Why do McFred start for United

 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:

3.6 Tackles Attempted: 1st
2.8 Tackles Won: 1st
27.1 Pressures: 1st
6.6 Successful pressures: 1st
12.1 Recoveries: 1st

 Paints a pretty clear picture, doesn’t it? Fred is immense for United off the ball.

 Let’s also list down Scott’s contributions in the same way:

2.1 Tackles Attempted: 2nd
1.1 Tackles Won: 3rd
13.9 Pressures: 4th
2.9 Successful pressures: 8th
6.1 Recoveries: 11th

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. 

 

 

 

 

Tactical Analysis: Thomas Tuchel

 

There are some very good reasons why Thomas Tuchel keeps getting high-profile club jobs without having to wait, and knowing German is not one of them! We take a look at the tactician’s early history and the principles that shape his philosophy that make him one of the most exciting coaches in world football today.

 

Early Days

 

A series of knee injuries halted Tuchel’s budding career as a defender in his mid 20s. He played 68 times before being forced to hang up his boots for good due to a serious knee injury at the age of 24 in 1998. He then funded a business administration course by bartending before attempting another shot at a career by requesting his mentor Ralf Rangnick, head coach of Stuttgart at the time, to allow him a trial. After 9 moths of training with the Stuttgart reserves Tuchel came to the painful realisation that his playing days were surely over. A devastated Tuchel was suggested by his mentor to get into coaching. At a time devoid of textbooks, Tuchel learnt from the notes of Rangnick & Helmut Groß. He followed the personality building principles of Hermann Badstuber, father of former Bayern defender, Holger Badstuber, which led Tuchel to place great emphasis on making personalities. Acts like being on time, proper greetings with handshakes & making eye contact while talking would later become part of Tuchel’s own expectations as a manager. 

 

 

Tuchel started by shadowing the academy coaches before taking over the U14 team in 2000. He would then swiftly rise up the ranks as U14, U17 & U19 manager while impressing at each stage. His U19 league win with Stuttgart in 2005 prompted a switch to Mainz U19 who were on the rise at the time thanks to a club-defining spell under Jurgen Klopp. In June 2008, at a pre-season training camp in Austria, in a bid to motivate his players, Tuchel and his team underwent an intense trek and buried a club badge at the top of a mountain with the promise that the team would come back and remove it only if they reached the U19 Cup finals. In June 2009, the team reached the finals to face Borussia Dortmund. Tuchel did not want to disturb the players and went and brought back the badge before the final along with his assistant. He showed the video of their climb and them digging out the badge moments before the final in the dressing room to his players. An inspired Mainz U19 went on to win the final 2-1.

 

 

 

FSV Mainz 05 (2009-2014)

 

Being rewarded with a glamorous 7 years from 2001 to 2008 thanks to the inspired appointment of Jurgen Klopp, Mainz decided to follow up the club’s greatest era with another inspired appointment. They promoted the 35-year-old Thomas Tuchel to lead the senior team. Shaking off constant comparisons with Klopp, Tuchel delivered a strong 9th place finish in his first season before improving on it further with a club-first Europa qualification berth a season later. Key to their success was young Andre Schurrle whom Tuchel worked with in the U19s. Lewis Holtby, who joined on loan from Schalke, and Ádám Szalai, who made his move from Real Madrid Castilla permanent, formed a good trio along with Schürrle and the three were the Mainz boyband. Tuchel left Mainz in 2015 averaging higher than Klopp’s points per game (1.41 compared to 1.13 for Klopp), another Europa league finish and club-high 7th position. 

