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. 

Why Maguire-Varane is the perfect CB duo

It’s hard to ask United fans to relax about Varane coming to the Theatre of Dreams for his medical this week. It’s hard to ask them not to get over-excited about seeing him in a United shirt soon. It’s not something to relax about at all. The prospect of seeing two world-class centre backs in Maguire and Varane is nothing short of mind-blowing. Ability-wise alone, it’s a finger-licking thought – putting together 2 of Europe’s best CBs together. But in today’s article,  I’ll try to explain that from a tactical point of view, they are a ridiculously good fit for the system Ole has been trying to perfect for 2 seasons now.

Analysing the stopper-cover system

Most modern centre-back pairings operate in a stopper-cover partnership. The stopper (or dog) is the one who aggressively engages in duels with attackers and often steps into the DM area to win the ball early before the clear-cut chance can be created by the opponents. The dog marks the man rather than the space.

The cover CB (or cat) drops to sweep up loose balls, cuts passing angles and contests duels only if his stopper loses/misses. The cover CB marks the space rather than the man. Cats usually cost more than dogs since they are a rare breed.

The relevance for this style of partnership has only increased in modern times as many attackers are adept at dropping in the hole to create (like Firmino, Messi, Kane) as they draw out defenders and create space for their more attacking partners (like Salah, Griezmann, Son) to attack the space. With the stopper-cover setup, the stopper engages the former type while the cover player tracks the latter type to give the team a double opportunity to weed out threats.

For reference, Ferdinand Cover and Vidic Stopper or Ramos stopper and Varane cover or Puyol Stopper and Pique cover would probably be the best examples in recent times.



In terms of traits, the ideal requirements would be,
Stopper traits: Aerial prowess, Strength, Duel winning, Aggression, Bravery
Cover traits: Positioning, Awareness, Anticipation, Speed, Communication

And if we take some common skills required for a top possession oriented team,

Common traits: Passing, ball control, Duel success, consistency, fitness

It should also be noted that all pairs aren’t necessarily a stopper-cover system. Many teams don’t operate that way. For example, Burnley under Sean Dyche line up in a classical 4-4-2 and have a deep defence line where both center backs are of the physical duel-winning type and are tasked to win their individual duels. The need for covering and positioning is limited thanks to the deep line while their strengths of aerial presence and physicality are utilised better. Also, many backlines in recent years have been a back 3 in Europe. This blurs the duties further – at times 2 stoppers and 1 cover play (like Conte’s Inter) and at times 1 stopper and 2 covers (like Conte’s Chelsea).

For Manchester United over the last 2 seasons, Maguire is the clear stopper and enjoys stepping into midfield to contest with opponents. His strong frame and heading ability make him a great asset to win the ball early and stop opponent moves while his lack of pace and agility are also made up for when he engages early without giving the attacker a chance to collect the ball and run at him. In contrast, Lindelof avoids the early aerial scruff and drops patiently to pick up the quick poacher or loose ball from Maguire’s duel.

Football is a weak-link sport. This means that a team would suffer if it had weak links. Upgrading the weakest parts of a team is usually the aim since one single good player rarely wins you games alone but a single poor player could cost you games easily. In comparison, basketball is a strong-link sport where upgrading your good player to a superstar could result in you winning a lot more, since a single player earns many points in a team.

For this reason, team building in football usually happens in the format of identifying weak spots and upgrading them to create a more balanced squad. This isn’t always possible though and especially when it comes to center-backs, the chances of getting a well-rounded center-back who ticks all the boxes (fast, strong, technical, consistent and tall) are close to zero. A manager is better off pairing two center-backs who compliment each other so well that together they eliminate any ‘weak link’ between them. This is where a stopper-cover equation really shines. Instead of looking for 2 world-class well-rounded CBs, a manager has a better chance of looking for a world-class stopper and a world-class cover to create an air-tight defence.

With that explained, we now proceed to make two (slightly ambitious) statements.

