Bruno was born in Rio de janeiro in Brazil in 1997 and spent his formative years there playing football from a young age. His first big break came when he started for Brazilian league 2 club Audas at the age of 17. He was promoted to their main team the following year in 2017. By the end of that season he had impressed enough for Brazilian Serie A club Athletico Paranaense to pick him up on loan in May 2017. He impressed the club so much that they bought him mid-season and signed a deal with him till 2021. He became an undisputed starter under coach Tiago Nunes and renewed his contract again at the age of 20. His displays in Brazil’s top league caught the eye of Lyon who secured his services in 2020 for €20 million (and a 20% sell-on clause) on a 4.5-year deal. He has been plying his trade for the club ever since becoming a key starter in 20/21 when they finished 4th in the league. His 21/22 has also got off to a good start and at the age of 24 is now being rumored to be tracked by the top clubs of Europe.
Strengths & Weaknesses
The main reason why Guimaraes topped our shortlist in the first place was thanks to our extra weightage on passing progression stats. The idea was to look for a top playmaker in that bracket and that’s exactly what Guimaraes is. As per the calculations on our data set, (which negates players with low 90s) he boasts a whopping 95 percentile each on Passes into final 3rd & Progressive passes. Only 5 midfielders in Europe (Kroos, Thiago, Modric, Parejo, Gastien) better him on both metrics and none are younger than him. If the next best passer in Europe is the aim, you probably won’t get anyone better than Bruno G. Not only that, his progressive dribbling stats (Distance & number) are bested by only 2 players in Europe in Verratti & Modric showcasing his strength in carrying progression as well. He is probably the best young midfield progressor in the world.
He’s no slack defensively either and has actually been described as a very combative midfield general. This is backed up by his 83 percentile on tackles won and 84 percentile on successful pressures which are also supported by a decent 53 percentile on pressure success % (as per Fbref). So far, so good.
While his strengths seem to be jaw-dropping, Bruno isn’t without weaknesses. Glaringly he is just 10 percentile on Dribbled past. In our data set, this number further dropped to 5 percentile after cutting out low 90s players that Fbref doesn’t. Connecting this to the eye test, Bruno has the tendency to rush into tackles and 50-50s which often leads to him being beaten by his man especially on transitions. This is an issue that coincides with United’s problem on defensive transitions (Explained here). We already have players like Fred who lunge into tackles and get beaten on transitions so ideally the new midfielder shouldn’t. This is probably one box Bruno does not tick but the silver lining is, that at his age, this can be coached out of him. DLPs like him usually mature and become more stand-up tacklers and positionally aware, especially when they move to big teams. Rodri is a good example as he also had this tendency and would often be beaten in transitions in his first year at Man City. But he’s currently overcome that issue and has been one of City’s best players and the ideal Fernandinho replacement. One can trust Bruno to do the same if United move for him soon.
Overall, Bruno fits our progression needs to the letter and would solve a lot of build up, progression and creativity needs while being tenacious in his pressing and tackling. Only his weakness of lunging in and getting dribbled past will need to be worked on and prevents him from getting a full score on technical fitment.
Technical Fitment: 8/10
Now that we know what he’s good at, let’s see how his traits translate on the pitch in terms of role and tactics. Lyon have mostly lined up in a 4-2-3-1 this season with Caqueret & Guimaraes making up the pivot with Auoar ahead of them. In some cases they also shift to a 4-3-3 with the same 3. In both scenarios, Guimaraes plays as the deepest player in the mid 3. The 4-2-3-1 is far more prevalent and suits Guimaraes better as well since he enjoys the dynamism and work rate of a pivot midfielder rather than the static nature of a central DM. He has lined up as LCM often this year due to Caqueret’s preference for RCM, but Bruno is also capable of playing RCM. Guimaraes is the one responsible for the build up, progression from deep & often carries or passes from deep to kickstart the team’s moves. This is exactly what United want in their pivot as well.
One aspect of play that is a clear Guimaraes strength is his through ball ability. That special pass threaded through like a needle is always in his locker and he regularly spots attacker runs and plays them in from deep. Here are a few examples:
In the above 2 examples, Bruno threads inch-perfect passes between the defence line to put his striker 1-on-1 on goal. But even from large distances he has that ability as seen below:
Or if its from the outside of his boot as well:
Bruno’s second biggest strength is his carrying. In a combination of great ball control, Dribbling ability and upper body strength, Guimaraes constantly goes on bursting runs into the heart of midfield without losing the ball until he can create a gap to find a good pass. Here are a few examples.
In the above example Bruno picks the ball from a deep right-sided midfield area and immediately turns to take on his man, beating 2 men successively with a strong drive and taking another out with a quick pass thus progressing through 3 opponents in a flash.
Again Guimaraes picks up from a RCM area and drives, beating 2 men before sliding across a pass to his winger effectively taking out 4-5 opponent players and creating the space for his winger to get a shot from.
With this unique combination of vision, passing ability, dribbling & strength, it almost becomes impossible to stop Bruno from progressing. If you give him space, he picks out runners and strikers easily and if you press him, he can dribble past you to create space, making him the ultimate press-resistant tool for progression.
Tactically speaking, Bruno’s best role might not be a RCM DLP yet. A pairing beside a left-sided attacking LCM like Fred/Pogba might not be most ideal in his current form. One could even argue letting him roam as the attacking CM in a pivot alongside a sitting DM could work well. Here’s where coaching and what he’s trained into in the next 2-3 years becomes really key. Many DLPs like Carrick/Matic developed positioning and understanding of a deeper progressive role later in their careers and Bruno G has that ability for sure. We’re cutting 3 marks because of this reason. Mostly Bruno can develop into what United need, so overall, it’s still a terrific fit. It’s just not a readymade one that’s all.
Tactical Fitment: 7/10
Current contract: Jan, 2020 to June 2024 (2.5 years left) Current wage: £46,000 per week Market value: £27m Rumored Transfer fee: €45m (£38m)
Fabrizio Romano recently tweeted that Lyon want at least €45m for Guimaraes which is a pretty reasonable ask for such a talented player who has more than 2 years left on his contract still.
Arsenal have been the club linked most to the Brazilian but as of January 6th, Guimaraes had this to say: “Arsenal approached my agent, but there was no offer. My aim, and I made it clear to Juninho, is to win a title with Lyon. My aim is to win a title here, but I have never hidden my desire to play in the Premier League.”
This probably rules out a winter move unless a very compelling offer comes in. It also opens up the playing field for other clubs, especially in the PL. Given the high competition for his signature and low United link, we might have to cut some marks, but overall his openness to the Premier League and the rumored transfer fee make this a very attractive and realistic proposition for United.
Transfer Chances: 8/10
This brings our final scores to:
Technical Fitment: 8/10 Tactical Fitment: 7/10 Transfer Chances: 8/10 Overall Devil’s DNA score: 8/10
So there you have it. Guimaraes looked like he was the best option among our shortlist, but further inspection has uncovered that he might not be the 10/10 target that we had hoped for, thanks to his defensive transition weakness, doubts over a deep holding role and transfer competition. Overall, he still offers a huge upgrade on what United have, is probably the best young progressor in Europe and could fix United’s progression issues immediately all at a very modest transfer fee, which still make him a top transfer target.
Whom would you like to see covered next from our shortlist?
We started this series in summer 2021 using data to create a shortlist of players in the top 5 leagues who can be Manchester United’s much-needed midfield starter. This was the article and shortlist we stumbled upon. Since then, United have not bought a CM, 2 of the shortlisted names have moved to other clubs and some new candidates have emerged this season, which is why we are going to take a fresh approach to uncover the perfect midfielder United need. By the end of this article, we will arrive at a new shortlist that the Red Devils should seriously be looking at as winter transfer targets to help Rangnick achieve his interim goals.