 

 

 Borussia Dortmund (2015-2017)

 

That followed a year-long break, during which Tuchel was still educating himself, understanding the importance of stats from Brentford owner Matthew Benham and then learning from Professor Wolfgang Schöllhorn, a famed sports scientist who indirectly influenced Guardiola. Tuchel’s next job was as challenging as his last – improving another impressive Klopp team – Borussia Dortmund. While Tuchel’s success is well-known, his methods aren’t. He employed a strict diet plan at Dortmund which improved the fitness of key players, Hummels & Gundogan. Even the official team bus driver was on a diet plan & lost 8 kgs! In his first season, they lost just four games all season while the attacking triumvirate of Marco Reus, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored an incredible 85 goals between them in all competitions. A year later Tuchel would win his first trophy, the DFB Pokal. He departed Dortmund again with better a points per game average than Klopp and in fact the highest points-per-game record of any Dortmund manager in history. In those 2 years, Dortmund were undefeated at home and Tuchel’s win % was a brilliant 62.7%.

 

  

 

 

 

Paris Saint-Germain (2018-2020)

 

If his Mainz and Dortmund spells were impressive, his time at Paris Saint-Germain was even better. In 2018-19, Thomas Tuchel’s PSG side set the record for most wins to start a top-five European league season – 14 and then went on to score in all 38 games of the league campaign – a first-time feat. If you thought the attack was fantastic, the defending wasn’t any less. PSG conceded a record low 6 goals throughout the 2019/20 Champions League campaign – a run which saw them reach the finals. Tuchel had to fight through waves of squad injury issues and display immense man management to get the best out of the previously underwhelming PSG stars. Eventually a disagreement with the board prompted him to leave the club, a trend observed during his departure from Dortmund as well.

 

It’s no surprise that a few weeks later he already finds himself in the coaching tracksuit of London side, Chelsea, presiding over them a day after Frank Lampard was sacked. Chelsea’s announcement of the appointment was followed with a training clip of his first session, where the German suited up quickly in a no-nonsense fashion before rushing to the training ground to take over his troops. It summed everything about Tuchel really – an efficient, hard-working winner who wastes no time doing what he does best. With 7 trophies and a Champions League runners-up medal under his belt and a stellar record of greatly improving every side he has ever managed, Tuchel is among the fastest-rising managers in the world. The challenging Chelsea job might just be the best opportunity for him to prove those who still doubt him wrong.

 

 

(All Image Credits: Getty Images)

 

 

 

 

 

Mid-season report: The numbers behind MUFC

If you’re wondering whether it would be right or wrong to call Manchester United’s ongoing season a good one, then you’re not alone. It has been an exciting for the fans of the red devils but it’s still hard to place any name tags like ‘successful’ or ‘improved’ on it yet. A positive run in the league that sees the club in a so-called “title race” has been sandwiched the disappointing Champions League group stage exit and recent Carabao Cup semi-final loss to City. A very different season of football which started with no pre-season break, is filled with fixture congestion issues and still hasn’t been immune to repeated COVID contractions and player fitness issues, makes it hard to assess whether United are actually having a good season or not. We try to break through the confusion using our greatest weapon – data. Below are a few detailed data visualizations of some of the underlying numbers that can indicate how the red devils are performing this season and who the stand-out players are.

 

 [Goals vs G-xG, EPL 20/21]

The first viz highlights the Premier League teams who are over-performing on their expected goals like Southampton and Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham and those who are under-performing with respect to their goals scored like Sheffield United and Burnley. All stats used are per 90 minute stats. United and Liverpool have not only been scoring high but also more than expected. This kind of slight over-performance is sustainable and expected for a top team challenging for titles since they would boast of players with the ability to over-perform and score from unexpected situations as well. It reads well for United fans who are trying to understand if this type of performance in the league is sustainable.

 

 [Goals vs G-xG, MUFC in all comps 20/21]

The next logical question will be which United players are over-performing and under-performing on expected goals. This viz highlights exactly that. The players over-performing on xG are Rashford and Bruno. Rashford’s xG in the game against Paris Saint Germain at Old Trafford was just 0.1 whereas his goal against Brighton at home was a 0.3 xG chance. Bruno’s double against Everton at Goodison park had a combined xG of just 0.2.
Worryingly, Anthony Martial has a negative G-xG differential. His blank against PSG at Old Trafford accrued 0.9 xG while he failed to scored at West Bromwich Albion even with an xG of 0.8. Martial has had a reputation of over-performing on his expected goals metric, the best of which United fans witnessed in the 19/20 season where he scored 17 goals in the league with an xG of 10.9 only. Greenwood has also been underwhelming so far with just 3 goals this season after having scored 17 in all competitions in 19/20. If those two can start finishing like their usual selves and support Rashford and Bruno in attack, United fans can expect even better attacking output from the team in the remainder of the season.

