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The Rangnick Rebuild: 4 players that United should sign to fit Ralf’s 4-2-2-2

The appointment of Ralf Rangnick as the interim manager of Manchester United has excited a lot of fans of the club. While there was a sense of loyalty and support for the previous incumbent Ole Gunnar Solksjaer there was still an understanding that the style of football was not what most onlookers would associate with the Manchester United way. There is a sense of expectation around the club, that is supported and magnified by the number of former players who are pundits around the game, that Manchester United play attacking and free-flowing football with an emphasis on fluid counter-attacks and vertical runs and passes. If this style of football sounds familiar to those more used to the modern game then that is because there are a lot of similarities between this style and what has become known as the Red Bull game model.

When the energy drink manufacturer Red Bull decided to become involved in football they did so with an intelligent approach that linked their product with the style of football that their sides would play. The Red Bull clubs are all expected to play with a verticality in possession and aggression out of possession that requires a great deal of energy and athleticism.

Appointing Rangnick as their new manager then made a lot of sense for the decision-makers at United as the German coach was widely credited as the man who had the greatest input in developing the Red Bull style of play and he was responsible for leading recruitment for the network of clubs. In other words, he is perfectly placed to understand the types of players and player profiles that are needed in order to play a quick and aggressive style in the modern game. The problem that Rangnick has, however, is that the playing squad at United at the moment is not well set up to play this style. Recruitment as a whole at the club has been problematic for some time with a sense that a coherent team style was not a factor in bringing players to the club and other factors such as reputation were perhaps seen as more important drivers in the recruitment process.

In this article, I will look to identify four players, up the spine of the team, that United could target to bring their playing squad more in line with the way that Rangnick is likely to want them to play going forward. In order to achieve this, I am using data collected from Wyscout and fed into a number of custom dashboards that are built using Tableau.

The central defender

The first position that we will look at recruiting will be a central defender. This may be somewhat surprising given that the club already has the likes of Harry Maguire and Raphael Varane under contract but in the modern game, a club of the stature of Manchester United will need to carry at least three if not four top, top-class players at this position to account for injury, suspension or rotation to the squad. While they have the likes of Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof as backup options at the moment it is fair to say that neither of these players inspire confidence.

So the first thing that we will do is look to identify a central defender that will fit what Ragnick looks to do from the first line in the attacking phase. He will favour defenders who show ability in possession and who are capable of playing line-breaking passes that will bypass the opposition pressure and create favourable situations for his side. A large part of the Red Bull playing philosophy sits around the simple idea of verticality in possession with the ball being moved through the thirds quickly in order to create opportunities in the final third where you can overload the opposition. At this point we should note that this does not mean playing long balls over the top, the whole idea is that you break the lines of the opposition aggressively but in a controlled manner to ensure that you arrive in the final third in control of the ball.

The start of this idea in possession comes from the central defenders who have to be capable and comfortable in possession. As such we are looking for a central defender who can break lines and move United forward securely. In order to cut through the noise, I have created the above scatter graph which shows all central defenders in the top 5 European leagues who are 28 or under. We are examining passes per 90 and the percentage of passes that are labelled as Wyscout as progressive. In other words, we are looking for players who are volume passers but who play forwards in possession and not just sideways or backwards. Ideally, we are looking for players in the top-right quadrant of the graph.

Firstly, two of the most impressive players in this comparison, Nordi Mukiele and Josko Gvardiol, are currently contracted to RB Leipzig so it looks like we are going down the correct route. The player that I have picked out for United to sign, however, is the Borussia Monchengladbach defender Matthias Ginter.

Now, the timing of this article makes this choice especially relevant as Ginter has informed his club this week that he has no intention of signing a new contract and as such he will be leaving either on a free in the summer or for what is likely to be a reduced fee this January. Indeed he, along with his teammate Denis Zakaria who has made the same decision, could represent one of the few bargains that clubs can look to exploit this January.

The bar charts on the data profile above are comparing Ginter to all central defenders in the German Bundesliga. The first thing that stands out for us is that his metrics for passing and progression of the ball are fantastic. So far this season Ginter is averaging 63.86 passes per 90 with 12.78 per 90 being classified as progressive and 9.78 per 90 being classified as entering the final third. In other words, it is safe to assume that Ginter would have no issues at all with progressing the ball and playing with the verticality that Rangnick is likely to be looking for. Ginter does, however, tend to prefer to play as the right-sided central defender which is the same position as Varane occupies when fit.

