Tactical Analysis: Unai Emery’s Villarreal

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

The Rise of Yellow Submarine from depths to the surface 

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

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

(Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images)

Tactical Analysis 

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

Passing Map depicting the average positions taken by the players

Playing out from the Back

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

Villarreal trying to play from the back

Midfield Superiority 

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

An attempt at through balls in central area of the pitch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sensible Targets: Alexander Isak

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

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

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

History

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

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

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

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

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

Scout Report

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

Link Up Play 

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

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

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

Dribbling, Progression and Half Turn

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

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

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

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

Shooting

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

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

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

(Credits: footyscouts.com/Liam Lam)

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

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

Off the Ball Movement

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Devil’s DNA score: 9/10

Scout Report- Yusuf Demir

The player under radar today is the one who Football Manager players must know inside out with a sure shot potential ability to become one of THE BEST on the game. But in real life, this ‘wonderkid’ is also making strides which has now attracted the attention of all European footballing superpowers to win his signature. We will take a deep dive to cover the up and coming Austrian Yusuf Demir.

Background

Yusuf Demir is a product of Rapid Vienna youth academy. In 2019, he signed his first professional contract with the club aged only 15. He made his first-team debut for Rapid in a 3-0 Austrian Bundesliga win over Admira Wacker Mödling on 14 December 2019. Yusuf is of Turkish descent, but he is a youth international for Austria. On 15 September 2020, Demir scored a goal for Rapid Wien in 1–2 defeat against KAA Gent in the 2020–21 UEFA Champions League third qualifying round, at 17 years, 3 months and 13 days old, to become the youngest Austrian scorer since Gerd Wimmer in 1994, aged 17 years, 10 months and 27 days. He was the first name in the Guardian’s Next Generation: class of 2020 list, touted as Austrian ‘Messi’ by the panel of journalists who shortlisted him along with 59 other players around the world who have the potential to become one of the best in coming years.

(Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images)

Playing Style

Demir can play in a number of positions across the frontline due to his versatility. He is also very adept at playing as an attacking midfielder, predominantly when his side utilize the 4-2-3-1 formation. The youngster has been utilized as a creative number 10 in 40% of the games he has featured in throughout his career, whilst he has played in any position variation on the right flank  40% of the time, with the other 20% being positions from anywhere off the left and even as a deep lying midfielder, dictating the gameplay from deeper areas of the midfield. However, this season, Rapid Vienna’s manager Dietmar Kühbauer has preferred to play this prodigy as an attacking midfielder mainly as it gets the best out of the 17-year-old, featuring in total of 22 games this season, quite a good number of games under the belt for a kid of his age at senior level. The most notable aspect is that Demir still prefers to operate slightly off to the right and in the right half space so that he can cut inside on his preferred left foot, which is where the youngster can be most dangerous.

Yusuf Demir’s heat map for 2020-21 season in Austrian Bundesliga

Demir’s all-round play is very impressive. He has a brilliant balance and pace along with exquisite technique and ball control for a player of his age. The teenager has been given quite a free role in the Wien side when he plays for them, especially as an attacking midfielder. This is reflected in his dribbling stats which put him among top 5 of Austrian Bundesliga with 10.62 dribbles per 90 minutes out of which he is completing 5.26 dribbles per 90, roughly completing 1 dribble out of 2 attempts. When in a 1v1 situation against an opponent, Demir’s natural instinct is to try and get himself into a central position which is where he is most dangerous on a football pitch. He does this by using body feints and a drop of the shoulder, combined with rapid changes of direction to ease past opponents. Demir’s preferred movement is from outside to inside on the right-flank as he can use his left-foot in the central areas providing he gets by his challengers.

Cutting in and trying to find space to hold the ball

A text book move for Demir when playing for his club or country is to look to receive the ball between the lines with his back turned to the goal. Receiving his back turned to goal allows him to receive the ball on the half-turn and drive forward with the ball at defending players and combine it with his brilliant balance, agility and low center of gravity to beat the defenders with ease. From the above image, you can see that Demir has dropped into the space between the opposition’s line of pressure and midfield in order to receive the ball to his feet. By dropping deep, he has given his backline an extra option to deliver a line-breaking pass and exploit the space created by Demir with his off the ball movement. From here, the Austrian likes to receive the ball on the half-turn on his backfoot and drive forward, attacking onrushing players in 1v1 and sometimes even 2v1 duels. One of the most impressive stats from the teenager is his offensive duels per 90. Demir currently has the highest number of average offensive duels attempted per 90 in the league with 20.6 offensive duels per 90 minutes.

Dropping deep to hold up the ball and eventually free up space for others

Whilst he likes to drop very deep at times in front of the opposition’s midfield, his preferred area on the pitch to operate in is between the lines of the backline and midfield line, which allows him to put his attacking instincts to better use than in deeper areas. Demir generally opts to receive the ball in the right half-space, try to cut in with his stronger left foot and provide ample space for marauding fullback to stretch the opposition’s defense and provide overlaps for better crossing angles. Receiving in the right half space in between the lines allows him to have space to take the ball on the half-turn – as he loves to do – and drive inside before hitting curling shots outside the box. This only mainly applies when Demir is deployed as a number 10 or a right-sided player but since he has been used in these areas 80% of the time, receiving in between the lines in the right half-space is a very important part of the 17-year-old’s overall game.