 

 [Progressive passes vs Progressive Distance,MUFC 20/21]

This viz maps progressive passes per 90 against progressive distance of thoses per 90 minutues. Alex Telles’ consistently aggressive crossing helps him top progressive distance while Bruno regularly looking for line-breaking passes and assists helps him top number of progressive passes. Nemanja Matic, Luke Shaw and United’s Centre-Backs ensure high progression even with lesser number of progressive passes. Donny Van De Beek and the forwards prefer less progressive passing.

 

[Pressures per 90 vs Pressure success %, MUFC all comps 20/21]

This viz gives a good indication of United’s pressing strategy under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. It highlights how Bruno Fernandes and Fred are press-hungry at the cost of success % while Paul Pogba & Scott McTominay maintain a good balance. Luke Shaw and the centre-Backs prioritize success. It gives a general indication that the attackers don’t press too high, while Bruno and Fred have complete license to go overboard to win back possession and Pogba, McTominay Matic are expected to strike a controlled approach. The defence opts for safety over high pressing numbers. In short, Ole prefers winning the midfield battle the most.

[Carries vs Progressive Distance, MUFC 20/21]

This viz highlights player movements with the ball. Nemanja Matic stands out on both the number of carries per 90 and progression towards goal while Marcus Rashford and Daniel James boast high progression even with less number of carries.

[MUFC Goals & Expected goals Trend in EPL 20/21]

Last but not the least, we take a look at the game-by-game trend of United’s expected goals and actual goals scored in the league so far. It’s clear that the red devils didn’t create enough against top 4 rivals Chelsea and Arsenal and weren’t good value for the win in both games. United should have scored at least one goal in the drab 0-0 draw against neighbors Manchester City. But the team showed great spirit in over-performing on xG to clinch wins against West Ham and Sheffield United even when the team wasn’t creative enough which shows a winning quality lacking in recent United sides against such clubs in the league.

In summary, much of the underlying numbers have indicated clear progress from last season and a genuine forward-thinking approach from Ole Gunnar Solksjaer which have rewarded him with good attacking displays and an unexpected title challenge in the league. The worries have been towards the defensive end where United have let in some goals cheaply often owing to set-pieces. Doubts also remain of United’s performance in big games this season after having done wonderfully well last season in such games. The last worry seems to be over-reliance on a few players. Days in which Bruno and Rashford are shut down result in poor attacking displays like against City in the Carabao cup. Ole will be looking for more from the likes of Martial, Greenwood, Wan-Bissaka and Pogba towards the latter of the season. Who knows, if the missing members step up and things go his way, Ole might be the first United manager post-SAF to make a genuine push for a league title towards the end of the season. As of now, United fans should take solace in knowing that the underlying numbers support the narrative of improvement from last season and they should expect more points in the league at the very least.

The Importance of Victor Lindelof

The Importance of Victor Lindelof

A flashback to November 21, 2017. Manchester United were having a tough time breaking down lowly Huddersfield as they trailed 1-0 and were forced to make a defensive sub thanks to Phil Jones’ injury. Victor Lindelof came on and within just 10 minutes found himself forced into a sticky situation from goalkeeper Jonas Lossl’s long clearance. Lindelof missed the header, allowing Depoitre to sweep up the easy loose ball and make it 2-0. Paul Merson said on Soccer Saturday after the game: “The lad Lindelof came on, and wow. If you watch Christopher Schindler for Huddersfield, you’d take him all day long over Lindelof.” The error marked the latest in a string of defensive mistakes that led to manager Mourinho becoming reluctant to give Lindelof a Premier League start until 6 months after signing him in the summer of 2017. Fans were already calling for the sale of the Swede in a bid to recoup the £31m fee, which they clearly felt was a bad investment.

