Search for a CM: Manuel Locatelli

As football has grown more immersive, the Premier League has seen a variety of tactics and cultural mixing in recent years and the Serie A has also evolved to include a variety of gameplay approaches that mimic continental football. One player stands in the intersection of these 2 gradually widening circles – Manuel Locatelli. With Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tactics moving towards a European top team high possession game and Locatelli’s own game being very suitable for a title-aiming possession side needing a deep-lying playmaker, a seemingly unlikely marriage might actually be what both could greatly benefit from.

A few days ago I started this series. I analysed the kind of central midfielder United badly needs, detailed the traits to describe one and then used available data to create a realistic summer shortlist for the same. You can find that article here. I continue the journey today with a deeper analysis of one of the candidates from that shortlist who has made himself really hard to ignore this league season and in the ongoing Euro 2020 – Sassuolo’s Italian maestro, Manuel Locatelli.

Career History

AC Milan signed Locatelli from Atalanta in 2010, when the footballer was just 12 years old. Locatelli has worn the captain’s armband in every youth team he has played at AC Milan, from the Under-15s to the Primavera squad.

Locatelli is one of AC Milan’s academy finest products. Filippo Inzaghi was the first one to give him a call-up to the senior AC Milan team, Sinisa Mihajlovic has always had sweet words for the 18-year-old playmaker, whilst Cristian Brocchi gave him his first chance in Serie A playing him against Carpi in 2015.

Locatelli broke into tears while celebrating his first senior goal with AC Milan netting the equalizer in the Milan-Sassuolo clash which the Rossoneri won 4-3. After making 25 appearances in 2016-17, Locatelli was starting to establish a reputation, named alongside the likes of Kylian Mbappe and Kai Havertz in FourFourTwo’s 11 best teenagers in the world in 2017. But he struggled to kick on from there, usurped in the 2017-18 season by Chelsea loanee Tiemoue Bakayoko. He was then loaned out to Sassuolo for the 2018-19 season before joining the club permanently. It’s at the Citta del Tricolore that he’s established himself as one of the standout players in his position in Italy and the world.
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Having captained Italy’s Under-21s, the midfielder was rewarded with his first senior international cap by Roberto Mancini last autumn and instantly looked like a key player for the Azzurri in their successful UEFA Nations League campaign.

Locatelli is now 23 years old. His last 2 seasons at Sassuolo have seen him start 32 times each in the league while he has also started 7 games in the last 12 for the Italian senior team. A key and reliable member of both teams, Locatelli has finally made his mark in world football and is attracting the interest of the best clubs. A move to a Champions league and League aiming team is the next logical step for the Italian wonderkid.

Strengths & Weaknesses

Let’s start with why Locatelli even appeared on our shortlist. I’ve posted the final viz for ‘Passes into final 3rd’ vs ‘Progressive Passes’ from our first article. Locatelli stands tall as the best for both. The only dots above him for Progressive passes are Kovacic and Kimmich while only Soumare trumps him on Passes into the final 3rd. This simple viz indicates Locatelli’s first and most obvious strength – Passing.

The Italian is an elite passer. Now passing itself is a broad trait. What kind of passing am I referring to? In Locatelli’s case, mostly build-up passing from deep. He is able to find attackers and wide players with ease from deep DM areas. His passing range is sublime for such a young player. Capable of pinging cross-field diagonal balls to bombing fullbacks, precise quick grounded passes through a packed midfield to his striker and releasing game-advancing through balls to his fellow midfielders and wingers during attack, Locatelli has every pass in his locker. He is the kind of midfielder who drops deep to ask for the ball and takes authority to build up moves and set the tempo of the attack. 

The second trait required for a playmaker is carrying. Locatelli looks impressive even in this regard, capable of progressing the ball while dribbling. He boasts strong 73 and 79 percentiles for final 3rd carries and progressive carries which are very good numbers considering he plays the deepest role in midfield. The players in the top 25 percentile for these 2 metrics are usually more attacking midfielders like Luis Alberto or Hassem Aouar.

When it comes to defending, Locatelli is not an aggressive presser. Given his role to hold position and be wary of opponent counter attacks, he prefers to stay deep which is the reason his pressures are low. But as a result his dribbled past stat is low (76 percentile). His % of dribblers tackled stat is a healthy 84 percentile while his tackles won are at 75 percentile showcasing a willingness to do the dirty work when needed. Locatelli sacrifices intense pressing to hold back and not allow opponents to dribble past him and is very willing to tackle dribblers to stop them during transitions.

There’s no apparent weakness to Locatelli’s game for his role but If we are splitting hairs, the only issue I can think of is his eagerness to slide in during tackles. As we explained, Locatelli loves a good tackle and often tracks back with energy to stop opponent runners using his good defensive awareness. In some of these cases, in an attempt to catch up and never be dribbled past, he does slide in to win the ball. While his sliding tackle attempts are usually clean, the odd mistimed or rash tackle could result in trouble, especially close to his own box. Locatelli does have 9 yellow cards each in his last 2 seasons and 7 in the one before that, but he hasn’t received any red card in this period and is usually very safe in his tackling. This is also a trait attached to younger players which usually dies down in their peak and later years. Especially when playing in a top team, midfielders learn to stay on their feet more. Fred is an example of a midfielder who loved a sliding tackle before joining United but has since adapted to stay on his feet in the last 2 seasons.

Overall, this is a player with one of the best passing ranges in Europe, build up metrics as good as anyone under 27 years of age, carrying metrics in good range for a deeper mid and defensive stats that indicate a strong tackling holding midfielder who does not allow opponents past him easily. It’s starting to sound like what Manchester United badly have missed since peak Michael Carrick.

Technical Fitment: 10/10

Tactical Analysis

We know what he’s good at by now, but how does this translate on the pitch in reality? We take a look at Sassuolo’s games this season to find out.

