Role Transition I: Unpacking the Success Behind Iwobi’s Move to Midfield


Alexander Chuka Iwobi has been phenomenal this season. The 26-year-old Nigerian has become a key cog of Frank Lampard’s midfield, featuring in every available minute for the Toffees in the Premier League this season. He also leads Everton’s charts in key creative statistics: assists, expected assists, passes completed, passes into the final third, key passes, progressive passes, and passes into the 18-yard box. He is undoubtedly their midfield maestro.

Nevertheless, there are still elements of Iwobi’s midfield superiority that the stats do not allude to. In this piece, I will attempt to evaluate and deconstruct some of these nuances across all phases of his game and posit how they have rendered him indispensable to Frank Lampard’s Everton.

Context about his (new) role this season

Iwobi did not always feature in midfield for Everton. Since his signing in the 2019-2020 season, he was deployed predominantly down the flank and even wing-back last season. 

However, because of injuries at the start of this season, Lampard shunted into midfield as a stop-gap. Iwobi started the season as the deepest midfielder in Everton’s pivot vs. Chelsea and performed admirably. When asked about his position shunt and performance that day, Lampard said this:

“It is really encouraging. I didn’t have any worries about him. The only worry I had was putting a player who is accustomed to playing as a winger in as a number six against a very offensive team like Chelsea, who can give you a lot of problems through midfield. Could he deal with that side of the game?”

Frank Lampard (via Football Faithful)

Notwithstanding, Iwobi’s ease of adaptation in that deep-midfield role would have raised eyebrows for those who were not already familiar with the Nigerian’s history. 

Nevertheless, Iwobi offered context, informing The Athletic that he’d ‘played deeper for Nigeria and sometimes in the Arsenal academy’ so it was not new to him. He added that he was assured about his ability in central areas, given that he had played as an “inside-No-10” during his early Arsenal days.

Dynamics change about playing in midfield

As we proceed to more tailored analyses of Iwobi’s transition, we must highlight major differences in tactical, technical, and physical demands in both positions.

While offering context to Iwobi’s transition to midfield, Lampard posited some of these distinctions: “I felt it suited his talent in terms of strength, quality of pass, he can go either way on players and I think sometimes on the wing that is restricted because you can’t go either way when you are on the (touch)line in midfield.”

Here, the Everton manager highlighted one of the most significant differences–space. While the ball can be shuttled through more angles in midfield, space is eaten up much quicker in the midfield. Players need to be sharper and more decisive to make meaningful impact.

There are also differences in the (visual) periphery and angles of (ball) reception. The angles players receive the ball are significantly different in the two positions. Midfielders generally receive the ball across a broader range of angles across all phases compared to wide players, who predominantly receive from narrower inward angles (to the pitch).

Consequently, most players who attempt making this transition may have ‘growing pains’ while they become acquainted with their new spatial situation. A small proportion of players with solid technical fundamentals may escape this.

Here is an example of how the issues might manifest–case study with Manchester United captain Harry Maguire, who moved from left to right back.


In the first four games of the season, while most of their midfielders were still unavailable, Everton set up in a 5-2-3 out of possession–with Iwobi predominantly holding the fort and setting plays as the deepest midfielder in the pivot. Lampard employed a rigid defensive block with players prioritising defending their zones and not a team-concerted effort to press.

Then once most of the players returned from injury, Everton shifted to a 4-3-3/4-5-1 out of possession and Iwobi was deployed from LCM. Across both set-ups, the team prioritised building attacks quickly, typically through Iwobi–who has shown a proclivity and aptitude in controlling the tempo of his team’s in-possession dealings. 

In possession

Iwobi’s high cognitive speed, superb endurance, and acceleration make him appear on a different wavelength from the other players on the field. 

What does that mean? I will deconstruct this as we move through this segment, but let’s first observe this clip (sped up by 1.5) from the 63rd minute of Everton’s game against Leeds–from a few weeks ago.

63rd minute. Iwobi shuttles deep into the left-hand side of his half to begin the possession sequence and, after driving play to the middle third, offers an overlap option for his teammate down the right flank. He covers about 70 meters in ten seconds, instantly gaining territory for his team and displaying an exquisite mesh of technical excellence, awareness, and physical prowess.

Iwobi gave the Athletic some context about his remarkable endurance, “I didn’t like it as a kid, but I was really good at cross-country. I was normally the best at anything over 400m in school. But I’ll do anything for my team.”

Scanning and Awareness

Nevertheless, the 26-year-old does not only thrive in fast-paced or lung-bursting runs like the one above. When play is settled, during build-up or in the final third, he has immaculate awareness to project his moves and the technical ability and guile to execute consistently. 

In the first minute of the season, Iwobi finds himself in acres of space down the middle and notices Mykolenko (LB) behind him.

Before the ball arrives at his feet, he takes three more glances across his shoulder, then takes an open touch across his body. Iwobi delays luring Mount out of line, allowing him to thread the ball into space for Mykolenko.

The move is seemingly straightforward because Iwobi had begun forecasting the play before he got the ball. If Iwobi had taken that initial touch with his right foot (his dominant one), he would have killed the angle for the pass out wide. Those tiny details in ball reception spread throughout the game and make his actions appear unhurried and easy–a sign of a skilled controller.

Here’s a tweet that encapsulates the element I just described.

Now that you know what to look out for, you need not watch more than thirty minutes of him playing to observe these elements.

Creating space to receive

Iwobi’s speed of thought is also evident in the build-up. He is particularly adept at losing his markers to offer himself for the ball. Here’s an instance of him beating his marker with some guileful movement.

Here, he makes a double movement behind his marker, Kante, and escapes through his blindside. 

Kante is no slouch and is one of the most proactive players in football; however, this feint from Iwobi sold him short and exposed his blindside.

This is a common theme in Iwobi’s game from deep: feints to lure opponents and open up angles to receive and pass. He always wants the ball and has various tools to create the space.

Here is a clip of him opting not to play the direct pass to Gary–instead using a feint to kill the presser’s momentum and affording the recipient more time to receive.

Iwobi’s decisions (pass weight, body orientation to receive et al.) on/off the ball are optimised to help his teammates. When offered more possessions, as he has been in midfield, he can create marginal advantages for his teammates, thus making the team better.

Notably, there are more variables and spatial elements to contend with in midfield. Iwobi’s proactive and nuanced understanding of space makes him appear ‘on a different wavelength from the other players on the pitch. One of my Twitter mutuals who follows Everton, @xHaustedOfStats, also noted similar facets:

“Pretty obvious, but he is an excellent scanner–on and out of possession. He is predicting the game all the time. He’ll start tracking back before his team mates, none of the passes will be ‘into the feet’ but into the players’ direction. You’d notice that his passes are very easy to receive.”

Out of possession

Iwobi’s in-possession game is impressive, but so is the out-of-possession work.

“Before (the season opener against) Chelsea, Frank spoke to me and Doucs (Abdoulaye Doucoure), saying he knew we both liked and had the engine to get forward, but to make sure we’re covered at the back. He showed me clips of the Dynamo Kyiv game in pre-season, explaining that we needed to be disciplined.” Iwobi to The Athletic.

These comments are important because defending in central areas significantly differs from defending in wider areas. Nevertheless, the early signs are great for Iwobi. He has been a very efficient presser–particularly when defending the half-spaces. He is currently in the 96th percentile in the league for successful pressure percentage (with 42.1%). 

One reason is that he trusts his timing and acceleration enough to bait and close down passes into his zones. 

Let’s review a couple of examples.

Example I

With an upright and flat stance, Iwobi poses as inactive/unaware and lures the pass into the player adjacent to him.

He is aware of his proximity to the player (from a scan at the start of the clip and peripheral vision). So he fixes his gaze on the passer and waits for their passing mechanism to begin before bursting to intercept the ball. Iwobi processes and executes from these details in the tiniest fractions of a second. It’s not a one-off thing, either. 

Example II

As the ball is in motion to Trent, Iwobi cursorily looks at the player (Elliot) adjacent to him. Once Liverpool’s right-back takes his first touch away from his feet, Iwobi scans again. He also catches Elliot showing for the ball with his hand.

Again, once the passer sets into their passing motion, the Nigerian goes on his heels and cuts out the space–forcing Elliot back.

These two examples depict a cognitively sharp player: the scans, awareness, timing, and burst are all executed in split seconds. Iwobi is thoroughly refined and adept at this craft. 

This trait, which is incredibly valuable in protecting the half-spaces, is one Iwobi had probably possessed over the years. However, being situated wide meant he could not harness it until now.


It is important to note that this transition is no easy feat. When I began drafting this piece three weeks ago, I asked folks on Twitter to suggest players who had made successful transitions from the flanks to midfield. Unsurprisingly, most of the players suggested were world-beaters at some point: Iniesta, Schweinsteiger, Pedri, Griezmann, Giggs, and Scholes (feel free to add to/modify this list in the comment section)

Crucially, beyond their technical dominance, each one was renowned for their cognitive abilities and appreciation of space–facets that Iwobi demonstrates to a high degree. 

In football, the mainstream perception of players’ abilities is very volatile. But in reality, performances are significantly altered by the environment in which the footballer is situated. Now that Alex Iwobi is featuring in midfield, many of his less valuable traits in wider areas have now appreciated in central regions.