Fast forward to the present and Victor Lindelof is one of the first names on the team sheet for Manchester United. A forced half-time withdrawal against Istanbul this week in the Champions League thanks to a niggling back injury was lamented by fans as they prayed for his recovery and fitness in time for the weekend clash against Southampton. The perception of Lindelof has come a full 360 and after more than 2 years of consistent performances, the £31m fee is starting to look more like a bargain than wasted investment. Forget Christopher Schindler, most United fans would not swap Lindelof even for Toby Alderweireld now. The ‘iceman’, a nickname popularised by United fans, has been credited in bringing the Red Devils out of the Jones-Smalling era and form a more progressive partnership with Harry Maguire to great effect. We analyse the importance of Lindelof and why he is one of the most underrated cogs in the current United machine.

Journey so far:

It was in the second-half of 2015-16 that Lindelof began playing regularly for the Benfica senior team and ultimately earned a callup from the Sweden senior team to be a part of their squad for Euro 2016. His stock has steadily been on the rise ever since and earned him a transfer to United in the summer of 2017. 

 

After an initially rocky start in Manchester, with Eric Bailly being the preferred option, Lindelof has slowly become the mainstay in the Manchester United XI while Bailly has spent most of his time on the shelf with injuries. In the 2018/19 campaign, Lindelof asserted himself as United’s best centre-back option. He was the leader in the defence making 30 league appearances. He thrived as confidence was put in him to be the number one centre-back. But a few errors at the start of the 19/20 campaign brought back doubts on his ability. He was beaten in the air for Crystal Palace’s first goal when they wound up 2-1 winners at Old Trafford in August, and the same happened again when he was completely out-jumped by Jannik Vestergaard as Southampton held United to a 1-1 draw the following month. But, as his understanding with new partner Harry Maguire kept growing, the duo fell upon a formula which covered for both players’ weaknesses and enhanced their strengths. The remainder of the season saw Lindelof put together another impressive run which played a huge part in United climbing up in the league to finish at an impressive 3rd place. Lindelof started 35 out of a possible 38 Premier League games and only conceded 32 goals, which was an improvement over the 2018/19 season where he conceded 40 goals in 30 starts.

Harry Maguire summed it up perfectly in a MUTV interview before the end of the 19/20 season: ”We’ve had a good season up to now together. When you form partnerships, it takes time. I’m learning his game and he’s learning mine and I think we’re getting better. We’re keeping a lot more clean sheets than we were at the start of the season. We’ve had a couple of great goals scored against us from outside the box, but we haven’t really been having games where David [De Gea] has had to make saves apart from maybe the Carabao Cup second leg against City when David was brilliant. It’s a partnership that’s building and I think we’ll get better and better, and start keeping more clean sheets like we have been doing recently.”

United fans were ambushed with a quick reminder of his weakness towards the end of the season as Lindelof was to blame (along with Wan-Bissaka) for the goal against Sevilla that brought to fore a furious argument with Bruno Fernandes. But, in the larger scheme of things 19/20 marked the end of 2 consistently solid seasons for the Swede. 

His impressive stats and the way he has fought tooth and nail for his spot at Manchester United since 2017 haven’t gone unnoticed, earning him a new deal in September 2019. The 20/21 season hasn’t offered up much for analysis so far as Lindelof has had a stop-start season thanks to his back injury. After a frustrating start shipping goals against Palace and Brighton, the Iceman has found his usual groove with imperious displays against PSG, Chelsea, RBL and Arsenal. 

 

Tactical Analysis:

Lindelof is clearly a ball-playing defender but his pace, composure and game-reading make him very suitable to play as a cover defender. Most modern centre-back pairings operate in a stopper-cover partnership. The stopper is the one who aggressively engages in duels with attackers and often steps into the DM area to win the ball early before the clear-cut chance can be created by the opponents while the cover CB drops deeper to sweep up the loose balls and contest the duels that the stopper misses. The relevance for this style of partnership has only increased in modern times as many attackers are adept at dropping in the hole to create (like Firmino, Messi, Kane) as they draw out defenders and create space for their more attacking partners (like Salah, Suarez, Son) to attack the space. With the stopper-cover setup, the stopper engages the former type while the cover player tracks the latter type to give the team a double opportunity to weed out threats. For reference, Ferdinand Cover and Vidic Stopper or Ramos stopper and Varane cover would be good examples.