Sassuolo’s go-to formation has been a 4-2-3-1 this season. Locatelli pairs up with Pedro Obiang in a pivot behind Djuricic. The 3 mids collectively provide for a Boga-Berardi-Caputo front 3. In the pivot there is a clear differentiation of roles with Locatelli taking up the deep lying playmaker (DLP) role while Obiang taking up the box-to-box midfielder (B2B) role. 

Sounds familiar? Our previous article details the 2 roles in Ole’s pivot and these are very similar to them. An AM with license to create, 2 in-cutting wingers who look to score and a complete forward capable of hold-up and finishing complete the rest of the similarities between Ole’s 4-2-3-1 and De Zerbi’s 4-2-3-1. 

The similarities don’t end there. Sassuolo have the highest possession % of 61% in the Serie A this season, even more than Juventus (57%) and Napoli (55%). The only other teams in Europe that boast a possession % of more than 55% and also play a 4-2-3-1 are Bayern Munich and Manchester United. Ole would want United’s average possession to rise from 55% to 60% like the other top teams of Europe (rivals Manchester City have 64%). Maybe buying a CM who has immediate experience of playing DLP in a possession based 4-2-3-1 with similar profile players around him is the ideal solution. Ole has the ball players in defence and the front 4 to create and convert but a DLP to put a stop to the press-hungry McFred pivot might be the biggest step in perfecting his controlled possession 4-2-3-1 tactic.

Let’s take a look at a few situations that describe Locatell’s abilities and importance.

The above scenario details a league match against Cagliari where Locatelli (in white above the opponent ball carrier) spots the incoming dribbler and waits until he’s in range before quickly closing him down after a big touch from the Cagliari man. A clean tackle later, Locatelli is able to quickly put his head up and play a precise grounded ball all the way to his striker Caputo who lays it off to Berardi as the counter from the front 4 begins. A threatening defensive situation turns into a counter opportunity thanks to Locatelli. 

Another situation where Locatelli (in white above the opponent ball carrier) as the LCM gradually gains ground on the pass receiver in yellow. The Italian waits for the bad touch before pouncing on the opponent to win the ball cleanly. At this point most midfielders would have circulated the ball back to the defence with their right foot and patted themselves on the back for a good ball win. But Locatelli spots the winger and belts an outside-the-foot through ball along the wing to set up a counter with the winger running into open space.

We can spend hours posting images of Locatelli’s cross-field balls to wide players. The Italian executes those diagonals as effortlessly as a 5 yard pass – it’s wonderful to watch. Here are some of the best examples:

No matter what the angle or distance, Locatelli usually finds a wide player with pinpoint accuracy and ease.

By now, I think I’ve convinced you enough of Locatelli’s excellence operating from deep. But your next question might be “Does he have the dynamism of a pivot midfielder to go forward and function in the attacking 3rd as well?” The answer is a resounding YES. Locatelli actually has an 85 percentile for attacking 3rd tackles, a 75 percentile on attacking 3rd touches and a 71 percentile for penalty area touches which are superb numbers for a deep lying midfielder. The Italian loves to bomb forward when the opportunity allows and supports his teammates with good dribbles, passes and the occasional shot on goal. His xG is at 74 percentile while his xA is at 80 percentile showcasing a willingness for the final ball and shot which is rare for a DLP.

Below are some examples of his contributions in the attacking 3rd:

In the above example, Locatelli (the one getting cut in the image at the top) makes a ghosting run from LCM to the edge of the D on the left half space. Djuricic spots the Italian and backheels an oncoming pass towards Locatelli who quickly plays it back into the space Djuricic runs into. The slick 1-2 exchange thanks to Locatelli overloading the left side creates a clear cut chance for Djuricic to shoot and convert. 

In the above example Locatelli rushes forward to the edge of the D on the left side to give support to his left winger Boga. Boga slides a quick pass to the Italian and knows Locatelli has the presence of mind and technique to play it in the open space which Boga runs expectedly into. Locatelli delivers with a precisely weighted outside-the-foot pass that creates a clear cut chance for Boga to shoot. Boga’s shot was eventually saved by the keeper. 

In the above instance, Locatelli finds himself wide on the left wing after providing a supporting overlapping run to help out his left-back. Trapped in a corner, Locatelli fakes a backward pass to take on the opponent right back and dribble inside the box with purpose. He keeps carrying the ball until the opponent’s right center back is also forced to engage. With both defenders close, Locatelli finally releases a quick pass between both opponents to his now free left winger, Boga.

So, tactically speaking, you have a deep lying playmaker who can find anyone ahead or wide of him with beautifully executed passes, loves a good tackle to rob opponents in a timely fashion and then always thinks of the immediate pass or dribble forward to create a chance for his team – a technical and dynamic pivot midfield playmaker.   

Tactical Fitment: 10/10

Transfer News

Current contract: July, 2019 to June 2023 (2 years left)
Current wage: £22,000 per week

Throughout most of his developing years, it seemed like Locatelli would follow the typical Italian route of staying in Serie A and playing for one of the top Italian clubs and the Italian national side during his peak years. Most of the rumours that were floating around when he started performing well at Sassuolo included either a return to boyhood club AC Milan or a switch to title contenders Juventus and Inter Milan. But a lot has changed in the past year to dispel this notion. 

In April 2021, Locatelli responded on the potential of seeking out a new challenge outside of Serie A: “Playing abroad is an option for me and at the moment I’m not excluding anything. It’s part of my job and it means that I have raised my level.”

Multiple quotes like these in the recent months and a sense from the Italian media that Locatelli is willing to move outside Serie A has alerted the top European clubs. The list of suitors is long with Arsenal, Manchester City, PSG, Manchester United, Chelsea, Barcelona and Real Madrid all linked at some point. The regularly quoted fee is 40m euros or 34m pounds which provides a very attractive proposition for top teams wanting to obtain a peak-approaching midfield playmaker in Covid-hit times like these.

Juventus still look like the favourites to sign the Italian. He has been identified as one of the men who will reignite the club’s midfield after an underwhelming campaign. But, Juventus are struggling to meet the modest evaluation and recently offered player swap deals that Sassuolo weren’t interested in, post which Locatelli left to join the Italy camp for the Euros. This seems to have created a level playing field for any of the other suitors to still come in with a winning bid.

