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Data Analysis: Four players who are similar to Manchester United’s Bruno Fernandes

This is the fourth part in a series of articles looking at the use of data profiles in identifying potential recruitment targets within football.

You can read part one here part two here and part three here.

In part one we looked at potential matches for Trent Alexander-Arnold of Liverpool, in part two I looked at players who profile in a similar manner to Jack Grealish of Manchester City and in part three I looked at players who are similar to Marco Verratti of PSG. This time I will be looking to find players who are similar to Bruno Fernandes of Manchester United and Portugal.

Using data and more specifically data profiles as a part of the recruitment process is a very useful means of cutting through a lot of the noise that represents the sheer number of football players that there are in the world.

For Manchester United, for example, the pool of players that they can potentially sign is vast but there are filters on that pool with the main one being quality. A player in League Two of England for example are unlikely to be of interest to the Premier League club. If we take a lower-end Championship club as our example then the filter on quality of player skews the other way with the top tier of players becoming unavailable.

Instead, they will have a much larger choice of players down the talent pool. This is where data profiling comes in. Being able to take the profile of a top player and then judge exactly which data points are the most important. This then allows us to produce data profiles for other potential targets to see whether they are similar to the player that is likely to be out of our reach.

As a part of Total Football Analysis we offer clubs, players and agencies a consultancy service and a large part of that is built around the use of data and video scouting to provide shortlists of players that fit a specific profile. To do this we make use of a tool that we know as xGOLD. This has been custom-built in-house to streamline the use of data in the identification of talented players.

In order to create the shortlist for this article, I have used xGold to identify four players that best meet the profile of Bruno Fernandes.

From there I have created the profiles that you will see in this piece using my own bespoke dashboards in Tableau. Given that we are still at the early stage of the European season, we will be using data from the 2020/21 season with all data found in Wyscout.

Let’s just get this out of the way first. I completely missed on Bruno Fernandes. When he moved to England to join Manchester United in 2020 I thought that United had vastly overpaid for a player who had looked dominant in the Portuguese league but would struggle to have such an incredible impact on the English game. I was absolutely wrong. Fernandes had an immediate impact on his new side and his outputs were nothing short of exceptional, although tiredness eventually slowed him down. As someone who works in talent identification within football, it is important to be able to not only recognise when you got it wrong but to be able to learn from that mistake. It would be easy for me to tell you all that I knew that Fernandes would immediately become a top player in the English game, but I didn’t and that lesson has led to me thinking about players in a more measured way than I did before.

Indeed, I liked Bruno Fernandes when I first saw him play. First for Udinese and then for Sampdoria. I liked his positivity and aggression in possession but when he moved back to Portugal I thought it was a backwards step I got this very, very wrong.

Last season we saw Fernandes play 3309 minutes in the Premier League and he averaged an incredible 0.49 goals and 0.30 assists per 90. That gave him an average goal contribution per 90 of 0.79. For context, that is a world-class output. This was combined with 3.24 shots per 90 and 2.83 touches in the opposition area per 90. His ball progression was also excellent with 8.19 passes to the final third and 6.09 passes to the penalty area per 90. In short, Bruno Fernandes was and still is, an exceptional attacking fulcrum for his side.

Now the fun part – which players does xGold believe have some similarities to Fernandes in terms of outputs?

#1 Arsen Zakharyan, 18-years-old, Dinamo Moscow and Russia

First of all, we travel to Russia where at Dinamo Moscow an 18-year-old attacking midfielder has been making a genuine impact. Arsen Zakharyan is a Russian youth international who was called up to the preliminary squad before Euro 2020. In the end, he had to pull out of the squad because of tonsillitis that he suffered while in the camp with the squad. There was a very real possibility that the teenager would have otherwise made his international debut in that tournament. He is also eligible for Armenia as both of his parents are Armenian but he has been clear in his intention to represent Russia.

He is a product of the youth academy at Dinamo Moscow and he made his professional debut as a 17-year-old and has not looked back since. Last season he played 951 minutes in the Russian top-flight and he averaged 0.28 goals and 0.28 assists per 90 giving him a goal contribution per 90 of 0.56. Not a bad output at the top level for a teenager. He also averaged 2.37 shots per 90 and 3.50 touches in the opposition area per 90.