Generally, when suggesting role alterations, it is crucial to consider which of the player’s fundamental traits will appreciate or depreciate in their new positions.

His excellence in midfield will add salt to the wounds of Nigerian fans across the globe. The Super Eagles longed for a dominating figure in midfield while the answers sat under their noses. 

I wonder how many other Nigerian talents are waiting to be ‘unearthed.’

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Analysing The Tactical Tweaks Behind Manchester United’s Recent Resurgence


The highlight of United’s crucial wins over the past three game-week has been De Gea booting the ball long. After the Brentford defeat, where United got caught out playing from the back, some caution has been employed in the team’s tendencies while the ball is in their defensive third.

In this article, I will attempt to unpack the dilemma (which Jack expertly inquired).

Playing out of the back (C’est quoi?)

First, let us briefly understand what it means to play out from the back. 

Playing out from the back is an in-possession principle whereby teams initiate possession sequences from their defensive third–usually with short passes–rather than clear it long and contest for second balls. There are a few reasons why teams do this. A couple of reasons–the ones most relevant for the discourse today are:

  1. To maintain control of the ball by limiting the long balls and second ball instances 
  2. To create artificial transitions after luring the opponent

Maintaining Control

In my last piece, I already explained how despite personnel and structural adaptation to contain them, winning second balls remains one of the more unpredictable aspects of the modern game. To maintain control of the ball, some teams will always choose to play short, where they can more likely control the following action, rather than play a long ball and risk not winning the second ball.

Pep has gone on record before to describe the same point.

Artificial Transitions

In his piece, Minimum Width, Maximal Width, or Both, Jamie Scott writes: 

Furthermore, a scenario where the settled possession phase and attacking transition phase can be merged, is when a team generates artificial transitions. This is a situation where a team in settled possession creates a transition-like state, by inducing the opposition to lose their settled defensive structure.

Essentially, artificial transitions are created when a team typically baits the opposition press while playing out from the back, then breaking the lines (by carrying the ball through the lines, sending a long ball over the press, or patiently passing through it) to create a counter-attack situation.

Here is an example of what that looks like.

United vs Palace During the 2022 Pre-season Tour

Ten Hag had his Ajax side play out from the back. However, he is flexible about how this is accomplished.

After the Brentford defeat, he noted similar elements as criticism for his side. When asked about a supposed insistence on playing out from the back, he said:

“I don’t want to play out from the back when it is not possible. It is naive how we played today. It was [expected] that we play more direct after we attracted them. There was space high on the pitch and he had that option [free man]. And that is what we didn’t do.”

-Erik ten Hag

Indeed, his side made several turnovers on the ball and conceded an absurd amount of shots in their defensive third. Here is a visualisation from the ever-reliable Markrstats bot (@markstatsbot on Twitter).

Let’s look at the specific instance Ten-Hag was talking asked about in his press conference.

As you can see in the frame, Brentford is fully committed to its man-to-man marking system. Once David De Gea receives the ball from Lisandro, the only viable, unmarked option is the RCB–who is about to be in the cover shadow (albeit poorly executed) of Ivan Toney.

From UTDArena on Twitter

Given Erik Ten Hag’s comments after the game, it seems he’d rather have had the team go long and behind the opposition’s backline. The presence of the full-backs deeper means that there is space on both sides for Rashford and Sancho to receive. That would have been the ideal option based on Ten-Hag’s comments after the game.

Nevertheless, another issue here is De Gea’s body shape when he receives the ball. 

The Spaniard neither allows the ball roll across him sufficiently nor take a positive touch to reset. Consequently, he finds himself in a closed stance, the ball is too close to him to generate enough contact, and the angle and range he can play through are limited. These reasons these make the ball to Christian Eriksen easy to read.

The way Ten Hag utilised Eriksen in this game is reminiscent of his deployment of Frankie De Jong during his last season at the club–as the deepest midfielder and primary recipient during the build-up. The dutch midfielder garnered notoriety for single-handedly rupturing the opposition’s defensive structures during his stint at Ajax. It is safe to assume that Ten Hag would have liked to reunite with him for similar reasons.

Kees van Hemmen wrote a very detailed piece,”Frenkie de Jong, Ajax, and Artificial Transitions: Reverse Engineering Insights on Turnovers” on Frenkie’s unique role and ability to creating artificial transitions from a similar position that Eriksen received from. 

Unfortunately, Eriksen is no Frenkie de Jong. While he might have the problem-solving and IQ in deeper midfield, he lacks the acceleration and ball carrying ability to be able to flip situations like the one above, into situations like this:

From Frenkie de Jong, Ajax, and Artificial Transitions: Reverse Engineering Insights on Turnovers

United went ahead and recruited Casemiro for the defensive midfield role, so some of the build-up dynamics, squad compositions, and roles I had observed and analysed during pre-season have now changed.

Alterations to United’s Approach to Build-Up

Well, Brighton and Brentford happened. United could not play out from the back effectively during those first two games of the season.

In the subsequent matches, United reverted to a longer, more direct style from the back–ditching the previous attempts to play out from the back. They also started utilizing second balls to progress the ball–which is ironic given that Brighton and Brentford had employed similar approaches to exploit their frail defence and larger structural mishaps.

There has been a significant increase in the number of long balls David De Gea has attempted in the most recent games, indicating an alteration in build-up tendencies for Ten Hag’s side.

Here is a visualisation from the Leicester match showing a preference: 

The most important thing to note in this visualisation is the concentration of progressive pass attempts–especially from deep–to wide areas. We shall investigate to understand how and why this tactical decision was made with some segments from the Leicester game.

Situation One

In some moments, the decision to play long adhered, and the accompanying rotations were coherent. The central players held their positions–rather than aggressively show/adjust for the ball as you’d expect if they were playing out from the back–and the fullbacks pushed forward to create wide overloads, assist with the second balls, and offer themselves as outlets.

In my last piece, I highlighted this kind of long ball as a chosen ball–situations where a player deliberately ‘choses’ to play a long ball while is in play despite them having time and space.

The full backs are out of frame here and positioned much higher to engage with the the second ball. United have fewer players in their defensive third and have prioritized higher occupation. 

Situation Two

However, in other instances in the second half, while United was trying to preserve the lead, there was confusion in the backline about which kind of pass should be played. As a result, United lost some coverage for their second balls.

Dalot and McTominay race towards the ball to provide an option for De Gea to play out from the back, but the Spaniard has already pre-determined to launch the ball. 

The consequence is then that United lose compactness in the middle of the pitch and are susceptible to getting countered.

In this instance, De Gea opts to clear the ball to the right wing–where Dalot had just vacated–and Elanga tries to track back but loses the duel.

Situation Three

De Gea received an unpressurised back-pass from Casemiro and United are 3v1 on the first line vs Jamie Vardy. Casemiro motioned for the him to calm down and retain possession, but the Spaniard goes ahead and clears it long.

Casemiro motioning De Gea to calm down

United were actually in a comfortable position to play out from the back, but De Gea is unable to discern the situation and game-state and launches the ball long.

United are actually decently set up to contest for the second-ball, but such is the nature and unpredictability of those moments, that United end up like.

United lose possession and are now defending a transition. (Note that since the ball came back so quickly, Lisandro and Varane haven’t recovered from their positions and are out of frame)

What does this mean for Ten Hag’s initial tactical schemes?

These recent changes have been influenced by a failure to conclude recruitment early, a poor start to the season, and consequently, an altered recruitment strategy.

Casemiro has been signed. Consequently, some of the structures in the first two phases (build-up and progression) from pre-season and the first two games of the season–which were seemingly built with the intention of housing De Jong–will be markedly different. I already highlighted one of these: directness from the back.

To understand the other differences that may arise, let’s compare the squad composition and roles after the first two games of the season and Casemiro becoming the marquee midfield signing.

United trialled with a 4-3-3 (nominally)–with Fred as the deepest midfielder–in possession during pre-season and the first couple games of the season.

Here is how that looked in pre-season (find the piece with more details here):

However, it now seems as though Ten-Hag will deploy a 4-2-3-1 formation in possession with a distinct attacking midfielder–at least in the build up phases.

Here is a segment from the Leicester game showing a common rotation that will occur with this shape.

This 2nd phase shape is once which Ten Hag has deployed before–an instance being his 2021/2022 Ajax side with Edson Alvarez (now McTominay, and eventually Casemiro) in the pivot role.

Here’s an instance of that shape in an Ajax match vs Valencia in the Champions League:

Obtained from “THE 3-1-6 ATTACKING FORMATION

If you would like to read more about this shape, here is the link to the article by Chaka Simbeye (Twitter @chaka_simbeye).

Pioneering this change is Casemiro: the Brazilian will likely be deployed as a transition diffuser in the pivot–tasked with breaking up plays and making first contact with aerials. These are facets of his game that are particularly prominent as shown in this profile by Andy Forrester (@AndyForrester1 on Twitter):

Player Profile for Casemiro

Notice that Casemiro is not overtly inclined to progress the ball (a tendency rather than an inability). Consequently, the responsibility will fall more on the full-backs and center-backs to offer guile and progression for the side.

In order to achieve this, we might see a 3-2-5 build up shape (with one of the FB tucked in to form a back-three) while the ball is in the second phase.

In the final third, there will likely be few, if any, changes to the attacking and chance-creation dynamics (someone should write about this).

