While Erik ten Hag has been doing a brilliant job of papering over the cracks this season and delivering results beyond expectations (like the Europa League first leg performance vs Barcelona), with every display the gaps that he’s papering over are also visible. One of these gaps is a midfielder. Specifically, one who can build up play, offer security in progression, handle high pass volumes with good receiving skills and have the ability to carry his way out of pressure situations. Christian Eriksen has been playing that role in a makeshift role and while he is doing a decent job, the fact that he’s an attacking midfielder attempting to be a build up midfielder is obvious on many occasions. While he offers good progression in his passing and is able to show himself to receive the ball well, his security in possession and carrying strength are clear weak points that limit him from being the elite option Ten Hag would like for that role. The other options are even worse, a fact that has become clear since Eriksen’s injury. Fred, Scott and even the new signings Sabitzer have a few more gaps compared to Eriksen for the role. Ten Hag has largely bypassed the midfield in the first phase of possession since Eriksen’s injury.
Casemiro’s form has been undeniably brilliant, but the traits mentioned above are still not something he’s great at. I wrote in detail about what Casemiro is good at and not so good at in possession, for Analytics FC here. In summary, he needs a partner capable of build up, carrying and volume passing traits to create the perfect pivot that covers all defensive and possessional requirements for United. In other words, a midfielder who can run the first phase build up for United, thereby enhancing our ability to progress, keep the ball more and get the front 4 into better positions in attack. For simplicity’s sake, I’m labeling this unicorn as a DLP – Deep-lying playmaker, just for the sake of this article. But keep in mind the traits mentioned above. Those are key.
The Stats considered
I’ve done this exercise a few times before, my recent iterations being Summer 2023 GK targets and Short-term and long-term CF targets. This one largely follows the same structure.
Before diving into the process, let me explain the stats that have been considered and the logic to why they are good or bad for our assessment. This will help confirm what we are looking for.
1) Passes Attempted – 15% weightage
Firstly, we need a midfielder who can handle large pass volumes. Eriksen boasts 85 percentile on this metric, which isn’t bad, and shows how reliant we are on him during progression. Someone who can upgrade on this and handle a large amount of passes would be ideal. Marco Verratti and Toni Kroos are per 90 leaders for this stat among Europe’s Top 5 leagues.
2) Pass Completion % – 15% weightage
While handling large volume, this player needs to be secure in his passing. This is a huge gap in our current midfield with Bruno Fernandes (74%), Casemiro (78%), Eriksen (79%) and Fred (80%) all being below average retention players, largely offering progression at the cost of passing security. The Europe leaders for his stat (Like Stanislav Lobotka and Marco Verratti) are comfortably clocking 90%+ on an average.
3) Progressive Passes – 20% weightage
And while boasting large pass volumes and high pass security, the player also needs to be progressive in their passing. We don’t want a high retention anchor man who passes too safely just to recycle possession. We want someone who is technical enough to progress the game regularly while being secure. Once again, Toni Kroos and Marco Verratti top the per 90 versions for these stats.
4) Total Carry Distance – 10% weightage
We get into some carrying metrics now. Firstly, someone who carries a lot. Simple logic. This player shouldn’t be shy of carrying the ball often, which will force our formula to negate players who prefer to pass quickly instead of carrying in space. This is also a huge squad gap. The midfielder who tops this for United is Bruno Fernandes, and he ranks just 37 percentile in the Premier League for it. The other midfielders are even worse. We badly need carrying power in the midfield. Verratti and Vitinha are Europe leaders for this stat among Top 5 league midfielders.
5) Progressive Carries – 20% weightage
Similar to the passing logic, we need a volume carrier who’s also progressive while carrying, being able to advance the game towards goal. Again, Bruno who tops this for United, is just 28 percentile in the league. Huge gap from Europe leaders like Azzedine Ounahi and Brahim Díaz.
6) Miscontrols – 5% weightage
The security version of carries, this refers to actions when a player fails to control the ball of their own accord. These are usually high for midfielders who receive in crowded areas or under intense pressure during build up. It largely speaks of a good first touch and strength to hold on to the ball, which we need in our midfielder. Casemiro is best in United’s midfield with a decent 66 percentile in the league, but that also stems from him not attempting to receive in tight situations back to goal too often. If we combine the above aggressive passing and carry metrics with this one, we’ll get someone who receives and carries and passes a lot and does so without many mistakes. The Europe leaders for this stat are Julian Weigl and Axel Witsel.
