Midfield Combinations for 20/21 season

Manchester United rewarded their patient fans with their first foray into the summer transfer window with the signing of Donny Van De Beek. The Dutch international reportedly comes on a 5-year contract with a transfer fee of 39m Euros + 5m Euros in add-ons – a very shrewd acquisition given the fee and United’s need for midfield depth. The quality in that department now means that manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has many combinations to consider for the coming season. We analyse what Van De Beek brings to the table and the best midfield combinations as a result.

Van De Beek playing style

Solskjær’s official statement after signing Van De Beek: “His [Van de Beek] ability to see space, time his movements and read the game will really complement the qualities that we have in midfield and his arrival really strengthens the depth of talent we have in that position.”

Ole clearly knows what he’s talking about. Donny adds a few qualities to United’s midfield that are largely absent and his weaknesses are already covered with qualities of the existing roster.

Firstly, let’s analyse his playing position and role. Donny has spent the majority of his time playing in the No. 10 position in a 4-2-3-1 in his time at Ajax. He is predominantly an attacking midfielder. De Jong’s departure saw him play in a central midfielder role last season as Ziyech took the no.10 role and Neres the right wing slot. In half the games when one of these 2 players would be dropped to bench, De Beek would retain his no.10 spot. He ended up starting 19 times in the attacking mid slot and 18 times in central midfield as a result. Even the times Donny featured in central midfield, the defensive-minded Lisandro Martinez sat back to allow VDB to bomb forward and give a 4-1-4-1 shape during attack similar to how Matic allowed Pogba to join Bruno in attack during the second half of United’s season. From these, it can be inferred that Donny would serve as a competitor for Bruno and Pogba in United’s first XI or speaking role-wise, the box-to-box role and the no.10 roles. We will get back to this when we discuss combinations.

Next, we compare Van De Beek statistically with United’s midfielders to see what he brings to the table. All players who played in the 3 midfield roles in Ole’s 4-2-3-1 have been considered. These 7 players are Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba, Scott Mctominay, Fred, Nemanja Matic, Andreas Perriera and Jesse Lingard. Only stats for the 19/20 league season have been considered. While the Eredivisie vs Premier League difference will obviously be there, this comparison should serve as a good indication.

Firstly it must be said that VDB played 23 of the 25 Eredivisie games this season. Over the last 2 seasons he played in all 34 games in each season for Ajax coming on as a substitute only 5 times in this stretch. His fitness is impeccable and a big pro given Pogba’s regular niggles. 

His goals per 90 is 0.38 inferior only to Bruno at 0.61 who has had an amazing period since joining the club. Scott is the next closest at 0.2. Donny’s shots on target % is highest at 36% beating Bruno (35%) and Pogba (33%). His shots on target per 90 is 0.75 inferior only to Bruno (1.06) and Andreas (0.85). His goals per shots is the highest at 0.18 beating Scott (0.13) and Bruno (0.1). These stats indicate a player who is an adept and efficient scorer. VDB guarantees goals without being wasteful. He is a player who picks his moments and possesses immense technique and finishing prowess. Unlike Bruno, he is not too trigger-happy and rarely attempts long-range shots. Smart off-the-ball movement to ghost into good areas and well-placed finishes are the two big traits that fans can look forward to. He has already shown a glimpse of this in his substitute appearance against Luton this season.

He scored 8 goals last season matching Bruno’s half-season tally while being far ahead of any other United midfielder. His 5 assists also rank him second after Bruno (7) placing him second-best in terms of goal threat. This is confirmed with his strong G+A per 90 stat of 0.61 only bested by Bruno again (a ridiculously good 1.14) while being far ahead of Pogba at 0.25. These signify Donny’s goal threat. While Ole has markedly improved United’s defence conceding 20 less goals in the league compared to the 18/19 season to bring the goals conceded stat to 36 (only bested by Liverpool and Manchester City in the 19/20 season by 4 and 2 goals respectively), the goals scored stat hasn’t improved much going from 65 to 66 goals from 18/19 to 19/20. While this can be attributed to Lukaku leaving, Greenwood settling in and Martial’s first full season playing as the centre-forward, Ole will want more goals. A full season with Bruno should help that but Van De Beek chipping in with a few goals and assists will help as well. If more firepower is what Ole is looking for, he is getting that with VDB for sure.

