Manchester United are in drastic need of a rebuild. The football club that Erik ten Hag will be walking into this summer is in a creative funk, afflicted by a collective talent drain (on and off the pitch) and a general malaise that has seen the fanbase fluctuate between despair and disgust.
There’s a finite amount of time this summer for the 52-year-old Dutchman to complete many fluid tasks. So under the adage of “Many Hands Make Light Work”, The Athletic would like to introduce you to a short series we are calling “Shopping for Ten Hag”.
The idea is similar to Tifo’s Sensible Transfers, where we identify a series of attributes a team needs, before exploring players that could fulfil that need. As The Athletic understands it, United identify players through a mixture of traditional scouting and advanced analytics to create shortlists of players who can address areas of need. These are then looked over by relevant parties at the club and whittled down before transfer targets are identified and the next stage of player acquisition can begin.
For this series, imagine United outsourced the creation of a transfer shortlist to yours truly. We will start by looking at holding midfielders, one of the most pressing areas that United need to strengthen this summer.
All of the players included in this piece — and the rest of the series — will be analysed using smarterscout data, which gives players a rating from 0-99, relating to either how often they do a given action compared with others playing in their position (such as the ball recoveries and interceptions), or how effective they are (such as how well they progress the ball upfield).
But before we begin, let’s talk about Declan Rice (and Ruben Neves)
In March 2021, we named Declan Rice among a shortlist of holding midfielders for United and dubbed him as one of the “gold standard” options United should be looking at.
This year, we’re leaving Rice off the shortlist entirely.
Not because he has regressed but because Rice’s rapid development from Chelsea academy centre-back to the lynchpin of West Ham’s team has seen him become more of an out-and-out central midfielder.
The graphic above compares Rice’s touches on the ball per 90 minutes this season compared to 2019-20. Rice has said that former Premier League midfielders Yaya Toure and Patrick Vieira are inspirations for his development and, although he is still good at receiving the ball in his own half, he is increasingly carrying the ball from deep into left-sided areas. That is excellent for West Ham, but if Rice wishes to continue his (excellent) progress in that type of role, there are other players who are better suited to a Ten Hag midfield.
As for Ruben Neves: he’s often mentioned by subscribers in the comment and Q&A sections of United articles, but has never been strongly linked with the club, hence our lack of formal write-ups. We didn’t include the Wolves midfielder in our 2021 shortlist for the same reason he does not feature here: we believe him to lack the mobility to work effectively within United’s ecosystem, despite his technical qualities.
Now let’s get into how a Ten Hag central midfield works
During his time at Ajax, Ten Hag created two distinguished sides:
- The 2018-19 squad that reached the semi-finals of the Champions League in a 4-2-3-1.
- The current iteration that plays in a (staggered) 4-3-3 shape.
The 2018-19 vintage of Ajax tended to have a central midfield partnership of Lasse Schone and Frenkie de Jong, although there were occasions during Eredivisie matches when Donny van de Beek would play next to centre-back Lisandro Martinez. Here’s how all three midfielders operated in the 2018-19 season.
Here’s what the above pizza charts are telling you from how this central midfield worked:
- Schone was the sensible operator of Ajax’s central midfield. Look at his high scores for ball retention and link-up play volume and then look at his high score for ball recoveries & interceptions. Schone was the tidy tackler of Ajax’s midfield, sitting when his midfield partner surged forward.
- That partner tended to be De Jong, who was absurdly good in 2018-19. Look at his high score at carry & dribble volume, link-up play volume and ball retention. Ajax would often start attacks from De Jong collecting the ball from his back four before carrying it through to the edge of the opposition’s penalty area.
(De Jong is not on our shortlist of players United should look for this role, as he would benefit more from playing ahead of a defensive midfielder, rather than be that deeper player himself. The Athletic understands both Manchester clubs are monitoring the 25-year-old’s situation at Barcelona, with Catalan media saying the club will listen to cash offers.)
The current Ajax side typically sees Edson Alvarez partner Ryan Gravenberch, while a player such as Steven Berghuis roams ahead.
Here’s what the above pizza charts are telling you from how this central midfield worked:
- Alvarez is a defensive terrier in central midfield. The 24-year-old is not a ball carrier or much of a progressive passer, but he makes sensible decisions to retain possession when he has the ball and goes out of his way to win the ball back when Ajax lose it. He’s got a max score for ball recoveries and aerial duels quantity, suggesting he is a busy defensive player, but his low score for defending impact suggests he is not always successful.
- Gravenberch is not as defensively secure as De Jong was in the 2018-19 side, but he has a good ball-carrying ability and greater skill at receiving the ball in the opposition’s penalty area. If De Jong’s great talent was what he did in the first two-thirds of the pitch for Ajax, Gravenberch works in the second two-thirds.