Harry Maguire is a world-class stopper
Raphael Varane is a world-class cover.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team building has been top notch since he took over. Selling players who don’t fit or aren’t good enough and buying/promoting players who fit his system or offer clear upgrades to existing players are the 2 major parts of team building, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. Ole has managed both to a great extent. For 1-2 seasons now, a CB upgrade has been on his mind even after the acquisition of Harry Maguire. His vision for the backline might finally be complete with the addition of Varane.

We will now proceed to explain the logic behind the 2 statements.


Harry Maguire is a world-class stopper

One of Maguire’s best qualities, his aerial prowess, can be summed up with the following viz:

Maguire boasts an insanely high aerial win % of 76% while also contesting a whopping 190 duels. Only Caleta-Car was better at 77% but contested much less. It wouldn’t be wrong to call Maguire the best CB in Europe in terms of aerial prowess. Milenkovic, Mings, Tarkowksi, Andersen, David Garcia round up other aerially strong CBs. 

But that’s not the only thing he’s great at. Maguire’s pizza chart is an astounding reflection of his well-rounded qualities and the amazing season he has just had. He’s not only been an aerial monster, but also amazing at progressively passing and carrying. He’s also played with the consistency, leadership and fitness of an elite defender. He is the quintessential CB who ticks all the stopper traits as well as the extra common traits needed for a top team backline. 



Raphael Varane is a world-class cover

Explaining why Varane is a world-class cover might be tougher. Unlike stoppers, there aren’t very clear metrics to quickly identify a good cover CB or cat. The fine arts of positioning, sensing danger and marking space to plug gaps so that the need for a duel never arises are not easily quantifiable. That said, we do have things to go on.

Firstly, we can refer to the same aerial prowess viz to quickly highlight one underrated strength of varane that covers usually struggle with:

Varane almost matches Maguire’s 76% win rate while contesting ~100 duels. Aerially, that’s a world-class combo. It should be noted that Varane does face lesser duels though. Lindelof’s traits point to a cover CB but he’s been forced into many aerial duels taking him close to the Europe duel average. United will need to protect their cover CB (now Varane) more by keeping the ball better, pressing wide areas to stop crosses & maybe buying a holding DM. Varane has made a few mistakes in the past even in Madrid when he hasn’t been protected adequately. 

For Varane’s other strengths, we take a look at his pizza chart:

Other than the impressive aerial win % which we covered, we can immediately notice a dribbled past percentile of 86. That is really impressive and a very specific cover CB trait. Cats rarely get dribbled past thanks to their elite positioning, awareness and agility. Varane is a master at that. He jockeys players well until they have nowhere to run and then makes a well-timed tackle. He spots a runner or dribbler quicker than anyone in Europe. Once he does, he has the acceleration, speed and agility to turn and catch that player and not let them get past him.
Fbref’s dribbled past percentile of 86 is actually not a fair reflection because many players with low number of 90s would get ahead of Varane on a per 90 basis. If we dig deeper into the data to filter center-backs in Europe who have played at least 25 90s in 20/21, only 5 players have been dribbled past less than Varane. That is elite.

Going through his other metrics it becomes clear that Varane is a very well-rounded player. He isn’t as amazing at carrying and dribbling as Maguire and as amazing as Lindelof when it comes to passing but he’s just one shade lower at both. Varane is the kind of CB who is a solid 8/10 on everything. Once again, using the weak-link concept explained earlier, that well-roundedness really helps a top team. Lindelof, for example, is a very accomplished center-back in his own right and has formed a good partnership with Maguire in the last 2 years. But the ‘weak link’ in his game, and consequently United’s defence, is his aerial ability. Not having a weak link is more important than having a strong link in football, especially in defence. Even If Varane offers a good upgrade on Lindelof’s aerial ability with a small downgrade on his passing, the overall positive effect for the defence is huge. The defence won’t have any specific weakness that opponents can target. That alone could be the reason a few draws turn into wins and a few semi-finals turn into trophies. United fans will understand.

