The last time I did a CF shortlist exercise in the summer of 2022, the idea was to replace an aging Cristiano Ronaldo, who was missing from pre-season due to personal reasons. About 6 months later, after a walkout, a public interview against the manager and a contract termination, we are back in the same place. Only this time, it’s in a more precarious situation, bang in the middle of a season, right after a tiring World Cup, with everything to play for in the remainder of the season. Manchester United need a striker again, and the requirement is further complicated by objectives of the current season while keeping the future of the club in mind.
Well, it’s time to uncomplicate it. Today, I’ll take a look at data from Europe’s Top 7 leagues (One of the best things about Opta taking over fbref) to create, not one, but two shortlists: a short-term list focussing on targets for January that can do an immediate job and a long-term list of candidates who can carry the great burden of leading the line at Old trafford for the next decade. Let’s get into it.
Creating the Shortlist
I’ve done this a few times now in case you caught my previous CF, CM, RB or RW shortlist exercises. I’m going to keep this part short in the interest of spending more time on our shortlisted candidates.
These are the stats I used to create the weighted score:
NpxG – 10% weightage
NpxG/Shot – 10% weightage
Shots – 10% weightage
Shots on target % – 10% weightage
Pass Completion % – 10% weightage
xA – 10% weightage
Penalty area touches – 10% weightage
Miscontrols – 5% weightage
Dispossessed – 5% weightage
Progressive passes received – 10% weightage
Aerials won – 5% weightage
Aerial win % – 5% weightage
Explanation: Our first responsibility is to find a great goalscorer. ‘NpxG’, ‘Shots’, ‘Shots on target %’ and ‘NpxG/Shot’ together almost make up half the weighted score. This will ensure we get a top goal threat who can get into the box regularly, take shots created by playmakers like Bruno, Shaw and Eriksen and deliver high non-penalty output. We also want someone who moves well in the attacking third and receives a lot, which is why ‘Progressive passes received’ is a factor. ‘xA’ denotes our need for someone with a good final ball to also be able to play in the wingers or oncoming midfielders when possible. He should be able to keep possession losses to a minimum (this ensures a good level of close control and decision making which indirectly indicates good hold up play) which is why ‘Pass Completion %’, ‘Miscontrols’ and ‘Dispossessed’ have been taken. Finally, he needs to be decent aerially, since Ten Hag does like to use his CF as an aerial out-ball from time to time.
Now, onto the calculations.
1. I downloaded data from fbref for all outfield players in Europe
2. I converted all stats to per 90 versions and then possession-adjusted them to better reflect the stats assuming a 50% squad possession across the board
3. I filtered in players labeled as ‘FWD’, basically forwards
4. I filtered in players who have played at least 4 league 90s in 22/23 (I’ve kept this low mainly for the short-term list to uncover backup strikers who aren’t playing much but have done well in limited gametime)
5. I created percentiles within this dataset to order all relevant stats from 0 to 100 percentile
6. I used a weighted formula to create a score from the relevant stat percentiles to rank our desired profiles
7. Finally, in a new addition to my usual method, I give 25% weightage to UEFA league coefficients and 75% to the above weighted score to create a final score
Here’s what we get:
Going by vibes as well, if someone said that Erling Haaland is the type of CF United need, then our formula is on the right track. Kylian Mbappe being 2nd confirms it.
Next, I filtered out players who are impossible to sign (like Mbappe and Nunez) and those who don’t play CF regularly as per transfermarkt positions (like Fati and Gnabry). FYI Cody Gakpo got cut due to the second criteria because…..he’s not a CF! Anyways, not our problem anymore.
From the remaining list, I create two shortlists:
- Long term: Aged under 27 + Played at least 7 league 90s in 22/23
- Short term: Aged above 27 + Haven’t joined their club recently
Let’s take a look at the long-term list first along with some contract and rumored fee details:
Brian Brobbey leads the pack based on the ‘Final Score’. At the young age of 20, while having a strong link to Erik Ten Hag, the striker recently admitted that playing for Manchester United is a dream. The big issue is that he signed for Ajax only in summer 2022 and has a 5-year contract that makes him “not available” for a while, at least.
That takes us to the remaining targets, all of whom represent good options. Let’s run through some of them.
Long-term Option 1: Marcus Thuram
Recent History: Aged 25, Thuram has started as CF in Gladbach’s 4-2-3-1 tactic 17 times this season and has bagged an incredible 13 goals and 4 assists in this period. He has played a lot of LW in his career but has slowly been making the shift to CF. In the 3 seasons before this one, his playing time between LW and CF was almost split equally, but towards the end of last season, he began playing as a striker consistently and was rewarded with a World Cup 2022 call-up ahead of Anthony Martial.
Pros: Having played as a winger for most of his developing years, Thuram is a strong dribbler who not only attempts many dribbles, but is also very successful in beating his man. Last season, he was in the top 10 percentile both for dribbles attempted and dribble success in the Bundesliga. Even as a striker, this year he’s in the top 20 percentile for both. His off-the-ball movement is very strong, highlighted by his strong xG and shot numbers. He gets many shots away from good areas of the pitch thanks to either his strong dribbling or good movement to get behind the defence line, which is something United need. His best work comes as an outlet in transitions, which has proved very important for Untied in recent times and might continue to do so with Bruno and Rashford in the team. In that sense, Thuram fits right in.