Do these altered dynamics make United a stronger team than otherwise? We may never know but there is a lot–analyses-wise–to look forward to as the side adapts to Ten Hag’s adjusted tactical set-up.

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United’s Difficulties with 2nd-Balls & the Case for Casemiro’s Inclusion

In their first two games of the Premier League season, Manchester United faced sides who deliberately went long.

Here are the numbers vs Brentford:

Here are the numbers vs Brighton:

Pass Directness = progressive distance/total distance for all pass attempts

After United lost those two matches, conversations sparked about Lisandro Martinez’s ability in aerial situations–some of which I admittedly fuelled in my previous piece about the discrepancies of the Aerial Duel stat. However, as Ralph Hassenhutle alluded to when asked if his side would target the Argentine’s height, it is not that simple.

“It’s not that easy to say ‘he’s small so bring the ball there’ and ‘he’s a little taller so don’t kick it there’, it’s not that simple. We will not be so stupid to think that is going our way.”

-Ralph Hassenhutle [via MEN]

Brentford and Brighton did direct their balls towards the left handside but despite the consensus being that it was simply to target the new centre-back, there is a strong argument that it was also to target structural deficiencies in how United deal with second balls and other second-order effects. These ‘consequentials’ are going to be the focus on this piece today. 

The Art of a Long Ball (as it pertains to Manchester United)

In Evert van Zoelen’s article for Spielverlagerung, ‘The Art of a Long Ball,’ he broke down long balls into three categories:

  1. From dead balls-These arise from goal-kicks and free-kicks in one’s half

Both teams are able to set up in their shapes in anticipation of the long ball

2. From chosen balls-These are situations where a player deliberately ‘choses’ to play a long ball while the ball is in play despite them having time and space on the ball.

Unlike deadballs, the teams are usually vertically stretched across the pitch so the players have to work with a lot more space.

3. From forced balls-These are situations where a player is pressed into playing a long ball (or clearance).

Note: the second and the third can be indistinguishable at times because some teams intend to attract pressure before playing it long to take advantage of the opponent’s lack of numbers and compactness (loosened midfield).

Generally, long balls allow a team to quickly progress the ball to the opposition’s half, challenge for second balls, sustain pressure on the opponent’s backline, and offer a threat behind the backline.

As I mentioned earlier, while team’s have been targeting Lisandro’s axis of the defence, there have been other elements that have resulted in United’s overall poor performances–particularly how we set up and deal with second balls both tactically and in terms of personnel.

Against Brentford, Erik Ten Hag deployed Eriksen as one of the deeper midfielders out of possession. The Dane is not the most accomplished in the air and largely did not contest in aerial situations, so it essentially created a chain reaction of problematic rotations when United defended the long balls.

In the seventh minute of the Brentford game, we saw the first instance of this.

Despite it being evident that Brentford were aiming their long ball to the left hand side of United’s defence, they still managed to create numerical superiorities in United’s defensive third with the aid of deep runs. That untracked run by Hickey into United’s half became Brentford’s go-to throughout the entire game. 

Here is another similar situation that occurred in the 20th minute of the game. This time resulting in a decent possession for Brentford.

By circumstance, seeing as Eriksen is not contesting the first aerial with Toney, Shaw steps out of the backline to challenge. As soon as he does, Hickey and Mbuemo make runs towards the space vacated to anticipate and challenge for the flick on from Toney. Rashford is ball-watching and does not notice Hickey’s run behind him.

Lisandro actually wins contested aerial ball but doesn’t get much distance on it and Hickey latches onto the ball before mis-controlling it for a United throw in. Brentford may not have directly won possession from the long ball, but they now have territory and the opportunity to ‘sustain pressure in United’s half’ and increase their pressing chances. 

And again in the 23rd minute. Similar dynamics  that ended up with Lisandro facing yet another 2v1.

Lisandro Martinez facing a 2v1 in a Second Ball Situation

Brentford were not simply targeting Lisandro Martinez with long balls, but were extremely successful in creating isolations and superiorities against him in the second ball situations. United were unable to de-pressurize those situations all through the game and kept on breaking momentum to handle it. In that manner, while Brentford’s approach did not directly lead to any goal, it helped Brentford retain control and territory over United each time they launched any long ball.

United seemingly had no answers to these situations. Why’s that?

On defending dead balls, Evert van Zoelen writes, “In order to defend long balls, in which you’re able to win the ball in a controlled way, it’s essential that you win the second ball and that the second balls ends up at a ‘free player’.”

When teams set up in their pre-determined shape to defend long balls, the free players are almost always forwards (usually in a nominally higher position closer to the opponents rest-defence set up) or goalkeepers (who’s deeper and with time to pick out a better pass or send a directed long ball to the opponent’s backline to give their team a chance to press).

See how Manchester City use their goalkeeper to diffuse second ball situations in the clip below.

One key thing to notice here is that is Rodri, City’s holding midfielder who challenges for the initial goal kick, while the rest of the backline cover. City, like many other teams with aerially dominant DMs, set up zonally such that as long as the ball is hit into that area, Rodri is the one responsible. The rest of the backline (still intact) can drop off and prepare for a flick on or to engage should he lose the challenge. 

The other key thing is that once the ball is flicked on, Ake instinctively looks to get the ball to his goalkeeper, who has more time and space, and is assured on the ball to help reignite the move or diffuse the second ball. As soon as that happens, City’s two centerbacks split to offer Ederson the former option.

Simply put, United have not had either of those privileges (in terms of personnel, and consequently tactically).

Compare the City example above to how United handle their own second ball situation in the clip below.

Despite De Gea being free throughout the entire sequence, the neither Lisandro nor Shaw even consider sending a backpass to him. It’s not appropriate to offer broad claims without evidence, but De Gea generally struggles with his feet (personnel issue). Consequently, the United players, despite being under pressure, have not shown an inclination to use him (as a free-player) to diffuse second-ball situations when the team is under-pressure (tactical consequence). 

That’s the goalkeeper. What about the forwards who can also offer serve as the free-players (or outlets)?

This is how United set up to defend the goal-kick from Brentford.

One of the flaws with this set up is that United effectively have no-presence (threat in behind or target-man) up front. The one player they have against or close to Brentford’s rest-defence is completely crowded out and will likely be unable to compete for any second ball in that direction. Brentford also have no worries about a wide out-ball to contend with. 

Now compare this to United’s set-up in the match vs Brighton.

Here, United have three forwards in the coverage of Brighton’s 3-2 rest defence. Because of this, if the second ball comes back in that direction, United are able to compete and apply immediate pressure to the backline. For what it’s worth, Fred is zonally marking space in the middle but actually misses the the aerial challenge resulting in this aerial contest between Welbeck and Lisandro.

Moving Forward: Casemiro

When a team has an athletic holding midfielder who can reliably compete for the first ball, they are able to free options both in front of and behind who will be able to challenge and compress space for the second ball.

When you have one of your centre-backs challenging for that first ball, you lose cover for “behind” for the second ball and a flick-on will become more a viable option for the opponent. Nevertheless, teams with aerially dominant centre backs (who can get consistently get distance on their first-ball) and sweeper-keepers, like Liverpool, can afford to set up this way–in order to commit more players to the subsequent pressure on the second ball.

United now have Casemiro in the ranks. In short, his inclusion in the side will mean that United can afford to better alter their pre-determined shape to defend long balls (see the Brighton and City example above). Luke Shaw is likely not have to vacate his defensive line and Lisandro’s will undoubtedly compete for less first-balls from long balls. It can only be a positive.

Nevertheless, no matter how much he improves those dynamics, some of United’s personnel deficiencies in other second and third-order effects will still remain but likely be less visible than they would have without the Brazilian midfielder.

These events are worth observing in the upcoming matches.

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The Discrepancies of the ‘Aerial Duel’ stat: Case-Study of Lisandro Martinez vs Brighton


During Manchester United’s opening season loss, Brighton and Hove Albion disproportionately focussed their attacks down their right-hand side–specifically targeting Lisandro Martinez.

Here’s what Adam Lallana said in his post-match interview.

With their new signing [Martinez), we know the Premier League’s difficult so we thought we’d ask him questions early on. We landed on second balls, gained good territory and attacked the ball well in numbers.

Adam Lallana

This was evident through out the match as shown in the visualisations below by twitter user @Markrstats on his automated twitter page @markstatsbot.

In the first visualisation below, you can see a bias of passes directed towards the left side of United’s defence, with one of the dominant ones the long pass from goal-kicks–which will form the chunk of the analysis today. Brighton was also considerably more direct on their right side compared to their left.

Here is another visualisation showing the two sides progressive passing. The trends are consistent.

So during the game, we often saw United set up for Brighton’s goal kicks like this:


Nevertheless, after reviewing a couple of data providers at the end of the match, I realised that most of them had Lisandro Martinez with no aerial duels attempted, with Statsbomb via FBREF having him at 100 percent (1 attempted and 1 won).


I wondered how all these balls could be launched in that direction just for Lisandro to leave the game with so few aerial duels attempted and an immaculate aerial duel rating then decided to do an investigation, which was in part motivated by the two tweets below.


Before we get stuck in, let’s find out the definition of some key terms.

  1. An Aerial Duel according to Opta,

Aerial duels occur when two players contest a ball in the air; this is a symmetrical event because neither player starts with possession.

  1. A Ground Duel according to Opta,

Ground duels are asymmetrical events, because one player has possession and the other is trying to regain it.

