Scout Report: Isak Bergmann Johannesson

Four years ago, Iceland’s FIFA ranking was 130. These days they are hovering around the 30 odd mark. A country with a population of just above 300,000 has been going through a wonderful phase of producing talented footballers and the next big name in that list might just be Isak Bergmann Johannesson. We shift the focus of our scout series from the new Red Devils wonderkids to someone who could potentially be a new Red Devils wonderkid in the near future as well.

Career History:

Isak comes from a glittering family of footballers some of whom you might be able to recognize. When he was just three years old back in 2006, his father Joey Gudjonsson was turning out for Leicester City. March 2006 saw Gudjonsson produce an iconic moment that will live long in the memory of Foxes fans, scoring a stunning goal from the halfway line against Hull. Gudjonsson enjoyed spells with Aston Villa, Wolves, Leicester, Burnley and Huddersfield among others. As for Isak’s grandfather, he is none other than Gudjon Thordarson, who managed Stoke City, Crewe, Barnsley and Notts County among others. Three of Isak’s uncles all played professional football at one point or another, while a fourth turned out in the Iceland leagues. Meanwhile, one of Isak’s cousins – on his mother’s side this time – is a team-mate of his at Norrkoping. Football is in his veins. All eyes are now on the youngster and whether he’ll become the third straight generation of his family to take his talents to England.

Isak may well be Icelandic, but he was actually born in Sutton Coldfield in England. The youngster was born not too far from Birmingham city centre, back in 2003 when his father was playing for Aston Villa. Isak actually also went on to briefly feature in Manchester City and Bolton Wanderers’ youth sides while Gudjonsson played for Burnley and Leicester.

Isak is a big Messi fan. He attended Barcelona’s Champions League clash with Borussia Dortmund back in September 2019, a game which Barça won 3-1. On that occasion, Messi scored once, provided two typically exquisite assists and generally ran the show. Taking to his Instagram after the game, Bergmann Johannesson summarised his experience at Camp Nou by writing: “Wow. We saw Barcelona at Camp Nou. We saw Messi. We saw Messi score. We saw Messi assist two. We saw Messi be too good. We saw the goat. We experienced our dream.” He was also wearing a Frenkie de Jong jersey, a player he has admitted to looking up to. The influence of the Dutchman on his game is clear, notably his composure on the ball and ability to dictate the game.

You would be forgiven for not necessarily keeping up to date with the goings-on in Swedish football. But to fill you in, Isak Bergmann Johannesson has impressed at youth levels at ÍA Akranes and IFK Norrköping where he earned numerous trophies and individual awards. He was awarded as the most promising youngster in men’s category at U14 level in 2015, U15 level in 2016 and U16 level in 2017. He then won the Icelandic championship at U19 level in 2018 before dominating the Svenska Mastare (Swedish Championship) at U21 level in 2019. His rise and impact was too hot to ignore and since the start of the Allsvenskan 2020 (Swedish top flight), which runs from March 2020 to April 2021, he has already become a key figure within IFK Norrköping senior team thanks to his impressive performances. The midfielder has made 26 appearances in all competitions this season, netting four times and providing a further ten assists as well, to fire Norrkoping to third in the Swedish top-flight with five games to play and within a great chance of a rare European competition berth for the Swedish side.

At international level, despite his age, he is already featuring for Iceland’s U21s, such is his talent, and should he continue to progress, a senior international call up won’t be too far away. But having not made his senior debut and being born and raised in England, Isak could still opt to play for The Three Lions.

Playing Style:

A versatile player, Isak can play on either wing or as a central midfielder, which is his preferred position. Oh, and he’s also filled in at left back this season as well. With a wand of a left foot, Johannesson is lethal cutting in from his favoured right-wing. His playing style and preference of playing on the right side or center as a playmaker draw comparisons to Giovani Lo Celso and Dejan Kulusevski.

The teenager plays with a maturity beyond his years, knowing when to drive forward and go for goal himself and when to pick out a teammate. Isak is most dangerous when finding pockets of space to work in and setting up his teammates with pinpoint passes. But he’s definitely not afraid of going for goal himself either. In a tight tussle with Helsingborg back in August, the youngster – who was playing left back on this occasion – made a bright run up field to support the attack. Feeding the ball to a teammate on the edge of the box, Bergmann Johannesson looked to play a clever one-two, receiving the ball back just inside the 18 yard box. Without hesitating, he unleashed a ferocious strike with his left foot, with the ball rifling into the top corner at the near post. The goalkeeper just stood there, what else was he supposed to do?

