Some of world football's smartest transfer strategies are anchored and driven by data analysis.
Liverpool are a top-line example; their work with numbers and models flagged up Philippe Coutinho and Mohamed Salah (among others) as ideal additions to the team. That's brought them goals, profit and trophies—in that order.
But most of Europe's top order are incorporating data into their hunt for signings in some way, shape or form. And we're not talking publically available data—shots, tackles and clearances per game, and the like—we're talking advanced data and specific algorithms, designed to measure players from the Champions League down to South Korea's second tier against one another.
Clubs either house their own data science teams for this, a la Liverpool, or employ specialist companies who can answer the questions they pose. Who is the perfect defensive midfielder for Arsenal? Which striker would suit Manchester United? Who is Aymeric Laporte's perfect central-defensive partner at Manchester City?
Analytics FC are one such company, working with the likes of West Ham United, Leeds United and West Bromwich Albion to answer those types of questions. Partnering with LCP, a leading pensions and investment company, they built TransferLab to help them do so—a data analysis tool that helps find the perfect profile of player for a team's needs.
AFC have given Bleacher Report access to TransferLab in order to answer some of the questions posited above, with the details provided in a series of articles that starts here. Analyst David Carlson talked us through the tool and outlined some of the processes used to whittle the data down into a workable shortlist.
First up in this series is the search for the dominant defensive midfielder Arsenal have long-needed, perhaps since Patrick Vieira and Gilberto Silva went back-to-back in the role until 2008.
We can be specific about what type of player Arsenal need here, as we know several important ingredients:
- The manager he would play for (Mikel Arteta)
- The formation he would play in (4-2-3-1, as the most reserved midfielder of the double pivot)
- The intensity and style of the league we're recruiting for (Premier League)
Arteta's first 15 games in charge of Arsenal have suggested he's something of a Pep Guardiola-lite, drawing on his time coaching under him to create something approaching an imitation of Manchester City.
The shape is different—4-2-3-1 with a No. 10, rather than a 4-3-3 with a single No. 6 at the base—but the principles are similar: They press hard off the ball, they dominate possession and circulate it cleanly when on it.
It's that defensive-minded midfielder we're after, though he'll play in a pair with someone else rather than as the deepest point.
That necessitates a good mix of defensive ability (one-on-one, awareness, concentration) and on-the-ball quality (passing, carrying, composure). They'll be a key cog defensively, but also chip in readily in possession.
Your top-level examples of this are Casemiro, Fabinho and Wilfred Ndidi. All three of these players are out of the Gunners' reach, but they're the best illustrations of the skills Arsenal are missing from their midfield.
They combine size, physique, defensive acumen and on-the-ball ability to similar degrees, acting as the anchor point for their respective teams. Arsenal can't buy any of them, but they can buy the next version of them.
We enter TransferLab and begin narrowing our focus. The first step is easy: we choose the "Defensive Midfielder - All Round" profile looking at the last 12 months, and filter for players who have played defensive midfield or central midfield.
Carlson then advises another filter: Set the player height limit to at least 5'11"—"most clubs would want this player to be an aerial presence, too."
That makes sense when you consider the examples of Fabinho, Rodri, Sergio Busquets and, of course, Gilberto Silva.
We make another adjustment, limiting the field to age 27 and under in order to remove short-term solutions, and see what's brought up.
Tottenham Hotspur's Tanguy Ndombele and Real Sociedad's Mikel Merino appear, which means further adjustments to the profile search need to be made. They are not the type of player we are searching for; they're too attack-minded or ball-oriented.
So, in the menu, we start to tweak and prioritise attributes, trying to weight it towards the defensive side of the game. TransferLab has star ratings out of five for a variety of different skills, which allows you to sift through a massive pool of players for the ones you want.
"Push tackle quality, interception quality and one-on-one defending up to four stars," Carlson says. "And open-play heading to three stars."
Now we have a pool of players worth perusing.
Rodri and Fabinho show up, which is encouraging, as we're looking for a similar profile. So do a range of other players spanning Europe's top five leagues and beyond, all between the ages of 20 to 27, all good or great in the areas we have specified—defensive acumen, aerial presence—and all at least solid on the ball.
We can now begin to filter the list by value, selecting dream, realistic and budget options.
BARGAIN BUY: Yangel Herrera, 22, Manchester City (on loan at Granada)
Estimated cost: £10-15 million
Herrera's had a fine campaign in a side that has punched above its weight, at one stage occupying top spot in La Liga and having beaten Barcelona and reached the Copa del Rey semi-finals.
He's a bulldog of a midfielder who sets an aggressive tone in the centre, snapping into challenges and contesting every ball, be it on the ground or in the air. He has the mentality and the frame to adapt to Premier League midfield play well; at 6'0" and around 75 kilograms, with a traditional Venezuelan grit, he profiles well for English football.
His basic stat line—3.2 tackles, 1.2 interceptions and 2.7 fouls per 90—suggest a willing, disruptive presence in the centre who gets stuck in. And TransferLab rates the quality of his actions highly; he scores particularly well in tackles, one-on-one defending and open-play heading.
In possession, he's secure enough in the short game but truly excels when passing forward and improves when passing over longer distances. He's not much of a ball carrier, but that's no concern when considering the profile of the player we're looking for.
Granada have typically used a 4-2-3-1 formation this season, the same as Arteta's Arsenal, though manager Diego Martinez has tended to use Herrera as the more expansive central midfielder alongside the steadier Maxime Gonalons.
