What to expect from Ralf Rangnick?

When Emmanuel Dennis scored the 4th Watford goal, even the most optimistic of United fans knew that there will be a new manager to replace Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Indeed, it came true. The 4-1 defeat at Vicarage road was the final nail in the coffin for the Norwegian, who lost 4 of his last 7 games in charge including humiliating losses at the hands of Leicester City, Watford, and long time club rivals – Liverpool and Manchester City. 

As expected (and probably a little too late), Ole Gunnar Solskjaer left his position as the head coach of Manchester United and Michael Carrick was appointed to be the caretaker manager while the board search for a new interim manager. What followed was a host of names being linked to be the successor of the 47 year old including Ernesto Valverde, Rudi Garcia and Lucien Favre. Mauricio Pochettino and Erik ten Hag have been rumoured to be the favourites to take over next summer and while there were rumours that Pochettino would be willing to swap Paris for Manchester, the deal never materialised. 

On Wednesday, David Ornstein and Laurie Whitwell broke the news of Ralf Rangnick being appointed as the interim boss at Manchester United till the end of the season, with a 2 year consultancy role after the season ends in May. According to club sources, Manchester United hierarchy have maintained that the German was their primary target for the interim role and after an initial breakdown in talks last Monday, John Murtough, Darren Fletcher and Ed Woodward got the deal over the line 2 days later. 

Regarded as a smart appointment by many, today we’ll have a look at what Ralf Rangnick can offer the Red Devils as a manager and indeed, as a consultant later on. 

Ralf Rangnick, the manager 

First, we will talk about Ralf Rangnick, the manager. Rangnick first became a manager in the late 1980s starting as a player coach for his local side Viktoria Backnang. His first job as a manager came for SSV Reutlingen 05. Afterwards, he managed a number of clubs in Germany, including VFB Stuttgart, Hoffenheim, Schalke and most recently, RB Leipzig. Throughout his career, he has a track record of improving the teams he managed. 

Ralf Rangnick has also earned a lot of plaudits for his tactical acumen. Widely regarded as the godfather of the counter pressing or ‘gegenpressing’ style of play, Rangnick has shown immense tactical nous during his time as a manager. After his Hoffenheim side decimated Jürgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund with a scoreline of 4-1 In 2008, the current Liverpool boss said “That’s the kind of football we want to play one day”. He is regarded as “The professor” in Germany for his methodical and detail oriented approach to training and coaching his teams.

So, how will Manchester United line up under the German?

Rangnick has used many formations in his tenure, such as a 4-3-3, 4-4-2 diamond and even a 3-5-2 but his most preferred formation is the 4-2-2-2. This is the formation which would suit United the most but he can even opt for a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1. 

Despite his formation, his principles remain the same. He likes a high pressing team and focuses a lot on winning the transitions. He likes to set up pressing traps by using 2 players to press and blindside pressing for the man on the ball with a 3rd player, thus creating a numerical advantage while pressing the ball. He also uses various different pressing triggers, such as a loose touch or a ball shifted in wide areas, to initiate the press. His focus on high pressing football would suit Fred and Scott McTominay, who are good pressers of the ball but not that polished positionally. 

To understand the extent of his focus on transitions, we need to look at his training sessions with RB Leipzig where he introduced a 10-second clock rule with a custom clock made for this. The clock would tick loudly and all the players playing could hear it. The 10-second rule indicates that once the team wins the ball back, they must create a goalscoring opportunity within 10 seconds, thus completing the attacking transition. His RB Leipzig side ranked 1st in Europe in terms of defensive actions leading to shots and defensive actions leading to goal for the 2018/19 season. In terms of defensive transitions, the time limit was 8 seconds instead of 10, meaning that the team must win the ball back in 8 seconds after they have lost it, thus proving his detail to dominate the transitions, attacking or defending. 

In terms of build up play, the German is not a fan of wide players and wants his wide players to tuck inside and act like a ‘inside forward’ almost creating a hexagonal shape with the 2 defensive midfielders behind and the two attackers in front of the two inside forwards. This would suit Manchester United’s wide players very nicely as all of them like drifting into the central areas and making things happen. Mason Greenwood, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and even Donny van de Beek are players who are best suited to play in the half spaces and that is what Rangnick will allow them to do. Sancho, who is known for his creativity in the final third by occasionally stepping in central areas would benefit from the 63 year old’s system. 

Rangnick allows his fullbacks to push forward, creating a 2-4-4 shape while attacking. He likes to create overloads in wide areas and use numerical advantages to make things happen with the help of his narrow attacking structure. The German has been on record saying he doesn’t like square passes much and focuses a lot on being direct and exploiting the spaces by having runners in behind and constant positional rotation. This ideology would suit mainly 3 players – Cristiano Ronaldo, Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba. The Portuguese superstars are known for their ‘high risk, high reward’ approach and Paul Pogba always likes to make things happen and use the runners in his team to spread passes and flex his creative muscles. 

All in all, it is fair to say that Manchester United’s squad would suit Ralf Rangnick’s ideologies very well. There are question marks being raised on how Cristiano Ronaldo would play as he’s not suited to a gegenpress style of play but considering Rangnick’s history and his tactical acumen, it wouldn’t be a stupid thing to assume that the 63 year old would have a plan to integrate Manchester United’s #7. 

Assuming everyone is fit and available for selection, we can see David de Gea continuing in goal with a back 4 for Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Raphael Varane, Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw. Scott McTominay and Fred would act as the 2 defensive midfielders, but it is possible we can see van de Beek and Paul Pogba being used there with McTominay or Fred against weaker oppositions. Jadon Sancho and Bruno Fernandes would be the obvious choices to play in the flanks as the inside right and inside left creative midfielders/wingers. Paul Pogba and Donny van de Beek are capable replacements on the flanks respectively, similar to how Marcel Sabitzer was deployed on the right despite him being a midfielder. At Leipzig, Yusuf Poulsen played as the target man or the deep lying forward while Timo Werner was a menace with his lines behind the line of defence and his pressing. We could see Marcus Rashford playing the Werner role while Cristiano Ronaldo plays the Poulsen role. Mason Greenwood and Edinson Cavani being more than capable replacements for the roles respectively. 

