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.
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.
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
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
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)