There's no doubt, though, that his defensive acumen (flagged by the numbers) and physical build and style (flagged by the eye test) make him a snug fit here. He would need to be coached into a slightly more reserved role, and given Herrera and Arteta overlapped a little at Manchester City, the latter will have a good idea as to how long that would take.
REALISTIC OPTION: Ibrahim Sangare, 22, Toulouse
Estimated cost: £15-20 million
Sangare is a player who we profiled on B/R Football Ranks in May, and Dean Jones revealed he was on Arsenal's shortlist for the summer. TransferLab flags him as a fantastic fit for our parameters, suggesting the Gunners are looking in the right place.
The 22-year-old's credentials may be sniffed at because of his involvement in a wreck of a 2019-20 campaign for Toulouse—they've been relegated with only 13 points from 28 games, having picked up just one point since the beginning of November—but you only need to refer to Everton's £8 million purchase of Idrissa Gueye from Aston Villa, in similar circumstances, to see that this is a chance to find extreme value.
Sangare has a body of work that stretches just over two full seasons in Ligue 1, a division that tends to translate well to the Premier League when it comes to recruitment; the intensity of the midfield battle in France is similar to England's, which is why the step is often so easily taken.
Coming in at 6'3" and 77 kilograms, Sangare is an active defensive presence—racking up tackles and duels—who is good enough on the ball to play for a top side. His pass completion percentage (78.7) is a touch low, but it can be explained by the ambitious nature of his passes—he's constantly trying to thread it forward, between the lines, to build play.
|Selected Defensive Midfielders for comparison|
|TransferLab percentile scores|
He's something of a carrier, too, happy to take off with the ball at his feet. It's a positive trait, but it can sometimes be his undoing; he can lose the ball in these situations, or dribble blindly into congested areas. This may actually need to be toned down if he's to fulfil the role we're asking of him for Arsenal.
He's not a sweet technician in the mould of Jorginho or Marco Verratti, but he's not a pure destroyer like Tiemoue Bakayoko, either. He could play as the defensive-minded No. 6 in a pair but probably wouldn't cut it as the deepest in a three—he'd have to shift up to play as a No. 8.
That makes him a good fit for Arteta's 4-2-3-1, a good fit for the Premier League and a potential value pickup given Toulouse's relegation. With Kouadio Kone emerging from their youth setup, they're clearly in a position to sell.
INTRIGUING IDEA: Thomas Partey, 26, Atletico Madrid
Estimated cost: £50 million and/or part-exchange
It may sound unrealistic, but that hasn't stopped Arsenal from trying their best to make it happen.
As B/R's Dean Jones outlined in May, the Gunners want Thomas and are happy to exchange players to get him, if that's how a deal can be struck. Alexandre Lacazette is the main name in the frame, though Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Matteo Guendouzi and Shkodran Mustafi are all being touted, too.
If, and it's a big if, Arsenal were to pull this off, it would be some deal. Thomas is something of a late bloomer, taking his time to perfect his midfield craft, but at 26 years of age, he represents the complete package.
Eight years with Diego Simeone has, unsurprisingly, turned him into an uncompromising defence presence. He melds core strength, balance and poise in everything he does, enjoying some standout games on big stages—Anfield, for one, back in February, but also the Emirates Stadium in a Europa League semi-final two years before.
Over the years, he's played left wing, right wing, central midfield and even right-back, allowing him to develop a deep tactical understanding of positional play. He's also vastly improved on the ball over the last few years, becoming a progressive passer and calming influence on proceedings.
His TransferLab profile is a good representation of how well-rounded he's become—and, in fact, suggests he may have tipped the scales and become more of a passer than a tackler. Watching him tells you he still more than pulls his weight defensively—Atletico remain typically obstinate, with Thomas an important part of that—but his numbers over the last three years do tell a little story.
As his defensive actions have steadily dipped, his key passes have risen. He's evolved as a player, and unlike options like Sangare, Herrera and our fourth option to come, it may actually be a waste to confine Thomas to a stricter role.
DREAM SIGNING: Denis Zakaria, 23, Borussia Monchengladbach
Estimated cost: £30-40 million
This one might well depend on the fate of Gladbach's Champions League push. They're one of five battling it out for four spots in the Bundesliga right now, and if they fall the wrong side of it, they could struggle to keep their talented young players on board.
Most think of Marcus Thuram or Florian Neuhaus in this situation, but Zakaria should be of equal interest to those two. Injury means he hasn't featured since the restart, and his absence was dearly felt in the 3-1 loss to Bayer Leverkusen.
Zakaria's a truly smothering presence in midfield. At 6'3" and 80 kilograms, he's physical and thunders about the pitch, capable of dominating entire zones.
Gladbach have used him primarily in midfield but have also dropped him in at centre-back as part of a three-man line at times—a tweak possible because of his positional awareness, tactical intelligence and aerial ability.
There have been times when he has been more or less asked to man-mark key opposing threats—an example being the 2-2 draw with RB Leipzig in February, where he was pinned to Timo Werner all game. His combination of speed, size, aggression and anticipation makes him an incredibly tough marker to shake off. Werner failed in that regard.
He's pretty smooth on the ball, too; only Thomas on this shortlist is smoother. Zakaria's short passing game is good, he can work space between the lines to receive and turn, and he's comfortable receiving under pressure.
All of this, plus the fact he's attuned to Gladbach's high-press system, makes him a dream buy for many clubs, including Arsenal.