For the past few seasons, the attention on Manchester United’s transfer business has surrounded their inability to sign a world class defensive midfielder. However, with United floundering under Ralf Rangnick’s style of play, greater defensive concerns have been illuminated in the past few months. Harry Maguire’s taken the brunt of the blame for United’s lackluster performances, but greater issues are evidently at hand. Most prominently, there is a massive lack of fit between Rangnick’s style, the players that he has at his disposal, and how those players work to bring out the strengths and weaknesses in one another. So ahead of the 2022-23 season, a new centre-back now becomes an imperative investment – perhaps even more so than a new manager. But rather than just going out and buying the best centre-back in the world (although that would help), United need to identify a player…perhaps even two…that work together as a tandem duo and bring out the best in one another.Embed from Getty Images
For Harry Maguire’s purposes, that player needs to be someone who can cover ground in behind, and make up for the gaps he creates as he steps out of line, from both a physical and tactical perspective. To balance out Victor Lindelof, who is an excellent progressor and long passing guru, United need someone who possesses rapid speed in behind, while potentially having the same sort of leadership and organizational qualities that Maguire possesses – perhaps even being blessed with Maguire’s aerial presence and dominance.
Quite strangely, Maguire and Lindelof formed quite an underratedly formidable partnership under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. After all, they possess different strengths, and are complete opposites when it comes to proactive defending…or rather…rash defending. Lindelof is almost too composed and cavalier in approach, while Maguire is undoubtedly too proactive and messy. Compounding the messinness, the holes in Maguire’s game have been cruelly exposed by Ralf Rangnick’s style of play – particularly in pushing the defensive line higher, and further away from a goalkeeper who has no desire to sweep. That style of play looks likely to continue even if Rangnick is to be cast aside, under either the possession-based Erik Ten Hag or quick transitional focus of Mauricio Pochettino.Embed from Getty Images
Essentially, what we want to find in a future United centre-back is speed, with a high degree of positional understanding. As bonus items, if they are particularly strong in timing their tackles to perfection and can possess some level of solidity in the air, they will on the one hand provide an upgrade on Maguire, and on the other hand allow the team to continue having a player of a similar enough physical mold. Possessing these qualities would allow the incoming player to cover for the gaps of the current United centre-backs, from both a physical and tactical standpoint. So with that we begin our search looking at some of the speediest centre-backs around.
Top speed data is generally hard to come by due to its perceived irrelevance. But as innovators always breaking the mold, the Bundesliga provides top speed data assessed by the fastest speed a player reached on a single occasion across the campaign. While it may be only one instance, it still provides a useful metric of a player’s potential speed, and ability to cover in behind a significantly slower defender alongside them (see Manuel Akanji at Dortmund). Of these names, only a few would be ready for this kind of leap – including young French defender Maxence Lacroix, Leipzig’s versatile Josko Gvardiol, and the outstanding man we just referenced – Manuel Akanji. All three of these players fit the mold of what United should realistically be looking for in a new central defender.Embed from Getty Images
A long passing machine, Akanji stands out in several different facets, including timing of challenges, pressure success, and progressive possession. Similarly, Gvardiol and Lacroix are masters of the ball and could provide Maguire’s cutting edge in carrying and progressiveness, while providing a significantly faster change of direction. The problem for United is in wanting to go down the road that has so often led nowhere in the past.Embed from Getty Images
Let’s be clear, there’s a massive discrepancy between a masterful Henrikh Mkhitaryan playing in a free-flowing Thomas Tuchel team, to the same man asked to play in Jose Mourinho’s defensive structures. But even someone like Jadon Sancho who had a greater ability to transfer his skills between Favre’s Dortmund and Solskjaer’s United failed to adapt. Without over-exaggerating the ‘Bundesliga Tax’ based on only a few examples, it’s been studied by the likes of Grace Robertson and Tony El Habr to suggest it’s very much a real phenomenon. Quite simply, even players in Portugal’s Primeira Liga have consistently performed better in the Premier League than what many consider the second or third best league in the world (the Bundesliga), and adapted more quickly to their new teams.Embed from Getty Images