Cons: He isn’t really a creative player. His lowest percentile among the metrics we used was for xA. His ability to play back-to-goal against settled low blocks is not poor, but not great either. In the Bundesliga, he is able to enjoy more moments in transition where he’s deadly in comparison to navigating against a rest defence with hold-up play and passing sense. He’s also average aerially and an okay-ish defender from the front.
Verdict: All in all, this probably doesn’t make him as ideal a CF target as our score initially predicted, but with his contract ending in June 2023 and Gladbach looking for a final opportunity to cash in, he could be available for as cheap as €20m this January or for free in the summer, which could pave the way for a more top-tier CF profile later or help with money for other key areas to invest in. In that sense, this probably ends up looking more like a good affordable rotation option with potential resale value, rather than a world-class line leading CF.
Devil’s DNA Score: 5/10
Long-term Option 2: Lois Openda
Recent History: Openda burst onto the scene with an impressive 21/22 campaign for Vitesse, where he bagged 24 goals and 5 assists in 44 appearances, only bested by Sebastian Haller for goals in the league. This prompted RC Lens to splash out €9.80m for his services. Playing the lone CF in Lens’ 3-4-3 this season, Openda has continued his form with 7 goals in 11 starts. His rise has been so remarkable, that the likes of Leicester and Milan have him on their radar for summer 2023.
Pros: He is an excellent dribbler. This helps him play on the wing too. Whether he is attacking centrally or from the sides, he effortlessly dribbles the ball around and gets it on his strong foot, before passing it to a teammate or taking a shot. He offers a lot of transition threat and rarely disappoints with his finishing ability. He is in the top 5 percentile for shots, shots on target and NPxG in Ligue 1, which highlights his ability in front of goal at just the age of 22. He wins a lot of set-pieces for the team since he gets fouled very often. The defenders usually can’t cope with his acceleration.
Cons: In terms of weaknesses, Openda likes to play on the ground and is weak in the air. There are question marks over his back-to-goal play as well. He also gets caught offside often, which shows a slight need of maturity in movement. He’s also not the safest passer in the world, often attempting ambitious passes to teammates which don’t always execute well, but this makes him a decent final ball player and is the main reason he has 9 assists in the last 1.5 years.
Verdict: Overall, Openda represents another reasonable <€50m option for the summer, with a much larger upside and potential, given he’s just 22. His speed, goal-scoring technique and ability to create shots for himself could reach world-class levels at his peak, but his poor aerial presence, hold up doubts and the need for maturity in his game are factors against him.
Devil’s DNA Score: 6/10
Long-term Option 3: Ivan Toney
Recent History: Toney did not make my summer CF shortlist, because of his deeper role last season behind Mbeumo. This season, Brentford are playing a 4-3-3 with Toney as CF and Mbeumo as RW, which has allowed Toney’s natural qualities as a line leader to shine. The result is 12 goals and 3 assists in 16 starts. He’s third in the league for goals and xG behind Erling Haaland and Harry Kane.
Pros: Toney’s best quality is his well-roundedness. He has the hold-up ability, back-to-goal play and aerial presence to play as a target man, the movement, speed and anticipation to play as a poacher and the passing range, progression and teamwork to play as a deeper support striker. It’s a special set and lets him be effective in many ways against different types of opposition. Erik Ten Hag might appreciate such a flexible attacker, and it’s not far-fetched to say that Toney is the most comparable young CF to Sebastian Haller in terms of profile. Toney has the highest aerial win % among our shortlisted players and the only reason he lost marks in the final score was due to low pass % and high miscontrols, both of which are a consequence of Brentford using him regularly as an out ball to get out of their half. In a better team like United, those will look better too.
Cons: Toney doesn’t have any real weakness. If anything, his only weakness is not being elite at any one quality. The major issue to signing him is the ongoing betting allegation against him. He has until January to respond, and could face a ban if found guilty. Even if he doesn’t, there is the issue of image, especially given the Greenwood incident last year. United and other teams might want to wait a bit for this to play out, before assessing a move in the summer. But if that becomes a non-point, at the age of 26, the well-rounded Toney could be a top class starting option for many years, without costing a bomb.
Devil’s DNA Score: 8/10
Long-term Option 4: Goncalo Ramos
Recent History: The 21-year-old Ramos was finding his footing last season with Benfica but since the departure of Darwin Nunez to Liverpool in summer 2022, having been thrust with sole line leading responsibility, Ramos has shone, bagging 10 goals and 1 assist in 13.3 90s played. His displays for Portugal after replacing Ronaldo as a starter showcased his quality as a box CF. Maybe United should follow suit.
Pros: Ramos is the quintessential box striker. His best work comes in the penalty box. It’s where he comes alive and his awareness, movement and finishing come to the fore. That said, having played multiple positions in his developmental phase, he has good traits for hold-up and back-to-goal play and is a good linker when he drops deep. He’s also probably the best defensive worker in our shortlist, willing to press intensely off the ball, which is something United badly need in their attack. His strong curving runs from wide and sharp movements between center-backs make him really tough to mark when he wants to get behind the defence line.