I found these to be unsatisfactory while doing this analysis so I coined up a new term: Contested aerial opportunity.

  1. A Contested Aerial Opportunity according to me,

This refers to any situation where two players are in contact (or close proximity of each other) while competing for the ball in the air. 

The player who makes the first contact with the ball, with whichever part of their body, ‘wins’ the contested aerial opportunity and vice versa.

The references points for this stat are the ball and the proximity of the players from each other–not whether to not the players going up in the air–like with ‘aerial duels‘ from Opta’s definition.

I differentiated these because we will discover that not all aerial balls are duelled for in the air. In many situations, players engage with the aerial balls without jumping to compete in the air with their opponent–which Opta’s definition of an aerial duel doesn’t account for. 

For the sake of clarity, here is what an Uncontested Aerial Opportunity looks like, using an example from the Brighton game. There will be several examples of Contested Aerial Opportunities as you read on.


Case-by-case breakdown of Lisandro Martinez’s ‘Contested Aerial Opportunities’ vs Brighton

First Half

2nd Minute

Robert Sanchez plays a long ball in the path of Lisandro and Danny Welbeck, and they ‘contest’ for the ball–with each other trying to outmuscle the other and get into the best position.


Welbeck eventually gets into a better position and tries to control the ball while holding Martinez aside.


The key thing here is that, although the two players competed for the long ball, with the Brighton Striker reaching the first ball, the situation does not count as an aerial duel (according to Opta’s definition).

But with my term ‘contested aerial opportunity’, this would count for Welbeck (contested aerial opportunity won) and against Lisandro (contested aerial opportunity lost).

In case you are wondering, the situation also does not count as a ground duel, according to Opta.

Because neither player was in possession of the ball, this situation does not count as a ground duel. So how does this enter the stat sheet? It will be a pass completed for Robert Sanchez since Welbeck made first contact, and nothing will be recorded against Lisandro Martinez. Assuming Martinez got the first ball, it would have been recorded as a recovery for him.

Here is how the rest of the entire sequence played out:

Welbeck’s control is slightly off, but he can apply immediate pressure after, causing Shaw to launch the ball and Brighton to retain possession in the middle third of the pitch.

Lisandro Martinez: 1 aerial opportunity contested, 0 contested aerial opportunities won.

17th Minute

In this situation, the Brighton defender heads a ball back into United’s half, and Lisandro and Welbeck prepare to attack the ball. Because they are both within proximity of the ball, this will be an aerial contest opportunity.

The ball bounces, and Welbeck leaps and gets first contact while Lisandro stays on the ground. Because the latter does not jump and compete in the air for the ball, the data sites do not count it as an ‘aerial duel.’

Welbeck keeps the ball alive, and once again, there is a second ball to be dealt with, which Fred comes out inferior in, and Brighton maintains possession in United’s defensive third.

See the full sequence below:

Lisandro Martinez: 2 aerial opportunities contested, 0 contested aerial opportunities won.

22nd Minute

Once again, Robert Sanchez directs his long ball to United’s left side, and Martinez and Welbeck are close to each other, with the opportunity to contest for the ball.

Here is another angle just before the ball arrives. Both players have their eyes on the ball and are in contesting position.

Welbeck can pin Martinez down and lay the ball off to his teammate Lallana who then propels the attack in United’s defensive third;vBrighton gains territory in United’s half.

Here is how the rest of the entire sequence played out:

Despite Welbeck coming out best in the situation, this will not be recorded as an aerial duel won for him; in addition, it will not be recorded as a aerial duel lost for Lisandro because neither player went off the ground for the ball.

By my definitions though, this will count as an aerial opportunity contested, with Welbeck being the beneficiary of the ‘aerial opportunity won’ stat.

Lisandro Martinez: 3 aerial opportunities contested, 0 contested aerial opportunities won.

23rd Minute

Lisandro is marking Welbeck as the cross comes in.

Welbeck wins the first ball and directs the header towards goal but it ricocheted off Lisandro’s head and is redirected out of the box.

I do not know how this particular situation did not count as a *aerial duel* given the proximity and attempt to head the ball from both players; nevertheless, therein lies the discrepancy with that stat. This would have counted as a ‘blocked shot’ for Welbeck and and block for Lisandro–since he was not the last man….

Here is the full clip:

Lisandro Martinez: 4 aerial opportunities contested, 0 contested aerial opportunities won.

36th Minute

As the long aerial ball comes in, Martinez and Welbeck are within close proximity of each other. By my earlier definition, this counts as a contested aerial opportunity.

Lisandro wins the first ball while Welbeck spins behind, anticipating that the Argentine would try to stand up to him–as he did in the previous instances.


Here is a clip of the full sequence:


Lisandro Martinez: 5 aerial opportunities contested, 1 contested aerial opportunities won.

Second Half

During the second half of the game, Brighton became less direct and stopped launching the targeted balls to United’s left-hand side. By this time, they were already 2-0 up and could afford to retain and recycle possession when possible.


This brief walk-through of some situations Lisandro was put in this match highlights the deficiencies with the ‘Aerial Duel’ stat. Like some others have echoed, the stat alone is not a good measure of a player’s aerial ability, and it is important to contextualise it. Because Lisandro could not compete with Welbeck in contested aerial opportunities, Brighton used that long ball to gain territory and pin United back throughout the first half.

Caveats of ‘Contested aerial opportunity’ stat

The key caveat for this stat is determining what proximity makes the situation ‘contested’. 

Here is an instance from the 79th minute of that same game. I chose not to include it because I felt the ‘contested-nature’ of the situation was particularly subjective.

At no point during the flight of the ball did Lisandro make contact with Welbeck, so the English striker was able to receive and lay the ball off to his teammate.

If you have any other caveats or limitations for the stat, endeavour to drop it as a comment here, via Twitter DMs or as a reply to the reference tweet.

Pointers ahead of Brentford

Brentford are an extremely direct team and have a striker, Ivan Toney, who dominates in contested aerial opportunities. 

I would not be surprised to see Lisandro dropped or moved to another position to accommodate during the match. Should he start, it will be valuable for the deepest midfielder adjacent to him to be dominant physically and capable of winning the second balls (take your guesses about who that might be).

Manchester United’s Lisandro Martinez (left) and Brighton and Hove Albion’s Danny Welbeck during the Premier League match at Old Trafford, Manchester. Picture date: Sunday August 7, 2022. (Photo by Ian Hodgson/PA Images via Getty Images)

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What are Manchester United ‘cooking’ this season?

In anticipation of United’s season opener versus Brighton, this article will highlight some tactical elements they have employed during pre-season–focusing on the budding dynamics down the team’s right flank.


For the past few years, Manchester United have been heavily left-side dominant. Most of our best players played or preferred playing there, and there had been some consistency in pairings that eventually developed solid partnerships there. For these reasons, amongst many others, dynamics down the right flank have been largely underdeveloped. However, during Erik Ten Hag’s brief spell as manager, we are already seeing the buds of some partnerships down the right-hand side, with Dalot, Sancho, and McTominay at the forefront of it.

State of play

Throughout the preseason, United have utilised a narrow 4-2-3-1 (or 4-3-3) out of possession. A key feature of this has been the nominal attacking midfielder (Bruno) man-marking the opposition’s deepest midfielder.

In possession, they have utilised a formation a 4-3-3 (which usually ends up as a fluid 2-3-5) with Bruno Fernandes primarily occupying the left half-space and the right centre-midfielder (RCM) in the right half-space.


Among the plethora of changes we have seen this pre-season is a seemingly permanent change to McTominay and Fred’s role. In the first match of pre-season, the former was the deepest midfielder in possession and was tasked with conducting a considerable portion of the side’s build-up–a role which did not suit him. But in subsequent games, Fred has taken up that role–where United’s highly-sought midfielder will presumably fit in.

Fred spoke about it briefly:

“Last season, I played a bit further forward under Ralf [Rangnick], he gave me a bit more freedom to get in the box to score and assist,” Fred told us in Australia. “We’ll see what Erik asks of me now, he may want me more in the build-up of play.


It is important to note that while this United side occupies the aforementioned positions instantaneously, they are by no means rigid. You will notice the forwards and their near-side full-back and midfielder interchanging as the ball moves up the pitch. Like Ten Hag’s 18/19 side, this team is very fluid in possession. Despite the alterations, some critical features of the side before the ball gets to the final third are touchline-wingers and inverted full-backs.

Switches to the left-hand side (from the right)

In his first press conferences of the pre-season tour, Erik Ten Hag announced that Harry Maguire would remain captain for the upcoming season, implying that England international will play a significant role in his plans moving forward. Since then, Maguire has been deployed almost exclusively as the right centre-back; perhaps, in preparation for the arrival of the side’s multi-million-pound signing, Lisandro Martinez (aka the Butcher). Playing on his strong side favours his natural angles and alleviates his hesitancy and clumsiness when using his left foot.

Another important upside to this move is that Maguire’s diagonals (switches) to the left flank are now more potent. Diagonals across the pitch to a far side winger are valuable because they afford the recipient more space to isolate the defending full-back and allow the rest of the team to exploit gaps left from the opponent shifting across.

Here is an example of how Maguire’s switches play out when used as a means of progression:

Frame of Maguire indicating for Rashford to go wide.