It’s not particularly difficult to come up with a long list of instant hits, including: Ederson, Ruben Dias, Bruno Fernandes, and recently – Luis Diaz. The Bundesliga on the other hand can claim to boast imports like Roberto Firmino, Heung-Min-Son and Kai Havertz, but it’s far more difficult to find success stories. In some ways, the fast-paced transitional nature of the Bundesliga could allow a United centre-back to flourish in their new league, particularly given the need within Ten Hag’s high pressing ideologies. But even the likes of Havertz and Son took quite a bit of time to adapt after coming over from Germany, and this bad omen may prove to be dangerous territory for the Red Devils. Realistically, they need an instant hit to play alongside either Lindelof or Maguire. While I have a lot of love for Akanji, his mental fortitude reminds me a lot of United’s current players – floundering under a single mistake and instantly losing confidence in his abilities if he’s not given the right support. A Bundesliga bulldozer like Nico Schlotterbeck or Josko Gvardiol might simply be a better route, and being left-footed, would allow Maguire or Lindelof to play on their preferred right foot.Embed from Getty Images
Then you have Maxence Lacroix, who is undeniably one of the speediest sweepers around, and has excellently supported a man with a similar style to that of Maguire in John Anthony Brooks. But Lacroix severely lacks discipline – receiving three red cards this season. All of his reds have been more out of carelessness and nonchalance than Pepe levels of aggressiveness, which is perhaps even more damming from a recruitment perspective. Given that United need a sweeper who can provide not only solidity but composure, Lacroix has to be out of the equation. So while keeping Akanji and Gvardiol in mind, let’s now venture out of the Bundesliga over to a pair of players that a current Premier League rival so carelessly let wander away.Embed from Getty Images
At just 21 years of age, Marc Guehi has earned so much acclaim in his short time with Crystal Palace, that Patrick Vieira has now handed him the captain’s armband more times than any other Palace player since the start of 2022 (7/16 matches). The former Chelsea man is not only an excellent progressor and carrier, but he’s a genuine sweeper in both position and role, supporting a ball-playing centre-half in Joachim Andersen. Guehi possesses both the speed and positional awareness to hold his own within United’s current defensive structures, and at 21 years of age, should only improve from here. Of particular note, his pressure success percentage currently sits at 40% – which is near Akanji levels of greatness (45.6%). In other words, very few players in the Premier League help to win back possession for their team within ten seconds of applying pressure than the Palace captain. One of those individuals happens to be Victor Lindelof (40.4%), highlighting just one more reason why Harry Maguire is probably the player that needs replacing more. Apart from not possessing particular strengths in the air, this only strengthens the argument for Guehi. He’s played marvelously alongside a ball-playing centre-half in Joachim Andersen this season, who is probably the closest replica to Lindelof in the Premier League. Imperatively, the fact that he was made captain of his team at 21 years of age speaks volumes to his sociability, confidence and psychological make-up, which is an essential piece to the puzzle many writers like me would often neglect in the recruitment equation. Chelsea genuinely look silly for letting him go, and I’m sure the Red Devils would love to make the Blues look even sillier.Embed from Getty Images
Speaking of Chelsea’s silliness, Fikayo Tomori has to be one of the top names on the list – after two outstanding seasons with AC Milan now in Serie A. The former Blue always played well when given the chance under Lampard, and could easily come back into the Premier League with a new set of enhanced skills. Tomori checks the boxes for pace and power, and certainly has elements of sweeping to his game that would benefit both Maguire and Lindelof. The Canadian born defender can play on both feet, and his defensive numbers pop on the page despite playing for first placed AC Milan. As a balance for Lindelof, he’s remarkably active from a defensive perspective, where Lindelof is composed and calm. Encouragingly however, the 24-year-old’s activity usually comes closer to goal in making blocks and tackles, rather than Maguire’s incessant desire to step out of line. Without being particularly strong in the air, Tomori again lacks a key asset that Maguire so crucially possesses. But with the recovery pace to challenge for passes over the top of the defense, perhaps Lindelof could become more of the stopper in the mix and raise his already solid aerial game (70.5% of his aerial duels won this season). Being 24 years of age now, Tomori has a few more years of experience under his belt than Guehi. But both would be excellent options to provide a greater balance to United’s defense.Embed from Getty Images