A few notes before we start:
1. Only players from the top 5 leagues have been considered. We have covered reports of some non-top-5 players (Like Koopmeiners) before and will continue to do the same but for this analysis and shortlisting we are sticking to the top 5 leagues to keep the dataset limited
2. The filters are taken based on what I feel is needed most in United’s midfield – a profile we have lacked in recent times and one that would go well with our existing setup. More will be explained below, but a different shortlist could emerge for a totally different profile. This is simply my idea of what United need most
3. All stats are from Fbref.com (via Statsbomb)
Before we get into the process, we first need to decide the midfield role we are aiming for. Our summer shortlist article explained why a deep-lying playmaker is what is needed and that logic hasn’t changed even after Ole’s sacking. Whether Rangnick or the new manager plays a pivot or mid 3, the fact is that we don’t have anyone in midfield that can help build up, playmake and defend transitions. Matic comes closest but age has caught up to him. Think of our new player as a Matic replacement.
Additionally, all our existing profiles – Fred, McTominay, Pogba, Van de Beek and even Garner and Mejbri in future – enjoy going forward and affecting the final 3rd while none have deep playmaking or positional traits. Fred has mostly been shoehorned in a deeper role for 2.5 years but he has shown on multiple occasions that he excels more in a box-to-box role. To summarize, the new CM needs to be someone who is an elite passer, great progressor and good at the fine art of positioning. Someone with high defensive actions (pressing, tackling etc.) and a willingness to roam from his position to make final 3rd runs or press ahead is NOT what we want since we already have players for it.
Below is a percentile chart of Matic of the last 365 days. That’s more or less the profile we are going for. A younger and more mobile Matic who is capable of playing in a pivot as well as mid 3 would be ideal.
The Process Let’s dive into the process.
STEP 1: I downloaded all passing, defending and carrying stats per 90 for all top 5 league players from Fbref. Using Transfermarkt’s position data we first filter out all players except central midfielders and defensive midfielders (credit to @jaseviz, @NinadB_06, @exceedingxpuns for the position dataset).
Next we filter out all players who have not even played 7 90s this season. Most teams have played 15 to 18 league games so far, so expecting our man to at least rack up 40% of his team’s gametime seems fair. Anything lesser indicates he might not be ready for a step up to United or is too injury-prone.
Next, I converted all the stats into percentiles. Within our data set of top 5 league midfielders with greater than 7 90s, every stat has now been ranked from 1 percentile to 99 percentile. For eg. The lowest progressive passes per 90 within this data set is represented by 1 percentile while the highest will be 99 percentile.
We can see that about 250 midfielders in the top 5 leagues are spread out over the graph. Let’s start with our filters.
Based on our discussion on the role so far, if I had to pick 3 stats that are most important for the new CM, they would be Pass completion %, Progressive passes and Passes into final 3rd. We need our CM to be an elite passer, safe yet progressive and someone the whole game goes through, especially in the build up and progression phases. Given the high importance, I am going to use filters to keep only those midfielders who boast >70 percentile on all 3 passing metrics. The results are as follows:
This actually cleared up a huge population immediately. Not many players can pull off a 70+ percentile on the 3 passing metrics and it shows. We can see Thiago Alcantara sitting at the top for the 2 progressive passing metrics after the filtering, which gives a good indicator of the kind of playmaker we wanted thanks to this filter. So far, so good. Let’s continue with a few more filters to get our ideal CM.
STEP 3: Our next most important set of traits are carrying. Though not as important as passing, we do need someone who is progressive in his carrying as well. Nemanja Matic is United’s highest progressive carrier in the last 2 seasons. This doesn’t imply that he’s a great dribbler or even an aggressive carrier. It just implies that he has the ability to carry the ball from deeper areas when the opportunity arises. Someone too static or glued to the defensive 3rd might not be ideal. Considering United will be playing teams that sit back and concede possession more often, our CM should be adept at getting the ball out of defence.
We use a >60 percentile filter for Progressive dribble distance per 90 and Progressive carries per 90 on the current graph. Here’s the result:
Not much of a culling this time. Most of the top playmakers in Europe are progressive via passing and carrying at the same time. A few players like Casemiro got cut which probably indicates we are on the right track. We don’t need a static mid 3 DM player who isn’t progressive in his carrying.
STEP 4: Moving on, we come to our next set of filters – defending. To reiterate, we don’t need any aggressive defending traits from our CM. Pressing and tackling at the cost of positional discipline is a NO, especially considering the fact that the new CM might be paired with Fred/Scott who are already good at that. Positioning is a tough trait to create data filters for, but I am going to suggest 2 stats that come close to describing it – Pressure success % and Interceptions.
While we don’t need a high pressing player, we do need a high success presser, someone who wins the ball most of the time he tries – a careful and measured player who holds position but comes out successful when he decides to press. Interceptions are also a mark of good positioning. We’d rather have our man drop into deeper areas, calculate where the pass is being played and intercept it rather than push up and press the passer playing it. Finding a deeper operator who intercepts the ball before it reaches the opponent attackers in central areas is the aim here. This is key to defend transitions which we struggle with thanks to our players often initiating a tackle or press in transitions (Our detailed article on this issue – here).
This is probably a low criticality criteria compared to passing and carrying. So we are going to set a nominal filter of >40 percentile on Pressure Success % and Interceptions per 90. Let’s see the result:
Even with such low value filters, the graph has cleaned up a lot, which goes to show how tough these traits are to manage along with high levels of progression and playmaking. The likes of Fabian Ruiz and Frenkie De Jong got cut from the data which probably highlights that we are on the right path. Those are elite playmakers, but probably a holding role behind someone like Fred or Pogba might not be ideal for them.
STEP 5: We’re in the endgame now. Traits-wise our data set seems really sorted now. Our final filter is an obvious one – age. We want young/peak players who can sign for United and remain as a key starter for a while.
So my final act will be to filter out players above the age of 27. Here goes:
And we are left with 7 players! The likes of Thiago Alcantara, Luka Modric and Kevin Kampl who are too old and established to buy as a logical key starter for United have been eliminated. We are left with 7 U27 players who are either at their peak or approaching their peak and are realistically buyable.
I applied a weighted average formula to give 50% weightage to the 3 passing stats, 30% weightage to the 2 dribbling stats and 20% weightage to the 2 defending stats to come up with a final suitability percentage. Here are the 7 players in order of suitability with their details:
Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa
The top 3 names here represent highly suitable players for the role and are all aged 24, making them prime candidates to become immediate key starters in United’s midfield. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that buying one of them and pairing with our existing midfielders would improve the team immensely. Guimarães, Lopez and Bennacer are probably must-buys for United at this point.
Grillitsch might be slightly older but represents a very good option given his suitability. He is having contract issues and could be available for cheap/free soon. Tchouameni and Doucoure’s lower suitability compared to the the top 3 is simply a consequence of their younger age and slightly defensive-bent profile (which we gave lesser weightage for). If they are bought and developed for a top team possession game, they could be excellent as well. Zambo Anguissa is probably the lowest priority target given his age and suitability, but could be a good cut-price option or 2nd buy from the list in case we need 2 midfielders given our midfield situation.
So that’s that, folks! Given United’s midfield gap and the realistic options in the market, these 7 could prove to be the best bets to plug that gaping hole in the starting XI. United should be buying 1-2 of these players within the next 2-3 windows.
As an extension of this series, we will be doing individual scout reports of these players over the next few months (Like we had done for Locatelli in the summer here). Do let us know which player’s scout report you would like to read first.
When Emmanuel Dennis scored the 4th Watford goal, even the most optimistic of United fans knew that there will be a new manager to replace Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Indeed, it came true. The 4-1 defeat at Vicarage road was the final nail in the coffin for the Norwegian, who lost 4 of his last 7 games in charge including humiliating losses at the hands of Leicester City, Watford, and long time club rivals – Liverpool and Manchester City.
As expected (and probably a little too late), Ole Gunnar Solskjaer left his position as the head coach of Manchester United and Michael Carrick was appointed to be the caretaker manager while the board search for a new interim manager. What followed was a host of names being linked to be the successor of the 47 year old including Ernesto Valverde, Rudi Garcia and Lucien Favre. Mauricio Pochettino and Erik ten Hag have been rumoured to be the favourites to take over next summer and while there were rumours that Pochettino would be willing to swap Paris for Manchester, the deal never materialised.
On Wednesday, David Ornstein and Laurie Whitwell broke the news of Ralf Rangnick being appointed as the interim boss at Manchester United till the end of the season, with a 2 year consultancy role after the season ends in May. According to club sources, Manchester United hierarchy have maintained that the German was their primary target for the interim role and after an initial breakdown in talks last Monday, John Murtough, Darren Fletcher and Ed Woodward got the deal over the line 2 days later.
