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.
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.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s pre-match press conference comments, before the key UCL tie against Villareal explaining the importance of Scott McTominay and Fred to United’s starting XI, have made fans questioning why McFred enjoys so much importance and preference in United’s pivot for a good part of 2.5 years (Most of Ole’s tenure). Especially coming off the back of a few unimpressive performances in September, the United manager’s selections and tactics have been questioned in recent weeks. But like most things in football, the answer isn’t black and white. United definitely have issues under Ole which are clearly linked to a lack of structures and processes, which gives rise to a lot of variation and extremities – and within this variation Fred and Scott are Ole’s go-to midfield men thanks to their ability to cope.
United’s major issue under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
It’s hard to pinpoint a singular issue but there is one overarching gap/criticism of Ole’s reign which, despite his amazing success in 2.5 years, prevents United from becoming elite. The issue under Ole is that the players aren’t being helped by the system/tactic. If they perform/cope, it’s not really because of the system, but despite it. United are not laying out clear patterns & processes to make things easier for the players during the game. For example, we have had build up issues for a while. Shaw being able to progress even after the build up structure being bad is him performing despite the system. He’s just that good dribbling and passing wise. It doesn’t change the fact that he doesn’t get the required support. A player might play out of his skin & manage on a day or a new signing might come in & do better but it doesn’t change the fact that the existing system doesn’t facilitate.
A tactic has to leverage its players strengths & mitigate its player weaknesses. United aren’t doing that as well as they can under Ole. The summer window created an imbalance which has only opened us up more to the system inconsistency & inefficiency we always had. We now have more attacking players who have high ball-affinity & are left leaning & no holding progressive CM profile except Matic. But transfers only solve so much. We need more emphasized structures that put less pressure on the players. These patterns are what players fall back on when things don’t work out. This reduces the burden on individuals. The absence of these forces them to take matters into their own hands – an exaggeration of which especially in attack is what fans refer to as ‘individual brilliance.’
That’s not always a bad thing. Giving players freedom & promoting flair is good, but there’s a balance. The current United side, thanks to the composition of its current personnel, is on the wrong side of that balance. Against Aston Villa last week, the burden on individuals was clear. The drastic change this year could be down to the immense attacking talent at Ole’s display. The temptation to go direct or rely on the world-class qualities of the attackers (Eg. Bruno’s final ball + Ronaldo’s finishing) seems to be bypassing logical system rules.
The value of Scott McTominay and Fred
Where do McFred come in all of this? In a system as dynamic as this, which lacks structures and protection for its players, the players who have the best ability to cope become the natural picks. This is where Scott and Fred shine. Their physical and mental attributes alone form a huge reason for their preference. Both players regularly top the running charts for United, have good coverage of area, are naturally fit players who tirelessly do their jobs till full time and are usually available for selection 90% of the season. These aspects were confirmed by Ole in his recent presser before the Villareal UCL tie:
“The stats for them two [McTominay & Fred] together, we’ve had many good results. The energy and desire, I really like to have the two of them. I can trust them to give us what they’ve got. Fans will always have opinions, it’s easy to say who should be playing.”
The intensity and coverage that Ole needs in the chaotic environment that is United’s midfield can only be provided by Fred and Scott. Ole also refers to some ‘stats’ here. Let’s dive into that. There are some objective numbers backing McFred as well.
As you can see in the above viz, last season Fred won the ball back most for United. His ball winning stats are all in the top 10 percentile in Europe and he is by far United’s most important tool for winning the ball back so that we can play our game. When he’s not on the pitch, United sorely lack a player who can win the ball back quickly and efficiently.
In 21/22 so far, Fred’s per 90 defensive actions ranking (among players >2.5 90s played) reads:
While not as intense or efficient as Fred, Scott’s value in the defensive department is clear.
So we know now Ole likes the intensity, consistency & mentality of the duo and the ‘stats’ he’s referring to back up their ball-winning ability on the pitch as well. The next question on your mind might be – But why do we need 2 ball-winners in midfield anyway? Why can’t we have 1 or 2 playmakers in the pivot instead?