His greatest strengths are undoubtedly around his wand of a left foot. His passing range is astounding for someone his age as he mixes up measured through balls, floated crosses, drilled crosses, opposite flank switches and defence-splitting chips as easily as a precise short pass. He boasts of that rare ability when as a teammate you know that if you run into space, a pass from Isak will somehow find its way right in front of you laid on a platter with the correct speed and angle for you. Though he is very one-footed relying on his magic left foot for most part of his game, he is capable of covering for the angular issues by playing some glorious outside-the foot passes and crosses reminiscent of prime Mesut Ozil.

His positional versatility means that he can provide accurate dangerous crosses from the left side while playing at left back or left wing, or cut in and shoot for the far corner when deployed on the right wing or run the show as the heartbeat of the team,  creating chances and linking defence to attack, when played as a central midfielder. In all cases, he displays a great first touch and close control followed by an ability to quickly assess where his teammates or the goal are before picking his target with his left foot using pinpoint precision and immaculate technique. He’s also no slouch off the ball being a very willing runner when his teammates have the ball often engaging in smart 1-2s and channel runs when played in the middle of the park and belting out repeated threatening runs behind the opposition fullback when played as a wide player.

His technique and precision make him a threat in dead-ball situations given his ability to beat a goalkeeper like this. Standing at 180cm, Isak doesn’t fall prey to the common tropes of youngsters his age like poor physical strength and endurance. He boasts good body strength and balance, regularly shrugging off tackles and presses in midfield comfortably while running with the ball. He also displays good aerial threat during set pieces and shows off the stamina and workrate that often see him running hard even at the 90th minute of a game. His only weaknesses seem to be pure defensive traits like marking, tackling and positioning which make playing as a defensive midfielder seem unlikely for the time being. But he has high potential to develop into a consistent, intelligent and explosive attacking player in any position ahead of that for sure.

Transfer Saga:

A number of clubs have sat up and taken notice of Isak. In fact, Liverpool became the most recent club to send scouts to watch him in action on 25th October. Expressen reported that Liverpool scout Mads Jorgensen watched him as Norrköping played out a 2-2 draw with AIK. Though Liverpool’s scouting trip was widely reported, the fact is that they actually just joined a rather long list of suitors, which contains most of the top clubs in Europe, including Manchester United and Juventus. These sides have all decided to send scouts to see the youngster first hand in recent months, but due to COVID-19 measures, only six scouts are allowed to attend a game in Sweden. As a result, Norrköping director Jens Magnusson recently confirmed that they have had to start turning away scouts as there are simply far too many looking to see Bergmann Johannesson up close.

“I think there are six scouts who can be admitted per match. But we had an incredible number of more requests for this match [vs AIK],” he told FotbollDirekt. “So there is a limitation. There we had to pull the handbrake a bit now. Then you never know exactly which players they are there to watch, of course. But here at the end, it is no secret that many are there to see Isak.”

The club’s chief scout Stig Torbjörnsen confirmed that should a suitable offer come in, Norrköping could well part ways with the youngster. In late October, Stig claimed, “It’s hard to say if we can keep him in January. A club with a lot of money could come along now or in six months. Norrkoping have a lot of money and don’t need to sell, and Isak has a sensible agent and family. When something comes up that is good for all parties, something will happen.”

Isak recently gave an interview to Expressen where he used an often-quoted phrase that will excite United fans: “Manchester United is my dream club, along with IFK Norrköping. I lived in Manchester as a child and watched many matches there.” Despite this, however, he refused to rule out the possibility of joining either Man City or Liverpool should they come calling, adding: “You can not say so. They play good football. Manchester City and Liverpool have been great. But will I have the chance to move this winter? I’ll just concentrate on Norrkoping – we have five games left to get a European place”

What will get the hopes of United fans up is a recent Instagram post from Isak. Just 2 days after Manchester United’s Bruno Fernandes posted “I might lose, but I will never give up until I win again” on his Instagram after United’s impressive victory against Everton last weekend, this week Isak posted “We might lose, but we will never give up until we win again” after IFK Norrköping’s loss to Mjallby over the same weekend. The coincidence is too big to ignore considering he’s a self-proclaimed childhood United fan. Manchester United fans can only hope Isak decides to sign for his dream club soon and follows in the footsteps of the playmaker whose caption he copied.