“Tactics, fitness and rules are all hugely important, but they’re only a means to an end. My job – the job – is to improve players.

Players follow you as a manager if they feel that you make them better. That’s the greatest, most sincere motivation there is.”

-Ralf Rangnick, The Coaches’ Voice

 

This is how the Red Devils will line up under Ralf Rangnick:

In conclusion, Manchester United have enough depth and enough quality in the side to cater to Ralf Rangnick’s plans. His high-pressing, counter-pressing, direct style of play would suit most of the players Manchester United have at their disposal and if he is able to get his ideas across quickly, Manchester United can flourish during the time he is at the helm as manager. 

Ralf Rangnick, the sporting director

Now that we have seen what Ralf Rangnick brings to the table as a manager, let’s dive into what he could bring to the table as a consultant/sporting director. 

Ralf Rangnick took his post as the sporting director of the clubs under the RedBull group in 2012, namely RB Leipzig, RB Salzburg and New York Red Bulls. He left his post as the manager of Salzburg to focus solely on as the sporting director of both the clubs. He made a return to management with RB Leipzig twice, first in 2015 when he guided them to a promotion in 15/16 and then in 18/19 where he managed to finish 3rd in the Bundesliga, proving that he can do both roles very well. 

Ralf Rangnick oversaw the huge footballing success of the RedBull group of football clubs with both Leipzig and Salzburg coming from nowhere and then being regular outfits in European football in a very short period of time. In an interview with the Guardian in 2019, Rangnick said, “Can I be somebody who can influence areas of development across the whole club?’ Otherwise you are only getting half of what I am capable of.” He got that freedom at RedBull clubs and they have flourished under him. He got the same freedom at Hoffenheim, where he converted them from a third-tier Bundesliga team to a regular top flight team and laid the foundations for Julian Nagelsmann, who took Hoffenheim as far as the Champions League. “Ralf has a special way of looking at football,” Nagelsmann told ESPN in 2020. “I used Ralf’s philosophy at Hoffenheim; counter-pressing is a very important topic.” 

Even though Rangnick’s first role as a sporting director came in 2012, at Hoffenheim he was already a manager + sporting director. He took the job when Hoffenheim were in the third division, even after having achieved great success with Schalke in the Bundesliga where he achieved a 2nd placed finish. It was later reported that the 63 year old wanted more control over the club’s decisions which led to a crossroads with the board. Dietmar Hopp, the chairman of Hoffenheim and the co-founder of tech giants SAP was keen to achieve promotion to the Bundesliga as soon as possible and he chose Ralf Rangnick to be the person to help Hoffenheim achieve that. 

Rangnick likes to have a hands-on approach on how the clubs he is managing should function. He likes to control many aspects, the scouting, the recruitment, the way the club travels. At Schalke, he wasn’t given that freedom but at Hoffenheim he was given a clean slate to leave his mark. The German brought in Bernhard Peters, a former hockey coach, as the head of performance. His input on player performances, fitness levels and his analysis on the team tactics was very crucial for Hoffenheim’s first season under Rangnick’s leadership in 2006-07, when they achieved promotion to the 2.Bundesliga. Rangnick also brought in Hans-Dieter Hermann, a sports psychologist from Jürgen Klinsmann’s 2006 World Cup team, having his request for a psychologist previously rebuffed by the Schalke board. 

In the 2.Bundesliga, Rangnick established his transfer policy. Establishing a worldwide scouting network and recruiting players with age on their side. Most of the signings were under the age of 23, mainly foreigners and many of them being from Brazil. Brazilians like Luiz Gustavo and Carlos Edouard were signed while Demba Ba came from the Belgian league and Chinedu Obasi, from Norway showing the vast scouting network put in place by the 63 year old. The same philosophy and structure TSG Hoffenheim still uses after being established as a top-flight club in Germany.

“Did we get Ribéry? Never! For us, it is ideal that we don’t sign players who are already playing at a higher level than us, but rather want to go there [the higher level] with us. I want players for whom a move to us is not a step backwards. We are convinced that all the guys we brought in last year – Vorsah, Eduardo, Gustavo, Ba, Obasi, Nilsson – were not only good for promotion, but also for the first division.”

In fact, this is a philosophy Rangnick would follow during his tenure with the RedBull clubs. Instead of splashing millions on star players, the German focused on signing players who are young and who will develop along with the club. His recruitment at the club proves his eye for talent and his wide scouting network, something Manchester United could benefit largely from. His shrewd recruitments include players such as Tyler Adams, Matheus Cunha, Emil Forsberg, Amadou Haidara, Naby Keita, Willi Orban, Yussuf Poulsen, Timo Werner, some of the most exciting youngsters in the world. Rangnick believes in developing the players and making them improve so that the club improves along with them. 

How would this be beneficial for Manchester United? Well, for years, Manchester United are a club which has lacked an identity, a direction. Since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, Manchester United have followed their manager’s lead in terms of recruitment and signings and changes to the club in the background. That would have been fine if all the managers they have hired were of the same mould but that was not the case at Old Trafford. Quite the opposite. Manchester United went from David Moyes, to Louis van Gaal, to Jose Mourinho. 3 managers with completely different ideologies on football, which led to the club constantly ‘rebuilding’ whenever a manager was sacked. 