Manchester United aren’t highly linked to Locatelli but that could just be thanks to the English media obsession over Declan Rice for the same position. United have wrapped up deals without a great deal of media links in recent times (Lindelof, Dalot, Cavani, Van de Beek, Amad Diallo etc.) so while the rumours may not be much, a healthy transfer fee, an enticing wage offering (Even quadrupling his current wage means £88K per week which would still be less than Dean Henderson, Alex Telles and Aaron Wan-Bissaka) and a key starter guarantee in a system very similar to the current one he plays in may be enough to tempt Locatelli to don the iconic red jersey in 21/22. 

Transfer Chances: 7/10

In summary, Locatelli could possibly be the most ideal candidate for Manchester United’s DLP requirement this summer. He has all the technical traits of passing, carrying and defending, tactically plays the exact same pivot CM role in a possession 4-2-3-1 system and has the willingness to move out of Serie A for a new challenge to a club that guarantees him starts. It might not get any better than this for the Red Devils. But a focussed and aggressive transfer approach might be required to beat the large number of suitors eyeing the Italian international as they see him do what he does best during these Euros.

Technical Fitment: 10/10
Tactical Fitment: 10/10
Transfer Chances: 7/10
Overall Devil’s DNA score: 9/10

Well, that crosses off one name from our CM shortlist for United. Who do you want us to cover next?

Manuel Locatelli (Sassuolo) – 9/10
Ismael Bennacer (AC Milan)
Mikel Merino (Real Sociedad)
Bruno Guimaraes (Lyon)
Matteo Ricci (Spezia)
Cheik Doucoure (RC Lens)

Mason Greenwood 2020/21-Season Review:-

Last season was the beginning of a transitional phase for the Red Devils. With Ole’s first full season in charge many changes were made in the squad and tactics. A lot of young players were integrated into the squad and many had big developments. One of them was Mason Greenwood. With his good performances one after the other he earned his place in the first team despite being a teenager. A lot was expected of him this season and in this article we are going to analyse Greenwood’s 2020/21 season for Manchester United.

Season First Half:-

Greenwood would have never thought that the start of the new season will be so disastrous. He got entangled in an incident with call girls along with fellow England teammate Phil Foden. The English media as usual tore into him and it had a detrimental effect on his mental health. As the Premier League began the impact of it could be clearly seen. He looked completely out of touch in the first 3-4 games. Just after that he suffered a knock against Newcastle and was out for one game. Ole had then backed Greenwood when reports surfaced that he was punished for coming late to training. Ole said that he was a dedicated lad and he had no issues with him. Greenwood scored his career’s first UCL goal against RB Leipzig. It was another milestone for him and it boosted his confidence.  A couple of games later he suffered another knock which kept him out for 18 days. As he was returning from illness, Ole backed him again and said that he had full confidence in him. Greenwood came on as a sub in a lot of games as he slowly regained his form. After a long dry spell Greenwood scored against Liverpool in the FA Cup. Signs of improvement had started to show in his game and now he was playing more confidently.

Season Second Half:-

Although he didn’t score, Mason was now concentrating more on improving his overall gameplay. Come April, and Mason was finally back to his best. He scored in three games consecutively in the Premier League against Brighton,Spurs and Burnley. Not only goalscoring,but now his movement on the pitch was better, his touches were better and he had improved his vision and decision making too. It was great to see someone who had such a bad start to the season finally getting on his feet. He complemented an attack consisting of Rashford and Cavani in most of the games and did it very well. He looks like an established figure in the team now and will only improve further.

Best Position:-

A question many united fans have had in mind is, which is Mason’s best position? Is it RW or CF? Well the answer to that is Mason should continue playing RW until he enhances his skills in order to become a CF. When asked about his position, Greenwood said this in a presser back in February, “  I don’t mind [where I play]. I could play anywhere across the front three. I can play on the right, up front and even sometimes on the left. For me, it’s just about adapting into any position I go in. If it’s up front or on the right, I don’t really mind, really. I’ll take it as they come.” As for what Ole had to say,” Mason was a bit shy there because he can play No.10, as well as a shadow striker,” he clarified. “He can play right, centre forward, 10 and, at a stretch, maybe on the left. We just have to give him time to find his final position.” We think that Mason will play RW until he develops his physique and awareness to play as a CF. Perhaps he can follow the footsteps of Robin Van Persie who became a CF at the age of 24 after playing as RW till then. Greenwood’s agility,dribbling and quick feet are perfectly suited for that RW position at the moment. It depends on how he improves his overall gameplay in the future whether he can play as a CF later or not.  

Next Season Expectations:-

There are more challenges ahead next season, as Greenwood will feel under pressure to keep up the momentum and outscore this season. But we know Greenwood and his ability to step up and deliver whenever he is asked to. The big concern is one of fatigue and over exposure amid a condensed fixture list. This is one of the reasons United need to help him out and not over play him at this age and therefore Amad Diallo’s development will help in this matter.

 Career Highlights So Far-

  1. 17 first team goals in his debut season

Greenwood tied a record set by George Best and Wayne Rooney on their first campaigns for the club.

  1. Five Europa League goals in his first season

Greenwood’s goals in the Europa League saw him become the club’s youngest ever scorer in European competition.

  1. 10 Premier League goals

Greenwood had become the first teenager since 1997/98 to score 10 Premier League goals or more in a season.

  1. Absolutely prolific at youth level

Greenwood scored 31 goals in 30 under-18 games, plus five in five UEFA Youth League matches. He scored three in three FA Youth Cup games, and four in seven under-23 matches, before being fast-tracked to the first team.

  1. Already a Champions League scorer

Greenwood scored his first Champions League goal for Manchester United against RB Leipzig. It came with his first ever shot in the competition.

  1. The 20 goal mark

Greenwood scored his 20th United goal in December 2020. He became the youngest United player to do so since Norman Whiteside in 1987.