For Manchester United, Maguire is the clear stopper and enjoys stepping into midfield to contest with opponents. His strong frame and heading ability make him a great asset to win the ball early and stop opponent moves while his lack of pace and agility are also made up for when he engages early without giving the attacker a chance to collect the ball and run at him. In contrast, Lindelof avoids the early aerial scruff and drops patiently to pick up the quick poacher or loose ball from Maguire’s duel. This often puts him in the right place to sweep up balls with control and calm or contest a forward’s dribble or pacey run which he is well suited to win most of the time. On the rare occasions Maguire is dribbled past or Lindelof is forced into an aerial battle which he loses, United concede a chance. But given the combinations and the fact that both players are adept defenders, this leads to very few chances on goal. As a duo, Maguire and Lindelof’s combined individual errors leading to goals was 0 in 19/20 which was the best in the Premier League. They also let in the least through balls from open play into the D box in the league. While either may not have been as good as Virgil Van Dijk individually, together they have been as good as any CB pairing in Europe in 19/20.

A good example of their combination is the game against Everton where Maguire went ahead to engage the midfielder while Lindelof smartly tracked the run of the incoming winger. Maguire lost the duel getting stranded ahead and the ball was played perfectly in the danger area but Lindelof’s reading and pace enabled him to cut across and clear the ball before it entered the D box.

Lindelof is a strong ball-player constantly looking for line-breaking passes that find midfielders and attackers in good positions. While finding the holding midfielder with a quick short pass or spreading the play with a through ball on the wings to the fullback is like bread and butter for him, he also possesses the vision and technique to pick out the front 3 with a perfect midfield-splitting grounded ball.

A good example is against Wolves last season where Lindelof stepped in to stop the danger, trapped the ball perfectly before giving himself time to pick out a free player in a dangerous situation where he was being pressed before finally finding Jesse Lingard, who dropped deep to help, with a precise pass through the crowd.

Lindelof always keeps looking for more direct routes to goal as evidenced by this move against WBA where instead of opting for the conservative pass to the right-back, he dribbles forward and finds striker Martial with a quick grounded pass. 

 

 

 

 Another example of his directness and technique against Burnley as he goes wide on the right before belting a strong grounded pass through the midfield to find striker Martial once again:

 

 

His technique and vision aren’t limited to his right foot alone as in this example he receives the ball in a high-pressed crowded area near his D before turning and releasing the attacker on the halfway line with a left-footed through ball, turning a dangerous situation for United into an opportunity to counter.

 

 

 

Strengths:

In 2018/19, Lindelof finished the Premier League campaign with no errors leading to goals, a 68% tackle success rate and just one yellow card. In 19/20, he was even more impressive with a 98% tackle success rate which was the highest in the league. He again finished the league season with 0 errors leading to goals. What Victor lacks in strength and aerial ability, he makes up for with a proficient reading of the game. The Swede is intelligent, and knows when to make that slide challenge and when not to. In the 19/20 season, he made 170 recoveries and won 103 duels in the Premier League, which is testament to his reading of the game. His dribbled past stat per game was 0.3 in 18/19 and 0.1 in 19/20, both being second in league after Van Dijk, who had been having Ballon D’or level seasons. Lindelof’s dispossessed stat (Times player was dispossessed of the ball by an opponent) is consistently just 0.1 across the last 3 seasons which is a league leader stat, showing his strength on the ball. It is also telling how accurate and reliable Lindelof is during the tackle. He picked up only 1 yellow card in his senior Benfica career while his total yellow cards for Manchester United are only 9. The Swede is yet to be shown the red card in his playing career. 