Yusuf Demir’s Shot and Goal Creation Action Analysis

In terms of creative ability, his best comes from the left flank. The reason for this is because he excels at getting into the left half-space and cutting the ball backwards. As Demir is a left footer, pulling the ball across the box is more natural for him on the left side of the pitch. This is an example of an excellent chance created by Demir in the assist zone on the left side of the box. He receives the ball in the left half space again and drives towards the by-line. By being naturally left-footed, he is more suited to putting the ball across the box in these situations as opposed to the right side where he needs to cut back onto his stronger foot. Playing as a number 10 also gives him the freedom to roam into these types of positions at times to create as well as drifting towards the right – his preferred side.

Yusuf Demir trying to cross the ball into the 12 yard box with his stronger left foot

Demir is also well able to carve a defence open when the opportunity arrives as he has quite an innate ability of playing through gaps in an opposition’s defence to find running teammates. The Austrian’s creative stats are very solid for a player of his age Demir has averaged 0.71 key passes per 90 in all competitions and also currently averages 0.33 expected assists (xA) per 90 for current calender year.

Yusuf Demir attempting a line breaking pass to marauding winger

Conclusion

For a 17-year old teenage footballer, Yusuf Demir’s game is very mature and there is a reason that all of Europe is extensively scouting him, ever since he has broken into Rapid Vienna’s first team. Teams like Manchester United and Juventus have had scouted him in the past but their interest has been rekindled with his recent performances. On one hand, it is quite natural to give into the temptation when Europe’s most prestigious clubs are chasing for your signature but Yusuf is in that age category where experience at first team level without any added pressure is crucial for development, both physically and mentally. Players of his age group must strive for a healthy competitive environment.

Ideally, he should stay in Rapid Vienna and try to become a regular first team player in coming years, try to break the domestic domination of RB Salzburg and also help his hometown club to make a deeper run in Europa League and then take it one step ahead by switching to a side fighting for European places in Germany who also don’t hesitate to play younger players (preferably Borussia Dortmund or Borussia Monchengladbach since these 2 clubs can do with a player of his quality given the tactical setup they use complements his strengths). Once, he is mature enough, both physically and mentally- he can easily take the challenge to make a name for himself at the grand stage, both at club level and international level.

Yusuf Demir has the potential to become one of the all time greats for not only Austria but one of the all time greats of upcoming generation of footballers. But, with talent, you always need hardwork, dedication and the most important thing- Patience.  

(Photo by Vincent Mignott/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

Cult Heroes: Ji-Sung Park

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

EARLY DAYS (1998-2000)

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

Kyoto Purple Sanga and PSV Eindhoven (2000-2005)

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

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

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

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

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

QPR and the return to PSV (2012-14)

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

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

Legacy and post-retirement work

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

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

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

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Sensible Targets: Nikola Milenkovic

The Balkans are known to have some of the best hidden gems in the footballing world. The Croatias, The Serbias of our world have given us many footballing prodigies in the last 2 decades. One such prodigy found his way to Italy at a very young age, right under the noses of European Giants. Now, mature enough to make a big switch- we will take a look at La Viola’s Serbian Centre Back- Nikola Milenkovic and how he can be a good partner to Harry Maguire in the long run and provide healthy competition to current centre back pairing at the English club. 

 

(Photo credit should read ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP via Getty Images)

Background

Nikola Milenkovic was born in Belgrade in October 1997 and spent his entire youth career at Partizan Belgrade who are known to unearth many talented youngsters in the Balkans (one such player which Manchester United were seriously interested in was Filip Stevanovic, who eventually chose Manchester City). After spending some time on loan at Teleoptik, Milenkovic made his debut for Partizan in the Serbian SuperLeague in the 2015/16 season. He appeared four times, largely because of a four-game suspension following a red card. He still managed to score his first goal for the club that year. 

The following season, 2016/17, saw Milenkovic establish himself as first choice option at centre back as he made 32 appearances in the league, scoring twice, as Partizan completed a domestic double. At the end of the season, Fiorentina’s sporting director Pantaleo Corvino, famous for snapping up budding players in the Balkans, brought the defender to Firenze. Milenkovic had a good debut season in Italy with 16 appearances in Serie A. His performances also earned him a spot in Serbia’s World Cup squad where he played all of their three games at the heart of defence.

Playing Style 

Nikola Milenkovic has been one of only a few standout performers for Fiorentina this season. The Serbian is a right-footed defender, who stands at 6 ft 5 and was initially signed from Partizan Belgrade for £4.5m in 2017/18. The Serbian has played in over 3,000 minutes in each of his last two Serie A campaigns, highlighting his importance to the team. Fiorentina often rely on Nikola’s defensive ability. Milenkovic often lines up as the right centre-back and has also played as a right back in the past for La Viola and Partizan.  The Serbian ventures very less towards the left-hand side of the 18-yard box, fixed to the central area and the right-hand side wide space.