The answer to this is straightforward – United have too many creators and scorers on the pitch in their 4-2-3-1. Bruno who plays CAM is one of Europe’s elite creators and for all practical purposes a key pass machine. He ensures high chance creation and final 3rd balls at the cost of losing the ball in possession thanks to ambitious passes and shots. Ahead of him, United have a star-studded cast of Ronaldo, Greenwood and Pogba and in rotation (for now) Cavani, Sancho and Rashford. Pogba guarantees more ball-playing talent and already leads the league for assists. Ronaldo and Greenwood are starting often thanks to their ability to finish the chances Pogba and Bruno create. The front 4 is packed with creativity and scoring to the limit. Some might say it’s beyond the limit and is hurting retention and safety since all 4 lose the ball a lot thanks to ambitious shooting and passing.
With this kind of setup and a lot of ball losses to deal with, the pivot essentially becomes a ball-recovery engine for the team. With the fullbacks often caught ahead on the flanks, the front 4 as attacking as they are and the CB pairing focussing on winning their duels to ensure they aren’t bypassed by opponent attackers, the pivot 2 are under unreal pressure to cover a lot of area in midfield, win the ball back and recycle it efficiently to the front 4 again. This creates a high ball-winning pressure which can only be satisfied by Fred and Scott. The below viz confirms the contributions in defending and progression from the midfield 3 options:
There is a reason Bruno-Fred-Scott is the preferred mid 3. They have the right balance of progression and ball-winning Ole wants. Matic’s lack of agility, coverage and defensive intensity mean that he can’t cope while VDB and Mata don’t offer as much progression or defending. The reason why Pogba doesn’t make the pivot is also visible here. Defensively he can’t cope, which Ole has learnt through a few experiments. But given Pogba’s quality, Ole has now turned to use him as a winger. McFred becomes the default pivot. All of this is also indicative of the lack of good options in midfield which is a good argument. We felt United needed a holding playmaker CM this summer and are badly ill-equipped without one (Read our CM shortlist here). But let’s keep that aside for now and work with what we have.
Even with the defensive traits of McFred, the midfield is barely being dominated by them which is one of the main reasons for United’s recent form. Until last year, McFred somehow coped with these system gaps, but this year with the addition of Ronaldo and the higher attacking (read possession losing) quotient of the front 4, the pressure on the pivot and CB pairing in transitions is even more intense leading to some very open games (Like West Ham and Aston Villa) where possession retention and circulation were tough and a lot of time and energy of the squad was spent in winning the ball back and competing in 50-50s.
What is the way forward?
So far, we have deduced the following:
United’s setup lacks structure and hard-coded processes
In such a volatile setup, with 4 attackers to carry, the pivot needs to be a consistent ball-winning machine
Fred & Scott are the best ball-winners and preferred pivot choice as a result
Even this might not be ideal and seems like too much to manage in 21/22
We circle back to the lack of processes to ponder over solutions. As mentioned above, a tactic should mitigate player weaknesses but United don’t provide any such cover for the pivot or backline. For example, Fred’s weaknesses are his poor first touch and affinity to lunge forward instead of holding position. These haven’t been covered for. Either due to a lack of coaching or players not being receptive to coaching, both continue to be an issue in Fred’s game. His excellent ball-winning and underrated progression are masked by those rare but critical moments when he loses the ball under pressure in a deep area or loses the 50-50 in a transition. A system that allows him more time on the ball or more protection in transitions would be beneficial.
Which then brings us to another question – Why can’t the system change enough to facilitate Pogba or Matic in the pivot? For all theoretical purposes, it can. One can argue that their progression traits (as shown in the viz above) are valuable enough to justify playing them in midfield. But they then require a system that covers for their defensive weaknesses. If the need to run around intensely to win the ball is reduced, Matic and Pogba can start – and this is clear since Ole uses them against low blocks (like Newcastle recently) to good effect where that need is minimal. But the lack of set patterns and processes means covering for deficiencies isn’t easy. In a nutshell, the message from Ole and his coaching team seems to be – ‘We can’t cover for your weaknesses, so be as consistent and well-rounded as possible.’ This leads to him picking/wanting players who can do most things without having any glaring weaknesses in their game. Which isn’t a sustainable approach to building a tactic or team.
