile for pressures and David, for Aerial Win %. We’ve already discussed how the new CF cannot be poor in these aspects. I used a minimum 20 percentile filter on each stat.
This rounds up our shortlist neatly to 6 options. This seems good for now. Let’s get into the details of each candidate.
Before we get into the shortlisted 6, I want to post 2 profiles to preface an understanding of what we want to upgrade on and what the ideal candidate could look like.
Firstly, Cristiano Ronaldo.
While Ronaldo’s goal-scoring was decent, his profile is littered with issues that hold the team back. The biggest one being pressing. His ‘Pressures’ reading 0 percentile is indicative of him being the worst presser in Europe in our dataset of center-forwards and support-strikers who have played at least 20 league 90s. His pressure success is also average. His passing stats paint him as someone too uncreative to assist others, a safe pass % being the only pro. Ronaldo being average for ‘Npxg/Shot’ and ‘Progressive Passes Received’ also hints at his poor CF movement to receive the ball in dangerous areas close to goal, with him often drifting off to the left or deep to take low quality shots from distance.
Next, as a contrast, let’s look at Erling Haaland’s profile, who ranked highest in the set before the realism filters.
While Haaland’s shooting and goal-scoring are world-class (which is the biggest reason he ranked so highly for us given the extra weightage for shooting stats), he looks good for many other metrics too. His final ball is deceptively strong, with this ability to pick out a key pass the reason he has 8 and 10 assists in his last 2 seasons. His excellent ‘Progressive passes received” and “Aerial Win %” indicate his strong box presence and option to be a consistent target. While his pressures applied are below average, he makes up with a high pressure success, which indicates a willingness to wait patiently for the right moment to win the ball for a turnover. He’s not a great dribbler though, which probably indicates you just can’t have everything. As long as most of the boxes are ticked and there is a fitment with the existing setup, it can work.
With this in mind, let’s begin the breakdown for each of our shortlisted candidates in order of the weighted score.
Club: Inter Milan
Position: CF, SS
Foot: Right (84% usage)
Contract ends: June, 2026
Current market value: £72m
Rumored transfer value: £60m to £90m
Even though he’s still just 24, Lautaro already feels like a household name in Europe following 3 back-to-back seasons of 25+ goal contributions as a key starter for Inter Milan, which include 3 trophies as well. Whether it’s under Conte or Inzaghi or when paired with Lukaku or Dzeko, Lautaro delivers. And 21/22 has just been his best season yet. Prying him away from Inter is a costly affair given his form and status, but given the financial constraints of the Italian club, and Lukaku and potentially Dybala returning, a strong bid could satisfy all parties.
Strengths: Probably the most well-rounded striker for his age, Lautaro boasts immense shooting skills with his goal threat among the best in the list. One of the reasons he’s a great finisher is because of his intense concentration and consistency. He rarely misses chances and is very aware of what’s happening on the pitch all the time. He has a very ‘precision over power’ approach to his shooting. He’s also a decent shot-creator and safe passer, given his experience in operating in deeper areas. He’s able to drop deep, hold the ball with his back to goal and facilitate others cleanly with smart one-touch passes or disguised passes. In the attacking phase, he has amazing movement to be able to run the channels, provide final man runs and get into the box to create shots for himself as well. He is really quick and really adept in tight spaces. His metrics for ‘NpxG/Shot’ and ‘Progressive passes received’ would have been more if he wasn’t sharing attacking duties with a more advanced striker. His movements on transitions and while breaking down low blocks are so good, that he’s always at the right place at the right time to unlock the defense, create a gap, find a teammate or fashion himself a shooting chance. He’s also deceptively strong in the air, finishing many chances with his head and having the ability to win aerial duels for his teammates. His ‘Aerial Win %’ only reads low thanks to the high amount of aerial duels he engages in.
Weaknesses: Lautaro is comfortable as a left-sided striker in a front 2. As a natural right-footer, he finds the left-sided angle to pass and carry easier. This adds to a plethora of United attackers who also have a left-sided bias. He’s well rounded enough to pull off a lone striker role, but the evenness to be able to progress and facilitate play on either side from a central position at all times, is in doubt. He also needs to be more aggressive in racking up high xG chances closer to goal, but this could largely be due to him being partnered with a more advanced striker so far.