Regarded as a smart appointment by many, today we’ll have a look at what Ralf Rangnick can offer the Red Devils as a manager and indeed, as a consultant later on.
Ralf Rangnick, the manager
First, we will talk about Ralf Rangnick, the manager. Rangnick first became a manager in the late 1980s starting as a player coach for his local side Viktoria Backnang. His first job as a manager came for SSV Reutlingen 05. Afterwards, he managed a number of clubs in Germany, including VFB Stuttgart, Hoffenheim, Schalke and most recently, RB Leipzig. Throughout his career, he has a track record of improving the teams he managed.
Ralf Rangnick has also earned a lot of plaudits for his tactical acumen. Widely regarded as the godfather of the counter pressing or ‘gegenpressing’ style of play, Rangnick has shown immense tactical nous during his time as a manager. After his Hoffenheim side decimated Jürgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund with a scoreline of 4-1 In 2008, the current Liverpool boss said “That’s the kind of football we want to play one day”. He is regarded as “The professor” in Germany for his methodical and detail oriented approach to training and coaching his teams.
So, how will Manchester United line up under the German?
Rangnick has used many formations in his tenure, such as a 4-3-3, 4-4-2 diamond and even a 3-5-2 but his most preferred formation is the 4-2-2-2. This is the formation which would suit United the most but he can even opt for a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1.
Despite his formation, his principles remain the same. He likes a high pressing team and focuses a lot on winning the transitions. He likes to set up pressing traps by using 2 players to press and blindside pressing for the man on the ball with a 3rd player, thus creating a numerical advantage while pressing the ball. He also uses various different pressing triggers, such as a loose touch or a ball shifted in wide areas, to initiate the press. His focus on high pressing football would suit Fred and Scott McTominay, who are good pressers of the ball but not that polished positionally.
To understand the extent of his focus on transitions, we need to look at his training sessions with RB Leipzig where he introduced a 10-second clock rule with a custom clock made for this. The clock would tick loudly and all the players playing could hear it. The 10-second rule indicates that once the team wins the ball back, they must create a goalscoring opportunity within 10 seconds, thus completing the attacking transition. His RB Leipzig side ranked 1st in Europe in terms of defensive actions leading to shots and defensive actions leading to goal for the 2018/19 season. In terms of defensive transitions, the time limit was 8 seconds instead of 10, meaning that the team must win the ball back in 8 seconds after they have lost it, thus proving his detail to dominate the transitions, attacking or defending.
In terms of build up play, the German is not a fan of wide players and wants his wide players to tuck inside and act like a ‘inside forward’ almost creating a hexagonal shape with the 2 defensive midfielders behind and the two attackers in front of the two inside forwards. This would suit Manchester United’s wide players very nicely as all of them like drifting into the central areas and making things happen. Mason Greenwood, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and even Donny van de Beek are players who are best suited to play in the half spaces and that is what Rangnick will allow them to do. Sancho, who is known for his creativity in the final third by occasionally stepping in central areas would benefit from the 63 year old’s system.
Rangnick allows his fullbacks to push forward, creating a 2-4-4 shape while attacking. He likes to create overloads in wide areas and use numerical advantages to make things happen with the help of his narrow attacking structure. The German has been on record saying he doesn’t like square passes much and focuses a lot on being direct and exploiting the spaces by having runners in behind and constant positional rotation. This ideology would suit mainly 3 players – Cristiano Ronaldo, Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba. The Portuguese superstars are known for their ‘high risk, high reward’ approach and Paul Pogba always likes to make things happen and use the runners in his team to spread passes and flex his creative muscles.
All in all, it is fair to say that Manchester United’s squad would suit Ralf Rangnick’s ideologies very well. There are question marks being raised on how Cristiano Ronaldo would play as he’s not suited to a gegenpress style of play but considering Rangnick’s history and his tactical acumen, it wouldn’t be a stupid thing to assume that the 63 year old would have a plan to integrate Manchester United’s #7.
Assuming everyone is fit and available for selection, we can see David de Gea continuing in goal with a back 4 for Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Raphael Varane, Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw. Scott McTominay and Fred would act as the 2 defensive midfielders, but it is possible we can see van de Beek and Paul Pogba being used there with McTominay or Fred against weaker oppositions. Jadon Sancho and Bruno Fernandes would be the obvious choices to play in the flanks as the inside right and inside left creative midfielders/wingers. Paul Pogba and Donny van de Beek are capable replacements on the flanks respectively, similar to how Marcel Sabitzer was deployed on the right despite him being a midfielder. At Leipzig, Yusuf Poulsen played as the target man or the deep lying forward while Timo Werner was a menace with his lines behind the line of defence and his pressing. We could see Marcus Rashford playing the Werner role while Cristiano Ronaldo plays the Poulsen role. Mason Greenwood and Edinson Cavani being more than capable replacements for the roles respectively.
“Tactics, fitness and rules are all hugely important, but they’re only a means to an end. My job – the job – is to improve players.
Players follow you as a manager if they feel that you make them better. That’s the greatest, most sincere motivation there is.”
-Ralf Rangnick, The Coaches’ Voice
This is how the Red Devils will line up under Ralf Rangnick:
In conclusion, Manchester United have enough depth and enough quality in the side to cater to Ralf Rangnick’s plans. His high-pressing, counter-pressing, direct style of play would suit most of the players Manchester United have at their disposal and if he is able to get his ideas across quickly, Manchester United can flourish during the time he is at the helm as manager.
Ralf Rangnick, the sporting director
Now that we have seen what Ralf Rangnick brings to the table as a manager, let’s dive into what he could bring to the table as a consultant/sporting director.
Ralf Rangnick took his post as the sporting director of the clubs under the RedBull group in 2012, namely RB Leipzig, RB Salzburg and New York Red Bulls. He left his post as the manager of Salzburg to focus solely on as the sporting director of both the clubs. He made a return to management with RB Leipzig twice, first in 2015 when he guided them to a promotion in 15/16 and then in 18/19 where he managed to finish 3rd in the Bundesliga, proving that he can do both roles very well.
Ralf Rangnick oversaw the huge footballing success of the RedBull group of football clubs with both Leipzig and Salzburg coming from nowhere and then being regular outfits in European football in a very short period of time. In an interview with the Guardian in 2019, Rangnick said, “Can I be somebody who can influence areas of development across the whole club?’ Otherwise you are only getting half of what I am capable of.” He got that freedom at RedBull clubs and they have flourished under him. He got the same freedom at Hoffenheim, where he converted them from a third-tier Bundesliga team to a regular top flight team and laid the foundations for Julian Nagelsmann, who took Hoffenheim as far as the Champions League. “Ralf has a special way of looking at football,” Nagelsmann told ESPN in 2020. “I used Ralf’s philosophy at Hoffenheim; counter-pressing is a very important topic.”
Even though Rangnick’s first role as a sporting director came in 2012, at Hoffenheim he was already a manager + sporting director. He took the job when Hoffenheim were in the third division, even after having achieved great success with Schalke in the Bundesliga where he achieved a 2nd placed finish. It was later reported that the 63 year old wanted more control over the club’s decisions which led to a crossroads with the board. Dietmar Hopp, the chairman of Hoffenheim and the co-founder of tech giants SAP was keen to achieve promotion to the Bundesliga as soon as possible and he chose Ralf Rangnick to be the person to help Hoffenheim achieve that.
Rangnick likes to have a hands-on approach on how the clubs he is managing should function. He likes to control many aspects, the scouting, the recruitment, the way the club travels. At Schalke, he wasn’t given that freedom but at Hoffenheim he was given a clean slate to leave his mark. The German brought in Bernhard Peters, a former hockey coach, as the head of performance. His input on player performances, fitness levels and his analysis on the team tactics was very crucial for Hoffenheim’s first season under Rangnick’s leadership in 2006-07, when they achieved promotion to the 2.Bundesliga. Rangnick also brought in Hans-Dieter Hermann, a sports psychologist from Jürgen Klinsmann’s 2006 World Cup team, having his request for a psychologist previously rebuffed by the Schalke board.