Observe Fernandes in the first clip. Before the switch is initiated, he will make a run into the channel to lure the palace defenders deeper–since they will be expecting a ball in behind–while Rashford can receive the ball under less pressure.

Frame of Fernandes making the run.

Frame after the ball has been played

In this instance, the ball was slightly short, and the defending full-back had adequate time to cover and set himself. Nevertheless, these wide isolations are situations where Rashford can thrive: using his pace to beat his man and getting a shot or cross off. It is a situation that the team has tried to create throughout the preseason.

Here’s another instance where United manufactured a wide isolation for Rashford, this time while Palace had settled into their block.

Once again, observe Dalot and Sancho. As I indicated earlier, with Maguire motioning to Rashford, it is a good sign of cohesion when the players are aware of the pass/move to follow. 

Everyone on the pitch holds their position to lure the Palace block and ensure that when the ball is eventually played to Rashford, they will have to cover significantly more ground to consolidate their shape.

Switches like this are particularly effective because they give the recipient ample time and space to decide the next course of action and create gaps and penetrations points in the opponent’s block. Look at how much space Rashford receives the ball in.

By the time the ball comes into the box, United have five players in and around the box. Because of the speed of the switch, the defenders are caught on napping, and the highlighted defending centre-back has two active opponents to mark. He chooses to mark Bruno–who makes the front post dart–so Martial is unmarked at the back post and almost taps the ball in.

Over the past few seasons, a common issue in the squad has been a hesitancy to attack space and crosses in the box. Last season, United, among other European clubs, had some of the lowest players in the box when crosses came in. It seems like something that United have already begun to remedy in pre-season.

Those familiar with Ten Hag’s Ajax side from last season would know that he primarily used Antony, a right winger, as the isolation-winger. The early signs suggest that the dynamic has been switched at United–with Rashford taking up a similar role on the opposite wing.

Dynamism down the Right-Hand side

The plays and dynamism down the team’s right-hand side in the final third have centred around creating optimal situations for Sancho to make an impact. Throughout the pre-season, there has been a prominence of selfless ‘channel-running’–similar to the one we saw Bruno do earlier in this piece to create space for Rashford.

Channel runs refer to forward runs made between the defending full-back and centre-back. 

While in some situations, they may be the same as half-space runs, channel runs are fundamentally different–as articulated by Russ below.

These runs aim to create progressive options behind the backline, create space for the player on the ball, or facilitate third-man runs. I will briefly outline examples of each of these below.

To create progressive options behind the backline

There are two sets on runs in this clip: the first from McTominay, who retains well, and then the follow-up from Sancho and Dalot, who penetrate the box with sharp, direct movements.

To facilitate third-man plays

The timing and execution for this third-man run from Dalot could be better, but the idea remains intact.

Dummy runs create space for the ball carrier (usually Sancho)

Here the run by Dalot and the counter-movement from McTominay help create an isle for Sancho to drive in. If he were a left-footer, this could have been a shooting opportunity.

These runs can leave the side susceptible to getting countered if the ball is lost. United have begun incorporating counter-movements (opposite movements made to consolidate the team’s structure when forward runs are made).

Notice McTominay’s simultaneous movements in all these clips whenever Dalot makes those runs from deep. This allows United to maintain some rigidity during the attacking phase and acts as insurance against counterattacks–more on this later in the ‘Transitions, Pressing, and McTominay’ sub-section.

In the few minutes Donny Van De Beek has been on the pitch (at RCM in place of McTominay) with the rest of the ‘starting team’, the dynamics down the right-hand side were slightly different. VDB nominally assumes and remains in a higher position closer to the opposition centre-backs while the team is in the final third and uses his sublime instincts to get into good positions in the box, as seen below:

One from transition that ends up in a goal:

Another one while the game was settled. Notice Dalot’s deeper positioning throughout.

Van De Beek has a propensity to remain against the backline and make runs behind it when the ball gets to the attacking third. These tendencies mean he does not make the same countermovements as McTominay offers, so Dalot tends to remain in a deeper central position to accommodate. Van De Beek offers a more significant box threat, but his presence takes away some dynamism and unpredictability present with the Sancho-McTominay-Dalot combination. I am yet to decide whether the trade-off is worth it–you can append your thoughts in the comment section, via DMs or as a subtweet. Crucially, it is part of why his impact seemed to fade when possession was contested this pre-season.

Dalot’s new lease down the right hand-side

The Portuguese international’s adventurousness has stood out throughout the preseason. As suggested by the earlier clips, he has been a prominent force down United’s right-hand side. I already highlighted how his running capacity has been crucial to making the side more dynamic and affording Sancho more space and options on the ball. In addition, he’s been a key cog to the side’s build-up play from deep.

We’ve seen many situations like this: Dalot tucks in deeper to receive the ball in the first phase, and McTominay rotates to suit. From the deeper positions, Dalot has progressed the ball using his adept ball striking.

Transitions, Pressing, and McTominay

Few United players have contributed more to United’s pressing and counter-pressing moments than McTominay this pre-season. Besides his selfless running and movement to accommodate the ball-dominant players, McTominay has proven invaluable out-of-possession.

Earlier, I asked you to pay attention to his countermovements when players made runs behind the backline or in the channels. His tenacity and discipline in possession have rendered him crucial to United maintaining pressure on the opponent. Here are some examples below.

In counter-pressing moments after possession has been lost:

He uses his long legs and pokes the ball before Ayew can gain control of the ball.

In deeper positions to start transitions:

He anticipates the play, intercepts the ball, and holds off a challenge before springing a counter-attack.

From the initial pressing sequences:

Most of our pressing sequences have geared towards forcing the ball wide or centrally (on the right-hand side), where he would win crucial duels to regain possession for the side.


This United side will undoubtedly undergo more changes as the season goes on. I will keep track of them and publish thought pieces like this across the season. Endeavour to subscribe below if you are interested!

Featured image: Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag during the pre-season friendly match at Old Trafford, Manchester. Picture date: Sunday July 31, 2022. (Photo by Dave Thompson/PA Images via Getty Images)


Player Profile: Ethan B. Laird

Last season, Manchester United’s matches became increasingly unbearable to watch. The gears of the team were soiled, and Ralf Rangnick, who had been heralded as the spearhead of yet another ‘new era’, became the poster boy for a forgettable year at the club. To make headway and move on from that mess, United appointed Erik Ten Hag–a man they hope will make a ‘restructured’ Manchester United more competitive.

Nevertheless, a few weeks into the transfer window, the activity (or lack of) around the club has been starkly similar to previous years, and the now purged squad that crawled to the end of the last campaign remains practically identical–with no new additions.

Amid the seemingly impending doom of another underwhelming transfer window, I evaluate the prospects of Ethan Laird, one of Carrington’s prospects of yesteryear, to see where he is at with his development and opine whether he can make an impact in the first team this coming season.

Who is Ethan B. Laird?

Ethan Benjamin Laird is a 2001-born right-back that came through the United youth ranks a few years ago. With a strong reputation at the youth level and a modest youth-international career to boast of, Laird got a loan move to MK Dons, an outfit in the Sky Bet League One, during the 2020/2021 season—where Russel Martins was the coach.

After a fair loan spell (clocking over 2000 minutes), Martins, now the newly appointed Swansea manager, signed him on loan again at the start of the 2021/2022 season. Laird played an integral part for the Swans, starting in all but two of their twenty league matches he was available for.

“He’s spent a year with us [at MK Dons and Swansea] and I think he’s grown incredibly in that time. He’s been a really good performer for us this season, his first season in the Championship…He has an infectious personality and he’s had some brilliant performances”

Russel Martin

Midway through the season, United decided to recall Laird and loan him to a different championship outfit, AFC Bournemouth, hoping that their promotion-challenging status would provide more competition for Laird. That move ended up a disaster. Laird spent the most parts of his loan move injured or sidelined and couldn’t get a sniff into Scott Parker’s side. Unfortunately, such injuries have plagued Laird’s young career so far.

Where did he featured last season?

For Swansea:

Laird was deployed as the right wing-back in Russel Martin’s 3-4-2-1 formation. The two wing-backs in this system were the widest players on the pitch and rarely ever dropped deeper to support the build-up. With the absence of on-ball responsibilities in build-up and progression, Laird was exclusively a third-phase player while his side was in possession, with the ball quickly funnelled to him when final box-penetration was needed. He also played a similar role during his previous loan spell at MK Dons under the same manager, where he ranked in the 1st percentile for deep progression (passes/carries into the opposition’s final third) according to StatsBomb data. Whilst this number was concerning for some data-observers early on, it just shows how methodological his role was defined in these teams. While the responsibilities were rigid, they helped amplify Laird’s best abilities.

For Bournemouth:

Laird was deployed as a right-back in a 4-2-3-1 formation. By Russel Martin’s admission, the move to the Cherries was partly initiated by the hopes that he would play deeper and work on other facets of his game that his parent club felt were crucial for his development.

“But his parent club have decided it’s better for him to go and play in a slightly different position with a different club in this league who are fighting hard for promotion. That’s their prerogative. That is the danger you have with loan players.”

Russel Martin

The loan spell was plagued with injuries, but in the few minutes he played, Laird had drastically more responsibility in the first two phases of play and reduced expectations in the final phase; he failed to reach the standard of performances he had set at Swansea. It was a different challenge for him, albeit one eventually alleviated by Scott Parker employing build-up rotations to allow him to assume slightly similar positions to his previous loan spells.