Overall Devil’s DNA Score: 9.5/10
Club: Clermont Foot
Foot: Right (88% usage)
Contract ends: June, 2024
Current market value: £10.8m
Rumored transfer value: £8m to £12m
I can guarantee that no one would have guessed Bayo of Clermont Foot was making our shortlist when this process began. And it’s not anyone’s fault. Until 2021, Bayo was playing in the second division of France. A youth product of Clermont, Bayo needed reserve team games and loan spells until the age of 22 to develop himself. In 20/21, he made the starting spot his own and helped his hometown achieve Ligue 1 promotion via 22 goals and 7 assists. In 21/22, he followed this up with another stellar season of 14 goals and 5 assists in 27 starts to help Clermont escape relegation. This has led to him being courted by stronger clubs in Europe this summer. The rumors include Everton looking at him as a Richarlison replacement and West Ham considering him as competition to Antonio, but recent reports have seen Lille lead the race.
Strengths: Clermont only scored 38 league goals this season, 37% of which have been scored by Bayo, showing his importance as a goal threat to the relegation-battling side. Bayo’s best trait is his movement. He is constantly running, looking for spaces in the opponent backline and gets at the end of chances consistently. His high values for ‘NPxG’ and ‘NPxg/Shot’ indicate a striker who gets into good positions and takes high value shots. He has a very strong one-touch finish and is very skilled at close-range finishes, often aiming for the roof of the net with power to give goalkeepers no chance. He’s also a strong dribbler, using his agility and pace to beat opponents rather than technique or flair. He also has a good final ball, boasting 12 assists in 2 years.
Weaknesses: Bayo isn’t very technically gifted. He looks good as the sharp and pacey outlet for a counter-attacking unit (which makes the West Ham rumors make so much sense) but the ability to play back to goal and showcase close control against crowded low blocks for a possession-based team, is in doubt. His pressing and aerial prowess are also not too great, which greatly limit what he can do when the team doesn’t have the ball. While he could prove to be an upgrade in terms of consistent movement and box presence that Ronaldo doesn’t offer, much of the other limitations of the veteran could be repeated with Bayo. If Ronaldo does stay for a year or United are unable to close a better striker, Bayo could serve as a cheap pick up who offers poacher traits that the attack currently doesn’t have, but might need upgrading on with a starter-level forward in a year.
Overall Devil’s DNA Score: 7/10
Foot: Right (82% usage)
Contract ends: June, 2023
Current market value: £45m
Rumored transfer value: £10m to £20m
Moussa’s strong 21/22 (22 goals and 5 assists in 31 starts) couple with his contract situation (1 year left) and the arrival of Lacazatte on a free transfer, have meant that the 25 year-old has seen himself be linked to many clubs, like Southampton, for as less as £10m. But, the player recently announced that he wished to stay, among rumors that Bosz could field both Lacazatte and Moussa in a front 2 for the coming season. A bid from a big club, especially if Moussa finds himself benched for the high-profile Lacazatte, could change all that very quickly.
Strengths: Playing the CF in Lyon’s 4-2-3-1 for most of the 21/22 season, Moussa’s best traits paint him as a strong poacher. His 4 shooting stats, ‘Progressve Passes Received’ metric and ‘Aerial Win %’ collectively scream of his ability to be a great mover in the final third, an amazing outlet with box presence and a superb finisher. He is among the best runners-in-behind in world football and has a very central tendency to his movement unlike many left-biased right-footed strikers. His great acceleration and composure in front of goal make him frustrating to stop. He’s already had 4 20+ goal seasons before turning 26. He’s also really good at in-to-out and out-to-in movements, leading defenders away from their positions to create space for himself or a teammate. Before his loan move to Atletico, 93% of his goals had come from inside the box. Can liken him to someone like Jamie Vardy.
Weaknesses: Moussa is at his best when facing the goal. He’s limited when it comes to back-to-goal play and can lose the ball when pressured in crowded areas. He’s not really progressive, either via passing or carrying, and can’t be called extremely safe in his close control either. Dembele shone when Lyon had creators like Fekir and Ndombele feeding him constantly from midfield, but after their departure and the emergence of good movers in the attack like Ekambi and Kadewere, a lot of Moussa’s traits didn’t seem critical enough, often leading to him being dropped. He did win back his place eventually, but the caveats of his success as a player relying heavily on his movement and the requirement of the team to be very service-oriented to get the best out of him, needs to be noted. With United overloading creators like Eriksen and De Jong to help Bruno and Sancho, a service-demanding and low ball-affinity CF like Dembele could work a charm, but a second CF option who provides what Moussa cannot (maybe Martial?), might have to be considered as well.