- Then there’s Berghuis, the third man of the midfield, who plays like a No 10 but often enjoys attacking the right. We’ve included him here as we want to note how Ten Hag is using his most advanced midfielder. The 30-year-old is a tidy passer, but arrives late in the box (look at his score on receptions) and shoots a lot (his score on xG from shot creation).
What does this all mean?
Broadly speaking, a Ten Hag central midfield at Ajax has often involved one player progressing the ball from deep with vertical passes or ball carries. The other player tends to be the secure passer who regulates the pace at which the team plays. Ten Hag has been one of the more pragmatic Ajax managers in recent years and is not above having one of his holding midfielders perform as an auxiliary centre-back.
It is also important to note that a lot of Ajax’s work in holding midfield is supplemented by Daley Blind at left-back, who often moves into central areas and progresses the ball from deep with long passes. There is just enough quality from Luke Shaw and Harry Maguire to suggest this can be replicated in aggregate at United if Ten Hag has enough training time.
What players will United have in central midfield next season?
Paul Pogba’s contract expires in June and he is more likely than not going to leave on a free transfer this summer. Nemanja Matic has already voiced his intention to leave.
If — for some reason — United do not buy a central midfielder this summer they will have the following options:
Fred — a box-to-box shuttling midfielder who is good at winning the ball, but erratic at distributing it.
Scott McTominay — a player who has persisted in holding midfield, but looks better suited to an attacking box-to-box role.
And James Garner — who will be returning from a loan at Nottingham Forest.
Garner’s progression at Forest is an interesting one. Normally one of the two deeper midfielders in a 3-4-1-2, he’s become more of a ball carrier and progressive passer during his two-year loan. The 21-year-old looks good enough to play for someone’s midfield in the Premier League next season but it remains to be seen with which team.
If — and this is a medium-sized if — Ten Hag wants to replicate the style of football he played at Ajax, any midfielder coming to United will need to have some of the following:
- The ability to retain possession when passing, to help Fred.
- The ability to mark space well, to help McTominay/Garner.
- The ability to pass progressively, to help with team build-up.
- The ability to win tackles, to help the defence, particularly in preventing counter-attacks.
Let’s start by talking about… Aurelien Tchouameni
“Very, very good. He’s not a boy, he’s a man. It’s a pleasure to play next to him. He brings a lot of energy, and extraordinary technical and physical qualities. We wish him to play a lot more games and that I am always by his side.”
That was Pogba talking about Tchouameni after they helped France to Nations League success. Tchouameni is regarded as one of the most promising young players in Europe.
Here’s what the above chart is telling you:
- He is one of the most combative midfielders around, able to marry high athletism (defending intensity, 80 out of 99) with good timing and match reading intelligence (ball recoveries & interceptions, 85 out of 99).
- His high scores in aerial duels quantity and defending impact suggest he is not only a busy holding midfielder but a successful one too.
- Tchouameni can contribute strongly to his team’s attack and make late arrivals into the penalty area and score goals (that’s all the good scores in blue).
- Tchouameni is a talented off-the-ball defender and a promising in-possession passer. Plus, he has an eye for a goal. He is as close to the “do a bit of everything” midfield archetype that former United players talk about in the modern game. He is unlikely to stay that way forever but he is young enough, and with enough promise in multiple subjects, to suggest he can be any type of midfield player that he chooses to be.
Whoever buys Tchouameni can (barring injury) spend several years building a team around him en route to sustained success. This is probably why he will be so in demand this summer. Liverpool and Real Madrid are said to be interested in the Monaco midfielder.
This is why everyone is talking about… Boubacar Kamara
Marseille midfielder Boubacar Kamara is another player who is the toast of French football.
When you look at his chart, you’ll understand it’s for reasons beyond his expiring contract status.
Here’s what you need to know:
- Kamara’s standout skill is his ball-winning ability. This season, Kamara’s pressing success — his ability to regain possession within five seconds of applying pressure on the man/ball — is 40.4 per cent, putting him in the top one per cent of midfielders in Ligue 1.
- Kamara prefers to keep it simple when he has the ball. He is typically Marseille’s deepest midfielder when in possession, often looking to switch the ball out to the left (2.5 times per 90). Importantly, he keeps the ball at an above-average rate (even after adjusting for Premier League standard) — ball retention 69 out of 99.
- Despite his young age, he has already made more than 150 senior appearances for Marseille. He also has the height (6ft 1in) and aerial presence to replace some of the physicality United will be losing if Matic leaves.
Take a look at the graphic below that shows his smarterscout duel ratings – i.e. his strength in a one-v-one situation. You put the ball in the air around Kamara and he is likely to head it back.