That leaves just one more player to analyze – the man who has been linked with the job ever since the rumours of Erik Ten Hag’s potential takeover. That defensive warrior would be Ajax’s Jurriën Timber, who has impressed as one of the best ball-playing defenders in world football for both club and national team. With a 94.1% passing success rate, and 6.39 progressive carries across the last 365 days, the Dutch defender stands out for what he can offer a team in possession – something the Red Devils still need if they do away with Maguire. But crucially for our case study, the 20-year-old also possesses the necessary speed to cover in behind a stopper, claiming 2.3 tackles per game in the Eredivisie this season for an eccentric possession-based team.Embed from Getty Images
On paper, it would be easy to make the inference that he’s equally solid to Lindelof in possession, and therefore, he’d be a better fit to play alongside Maguire instead. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with having two centre-backs who can hold their own in possession – in fact it’s one of United’s greatest strengths at the back. The problem would be if the two players are going to be too similar in role and function for what they do out of possession, which is something a new manager like Ten Hag would need to sort out. In signing Jurriën Timber, I would worry Ten Hag or Pochettino would favour the young Dutchman over Lindelof, who has only grown as a United centre-back in the past few years and is now coming into his peak at 27 years of age. Quite simply, another experienced player like Akanji or Tomori, who are coming closer to entering their peak, may be a better fit for the immediacy of the situation. The same argument could be made against 20-year-old Leipzig defender Josko Gvardiol – even despite the Croatian’s ability to play with a level-headedness beyond his years.Embed from Getty Images
So with that, let’s now compare all of the potential candidates based on their statistical output this season, and our perceived scores in metrics we would personally want to see in a sweeper – the role in which United have the greatest need for ahead of the 2022-23 season.
For any defender to enter the frame at Manchester United, being able to play in a possession-based, forward thinking team is vital. All of our candidates already pass that test, so now the question becomes about who surpasses the rest. Surprisingly, Victor Lindelof sits bottom of our defenders for progressive carries per 90 and second to bottom for progressive passes per 90. At the flip end, Jurriën Timber has completed 6.41 progressive carries and 6.41 progressive passes this season in UEFA Champions League play. It must be said that Timber’s numbers in progressiveness have no reference to the Eredivisie this season, due to the lack of data available in that category for the Dutch league, and the quality of the league. As a result, Timber’s sample size is reasonably small, albeit relevant given the evident quality of the opposition Ajax faced.Embed from Getty Images
Josko Gvardiol and Manuel Akanji also stand out, with Guehi comparing well to the stats of Maguire and Lindelof. Fikayo Tomori is the only defender that ranks lower than ideal, which perhaps speaks to his role in Stefano Pioli’s plans, particularly in saving his proactive energy for the defensive side of the game as others drive team on in attack.
Another strength of Maguire and Lindelof that must be maintained is their utter class in possession. 20-year-old Timber again smashes the rest of the pack for his play in the UEFA Champions League this season, completing over 90% of his long passes. Manuel Akanji finishes as an unsurprising runner-up in both categories, and Victor Lindelof slightly outshines Harry Maguire – likely as a function of the captain’s slightly higher progressive numbers. Josko Gvardiol finishes last in both categories this time, with a weak long passing percentage. However, given that Maguire and Lindelof rank highly, neither Gvardiol or Guehi can be discounted, as the goal is to find equilibrium.
In assessing the candidates to potentially come through the door at Manchester United, defensive success is a particularly imperative category to examine. Unsurprisingly, the three players that would classify as “Stoppers” more than the others, rank the lowest in both pressure success and tackle success. Encouragingly for the man that is beginning to emerge as the leader, Timber’s tackle success sits at an outrageous 66.7% in Champions League matches in 2021-22. Discouragingly, his pressure success is abysmal, which is something quite rare for a sweeper – often the last line of defense needing to be successful in putting their opponent under pressure. Manuel Akanji catches the eye yet again, and ranks as one of the best in the world when it comes to his pressure success. Victor Lindelof meanwhile again outperforms Harry Maguire, aiding his case to be the man that sticks around in the starting eleven.