7) Dispossessed – 5% weightage
Largely the same logic as the above stat, but this counts possession losses while controlling the ball due to a clear opponent action like a tackle or pressure.Once again, Casemiro ranks well with a 68 percentile in the league.
8) Passes Received – 10% weightage
Our final stat is a simple one. Volume of passes received. This simply measures how much a player is found during possession and can give us a good indication of his showing himself for the ball during build up and also his teammates’ trust in his technical ability to receive in all situations. Once again, Casemiro tops this with an average 46 percentile in the league. Verratti and Kroos top this in Europe.
NOTE: Before we move on, I must state one important caveat. A few of these stats are highly dependent on team tactics. A midfielder might be playing in a different role to adjust for team tactics or have poor stats on some metrics due to his pivot partner or other teammates not being complementary to his style of play. So, for the sake of clarity, it might be best to take the results of this ranking as to not reflect midfielder ability, but rather reflect midfielder suitability to United’s needs. In short, the score won’t measure absolute talent, but will identify midfielders who are doing well at the the role that we want this season. There could be other talented players who just aren’t playing enough or are being shackled by team tactics. With that clear, let’s move on.
The Ranking process
The rest of the process is largely mechanical. A quick run-down of the steps:
1. I downloaded all stats from fbref.com for Europe’s top 7 leagues for the 22/23 season and picked out the above 8 stats of interest to this assessment
2. I filtered out all midfielders who didn’t even manage to play 8 90s in 22/23. This left us with 605 players who can play in midfield, who make up the data set on which we will be doing further calculations
3. I converted the 8 stats into per 90 versions and then percentile versions. This means that each stat was divided by the number of 90s played by that midfielder, and then converted into a percentile stat. E.g. Eriksen with a 86 percentile on ‘Passes Attempted’ indicates that he’s better than 86% of the midfielders in our data set for this particular stat. I’ve also accounted for the reversed percentiles on the stats for which a lower value is desirable. E.g. Low values of ‘Miscontrols’ were ranked with a higher percentile. In summary, all high percentiles now mean ‘better’, for this assessment
4. Finally, I created a weighted formula using these 8 stats using the above weights. I then factored in league difficulty using UEFA league coefficients for 22/23 giving it a 15% weightage. The last step was to create a percentile version of this weighted score, to ensure our top ranked midfielder scores a 100% and the worst one scores a 1%
The top players, based on this, are as follows:
Rodri, Bernardo Silva, Ilkay Gundogan and Toni Kroos are the best midfielders based on this score and that’s not a bad indication at all of what we’re trying to go for. Reece James and a few other non-midfielders have also snuck in thanks to fbref assigning them a ‘MF’ status due them playing it in the past.
Okay, now comes the hard part and I need to explain this clearly, since it’s tricky. While filtering out players who don’t make sense, I considered 4 things:
a) Age: I kept a limit of 27 years old, since we want a young/young-ish starter for the long term
b) Players who don’t play midfield: Reece James, Leroy Sane, Achraf Hakimi and a few others had the ‘MF’ tag but haven’t played there regularly. I cut them off.
c) Players who won’t transfer to United: Players already playing for top teams or rivals like Eduardo Camavinga, Pedri and Aurelien Tchouameni were cut off
d) Players who aren’t playing a build up role: This was the tough one. After using the above 3 filters, I went one by one from the top of the list to remove players who aren’t handling build up duties. The caveat of the exercise is that we could end up with midfielders who are good at carrying, passing and retention but display these skills higher up the pitch as a box-to-box midfielder or advanced playmaker or adopt more defensive roles in the pivot and actually leave their team’s build up duties to someone else. This resulted in me filtering out a lot of popular choices like Jude Bellingham, Declan Rice, Edson Alvarez, Kouadio Kone, Maxence Cacqueret, Youri Tielemans and Khephren Thuram-Ulie, since they aren’t the ones who are the key playmakers in the first phase for their teams. This doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of it, but just that we are trying to identify players who are already doing what we want at a high level. If there’s an argument that Rice or Bellingham could potentially play the role in a different system, that’s fine, but I’ve removed them with the clause that they aren’t doing so currently and are probably better in a different role (In this case, I feel both are better as advanced box-to-box midfielders)
These filter criteria removed a lot of the usual suspects and odd fits, but I’m fairly confident that the players who are left are elite at what we want, tick all the boxes we need and have a good recent history of playing the role for their respective teams. Without further ado, here’s the final shortlist for United’s Casemiro partner needs for summer 2023:
If you hadn’t thought of Frenkie de Jong even once, when I was explaining the role and picking the metrics, I’ve probably done a poor job so far. Because, that is the player who ticks all the boxes and a huge reason why Erik ten Hag wanted the player last summer. Even though the chances of signing the Dutch player seem low, I’ve included the player thanks to our recent chase and Ten Hag’s connection. Frenkie is the ideal Casemiro partner and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that acquiring him would solve a majority of our build up issues and create one of the best pivots in Europe.