Stats can only explain so much. The eye test matters a lot, especially when it comes to partnerships. The most simple way of knowing why Varane will work with Maguire is to see what has worked for him so far. He hasn’t won 4 UCLs for nothing. It’s convenient that his partner in these exploits is a player who possibly shares the most common traits with Maguire. Sergio Ramos is the original dog – the aggressive stopper who snuffs out attacks before they begin with his high duel winning ability. His immense leadership at the back and comfort on the ball round up the uncanny similarities with Maguire. Varane cannot hope for a more suitable replacement to extend his career’s success. With Ramos off to PSG, partnering Maguire might be the fastest way to form a UCL winning pairing once again.

We highlight Varane’s movement as a cover and what he is capable of doing with Maguire by illustrating what he has done in Madrid consistently.

In the above example, Varane lets his right-back make the tackle on the oncoming dribbler first jockeying and surveying the result. The moment the attacker gets through, Varane creates a tight angle to corner him and his timing is so good that he can almost walk away with the ball after a heavy touch by the attacker. 


In the above scene, Varane at the center of the pitch keeps his calm even in a final ball situation as he waits for the right moment. He notices the striker bursting through the center with a well-timed run that beats Ramos easily. Varane then covers the path to the goal in lightning-quick speed and once again times his block with the touch of the attacker to clear away the danger.

I could go on and on about the numerous times Varane uses his awareness, agility and speed and times his tackles/blocks to win the ball right after an attacker’s touch. But I guess United and EPL fans will soon be able to witness such moments.

In conclusion to this article, if an elite stopper-cover system is what United have been dreaming of since Vidic-Ferdinand, then it might not be possible to find two better peak CBs (both exactly 28 years old) for either role than Harry Maguire and Raphael Varane. A dream pairing of one of Europe’s best stoppers and best covers might just be what’s needed to bring to reality the dreams of a major trophy United fans have been harbouring for almost a decade now. 

MUFC Attack Combinations with Jadon Sancho

The long-drawn saga finally comes to an end! More than a year in the making, Jadon Sancho is now officially a Red Devil. Though it has taken time, the transfer fee of 73m pounds and the completion of the process before the Euros even ended deserves immense credit. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will now look forward to Sancho joining United’s pre-season tour and getting ample time to plan out tactics with the 21-year-old winger in mind. Sancho joins an array of attacking talent at the club in Rashford, Greenwood, Cavani, Martial, James, Amad, Mata, Elanga, Shoretire and more which will give the Norwegian manager selection and tactical headaches (good ones) for the coming season. Will Sancho play on the right more than the left? Will Greenwood play more as a centre-forward? Whose game-time takes the biggest hit? We try to answer these questions and more in this article. I will take a look at Sancho’s past 3 seasons at Dortmund and United’s last season trend to make some possible combinations and predictions for United’s front 3 in 21/22. Let’s get straight into it!

What is Sancho’s best position?

We know that Sancho is a winger capable of playing on either side. But where has he actually played more and where is he better at? 2 questions that need answering. I pull out Sancho’s playing time data over the past 3 seasons and split them by position. I’ve considered only his starts in this viz. Do note that he often switches positions mid-game and pops up in various areas as a substitute as well which isn’t reflected in the below viz.

The first obvious insight is that Sancho has clearly started at RW more than any other position in this period. That’s one W for the ‘He’s our permanent RW’ camp. But as we analyse more it also becomes clear that his rate of playing on the right wing is reducing over time. What was almost a 80% rate in 18/19 has become exactly half in 20/21. He has been playing more LW recently and as of last season even lined up as CF a few times. The starts are dependent on the tactic used. For the most part, Dortmund lined up in a 4-2-3-1 in this period, at times making way for a 3-5-2 or 4-4-2 diamond mainly in 20/21 due to change in managers. The latter cases are when Sancho has found himself at CF (as per Fbref data). To be more precise, his role was of a central support striker role playing slightly off the finisher (mostly Haaland). For the majority of the last 3 seasons at Dortmund, it has been simply a choice between left or right winger in a 4-2-3-1 for Sancho and from the data we can clearly see that his managers have been shifting him from the right to the left progressively over time. The reason for that becomes clear in our next viz.

In the below viz, I simply chart Sancho’s goal contributions (Goals + Assists) per 90 minutes over the 3 seasons for each position he has played in – LW, RW & CF. This is to gauge where he’s most lethal from. 