  1. Double figures again

Greenwood reached double figures for the second successive season in the win over Roma. He became the second United player to score in five separate competitions in the 2020/21 season.

Strengths and Weaknesses :-

We have plotted a pizza chart of Mason Greenwood showing his percentile stats. The first one includes stats for the 20-21 season across all comps and the second one includes stats for the 19-20 season in EPL only. There’s a clear indication of his overall game improvement this season. He has been better on the ball and is more confident going forward. Finishing is his strongest attribute as is evident although it has dipped a bit this season. Mason plays as an inside forward in United’s system and he has integrated into that role perfectly. He needs to improve his awareness and work on the things he is lacking in such as movement off the ball, strength and decision making . For now he will play RW and build his game from that position. More game time will increase his chances of developing further and being consistent in a team which has lacked a good RW for ages.

Tactical Analysis: Unai Emery’s Villarreal

With normalcy kicking in i.e fans returning slowly and steadily back to stadiums, cup finals will have another aspect to become memorable- now that the 12th man will truly be back. One fanbase which will be travelling to support their team is that of ‘Yellow Submarine’- Villarreal CF who will be playing in their first ever major final- UEFA Europa League 2020-21 final in Gdansk on 26th May. The club also has the chance of winning their first ever major trophy in the club’s 98 year history. Such an occasion would have been bland for Villarreal CF had there been no fans but they have their footballing gods to thank now that it is safe to some extent to allow certain percentage occupancy of stadiums.

The Rise of Yellow Submarine from depths to the surface 

Villarreal, a town of roughly 50,000 occupants is home to the El Submarino Amarillo. A club very close to the small community is an example of how a small club can harbor the ambitions of taking the fight to the elites. The club has spent majority of its time in the lower divisions of Spanish footballing pyramid before going under a change of ownership by a local businessman (and one of the wealthiest persons at that time in Spain) Fernando Roig Alfonso. Under his astute ownership, the club underwent a revolution- rising to Segunda Division at the start of 1990s before reaching La Liga for the first time in their history in 1998. Unlike the usual money-minded profit leeching businessman owners in football, Fernando Roig’s Alfonso focused more on the investment in human resource rather than spending cash just for the sake of it, slowly and steadily building one of the best scouting networks and youth development programs in the Valencian district (and eventually one of the best in Spain), fighting toe to toe with it’s local rival- Valencia CF who also were enjoying their glorious era at the same time. The club suffered the ignominy of relegation after their first season in La Liga but the club learnt from this experience, worked hard and worked efficiently to win back the promotion and build up the team slowly and steadily to climb up the table in La Liga over the years. 

This new-found stability provided the club to compete in now defunct UEFA Intertoto Cup, reaching its final 3 times and winning twice- the latter which provided the chance to play in UEFA Cup (2003-04) for the first time in its history- not bad for a club who wasn’t playing first division football 5 years back. On their major European Debut, the club became a dark horse- reaching the semi finals on their first attempt. This was the chance for the Yellow Submarine to make a name for themselves on the big stage. But their local and arch rivals, Valencia CF, stood in their way. Valencia did overshadow Villarreal yet again, going on to win the trophy themselves. But this budding club learnt from it’s experiences- another appearance in the final of UEFA Intertoto Cup provided the Yellow Submarine to play in UEFA Cup (2004-05) but this time it was yet another budding club in AZ Alkmaar who were themselves looking to break the dominance of the Old Guard of Netherlands- the big 3: Ajax Amsterdam, PSV Eindhoven, Feyenoord Rotterdam- who ended up putting a brave display in the Quarter Finals. Ever gracious in their defeat, Villarreal again learnt from this experience and side by side building’s it’s profile and attracting the interest of some footballing giants- Diego Forlan, Juan Roman Riquelme to name a few with whom they reached to semi finals of UEFA Champions League on their debut- under the stewardship of Manuel Pellegrini.

(Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)

An 88th minute penalty miss by Riquelme in front of the 23,500 seater El Madrigal ended up costing Villarreal an opportunity of contesting for the grand prize in Paris that summer, a miss which sent Arsenal to their first ever UCL final. Yet another heart break but the club yet again gracious in defeat, learned from this experience.A slight slump in form saw the club out of action in UCL. But this absence was short lived. The club achieved it’s best ever league finish-2nd place in 2007-08 La Liga season which ensured them of an automatic place in UCL Group stages of 2008-09- playing in a group which consisted of yet another English giants, reigning UCL winners at that time (and Yellow Submarine’s opponents on 26th May)- Manchester United, the pride of Glasgow- Celtic FC and Danish side Aalborg FC. The Valencian side had the opportunity to play the Mancunian side again- playing against them for the first time in group stages of 2005-06 CL campaign- churning out an entertaining 0-0 draw on both occasions. Even in this campaign, both sides drew 0-0 at Old Trafford and El Madrigal. They finished 2nd in the group- advancing to R16 where they outclassed Greek champions Panathinaikos. Yet another Quarter Final appearance beckons for the budding club. And to add spice and seasoning to the occasion, they were matched up with Arsenal. A feeling of revenge developed among the tiny town- to take the fight to London and finish off the tie after a 1-1 draw at El Madrigal. But it was Robin Van Persie who produced one of his best ever performances in UCL for Arsenal in the 2nd leg- sending Villarreal and their strong fan contingent back home.