Among the other options, Kenneth Taylor, Nicolo Rovella, Salis Abdul Ahmed, Ismael Bennacer (€50m release clause activates only in summer 2024) and Johann Lepenant are excellent options that we should be monitoring, but their recent contract situations mean that a summer 2023 move may be tough.
This brings our focus to 4 targets after Frenkie, whom I deem realistic and capable.
Mini Scout reports
Before we dive into the scout reports, let’s first see what we are upgrading on.
Eriksen scored 74% on our exercise, which indicates a good-but-not-great profile for what we want. This matches up with the eye test too and the above stats individually confirm where the gaps are. While he’s done a great job in terms of pass volume, receiving passes and progression via passing, his pass completion, security and carry metrics are all around the average mark.
Fred scored 52% on the exercise and his issues are also clear with the pizza split. While he’s decent at being involved and progression via passing, his retention and carry metrics are poor. Scoring just 18 percentile on miscontrols probably sums up a large part of the frustration associated with Fred when he plays a build up role. He is simply not the player you want receiving under pressure and is prone to miscontrols as a reason. I do think Fred is much better as an advanced midfielder free from build up duties (like the phases under Rangnick and Ten Hag with McTominay/Casmeiro taking the deepest role)
Finally, Scott scored a 14% on our exercise, which really looks bad for the 26 year old. Again, an argument can be made that his role as Casemiro backup this year hasn’t given him any opportunity to score well on build up metrics, but Scott’s unsuitability to either role in the pivot puts his long-term spot in danger, as things stand.
That wraps up the United midfielders. Let’s take a look at our top target in brief.
I’m not going to go into great detail about our ideal target, Frenkie De Jong, since much has been said about him already and the evidence of what he can do for us is available aplenty, not the least the 2 matches he’s playing against us in the Europa League. The only metric Frenkie isn’t elite on is his dispossessed stat, which is a result of him being targeted by opponents to stop Barcelona’s build up this year.
Let’s get into details with the real targets now.
Maxime Lopez, 26, Sassuolo
Career: Starting his youth career in Marseille, Lopez managed to break into the main team at the age of 18. What followed were 4 reasons of consistent gametime as a key player that saw him rack up 150 appearances. Sassuolo moved for him in 2020. The first year, he often partnered Locatelli and sometimes dropped to the bench to make way for Pedro Obiang, but post Locatelli’s move to Juventus in 2021, Lopez has been a key starter, running the build up for Sassuolo.
Pros: Playing in a pivot (initially with Locatelli, currently with Davide Frattesi), Lopez is elite on the ball. He is a top-tier technician capable of progression via carrying and passing and doing it all with high security, volume and consistency. He’s extremely comfortable receiving in the first phase under pressure and carrying or passing his way out of situations. As his pizza chart shows, he’s superb on all the metrics we’ve picked and doesn’t have any weakness on the ball. Sassuolo finished 11th last year and are currently 15th, making these stats even more impressive. There’s good reason to believe his stats will all hit elite levels in a better team. While usually running the build up for his team, Lopez also has great awareness in creation and advanced playmaking, often getting ahead or drifting to the wings in some match situations. His managers have also played him as an AM or advanced CM on occasions to good effect.
Cons: He isn’t a great ball-winner. Lopez doesn’t engage in too many duels preferring to mark the space and use his good positioning to sense danger and block passing lanes instead. He isn’t very strong in duels but tries to engage in them in good volume, indicating he isn’t a pushover or absent in the defensive phase.