Interesting findings here. Sancho’s 0.69, 0.94 & 0.76 G+A p90 as RW are comfortably bested by his 0.83, 1.24 & 1.26 as LW. The reason why he’s been given the LW berth more in recent times is simply because he’s much more effective from there. In terms of eye test as well, Sancho from LW has the options to cut in and shoot a lot more often while it also opens up the field for him to look for a cross-ball to his striker or opposite winger. Both his goal and assist threat increase from the left side due to these reasons. His G+A per 90 from CF in the few games he has played there is also an amazing 1.55. It should be noted that on the pitch this also translates to a left-sided support striker role where he has even more freedom to be close to goal while retaining his right-foot angle to create and shoot. Per game, Sancho takes 4 more shots when he plays on the left compared to the right. His xG (Expected goals) per 90 from RW is 0.34 while from LW is a whopping 0.84. The pattern is clear.

The summary of the above data is: 

  • Sancho has played more on the right than the left in his last 3 seasons at Dortmund
  • He is very capable of playing on either wing or even as a central support attacker
  • His goal contributions and goal threat are better from the left compared to the right which is why he has been featuring there more in recent times

Manchester United’s front 3 in 20/21

To understand where Sancho fits at United, we must first understand what he’s fitting into. The recent season data of 20/21 across all competitions should give us a good idea. In the next viz I simply plot who Ole has chosen for the front 3 positions in the recent season.

CF appears a little more than RW and LW thanks to a few iterations of the 3-5-2 and 4-4-2 diamond that Ole attempted in the first half of the season. Else, it’s majorly been a case of 3 attackers in a 4-2-3-1.

For CF, we see that Martial and Cavani have played most with Rashford and Greenwood not far behind. Rashford’s 12 starts at CF aren’t as far off from Martial’s 20 and Cavani’s 21 as one might think. While injuries to the latter 2 have provided him more chances than one might have thought, there is a case to be considered here that Ole might see Rashford as a viable CF option after Cavani and Martial, thanks to his ability to run behind the defence. Rashford’s goals per 90 from CF are exactly the same as from LW (Both 0.37). Only his assist rate of 0.19 from LW is slightly better than 0.14 from CF. This will have an effect on our predictions later.

We notice that the wings give us a much clearer pattern with Rashford being the main choice for LW and Greenwood for RW. Once again Rashford pops up at RW as much as James and boasts some important goals and assists from there as well. Like Sancho, Rashford retains the ability to play anywhere in the front 3 and just like Sancho he seems better suited to LW and CF compared to RW. We see Pogba make the 2nd most starts at LW, a ploy which saw Ole get the best out of him towards the end of the season. But whether that remains a long-term tactic is up for debate. With Pogba’s future in question and his eventual role lying in central midfield (where he started most this season) it might be safe to assume he is not seen as a long-term winger post the signing of Sancho.

There’s also a very good argument to see James at LW more often since his underlying metrics also suggest a higher goal and assist threat from the left (I hope you can see a pattern of too many right-footed players preferring left-sided roles at the club). But the stability advantage James offers when he plays RW is also worthy of mention. When United tilt the attack to use Shaw, Rashford, Pogba and Bruno to combine on the left, James and AWB often slot in like RM and RCB in a 3-5-2 to help stabilise the formation. James offering the 2 options of an inverted winger on the left and a deeper classical one on the right make him a valuable squad player.

While Martial shows up a few times at LW here, eye test can confirm that he’s much poorer from the left than centre. Injuries forced Ole’s hand on those few occasions. It’s safe to assume Martial won’t feature at LW much after Sancho’s arrival. Cavani seems locked at CF for now. Amad and Mata also seemed locked at RW for the front 3, although both could provide good options for CAM on the rare occasions Bruno decides to rest. Elanga looks interesting. having started once each at LW and CF and offering a very brief glimpse of his traits which could suit either role. He is one to watch out for, but he has some time before he can trouble our starters at least for the upcoming season.