Understanding his style

Ethan Laird is an attacking full-back who relishes carrying the ball; as a bonus, he can do it off either foot! He has a low centre of gravity, good balance, and a decent burst, so he can consistently use his acceleration to create separation over a few yards but plateaus over longer distances. Consequently, during transitions or when in possession of the ball in deeper positions, Laird will seldom take players on by knocking the ball past them into space. Despite this limitation over longer distances, Laird remains a lethal take-on threat and uses feints and a neutral set position–enabled by his two-footedness–to create indecisiveness and leverage his acceleration. Laird’s strong balance and guileful touches mean opponents often have to foul him to stop him when carrying the ball; he is a strong offensive dueller. He averaged two successful dribbles per 90 for Swansea City (via WhoScored).

Laird displaying two-footedness when taking players on

Laird backs himself against most opposition defenders and, when fed the ball in the final third, will often drive towards the byline and attempt a cut back across the box. Whilst he can strike the ball reasonably well, Laird rarely attempts crosses from deeper or wider positions and almost exclusively does so from the byline. He does not currently display a variety of deliveries in the final third.

Laird attacking the byline and attempting across from there

This hesitance to strike through the ball has different consequences when Laird is in the build-up phase. He is a relatively safe passer from deep and often funnels the ball wide to his wing-partner (which he had at Bournemouth). Even when a pass infield is a more appropriate (or progressive) option, Laird hesitates even to attempt the pass. He would much rather attempt a quick one-two with the wide player to receive the ball at a higher position.

Laird being indecisive about a pass-selection mis-hitting the ball out of play
Laird choosing a conservative option although his teammate was available between the lines

When given the ball with pace, and into his stride, in the first phase of the build-up side, Laird can drive the ball into midfield past oncoming pressure before releasing it to his nearest man. He also rarely attempts long balls, and his medium ranges balls are limited to the ones mentioned above–down the line. Laird has shown glimpses of more incisive passing in the final third but tends to only do so after carrying the ball.

Despite his build-up flaws, Laird is terrific and a constant nuisance to opposition defenders in the final third–whether with or without the ball. He has a very natural and almost spontaneous feel for the game, employing various approaches to receive the ball in dangerous positions. Laird consistently attacks the space behind the backline by sneaking in, occupying, and then attacking the blind side of the opposing defenders to receive a through pass from his teammate. Through these, Laird capitalises on a ball-watching defender’s neutral stance and steals a march on them. The timing of his runs in these situations is immaculate, and he can create a reliable means for box penetration if he develops synergy with a capable near-side centre midfielder or winger.

Laird making an out-to-in run past the blindside of the opposing full-back then getting a dangerous ball across the box
Laird making another out-to-in run and catching the defending full-back flat-footed

When he doesn’t have support on his flank or cannot exploit the opponents blindside to get in behind, Laird can also utilise double-movements.

Laird making a double movement to steal the march on the opposing full-back then misjudging the flight of the ball.

Laird’s movement in the final third is one of his most impressive abilities. This element of his game could even be more potent if he’s paired with a ball-dominant, playmaking wide-player or near-side centre midfielder. From my observations of popular narratives, this facet of his game is likely the most ‘hidden’, and he still has plenty of room to grow into a more prominent presence in that regard.

Pointers for the future

Ethan Benjamin Laird is a very gifted attacking full-back. Nevertheless, his limited passing variety currently prevents him from being a much more rounded attacking full-back and could render him a liability, especially against teams who sit slightly off the press and demand that he play that incisive pass.

Whilst he has a reliable technical assurance across most facets of his game, Laird often loses concentration and is culpable of miscontrols. Across both loan spells last season, he averaged a startling 2.5 unsuccessful touches per 90 (via WhoScored).

Laird’s acceleration allows him to make important challenges in a settled block, but his inconsistent decision-making means he can be found wanting when defending transitions. Unfortunately, there is not an expansive array of evidence at professional-level evidence of him defending in a back four to give a more indicative assessment of his defensive acumen. We’ll have to gauge that during the upcoming season.

With his contract expiring next year, it is crucial that Laird makes an impact this year–starting with preseason. 

What could his place be at Manchester United?

At United, Laird would play as the RB in a 4-2-3-1. And with the transfer of Frankie De Jong looking ever-more likely, there are a variety of rotations Erik Ten Hag could employ to cater for Laird’s shortcomings and amplify his lethal attacking nous.

Here are a few examples of what that could be look like:

Ultimately, like James Garner asserted last week when asked about his own prospects of breaking into the first team, it is up to Laird to “go on pre-season, impress…and hopefully make a mark” [via MEN]. With better fortunes with injuries, I am cautiously optimistic about the right back’s prospects.

LEIGH, ENGLAND – DECEMBER 13: Ethan Laird of Manchester United U23s in action during the Premier League 2 match between Manchester United U23s and Manchester City U23s at Leigh Sports Village on December 13, 2020 in Leigh, England. (Photo by John Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)

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An Early Analysis of FPL Premiums This Season

There are many telltale ways to differentiate between an FPL veteran and a casual just by looking at their team during one of 38 FPL game weeks over the course of the season. Maybe their team is riddled with injuries and suspensions, or they do not go with any of the 7 million plus pounds defenders because they are ‘too expensive’. Or, maybe they spend 11million on the goalkeeper position so that they can rotate the two to maximize points.

However, in recent weeks something about this felt out of place to me. Because while goalkeeper rotation is shunned as a rookie tactic in FPL, similar logic is applied to captaincy rotation, where teams usually keep 2 premiums in their team with the objective of rotating between them and maximizing points.

Of course, the logic isn’t exactly the same (mostly because goalkeepers usually benefit from difficult fixtures, so you don’t want to rotate them out), but I decided to look at what has happened in the season so far, to see if I can answer some important questions about our team structures and FPL premiums this season.


I wanted to find out how many premiums that the optimal FPL team would have. To measure that, however, I must first decide what to measure. At first, I settled on looking at the points per game of the different premium arrangements, as FPL is a game to score the most points. However, I also wanted to take into account that FPL is played on a budget, and since we have an upper limit on price, premiums should also return in relation to their price (in other words, it does not matter that Salah scores 400 points a season if he costs 90million. Their price must also be reasonable). So, I added another variable to measure value: points per game per million. Using these, I will be able to determine the net return of a premium set up, as well as their return relative to their price.

I also decided to look at six premiums in particular: Heung-min Son, Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Erling Haaland, Mohamed Salah and Kevin de Bruyne, because I believe that these were the only premiums that were ever considered as FPL options so far this season.

Finally, I should mention that I performed this analysis before game week 6 had started, and as such it was not taken into account.


So, I started by looking at the point returns of all premiums over the past five game weeks.

Graph of FPL points accrued so far this season

What was immediately notable was Haaland’s standout season so far. With 58 points in just 5 game weeks, while also being the second cheapest premium on my list, he is easily the best premium in the game so far, based on both raw returns and returns relative to price.

NamePricePoints (Rank)PPV (Rank)
Haland11.558 (1st)1.01 (1st)
Kane11.531 (4th)0.54 (3rd)
Son1215 (6th)0.25 (6th)
KDB 1228 (5th)0.47 (5th)
Sterling1032 (3rd)0.64 (2nd)
Salah1335 (2nd)0.54 (3rd)

Besides Haaland however, the table makes for a poor reading for most of the other premiums. Good FPL players usually have a PPV of at least 0.7, but since premiums are usually kept for their captaincy potential (doubling their points, and therefore doubling their PPV), they get a little leeway on their PPV demands, and 0.6 is normally seen as fine. However, even at that, only Haaland and Sterling hit that benchmark. So premiums have not been incredible so far over the season. But what about when they are used in tandem with another premium?

The idea with 2 premium teams is that, you can avoid captaining player A during a difficult fixture by captaining player B. When done perfectly, points are gained by rotating the captaincy between the two players. So, assuming perfect captaincy rotation (the player with more points that game week has their points doubled), I calculated the points return of all possible 1 and 2 captain combinations.

  • Note that I excluded Heung-min Son from this. Simply because he has been too bad an FPL option. If you started with him this season (as I did), you have my condolences.
Graph of Points Returns of Different Captaincy Combinations

As you can see, 2 premium combinations dominate. Haaland being the only single premium option that beats any 2 premium combination is testament to that. Logically it also makes sense, as I assumed earlier that players would make the correct captaincy decision every game week.

So, we know that 2 premiums have 1 premium teams beat on pure FPL points returns. However, we also want to know whether their points return is worth the extra spend. So, I calculated the PPV’s of all combinations assuming perfect captain choices.

Graph of the PPV of Different Captaincy Options

Again, Haaland and combinations including him lead the charts. But a more important inference is that when it comes to PPV, 1 premium combinations are actually doing better than 2 premium combinations. What this implies is that adding an extra premium to our FPL teams is an attempt at maximizing points, even at the expense of our (FPL) millions.

After all this analysis, the next question came about naturally. If 1 premium combinations have a higher PPV, while 2 premium combinations return more points, which should be prioritized?