If we look at all the top clubs in Europe, all have a certain identity, a certain philosophy that they follow in order to be successful. Ajax being the best example for this. The dutch club have a certain way of playing football and their use of academy and being able to churn out the best talents in world football known to everyone. The managers and squad may change but their philosophy and identity remain the same. They hire managers who believe in the same philosophy as the club. Anything can happen in this world, but Diego Simeone becoming the manager of Ajax in future has a very low probability of happening due to the said philosophy of possession-oriented style of play being in place at the club. 

Not just Ajax, all the top clubs in Europe have an identity. Bayern’s identity of playing fast paced attacking football, Liverpool’s brand of heavy-metal, heavy pressing brand of football since Klopp came in or even the identity Pep Guardiola has installed at Manchester City. Every decision these clubs take are in accordance with a pre-defined philosophy at the club, something which has eluded Manchester United for some time. Now, following a philosophy or an identity is not necessary at all, but for a club who have been as wayward as Manchester United in recent times, this is something which would benefit the Red Devils a lot. 

Since Solskjaer came in, he tried to do the same. Install an identity at the club which the club can follow long after his departure. Appointments of John Murtough as the football director and Darren Fletcher as the technical director were one of the first few steps the Norwegian took to implement his vision at taking the club to the next level. It didn’t work out for Solksjaer towards the end, but he built the building blocks for the next chapter in this club’s history and Ralf Rangnick is the one who can complete writing it. 

Even though his title is as a ‘consultant’, it is widely reported that the German will have a lot of influence on many decisions the club makes such as choosing his own successor and other off the pitch decisions regarding recruitment policy, potential future signings and even changes to the training ground. Rangnick’s influence, with the input of Murtough and Fletcher, could help Manchester United oversee a change towards building a long term footballing philosophy.

Ralf Rangnick’s appointment feels like a first great step Manchester United have taken towards building a long-term philosophy at the club, something they have lacked since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. Judging by the German’s track record of improving and building clubs from scratch, it seems like a very wise choice. 

Hoffenheim gave him the keys, and he built a fortress. Leipzig gave him the keys, and he built a kingdom. Now he has the keys to Manchester United, time will tell if he can build a dynasty. 

Sensible Targets: Eduardo Camavinga

With recent reports suggesting that Paul Pogba’s future lies away from Manchester United, it is only natural for the Mancunian club to be linked with a replacement for the French superstar. Pogba, who has a year left on his contract is not willing to extend his stay in England’s footballing capital and United can try and sell him right now, or keep him and hope he signs an extension before his contract expires next season. Regardless of whether Pogba moves or not, United desperately need a midfielder anyway. We have already done two articles on this before so I won’t elaborate about it here.

If Pogba does make a move this window, United should be (ideally) in the market for 2 Central midfielders. One midfielder being able to play a more deeper role and another one being a more dynamic, runner of the ball. And as it the case of almost every trsansfer window, Manchester United are linked to a host of different midfielders of both of those profiles. With Declan Rice being the standout name for the former and Atletico Madrid midfielder Saul being the most high profile for the latter. 

Another French midfielder who has one year remaining on his contract and would fit the Pogba replacement profile perfectly is Eduardo Camavinga. Today, I will try to explain how the young French sensation can fit the team and what little tactical tweaks we can observe with Camavinga in the side. 

History

For someone who is still in his teens, Camavinga already has moments in his short career that have been etched in the history books. Eduardo Camavinga signed his first professional contract when he just a month older than 16 and it was not long before he made his debut. 

Eduardo Camavinga was the youngest player at Rennes to sign a professional and also the youngest player to ever play for the first team. His breakout game came against PSG when he put in a MOTM performance in the midfield and also set up the only goal of the game. His assist meant he became the youngest Ligue 1 player ever to register an assist. 

After that, it wasn’t long before the young Frenchman cemented his place in the Rennes starting 11. The 2019-20 season can widely be regarded as his breakthrough season in France. Now, a full fledged first team regular and also a French International and with only one year remaining on his contract, it seems as if moving Camavinga on is the best move for all parties involved and Manchester United are among a host of clubs monitoring his situation at Rennes. 

Playing Style

When he first broke on the scene in 2019/20, Julien Stephan, the then Rennes manager used him as a defensive midfielder in a 4-4-2 or a 3-4-1-2 at the tender age of 17. Camavinga is excellent in tackling and disrupting the opponent’s play in his own half. He has displayed Kante-esque traits where his work ethic and excellent tackling make him a very good workhorse for the team. He won more tackles than any other player in the Ligue 1 in 2019-20 despite only playing 25 games. 

Even though he first made a name for himself for his tackling and work ethic, the youngster offers so much more than just that. He operates in the areas of a deep lying playmaker and his long passing also offers him to distribute the ball and start attacks playing from deep midfield. He completed 91% of long passes in 2019-20 displaying a perfect blend of maturity, tenacity and elegance in his style of play helping Rennes qualify for the Champions League for the first time in their history. 

In 2020-21 season, Rennes shifted to a 4-3-3 formation and with Steven Nzonzi sitting at the base of the 3 man midfield for the French side, it allowed Camavinga to play a more advanced role. He has played at the heart, on the right and on the left side of the midfield throughout the last season but he mainly played as a RCM in a 3 man midfield. 

Even observing his heat maps from the 2 seasons we can see his development as a player.   

As we can see, in 19/20 (Top) he played a much deeper role compared to the one in 20/21 (bottom). 

Due to being given more freedom to roam ahead and play further up the pitch, Camavinga’s creative numbers have gone up. His dribbling and passing numbers have improved while his tackling has remained the same. Camavinga can best be described as a combination of N’golo Kante and Paul Pogba. He has the work ethic and the tenacity of Kante while being as elegant on the ball as Pogba. 