The same effect was seen with the CB pairing. United leave themselves open on transitions so often, that the CBs face a lot more duels than they should. The expectation then becomes – winning duels consistently and efficiently. Varane to Lindelof was an upgrade with the aim of increasing that duel winning rate (which Lindelof couldn’t maximize due to being average in aerial duels). But the fact that the CB pair face a lot of duels in transition hasn’t changed. No matter how good Varane and Maguire are (and they are pretty good as we explain here) , exposing them repeatedly will cause a few to get through and those few goals are usually the difference between trophies and losses.
It’s the same for the pivot. No matter how good Fred and Scott are at ball-winning, a system that forces them into so many defensive actions is probably not a title-winning one anyway. In short, McFred are the best at what they do and deserve to start for that reason, but for United to win titles, no midfielder should probably be doing what they do in the first place. It’s not a complaint against them, it’s a complaint against the tactic under Ole. And upgrading every position (like Varane for Lindelof or Scott for a new CM) can only take you so far at the end of the day. If the root issues aren’t tackled, no player can perform to his best.
A good example is Chelsea under Tuchel. They are defensively solid without the need to get into so many duels. Tuchel has covered for his player’s weaknesses and given them a system to fall back on, which limits the situations they struggle in considerably. The best example is Jorginho, who was always criticized for not being defensively strong. But, like Matic, his progression and playmaking was always exceptional. In a system where he isn’t forced into defensive actions regularly and has time on the ball to do what he does best, he is a gem. And that’s what Tuchel has provided him – to the point of success of Ballon Dor shouts.
In summary, Ole is justified in starting McFred. His comments on their intensity and stats are right. They are the best fit for the system United currently play with. But the larger question is whether this is the path for the future – whether repeating this process or even slightly improving on it can get United to really control transitions, dominate midfield, create efficiently, win consistently and lift the trophies the Old Trafford faithfuls have been dreaming of. That’s a question Ole has to think much harder about than his recent presser responses.
While Euros 2020 (or 2021) may be hailed as a revolutionary step in the tournament’s history but it isn’t the first time such a ‘revolution’ has happened in Euros. A throwback to 1992 will put more light on some ‘revolutionary’ steps in Tournament’s history- from becoming the first ever international tournament to allow player names on the back of team jersey to introducing the back-pass rule in the game. The tournament was also the last Euros to award 2 points for a win and have 2 groups of 4 from which 4 teams advanced to semi-finals. And of course, who can forget Denmark’s victory in that Euros, a team which wasn’t even supposed to take part in the finals.
Denmark’s victory in Euros 1992 had all the ingredients of a unforgetful footballing fairytale. It is the story of a team who didn’t qualify for the finals- who went onto win the thing, beating the World Champions- West Germany (now unified Germany after the fall of Berlin Wall and Eastern Bloc), the French and European Champions- the Dutch; surely this would be a story that was woven into the tapestry of footballing folklore?
The Danish team had somewhat earned a reputation of playing ‘Beautiful football’ loosely based on the principles of ‘Totaal Voetbal’ or ‘Total Football’ but also using some hard core principles of English football- especially in defensive phase of the game. The Danes had a glorious 1980s- exceeding expectations by participating in World Cup, Euros and even Olympics- the highlight being a 3rd placed finish in 1984 Euros, held in France. The architect behind the resurgence of Danes was the German Sepp Piontek who led the team from 1979 to 1990. While Sepp looked at the attacking phase of the game, his assistant- Richard Moller Nielsen looked after the defensive aspect of their game. Both of them were different in terms of their coaching ideologies yet complemented each other very well. The cocksure team, including the likes of Michael Laudrup, Morten Olsen and Preben Elkjaer swaggered and scythed their way through the opposition. It was this attack first, defend second mentality that proved to be their downfall though at what would be the peak of this squad’s cycle. The ageing squad finished bottom of the group in the Euros 1988 then failed to qualify for World Cup Italia 90. It felt like the end of an era.