positional awareness + strength
Given the aerial dominance that Maguire and Lindelof both pose, finding an adequate aerial replacement becomes a difficult task. When considering the normal attributes of a sweeper – typically a smaller, neat and tidy footballer like Jurriën Timber, it’s unsurprising that few of our candidates live up to that billing. At the very least, if the player that comes in understands their specific role, has good positional sense, and can make interceptions, they could theoretically make up for a lack of physical strength in the air through positioning and awareness. This is why we’ve lumped these two unrelated statistics together, and Josko Gvardiol is the man that comes out on top by quite some margin. Manuel Akanji’s numbers are once again promising, even if not to the same physical capacity of Maguire and Lindelof.
In our final examination, we study the discipline of our candidates, attempting to assess how level-headed they could be in a high-line, even at times despite being a proactive defender. All four of Marc Guehi, Victor Lindelof, Fikayo Tomori and Manuel Akanji boast excellent disciplinary records. Gvardiol, as a bulldozer, ranks similarly rash to Maguire, with Timber’s small sample size and the magnitude of those Champions League matches potentially playing into his poor disciplinary record in the data examined.
VERDICTEmbed from Getty Images
On the basis of our statistical comparison, the eye test, the style of play to personnel fit, and of course, the perceived balance between our players and the current United centre-backs, Manuel Akanji appears to be the perfect fit. In January, we outlined why the ball-playing centre-half would be an excellent signing for Chelsea, particularly as a mix between Thiago Silva and Antonio Rudiger as the Blues prepare for life without both. In truth, our statistical comparison illuminates Akanji to be a remarkably gifted footballer who every single top club should be probing and orbiting. Having watched every single Dortmund game this season, I can also tell you from the horse’s mouth just how stable and sweepy he would be in a Manchester United lineup.Embed from Getty Images
As a slight knock (other than the supposed ‘Bundesliga Tax’ that could get in his way), Akanji is a man who thrives when at his most confident, and flounders when he momentarily loses that belief. At 26 years of age, he’s about to enter his prime and theoretically would need zero time to settle in. While Ajax man Jurriën Timber stands out in many regards, he’s perhaps too similar in off-the-ball function to Victor Lindelof, and has not been able to prove himself in a top European league. Marc Guehi meanwhile is also incredibly young, but slightly more mature in his play and has already proven to be a useful partner to a ball-playing centre-half. But if Victor Lindelof is to continue as the first choice centre-back, United would perhaps look for someone slightly more active from a defensive perspective, which points more toward Tomori or Akanji.
With the Dortmund man standing out on every single statistic identified, he has to be our top choice to enter the frame and add an increased sense of solidity to United’s back-line. Unfortunately for all involved, United’s recruitment and analytics team would never make such sensible conclusions. As a result, I would urge United to continue to keep all of these options in mind, and actively target and negotiate with both Marc Guehi and Fikayo Tomori – bringing two of England’s best centre-backs back to the big time.
CONCLUSIONEmbed from Getty Images
Regardless of who they sign, it’s clear for all to see that Manchester United need a new centre-back. But that man can’t just be the best centre-back on the planet. It has to be someone who fits the system and style of play, as well as the surrounding players – from Harry Maguire to Victor Lindelof all the way back to David De Gea. A sweeper seems like the obvious choice, and we suggest United sign one of the sweepiest of all in the modern game – Manuel Akanji.
So there it is! Assessing Manchester United’s future centre-back options, and identifying who should be the next player to enter the door. Be sure to check out the array of Manchester United articles we’ve produced this season, and follow on social media using the links below! Thanks for reading and see you soon.
-> Ralf Rangnick – Manchester United – Tactical Analysis
-> Tactical Thinker: How would you solve Manchester United’s defensive concerns?
-> The real problem with Harry Maguire’s defending
-> Why Declan Rice is perfect for Manchester United
-> United’s Tactical Follies in the Post-Ronaldo Era – In-Depth Analysis
-> Fred – Manchester United – Tactical Analysis
-> Why Fred and McTominay are not the problem for Manchester United
-> Why Manchester United should play 3-4-1-2
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