The Frenchman has shown a lot of maturity in shifting his game from a deeper lying midfielder to a box to box midfielder. He had a pass completion of 89.3% in Ligue 1 while also averaging 6.37 progressive carries p90. Adding to this, he also had 3.4 tackles p90 and 1.92 dribbles completed p90. He ranked in the 97th and 95th percentile for both the stats in Ligue 1. Very impressive for an 18-year old. 

He also possesses great awareness for his age. The 18 year old always wants to get on the ball and is never one to shy away from responsibility. As a result of his great awareness, he can be deemed as one of the midfielders who are ‘press resistant’. He has also got a strong physical presence. Even though he is just over 6 ft, his lean physique is just about at the stage where he can turn and dribble past players quickly but also not be bullied by his counterparts while he is in possession of the ball. His awareness coupled with his great vision allow him to play the creative, box to box role he has been playing for Rennes. Almost acting like a ‘Mezzala’. 

However, Camavinga still has a long way to go in terms of his technical and physical aspects. The midfielder still can’t be considered as a goal threat, either by his long shots or his presence in the 18-yard box. While his positioning and vision is still not polished, it is to be considered that the Frenchman is just 18 years old. 

In short, Eduardo Camavinga is a tenacious, dynamic, box to box midfielder. His awareness, tackling ability, dribbling and passing allow him to be a great all round option to have in the middle of the pitch. 

Tactical Fit at Manchester United

Well, first things first, Eduardo Camavinga is not someone who can play alongside Paul Pogba in the pivot as many fans are suggesting he might. He may have some of the skills required but his natural game isn’t that of a holding midfielder and if Pogba is to be played in a double pivot, he needs someone in that profile to play alongside him. Someone in the similar mould of a Nemanja Matic and even that is not enough to get the best out of Paul Pogba. He works best playing in the attacking areas of the LW-half space, something he has done recently for Manchester United playing from the LW.

So, if we cancel out the possibility of Paul Pogba playing in the deep midfield pivot in a 4-2-3-1 that leaves us with 4 potential partners Eduardo Camavinga can be paired with them being Fred, Scott McTominay, Nemanja Matic and Donny van de Beek. Now the main reasons why van de Beek can’t be a good partner for the French youngster is the same as Pogba in the sense both are much better playing closer to the goal. Adding to the fact that whenever van de Beek has played, he has played in the no.10 spot under Solskjaer. So, the Norwegian manager definitely doesn’t consider him to play in the pivot as a deeper lying midfielder. 

Now, that leaves us with only 3 options. Scott McTominay, Fred and Nemanja Matic. Camavinga would thrive if he’s paired with any of the aforementioned midfielders. Let’s understand why by taking the most recent game against Leeds United as an example. 

In that game, Manchester United lined up in their trademark 4-2-3-1 with McTominay and Fred playing in the double pivot while Pogba started on the LW and Bruno Fernandes played in his usual no.10 role. The McTominay-Fred pivot or ‘McFred’ allows Pogba and Bruno to link up further up the pitch. 

The midfield pivot was very dynamic as they both didn’t have a defined role as McTominay and Fred (and Camavinga) are all pretty similar players. Manchester United usually build up with a 2-4 or a 3-3 shape including the backline and the fullbacks depending on who the opposition is. In that build up phase, Fred drops deep to receive the ball while McTominay is the one who is a more free midfielder given the license to roam in the middle of the park looking for pockets of spaces but again, even that depends on game to game. In short, both midfielders can do the job of carrying the ball from the deep and their high energy and work ethic suit the fast-paced counter pressing, quick transition style of play Manchester United like to play.

As we can see here, United build up in a 2-4 shape when they are pressed with 2 strikers with McTominay and Fred both dropping a bit deep to receive the ball. But once United are past the build up phase, McTominay is the one who makes the late runs from midfield and Fred is the one who holds his position. 

Just by seeing his heat map in the game against Leeds United, it is pretty evident that McTominay likes to make runs and maraud forward

That is the role where Camavinga would thrive under at Manchester United. He is good at dropping deep and building from the back but he is also among the best young dribblers in Europe making him a very good ball carrier. His work rate coupled with his excellent dribbling and we have a younger and maybe arguably better version of Scott McTominay. 

As you can see, his progressive carrying and dribbling makes him a very viable alternative to the role the Scotsman plays at Manchester United.

Considering the fact that Eduardo Camavinga is still very young, he can very well be developed into the role Fred plays as well. While his passing and vision isn’t polished, his awareness and press-resistant nature means he is very good at dropping deep and receiving the ball. His passing and vision can only improve in the future. As mentioned earlier, when Manchester United build up in a 3-3 shape with Fred or Matic dropping in the defence, Camavinga can easily be the mid who drops deep too as he has all the attributes in him to be developed in that profile. Adding to the fact that Camavinga’s work rate is pretty similar to Fred. 

Being alongside Nemanja Matic and he can very well play the same role Scott McTominay plays as the Serbian is the perfect DM allowing Camavinga the freedom to carry the ball forward in threatening attacking spaces allowing Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba to be closer to the goal and flex their creative or goalscoring muscles. 

All in all, Eduardo Camavinga going by his most recent form is the perfect alternative for Scott McTominay in the current 4-2-3-1 setup that Manchester United play but can be a viable alternative for Fred also seeing how much of a versatile midfielder the young Frenchman actually is. Assuming that Paul Pogba would play on the wings in the near future, signing Camavinga would make a lot of sense for Manchester United. 

Now, there are multiple situations pertaining to this. Manchester United are long term admirers of Declan Rice and if Rice was to switch sides and join the Manchester based club along with a contract extension for Paul Pogba, it would mean Pogba would be dropped back into midfield as a pure Defensive midfielder like Rice would allow Pogba to play with more freedom from the midfield pivot which could hinder Camavinga’s opportunities in the first team. If Pogba won’t renew his contract then Camavinga is probably among the top 5 candidates to replace him. 