With an understanding of the position preferences, I bring your attention to the time Ole has given to each of these attackers over the past season.

Minutes played by MUFC attackers in 20/21:

4144 – Marcus Rashford
3142 – Mason Greenwood
2415 – Anthony Martial
2192 – Edinson Cavani
1518 – Daniel James
862 – Juan Mata
267 – Amad Diallo
155 – Anthony Elanga

While injuries to Martial and Cavani are big reasons for their reduced minutes, it is worth noting that Ole likes to use Rashford and Greenwood a lot. Even in 19/20, Rashford’s 3459 minutes and Greenwood’s 2631 were next best after Martial. With age on their side and rapid development to look forward to, it won’t be baseless to say that such a trend might continue. Cavani’s injury and fitness issues over the past 3 seasons are well documented. The Uruguayan hasn’t managed to cross 2400 minutes in any season in this period and was almost set for a return to South America this summer before a sudden U-turn enabled another year at United. It might be fair to assume he won’t be in the top 3 starters for the coming season and will be used mostly as an impact sub.

Okay so that’s a lot of information. We’re now going to use all this to make some combinations.

Predicting the front 3 for 21/22

Using what we’ve discussed so far, I make a few predictions on what we could see in the coming season. A few points to note before I start:

  • I’m lining up the options from most probable to least. This means that I feel that by the time the season ends, Option 1 would have been used a lot more by Ole than Option 6
  • I’m assuming a consistent 4-2-3-1 for the full season. Ole has played with the 3-5-2 and 4-4-2 diamond before and we also saw a fluid 4-2-4 variant towards the season end but all signs (including the signing of Sancho) point to the 4-3-2-1 on a consistent basis
  • Injuries and massive dips or upturns in form could change these equations to a large extent

Enough disclaimers! Let’s get into it. 

You might have seen this coming if you read between the lines so far (either that or I’m bad at dropping clues). For the first – and what I feel is the one we might see the most – option, I simply line up the highest appearance-making attackers of last season along with the new boy. I give Sancho and Greenwood the positions they have been most effective from in recent times and give Rashford his 2nd choice berth, a role he has shown good ability to pull off. The left-sided tilt strategy gets further enhanced with Shaw and Bruno combining with Sancho and Rashford to lethal effect while the roaming Greenwood can pop up with dribbles and shots when they create the space for him to cut into.

Pros:

  • We can expect pace and flair in abundance from the three U23 players that could give any defence nightmares
  • Positional fluidity that could be hard to track will be a strong weapon. Rashford and Sancho can switch between wings while Greenwood can play on the right or centre
  • Sancho’s high goal and assist threat, Rashford’s dangerous runs behind the defence and Greenwood’s ability to cut in from the right maximizes the natural traits of each player

Cons:

  • The absence of a proper line-leading CF like Cavani in this mix could cause a ‘too much support but no finish’ scenario. Especially against low blocks, phases of attack where the 3 strikers roam in the half spaces and areas around the box without anyone really running between the opposition centre-backs can be a roadblock

In this option, I slot Rashford and Martial in their best roles while giving Sancho his 2nd best role which he has ample experience and ability for. Ole has pushed Martial hard in his tenure and brought out one effective season (19/20) from him, but the jury is still out on the Frenchman. The coming season could be a make-or-break one for Martial and if he discovers his best form, then this combination could be Ole’s go-to lineup.

Pros:

  • Rashford’s understanding with Shaw and his recent mastery of the movement and playmaking from LW are maximized
  • Martial’s hold-up play can supplement two attackers who love to drift in and cut in to central areas

Cons:

  • Sancho is a very average presser off the ball while Martial also has phases where his workrate without the ball suffers. With Rashford also showing a very conservative pressing pattern in recent times (possibly due to his ongoing injury issues), the cumulative defensive output of this front 3 could be a burden on the high press tactic Ole wants to employ
  • Rashford and Sancho both love an attacking fullback to combine with, which might require a lot from Shaw and Wan-Bissaka in this formation. While Shaw has shown great form recently, AWB will need to improve a lot to provide that flank domination on the right that Sancho expects from his fullback partner (See Hakimi when he played with Sancho at Dortmund). Such a tactic with both fullbacks high up the flanks might not even be practical in many games unless United are trying to break low blocks. The stability of the formation comes into question again. 