(Photo by Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)

Another slump of form and managerial merry go around kept Villarreal away from defying the odds but again this slump was short lived. Yet again the footballing gods graced the club. This time it was a slot in newly branded UEFA Europa League (2010-11) after RCD Mallorca were found to have massive financial implications. The club, just like it’s hard working population of the town it represents which has historically consisted of Orange and Mango cultivators, took this granted opportunity like there was no tomorrow. A mix of entertaining yet pragmatic performances saw the El Submarí Groguet reach yet another semi-final of European Competition- beating sides such as Club Brugge, PAOK, Dinamo Zagreb, FC Twente, SSC Napoli, Bayer Leverkusen. This resulted in a clash with tournament’s favourite FC Porto led by a young and enigmatic Andre Villas Boas and spearheaded by Radamel Falcao- the competition’s top scorer. But Villareal also boasted some local cult icons- led by Giuseppe Rossi. Villarreal started the match in best fashion- taking the lead at Estadio Do Dragao but the second half saw one of the best ever performances in UEFA Europa League’s recent history. With the support of the fans, The Super Dragons responded with a staggering 5 second half goals to win the first leg. Villareal won the 2nd leg 3-2 but it wasn’t enough. Yet another exit at the semi final stage, yet another ‘what could have been moment’ for the Yellow Submarine. 

The club was flying so high over the years that it eventually was humbled down. But neither the club nor the fans thought that it would happen so soon. 2011-12 La Liga season- a season marred with club crumbling under hefty expectations and a horrendous form in 2nd half of the season saw the club falling down to Segunda. What’s worse is that their recently appointed manager- Manolo Preciado suffered a fatal heart attack on the same day of his appointment and sadly passed away. A tragedy like this coupled with relegation and mass exodus of it’s squad to greener pastures saw the club facing a Herculean task of coming out of this adversity unscathed. 

When all looked lost, the club yet again rose from the ashes like a Phoenix- a brave run in final gameweeks of the La Liga 2 saw the club clinch a 2nd place and automatic promotion back to La Liga. A reborn Villarreal with all of its highs and lows in this glorious 15 year period- straight away secured a place in UEL right after promotion. The 2nd half of 2010s saw the club become a regular of European competition, taking part in UEL and also fighting for CL spots. Yet another strong run in UEL saw the club reach yet another semi final in UEL (2015-16). Another English giant in Liverpool stood in their way. A strong 1-0 win at El Madrigal may just have been enough for Villarreal to secure their place in the final but The Kop provided Liverpool with extra vigour and it meant that another semi- final exit was waiting for Villareal. 

But their fortunes were to change. Another slump in form humbled the club and made them to restructure their strategies. And with yet another blessing from the footballing gods, they got the person who may just be the one who can change their fortunes- who shared the same philosophy about football, about life. The new man-in charge? Unai Emery.

(Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images)

Tactical Analysis 

A humble and down to earth person off the pitch, Unai Emery has made a name for himself over the years in the Spanish footballing circuit. His spells outside of Spain haven’t been very successful but he is a person who has always been ready to take a challenge and test himself. Taking a job in Russia with Spartak Moscow, returning back home and achieving a legendary status in Seville. The charms of Paris and PSG attracted him after his stint at Sevilla,  followed by a fairly successful stint at Arsenal (given the North London side was in an era of transition). His flexibility in managing the resources at his disposal in Villarreal has seen him try various formations, from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3, 4-4-1-1 and even on occasion utilizing a 4-1-4-1 shape. At centre-back however, Emery has established the formidable partnership of former Real Madrid and Napoli man Raul Albiol, and youngster Pau Torres who has started attracting attention of various clubs in Europe. Emery has shown faith in the 24-year old Alfonso Pedraza, who previously had four loan spells away from the club. The young Ecuadorian Pervis Estupinan remains a solid rotation option for Villarreal to use at Left back after his loan spell at Osasuna. The creative Dani Parejo has been one of Villarreal’s key men this season after his move from Valencia, and has been partnered most often with another long-time Villarreal player – Manu Trigueros. And the attack is led by Gerard Moreno and Paco Alcacer. Gerard has been in the form of his life, enjoying his best spell of his career under Emery who has helped him improve even further.

Passing Map depicting the average positions taken by the players

Playing out from the Back

Unai Emery has always had a desire to play out from the back and that has continued on so far this season in 2020-21. In build-up and attacking phases, Villarreal’s formation shifts more into a 2-1-4-3. For purposes of simplifying things, you could also call this a 3-4-3, with Vicente Iborra/ Manu Trigueros dropping in between or alongside the two centre-backs. This allows the full backs to push wide and further up the field, stretching the play and creating possible openings to receive the pass while creating overload in the middle of the pitch- a possible numerical advantage over the opposition in same area by creating a diamond shape and a route both forward and backwards if things go awry. These shapes offer the Yellow Submarine options both forwards and backwards at proper angles to keep possession of the ball and avoid making dangerous sideways passes in their own half.

Villarreal trying to play from the back

Midfield Superiority 

If the opposition are then keen to try and bypass Villarreal’s midfield triangle, they are often forced into longer passes or the wide areas, closer to the touch-line. Dani Parejo and Manu Trigueros are the most frequent ball-winners for Villarreal, and in Francis Coquelin they have another player who can do the exact same job when needed.  In attacking transitions, they have a very vertical approach and as already noted, Moi Gomez and Gerard Moreno often drift inside. Their verticality naturally increases their use of through-balls down the middle rather than working the ball out to the wide areas and delivering crosses.

An attempt at through balls in central area of the pitch

While the Yellow Submarine started well in La Liga, their form has been topsy turvy which has left them at 7th place with 58 points, 3 point short of 6th place, ensuring a chance to play in the inaugural UEFA Europa Conference League next season at minimum. But their performances have yet again come up in the Europa League this season. With the club’s penchant of performing at top level in European competition and Unai Emery’s experience at the same stage complementing each other, their performance in this season’s Europa League have been exciting to follow. They topped their group stage with relatively easier sides- Maccabi Tel Aviv of Israel, Sivasspor of Turkey and Qarabag of Azerbaijan. They then went on to defeat RB Salzburg, Dynamo Kiev, Dinamo Zagreb to reach the semi finals where they were again paired with Arsenal. 