An underrated part of Donny’s game is the defensive aspect. While his best work undoubtedly comes in advanced areas of the game, he is no passenger in the defensive phase showcasing intense pressing and a penchant for crunching tackles in key moments of the game. The stats highlight these as well. His tackles won per 90 is 1.22 bested only by Fred (2.13) and Scott (1.57) who have both played in much deeper and ball-winning roles this season. Donny beats Bruno (1.06), Matic (1.1) and Pogba (1.19) indicating what a good tackler he is despite his attacking traits. His interceptions per 90 are also decent at 0.75 surpassed by Scott (1.68), Fred (1.58) and Matic (1.31) who play much deeper than him. Pogba at 0.37 and Bruno at 0.68 are the next best. This fits really well with Ole’s requirements of a hard-working ball-winning midfielder. The only thing Donny can be accused of not being a master of is playmaking. His key passes, chances created and through balls aren’t especially great indicating playmaking isn’t his strength. He prefers to be on the end of assists with his intense off-the-ball runs which fits well with the likes of Pogba, Rashford, Martial and Bruno who now have another partner to find in the attacking phase while deconstructing defences.

In a nutshell, United fans can look forward to an aggressive attacking CM/AM player who has a knack for scoring goals, guarantees intense pressing and tackling in midfield, prefers to be on the end of quality passes rather than play them himself and is fit and hard-working enough to do these consistently.

It must be noted in the analysis above that Jesse Lingard and Andreas Perriera rank in the bottom 2 for most of these stats unless explicitly mentioned, highlighting why Ole considers them lowest in the pecking order and possibly surplus to requirements with the arrival of Donny. 

Midfield combinations

Before understanding where VDB can fit, let’s first understand what he is fitting into. Ole has deployed a 4-2-3-1 throughout the 19/20 season with the only variations being in him playing a counter-attacking style in the first half of the season and a possession-based style in the second half. The only times he played a back 5 were in big games to play on the counter which worked pre-lockdown but failed in the FA cup semi-final against Chelsea. The chances of a diamond formation also seem low given the fact that Ole has played it only once in his caretaker stint. A diamond requires 2 attacking wingbacks and 2 aggressive shuttlers ahead of a defensive midfielder to work. The one time Ole played it was more of a defensive ploy with Herrera and Fred as the shuttlers and Matic as defensive midfielder. The chances of a diamond with the current setup seem low. Coupled with Ole’s clear attraction to wingers, Greenwood’s rise and the Sancho pursuit, it’s safe to say Ole’s ideal blueprint is a variant of 4-2-3-1.

Next it’s important to understand that in the 4-2-3-1, Ole does have a clear differentiation between the 2 midfielders in the pivot. There’s one player who drops deeper between the CBs to pick up the ball during the build-up phase and playmakes from the defensive midfield zones while the other is more of a ball-carrier who keeps trying to move closer to the most advanced attacking midfielder and focuses on linking defence to attack. For this discussion let’s name the 3 roles as the deep-lying-playmaker (DLP), box-to-box midfielder (B2B) and attacking midfielder (AM).

Let’s see which players have played in the 3 roles over the course of the 19/20 season.

  • When Pogba and Scott played at the start of the season Pogba was dropping deeper allowing Scott to move ahead. Pogba was the DLP and Scott the B2B while Andreas and Jesse rotated for the AM role. 
  • When Scott and Fred played during the rest of the first half of the season, Fred was the DLP. United didn’t build up much and played on the counter so both seemed almost balanced in a double pivot but Fred was comparatively deeper. 
  • In the second half of the season when Matic and Pogba played, Matic was the clear DLP dropping and maintaining a very defensive minded position, allowing the B2B Pogba to join the AM Bruno almost creating 4-1-4-1 shape in attack against weaker oppositions. 
  • Towards the Europa knockouts in the end we again noticed Fred playing the DLP role and Pogba B2B with Bruno AM.

Given all these combinations, Ole’s pecking order equation seems to be

DLP: Matic>Fred>Pogba

B2B: Pogba>Scott>Fred

AM: Bruno>Jesse/Andreas/Mata

Ole has never played Scott as the DLP. Even when paired with Pogba, Scott never dropped deep and was always maintaining a B2B movement on the pitch. This goes in line with his youth days where he has always played as an AM or B2B as well. There is a good case to be made that Ole doesn’t see Scott as a DLP even if his Matic comparison comments may have made many fans think so. Lingard and Perreira are clear backups to Bruno and the choice for who comes next might get solved with their transfer scenarios this summer, while Mata also remains an option for AM.

From all that we have seen and analysed of Donny Van De Beek, we can take a shot at guessing where he might fit in this equation.

DLP: Matic>Fred>Pogba

B2B: Pogba>VDB>Scott>Fred

AM: Bruno>VDB>Jesse/Andreas/Mata

It’s a safe assumption that VDB will not affect the DLP equation. He has never played that role and does not have the traits to nail it. He should easily slot in as the next best options for both B2B and AM roles after Pogba and Bruno. This now brings to the fore 3 clear combinations in which Ole can lineup this season:

1. Matic (DLP) + Pogba (B2B) + Bruno (AM)

Simply lining up the first choices of our equation we come up with the impressive trio that bossed many games post-lockdown during the red devils’ outstanding run to clinch 3rd finish in the league last season.