 

Nikola Milenkovic’s heat map for the season 2019-20

The heat map also implies that Milenkovic is comfortable advancing with the ball when Fiorentina are in possession, a confident user of the ball who can often be found looking for a progressive pass to break the lines of the opposition’s defensive structure.

Defensive Aspect

Milenkovic is kind of an old school, no-nonsense defender, combining the old school centre back principles with modern day approach; amalgam of the intelligent reading of the game and positioning with strength and superb aerial ability. His height and physical built helps him to dominate in the air, last season the Serbian won 77% of all aerial battles, a figure which positioned him in the 95th percentile of centre-backs in Serie A.

 

Nikola Milenkovic’s 2019-20 season breakup

This season also, he is averaging upwards of 80% in successful aerial duels, putting him in topmost percentile in this metric, not only in Serie A but in top 5 leagues of Europe. One aspect of Milenkovic’s impressive defensive game is his individual defending. He’s got a very good technique when defending on his own and for his age shows a great wealth of experience in terms of his decision making. Milenkovic possesses an innate sense of positioning with the ability to angle his body perfectly to cover passing options while also maintaining the balance needed to defend against the opposition attacking players.

 

Nikola Milenkovic’s 2020-21 season breakup

Ball Playing Ability

In modern day football, the ball playing and ball progression ability of centre backs is becoming a necessary trait in order to thrive at elite level since teams, rather than sitting deep and counter-attacking from flanks, now try to press/counter-press higher up the pitch and try to dominate the possession in half wing spaces. There has been a myth in the scouting circuit that Nikola isn’t very comfortable with ball playing and ball progression due to his “athletic built” (just like Harry Maguire). 

Here, we see an example of how Nikola Milenkovic is with the ball at his feet in the image taken from the game against Udinese below.

The opposition are well organised and their press has closed all forward passing lanes, leading to Fiorentina playing the ball back towards their own goal. As soon as Milenkovic receives the ball in this position his first thought is to drive forward at the opposition.

This movement of the central defender towards the opposition forces the opposition to move out of their positional slots to close Milenkovic down. This movement towards the ball opens a forward passing lane, allowing Nikola to progress the ball into the opposition’s half to the feet of Patrick Cutrone.

Another example of the Serbian’s confidence on the ball and vision to breaking opposition’s lines with his passes with the ball can be found against Sampdoria. I Bluerchiati, led by Mister Claudio “Dily Ding, Dily Dong” Ranieri, are known to deploy a low block with two banks of four spanning the width of the penalty area, and pressing the opposition’s centre backs through their strikers.

This movement creates an opportunity for Milenkovic to get a shot/pass off on goal, in this circumstance Patrick Cutrone reads the play like any good forward and is able to get on the end of the ball from Nikola.

Conclusion

In the above data driven and eye testing tactical analysis, we have seen that Nikola Milenkovic has all the traits to thrive at an elite level in modern day game, he has the physical build, the aggression of an ‘old school’ Centre Back, intelligence of a ‘modern day’ centre back and ability to play lots of games into the season (the Serbian has missed less than 10  matches in his entire career due to injury concerns till now). Given Manchester United’s defensive woes are more due to underlying structural issues which leave their centre backs without any good cover during transitions and the initial pairing of Harry Maguire-Victor Lindelof is also suspect at times: the Swede’s inability to impose himself on opposition’s attacking players sometimes add extra load on his English partner to do extra dirty work. A fast paced and aggressive centre back who can easily do the dirty work on and off the ball during transitions and also has the aggression and physical build to impose himself on the opposition is required to partner Harry Maguire in the long run. Nikola has all those traits and all the eye test and data analysis point out that he can be a good option to buy because of following factors: 

  • The Serbian’s contract with Fiorentina ends in 2022, with him being at a stage in his career where he wants to progress as a footballer at a bigger stage and contest for trophies- this may force Fiorentina to cash in on him during the summer window of 2021. A price between 20-40 million pounds will easily force Fiorentina to cash in on him. 
  • Manchester United do require a centre back but even before buying a Centre Back, they need to sort out the future of their back up Centre Backs first: Eric Bailly’s contract is ending in 2022 and Axel Tuanzebe needs regular playing time at his age too.  
  • Moreover, Manchester United need to buy a defensive minded versatile midfielder first who can play in multiple formations, complement the current midfield roster, try to take the load of creation from Bruno Fernandes and most important thing, don’t leave the centre backs exposed during transitions. With multiple loopholes in the squad and Manchester United’s inability to do the transfer business efficiently in comparison to their arch rivals (Manchester City FC and Liverpool FC), a cheaper alternative like Milenkovic may prove to be a bargain buy in longer run and also leave funds to strengthen the positions which require immediate and instant fix.