 

Lindelof is a performer for the big stage. His performances against sides like Juventus, RBL and Paris Saint Germain were really commendable as he marshalled the likes of Mbappe with ease. The Swede can be called the quintessential big-game defender as he defends calmly against technically-gifted world-class forwards retaining confidence and composure in his pace and game-reading. Lindelof’s fitness and consistency is a largely underrated factor. Given the injury issues of Jones and Bailly, United badly needed someone resilient, robust and stable and Lindelof is all of that. He started 79 out of a possible 93 games in all competitions over the 18/19 and 19/20 seasons, mostly being rested because of chances to Tuanzebe and Bailly in Europa or Cup games. After being overplayed by club and country without any pre-season or rest this year, the Swede has picked up a back injury after 2.5 years of first-class fitness. But such is his tenacity and natural fitness that he’s managed to appear for Sweden and United even with the back niggle. He has become one of the players fans can always count on to be fit and ready most of the time.  

Weakness:

It’s an obvious issue that needs addressing; as much as Lindelof likes to command play from the floor, a core weakness is his aerial abilities which has proved costly a few times now. The fact that Maguire is aerially sound doesn’t help his cause, either. Errors in the air as a centre-back aren’t taken well, which has often led to harsh finger-pointing by fans in Lindelof’s case. Ironically, Lindelof looks more confident keeping up with top-class attackers like Aubameyang or Neymar than contesting a looping header against Olivier Giroud or Troy Deeney. But, there is a clear growth trend even in this department as his aerial mistakes have only reduced since his arrival at the club. Lindelof’s aerial duels won per game in the league were 1.3 in 17/18, 2.3 in 18/19 & 2.7 in 19/20. Having just turned 25, it is clear he has been working hard with the aim of cutting down those errors completely from his game and wants to become the complete finished product for the next few years.

 

For a defender who just turned 26 years old, Lindelof’s best years are only ahead of him. Showing considerable growth and consistency in the 3.5 years he has been at United, the Swede is starting to look more and more like the capable centre-back United fans have been craving for since the Ferdinand-Vidic days. A good comparison to his growth can be made with Gerard Pique. Like Lindelof, Pique started off as an agile, lanky ball-player who was very quick, composed and reliable on the ball but made the occasional mistake in aerial battles often leaving them to his stopper partner Puyol during his early days. But as Pique entered his peak and earned more responsibility, he developed to weed out those issues from his game and has now become a key figure for Barcelona over the past decade. Lindelof can take a few notes from this growth pattern since he seems to be walking on the same path. There is no stopping Lindelof being a world-class elite footballer if he continues his improvement and grows as a defender. The iceman has the potential to reach the snow-capped heights every defender dreams of.

 

The Importance of Bruno Fernandes

It was around 30 mins into the Manchester derby at Old Trafford when the ball went out for a Manchester City throw in and the man wearing no.18 on his back had an exchange of words with the City manager, Pep Guardiola. A bit of back and forth ended with Bruno Fernandes practically shushing the Catalonian. A short 5 second altercation showed exactly what Manchester United were missing prior to the Portuguese’s arrival in the January transfer window. 

Manchester United’s 19/20 season up until the end of the January transfer window had been a huge roller coaster ride. This was a team which could go toe-to-toe with Europe’s finest on their day but fail to win a match they should be comfortably winning on some other day. The young squad assembled by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had potential which was clear to see, but after a few good performances and results, their inconsistent form again dipped and a 2-0 loss to Burnley showcased just how poor United looked on their bad days. The performance was lacklustre and uninspiring much like the season till that point, and if United were down, there was usually no coming back from it. 

“When the going gets tough, the tough gets going” – United lacked someone ‘tough’. A strong personality, a vocal leader, someone who can make a difference when the chips are down and in that process rally everyone around him too. The 2-0 loss to Burnley was followed by United acting swiftly in the transfer window and securing the signature of Bruno Fernandes from Sporting Lisbon for a reported 47m pounds fee (excluding add-ons). Fernandes made his Manchester United debut the following weekend against Wolves at Old Trafford and his impact was easily seen. 