(Image and video credits: Isak’s Instagram account: https://www.instagram.com/isak.bergmann.johannesson/)

The Importance of Fred – Season Report 19/20

Tactical Analysis: The importance of Fred – Season report 19/20

by Varun Vasudevan

Tactical Analysis

There are many Manchester United players who divide opinion among the passionate fanbase. None more so than Brazilian midfielder Frederico Rodrigues de Paula Santos, better known as Fred. After a torrid time under Jose Mourinho, Fred has found his feet under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and delivered some of his best performances in the first half of the 19/20 season before being shifted to a backup role after the return of Paul Pogba in the second half. From a failed transfer to Player of the year candidate to backup player, the last 18 months for Fred have been a whirlwind. The reality for the player is somewhere in between all these opinions. Let’s dive deeper to analyse Fred’s season, strengths and weaknesses and indulge in some conjecture over his Manchester United future.

Strengths & Weaknesses
We start with a simple analysis of what Fred brings to the team. The infographics below highlight Fred’s ranking of various statistics among all Premier League midfielders to have played 15 games or more over the 19/20 season. There are about 100 midfielders who fit this criteria.

We look at the defensive stats first since that’s been a huge part of Fred’s achievements this season and immediately we see that he ranks 8th, 2nd, 3rd and 5th for tackles won, pressures, steals (Number of times the squad gained possession within five seconds of applying pressure) and pass blocks respectively among Premier League midfielders this season. Additionally, he also ranks 6th for tackles in the defensive third and 2nd for steals in the defensive third. His defensive aura reduces in the middle third (ranking 11th for tackles and 6th for steals) while its almost non-existent in the attacking third (ranking 64th for tackles and 50th for steals) indicating much of his defensive work comes deeper than higher up the pitch. The reasons for this will be highlighted further when we discuss his tactical fitment. But the above table also points out a glaring weakness of Fred’s game. He ranks third in times dribbled past in the league suggesting that shielding the defence and positioning are big weaknesses. The amount of aggressive pressures he makes often lets opposition players slip by. It’s a catch-22 situation where the benefits of a successful pressure and opportunity to counter come at the cost of attackers getting past him.

Looking at the possession stats, we see positive rankings for successful dribbles, players dribbled past and carries (Number of times the player controlled the ball with their feet) indicating Fred’s strength as a dribbler. He is confident enough to make dashes with the ball after recovering them in midfield and a decent progressive distance (Total distance a player moved the ball towards the opponent’s goal) rank of 12th also indicates that most of these are purposeful vertical dashes towards goal. His pass target (Number of times a player was the target of an attempted pass) rank of 8th also indicates how the other United players have looked at him to carry the ball out of defence often. The big weakness here is the high dispossessed rank of 10th suggesting that often in these attempts he also loses the ball which is further confirmed with his miscontrols (Number of times a player failed when attempting to gain control of a ball) rank of 28th – suggesting that Fred isn’t the ‘safest’ option in midfield from a ball retention point of view. For a team that prioritizes keeping the ball this would prove to be an issue.

Finally, as we check the passing stats, there is a clear skew towards progressive passing rather than safe/short passing. Fred excels at purposeful passing ranking 8th best for passes into the final third, 6th for completed passes distance (Total distance, in yards, that completed passes have traveled in any direction), and 8th in progressive passes distance (Total distance that completed passes have traveled towards the opponent’s goal. Note: Passes away from opponent’s goal are counted as zero progressive yards) only being bested by pure attacking midfielders in these stats which is unique given the time he spends in his own third of the pitch while defending. He ranks 28th for short passes completed and 37th for short pass completion % indicating that he’s better at going long and direct instead of short and safe. His number of key passes are decent (rank 28) for his position while his zero assists statistic this season isn’t a huge surprise considering his defensive role.

To summarize the stats above, this is a midfielder who presses and wins the ball in his own third, progresses with the ball purposefully in the middle third and attempts and pulls off many direct passes into the attacking third – but all this comes at the cost of safe possession and control.

Tactical Fit
Our understanding of Fred will be further highlighted if we spend some time analysing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tactics for the season. Without diving too deep, (that can be a whole other article) it’s clear that Ole preferred to play on the counter in the first half of the season while going for a much more possession-oriented game in the second half of the season. The Norwegian made the best of what he had starting the season based on the strengths of his newly formed defence, pace of the attack and ball winning ability of his midfield. This was where Fred shined. The aim was to drop deep, absorb, press, steal, and play progressive passes to the front 4 who could then hit teams on the break. This was what Fred was good at. There was no pressure to keep possession or play safe. There was no playmaking burden placed on the Brazilian as he displayed his tenacity, energy and drive to consistently defend and initiate counter attacks at the cost of possession. By December, Fred was already a frontrunner for Manchester United’s Player of the year award.