Defensively it can be difficult to use data to encapsulate a defender fully. Ginter is positionally sound with good defensive instincts and athleticism and as such he tends to position himself in areas that allow him to break up opposition attacks without entering into duels. Still though, he is averaging 4.73 defensive duels per 90 with a success rate of 70.27% and 4.67 aerial duels with a success rate of 61.64%.

Ginter is already leaving his current club and there will be no shortage of suitors looking to secure his signature. I can see United moving for him in January to get ahead of the pack.

The central midfielder

The next position we will look at is the central midfielder position. It has been an ongoing complaint amongst United fans for some time that United needed to sign a defensive-minded midfielder who could break up play and prevent the opposition from attacking and penetrating in the middle. The likes of Fred, Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay do not inspire confidence for a top-class side. Indeed, it got to a point that the failure to sign a defensive-minded midfielder became something of a joke attached to the club’s transfer business. We need a central midfielder? Sign Jadon Sancho. We need a central midfielder? Sign Cristiano Ronaldo. We need a central midfielder? Sign Raphael Varane. Now, nobody is suggesting that these three players aren’t top-class but none of them fit the need that is one of the most glaring in the squad.

Here’s the thing though. I don’t actually think that United are going to sign a defensive midfielder. “Why not?” you may be asking – well none of the Red Bull clubs play with a designated defensive midfielder and instead favour athletic players in the central areas who can, you guessed it, progress the ball and break lines in possession. As such I think that we are much more likely to see United target a line breaker for the midfield position as opposed to a Wilfred Ndidi type – even though I have been saying that United need to sign Ndidi now for what feels like forever.

To identify the types of midfielders that United are likely to target we can actually use the same method as we used for central defenders.

This time our data set has all central midfielders in the top 5 European leagues who are 28 or under and again we are using passes per 90 and the percentage of passes that are considered as progressive in order to build out the scatter graph. Once again we are looking for midfielders that appear in the top-right quadrant.

This time the player that I have picked out for United is the 24-year-old Algerian international Ismael Bennacer who is currently contracted to Milan, he used to play for Arsenal but is another of those young players that the North London club have allowed to pass them by. Interestingly, if you trace your eye down from Bennacer you will come across Ruben Neves of Wolves, one of the few players that I have seen United linked with in recent weeks that makes any sense.

Bennacer feels more attainable for clubs now that Sandro Tonali has made his move to Milan from Brescia permanent and he has started to develop into a player that his potential always suggested that he could be. It certainly feels as though Milan are now in a position that they are more likely to consider selling one of Bennacer of Franck Kessie.

So far this season Bennacer has had a season in Serie A that has been disrupted by injury and he has played just 840 minutes so far but in that time he has been near dominant from a ball progression point of view. He is averaging 65.78 passes per 90 with 11.46 per 90 being considered progressive 10.82 per 90 being played into the final third and 2.65 per 90 being played into the penalty area. Defensively, however, Bennacer also impresses for a central midfielder that is thought to be more ball orientated. He is averaging 7.82 defensive duels per 90 with a success rate of 67.12% and he has 7.63 possession adjusted interceptions.

If United are to move for a midfielder to play in the deeper double pivot of the midfield then a move for Bennacer makes a lot of sense. It would most likely have to be a January deal though.

The more advanced midfielder

If, as expected, we continue to see Rangnick line United up in the 4-2-2-2 system then he will likely look to add another advanced midfield player to the squad. So far the likes of Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood have all played in this position but it does not suit any of them all that well. While on paper these players may seem to be playing as high and wide attacking wingers they are more like number 10’s with the expectation that they come inside more and occupy the half-spaces effectively.

This time our data set contains all wingers and advanced midfielders in the top 5 European leagues who are at under 28-years-old and we have changed the focus of the data analysis. Now, we are looking for midfielders who provide a creative spark in the final third. The theory with the Red Bull game model is that the ball progression into the final third is the first step but when the ball comes into those areas the team needs players who can convert passes into this dangerous area with shot or chance creation through their creative passing. Think of the likes of Brendon Aaronson at RB Salzburg or Dani Olmo or Christoph Nkunku at RB Leipzig. So this time we are looking for volume of penalty area entries through passes to the penalty area per 90 and chance creation through xA per 90.