In the 2.Bundesliga, Rangnick established his transfer policy. Establishing a worldwide scouting network and recruiting players with age on their side. Most of the signings were under the age of 23, mainly foreigners and many of them being from Brazil. Brazilians like Luiz Gustavo and Carlos Edouard were signed while Demba Ba came from the Belgian league and Chinedu Obasi, from Norway showing the vast scouting network put in place by the 63 year old. The same philosophy and structure TSG Hoffenheim still uses after being established as a top-flight club in Germany.
“Did we get Ribéry? Never! For us, it is ideal that we don’t sign players who are already playing at a higher level than us, but rather want to go there [the higher level] with us. I want players for whom a move to us is not a step backwards. We are convinced that all the guys we brought in last year – Vorsah, Eduardo, Gustavo, Ba, Obasi, Nilsson – were not only good for promotion, but also for the first division.”
In fact, this is a philosophy Rangnick would follow during his tenure with the RedBull clubs. Instead of splashing millions on star players, the German focused on signing players who are young and who will develop along with the club. His recruitment at the club proves his eye for talent and his wide scouting network, something Manchester United could benefit largely from. His shrewd recruitments include players such as Tyler Adams, Matheus Cunha, Emil Forsberg, Amadou Haidara, Naby Keita, Willi Orban, Yussuf Poulsen, Timo Werner, some of the most exciting youngsters in the world. Rangnick believes in developing the players and making them improve so that the club improves along with them.
How would this be beneficial for Manchester United? Well, for years, Manchester United are a club which has lacked an identity, a direction. Since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, Manchester United have followed their manager’s lead in terms of recruitment and signings and changes to the club in the background. That would have been fine if all the managers they have hired were of the same mould but that was not the case at Old Trafford. Quite the opposite. Manchester United went from David Moyes, to Louis van Gaal, to Jose Mourinho. 3 managers with completely different ideologies on football, which led to the club constantly ‘rebuilding’ whenever a manager was sacked.
If we look at all the top clubs in Europe, all have a certain identity, a certain philosophy that they follow in order to be successful. Ajax being the best example for this. The dutch club have a certain way of playing football and their use of academy and being able to churn out the best talents in world football known to everyone. The managers and squad may change but their philosophy and identity remain the same. They hire managers who believe in the same philosophy as the club. Anything can happen in this world, but Diego Simeone becoming the manager of Ajax in future has a very low probability of happening due to the said philosophy of possession-oriented style of play being in place at the club.
Not just Ajax, all the top clubs in Europe have an identity. Bayern’s identity of playing fast paced attacking football, Liverpool’s brand of heavy-metal, heavy pressing brand of football since Klopp came in or even the identity Pep Guardiola has installed at Manchester City. Every decision these clubs take are in accordance with a pre-defined philosophy at the club, something which has eluded Manchester United for some time. Now, following a philosophy or an identity is not necessary at all, but for a club who have been as wayward as Manchester United in recent times, this is something which would benefit the Red Devils a lot.
Since Solskjaer came in, he tried to do the same. Install an identity at the club which the club can follow long after his departure. Appointments of John Murtough as the football director and Darren Fletcher as the technical director were one of the first few steps the Norwegian took to implement his vision at taking the club to the next level. It didn’t work out for Solksjaer towards the end, but he built the building blocks for the next chapter in this club’s history and Ralf Rangnick is the one who can complete writing it.
Even though his title is as a ‘consultant’, it is widely reported that the German will have a lot of influence on many decisions the club makes such as choosing his own successor and other off the pitch decisions regarding recruitment policy, potential future signings and even changes to the training ground. Rangnick’s influence, with the input of Murtough and Fletcher, could help Manchester United oversee a change towards building a long term footballing philosophy.
Ralf Rangnick’s appointment feels like a first great step Manchester United have taken towards building a long-term philosophy at the club, something they have lacked since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. Judging by the German’s track record of improving and building clubs from scratch, it seems like a very wise choice.
Hoffenheim gave him the keys, and he built a fortress. Leipzig gave him the keys, and he built a kingdom. Now he has the keys to Manchester United, time will tell if he can build a dynasty.
It is said that La Dea– the Goddess Atalanta herself lives in the mountains of Bergamo, looking after the town and providing her blessings to the town folks. Situated in the heart of Lombardy, Bergamo has a deep connection to the old Celtic tribes who first moved into the region. The Bergamo faithful still to this date carry that Celtic blood in them. An industrial town, Bergamo is the heart of the construction and infrastructure industry of Italy. The town derives it’s spirit from the Greek Goddess-Atalanta (which translates to ‘equality’ from Latin) who grew out to be an able hunter and runner- known through her tales of Calydonian boar hunt, Argonauts and their hunt for the Golden Fleece.
The spirit of the Goddess resonated in the town. It is channelled perfectly by the football team situated at the heart of the city and every citizen. Named after the Goddess herself- Atalanta BC is at the lips of every football fanatic in recent times. Their playing style depicts the character of the Goddess herself- an able runner (given how Atalanta plays a high tempo football and cover every blade of grass on the pitch) out in the wild to hunt the mighty boars by the use of her will and wits (given how strategically the club is run in modern day and competes at top level with a lesser wage budget than many clubs in English Championship- the SECOND tier of English football pyramid).
Rise of the Goddess to the top
Atalanta BC was founded by high school students of the town in 1907. The ethos on which the football club was founded was to inculcate the importance of physical exercise in the youth- the ethos which club has followed throughout its existence. The club is known as the ‘factory’ among the followers of Calcio due to their work done in developing youth players through their famed youth system. Historically, the club struggled in the 2nd division of the Italian football pyramid throughout the 1920s and 1930s but they achieved a historic promotion to Serie A in 1937. They came crashing down to newly structured Serie B after just one season. But they built a core of players which came from the youth ranks and again achieved the promotion in 1940- this time winning Serie B. 1940s proved to be a great decade for an underdog team which even drew comparisons to Grande Torino– the famed Torino side which won laurels in 1940s.
By this time, Atalanta had become a regular in first division- achieving a club high position of 5th in Serie A during the 1947-48 season. The 1950s also saw the same upward rise but a false match fixing allegation saw the club get demoted to Serie B and a points deduction. But against all the odds, the team won the Serie B title- resonating the undying spirit of the Goddess and the town folks itself. This promotion was the start of yet another journey for this budding club. The highest point in this journey was winning the Coppa Italia title in 1963- defeating Torino with a score line of 3-1. This victory ensured the first and only title in the club’s history. The victors of 1963 again consisted of a core made up of players who came up from the youth ranks. From here, the club could not sustain this rise and it went in a downward spiral throughout the 1970s- becoming a yo-yo club, shuttling between Serie A and Serie B. Even in this period, the club didn’t stop investing and putting it’s trust on the youth. The lowest point in club’s history came at the start of 1980s when the club suffered the ignominy of relegation from Serie B- dropping to Serie C1 in 1981. Despite playing in lower divisions- the club churned out players who eventually became the core of the Azzuri– Italian National team which enjoyed the spoils of victory in 1982 FIFA World Cup.
his trust in youth did pay off when the club dug its way out from the depths of lower division and looming bankruptcy and reached back to the promise land- Serie A in 1984 where they again stayed for 3 seasons before suffering a relegation in 1987. A series of dismal performances in 2nd phase of 1986-87 season saw the club crashing down but a fairy tale run in Coppa Italia saw the club 180 minutes away from glory. Only one team stood in their way- Napoli led by the God himself, Diego Maradona. It was the battle of 2 Gods in Coppa Italia but the rejuvenated Napoli side spearheaded by D10S himself saw the club win a historic double- Serie A and Coppa Italia. With Napoli winning the Serie A and ensuring a place in European Cup (precursor to UEFA Champions League), a relegated Atalanta side became eligible to play in European Cup Winners Cup. This young team again made history, reaching the semi finals of the competition while playing in 2nd division, the highest position a team playing outside of top division has achieved in the history of all UEFA Competitions. Atalanta suffered a 4-2 defeat to Belgian side KV Mechelen who would go on to win the competition. The club immediately won the promotion to Serie A and a 6th place finish in the 1989-90 season saw the club reach UEFA Cup for first time in club’s history. Another fairy tale run in European competition followed in 1990-91 UEFA Cup where they reached Quarter Finals of the competition. They were eliminated by the eventual winners and their local rivals- Inter Milan.