His passing and progression metrics were also impressive with 7.38 passes to the final third per 90 and 3.79 passes to the penalty area per 90. It is also interesting to note that Zakharyan has a similar heat map to that of Bruno Fernandes with both players being comfortable playing across the width of the pitch.

Russian players famously tend not to travel well when they move to leagues outside of Russia. I have no doubt that when Zakharyan decides to prove this assertion incorrect that there will be a number of clubs in the top 5 leagues who are prepared to fight for the signature of the young attacker.

#2 Anouar Ait El Hadj, 19-years-old, Anderlecht and Belgium

This one is, for me, a little more of a stretch in terms of comparisons to Bruno Fernandes but given the parameters that I entered into xGold there are areas of the game in which the two players are similar. The young attacking midfielder is the product of the youth academy at Anderlecht and he made his first-team debut as a 17-year-old. He has been capped by Belgium up to U21 level but has yet to make his debut at the senior international level.

El Hadj can play as an ‘8’ or as a ’10’ as well as being comfortable in the wide spaces and as you can see from his heatmap he had most of his actions on the left-hand side of the pitch.

Last season he played 2002 minutes at first-team level and he averaged a notably lower goal output than Fernandes with 0.18 goals. He took 1.03 shots per 90 and 1.71 touches in the opposition area per 90. His similarities with Fernandes come more in the ball progression and creative areas of the game. he averaged 5.08 passes to the final third per 90, 4.99 passes to the penalty area per 90 along with 2.29 through passes per 90.

El Hadj is a player who feels like he is on the edge of making a significant impact at the first-team level. If he does so then expect his output to increase along with interest in his signature.

#3 Florian Wirtz, 18-year-old, Bayer Leverkusen and Germany

Florian Wirtz is an 18-year-old attacking midfielder who is currently contracted to Bayer Leverkusen in the German top-flight. When the club sold Kai Havertz to Chelsea it was Wirtz that they turned to as a replacement with the teenager thought to be ready to take on greater responsibility. Wirtz is actually a product of the youth academy at FC Koln but he moved to Leverkusen in 2020 and he quickly impressed in youth fixtures before being given his first-team debut in May 2020. Straight away it was evident that Wirtz had something special. Aggressive and direct in his attacking intention he is a player who appears to be a lot older than he is. Wirtz is now a regular with the German U21 and it appears only a matter of time before he makes his debut at the senior international level.

Last season Wirtz played 2344 first-team minutes and he averaged 0.19 goals per 90 and 0.15 assists per 90. He also averaged 1.15 shots per 90 and 2.30 touches in the opposition area per 90. For a midfielder that perhaps plays his best football as an ‘8’, he does a lot of his damage around the final third and the edges of the penalty area.

He also averaged 5.26 passes to the final third and 2.00 passes to the penalty area per 90 with 1.96 through passes per 90.

#4 Adil Aouchiche, 19-years-old, Saint-Etienne and France

Adil Aouchiche is a 19-year-old attacking midfielder who was previously on the books at PSG. He chose to leave the club in 2020 to look for more regular first-team football and he moved to Saint-Etienne to find this. Although he is eligible to play for Algeria he still intends to represent France and senior international level, if he can break into their extremely talented squad. Aouchiche first came to prominence as an attacking midfielder or ’10’ although recently we have seen him played in deeper areas of the pitch or even from the wide areas.

Last season he played 1831 minutes in the French top-flight and he averaged 0.10 goals and 0.20 assists per 90 along with 1.23 shots and 1.87 touches in the opposition area per 90.

His creative output was also very strong with 4.87 passes to the final third per 90 and 3.15 passes to the opposition area per 90 along with 1.82 through passes per 90.

Conclusion

Of our shortlist of four players, the likes of Florian Wirtz and Adil Aouchiche are perhaps the best known and the more likely to attract significant interest in the short term. If I was looking for a replacement for the skill set and output of Bruno Fernandes, however, then I would be tempted by the 18-year-old Russian Arsen Zakharyan looks like a genuinely intriguing prospect as well as being the best match for Fernandes from a data profile point of view.

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