This was a tie which held a lot of importance to both the manager and the club, a chance at redemption and glory and possible revenge against the side who got the better of them twice before in KO rounds of both UCL and UEL. The first leg was played in Spain, at El Madrigal. Villarreal opted for a 4-4-2 with Manu Trigueros starting at left flank, trying to cut in and drop into more advanced midfield areas- creating an overload in the center and Parejo, Capoue sitting in deep midfield space and nullifying Arsenal’s approach of playing a narrower game. The biggest problem for Arsenal in this game was essentially self-inflicted. They tried to press high, with the wingers responsible for helping Smith Rowe. Saka and Pepe would press from the outside in, trying to force Villarreal through the centre where Smith Rowe, Odegaard, Ceballos and Partey would look to overload the Spanish side’s double pivot of Capoue and Parejo. But Villarreal were able to play out of this pressure.

The Villareal center backs trying to play through the opposition’s pressing higher up the pitch (example 1)

Villarreal’s centre-backs and midfielders were comfortable handling the ball under this high pressure, combining to find a way out. Arteta’s choice of Smith Rowe upfront naturally led to an extra option in midfield, as the 20-year-old dropped back looking to make angles for his teammates. However, Villarreal were compact and organised enough to minimise space for Smith Rowe and Odegaard between the lines, forcing Arsenal to play more directly – in the end, 11.4% of the Premier League side’s passes were long balls (compared to 9.8% for Villarreal). Ceballos was sent off early on in the second half, which didn’t help Arsenal’s chances.

The Villareal center backs trying to play through the opposition’s pressing higher up the pitch (example 2)

At that point they were 2-0 down, with Albiol heading home from a set piece to double Villarreal’s advantage. And it could so easily have been more. Arsenal continued to press as they had before, only now they had one man less. Unsurprisingly, this led to gaps for Villarreal to exploit in a midfield populated only by Smith Rowe (moved back when Arteta brought Gabriel Martinelli on for Odegaard) and Partey. Emery’s introduction of Francis Coquelin worked out, as the ex-Gunner frequently found himself the extra man in midfield and nearly set up a third goal for the hosts. In the end, it took a bit of individual quality and luck for Arsenal to get back in the tie and set-up a mouth watering 2nd leg clash in London. 

But, Villarreal was in control because their players were used to play a more pragmatic approach. Using the basics of seeing out the game, Villarreal defended well against an Arsenal side who again lacked the intensity which was clearly evident from their playing style. A 0-0 draw was enough to finally break the duck- a first ever final appearance in any competition for Yellow Submarine. And it came at the expense of tactically outclassing Arsenal, a sign of relief for Villarreal and Unai Emery.

A fairytale run across Europe will reach its final destination- Gdansk, Poland. With fans ready to back the Yellow Submarine against the Red Devils, a historic Europa League final is on the cards. A victory against Manchester United will not only mean a first ever UEL trophy (also first ever major title) but a victory against an opposition of the prestige of Manchester United, one of the ‘Dirty Dozen’ of ESL will be such a sweet experience for Villarreal. 

No matter what happens on the pitch, this Villarreal side will not be just playing for a trophy, this side will be playing for it’s colours, for it’s Barrio, for it’s philosophy. 

The Ramones’ ”I Believe in Miracles” which has been heard quite a few times at El Madrigal on matchdays, will actually hold a brand new meaning for Villarreal if they end up taming the Devil in front of them and get their hands on that Europa League trophy.  

“I believe in miracles. I believe in a better world, for me and you”- the ethos on which this club, deeply attached to it’s smaller community, has worked during its entire history. 

(Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images) (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

Cult Heroes: Ji-Sung Park

From being rejected by clubs in Seoul in his early days due to his lack of physical prowess, to becoming the most successful Asian footballer to ever play in Europe, Park Ji-Sung has had a remarkable career. We take a look at Manchester United’s cult hero, Park Ji-Sung, and the impact he has had at the Theatre of Dreams.

EARLY DAYS (1998-2000)

Park’s ambition of becoming a professional footballer emerged early. In 1998, he led his high school team to a victory in the Korean National Sports Festival. This success prompted him to apply for several professional clubs and universities. Due to his small physical stature, he was rejected several times before finally getting into Myonji University. However, in January 1999, his university team was given a chance to train with the South Korean Olympic team. His performance during these training sessions attracted the attention of the South Korean Olympic team and national team manager Huh Jung-moo. Thereafter, he became a formal member of the Olympic team. His continuingly impressive performances earned him a spot in the national team and he made his debut on 5th April 2000, in an AFC Asian Cup qualification game against Laos. In his early days, Park operated predominantly as an attacking midfielder but could also play on the left-hand side, as well as the right-hand side of midfield. He was known for his tenacity and tremendous work rate which eventually earned him the nickname ‘Three-lunged Park’.

Kyoto Purple Sanga and PSV Eindhoven (2000-2005)

The first professional club that Park signed for was the Kyoto-based J1 league side, Kyoto Purple Sanga. He joined the club in June 2000 and in his first season itself, Sanga was demoted to the J2 league. However, in 2001, Sanga won the J2 league and instantly earned back promotion. Park’s stellar performance in the 2002/03 season led Sanga to their first-ever Emperor’s Cup victory. He ended up scoring the equalizer in the final which they went on to win 2-1. This was Park’s last game for Sanga and he left the club as one of its greats.