The rise in fame of Italian football during 1990s saw Atalanta shift from their policy of inculcating youth players in senior team and they tried to go towards the path of glory- buying expensive stars which eventually backfired and saw the club suffer from various relegations and promotions during the 1990s and 2000s. The best moment during this tumultuous period was a local Filippo Inzhagi winning capocannoniere (Serie A’s top scorer award) during 1996-97 season and another cup final appearance in which they lost to Fiorentina, led by the mercurial Gabriel Batistuta.
2000s also saw the same trend of yo-yoing between first and second division. Changing players and coaches without giving them ample chances saw the club incur a massive financial strain which eventually led to local entrepreneur and ex- Atalanta player Antonio Percassi take over the reigns of the club in 2010.
Percassi hit a reset button- bringing the old ethos on which club was built upon and tried to mend the wrongs of the past. He believed in long-term stability and glory over short term gains. After winning the promotion to Serie A in 2011, the club worked towards building a stable foundation to work upon in the near future without compromising on the principles on which the club was carved out. Being a local, boyhood fan and ex-player, Peracassi understood what the club means for the people of Bergamo and what Bergamo as a town means for its people and the club. Peracassi started many welfare programs with the club, helping to mend the past bruises and re-building the relationship with the community and the Ultras- who are known throughout Italy for their notoriety.
It is known that whenever a new child takes birth in Bergamo, the club personally delivers a jersey for the newborn- taking ‘Teach them young, teach them right’ motto to another level. Like a phoenix, the club was rising from the ashes- reborn with a new ambition and purpose. This was just the beginning of another fairy tale. It wouldn’t have been possible without the hard work of the fans, the president and the coach- Mister Gasperini.
Gian Piero Gasperini: Manager Profile
The 63-year old enjoyed a fairly successful playing career, coming from the youth ranks of his boyhood club-Juventus and playing with the likes of Paolo Rossi and Sergio Brio in the Primavera squad. He never made an appearance for Juventus but he played for Serie B sides- Reggiana and Palermo, with whom he reached the Coppa Italia final in 1979. A fairly successful career with Palermo saw him move to Pescara and play in Serie A from 1985 to 1990. After retiring in 1993 at the age of 35, Gian Piero pushed to become a coach.
One year later, he was at Juventus again, this time starting his career as a coach with the Bianconeri. He managed all possible age groups in the youth system of Juventus, right from U14 to the Primavera (U-20) squad. In 2003, he left Juventus to start his career as a manager- taking over a young Crotone squad which was playing in Serie C1. In his first season, Gasperini won the promotion to Serie B via play-offs. He stayed for 2 more years with the Crotone side- pushing above their weight in 2nd division.
In 2006, he joined Genoa who were also struggling in 2nd division, pushing hard to win a promotion. In his first season with the Rossoblu, Gasperini won the promotion with Genoa, thus foraying into Serie A as a manager. In 2008-09 season, Genoa combined shrewd signings with Gasperini’s penchant of pushing his players to perform above their capabilities which resulted in the club finishing 5th in the table, missing out on a potential Champions League qualification due to an inferior goal difference (Fiorentina hence qualified after finishing 4th). This was the club’s best ever finish in 19 years. Gasperini re-launched the careers of a certain Thiago Motta and Diego Milito, both of whom were then snapped up by Inter Milan and became core members of a treble winning squad. Gasperini’s achievement earned him rave reviews from even the elite managers and comparisons with the Great Zdenek Zeman were also there because of some similarities in their management styles, building tactical systems according to the best output of players present and playing a rather expansive, high tempo football focusing on overloads from wide areas.
There were even murmurs that the Great Scot- Sir Alex Ferguson also looked at Gasperini as his replacement at Manchester United. His glorious time with Genoa eventually came to an end and Gasperini embarked on a new adventure- joining Inter Milan. But with lofty ambitions of the club and Gasperini’s rather patient and long-term stability thinking didn’t align After a series of bad results, he was relieved from his duties.
Gasperini then took the reins of a struggling Palermo where he helped them provide some stability. Highlight of his short stint at the Sicilian side (this time as a manager) has to be consistent performances of their captain and legend- Fabrizio Miccoli giving great goal scoring returns which also earned him a callup to the National team, 9 years after his last call up and cap for the Azzuri.
In 2013, Genoa again sought Gasperini’s services. His second stint at the club wasn’t as successful as the first stint but he brought a much-needed stability to the side which was struggling both on and off the pitch, providing them with an identity on the pitch.
With Atalanta looking for a manager who can take them one step further after building a stable foundation in the last 5 years, they turned their eyes to Mister Gasperini in what was the beginning of a romantic story- full of ups and downs.
Gasperini’s personnel was not merely turned into gold in an instance. Instead, the manager’s biggest feat was to create a consistent and successful game model imprinted upon the virgin goddess Atalanta’s virtues, the same virtues on which the football club was existing- the same virtues on which the entire town has survived.
Fearlessness, a by-product of the wilderness the goddess was bred in.
Speed, an essential quality of every one of her quests, such as when she challenged her suitors to a foot race, confident in being able to outrun each and every one of them.
Survival instinct, manifested in the knack for hunting that Atalanta inherited from the bear that suckled her from birth, and that she later perfected after being found and nurtured by hunters.
Atalanta: Tactical Analysis
“I posted a picture of a wolf pack in the changing room. There are wolves at the front, some in the middle and one at the back. The ones up front can set the pace in the beginning. The next wolves are the strongest, they are the ones who must protect everyone if they are attacked. The ones in the centre are always protected.
“Then there are another five strong ones further back to protect an attack from there. The last one is the boss and he ensures no one is left behind. He keeps everyone united and is always prepared to run everywhere; to protect the whole group. The message is that a leader doesn’t just stay up front; he takes care of the team and this is what I want from my players.” This is how Gasperini has managed this Atalanta side, not just tactical drills but also instilling that mentality in the players. “Defending makes you invincible, but if you want to win, you must attack.’- Gasperini once quoted the Art of War proverb to his team in one of the training sessions, which are said to be so intense that match days eventually just feel like a holiday. Gasperini doesn’t like players who don’t work hard, in his words- he is scared of those players; for the players need to struggle; from those struggles the victors are born.
Tactically, Gasperini is known for using a fluid 3–4–3 formation and a spectacular high-risk hyper-offensive-minded possession-based system, which relies on the versatility of his midfielders and front line. His team’s playing style places more focus on scoring goals, off-the-ball movement and quick, short passes on the ground, and less focus on long balls and the defensive aspect of the game. As such, at times his trademark 3–4–3 system resembles a 3–4–1–2, 3–2–4–1, 3–5–2, or 3–4–2–1 formation, with energetic overlapping attacking wing-backs in lieu of wide midfielders, that provide width along the flanks and push up the pitch when going forward. They make a 3-2-3-2 shape during the build-up phase, building passing triangles and creating overloads in the required area of the pitch where numerical advantage is needed. He has also been known to use a 4–3–3 or 4–2–3–1 on occasion.
The 3-2-3-2 shape makes it easy for Atalanta to create space through rotational play. The players are close to one another, and know that their rotations are based on the shape of the diamond. Therefore, it gives structure to their rotations. Where Atalanta truly excel with these diamonds is when they are anchored by one of their three centre-backs, and it allows their attacking midfielder with an option to drift in the middle of the pitch and rotate into the diamonds to create a 5 v 4 in these areas. From this position as an attacking-midfielder, the player should always be available to sustain a forward phase of play by dropping into the diamond where needed.
When defending off the ball, his teams are also known for the use of heavy pressing, but also apply elements of fluid man-marking across the entire pitch and often switch to a 5–4–1 or 5-3-2 formation defensively. They try to outnumber their opponents at all times and win the ball as quickly as possible.
Gasperini favours using hard-working and highly physical two-way players in midfield rather than a deep-lying playmaker, but also quick, talented, technical, diminutive, slender, elusive, and creative players upfront, in order to implement his system effectively; he has also been known to use a larger and more physical centre-forward upfront on occasion, who is good in the air.
While this kind of playing style has been successful for Gasperini at Genoa and now Atalanta, Gasperini has also attracted the criticisms of pundits if he can actually manage an established footballing giant with his current set-up (which he can but due patience is needed from the top authorities).