When Sepp Piontek decided to step down from his duties, the Danish FA wanted to appoint another foreign coach who could continue the way the Nordic nation played the game. First choice Horst Wohler was unable to free himself from a club contract. Eventually, Richard Moller got the nod of national team manager, a decision which wasn’t respected by the squad, the national media and the fans- because of his inexperience at a big stage, ability to manage the ego of big names and most important- his pragmatic approach to the game which was exactly opposite to what everyone wanted.
The latter was the biggest hurdle to win over the players, media and fans. But Richard stuck to his approach of coaching- emphasizing on team cohesion and more defense-oriented game rather than a free-flowing game of football. Richard had his reasons to emphasize on the team cohesion based game- majority of the regulars for senior team played together for a long time, right from youth levels at international stage to playing together at club level. The core of the team played together for the Copenhagen giants- Brondby IF. One more reason for Richard to adopt this approach was also the influence of ‘English game’ on their neighbours Sweden- Bob Houghton and Roy Hodgson’s work in Sweden completely revolutionized the Swedish game. Nielsen took inspiration from this hence went forward with this tactical approach.
Their start to Euros 1992 qualification group was good- a 4-1 victory against another Nordic side- Faroe Islands but a lackadaisical display of football despite the score-line. This display started a war of words between Nielsen and the Laudrup brothers. A goalless draw against Northern Ireland and a home defeat to footballing powerhouse at that time- Yugoslavia resulted in a nationwide eruption. The Laudrup brothers decided to quit national football because of the entire change in tactical system which rendered their natural game useless. Calls for Nielsen’s sacking were ever increasing but with time, the remaining team eventually settled down and adapted to Nielsen’s setup- a good run of 5 consecutive victories in their qualification group including a historic win on the road against Yugoslavia but it was not enough. Yugolslavia finished first in the qualification group while Denmark missed out on finals of Euros 1992, finishing behind Yugolsavia at 2nd place. A summer break for the Danes was awaiting, a most probable sacking for Nielsen was on the cards. But then, an UN order changed the course of their footballing history. The war struck Balkans entered into a very ugly phase of the war and sanctions were imposed on Yugoslavia by the UN- which resulted in the Balkan country’s participation in upcoming Euros null and void just 12 days before the start of Euros. Their place was given to the Danes. Nielsen had a Herculian task of preparing the squad for Euros in comparison to the other participating nations who had a head start of months when it came to training. After trying his best to reconcile with Laudrup brothers- only Brian decided to return back from this hiatus- becoming the last person to be named in the 20-man squad for Euros. Even after getting a last-minute lifeline, there was still another problem for Nielsen. Regular football season wasn’t finished in Denmark because of which many clubs didn’t release the players who were to take part in the Euros. Initially, only 7 players reported for training camp. Only after all club football was concluded in Denmark, did the remaining players join the training camp. Kim Vilfort, the 29-year old midfielder and captain of Brondby IF, joined the training camp after the others joined on a later date because of personal reasons.His 7-year old daughter- Line Vilfort was getting treatment for Leukemia and a last-minute respite came in the form of her improving health and his daughter’s insistence to take part in the Euros which prompted Kim to join the training camp.