Verdict: If you’ve followed my account, you’ll know that I’ve mentioned Lopez many times and he has made my CM shortlists in previous iterations as well. Previously, as a Matic replacement, he was lower on the shortlist thanks to the above con, but with Casemiro as his partner and build up abilities being more important for our current needs, he becomes a top tier target for our next midfielder. He was rumored to be linked to Serie A teams like Napoli and Roma for as low as €16m. Even assuming some Manchester United tax, it’s a steal for such a top player at his peak. I can’t see many issues with this one.
The Devil’s DNA Score: 9/10
Orkun Kökçü, 22, Feyenoord
Career: A youth product of Feyenoord, Kokcu broke into the main team at the age of 17 in 2018. But it was the following 19/20 campaign where he became a key member featuring 35 times for the club as a 18 year old. That has continued since then as the Turkish international has racked up 150 appearances over 5 years for his maiden club. With his contract ending in 2025 and Slot’s Feyenoord grabbing the attention of top clubs this year, a move to a bigger club seems imminent.
Pros: Kokcu is a very versatile player often given (and justifying) “complete midfielder” tags. I would liken him to Enzo Fernandez in that sense. He can play as a 10 who is the chance creating engine of the team, a box-to-box 8 who can offer workrate, ball-winning, pressing and link defence to attack, or as a build up 6 who orchestrates for the team in possession and defends transitions. His technical ceiling is elite, with progression along with volume of passes and carries almost a guarantee in whatever role he plays. Compared to other options in this list, his ball-winning and attacking output in terms of late surging runs into the box or spotting a good final ball or shot, are good. That’s the reason he has 27 goals and 23 assists in his career so far. As he has matured, managers have used him in deeper roles more often, where his technical proficiency and reading of the game are utilized more. For the past year or so, he has mostly featured in a double pivot as the LCM responsible for build up and has reached new heights to his game, which fits perfectly with what United need. He’s very comfortable dropping between the CBs or in the FB spaces during build up and enters the opponent third only in the last phase after ensuring the team has progressed well.
Cons: As the pizza chart indicates, his only 3 stats that are below average are all security related. This largely stems from the games he plays more advanced. He’s played 9 games this season higher up on the wings or as a 10. Kokcu can’t be called a reliable lone 6. As a Casemiro partner, the combination will work fine, but in games where Casemiro is out, handling lone 6 duties alone for Kokcu might be an issue. Also, although his press resistance is largely good, it could be better. In some high pressure scenarios, he plays the ball long or loses it, which is another reason for his lower security compared to the other options.
Verdict: Kokcu is a gem and given his well-roundedness and age, he can be developed into the role we need, since he’s already ticking most boxes and showing the movement, understanding and technical ability to play as a build up CM. His security aspects are a small concern but could be ironed out in a good system as he matures, if he plays the deeper role consistently. It’s a good bet to make.
The Devil’s DNA Score: 7.5/10
Samuele Ricci, 22, Torino
Career: A youth product of Empoli, Ricci broke into the first team at the young age of 17 in 2019 and became a key member immediately playing on the left side of a diamond as a LCM mezzala tasked with vertical coverage, progression and ball-winning. After 2 years of doing well in the Serie B, the team earned promotion and Ricci’s first Serie A campaign was noticed by Torino, who took him on a loan in the middle of the 21/22 season and then made it permanent at the end of the season. With 29 appearances for Torino over the past year, he’s been their mainstay and has played in a pivot tasked with more playmaking and build up duties.
Pros: Having played as an box-to-box 8 at Empoli and then settled into a Pirlo-esue playmaker role in a pivot for Torino beside Sasa Lukic this season, Ricci is very well rounded and offers almost everything we are looking for, as his pizza chart indicates. Torino have been flying high and are 9th in the league this year. Ricci has been a major part of that revolution, completely looking at home in the top flight in his new role. The Italian is a deceptive athlete. At around six feet tall, he looks like a rangy figure but immediately surprises with his robust approach to physical duels, both on the ground and in the air. His robustness also extends to his ability to shield and protect the ball in possession, giving the 22-year-old the confidence to receive the ball under pressure, especially in positions close to the sideline. Meanwhile, the slightness of Ricci’s build is advantageous in possession; he is very light on his feet, making him a tidy dribbler in tight spaces and a great ball-carrier when driving through midfield. Ricci is active and reliable in all phases of play, meaning that he can be plugged into any system and instantly provide value without needing an architecture built around his skillset or style of play. He’s the latest in line of well-rounded playmakers Italy has produced – Verratti, Locatelli, Jorginho – and can take their paths and play at the highest level.