Once again there are some interesting names as Dominik Szoboszlai played for both RB Salzburg and RB Leipzig and Bruno Fernandes is firmly embedded as a Manchester United player. The player that I have picked out for United to sign is the 18-year-old German international Florian Wirtz of Bayer Leverkusen.

At just 18-years-old Florian Wirtz already has four full international caps for the German national team. His potential is perhaps greater than any other player of his generation and he looks to have the self-belief and mentality to allow him to reach that potential. This self-belief was evident when Wirtz left his boyhood club Koln as a teenager because he felt as though he should already be in the first team. Leverkusen gained his confidence and his signature by promising him exposure to the first-team and the young attacking midfielder has not looked back since.

Capable of playing as an ‘8’ a ’10’ or even as a ‘9’ Wirtz would bring the fluid attacking ability that Rangnick is looking for in the position.

His attacking stats speak for themselves and at the time of writing Wirtz is averaging 0.38 goals per 90 from an xG per 90 of 0.26 and 0.53 assists per 90 from an xA of 0.23. He is a creative force with 3.58 passes to the penalty area per 90 and 1.9 through passes per 90.

Wirtz was the replacement at Leverkusen for Kai Havertz when he moved to Chelsea for big money. If United want to get Wirtz out of Leverkusen then they are going to have to pay at least Havertz money but they are looking for far better performances than Havertz has shown so far in England.

The striker

Finally, we will cover the striker position. With the likes of Edison Cavani and Cristiano Ronaldo perhaps not best suited to the aggressive pressing systems that Rangnick wants his forwards to follow it is likely that United will target a forward sooner rather than later. While the likes of Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood and Jadon Sancho may be capable of playing as one of the two forwards in the system I think that United will want at least one more high calibre forward going forward.

This time our data set contains all forwards in the top-5 European Leagues (and Austria, that’s right I cheated) who are under 28 and we are looking at their performance in front of goal. We are using goal contributions per 90 (goals per 90 + assists per 90) compared to expected goal contributions per 90 (xG per 90 + xA per 90) to find the best performing forwards in our data set and immediately the amount of players in our favoured top-right quadrant who have been part of the Red Bull system at one point or another is staggering. Erling Haaland is of course an outlier but he spent time developing at RB Salzburg. As did Patson Daka and Takumi Minamino who have already moved to the Premier League but are finding their game time limited.

The current RB Salzburg forward also appear in the quadrant with Benjamin Sesko and Karim Adeyemi appearing prominently. It is Adeyemi that is our pick.

Adeyemi is just 19-years-old but he is already a full international and an international scorer for Germany. He shares more similarities to Florian Wirtz than just his nationality and prodigious potential in that Adeyemi also has supreme self-belief and this stands him in good stead to succeed. He has not always made the best decisions and this led to the youngster leaving the Bayern Munich youth system and resurfacing at lower league Unterhaching but since moving to RB Salzburg he has not looked back as he has seized the mantle in terms of replacing the output from the likes of Haaland and Daka for the Austrian club.

Crucially, Adeyemi has also shown that he can produce fireworks at Champions League level and it has been his goals, and ability to earn penalties, that have seen the Austrian side reach the knockout stages for the first time in their history.

Adeyemi is averaging a staggering 1.02 goals per 90 from an xG per 90 of 0.74 with 3.41 shots per 90 (59.57% on target) 7.33 dribbles per 90 and 6.46 touches in the opposition area per 90. He is a young forward who appears ready-made to move to a side that wants to play high tempo and aggressive football and would suit what Ragnick is likely to be looking for.

Conclusion

There is no coincidence that of the four players I have selected for United to target three are German. This is not purely because Ragnick is German and is likely to want to recruit German speakers but it has more to do with the fact that the game model of Red Bull, and Rangnick, is more ingrained in the German game than anywhere else. German sides are more likely to produce players who understand the need to break lines in possession and press and counter-press aggressively and as such, I think that, in the short term at least, this represents a sensible market for Manchester United to target.