If we look closely at the current scenario, it looks like Paul Pogba would be staying at Old Trafford this season and that would mean the current setup with Pogba playing on the LW would be Solskjaer’s go-to system considering that Rashford is out for a considerable time. That leaves Manchester United with only 3 viable options who can play in the midfield pivot with ‘McFred’ and Matic and it only makes sense to bring in another option to add to the depth of the squad. 

In conclusion, Manchester United should make a late push for Eduardo Camavinga as his asking price is probably the lowest it can ever be and the financial strength of Manchester United’s competitors for his signature is also the weakest at the current moment. If Camavinga does decide to run down his contract and leave Rennes next season, then Manchester United may have to be involved in a bidding war for the young Frenchman’s signature. If Manchester United do manage to make a late push and get his signature then the transfer window would be classified as a very successful window for the Red Devils. 

Sensible Targets: Alexander Isak

According to multiple reliable sources in the UK and in Europe, Manchester United are in the market this summer to buy a striker. Forwards, especially strikers, this season haven’t been great for Manchester United –  Edinson Cavani has had to deal with problems both professionally and personally, Mason Greenwood is still learning the trade as a striker and Anthony Martial is struggling to get any kind of consistent form going. It is also rumoured that the Uruguayan veteran may well leave Old Trafford at the end of the season which leaves the club with only one recognized striker in Anthony Martial. While the goals have flown in this season from Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford, it is no secret that the Red Devils need another solid attacking option to take them to the elite level. 

That attacking reinforcements are speculated to be either of the Dortmund duo, Jadon Sancho or Erling Haaland. Sancho would come in on the wings instead of the centre forward position, that would allow Greenwood to move into the striker role. But, due to spending upwards of 40m on two young right wingers in Facundo Pellistri and Amad Diallo, Solskjaer and newly appointed DOF John Murtough could look to bolster the striker position itself. It is rumoured that United have the budget to make only one marquee signing and the heavily rumoured signing is Erling Haaland. It will be tough for Manchester United to sign the Norwegian as he is on the radar of many other top European clubs such as Chelsea, FC Barcelona and rivals Manchester City. 

In this piece, we will cover an alternative Manchester United could sign on the cheaper side and focus on spending the marquee signing money on some other position. We will take a look at the Swedish striker Alexander Isak who is making quite a name for himself at Real Sociedad in Spain. 

History

Born in central Stockholm, Isak made inroads with his local club AIK Stockholm (or simply known as AIK) at a very young age and gathered a lot of attention for his physique and good technique. Being a good young striker from Sweden and having a strong physique, it was natural that Isak drew comparisons to Zlatan Ibrahimovic at a very young age after his breakthrough at AIK. 

He made his professional debut in a cup game against a fourth tier side for AIK on 28th February 2016 at age 16. The Swede scored a goal in a 6-0 victory. He was then named in the starting lineup in a league game for the first time a month later and he scored again in a 2-0 victory en route to becoming the youngest goalscorer in AIK history at 16 years and 199 days old. He soon became a first team regular having impressed in the limited time he got on the pitch. He signed his first professional contract later on in May. 

He scored 10 goals in his breakthrough season which helped him earn a 9 million euros transfer to German giants, Borussia Dortmund. His stint at Dortmund didn’t quite go according to plan as he made only 5 league appearances for the club and didn’t score any goal. After failing to make even a single appearance in the 2018-19 season for Borussia Dortmund, he was shipped on loan to Dutch side Willem II in January. 

The Swede impressed in Eredivisie by becoming the first player in the league history to score 12 goals in his first 12 league games. He even scored an equaliser and a winning penalty against AZ Alkmaar to take Willem II to their first KNVB Cup final since 2005. He ended his loan spell having scored 13 goals in 16 games. 

His impressive loan form drew a lot of attention from many other European clubs. The 21 year old signed for Spanish club Real Sociedad in the summer of 2019 for a reported fee of €6m. 

Scout Report

Alexander Isak has continued his impressive form and development ever since signing for Real Sociedad. He scored 9 goals in 14 starts in the 2019/20 season as he shared the striker role with Willian Jose. This season, Isak has taken his game up a level scoring 12 goals in 20 starts. We will take a look at his biggest strengths. 

Link Up Play 

Isak plays mostly as a lone striker in a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1. He is very good at dropping deep and receiving the ball and linking up play for his teammates. Real Sociedad play in a way that attracts the opposition press in the middle which allows them to release wide runners in either the wingers or the fullbacks pushing forward. Isak is a great outlet for them as he sucks in defenders and his good hold up play and strength coupled with his good passing allow him to release the runners in the wide areas. 

He is very adept at finding little pockets of spaces in and around the final third which allows him to expertly link up play with his midfielders and wide players. The Swede has a pass completion rate of 75% which is very good for a striker where he doesn’t have all the time in the world to release the ball to keep the move going. 

As seen in the above images, Isak frequently drops deeper to link up play with one touch  or two touch passing which allows Sociedad to retain possession and continue their build up play. The Swede acting as a focal point is very crucial in Sociedad’s possession-friendly tactical setup. 

Dribbling, Progression and Half Turn

Continuing with the theme of Isak dropping deep, if he hasn’t got a passing option available, he simply carries it forward himself. He is fast, strong, is a good dribbler and is very quick on the half turn. He draws in the opposition defenders with his back to them and then quickly turns away from them opening up space for him to either pass or to carry it forward. 

As seen in the images below, Isak is very quick on the half turn and drawing defenders in before quickly turning them and progressing the ball forward. Isak averages 19.9 carries per 90 with a progressive distance of 125.9 yards per 90. 

In the below image, he expertly draws the defender to get close to him which leaves a lot of space behind the defender, which the Swede runs into after quickly turning the defender. 

Here is another example where he attracts the defender towards him and exploits the space left behind by the defender to progress the ball forward using his excellent dribbling skills.