1. Heavy possession game that sees the best of Pogba and Bruno in terms of chance creation and Matic in terms of ball retention and build-up. This is ideal for breaking down low-block teams that cede possession.
2. VDB coming off the bench as a great quality option if the plan A doesn’t work out, which was something United lacked in their season-end run
1. Matic’s age makes him susceptible to pressing. Southampton gave him a hard time and mitigated United’s possession game, while Aston Villa also troubled him for a while before they were scored against. This led to Matic being rightfully dropped against the press-hungry Sevilla in the Europa league.

2. Fred (DLP) + Pogba (B2B) + Bruno (AM) 

We explore the next-best DLP option paired with best options for the other 2 roles

1. Good counter-press value with Fred’s ball-winning and pressing a huge trait. He bossed the midfield against a press-heavy Sevilla. This would be Ideal for games on the counter against the Premier league top 4 and Champions League knockouts.
2. Again, VDB coming off the bench as a plan B
1. Fred’s build-up and possession traits aren’t impressive. His passing range and creativity is average making it tough to dominate possession and create chances. Against low block teams this becomes a big negative as displayed often in the first half of the season.

3. Pogba (DLP) + VDB (B2B) + Bruno (AM) 

We round off with a slightly left-field but not entirely improbable midfield combination, given it presents a chance to field the 3 most attacking midfielders United have.

1. Creativity and attacking movement can be expected to be highest with all 3 players boasting goal and assist threat. Can be experimented against weaker Premier League teams to start with.
2. A potential elite team 4-1-4-1 attack which United have been craving for for ages
1. Pogba as a DLP isn’t super convincing. He lost the ball a few times during building from the back last season and isn’t a natural defensive midfielder. In getting the best out of VDB and Bruno, Pogba’s best role as a B2B suffers.

There is also a good case of switching the B2B and AM roles in this combination to allow Donny to be further ahead which has hinted at when he was brought on while chasing the game during the 20/21 league opener against Crystal Palace.

While the chances of a formation other than 4-2-3-1 are low but not zero and incoming or outgoing transfers can still change these equations before the window ends, these 3 combinations seem the most likely options Ole would be considering. It will be really interesting to see which combination the Norwegian opts for over the course of the 20/21 season. 

Marcus Rashford and Half-spaces

When Manchester United welcomed the Danish side FC Midtjylland at Old Trafford in 2016 for their second leg tie in the Europa League Round of 32, the then United manager, Louis van Gaal was down to bare bones in the attack department. Injuries to senior attacking players such as Wayne Rooney and Ashley Young meant the only striker fit enough to start was Anthony Martial. 18 year-old Marcus Rashford occupied a place on the bench, but an injury to Anthony Martial in the warmup meant that Marcus Rashford would make his full first team debut. The Englishman scored twice on his debut en route to a 5-1 win for Manchester United. Rashford also scored twice in his first full Premier League debut 3 days later against Arsenal and hasn’t looked back ever since. 

Marcus Rashford, when he first came into the side, was what could be regarded as an explosive striker. Running and going past defences with his blistering pace and dribbling, the 18 year-old was direct and took no prisoners. Rashford scored 7 goals in 13 appearances in all competitions in that breakthrough season, cementing his place in the first team for Manchester United that won the FA cup.

Then came Jose Mourinho and the Portugese never saw Rashford as his main no.9 and the signings of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Romelu Lukaku in consecutive seasons only backed Mourinho’s claim. In the 2016/17 season, in a fully fit squad, Rashford usually played on the left although he did play as a striker whenever the main striker was injured. As time went by, it became largely evident that Marcus Rashford’s best position was playing on the left and not through the middle. 

Even though Mourinho found the position in which Rashford has since excelled, the Portugese was very shrewd in giving him minutes on the pitch. Rashford made more appearances from the bench rather than from the get-go. In the 2017/18 season, Rashford made 35 appearances in the Premier League but 18 of them were from the bench. He played only 1792 minutes in the whole campaign. Alexis Sanchez’s arrival in January 2018 resulted in Rashford dropping down the pecking order. 

Under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Marcus Rashford has truly begun to excel. Playing mainly from the left this season, the 22 year old has scored 17 goals in the Premier League, already his best ever goal scoring return and 10 more than compared to when he played on the left under Mourinho in the 2017/18 season. Not limited to goalscoring output, his xG per 90 has improved as well from 0.28 to 0.57. 

Both managers played him on the left wing, and both primarily preferred a 4-2-3-1 formation. So what has changed? How has his goal output improved so much in the same position?