A slight modification from option 2, I simply switch Martial with Cavani here. The traits the veteran brings to the table would be really appreciated by the dribbler-turned-creator duo of Rashford and Sancho. 

Pros:

  • With a clear line-leading CF to push defences back, the Englishmen could look forward to dribbling into the spaces Cavani’s continuous off-the-shoulder movement creates
  • With a very clear target man to aim at, Rashford and Sancho’s assist threat goes up a notch, as they can expect to find world-class runs behind the defence

Cons:

  • The tactic stability issues from option 2 make their return here. Although it must be said that Cavani’s intense and willing pressing makes him much more suitable to the high press system compared to Martial. The only doubts remain over both wings being stretched in transition and both fullbacks requiring effort to support either winger

A very subtle variant of Option 1, one would think that most of the dynamics remain the same, but they actually don’t. Even if we do see such a lineup on paper, my prediction is that it will change into the option 1 system on the pitch.

While Rashford does get his favoured role, Sancho and Greenwood operate in their second best roles. Yes, Greenwood’s best role comes up for debate at this point. We recently attempted to cover it in this article. In short, Greenwood seems like he benefits more when attacking from the right side compared to the center. Finishing is his best trait but the requirement of space he needs to run into and his poor off-the-ball movement make him better suited to use that finishing while carrying the ball from the right. The proof can be found in games this season where Greenwood lined up as a CF and never made the off-the-ball runs between the CBs like Ole expected him to. Numerous post-match comments about Greenwood not ‘breaking his nose’ or being a ‘pretty boy’ attest to this expectation not being met – as of yet anyway. While this combination could be the long-term dream of most United fans and even Ole and Greenwood themselves, the coming season might be too soon to see a developed CF version of Greenwood, which is why I am placing this option a little lower than some might have expected. 

Pros:

  • The pros of the dynamism and positional fluidity of option 1 are retained here

Cons:

  • The stability issue of options 2 and 3 of flank defence when Rashford and Sancho are on either wing comes up here
  • Additionally, Greenwood not being a line-leading poacher CF brings up the ‘too many SS’ players issue of option 1 as well

These last 2 options find themselves lowest in our list thanks to the absence of Rashford. Given his high playing time under Ole, a safe assumption would be to predict him to start, whenever fit. That last phrase is important though, which is why I brought up this option in the first place. If Rashford does opt for the corrective surgery which he currently seems to be pondering on as per own quotes before the Euros, he might miss the start of the 21/22 season. In such a scenario, the above 3 could line up as predicted. 

Pros:

  • Each player gets his most preferred role maximising their traits and individual goal and assist threat
  • Sancho can simply mirror Rashford’s highly attacking LW pattern of the previous season and combine with Shaw and the midfield to wreak havoc
  • The left sided attacking tilt ensures tactical stability with Shaw-Sancho being more dominant than AWB-Greenwood

Cons:

  • Other than missing the excellent traits of Rashford (like his understanding with Shaw and runs behind the defence) this lineup offers no real cons and could result in the best possible output from each of the 3

I round up our options with a variant of 5. Cavani replaces Martial to give us another option when Rashford stays out due to injury or fatigue. 

Pros:

  • Possibly the best replication of what Sancho enjoyed with Haaland in the previous season, he can use his creativity to find an elite poacher and run into the spaces offered by the defence-pushing movement of that person as well
  • Stability wise, possibly the best option on this list. The left-tilt strategy can help one side remain compact while Cavani’s intense pressing also supports the high press
  • Best role for each player once again

Cons:

  • Like option 5, there is no real con to this lineup as it boasts the perfect mix of creativity, goal threat, off-the-ball movement and defensive stability

Well, that wraps up our predictions for the attacking lineup United might opt for in 21/22. Thanks for sticking around so far. What do you think would be the option we see most in the coming season? Do you think we have completely missed an option in this analysis? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below or reply to the article tweet. 

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)