Shooting

Alexander Isak boasts the highest npxG (Non penalty expected goals) per 90 in the whole of La Liga which shows that he is as lethal in the box as he is outside. He also ranks among the highest in touches taken in the penalty area. So not only is he adapt at playing away from the box, he is very lethal in the box as well. 

The Swede has scored 12 goals in the La Liga this season with none of them coming from the spot. He has accumulated a npxG of 11.4 which shows that he is actually outperforming his expected goals tally by a bit. This shows that he is a very lethal finisher and his quality of shots are very good instead of taking wayward shows which many strikers his age tend to do as they have a point to prove. Isak is composed and chooses his moments which is a very good sign for a young striker. 

Here is a chart comparing his shooting with some of the top strikers.  

(Credits: footyscouts.com/Liam Lam)

Isak ranks among the very best in the business in terms of shot quality, volume and npxG. 

This is a graph comparing his npxG and touches inside the penalty area among all the La Liga strikers. As it is evident, he is again one of the best in that sense. 

Off the Ball Movement

We’ll take a look at his off the ball movement to understand how he is able to create space for himself inside the box. 

Isak sees that Oyarzabal is winning the duel vs Carvajal, so he expertly peels away from  Sergio Ramos who is caught ball watching and exploits the space behind the Spanish defender. This allows him to be free in the box to receive the cross from his teammate and he smashes in a beautiful volley past Areola in goal.  

This image is another example of he can find space using his off the ball movements. He waits for the very last moment to make a run while isolating the defender against him and due to his quick change of pace, the defender is left behind and Isak, being onside, is able to run behind the defensive line and receive a beautiful pass from Odegaard which lands him in a 1v1 with the keeper which he expertly slots away.

There are also areas where Isak needs to improve on such as his decision making. Due to been given freedom to either dribble or shoot or pass, Isak often makes poor decision in the final third in whether to pass the ball, take a shot or dribble it himself which leads to the attack breaking down even when a better option was available. However, we can cut the 21 year old some slack as he is still very young and learning the trade of the game.

Conclusion

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has wanted a striker who can drop deep and link up play while being effective in the final third as well. He often asks Martial to drop deep and hold up play or release the fast wingers such as Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood and Daniel James. Seeing what the Norwegian manager asks of his strikers to do, Isak seems to fit the profile perfectly. He is fast, strong, has got good pace, good dribbling and is very lethal in and around the final third. He would suit a counter attacking system as well as a possession-friendly one. With a little improvement in some areas, Isak can develop into a complete centre forward. 

While Erling Haaland would be the dream signing for Manchester United, they could take a look at the young Swede for a cheaper alternative with a view of developing his game even further. 

Devil’s DNA score: 9/10

Sensible Targets : Teun Koopmeiners

There have been a lot of questions asked about Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tenure at Manchester United. Is he the right man for the job? Will he bring Manchester United success? Is he capable enough of going toe to toe with the Guardiolas, Klopps and Mourinhos? The fanbase has been divided about Solskjaer’s reign as Manchester United manager ever since he was given the job on a permanent basis after the historic comeback against PSG in the Champions League Round of 16. While there are still some doubts about his credibility to win major trophies, it is fair to say that the Norwegian has managed to turn many doubters into believers. One aspect of his management that has received no doubts is his performances in the transfer market. 

Solskjaer knew the rebuild at Manchester United was a pretty big one. He sacrificed his short term in order to achieve long term goals. He always made a case to sign players who would put the club first and sold anyone who didn’t share the same interests. Solskjaer also sold a lot of deadwood left behind by the previous managers and brought in players who can all be considered as successful signings. Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Alex Telles, Bruno Fernandes, Edinson Cavani have all made a difference for club and while signings such as Donny van de Beek, Daniel James, Facundo Pellistri and Amad Diallo haven’t featured as much as the others, their potential is there for everyone to see. 

Today, we will be starting a series in which we will be covering some players Manchester United could have a look at in order to plug the holes in their squad and work towards improving the squad. It has been widely reported that Manchester United are looking to bring in a Right Winger,a Centre Back and a Defensive Midfielder. 

In this piece, we will cover a defensive midfielder Manchester United could look to bring in – Teun Koopmeiners. 

History

Koopmeiners grew up in Castricum, in North Holland. He joined the AZ youth set up at the u12 level and has been playing at AZ Alkmaar ever since. He rose through the ranks, and as a part of Jong AZ, he won the Dutch third tier title in 2016. In 2017, he made his professional debut for AZ when he came in for Alireza Jahanbaksh for the final 30 minutes in a 4-0 loss to Feyenoord. It didn’t take long for Koopmeiners to become a starter for AZ as he made 26 league appearances. At the end of that season, AZ finished 3rd in the league, qualifying for the Europa League.

Last season, Arne Slot’s AZ grabbed a lot of attention as they finished 2nd in the Eredivisie (tied on points with Ajax) which was ended prematurely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. AZ play an expansive, attacking style of football which boasts many talented academy players such as Calvin Stengs, Myron Boadu, Owen Wijndal and now club captain, Teun Koopmeiners. This season in the Eredivisie, Koopmeiners has scored 11 goals and 4 assists which is an impressive feat for a defensive midfielder. 

Scout Report

Teun Koopmeiners plays on the left side of a 4-2-3-1 formation mainly acting as the deeper lying midfielder of the double pivot. He can play as an advanced midfielder as well as a more defensive one and can also comfortably slot at Centre Back thanks to AZ academy’s philosophy of not defining a specific position for the young prospects. The 22 year old contributes equally in attack as well as in defence. Let’s take a look at each of his strengths in detail.