After South Korea failed in the 2000 Olympics, Gus Hiddink was appointed as the manager by the Korean national team. During his time with the Korean national team, he made Park a more versatile player by playing him on the wings in a 4-4-2 formation, as well as often playing him as a wide forward in a 4-3-3 system. This led to an increase in Park’s goal tally for the national team and his performances against England and France leading up to the 2002 world cup grabbed international attention. After managing the national team for two years, Hiddink invited Park to play for him at PSV Eindhoven. In January 2003, Park joined PSV. However, the South Korean struggled during his initial days in the Netherlands due to injuries. He underwent an operation to remove his meniscus and this affected his first season at PSV. But the departure of Arjen Robben to Chelsea in 2004 led to increased opportunities at the club for the Korean. He instantly proved his worth to the team by producing stellar performances in a campaign that saw PSV reach the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League. He was a pivotal part of that PSV midfield due to his tremendous burst of pace while breaking on the counter and his crisp and accurate passing. He was the top contributor of goals and assists for PSV that season and even scored against AC Milan in the Champions League semi-final. These world-class performances at the highest level are what grabbed the attention of Manchester United in 2005.
Manchester United (2005-2012)
Impressed by his performances at PSV, Sir Alex Ferguson signed Park in July 2005 for 4 million pounds. In a team full of superstars the Korean’s role was hardly ever well-defined. He was neither a prolific goal-scorer who started regularly nor a physically dominant midfielder. In his early days at United, many were skeptical about Ferguson’s decision; especially in an era when stats like distance covered, progressive carries, etc. weren’t a part of the ‘meta’. But over the years, Ferguson truly utilized Park’s full potential by playing him all across the midfield as well as a wide forward in a front three. While playing in the midfield, he was more of a box-to-box midfielder. Ferguson often turned to Park in big games because of the defensive solidity the Korean brought to the side. 
Park’s first goal for the Red Devils came against Birmingham City in a league cup game in which United won 3-1. In his first season at the club, Park was a regular fixture off the bench in both domestic as well as European competitions, but started sparingly. However, the trust Ferguson had in him was evident, as Park took the armband off Ryan Giggs in a Champions League home game against Lille on 18th October 2005. He thus became the first Asian to captain Manchester United. Park netted his first Premier League goal against Arsenal in a 2-0 home victory on 9th April 2006. This was the first of five goals he scored against Arsenal, making him an arch-nemesis for the gunners over the years.

However, the Korean’s progress was halted in his second season when he injured his ankle in a game against Tottenham Hotspur in September. He recovered from that ankle injury in three months, but was sent to America for surgery in April due to a recurring knee problem. This was a chronic knee problem that would eventually accelerate his retirement. Side-lined with injuries for most of the season, Park said that he wasn’t happy with the Premier League medal he won in 2006/07 and assured the fans that he had much more to offer in the years to come.
Walking the talk, Park ensured he was a pivotal member of the United squad from 2007 to 2011 as United went on to win three league titles and played three Champions League finals while winning one of them. Park was hailed for his performances in the big games, where he always delivered. Multiple goals against big clubs like Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and AC Milan during this time soon made him a favorite amongst the Old Trafford faithful. Ferguson mostly deployed him on the left side of the midfield three where his workman-like attitude and intense pressing gave the likes of Paul Scholes, Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez the creative freedom which brought the best out of them. However when played in a front three as a wide forward Park came up with crucial goals and assists as he broke with immense pace on the counter. The goal and assist he got against Arsenal in the 2009 Champions League semi-final or his goal in AC Milan’s 4-0 thumping at Old Trafford in 2010 are a few examples. When it came to dubious Champions League fixtures, Park was a go-to player for Ferguson. He was pivotal in both legs while defending a 1-0 lead against Barcelona in the 2008 Champions League semi-final. His relentless work rate, off-the-ball movement and a knack for intercepting Barcelona’s quick passing earned him tremendous plaudits in that game. Ferguson later admitted in an interview that leaving Park out of the 2008 Champions League final squad was one of the toughest managerial decisions he has ever had to make. 
Perhaps his best performance in a United shirt came against AC Milan on the 10th of March 2010 at Old Trafford. Ferguson had deployed him in a midfield three with a very specific role. He was assigned to man-mark the Italian maestro Andrea Pirlo to curb the creative flow of that flamboyant AC Milan team. Park executed this role so well in United’s 4-0 thumping of Milan that the Italian later wrote in his autobiography, “The midfielder must have been the first nuclear-powered South Korean in history, in the sense that he rushed about the pitch at the speed of an electron.” Such praise from one of the best midfielders in the world just goes to show how pivotal Park was in that United team from 2007 to 2011.

Park made his 200th appearance for United on 5th February 2012 against Chelsea. During the 2011/12 season, Park had some memorable moments like scoring in the 8-2 victory against Arsenal, but his playing time had drastically reduced due to injuries and a dip in form. This led him to find a move away from Manchester to regain some game time.

Park ended up scoring 27 times for the Red Devils while making 205 appearances for the club. His relentless work ethic, energy and ability to adapt to several positions in a team filled with superstars is what made him special. In May 2020, Rooney said in an interview, “It’s crazy but if you mentioned Cristiano Ronaldo to a 12-year-old, they would immediately say, ‘Yeah, he was a brilliant player for Manchester United.’ But if you said ‘Ji-sung Park’ they may not know who he was. Yet all of us who played with Park know he was almost as important to our success”. This just goes to show how highly valued he was by his team-mates at United and continues to have great relationships with them.

QPR and the return to PSV (2012-14)

Due to the lack of regular playing time at United, Park moved to Queens Park Rangers on 9 July 2012. Park was made captain of the club, but due to his recurring knee problems combined with a lack of form, his time at QPR was quite unpleasant. The Hoops got relegated that season with Park only managing 20 league appearances and no goals.

With QPR playing in the second division of English football, Park returned to PSV during the 2013/14 season on loan. Perhaps the highlight of his return was when he captained PSV in a 4-0 win against Ajax while assisting twice and scoring once. In May 2014, Park announced his retirement due to the persistent knee problems he was facing. Reflecting on his career, he said, “I’m leaving with no regrets, I enjoyed playing football. I have achieved more than I thought I would. I’m truly grateful for all the support I have received and I will live the rest of my life thinking how I can pay it back.”

Legacy and post-retirement work

To this day Park continues to represent Manchester United as a global club ambassador for the club. Park is the founder of the charitable foundation, JS Foundation, set up in 2011, which develop and launch charity programs that will support football infrastructure and also the necessities of life. Park is remembered very fondly by the Old Trafford Faithful due to his contributions to a side that started from scratch and ended up winning everything. The Korean played a pivotal role in the rebuild that was brought about by Ferguson from 2005 to 2010. He was a perfect fit in a squad full of superstars who were raring to reach their prime and galvanized the squad by his hardworking and selfless attitude.