The match ended 0-0 but Fernandes was the best player on the pitch. Constantly demanding the ball, finding pockets of spaces to drift into, Bruno was taking charge. In fact, he was even constantly instructing and talking to teammates and telling them what to do, something about his personality that is known by everyone close to him. This was the type of impact he had after training only for a single day. The goalless draw was followed by 2 consecutive league wins against Chelsea and Watford with Fernandes having a say in both those games. Early signs suggested that the red devils had made a wise investment. Two comfortable wins in the FA Cup and Europa League and a tough draw at Goodison Park followed and then it was time for the Manchester derby.

Fernandes had set up Anthony Martial from a quick freekick earlier in the game and then came the altercation with Guardiola. It was at that moment some started to think United had finally found their talisman, their leader, their ‘strong personality’ in the dressing room. The match ended with United winning 2-0 and they looked comfortable in doing so. The 26 year old’s impact had made the team play better and everything around Old Trafford looked like it was falling into place.

The Derby was the last game played at Old Trafford before the pandemic put a stop on all the footballing activities. After the resumption of football, Manchester United were arguably the best team in the league for the remainder of the season.

Manchester United went unbeaten for the remainder of the campaign upon resumption. In fact, the red devils didn’t lose a single game in the league since Fernandes made his debut against Wolves on the deadline day of the winter transfer window. The first match they lost which involved the Portugese was the 3-1 defeat to Crystal Place on the opening day of the 2020/21 season. His immediate impact was for everyone to see. The 26 year old contributed to 8 goals and 7 assists in the Premier League last season, no other midfielder in the league contributed to more since his debut last season. 

Bruno Fernandes has now scored 18 goals and provided 13 assists for Manchester United in 33 appearances across all competitions, that’s 31 goal involvements in 33 appearances – an outstanding record. In the Premier League, he has scored 13 goals, only Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah has scored more since Fernandes made his debut. He became notorious for ‘only scoring penalties’ towards the end of last season but he has scored more non-penalty goals than any other midfielder in the league since he made his debut. 

If we look past the goals and assists, he also became the first Manchester United player to win back to back Premier League Player of the month awards since Cristiano Ronaldo and was also named as Manchester United’s player of the year despite having been here only for half the campaign. Fernandes also has won 5 man of the match awards for Manchester United so far. He also has a 4.4 sca/p90 which ranks him 10th in the league. SCA means shot creating actions such as a pass, dribble or even a tackle.

Courtesy of Statsbomb and football Slices, Fernandes’ percentile rank compared to the midfielders in Europe’s top 5 leagues is exceptional. 

Some of the stats like the pass completion rate or his non-penalty xG per shot may look a bit low but that showcases his playing style. The Portuguese isn’t afraid to take risks. If there is even a slight chance of setting someone through on goal or even if he gets half a yard of space from a shooting area, he will go for it. 

In football, the great players have this exceptional ability to make everyone think that something is going to happen when they have the ball. Fernandes is one of them. He constantly demands the ball is played to him and wants everything to go through him. Players around Fernandes are prepared to go the extra mile too, making constant runs and finding spaces in dangerous areas for the 26 year old to pick them out with a pass, because they know he has the ability to do exactly that. 

Tactical Analysis

Francesco Guidolin managed Bruno Fernandes when he was at Udinese and the Italian manager claims that Fernandes is one of the most intelligent players he has ever managed. He isn’t the only one to heap praise on the Portugese midfielder, the sporting director who took Fernandes from Boavista’s academy to Novora says “he is the most intelligent person I have ever met”. From using post-it notes to learn new languages and watching the replays of his games right after it is over, Fernandes uses every shred of his brain and his natural talent to become the player he is. 

It is easy to see how intelligent he is. For example, the goal he scored against Newcastle shows how well he reads the game. 

Here, he starts United’s counter attack intelligently linking up with van de Beek with a backheel and sets of running. Van de Beek passes to Mata, who releases Rashford and the counter attack is in motion. 