From this point, I’m leaving the realm of empirical evidence. This question has its roots deeply entrenched in the science of optimizing an FPL team, which is beyond my region of expertise, even when using events that have already occurred. This is because, in order to find out what captain evaluation metric is superior, I would need to find out the best FPL team so far, and determine if the combined cost of players exceeds our given budget of 100 million. If it does, it implies that some sort of efficiency is required when spending, and I would tilt towards looking for the best performers in PPV (1 premium teams). And conversely, if the optimal team was cheaper than 100million, it would imply that our aim should simply be to choose the top scoring players, in which case I would look for the premium combination that prioritizes points (2 premium teams).

That’s my reasoning, but I do not know the optimal FPL team. At least, not exactly. However, I can approximate by looking at the highest scoring players as of Gameweek 5. This team structure does not accommodate for transfers, which should push up the team’s total score, but you will soon find out why I did not deem that a problem. So, without further-ado, here is your (almost) optimal FPL team of the season so far:

The top scoring FPL team as of GW5

The shaded-out names are generic bench options, and they can be any of the cheapest options in their position. What is important are the players starting, and more importantly their cost and points score. Assuming a perfect captain rotation between Salah and Haaland, this team scored 446 points as of GW5, which placed them at first place in the Fantasy Premier League! Yes, first place without using any chips! And comfortably so too, so comfortably that even midway through game week 6, 446 points would keep the team nestled in 118th place. This is why I did not bother to find a truly optimal FPL team so far; I decided that this team would be good enough to reach a conclusion using it.

So, what is the cost of this team? It may shock you that, including substitutes, this team’s cost as at when the game started rounded at 94 million. That is 6 million (or a Reece James/Martinelli) less than the starting budget of 100million!

What this implies is that, as I mentioned earlier, these first five game weeks have been a race to maximize points, and not player value, as the budget limit of 100 million is more than enough to obtain some almost-optimal teams. In other words, as of right now, though players like Salah aren’t worth their cost, they were still optimal choices in our FPL teams simply because they were some of the highest points scorers in the league (and as we saw, Salah was a member of the team I used earlier). This also supports the idea that 2 premium players in a team was optimal between these 5 game weeks (in the team I used earlier, we also noticed 2 premiums: Haaland and Salah).

However, I want to point out that throughout this analysis, I used data only from game weeks 1 to 5. What about future game weeks? This report has in no way been predictive, and should not be used for that purpose. However, I do have some thoughts on what to expect in the future. Expensive FPL players are expensive for a reason: they are expected to score the most FPL points. I would be very surprised if the optimal FPL team come end of season looked anything like it does now. In fact, I expect more expensive FPL options to score as their price potential suggests, and when that happens, we would need to pay much more attention to a player’s PPV. Maybe then, 1 premium teams would be more ‘meta’. However, for now I’m already planning my first wildcard, with Haaland and de Bruyne the first names on the list.

I write more articles like this as threads on Twitter @NumbersFPL. You should follow me there!

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Reclaiming Your Identity Through Decolonized Institutions

A few weeks ago, I phoned my mother and my aunt. Over the call, I quizzed them about my childhood. That discourse had brought me much conflict because I felt detached from some parts of my identity until that point. I could not own some facets of my identity because society, and the education it proffered, did not permit them. I needed clarity. Like me, many others face similar problems within the continent: grasping to uphold their identities while consistently being subdued by the effects of colonized educational institutions and the institutions themselves. In essence, Western Epistemology (knowledge with foundations built upon colonial institutions and values) in African Education has ensured the continued suppression of marginalized people within the continent through the subjugation of the mind. Hence, an existential need to study Africa is created. 

There are numerous extensions of western epistemologies which seek to withdraw the people from their roots/heritage. One of them is language. Ngugi Wa Thiong’o asserts, in his piece, Decolonising the mind: the politics of language in African literature, that ‘Language was the most important vehicle through which the power fascinated and held the soul prisoner’ (Wa Thiong’o 286). Here, Wa Thiong’o implies that language had been used to lure people since the incidence of colonization. Furthermore, this language is so captivating that these people were willing to stay in this prison, even without physical force; hence, why the ‘soul’ is and remains the ‘prisoner’. It is now a norm to see Africans who cannot speak their languages, engage with their literature, and immerse themselves in their own cultures. Consequently, these people now become oppositions to their people, and another hand performing the deeds of imperialist nations.

Another manifestation of this purported colonial extension can be seen in academia. Whilst African scholars have bid to uphold the continent on a global stage, Amina Mama notes their “most rigorous analyses are thus reduced to nothing more than futile protest literature, while the continent’s fortunes continue to decline” (Mama). She implies that their aching attempts to alter the perception of the continent are foiled. Why? Because they seek to gain traction through the same westernized institutions they decry. There is a lack of focus here. The most incisive problem is not being addressed in this current establishment. Rather than focus efforts on revolutionizing the perception of the African continent through western institutions, efforts should be made to uphold the people and allow greater self-acceptance within these states.

These colonial institutions are not and will never be the basis for us to reclaim our identities. Instead, they will continue to drive us from our roots. In discussion with some of my classmates a few weeks ago, I likened this methodology to a parasite. When you dig deeper into the content covered in most of our curriculums, it becomes apparent that these inclinations are not aimed to benefit the people who are learning them. Instead, they address issues these western bodies face, or even worse, end up being means to subjugate the mind. 

To overcome the aforementioned issues, the curriculum needs to be decolonized. Decolonizing a curriculum means refocusing the curriculum from its Eurocentric lens to a more relevant perspective, making it more relevant to those studying it. How can this be done? Like I mentioned before, I believe those in academia–on African Studies–have a misplaced priority. Rather than focus on altering the global narratives of the continent through western institutions, they should focus, first, on upholding our stories within our communities.

In addition, the curriculum should require students to be aware that current educational systems work actively to subjugate identity. Hence, they will be more conscious of the biases driving their learning and be better suited to respond to them. Next, opportunities need to be made for each person to explore their roots–by reading historical text from their regions, looking at case studies, and interacting with historians from those regions. This process of self-discovery should be coupled with active collaboration so that other students begin to develop a clear understanding of each other’s identities. 


Mama, Amina. “Is It Ethical to Study Africa? Preliminary Thoughts on Scholarship and Freedom.” African Studies Review, vol. 50, no. 1, 2007, pp. 1–26. JSTOR,  http://www.jstor.org/stable/20065338. Accessed 26 Aug. 2021.

Wa Thiong’o, Ngugi. Decolonising the mind: the politics of language in African literature. James Curry, 1986.

An Insight into Barcelona’s Future

10 years ago, I never thought I would have to write on a topic like this. While that is partially because 10 years ago I had no intention of writing, Messi’s imminent transfer to Paris Saint-Germain has left me, and the rest of the football world, deeply shocked. Not just because he left the club, but because of the state of the club he left behind: the former giants are now a husk of their former selves on the field, and their financial status means more hard decisions like this still need to be taken. The club has taken many steps in the wrong direction for many years now under the Bartomeu board, and the COVID-19 pandemic left them, and the future board under Laporta, scrambling to save whatever they can in attempt to rebuild.

In this article, I don’t plan on talking about what led to this. I simply wish to discuss if it’s even possible that Barcelona can reach the heights they are expected to be at, and what they need to do to get there.

The Problem

The source of Barcelona’s problems

The fact that Barcelona still cannot register new players without taking into account Messi’s annual €71 million contract, tells us enough about the club’s financial state. For those who don’t know, La Liga imposes a wage cap for all teams based on the club’s revenue from previous seasons. Barcelona actually failed to meet the wage cap in the 20/21 season, and La Liga President Javier Tebas has no intention of allowing them get away with it twice. This means that Barcelona need to cut down their wage bill, or they will not be allowed to register any new signings for the new season. This includes new star man Memphis Depay, talented young centre back Eric Garcia, as well as Emerson Royal, Sergio Aguero (who already wants to leave the club as he primarily joined to play with Messi) and even Lionel Messi himself (his contract expired this summer, so he counts as a new Barcelona signing). Currently, Barcelona are still operating over the wage limit, and it is imperative that these players get registered as they can all play key roles in Barcelona’s upcoming season.

They also made a €100 million loss in the 19/20 season, and after losing Messi their revenue will drop even further. Financially, Barcelona are currently teetering on the brink. I will say that in all of this, I have not forgotten that we are talking about Barcelona, so I do expect them to eventually recover from this. The point, however, is that they should never have been in this situation in the first place.

For all the money they have spent, you would think that Barcelona have at least been dominant on the field. However, this can’t be further from the truth. Barcelona had a poor 19/20 season, only winning a solitary cup while coming 3rd in their league and leaving the UCL in the round of 16. And this was with Messi. Now they have to improve on the previous season, but it remains to be seen if they have a side and manager capable of doing so.

The list of problems is clearly very long, and for all I know this may just be the tip of the iceberg. If it was any other club, I may have said that operating at anywhere near the same capacity that they already do would be impossible. However, this is Barcelona under the management of one of their most successful boards ever. That is why I took the time to debate how they would fix the problem. This is what I came up with.

The Solution

Barcelona to register Memphis Depay and Eric Garcia 'tomorrow' - report -  Barca Blaugranes
Barcelona’s New Signing–Memphis Depay

So far, the Barcelona board have managed to temporarily reduce the club’s wage budget by convincing their players to take wage cuts. I’m sure that they will continue to employ this tactic until they get to register their new signings. However, this solution is only short-term, and Laporta knows that Barcelona’s wage structure needs revising. They are also looking to offload the deadwood in the team, with Umtiti and Pjanic rumours everpresent. Laporta has already been working to this end, but it remains to be seen whether he will actually succeed. I also believe that Barcelona will need to make harder decisions next season, with the futures of players like Ousmane Dembele and Philippe Coutinho particularly fragile.