Overall Devil’s DNA Score: 7.5/10
Foot: Right (90% usage)
Contract ends: June, 2026
Current market value: £45m
Rumored transfer value: £67m to £90m
Becoming a great advert for English youngsters finding Serie A as a developmental home, Tammy has grown from his Chelsea days into a much more well-rounded and impactful striker, boasting 27 goals and 5 assists in 48 starts in 21/22. Chelsea have a buyback option of €80m (£67m), but Tammy’s insistence of being happy at Roma and Roma’s demands of a €100m fee make this seem like a tough transfer. But with the constant links with Premier League sides like Arsenal and Man United and rumors of Tammy being open to return to his home country, a mouth-watering bid has the potential to see the striker return to England.
Strengths: Tammy’s goal-scoring is world-class. Even before the Roma move, his values for ‘Goals’, ‘NpxG’ and ‘NpxG/Shot’ were always superb, on a per 90 basis. He’s now just gotten a full season to see them translate to top-class season numbers. His shot quality has always been a hallmark and he ranks the best for ‘NpxG/Shot’ in our dataset. This refers to his ability to get into very good areas and take high value shots close to the goal. Good movement and positioning, whether it’s to get into the box between defenders or to get at the end of a searching ball or to pick the space to receive when the team is attacking in transition – Tammy has a natural flair for purposeful movement. Tammy receives 20% of his passes inside the box while 48% of his touches in the box lead to a shot. These highlight what a strong central box presence he is. While not really creative, Tammy has the strength to hold off defenders, play back-to-goal and lay off quick one-touch passes to advancing teammates. He also has the ability to release wide players in transition if the space is there, being more progressive in his passing than one might imagine. He’s very diligent in tracking back and covering passing lanes during the opposition build-up – things he has learnt well under Jose Mourinho.
Weaknesses: Tammy isn’t the fastest on the ground, his height and lanky frame taking off some acceleration. He has a tendency to drift in and out of games, often coming to life in decisive moments, but also seemingly going missing in other moments. His hold up play and ball control, especially in deeper areas of the pitch, can do with improvement. He’s efficient and neat but the requirements of technical play when far from goal and faced with low blocks, might be tough on him in a possession-based side. Tammy’s carrying is below average, with the player often opting for a quick pass instead of carrying towards goal. This means that he needs to be supported well in attack and cannot be expected to keep hold of the ball for long using close control, until teammates arrive.
Overall Devil’s DNA Score: 9/10
Foot: Right (90% usage)
Contract ends: June, 2025
Current market value: £58.5m
Rumored transfer value: £70m to £90m
Like Lautaro Martinez, even at the young age of 23, Osihmen already feels like an established star, boasting double-digit goals for 4 consecutive seasons now, the last 2 being at Napoli. His 21/22 season ended with 18 goals and 2 assists in 26 starts. Napoli signed the Nigerian for a club record fee of potentially €80m. The chances of them letting go of their prized possession for anything less than that amount, considering he has 3 more years left on his contract, are slim.
Strengths: Physically, Osihmen is probably the most impressive striker in our list. His height, strength, pace, agility and energy speak of a combination that is really rare to find. This leads to him getting to the ball often – whether it’s a dynamic leap or a burstful run across the ground or a sprint across the opposition box – Osihmen is usually there, outmuscling or outrunning opponents with a childish ease. His speed and acceleration enable him to make start-stop or direction-changing runs that are hard to track. He’s also really adept at carrying, using his physical traits to power through with the ball, when faced with defenders. His hold up and close control are also strong, thanks to the combination of his physical traits and ball control technique. Similar to Lukaku, he’s easily able to hold defenders off, shield the ball and play it off to his teammate without losing it. His high IQ movement is the reason for his high ‘Progressive passes received’ stat. He is adept at finishing from his head as well as left foot.