Cons: Ricci isn’t elite at advanced progression. He’s more like a consistent progressor type who gets out of situations with good agility and ball control and picks neat tidy passes easily. But the top-tier flair or defence-breaking ball probably might be missing. He isn’t a great final third threat with 4 goals and 6 assists in his career so far, largely from set pieces.
Verdict: The above con ideally shouldn’t be a big issue at United with Bruno, Eriksen and many other players adept at goal threat and final third creation. What we really need from the build up CM – progression, press resistance, carrying power and passing security – Ricci has that in spades. Even though his contract just started in 2022, Torino is a club that is usually open to sell and he does have an oddly short contract which further indicates that willingness from the club. I don’t think a transfer would cost much due to his comparatively low hype, making this a sensible move overall. I would love a punt on Ricci.
The Devil’s DNA Score: 8/10
Martin Zubimendi, 24, Real Sociedad
Career: Zubimendi’s path has been a straight dream route. He was born in San Sebastian and joined the Real Sociedad academy in 2011 at the age of 12. After featuring for them at all levels, he made his debut for the main team in 2018 at the age 19. The 20/21 campaign was his breakthrough season where he featured 41 times and since then that has continued consistently with the Spaniard having racked up 125 club appearances so far. With a €60m release clause and the likes of Barcelona and Arsenal interested, a move to a big club looms close.
Pros: Playing at the base of a star-studded diamond, Zubimendi holds his own among Laliga’s best as a very secure DM through whom the majority of the build up and progression goes through. He is extremely efficient in duels with only Gudelj ranking better among La Liga midfielders for aerial and tackle success. His positioning and man-marking make him a top class shielder and transition defender, while his passing progression and security make him reliable. He is very adept at controlling the tempo and sets the pace of a very patient passing structure that Sociedad adopt, which will tie in well with Ten Hag’s ideal system. As a single lone pivot tasked with progression, tempo control, transition defence and build up movement, Zubimendi is elite.
Cons: Zubimendi isn’t the most agile or dynamic midfielder. He feels at home as a central lone 6, but probably lacks the flair and carrying power to nail a pivot role, where he has license to playmake with Casemiro beside him. In that sense, a lot of Zubimendi’s good traits of defending transitions, positional excellence and man marking are shared by Casemiro, while some of the requirements of carrying disruption, joining the attack and creating for the front 4 might be missing.
Verdict: There is a reason Barcelona want Zubimendi as a Busquets replacement. The 24 year old would be at home at the base of a midfield (which contains the profile we actually want in Frenkie de Jong playing further ahead). I would have loved Zubimendi as a Matic replacement 2 years ago, but with Casemiro in the squad, there are more overlaps than before and a few gaps might still exist as a pair, especially carrying power. At a release clause of €60m, that’s probably on the expensive side, but one can also argue that this gives us the flexibility of using Zubimendi even when Casemiro sits out or eventually declines, thereby offering cover for both midfield roles without being an amazing fit for either. All in all, it’s a good option, but not the best one.
The Devil’s DNA Score: 7/10
In summary of this exercise, I do think United going all out for Frenkie de Jong makes total sense. He is the perfect fit, but his price and insistence to stay at Barcelona could be factors against a move. In that case, I think we should move hard for Maxime Lopez. The Frenchman ticks all the boxes, plays the role we want and would be a great Casemiro partner, all for a very affordable price. After that, a transfer for Samuele Ricci should be entertained, thanks to his great fitment and his profile not being too high-end to cause any issues for a move. Beyond that, Orkun Kokcu and Martin Zubimendi are also two top tier technicians with both not being an exact fit (one being a little more attacking and one a little more defensive) but can do the role to a great effect and be molded into it for sure. Other than these realistic summer 2023 targets, a close track on Kenneth Taylor and Nicolo Rovella should be maintained, given their high suitability and traits for the role.
Thank you for reading this far. I hope you enjoyed this one. Let me know your thoughts on the options and if I’ve missed any, on my Twitter handle. I will be doing more scout reports and tactical pieces in the near future as well.
(All stats from fbref via Opta)