Rashford receives the ball wide left and continues running into the vacant space which prompts Fernandes to go inside in case the Englishman decides to run it wide and put in a cross. 

Instead, Marcus Rashford decides to cut in and take on Jamaal Lascelles which makes Fernandes make a move towards the outside. In the image, the moment Rashford goes inside, Fernandes starts going towards the outside. 

The Portuguese continues his run and Rashford expertly finds him after drawing 3 defenders towards him. Fernandes then takes a touch and then finishes it into the top corner beating Karl Darlow. 

He reads and understands the game very well and even if his stats seem unbelievable, he can impact games and goals without being directly involved in the goals as well. 

In the 3rd goal that Anthony Martial scored against Sheffield United last season, Fernandes didn’t have an assist but was still involved heavily. 

He receives the ball from deep through Paul Pogba and instantly gives it to Martial behind with an expertly executed backheel, catching the Sheffield United defenders off guard. 

He then makes a move towards the box while Martial finds Rashford out wide in the left side half space. 

He sees Martial making a run inside the box and instantly drops back to provide another passing option to Rashford. 

This catches defender John Egan off guard, who is left ball watching and fails to cover Martial who expertly chips the keeper to complete his hattrick. 

One largely underrated aspect of Fernandes’ style of play is his heading ability and his ability to get into positions of scoring a free header. Now his heading ability isn’t as polished as that of the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo or Robert Lewandowski but his movement and his ability to understand the game allows him to find spaces in order to find a free header inside the box. 

He scored a headed goal against Everton by sliding in between the two centre backs and connecting from a Luke Shaw cross. 

Here, he is inside the box waiting for Shaw to deliver a cross, as soon as Shaw puts his foot to the ball, Fernandes flicks on the switch and makes a run in between the CBs

He meets the cross, fairly unmarked and then slots it home beating Jordan Pickford in the Everton goal. 

What makes Bruno Fernandes so special is his hunger and drive to always improve and be better. “He wants to be the best”, says Giraetta, speaking to Jack Lang for The Athletic. He watches his games in their entirety as soon as he reaches home, even if it’s 2:30 in the morning. He watches them irrespective of the result, when they have won, drawn or when they have lost. Especially, when they have lost. He has a constant drive to become better than he already is. 

For people close to him, they have said he has always been like this. It doesn’t matter if Bruno is playing street football with his elder brother and his mates or if he’s playing with Cristiano Ronaldo for the national team, if there is something he doesn’t agree with, he will say it. He is expressive, an extrovert, and very blunt about his feelings. When Luuk de Jong scored the winner to take Sevilla to the Europa League finals and knock Manchester United out of the competition in the process, a footage was floated around the social media sites of him arguing with Victor Lindelof. Another footage came across when he was seen kicking the door, much to the dislike of the security guard present, after he was sent off in a match he played for Sporting Lisbon. “I’ll pay for the door, you can go f*** yourself” were the words coming out of the 26 year old’s mouth. A true indictment of his personality, he just cannot keep it inside. 

The altercation with Pep Guardiola is no different and that moment totally summed up what Bruno Fernandes is all about and what Manchester United had been missing prior to his arrival. A strong personality who will constantly expect better from himself and from those around him and won’t be afraid to speak up whenever required. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said Bruno Fernandes brings the ‘X-Factor’ to the team and it’s easy to see how. 

If there ever was a “Manchester United player” then Bruno Fernandes is the best player to express. His high risk, high reward style of play, his relentless work rate, his constant drive to win the ball back and demanding the ball is played to him, he is everything that Manchester United players of the old were – a fighter. Fernandes is a fighter on and off the pitch and he won’t settle for anything but the best.

Fernandes isn’t fazed by the pressure that comes with the price tag or the expectations of the fans. He does his job and whenever his team needs someone to step up, he is the one to do it. Maybe he relishes the responsibility, maybe he thrives when the odds are stacked against him. 

Manchester United may have finally found their talisman in their journey back to the top. After all, the fans haven’t named him the ‘The Portugese Magnifico’ for no reason.