The team travelled to Sweden with almost zero expectations, everyone including the players weren’t expecting to even get out of the group stage which consisted of host nation-Sweden, France led by Eric Cantona and Jean Pierre-Papin and Gary Lineker’s England. Only one man believed in absolute victory- Nielsen himself. And he eventually was able to instill this mentality in his tightly knit squad also. A hard-fought goalless draw against England provided a good start to the Danes. The Danes went into the next match against Host nation with some confidence but a narrow 1-0 loss to the Swedes put Denmark on the verge of elimination. Their last match? Against one of competition’s favourite-France. Everyone counted Denmark out. Danes didn’t just need a victory against the star-studded French team but they also needed the other match’s result to go their way. But against all odds, Denmark did the unthinkable. Not only they defeated France 2-1 but the result of other match also went their way which meant that 2 of tournament’s favourite- France and England were eliminated. Denmark achieved this victory without their midfield cog- Kim Vilfort who had to leave the national team to go back to Copenhagen in order to stay close to his daughter, whose health was again deteriorating. His replacement- Henrik Larsen pulled the strings from midfield against France- also ending up on the scoresheet and the winner came through Lars Elstrup- who came on for Brian Laudrup, late into the ending stages of the match. This particular substitution changed the outlook of Richard in front of the squad who now bought the picture potrayed by Nielsen, especially Brian Laudrup who despite being substituted in the crunch moments of the match for Elstrup, held no qualms about it. Finally, buying in the team ethic-based approach of his manager. The Danes despite being out of shape still achieved the unthinkable, that too without any rigourous training. The manager rather treated his squad to regular leisure activities of Mini Golf and eating out at McDonalds. The Nordic countries took their place in the semi finals. Their counter parts? The defending Euro champions- the mighty Dutch and the World Champions- Germany, who knocked out the Scots and CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States)- comprised of the countries who were once part of now defunct Soviet Nation.
With Kim Nilfort again joining his team mates, the Danes took to the field in Gothenburg against the Netherlands- spearheaded by Marco Van Basten and Dennis Bergkamp. The Duo’s performances in last Euros brought the crown home for the first time in Oranje’s history. This time, they were out with the mission to defend their crown. But, they didn’t expect that Denmark will come all guns blazing on them, right from first minute. Henrik Larsen gave an early lead to the Danes. Their ultra-attacking approach in this fixture resulted in defensive vulnerability at the back but they had Peter Schmeichel to thank. He somehow kept the Dutch attack at bay but Dennis Bergkamp eventually struck gold at 23rd minute, equalizing the score. The Danish team then changed back to their more compact and defensive shape, welcoming a barrage of attacks from the Dutch. But, they counter-attacked whenever they got the opportunity. Just 8 minutes later, Denmark took the lead- again Henrik Larsen scored who then became the joint top scorer of the tournament. Denmark then used their pragmatic approach to see out the match. Peter Schmeichel, Kim Vilfort, Kim Christofte were having the game of their lives. But a fumble inside their own defensive half saw Frank Rijkaard to equalize the score. After dull extra time- given the fatigue got the better of both teams, the match went to penalties. The veteran Dutch keeper- Hans Van Breukelen tried his best to unsettle the underdogs but it all went in vain. The star striker- Marco Van Basten saw his penalty being saved by the ice giant- Peter Schmeichel. Peter mimicked the stance of their 1960 Olympic Silver medal winning Danish keeper- by sticking a chewing gum on the outer periphery of the goal post every time the opposition player came up to take the spot kick- trying to unsettle them. Van Basten eventually crumbled under this unsettling trick and his poor spot kick was saved by Schmeichel. Kim Christofte was charged with the final spot kick. A conversion meant that Denmark will go into the finals. Unfazed by Van Breukelen’s antics, he kept his cool and slotted home the winner. Denmark advanced to a historic final.
In other semi-final, Sweden gave the world champions a fight for their money but the Germans were able to defeat the hosts in a narrow 2-3 victory. The Danes faced the undaunting task of fighting the world champions. But what happened on 26th June, 1992 in Ullevi Stadion, Gothenburg will remain in the memories of not only the Danes but in the memories of every football romantic. Danes, who were the last to arrive to the party to which they were uninvited, were the ones to celebrate first.
Early waves of German attacks were repelled, Schmeichel turning shots away from Matthias Sammer and Jurgen Klinsmann. Temporary stands were being erected in Frankfurt ready for the victorious Die Mannschaft’s return to home soil. John Jensen though, had other ideas. Not known for his goal-scoring prowess, having previously struck the post earlier in the competition. Faxe as he was known to team mates arrived at the edge of the penalty area as Povlsen cut the ball back. He struck it first time and sent a bolt past Bodo Illgner to give Denmark the unlikeliest of leads after 18 minutes.