Since the players always try to follow the ball, the defensive shape often gets disoriented and gaps are formed. These gaps are exploited by creative and intelligent players. They play a high block, with balls over the top of their relatively slow defenders causing them problems. Players need to stay at their concentration peak and the highest levels of mental and physical state throughout the whole match as one lapse can collapse their system.
And that is where the club comes. Atalanta have roughly relied on the principles of ‘Moneyball’- finding undervalued players who statistically were at par with many established players but went under the radar and honing them under Gasperini’s management. Other than this smart recruitment where they scouted the central European countries and Scandinavia where teams usually followed the principles on which Gasperini set up his tactics, Atalanta and Gasperini also relied on the youth academy and a highly structured loaning system where they closely monitored the activity of players to either sell for a profit or integrate in first team.
Despite selling many of their key players over the years, Atalanta have made a hefty profit and have spent in a sensible manner in which their running cost also hasn’t impacted their financial security and has kept them equally competitive.
Rise of the Goddess to the top (continued)
A poor start to his Atalanta reign almost saw him get relieved from duties but a series of crucial victories against AS Roma and SSC Napoli bought Gasperini some added time. But this added time was enough for his players to get accumulated to a change in system which eventually saw Atalanta finish 4th in the table, their highest ever finish since the 1947-48 season and qualification for UEFA Europa League, 26 years after they last played in Europe. The 2017-18 season saw Atalanta wreak havoc in Europe- getting 6/6 wins in Europe in the group stage which consisted of Lyon, Everton and Apollon Limassol. They took the fight to Borussia Dortmund in Round of 32 who were among the favourites to reach the final of the competition. A 7th place and semi final appearance in Coppa Italia capped off a successful season for the ambitious Atalanta side. 2018-19 also started very well and Gasperini took them to 3rd place in the table with a final appearance in Coppa Italia- losing to Lazio in the end. This was the best finish in the club’s history, making the club eligible to play in UEFA Champions League for the first time in club’s history.
Despite losing some key players and utilising the newly revamped loan system to raise money- Gasperini’s side made many shrewd signings along the way who didn’t take a lot of time to get settled- raising money, keeping the investment and wage budget in check and not losing their competitive edge. The 2019-20 season also started in the same fashion- a juggernaut Atalanta side stomped the yard in Italy, scoring a lot (conceding a lot also)- very different from the stereotype of football in Italy being ‘defensive’. In Champions League, Atalanta was making their debut against Manchester City, Shaktar Donestk and a rejuvenated Dinamo Zagreb- then spearheaded by present day RB Leipzig talisman Dani Olmo, who really gave the Bergamo based side a lot of trouble in Atalanta’s debut match- which they lost 4-0. Not the start the Italian side expected. Next up was the trip to Manchester, another 4-0 drubbing and the dream of progressing from group stage was at the stage of shattering.
But did I tell you that this team was blessed by the Goddess and possessed the wrath of the same? When everything looked against them, they fought back and did they conquer? Yes. They somehow qualified from the group stage by securing 2nd place with a massive victory against Dinamo Zagreb. San Siro was roaring (since Atalanta’s Gewiss Stadium didn’t meet UEFA’s expectations). Right at the stadium of their arch rivals, this young side was celebrating a massive victory in the Champions League. Next up was Valencia- then led by Marcelino.
Boy, did this Atalanta side dismantled the slight favourites in this tie at San Siro! A 4-0 drubbing saw a packed San Sir erupt in joy. The eruption in Bergamo was even more massive than the one witnessed in Milan. But it was February 2020. The Atalanta-Valencia match proved to be the ground zero for the spread of Covid-19 in Lombardy. The tears of joy soon turned into the tears of sorrow as Bergamo was badly hit by the virus.
The army was deployed on the streets of Bergamo, which a few days back were resonating with the sound of the club’s anthem, were now full of the sound of ambulance sirens- to help carry the ones who could not survive the scare and provide them a dignified burial. In this time of sorrow, the football club kept everyone together and stepped up when it mattered the most. A resounding 4-3 victory in Valencia in an empty Estadio Mestalla saw the debutants reach the quarter final before football was halted worldwide (just like various other activities). The club was at the pinnacle in it’s 113-year old history at the worst possible time, where they could not celebrate this achievement with the fans who stuck by them through thick and thin.
For the hunters Gasperini trained and never ran away from a challenge. In soulless empty stadiums, they kept on playing amidst the scare of contracting the virus and the fatigue due to bio-bubble, away from their families. The 2020-21 season also started in similar fashion but this time every victory carried even more weight, for now they were truly playing to ease the pain of thousands in the town. Another 3rd place finish in a very tight competition ensured that the team embraced its divine inheritance to establish itself in Serie A’s Mount Olympus, guided by its very own King Midas, Giampiero Gasperini, able to turn every player passing through Bergamo into gold. From the youth to veterans from Europe’s deepest trenches.
All thanks to the advancements in modern day science that viruses can be countered and defeated. Now, the faithfuls of Atalanta BC can see their beloved team play in Bergamo, under the shiny lights against the biggest teams. On Wednesday, the ‘wolfpack’ as Gasperini calls his squad will again go on a hunting trip- this time in the fabled land of Manchester, a decade after the first rumours about ‘Gasperson’ taking over the reins at Manchester United arose. For the Goddess and her cult of Ultras will be on the hunt of not a boar but a Devil.
Atalanta BC is a model club for not only the ambitious underdogs but fallen giants, behemoths of the clubs who have lost their identity, who want to achieve the things in their fashion and opposite to that of the direction which modern football has gone. For Atalanta is one of the best examples of “Another football is possible”
“Siamo sempre insieme a te. Non ti lasceremo mai. Devi sempre solo vincere. Devi sempre solo vincere .Dai Dea. Non Mollare per gli ultra. Per gli ultra. Dai vinci per noi”.
“We are always with you. We will never leave. You simply always have to win. Come on Goddess. Don’t give up on Ultras. For the Ultras. Come on, win for US.”
Manchester United have conceded 6 goals in 7 games so far while managing to keep just one clean sheet. Their xGA (Expected goals allowed) is 7.9 which is the 10th worst in the league so far. This means that United should have conceded roughly 2 more than they actually have, and have David de Gea’s inspired form to thank for not doing so.
This record comes against a modest opponent roster of Leeds, West Ham, Wolves, Southampton, Newcastle and Everton. The big boys are yet to come. It’s clear United have defensive issues. Signing Varane (who has settled in excellently for his part) hasn’t really helped the defence improve as of yet. In this article we’ll explain the major problem in United’s defence and offer some solutions to fix it.
Analysing the problem
Let’s jot down all of United’s key defensive numbers to understand exactly where we are facing issues. These are 21/22’s Premier league rankings for United’s team defensive stats:
Passes into penalty area allowed: 6th best Number of Shots faced: 7th best Shots faced within 6 yard box: Worst in EPL Shots faced within 18 yard box: 2nd worst in EPL Shots faced outside of box: 2nd best Errors leading to opponent shot: 6th best Dispossessed (Possession loss due to tackle/pressure): 6th worst in EPL Miscontrol (Possession loss due to poor ball control): 4th best Aerial win % (Aerials won/Aerials contested): Best in EPL
This provides some insight into our defending this season. We seem to be okay in terms of allowing passes into our area and shots from afar. Shots created from open play passes and set pieces (Huge improvement thanks to Eric Ramsay) aren’t high either. Our players’ miscontrols aren’t an issue and our aerial win % is amazing (Lindelof has been the best with a 87% aerial win rate). So lets list down the biggest problem areas:
Shot creating actions allowed from dribbles: Worst in EPL Shots faced within 6 yard box: Worst in EPL Shots faced within 18 yard box: 2nd worst in EPL Dispossessed (Possession loss due to tackle/pressure): 6th worst in EPL
These 4 seem to be the issue and if looked at in a combined way they read – We lose the ball due to opponent pressure/tackle, which leads to a counter dribble at our goal, which creates a shot, which is a shot taken within the D box, and all of this happens A LOT. Long story short, we’re giving away too many clear cut chances in defensive transitions.
Before I go further let me make some terms clear.