Weaknesses: Most glaringly, Osimhen is yet to cross 33 starts in a season. His 2 seasons for Napoli have seen 19 and 26 starts in all competitions, respectively. Repetitive injuries of different nature have plagued the player. While his scoring rate is great on a per 90 basis, he is still yet to cross 18 goals a season, thanks to his fitness record. Also, Osihmen isn’t really creative on the ball. He’s not a great passer and is poor at progression and creation from passes. His strong carrying and physical ability to hold the ball until he can pick out a straightforward pass, is what helps him keep the game going, but don’t expect him to create for others.
Overall Devil’s DNA Score: 8.5/10
Foot: Right (91% usage)
Contract ends: June, 2026
Current market value: £26m
Rumored transfer value: £40m to £50m
With his imposing frame, eye-catching tattoos and excellence for Sassuolo this season, Scamacca’s potential movement to a Champions League club has been one of the stories of the summer. With various clubs linked at many points, the consensus seems to be that Paris Saint-Germain have got their man for €50m. But with the deal still not official, one can never rule out anything. I mean, what if PSG target the frustrated Ronaldo, leaving Scamacca open to join United? A man can dream.
Strengths: Scamacca’s most noticeable trait is his imposing 6’5” frame. Likened to Zlatan, the Italian is very strong in the air, but combines that physicality with a good first touch and close control. He probably has the best hold up and close control in our list. Scamacca can pluck balls out of thin air, bring them down with finesse, shield it against defenders and then find a teammate easily. He is very versatile in terms of contribution in open play, having the ability to run the channels or wide areas, stay in the box like a target man or drop deep to help connect play. While not being too creative, Scamacca is a very aware and deceitfully skillful shot creator utilizing smart flicks, dummies, tap-downs, cutbacks, through balls and crosses to find his teammates in good situations. He also has a wonderful shooting technique, able to rifle it from distance or tap it in precisely from close-range.
Weaknesses: His great shooting technique and eagerness to do too much, make him take some bad shooting decisions, especially from distance. He’ll often be found releasing one from afar, when a better choice could have been made. This is the reason for his below average ‘NPxG/Shot’. Scamacca doesn’t have the poaching pedigree of some of the others on our list. This is the first time in his career he has got double digit league goals, while his profile feels a bit too well-rounded and all-over-the-place at times, which might not be ideal for a club wanting a consistent goal threat capable of being the league’s top scorer.
Overall Devil’s DNA Score: 8/10
A final summary of our summer 2022 CF shortlist:
|1||Lautaro Martinez||Inter||24||Movement, Mentals, Finishing, Link-up||Left-sided bias, Untested as lone CF||9.5|
|2||Tammy Abraham||Roma||24||Movement, Finishing, Transition game||Hold up, Consistency, Creativity||9|
|3||Victor Osimhen||Napoli||23||Physicals, Movement, Carrying||Fitness, Passing, Creativity||8.5|
|4||Gianluca Scamacca||Sassuolo||23||Hold up, Versatility, Technique||Shooting decisions, Poaching, Final ball||8|
|5||Moussa Dembele||Lyon||25||Movement, Finishing, Proven||Hold up, Creativity, Need for service, Progression||7.5|
|6||Mohamed Bayo||Clermont Foot||24||Movement, Finishing, Agility||Hold up, Technique, Defending||7|
Roughly speaking, the summary implies that if United want a top CF for years to come, they’re gonna have to pay up. Either of Lautaro, Tammy and Osimhen would prove to be a costly affair. Given their skill sets, it seems like a big swing for the Inter Milan man makes most sense for United. A low-price pickup for Dembele or Bayo would prove to be very cost-effective and immediately give United the poacher option they are missing, but might require an upgrade again in a year or two. These 2 players could work in tandem with Ronaldo or Martial or any future CF. Scamacca, on the other hand, offers something different at a decent price and could be really instrumental in bringing others into play in a unified attack.
All said and done, there are good options. United should ideally take advantage of the Ronaldo uproar and start looking at some of these names as a replacement. They need to do it anyway, whether it’s now or next year. A 37 year-old fading limited striker is not the face of a youth-focused rebuild. United need to go for the inevitable upgrade. The more they delay it, the lesser the options remain in the market, an effect we have seen when it comes to getting a defensive midfielder.
Thanks for reading so far. If there are any specific requests that are linked to United, please inform us and we can do them separately.