If you have been following me on Twitter somewhat, you will have noticed my ongoing digital love-affair with Zlatan Ibrahimovic over the course of my FM21 save with AC Milan. Ever since returning to Milan from his MLS exploits, the Swedish frontman has rolled back the years, playing like a man 15 years younger.

Sometimes, he even acts like a man even younger.

I always knew that Zlatan wouldn’t last forever and that the time of his impending retirement drew nearer every time I hit continue. Like any manager worth his salt, I saw what needed to be done. I didn’t know how much time I had. Could I take my time or would the talismanic Swede retire at the end of the first season?

The newsitem I dreaded seeing arrived at the end of season 3.

Ultimately, Zlatan lasted three seasons. His performances were absolutely amazing for a player of his age. He set the Serie A on fire, led Milan to a hattrick of Scudettos and aided the Rossoneri in their conquest of Europe, singlehandedly destroying Chelsea in the Champions League final that was his final game as a professional.

You can do a lot worse career-wise if this is your final game as a professional.

His final performance was indicative of his overall performance during my tenure as the Rossoneri manager. Zlatan was, for lack of a better word, iconic. Like a fine wine improves with age, so did his performances.

Zlatan’s career for Milan has been stellar.

Over the course of those three glorious seasons, he racked up goals and assists like it was nothing. Granted, a number of his goals were scored from the penalty spot, and he did benefit from my long throw setup, but he still bagged an impressive number of goals (and assists) for a player of his age.

Zlatan’s role

The analysis of Zlatan’s role and performance helps narrow down the criteria we can use to scout and compare potential replacements. Positionally, Zlatan generally played in the middle of a three-person block in attacking midfield. He played as an Advanced Playmaker, flanked by two Shadow Strikers.

Zlatan’s attributes at the time of his retirement.

To further narrow down our criteria and look beyond his attributes and player preferred moves, I want to look at various aspects of his style of play for us.

The statistics

Before you continue, I am well aware that statistics are not recorded properly in FM21. I made the conscious decision to include them into this article anyway because while they are not my sole source of information, they will provide context and nuance.

If you look beyond the goalscoring and assist numbers, you can spot the decline of Zlatan. As the seasons progressed, he managed to cover less ground and became more reliant on penalties for his goals, while his assist tally dried up. Similarly, his passing volume dropped as he became less involved with the general run of play.

If you compare those numbers to those of Serie A, you really have to realise that Zlatan plays a hybrid role; a mix between a forward and a midfielder. I have included both statistical comparisons.

The statistics do not showcase his particular style of play within my tactical framework. Still, you can get an idea of his contribution to this title-winning, Europe-conquering AC Milan over the course of the past three seasons.

The physical aspect

Since making his debut in 1999, Zlatan’s career has spanned almost 25 years. There are just a handful of players whose career span rivals the longevity of the Swedish phenomenon. That’s largely due to the AC Milan striker’s incredible fitness. While his pace and acceleration have taken a turn for the worse, his high natural fitness meant he could play twice a week for at least sixty minutes a match.

The Swedish crack boasts a strong, tall and powerful frame, making him a serious aerial threat and a strong focal point in the forward line. Zlatan uses his physique to pose a goal-scoring threat and flick the ball on or hold it up for team-mates to link up.

Zlatan providing a goal-scoring threat with his aerial prowess.

Muscling the Swede off the ball is nigh impossible for a single defender. Whether it is in the air or over the ground, Zlatan is an imposing advanced lynchpin.

Zlatan flicking the ball on.

In terms of of scouting parameters, I am looking for the following criteria:

  • height of 1 metre 90 or higher;
  • jumping reach of 15 or higher;
  • strength of 15 or higher;
  • balance of 15 or higher;
  • strength of 15 or higher.

The technical aspect

Zlatan was a sublime player, who excelled in almost every technical aspect. As he got older, he lost his dribbling edge, but he made up for this loss with sublime technique, passing-skills and an almost unrivalled first touch. He wasn’t the type of player who could glide past multiple opponents to create space, but he was the kind of player who you could feed with nigh-impossible to control passes, and he would keep possession and feed the ball back to a team-mate.

I don’t understand those poor dribbling skills, though it stands to reason that as his pace and acceleration went down due to age, his dribbling also suffered.

Generally, he used his superior technique to keep possession and act as an advanced focal point for us in attacking midfield. He was filling that withdrawn targetman position I have been ranting and raving about, and he was excelling at it.

In terms of of scouting parameters, I am looking for the following criteria:

  • first touch of 15 or higher;
  • technique of 15 or higher;
  • passing of 15 or higher.

I am not that bothered about the dribbling aspect. It was never a dimension of Zlatan’s game for us. While it would be a useful addition to the arsenal at my disposal, I reckon that with all the parameters that define what Zlatan did for us, it’ll be a challenge either way to find a suitable replacement. If I start adding parameters that even Zlatan did not possess, it’ll be impossible to find anyone at all.

The mental aspect

Besides his powerful physique, Zlatan offered an acute tactical awareness on the pitch, either in front of the net or when he dropped deep into pockets of space. This quick footballing mind and instinctive feeling for space and time aided him tremendously when his physical dominance wasn’t enough. He was able to find space in places where he might be surrounded by four or five defenders, control the ball and find a solution before the defenders could muster effective resistance.