Of course, one could argue that it’s nothing but a case of a young player maturing, and for some part, it is. But, Solskjaer has made a small tactical tweak to Rashford’s positioning in the build-up and link-up play which has made the majority of the difference. That being, Rashford being deployed into half-spaces instead of playing out wide on the left. That has made a difference in 3 aspects of his game.

1.Proximity to goal

Firstly, he is closer to the goal and the main striker, Anthony Martial. Under Mourinho, the closest player to the main striker was usually the attacking midfielder, more often than not, Jesse Lingard. Mourinho deployed Lingard to act as a secondary striker, linking up with Lukaku and finding spaces in and around the box. Solskjaer shifted the onus of the no.10 from scoring goals to more of a playmaking role. By shifting Rashford in the half-spaces, Ole has allowed him to act as a secondary striker. These are Marcus Rashford’s heatmaps for the 17/18 and the 19/20 season.

As it is evident to see, Rashford is occupying the Left sided half spaces a lot more as compared to 17/18 where he’s mostly occupying the wider areas. Being in these areas has allowed him to be closer to goal and Martial and his link-up with the Frenchman has been the cornerstone of many of the attacks that Manchester United have structured this season. 

Here, Martial occupies the striker position, Rashford tucks into the half-space to be closer to Martial. This enables Luke Shaw to get into the space left by Rashford and become an enticing passing option for Lindelof (on the ball) for a crossfield pass. 

Instead, Lindelof passes it to Mata on the right wing, who cuts in and crosses to Rashford, still occupying the half space. Rashford completes his far post run and scores past Tim Krul in the goal. 

Switch to another move, where Rashford occupying the half space and being close to Martial, helps the no.10 (Pereira in this case) drop deeper to get the ball and release the runners. In this case, Wan Bissaka receives the ball from Pereira, who makes a great forward run and crosses for Rashford who continues his same run in the left hand side half-space and scores. 

2.Positional interchange with striker

Secondly, Rashford operating the half space has allowed him to constantly interchange positions with Martial and the understanding between the duo has been one of the key reasons for both playing well this season. Their link-up was clear to see in the 3rd goal that Manchester United scored at Carrow road this season.   

3.Pressing centrally

Lastly, Rashford’s pressing awareness has improved a lot this season as well. He mainly presses in the half spaces, attempting to cut off the right sided centre back’s supply to the right back and the defensive mid. This forces the centre back to pass it back to his keeper or his defence partner. Even if the ball gets to the fullback or to the defensive mid, Rashford is quick to change direction and press depending on where the ball is played.

In this situation, Rashford presses Schar who looks to pass in the middle. He misplaces his pass which ends up to Greenwood, who darts ahead and scores a sensational goal. 

Jose Mourinho’s tactics didn’t allow Rashford to express himself. The Portugese has always associated himself with having a strong no.9 – A focal point whose hold up play, physical strength and ability to play in runners are the best traits. Rashford was never that player – far from it as he isn’t even a proper no.9. 

Another aspect which has had an effect on Rashford excelling is Solskjaer’s counter attacking set up. Under Mourinho, the two players exempted from tracking back and staying forward for counter attacks were the striker and the attacking midfielder, more often than not, Romelu Lukaku and Jesse Lingard. Solskjaer’s set up while not having the ball is quite the opposite. He insists on the attacking midfielder dropping deeper and helping the midfield while the front 3, most recently Martial, Rashford and Greenwood stay forward for United to counter attack with blistering pace. 

It is no surprise that Jesse Lingard had his best season under Mourinho where the attacking midfielder had the role of a secondary striker and has struggled under Solskjaer due to the attacking midfielder having more playmaking duties. Similarly, Rashford has thrived in a system where he has been used as a secondary striker and been allowed to express himself more. 

Goal (Green)

Shot on post (yellow)

Saved shot (blue)

Blocked shot (purple)

Missed shot (red)

These are the shot maps of Marcus Rashford from the 17/18 season and the 19/20 season. It is clear to see that Rashford has matured a lot and is playing with real swagger and tenacity. 

Now, just allowing Marcus Rashford to operate in the half spaces isn’t the only reason for the improvement that the 22 year old has shown this season. Statistics show that Rashford is outperforming himself in almost every aspect of his game including passing, dribbling, shooting and pressing. This shows a real maturity in his game and how well Rashford is developing into becoming a complete player. This only bodes well for Manchester United going forward as the Englishman is going to be key for the rebuild that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and the club have planned.

All in all, it is fair to say that Marcus Rashford has come a long way since his debut in 2016 and he is constantly improving at each stage of his career. The 22 year-old still has a long way to go, but his work ethic and the way he has adapted to tactics over the years only suggest that the Englishman is well on his way to becoming a truly world-class player.