What is a transition? A transition in football can be defined as the process of recognising and responding in the first few seconds after losing or regaining possession of the football. In recent years, teams at the highest level of football have recognised this process as a way of gaining a competitive advantage over their opponents.
The 2 types of transitions are attacking transitions and defensive transitions. The former term is reference for when the team gains possession and initiates their attack and the latter is when teams lose the ball and react to the opponent’s attack. United are pretty good at the former. Quick counters after regaining the ball have led to some well-worked goals under Ole’s tenure. The likes of Fred, Pogba and Bruno are good counter-initiators from deep while players like Shaw, Rashford, Greenwood and now Ronaldo are great dribblers and creators/scorers on the break. Ronaldo’s 2nd goal vs Newcastle is a great example of a good attacking transition.
It’s defensive transitions where United are terrible. And ‘terrible’ isn’t an exaggeration here. United are the worst in the league for giving away shots from dribbles they face and 6th worst at being dispossessed due to tackles/pressures. A combination of these effects is what leads to a large amount of steal-and-run opportunities for opponents. Couple this data with the fact that United concede most shots within the D box and a clear strategy for United’s opponents emerges – Sit back in an organized fashion, let United have the ball and commit men to break the block, press and steal the ball at the right moment and counter quickly via dribbles to create a clear cut chance. It’s a strategy that suits the majority of the teams United face in the first place. They usually aim to organize in low blocks and hit us on the break. A little bit of planning on the timing of the pressing/tackling opportunity and attacking pattern can go a long way in ensuring a high success rate gameplan. Which is what the likes of Everton, Aston Villa, West Ham and Young Boys have done to great effect in recent weeks. The fact that 4 of United’s last 8 opponents ended up with more xG (Expected goals) than United by the end of the game is telling. They got clearer chances to score and probably should have won on merit. United salvaged a win in 2 of these games – Villareal and Wolves, thanks to De Gea’s heroics and 2 late winners. That won’t happen too often if this remains the strategy.
Examples of issues in defensive transitions
Enough stats! Football is played on the pitch innit? Well, please be warned in case you are a United fan. If you thought the stats were painful, the visual examples below are new levels of hell. Here are 4 examples of defensive transition situations in the recent weeks:
We start with the one whose wounds are still fresh. Against Everton, Bruno takes a very poor corner which is cleared first-time from the Everton box. Gray picks the ball in a decent position outside the box. Transitions are all about choices. I’ll be explaining every United player’s choice from here on. Firstly, Fred has a choice to run with Gray and give his team time to regain shape or attempt the tackle on Gray. Fred goes for the latter, and this isn’t something he has thought through. It’s a natural tendency for him – he is a press and tackle ball winner who always goes for the ball. It wins him a lot of his duels which usually helps United.
Usually. In this case, it’s the wrong choice as he’s too late and Gray skips past him easily. Gray then sees his next challenger in Wan-Bissaka. United’s center-backs are still jogging back from the Everton box after the corner.
Unlike Fred, Wan-Bissaka decides to hold his position and force Gray wide, carefully tracking him from the side.This is a good choice from AWB that allows Fred to recover and engage Gray in a second attempt. Surely, now sandwiched between 2 great ball winners, Gray’s number should be up?
But, no. Gray pushes off Fred with a strong shoulder. It should be noted that Fred went for the ball in both cases and lost. A tactical foul on Gray near the halfway line stops the counter early and prevents the catastrophic sequence of events that is about to unfold next. These are the things smarter teams do. More on that later.
Coming back to the scene of United’s crimes, Wan-Bissaka is now faced with the same choice again. But this time he takes the other option, preferring to lunge forward at an in-control Gray who has a lot of space to pick out a pass.
This is the wrong choice, as AWB’s rash pressure opens the gap for the oncoming Doucoure who has acres of space with only Luke Shaw parallel to him and a determined Lindelof (who has done well to run back from the Everton box) behind him. Shaw has enough ground on Doucoure and should be able to cover the angle to the goal with his speed easily. But in possibly the most inexplicable choice in this series of wrong choices, Shaw aggressively runs towards Doucoure who has the great honour of 3 United players closing in on him for no real reason. This movement of United players in transition where they get attracted to the ball-carrier like moths to a flame is seen often in games and is possibly the biggest criticism of the transition tactics. They have no idea how to move and usually decide to just attack the ball carrier in a gung-ho fashion without thought or organisation. This will be seen in the other examples too.
Shaw’s aggressive charge completes it’s image of foolishness as a simple feint from Doucoure sends Shaw flying past him and takes Shaw out of the equation. Lindelof’s emphatic recovery must be noted here. He is now in position to block Doucoure’s path to goal. This would have been a goal-saving track-back from Lindelof, if Shaw had just held his position to block the natural pass to Townsend.
Sadly, that was not meant to be and Doucoure makes the obvious pass to the oncoming Townsend who gleefully accepts the invitation to shoot from within the box which makes it 1-0 to Everton.
Our next example takes us to the Wolves game earlier in the season. United were up to their usual passing around without any real sequence or penetration. A crowd of United players in the D box are stuck around the same area (clear indictment of our poor positioning during attacking sequences) which leaves Fred with no option but to attempt a wide pass to AWB who asks for it.
Even if the United attackers’ poor positions forced such a pass from Fred, he probably shouldn’t be making such a mistake anyway. He passes straight to Adama Traore who picks up the ball and presents Fred and Pogba with the same choices. To lunge or not to lunge?
United’s pivot both decide to take Adama head on – Fred pretty aggressively so and Pogba in his own lethargic way. Stylistic choice apart, both midfielders invite Adama to do what the footballer with the most dribbles in the league does.
2 touches later Adama has skinned both players and sped past them. Once again, it should be noted that while Fred was taken out thanks to his forward lunge, Pogba was still on his feet and had enough time to foul Adama in a spot that was much closer to the Wolves box than United’s. He refuses to do so, lifting up his hands to convey his innocence for something where innocence wasn’t required at all.
Adama does what Adama does, covering the middle third with such speed that Fred and Pogba are now out of the equation. Varane and Maguire are the final 2 defenders to beat. It’s a 2v2 situation with Jiminez in support. Varane does well to hold off from pressing forward and tracks Adama’s run while Maguire tracks Jimenez behind him. Good choice by Varane.
Varane does well to hold off on Adama until the defensive third and then closes in to cut Adama’s approach to goal. It’s Maguire’s actions that are debatable in this sequence of events. Maguire had a constant eye on Jiminez throughout the transition, so his choice to stay inward and create the space for the pass is questionable. One reason could be him offering extra protection to Varane in case Varane also gets dribbled past, which is fair to an extent since Adama is a potent dribbler. But even then, Maguire’s positioning to cut out the pass seems wanting.
A very modest slow pass is enough to beat Maguire thanks to his poor positioning. Jiminez has a good sight on goal. The other problem of Maguire’s decision comes to the fore here. If he left the pass to block Jiminez’s path to goal with the confidence that he could block the shot…..
…then he totally miscalculated. Maguire is in no position to block now as Jiminez gets the shot away. These are the kind of shots that Mason and Ronaldo converted this season. Giving them away so easily isn’t a good idea. The real worry here was Jiminez aiming for the far post. If clinical, he could end up scoring and even if DDG got a leg or hand to it, the chances of a tap-in for the oncoming Wolves striker in the box would have been high. Thankfully, neither happens as Jiminez’s shot is a near-post one that De Gea saves easily.
We stay with the Wolves game for the next example. Technically not a steal-and-run situation as Wolves win the ball back in their third this time and Moutinho looks around to kickstart the move. But United’s shape is in it’s attacking nature and starting to transition to defend so the same logic (or lack of) applies to defend the upcoming transition.
The front 3 are taken out immediately. Bruno and Mason look tired. Pogba attempts a jog back while AWB is just tracking back after attacking down the right. He has a nice cover on his Wolves counterpart as of now.
Moutinho carries the ball taking Pogba out of the scene first. AWB who was covering his man, suddenly makes the really odd decision to change direction to run towards the ball carrier Moutinho. Again the moths-to-flame effect of United players running towards the ball carrier is visible here. AWB has no need to do this. Thankfully, Fred has anticipated the problem and is already running towards the wings pro-actively this time.