If we were to draw a parallel between Ji-Sung Park and a current member of the squad, the person whose name is most likely to come up in that particular conversation is Daniel James. A reliable, selfless player who would run his heart out for the team and can be used as a great tactical pawn to disrupt opposition, especially in the bigger games as mentioned previously. While James may still not be the final product, he has proven to be very useful in disrupting the opposition play with the help of his intelligent pressing and running. James, currently, may not be as good a player as Park was but their roles in the squad seem to be pretty similar.

Players like Ji-Sung Park don’t come around very often, but when they do, they leave a long lasting legacy behind them. 

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Tactical Analysis: Thomas Tuchel

 

There are some very good reasons why Thomas Tuchel keeps getting high-profile club jobs without having to wait, and knowing German is not one of them! We take a look at the tactician’s early history and the principles that shape his philosophy that make him one of the most exciting coaches in world football today.

 

Early Days

 

A series of knee injuries halted Tuchel’s budding career as a defender in his mid 20s. He played 68 times before being forced to hang up his boots for good due to a serious knee injury at the age of 24 in 1998. He then funded a business administration course by bartending before attempting another shot at a career by requesting his mentor Ralf Rangnick, head coach of Stuttgart at the time, to allow him a trial. After 9 moths of training with the Stuttgart reserves Tuchel came to the painful realisation that his playing days were surely over. A devastated Tuchel was suggested by his mentor to get into coaching. At a time devoid of textbooks, Tuchel learnt from the notes of Rangnick & Helmut Groß. He followed the personality building principles of Hermann Badstuber, father of former Bayern defender, Holger Badstuber, which led Tuchel to place great emphasis on making personalities. Acts like being on time, proper greetings with handshakes & making eye contact while talking would later become part of Tuchel’s own expectations as a manager. 

 

 

Tuchel started by shadowing the academy coaches before taking over the U14 team in 2000. He would then swiftly rise up the ranks as U14, U17 & U19 manager while impressing at each stage. His U19 league win with Stuttgart in 2005 prompted a switch to Mainz U19 who were on the rise at the time thanks to a club-defining spell under Jurgen Klopp. In June 2008, at a pre-season training camp in Austria, in a bid to motivate his players, Tuchel and his team underwent an intense trek and buried a club badge at the top of a mountain with the promise that the team would come back and remove it only if they reached the U19 Cup finals. In June 2009, the team reached the finals to face Borussia Dortmund. Tuchel did not want to disturb the players and went and brought back the badge before the final along with his assistant. He showed the video of their climb and them digging out the badge moments before the final in the dressing room to his players. An inspired Mainz U19 went on to win the final 2-1.

 

 

 

FSV Mainz 05 (2009-2014)

 

Being rewarded with a glamorous 7 years from 2001 to 2008 thanks to the inspired appointment of Jurgen Klopp, Mainz decided to follow up the club’s greatest era with another inspired appointment. They promoted the 35-year-old Thomas Tuchel to lead the senior team. Shaking off constant comparisons with Klopp, Tuchel delivered a strong 9th place finish in his first season before improving on it further with a club-first Europa qualification berth a season later. Key to their success was young Andre Schurrle whom Tuchel worked with in the U19s. Lewis Holtby, who joined on loan from Schalke, and Ádám Szalai, who made his move from Real Madrid Castilla permanent, formed a good trio along with Schürrle and the three were the Mainz boyband. Tuchel left Mainz in 2015 averaging higher than Klopp’s points per game (1.41 compared to 1.13 for Klopp), another Europa league finish and club-high 7th position. 

 

 

 Borussia Dortmund (2015-2017)

 

That followed a year-long break, during which Tuchel was still educating himself, understanding the importance of stats from Brentford owner Matthew Benham and then learning from Professor Wolfgang Schöllhorn, a famed sports scientist who indirectly influenced Guardiola. Tuchel’s next job was as challenging as his last – improving another impressive Klopp team – Borussia Dortmund. While Tuchel’s success is well-known, his methods aren’t. He employed a strict diet plan at Dortmund which improved the fitness of key players, Hummels & Gundogan. Even the official team bus driver was on a diet plan & lost 8 kgs! In his first season, they lost just four games all season while the attacking triumvirate of Marco Reus, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored an incredible 85 goals between them in all competitions. A year later Tuchel would win his first trophy, the DFB Pokal. He departed Dortmund again with better a points per game average than Klopp and in fact the highest points-per-game record of any Dortmund manager in history. In those 2 years, Dortmund were undefeated at home and Tuchel’s win % was a brilliant 62.7%.

 

  

 

 

 

Paris Saint-Germain (2018-2020)

 

If his Mainz and Dortmund spells were impressive, his time at Paris Saint-Germain was even better. In 2018-19, Thomas Tuchel’s PSG side set the record for most wins to start a top-five European league season – 14 and then went on to score in all 38 games of the league campaign – a first-time feat. If you thought the attack was fantastic, the defending wasn’t any less. PSG conceded a record low 6 goals throughout the 2019/20 Champions League campaign – a run which saw them reach the finals. Tuchel had to fight through waves of squad injury issues and display immense man management to get the best out of the previously underwhelming PSG stars. Eventually a disagreement with the board prompted him to leave the club, a trend observed during his departure from Dortmund as well.

 

It’s no surprise that a few weeks later he already finds himself in the coaching tracksuit of London side, Chelsea, presiding over them a day after Frank Lampard was sacked. Chelsea’s announcement of the appointment was followed with a training clip of his first session, where the German suited up quickly in a no-nonsense fashion before rushing to the training ground to take over his troops. It summed everything about Tuchel really – an efficient, hard-working winner who wastes no time doing what he does best. With 7 trophies and a Champions League runners-up medal under his belt and a stellar record of greatly improving every side he has ever managed, Tuchel is among the fastest-rising managers in the world. The challenging Chelsea job might just be the best opportunity for him to prove those who still doubt him wrong.

 

 

(All Image Credits: Getty Images)

 

 

 

 

 

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.