Kamara carries the piano up the flight of steps, rather than playing it once it’s safely in place. He’s officially a free agent at the end of June. He is unlikely to stay one for long.
Please meet… Fabian Ruiz
Napoli’s Fabian Ruiz is a holding midfielder of the “passing metronome” type.
What you need to know:
- Ruiz is a man of a thousand short passes. His high scores for link-up play volume and ball retention ability suggest a player who favours sensible short passes to nearby team-mates rather than potential line-breaking ones. That sort of security in possession is of value to a team like United right now.
Ruiz is also a reasonable defender, as shown by his above-average tackling score in the duel ratings below.
The 26-year-old is more of a one-v-one defender, attempting to tackle the man in possession when needed, rather than someone who launches out of position as part of a counter-press.
Interestingly, for a player who is 6ft 2in, he’s not great in the air. Ruiz is paired best with an energetic ball-winner, so he can focus on his precise passing.
A word on… Konrad Laimer
Last year, the Bundesliga ran a piece describing Konrad Laimer as “The Austrian N’Golo Kante.”
Here’s why they came to that conclusion.
Some things to know about Laimer:
- Those high scores for disrupting opposition moves (92 out of 99) and defending intensity (94 out of 99), combined with his low scores for ball recoveries and interceptions (37 out of 99), suggest he hounds his opposite man out of having the ball.
- Getting past Laimer is a tricky task — he is averaging 33.7 pressures per 90, making him one of the peskiest defensive midfielders in the Bundesliga.
- Once he’s got the ball off you, Laimer is more ball carrier than passer. He is averaging 1.9 carries into the final third this season, placing him in the top seven per cent for midfielders in the Bundesliga.
In a team and a league that is all about counter-attacks and transition-based football, Laimer is a perpetual motion machine. He has also needed to display his versatility in an RB Leipzig side that has gone from a 3-5-2 during Jesse Marsch’s underwhelming spell to a 3-4-3 under Domenico Tedesco.
A sparkplug for any club’s midfield engine, Laimer is unlikely to be a Leipzig player for too long. A midfield partnership with Fred would be energetic but may lack the sensible passes to break down Premier League teams that sit deep.
What do you know about… Ismael Bennacer
The Barcelona-bound Franck Kessie and 22-year-old Sandro Tonali are the headline features of AC Milan’s midfield this season, but have a look at Ismael Bennacer.
Things to pay attention to:
- Bennacer is a particularly press-resistant dribbler. Look at his high scores for carry & dribble volume (94 out of 99) and ball retention (88 out of 99). The 24-year-old is not the tallest player on the list (5ft 7in) but he’s very good at carrying the ball from deep unscathed. He is averaging 6.8 progressive carries per 90 in Serie A, putting him within the top eight per cent of midfielders in the league.
- He’s also good at using the ball well once he has arrived in the final third. His good scores in xG from shot creation (79 out of 99) and xG from ball progression (76 out of 99) suggest a player who is clever with his final ball.
- Bennacer is not the most intense defender when it comes to tackling, but he is very good at understanding where opposition players are trying to pass the ball and intervening before such a pass is made. Look at his scores for disrupting opposition moves (87 out of 99) and ball recoveries (96 out of 99). He will likely need a more aggressive tackler next to him for a midfield to be truly secure, but he does have a spatial awareness that so many United players currently lack.
Milan may be less willing to part with Bennacer as Kessie is already heading to Spain, but it’s worth keeping tabs on the French-Algerian, who spent years in Arsenal’s youth team before moving to Empoli, and then on to Milan.
We previously profiled Mali international Amadou Haidara in the January transfer window when looking at possible midfielders for United. He comes out well in the data when searching for the type of midfielder United need. Here’s how his season has developed in the past few months.
Some things to know:
- Haidara normally plays as a box-to-box style midfielder in Leipzig’s high-energy midfield systems. He’s a well-rounded player when in possession, able to link up well with team-mates as well as play defence-splitting passes when needed.
- His defensive numbers have declined this season compared to 2020-21. Some of that is to do with Leipzig’s early-season malaise under Marsch and some of that is due to playing closer to the opposition’s goal in the second part of the season.
Want a bit more? Have a look at his tackling and dribbling ratings below. Haidara can play as the deepest midfielder with a bit of work but looks more like your sensible second purchase after acquiring someone else on this list first.
Ten Hag will need (at least) one holding midfielder this summer to bring some of the settled, possession-based football that proved so successful at Ajax.
Last summer, United needed upgrades to their midfield and ended up with nothing. This summer, United are likely to go into the market, if only to replace one of the figures that will be departing.
There are plenty of players in Europe that Ten Hag could make great use of at United. A true rebuild starts with a proper engine room.
(Photos: Getty Images/Design: Sam Richardson)