The Germans were shell shocked. Their confidence shattered. Meanwhile, Danes played with all their might in order to keep the Germans at bay who started to go all guns blazing in 2nd half. But at 78th minute, Kim Vilfort received the ball in German’s defensive end from a long goal kick of Peter Schmeichel. What he did after that will always be remembered by the Danes. A brilliant solo effort, which included wrong footing 2 German defenders and taking a shot from his weaker left foot- which ended up into the goal via the goal post. It was 2-0. A final nail in the coffin of German defense was delivered by the man who had decided to not go to Euros and stay back with his family, only for his little daughter’s insistence to play in the tournament. Denmark- European champions for the first time in their history and arguably the biggest underdog victory in history of the sport.
Half of the team was recalled from it’s vacation, half of the team had to cancel it and ended up pulling the biggest upset. And it wasn’t just luck. It was a team effort, not the effort of manager or certain individual players. It was a proper team performance. To many observers, they were essentially coming in to make up the numbers. Nobody expected Denmark to be able to compete. The tournament was won, one that the victorious team were not even part of 26 days earlier. The tournaments slogan was ‘Small is beautiful’, perhaps then aptly won by a nation of a mere 5 million people.
And this victory changed the course of Danish Football. Peter Schmeichel went on to win even more laurels with Manchester United, Henrik Larsen secured a big move to Arsenal. Brian Laudrup and Flemming Povlsen won domestic titles with AC Milan, Rangers and Borussia Dortmund respectively. While Michael Laudrup was not the part of this squad but his achievements at club level elevated the level of Danish football to new heights. Kim Vilfort’s performances at Euros attracted interest from major English, Italian and Spanish teams but he decided to stay with his beloved Brondby, whom he took to semi finals of UEFA Cup a year before and regular participation at European stage followed- thereby becoming a club legend and club’s record goal scorer in his 12 year stint with the Copenhagen club. He had to sadly see his daughter succumb to Leukemia just 6 weeks after his Man of the Match worthy performances in the final. As described by his former coach Morten Olsen, Kim had “an indomitable winning mentality” and he “always believed it could be done, no matter how bleak things looked.” This attitude was surely never more apparent than in the midst of the triumph and trauma of his summer of 1992. This prompted him to become a vocal participant, raising awareness about Leukemia and Cancer and also taking ambassadorial for many organizations- raising awareness about Mental Health- which itself was a societal stigma at that time. Richard Moller Nielsen was finally able to woo the public and media who were against him. In 2014, Richard Moller Nielsen was posthumously entered into the Danish football hall of fame, after succumbing to a brain tumour earlier that year.
For Denmark, this wasn’t the last international tournament victory. The Danes went on to win the FIFA Confederations Cup in 1995 with majority of the core’e nucleus being the players who played together at Brondby IF-led by Kim Vilfort. Kim retired from international football after the 1995 Confederations Cup victory and eventually hung his boots in 1998. Even after retirement, he stuck down to work for his childhood club, working with the youth teams as the head of scouting and recruitment, hoping to find the ‘next generation’ which can take the mantle from his generation and even do better than them. In the present day, his beloved team finally won the League after a 16 year wait and at the heart of this team was a 20 year old midfielder Jesper Lindstrom who was himself scouted by Kim many years ago.
When asked about the Euros victory, he always pointed out to the team spirit of that Danish side- “We had fantastic spirit. The team wanted to win and that’s a very good thing when you’re at the highest level. When we were under pressure against Germany, it was the spirit that helped us. We didn’t have the best players, but we had the best team.”
The generation of Richard Moller Nielsen has inspired the future generation of footballers in Denmark, who always look upto the cult heroes of 1992. What happened in Copenhagen a few days back was a testament to the spirit of Danish people, together no matter what the situation is and yesterday’s victory against Russsia against all odds put them into Knockout rounds of yet another Euros. And it was possible because of the team spirit and the backing of ‘the 12th man’, the fans. Telia Parken saw another chapter unfold. Even if Denmark doesn’t win their next match, their deeds in this Euros will be remembered forever.