Passing
Possibly the biggest strength the Dutch midfielder possesses is his passing ability. Koopmeiners is a brilliant passer of the ball. Instead of going up the field in the double pivot, he usually stays back to link up play from deep midfield. He is very adept in playing long balls over the top as well playing progressive passes along the ground.
The Dutch midfielder averaged around 74 passes per match last season with an impressive 89% pass accuracy. Considering the fact that the average pass completion percentage for his position is 82% across Europe, his 89% passing accuracy shows how much of an accurate passer he is. Furthermore, he averaged around 25 forward passes per match with a 76% pass accuracy for the same. Koopmeiners also gave 9.2 deep progression passes per 90 last season showcasing his immense ability to start attacks from the back. 
He is a type of defensive midfielder who can control and dictate the tempo of the game. The 22 year old provided 0.73 xGbuildup ability last season which shows how much he can influence attacks and contribute to build up play. His dribbling and deep progression is also one his strengths which points to his ability to move the ball forward from either by passing from the deep or carrying it forward using his dribbling abilities.
Defensive Abilities
As a defensive midfielder, Koopmeiners has to adhere to his defensive responsibilities as well. Looking at his stats, it’s clear that he is not someone who ignores his defensive responsibilities. Koopmeiners averages 6.83 duels per game and wins 61% of them which shows he is not someone who shies away from a defensive duel and is someone who ‘gets stuck in’ on the pitch. Still, he wins well over half of his duels which is still impressive for a player playing in his position.
Adding to that, He also averages 3.3 PAadj tackles and interceptions per 90. (PAadj is a metric used to adjust stats according to the possession a team keeps). We can see his defensive stats in a graph made by StatsBomb (@StatsBomb)

Set Pieces
Teun Koopmeiners possesses a wand of a left foot and his set piece ability is one of his biggest strengths. Koopmeiners has converted 18 of 22 penalties attempted in his career with a conversion rate of 82%. He is currently the designated penalty taker at AZ and is improving day by day. In the 2019/20 season, the Dutch midfielder converted 9 out of 10 penalties. Besides that, he is also adept at hitting in free kicks and is a constant threat from his set pieces either from corners, indirect free kicks.

One weakness that Teun Koopmeiners does possess is his lack of pace off the ball. He makes up for it via his positioning and his footballing IQ but his lack of pace is something that must have been worrying for a lot of PL level clubs. He was linked to Leeds United, West Ham and most significantly to Everton but he ended up staying at AZ. 

Scouting score: 9/10

Tactical Fit

Ever since Bruno Fernandes came in at Manchester United, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has leaned towards dropping the counter attacking system and shifting towards a more possession based system. The tactical system that saw Manchester United arguably play the best football in the league after the lockdown ended last season seems to be the type of system the Norwegian prefers and recent matches in the PL is also a strong indication for that.

Speaking of that post lockdown system – Nemanja Matic was a big, big part of that system. Matic used to drop as a faux CB while in possession and look to start attacks from the deep via passing it through the vertical lines of opposition defence or by carrying it forward himself. Seeing how Koopmeiners plays in the exact same position at AZ, he could be a very capable replacement for Matic as the Serbian midfielder doesn’t have age on his side.

 As seen in the image above, Koopmeiners is very capable of breaking the vertical lines and starting attacks from the back.

 

Not only is he good at breaking vertical lines, he can also play accurate through balls and set up quick goal scoring opportunities for the forwards. Seeming how Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba and Donny van de Beek all like to play in between the midfield and defence vertical lines, the balls from the deep to them are very crucial to get Manchester United’s attacks going. Nemanja Matic did that exceptionally well and United have been looking at such a deeper lying playmaker to do that job ever since. 

Tactical Fit : 10/10

 Conclusion

Another aspect of the Dutch midfielder which cannot be ignored is that the 22 year old is a born leader. The fact that he was AZ’s captain at just 21 years old is a testament to that. Manchester United have lacked strong characters in the dressing room for a while and even though the addition of Bruno Fernandes and Harry Maguire has helped that, another name can only help. 

Koopmeiners is someone who puts his team first and is someone who makes everyone around him play better. He is a proper dressing room leader and a very strong character which will be very important if Manchester United have ambitions to win titles in the near future. 

All in all, Teun Koopmeiners seems like a perfect replacement for Matic. If anything, he plays and behaves like a younger version of Nemanja Matic. Considering the fact that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer prefers to play the possession system under which United have thrived previously and are still thriving under it, Koopmeiners seems like he would be an excellent addition to the squad. 

According to latest rumours, Leeds United, Fulham and Everton are still interested in bringing the AZ captain to England in the summer. AZ could demand a niche fee in the region of €25m to €40m. Considering the low asking price, and all that we have analysed in this report, we would rate Koopmeiners a ‘must buy’ for Manchester United for summer 2021. 

 

Overall Devil’s DNA score: 9.5/10. 

 

 

The Path To The Perch, Part 3 : 2000-2013

 

“And Solskjaer has won it”

On 26th May 1999, these words echoed around the world and were forever etched in Manchester United’s rich history. Rightly so, United had just become the first English team to do the treble and they did it with some style. Ryan Giggs’ last gasp winner in the FA cup semi final, a brilliant comeback victory against Juventus in the Champions League semifinal and of course, the two late, late goals against Bayern Munich in the final. 

“Football, bloody hell”, remarked Sir Alex Ferguson, as he would later find out that ‘Sir’ was a permanent prefix added to his name. Alex Ferguson was awarded the Knighthood after his Treble triumph in 1999. A remarkable turnaround from what was shaky start to his life as a Manchester United manager.

After winning the treble, the glory days kept rolling at Old Trafford as Manchester United would go on to win back to back titles in 1999-00 and 2000-01 with most of the treble winning team still donning the Manchester United red. However, the team that won the treble was soon dismantled. 