They will also need to replace the income they lost with Messi’s departure. This is a heavier blow than people realize, as Messi really was Barcelona’s cash cow and the only player with a reach remotely similar to his will never play for Barcelona. Frankly, I don’t actually believe that what Messi brought to Barcelona financially can be replaced by one single person, or even multiple people. However, exciting football and trophy wins can mitigate the effects of losing Messi, and that is what Barca have to try to do. Which leads me to my next point.

Koeman also has to deal with a new Barca squad without Messi, and this time he cannot afford to repeat what happened last season. Signing a more established defender than Eric Garcia may have been a better decision, however the Cules are currently not in the position to be picky. Following the same logic, Barcelona may have preferred a goalscorer that wasn’t approaching the end of his career, but they have to make do with Sergio Aguero and a returning Ansu Fati. On the bright side, Depay was one of Europe’s best dribblers and creators last season and he will do his best to fill the gap Messi left as regards to creativity.

The Result

Barcelona lifting the Spanish Cup

Everything I’ve said before this is more or less common knowledge. I want to use this section to discuss where I believe Barcelona will go from here.

I believe that Barcelona is too big a club to suffer everlasting effects from this blip in revenue. As long as a president who isn’t actively ruining their finances remains at the helm, you can expect Barca to remain as one of the biggest clubs in world football. Barcelona will find a way to register their newly signed players, and between this season and the next a number of old and fringe squad members will take their last bow at the Nou Camp. It will need to happen for Barca to progress in the future.

As for their on-the-field issues, I’m actually going to fully back Koeman to deliver the La Liga title in the 21/22 season. I do realize the gravity of this prediction, but I just can’t seem to shake it off. Maybe it’s the fact that Barcelona had the highest expected points total of the 20/21 season, or the fact that Koeman has gotten the club’s best players to play an exciting brand of football reminiscent of when Messi first broke out into the first team. Maybe it’s just the fact that Barcelona have won La Liga so often in recent times that I just can’t imagine them going so long without it anymore. Even without Messi, Barcelona have a talented squad full of people who can win the league. Sure their squad has weaknesses, but so does every other La Liga team. Real Madrid have a serious fitness issue and too many misfiring attackers to count on one hand. Atletico Madrid are usually only outsider picks in the title race, and can’t be relied on to mount a title defense. The building blocks are already in place, and it’s now for the club to step up and show the world that they are more than the Messi team.

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PEDRI, Spain’s Latest Wonderkid

First published on People’s Daily News here

Italy 1-0 Spain

Once Italy took the lead, they returned to their roots–’catenaccio’, all men behind the ball. Spain could find no breakthrough. All their attempts to penetrate the Azzuri’s block were thwarted: misplaced passes, backpasses, cheeky fouls, time-wasting. Amidst this drab sequence, Martin Tyler found space to reflect and continue his adoration of Pedri–the youngest player on the pitch. The 70-minute mark had passed, and Barcelona’s youngster had not misplaced a single pass. By his admission:

“Before this tournament, I had never seen Pedri play…I will never forget him.”

-Martin Tyler-EURO 2020 during the semi-final match between Italy and Spain

Yet this feat was not even Pedri’s most significant contribution in the match. In the sequence to Morata’s equaliser, Pedri’s movement off-the-ball lured Jorghino out of position, which created ‘acres’ of space for Morata to receive the ball behind the Italian midfield line. For the thousands watching him for the first time, his brilliance did not go unnoticed. 

So, who exactly is Pedro González López?

Pedri is a Spanish player born in Tenerife, one of the islands in the enthralling Spanish archipelago. He joined Las Palmas’s youth academy, a team based in Segunda División, in 2018 when he was fifteen. Within a year of his arrival, he was promoted to the first team by Pepe Mel–the Las Palmas manager and signed his first professional contract. 

Pedri’s talent was evident. Executives at Las Palmas informed Real Madrid about the player, hoping to secure some money from his sale to stabilise their finances. Real Madrid obliged and offered him a trial; however, ‘heavy snowfall’ prevented him from seizing the opportunity–Pedri could not complete the trial. Los Blancos’s loss soon became a nightmare. A year later, FC Barcelona snapped up the talented youngster for a base fee of 5 million Euros. It was a coup, one worth cherishing for many years to come. Pedri spent the rest of the 2019/2020 season on loan at Las Palmas.

FC Barcelona Introduce New Player Pedro Gonzalez Lopez - 'Pedri' : News Photo
BARCELONA, SPAIN – AUGUST 20: New FC Barcelona player Pedro Gonzalez Lopez ‘Pedri’ poses with the shirt during his unveiling at Camp Nou on August 20, 2020 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Pedro Salado/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

Pedri’s eventual arrival in Barcelona was met with gloom: Messi expressed his desire to leave the club, the club’s financial turmoil, a power struggle at the hierarchy, and a trophyless season. Nevertheless, this uncertainty provided a peculiar opportunity for the 18-year-old to showcase his talent. 

Earlier that summer, Barcelona turned to Ronald Koeman to stabilise their rear guard. In his first press address, Koeman expressed his desire to play possession football with a characteristic increased intensity off the ball–akin to many other elite clubs worldwide. 

“In general, what has to change is that the team has to play with more intensity….I think it is the moment to give opportunities to the young players who deserve it…I think they have quality but it is also true that you have to have balance.”

-Ronald Koeman, Barcelona’s manager-August 2020
Villarreal v FC Barcelona - La Liga Santander : News Photo
CASTELLON, SPAIN – APRIL 25: coach Ronald Koeman of FC Barcelona, Pedri of FC Barcelona during the La Liga Santander match between Villarreal v FC Barcelona at the Estadio de la Ceramica on April 25, 2021 in Castellon Spain (Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images)

In Pedri, Koeman would find this exquisite blend of lung-bursting stamina, technical excellence, and football intelligence to facilitate the high-intensity possession football he sought to bring to the club. It was a harmony aching to be played. Pedri made his debut on the 27th of September 2020. He played in all but one of Barcelona’s league games last season, racking up 2441 minutes (the equivalent of 27 90s). The youngster proved to be a key player in Barcelona’s league run-in–remarkable for a player in his first season in the top-flight of football at one of the best clubs in the world.

As Martin Tyler affirmed, Pedri plays with a poise akin to a veteran player. He plays at the game on a different wavelength, steps ahead of the opposition. This ability to recognise, utilise and create space has earned him comparisons to Iniesta. ‘La pausa’. Pedri receives the ball immaculately in all phases of possession, yet he is not indiscriminate in his ball usage. He is very disciplined and knows when to stay away from the ball to open passing lanes to his teammates and allow progression. His football IQ is unbelievable for a player his age.

“I have never seen an 18-year-old boy play like I have seen Pedri in this tournament, not even Don Andreas Iniesta. It’s a crazy thing. You have to take good care of him.”

-Luis Enrique, Spain’s national team manager-July 2021

Since Enrique caught a glimpse of Pedri’s ability, he has not looked back. Pedri was first called up for Spain’s world cup qualifiers in March. Merely four months later, he became Spain’s youngest ever player at the European Championships and one of their most important players in the competition–playing all but one minute of their semi-final run. The remarkable poise and intelligence he showed all season with Barcelona were on full display to the world. 

In Enrique’s 4-3-3 formation, Pedri played on the left side of the middle three as a lynchpin between the midfield and attack. His role was crucial to their final third progression, where he consistently found either the LB or LW in space. In the latter parts of the tournament, however, Enrique fine-tuned his system. He had Jordi Alba staying inverted, which granted Pedri license to roam higher in the final third of the pitch and link up with the forwards. Pedri transferred his skill set to this more advanced role with ease. As a testament to his versatility, he also played as the deepest midfielder, a wide playmaker, a box-box midfielder, and the most advanced midfielder this season–excelling in all of them.

Slovakia v Spain - UEFA Euro 2020: Group E : News Photo
SEVILLE, SPAIN – JUNE 23: Pedri of Spain is challenged by Lukas Haraslin of Slovakia during the UEFA Euro 2020 Championship Group E match between Slovakia and Spain at Estadio La Cartuja on June 23, 2021 in Seville, Spain. (Photo by Aitor Alcalde – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

In all these positions, Pedri’s showed his ability to cover large distances and play a significant part in his team’s defensive organisation. Pedri was in the 96th percentile of pressures completed by midfielders in the top 5 European leagues–averaging 25 pressures per 90 (per Fbref via StatBomb). As if this were not enough evidence of his incredible work rate, by the semis of EURO2020, Pedri had covered the most distance of all players in the competition–a staggering 75 KM in just five games. These staggering features are a testament to his incredible engine and willingness to make an impact off the ball, areas crucial to the modern game.

In Pedri, Barcelona has unearthed their next midfield metronome; Spain has found their next footballing hero, and the footballing world has found their next heartthrob–a player with maturity and guile beyond his generation. 

We are looking at one of the world’s next superstars.

Featured Image BARCELONA, SPAIN – MAY 16: Pedri of FC Barcelona looks on during the La Liga Santander match between FC Barcelona and RC Celta at Camp Nou on May 16, 2021 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

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