Cons: Ramos isn’t super well-rounded. He can’t be called creative and the further he gets from goal, the lesser of an impact he has. He prefers staying high up ahead and is comfortable in either direction, facing goal or back to goal. This fits well with United’s needs.
Verdict: The only issue with Ramos seems to be his high popularity and Benfica’s insistence on wanting his €120m release clause paid out or even topped. At that cost, United may be deterred, although if the price reduces, there probably isn’t a better box CF option that compliments what the team needs.
Devil’s DNA Score: 9/10
That covers some of the best long-term options for summer 2023. I have covered Tammy Abraham, Victor Osimhen and Lautaro Martinez in the summer 2022 CF shortlist article before. Some of the others like Patson Daka and Brian Brobbey have only recently moved to their clubs and might be tough to pry.
Let’s move on the short-term list. These are a lot more tricky to pick out. It’s tough to understand which players will be available on a budget fee or loan in January 2023. I’ve picked the players who are aged 27+ and scored the best ones from the list and put down their details. Here’s the result:
Next, I pick 3 players to highlight, who have either been linked to Manchester United recently or have been among the market rumors and could move. The others might just not move in the middle of the season.
Short–term Option 1: Wissam Ben Yedder
Recent History: Since moving to Monaco in 2019, Ben Yedder has scored 81 goals and made 21 assists in just 109 90s. It’s almost a goal-contribuion-a-game rate. Last season, his 25 league goals were only eclipsed by Kylian Mbappe, and he was the league leader for goals per 90. This year, he has played in a front 2 with Breel Embolo and let the Swiss take up more poaching duties, resulting in a deeper role for Ben Yedder.
Profile: The deeper role is the reason Wissam’s pizza chart showcases a player who has taken shots from distance, not attempted many aerials and shown good stats for progression. It speaks of his well-rounded skillset after many years of experience. Yet, even after not playing as a poacher, Ben Yedder has bagged 10 goals and 2 assists in 14 90s. Ben Yedder has both the poaching skills and the passing and carrying traits to play back-to-goal, progress from deep and be a finisher inside the box.
His only weaknesses are aerial presence and defending from the front. He has never been a good presser and at this declining part of his career, it shouldn’t be expected.
Verdict: Ben Yedder has been linked to a final hoorah back at Sevilla and Monaco seem open to selling him before his contract ends in 2024. An experienced and well-rounded European heavyweight, Ben Yedder could be a great short-term option for United until they figure out the sale of the club, set up a new structure and target a long-term option.
Devil’s DNA Score: 8/10
Short–term Option 2: Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting
Recent History: With 29 goals in 29 90s for Bayern Munich across 2.5 years, Eric Maxim Choup-Moting has been on fire for the Bavarians. Since Lewandowski’s departure, he has gotten a bit more gametime than before, and his output hasn’t reduced a bit, with 11 goals and 3 assists in just 9 starts in 22/23.
Profile: Eric can be described as a safe poacher. He is great at box movement and gets into really good poaching positions. He’s not a very aggressive shot-taker and is average in the air, but his technique is good enough to control the ball well and be secure and progressive in his passing. He rarely gets dispossessed and is able to keep things ticking in a safe manner while offering constant goal threat and efficient finishing.
Verdict: With 6 months left on his contract, things are getting intense for Choup-Moting’s signature. He is the one linked most strongly to United among the short-term options, but Bayern want to renew and keep him, especially with Sadio Mane injured for a while. If United do get Eric this winter, it could be a great boost to their top 4 chances.
Devil’s DNA Score: 8/10
Short–term Option 3: Niclas Füllkrug
Recent History: At 29, Fullkrug is among the younger options in the short-term list. After his move to Bremen in 2019, it took 2 seasons to settle, with him being unable to displace Josh Sargent as starter. Last season, after the departure of Sargent, Fullkrug got his chance to prove himself and responded with 19 goals and 6 assists in 28 starts. He has started this season in similar fashion, with 10 goals and 3 assists in 16 starts, his form earning him a World Cup 2022 ticket, where he also made a big impression when Germany called upon him.
Profile: Fullkrug is an interesting profile. He is very strong aerially, generates a lot of shots, but is yet able to pass and progress well. A target man with good technique is a good way to sum him up – similar to Wout Weghorst. He has the skills to hold up and play back-to-goal, while being an out ball target. He also has good, even if not elite, movement in the box. His passing is underrated, with him having the presence to pick out good passes. He’s just not someone pacey or quick.
Verdict: As per rumours, Werder Bremen are looking to cash in on the striker to ease their financial woes. Even a fee of €20m could convince them. At that price, United can obtain a strong but gifted target man whom the likes of Bruno can aim at.
Devil’s DNA Score: 8/10
And that’s a wrap. Apologies for the long-ish article, but I wanted to cover the mini reports in good enough detail as well. Let me know your thoughts on Twitter.
(Player data: Opta via fbref.com, Market data: transfermarkt.com)