Peter Schmeichel had already left following the 1999 season and replacing him proved to be difficult. Mark Bosnich, later Fabian Barthez and Tim Howard, all failed to impress at Old Trafford. Following the 2001 title victory, Teddy Sheringham left to join Tottenham Hotspur on a free transfer. Ferguson broke the transfer record to sign Ruud van Nistelrooy from PSV. Later, that record was again broken to sign Juan Sebastian Veron who is still regarded as one of Ferguson’s biggest failed transfers. Jaap Stam left in that summer and Andy Cole also joined Blackburn in December 2001. 

Sir Alex Ferguson announced his intentions to retire at the start of the season. A decision which we all know he reversed and promised to stay on for a minimum of another 3 years. Van Nistelrooy scored an impressive total of 36 goals in his debut season but United failed to win any silverware as that was the year of emergence for Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal and a rivalry between Manchester United and Arsenal that would continue for years and years. 

Fergie again broke the transfer record to sign Rio Ferdinand from Leeds United for 29 million pounds which proved to be a fantastic signing. United won the league title again in the 2002-03 season and reached the Champions League semi final. David Beckham was sold to Real Madrid following the title win after a rather public row with Sir Alex Ferguson. Ferguson signed replacements in Kleberson, Eric Djemba-Djemba and Cristiano Ronaldo. No prizes for guessing which of them was a successful signing. But the 2003-04 season belonged to the Invincibles of Arsenal. In the CL, United lost in the first knockout round to Jose Mourinho’s Porto. 
At the start of the 2004-05 season,United signed a promising teenager from Everton by the name of Wayne Rooney. Rooney scored a hattrick on his CL debut and went on to have a fairly decent career at United but United were devoid of silverware yet again. You see, Mourinho was named the Chelsea manager at the start of the 2004-05 season and he and his Chelsea team went on to dominate the league in that, and the subsequent season. The Red Devils finished 3rd in that season behind Chelsea and Arsenal. At the start of the 2005-06 season, the Glazer family completed the takeover and bought the majority stake in Manchester United leaving the clubs in almost 600m of debt. The financial situation at United was bleak and there are a lot of articles written about this. Although, in the 2005-06 season the red devils did manage to win a piece of silverware in the form of the Carling Cup, or most recently known as the Carabao Cup. 
In 2006-07, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney developed into more mature players and became superstars. Their on field Chemistry and partnership was a joy to watch. United had also finally managed to replace Kasper Schmeichel in the form of Edwin van der Sar and the rebuild was complete. Manchester United won the title and reached the semi finals of the Champions League where they lost to the eventual winners –  AC Milan. The club remained successful on the pitch in spite of the takeover from the Glazer family, a true testament to Ferguson’s managerial abilities. 
The 2007-08 season proved to be one of Ferguson’s best seasons in his outstanding career. United signed Owen Hargreaves, Carlos Tevez, Nani and Anderson. Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra settled in at Manchester after a difficult start to their Manchester United careers after coming in January of 2006. Manchester United did the double that season, winning the Champions League and the Premier League. The famous night in Moscow, The match went to a penalty shootout after Cristiano Ronaldo’s opening goal was cancelled out by Frank Lampard’s equaliser.Ronaldo missed his penalty in the shootout but a slip from John Terry and a fantastic save by van der Sar off Nicholas Anelka’s attempt meant United would win the Champions League, Ferguson’s 2nd and United’s 3rd in their history.
The following season, there were strong rumours that Real Madrid wanted to buy Ronaldo after he had won the Balon D’or, but the Portugese stayed for another year in Manchester and helped United win another league title and reach another Champions League final only to lose to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona led by a superb Lionel Messi. 
Following the 2008-09 season, Ronaldo left in the summer to join giants Real Madrid. That season, United recovered from a slow start to win the Premier League title. That title victory made Sir Alex Ferguson the first manager in Premier League history to win the Premier League 3 years in a row, on two separate occasions. This Premier League title victory was Ferguson’s 11th and Manchester United’s 18th, putting them level with Liverpool.
In the 2009-10 season, Manchester United won the League cup after defeating Aston Villa 2-1 in the final. That was the first time United were able to mount a successful knockout cup defence. However, the Red Devils lost the league to Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea on the final day and narrowly bowed out of the Champions League in the quarter finals owing to an away goals defeat to Bayern Munich.
The 2010-11 season marked an end of an era for that Manchester United squad. Gary Neville, Edwin van der Sar and Paul Scholes all retired at the end of that season. Manchester United did manage to win that season meaning they would go ahead of Liverpool as the English team with the most League titles.They also reached the Champions League final, their 3rd in 4 years, where they would again meet Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. United lost the final 3-1 to a brilliant FC Barcelona team and Sir Alex Ferguson’s elusive 3rd Champions League win remained a dream. 
Owing to retirements of key players, Ferguson again spent big in the transfer market. Signing Ashley Young from Aston Villa, Phil Jones from Blackburn and David de Gea from Atletico Madrid. Overall, the 2011-12 campaign was a fairly unsuccessful one for Manchester United. They were relegated to the Europa League after finishing 3rd in the Champions League, where they would meet Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao who would go on to knock the Manchester club out. And of course, who can forget the famous “Agueroooo” moment? Manchester City clinched their first Premier League title in over 44 years after pimping United for the first spot on goal difference. 

That season sparked a reaction in Sir Alex Ferguson and he spent big to bring in Dutch striker Robin van Persie in order to bring the title back to Old Trafford. And he did. Manchester United won their 20th Premier League title, Sir Alex Ferguson’s 13th, with van Persie finishing the season as the golden boot winner. Towards the end of the season, Sir Alex Ferguson announced his retirement, pulling down the curtains on a glorious and illustrious career with Manchester United. 

 “My greatest challenge is not what’s happening at the moment, my greatest challenge was knocking Liverpool right off their fucking perch. And you can print that.”

-Sir Alex Ferguson.

And he did.