But, it has to be said, he seemed like the best piece of a team that wasn’t doing all that well. While results came in big games where the counter approach suited United, it was games against the bottom half where the lack of creativity cost them heavily keeping them far from the top 4 where they aimed to be. Bruno’s arrival and Pogba’s return offered Solskjaer a great opportunity to change that.

Now armed with creativity in the middle of the park, Ole resorted to a possession based system. While the shape remained a 4-2-3-1 on paper it resembled the classic 4-3-3 possession-oriented shape in game. The perfect foil for a midfield containing Pogba and Bruno was Nemanja Matic. The Serbian, though aged, possesses a few things Fred doesnt – positioning, build up play and safety in passing. Using the same data and scope given earlier, Matic ranked 6th in passes completed and 8th in pass completion % while playing the 8th most passes into the final third. He was tailor-made to play the deepest role in a possession-based tactic. This system now meant Matic’s lack of aggression, pressing and progressive dribbling was not an issue. His ball retention, safety on the ball, positioning and shielding offered things Fred could not. 

 

The images show the average position of the players in two games picked out from both halves of the season. Earlier in the season against Bournemouth, the 4-2-3-1 shape is more prominent with Fred (#17) and Scott Mctominay (#39) shielding the back four as a pivot. The formation is skewed towards the left as Rashford remained the threat on the counter. In comparison the other image is from the game against Leicester towards the end of the season which clearly shows a deep-lying Matic (#31) giving Pogba (#6) and Bruno (#18) creative control at the center of the park. The attacking pattern and shape is much more uniformly distributed thanks to the possession and positional play of Matic.

As United blazed through an unbeaten trail of 14 games to clinch an important 3rd placed finish, Fred watched from the sidelines. And he would have watched knowing he doesn’t fit anymore. The few times Fred took to the pitch as a substitute during this run, the team’s ball retention dropped heavily as they ceded possession and invited pressure. One of these occasions cost the team 2 points against Southampton as the substitutes Fred and James couldn’t imitate the ball retention of Pogba and Greenwood. The FA cup semi-final saw Ole revert to a back five with Fred in midfield in an attempt to channel the counter-based successes from the first half of the season. But it backfired horribly as United failed to create anything of note and Fred had another poor outing. 

What does the Future hold?
United ended the league season on a hugely positive 3rd placed finish and three respectable, if not emphatic, semi-final finishes. It won’t be a big surprise if Fred isn’t as ecstatic as the others in these celebrations. If the possession-based tactic remains Ole’s blueprint for long-term success, the Brazilian has enough cause for worry. He is neither as creative as Pogba, nor as output-oriented as Bruno nor as safe and effective as Matic in possession. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to say Fred now feels like a square peg in a round hole. Turning 27 this year, the opportunities to be a starter for a big club at his peak will only reduce from hereon, increasing the doom and gloom around his current situation.

But can a run of 20 games be that damning for a player? Probably, but if football has proven anything, it is that short-term judgements often remain just that. Fred has done enough this season to stay and get chances to prove himself. With Matic’s age and Pogba’s slightly-concerning injury patterns, Fred will find himself in Manchester United’s midfield a few more times for sure. Fred can improve on the things he lacks to prove useful in a possession-based system. It’s not unheard of for ball-winning midfielders to adapt and obtain a pro-possession orientation especially later in their career. Jordan Henderson comes to mind. The Englishman mostly operated as a ball-winner or box-to-box player for most of his career but has displayed unrivalled maturity and reliability in a deeper role in recent seasons under Jurgen Klopp. Nemanja Matic himself started as an attacking midfielder, then played as a ball-winning midfielder for large parts of his Chelsea career before his current stint as an efficient deep-lying playmaker at the age of 32.

Fred can take faith in these transformations and add a possession-oriented dimension to his game which most top teams demand in some way or the other. If Manchester United are going to improve as a team under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s leadership, it will require players like Fred to improve and be counted as well. Additionally, Fred can also take faith in the fact that he still remains United’s best option if a counter-based approach is needed. He had a good outing against Sevilla in the Europa semi-finals where the red devils’ adopted a more counter-pressing style of play, ending his personal season on a positive note. United are still some way off to dominating the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool in terms of possession and with Champions League teams to face from next season onwards, the chances of playing on the counter and relying on Fred’s strengths will never be too low.

A combination of these 2 factors can see Fred extend his United career and still be a contributing member of a grand new era under Solskjaer. All said and done, Fred has already shut up those who doubted him after the 18/19 season by standing tall as one of United’s best players in the 19/20 season. It won’t be a surprise if he shuts up the ones (like me) who doubt whether he can improve even further.