AWB’s poor decision leaves him in no man’s land as he creates the gap for someone as skilled as Moutinho to thread the ball through. Neither does AWB intercept the pass nor is he marking the receiver on the left wing, Jiminez. Poor choice. Fred is honing in on Jiminez as Adama makes the central run. Varane has a choice to make here to stick to the center and trust Fred to cover the wings or go for Jiminez himself.
Once again, attracted to the carrier, Varane makes the choice of going towards Jiminez, completely abandoning the center. This is another ball-affinity choice that was unnecessary considering Fred had almost caught up to Jiminez by now. Fred’s correct choice and his ability to cover good areas quickly are wasted with Varane’s wrong choice. The gap is created for Adama to run into and Jiminez really doesn’t have to think hard before playing into that area.
Jiminez plays the ball and Adama has the speed to run towards it. Varane and Fred both are completely taken out with this obvious pass and Adama now has Maguire running behind him, struggling to keep pace.
Adama receives the ball inside the box which makes any chance of tackling him zero. Fred’s busting his gut to get back and recover the ball but once again presses a little too over-zealously. A left-footed shot from Adama in that position would have been improbable and easy to save for DDG if it ever came.
A simple feint is all it takes for Adama to sidestep the aggressive Fred and create an angle for his right foot. Maguire probably had a choice here to cover centrally after seeing Fred’s run back but the pace at which Adama was operating was too much to track probably. Trincao holds his run to present the clear passing lane for Adama’s right foot.
Maguire is in no position to cut the pass as Adama lays up a perfect ball for Trincao’s left foot. Central location, left foot, inside the D box, almost close to the penalty spot – chances don’t come any clearer than this. But Trincao fluffs the shot as it rolls wayward of goal and United are saved by a prayer.
Our final example takes us to Newcastle at the start of the season. Yes, even the easy 4-1 win had given us occasional transition trouble and Newcastle’s goal is a perfect example of our difficulties in transition.
The move starts deep from Newcastle’s half – again not a classic steal-and-run-from-the-center-of-the-park example but the same issues are highlighted. Almiron at the centre of the pitch is noticed and played towards from deep. None of the United attackers pressing the passer or trying to intercept is one issue, but that can probably be forgiven considering how deep the start of the pass is.
What comes next is a bit more problematic. Like we’ve seen a few times before, both Matic and Shaw have an immediate desire to move towards the ball. Shaw especially has no need to and would have been better off holding his position and tracking back while Matic troubles Almiron a little. Almiron sees the 2 converging United players and takes advantage.
One smart touch is all it takes. Almiron hits the ball into space with his left foot and starts the counter as Shaw and Matic collide into each other in comical fashion. One advantage for the attacking side in a transition is that they usually have acres of space. Even a heavy touch from Almiron doesn’t cause him to lose the ball. Saint-Maximin turns and runs around Maguire who now has to make a very familiar choice – to lunge or not to lunge?
The comedy of events reaches a new high as the Newcastle fans cheer Almiron who jumps over a sliding Maguire. Maguire chose ‘lunge’ and upgraded his choice to ‘emphatic sliding tackle’ – a completely unnecessary act that cedes control and confidence to Newcastle and leaves him in no shape to recover for the rest of the counter. Varane stares at his partner’s mistake wondering how he can stop both Newcastle players.
Varane decides to cut the angle towards the goal as he tracks back. He turns to see who he has for support. He knows he needs a 2nd person to regain the numerical advantage. He notices Shaw, who has done well to recover from his clash with Matic and is recovering good ground. These are the moments where a well-thought out transition defence shines. Both players ideally should know who takes which player. Varane motions Shaw to take Almiron on even though Shaw is far away. This probably isn’t a bad choice since Varane probably wants to cover the angle to Saint-Maximin on priority. But it leaves Shaw with a lot to do.
To his credit, Shaw does cover ground aggressively but Almiron still has time to pick out a pass – a pass which Varane should be blocking. Varane’s entire reason to hold back was to mark the real threat of Saint-Maximin, right?
The ball from Almiron is good here but for Saint-Maximin to get it so easily shows how Varane goofed up. The decision to hold and cover the angle of the pass was correct but the execution was completely off. Varane probably didn’t expect Almiron to pass early or pass so accurately and that reads badly on him.
Right-back Manquillo’s run is the obvious play for Saint-Maximin who takes a nice touch and waits for the defender to overlap. Varane again has a choice to lunge or hold. He decides to go for the tackle – again probably not the best of choices. Varane seems desperate to make up for his mistake of allowing the pass in the first place. A calm and composed Varane has the ability to hold his position and then quickly cover Manquillo’s path after the pass.
But the reality of his failed tackle allows Manquillo to pick up the ball and enter the D. Varane is in no state to recover for a shot block attempt. It’s back to relying on a De Gea special (or prayers) for United at this point.
Manquillo makes no mistake while slotting the ball in the far corner.
Possible solutions to defend transitions better So what are the solutions for this issue that seems to be plaguing us regularly? There are largely 3 options:
1. Coaching out bad habits: Probably the fastest way to gain some quick improvement, the low-hanging fruit is to simply coach the players to change their bad habits. Most players’ initial reaction is to counter-press, as opposed to regaining team shape & delaying the counter. When the opposition is equal or more in number, it is typically better to drop off in an attempt to get more numbers behind the ball which United players rarely do. Like moths to a flame they get attracted to the ball and perform really clumsy lunges or display aggressive acts of pressing that are completely unnecessary. This puts them in must-win situations which isn’t sustainable for a top team. No team can win all the duels in such speedy transitions under pressure. A few will slip through and the resultant chances given are usually very high xG big chances within the D as the stats showed. United need to show restraint in transition and come up with more set patterns to track back and constrict the spaces that opponents use to counter. Right now, every counter chance against United seems like an invitation to run into acres of space which is further amplified by unnecessary presses/tackles.
2. Tactical fouling: United aren’t the first team to face transitions. Most top teams employing a possession system do. The dangers of being caught in such situations when you commit numbers forward in an attempt to spread play are always high. This is where the subtle but important art of tactical fouling is beneficial. If the risk to go for a tackle/press and the chance of being dribbled past are both high, then sometimes a simple trip or body block near the halfway line can be just the best tool to stop a deadly counter early. Fernandinho is a master of this and often bails Manchester City out with the use of smart tactical fouls. The reason he’s a master is because he often makes them and doesn’t even get a card for it. United midfielders don’t have to show such prowess in the dark arts. Even the fouls which get a yellow card will do. Fred against Everton and Pogba against Wolves in the above examples are clear use cases of a simple tactical foul that stops a dangerous counter near the halfway line. United need to be less naive in defensive transitions and do what’s necessary.
3. Buying a defensive midfielder: I kept this option for the last since I really don’t want to make it sound like a transfer solves everything. But when you sorely lack the profile of a holding defensive midfielder, it has to be said. All said and done, Fred and Scott are 2 ball-winning/box-to-box midfielders who are masquerading as holding midfielders. They are press-and-tackle monsters who have minimal talents in the finer art of positioning. In this article we explain why McFred are the best option for the current system, but the current system isn’t the best option for United). While the above 2 solutions can help them be better at their job, it’s probably wise to get someone who is an expert at the job. United have other reasons to buy a defensive midfielder too with the team’s need for better build up and progression from deep also crying out for a young Matic-style midfielder. This player has to be adept at positioning and strictly not be a high press/tackle player – someone who has high positional IQ to take up good positions in transition and help the defenders in stopping counters. (We detailed this requirement along with the passing ones to make up a summer 2021 shortlist here.)
If Varane’s signing was meant to help United concede less, then Ole Gunnar Solksjaer and the coaching staff probably had a very myopic view of the problem with United’s defence. It was never about the center-backs. Lindelof and Maguire suffered in defensive transitions in the last 2 seasons and Varane has simply joined them in being another talented defender lacking the required midfield protection in a team that’s probably lacking the required coaching guidelines to defend transitions better. Until these issues are ironed out, United’s opponents can line up knowing that a well-planned counter approach can help them create big enough chances to win. The best players and riches cannot make up for a lack of tactical application. The disease United have been harbouring under Ole for more than 2 years called ‘Poor Defensive transitions’ has now reached critical levels that are threatening to derail their entire campaign.