In terms of of scouting parameters, I am looking for the following criteria:

  • anticipation of 15 or higher;
  • bravery of 15 or higher;
  • composure of 15 or higher;
  • determination of 15 or higher;
  • decisions of 15 or higher;
  • flair of 15 or higher;
  • off the ball of 15 or higher;
  • team work of 15 or higher;
  • vision of 15 or higher.

The targetman aspect

Before I came along, Zlatan tended to rely on players to supply him with passes, for team-mates to find him in the best possible position to work his magic. Ever since I got involved and turned him into an attacking midfielder, he has been seen considerably dropping deep enough into the second third. Contrary to reputation, he has involved himself into jostling and hassling with the opposition players to win a ball back. In essence, he has become the withdrawn targetman I always envisaged.

Acting as an advanced playmaker dash withdrawn target man, Zlatan’s primary use is close to that of a conventional target man. He operates as a pivot, always making a fast pass to get his team going forward. He isn’t meant to slow down play, but to keep the flow of play smooth, fluid and high-paced; leading to fast ball retention. Check out this match clip.

In that clip, Zlatan helps to start the attack. As he receives the ball, he can either choose to hold it up to allow the midfielders to link up or he can swivel and pick a pass on either flank. His sublime positioning allows him a bit of time on the ball to help set up another attack. There are plenty of players nearby to feed on the passes or possible flick-ons by our man. 

We can also use his unique skill-set to evade high pressing opponents. Playing a long-ball negates the ability to press as opposed to passing out from the back, and who better to latch onto such balls than Zlatan, who can flick it on or hold the ball up and bring his team-mates into play. Check out this match clip!

In this instance, our defence plays a long ball to avoid the opposing press; the opposing team has plenty of manpower to pressure our defenders into making a mistake. Losing possession in such a situation would be a recipe for disaster, hence the long ball. However, if there is no-one upfront to keep possession, you are only buying a short period of reprieve for your side. Enter the Zlatan!

As the long ball comes in, he wins the aerial duel and nods the ball into one of the shadow strikers’ path. Both shadow strikers have moved past Zlatan in anticipation of the flick-on or the through-ball. The opposing team is still pressing aggressively and cannot bring enough men back to stop our counter-attack.

Zlatan’s distribution is not limited to mere flick-ons and short passes. I fielded him as an advanced playmaker, and he tends to unleash a broad scala of passing options on opponents. His passing capabilities tie in nicely with my next point.

In terms of scouting parameters, I would love to add some performance metrics here. I realise that recording statistics is broken in FM21, but I’m giving it a valiant go anyway.

  • headers won ratio of 60% or more;
  • shots on target ratio of 50% or more.

I will refrain from adding absolute numbers, as a team’s playing style can skew those numbers for better or worse. Similarly, adding pro ninety minutes parameters can help me identify strengths, but these numbers are similarly influenced by playing-style. I also realise that a ratio can also give you wrong numbers, but it seems like an easier metric for an initial scouting report. I can do more advanced reports after the initial shortlist has been compiled.

The playmaking aspect

One of Zlatan’s transformation’s key aspects has been his willingness and ability to engage himself in the build-up play. Over the course of the past three seasons, he played a vital role in the build-up. As he dropped deep to do his targetmanning (I know that’s not a word), the shadow strikers and wing-backs moved in a position to receive the ball, whereas the central midfield pairing closed the distance to deal with any turnovers of possession.

Zlatan played a pivotal role in our offensive structure, as he was responsible for providing the base of the attacking structure as an advanced playmaker. Zlatan is the central conduit which brings the various layers of the tactic together with his link-up play. His passing diagrams showcase this versatility.

Zlatan’s passing charts for two major matches.

The above passing diagrams show that Zlatan is often positioned in the central lane, from this position the Swede can receive the ball either from deep areas or from the wide areas before playing into his team-mates who find themselves in pockets of space.

Zlatan is an intelligent and capable passer of the ball and a player who loves to take risks. He is not afraid to play nigh impossible through-balls or cross-passes. He often turns over possession, but I feel the reward is there in the form of goals and assists.

In terms of scouting parameters, I would love to add some performance metrics here. I realise that recording statistics is broken in FM21, but I’m giving it a valiant go anyway.

Ideally, I will refrain from adding absolute numbers, as a team’s playing style can skew those numbers for better or worse. Similarly, adding pro ninety minutes parameters can help me identify strengths, but these numbers are similarly influenced by playing-style. I also realise that a ratio can also give you wrong numbers. That means it’s all a bit of a hot mess in terms of passing, so I might as well look at it all.

  • number of passes attempted per 90 mins;
  • number of passes completed per 90 mins;
  • number of chances created per 90 mins;
  • number of key passes per 90 mins;
  • number of assists per 90 mins.

The criteria

Ultimately, when searching for a Zlatan replacement, I went looking for a player with the following traits:

  1. height of 1 metre 90 or higher;
  2. jumping reach of 15 or higher;
  3. strength of 15 or higher;
  4. balance of 15 or higher;
  5. first touch of 15 or higher;
  6. technique of 15 or higher;
  7. passing of 15 or higher;
  8. anticipation of 15 or higher;
  9. bravery of 15 or higher;
  10. composure of 15 or higher;
  11. determination of 15 or higher;
  12. decisions of 15 or higher;
  13. flair of 15 or higher;
  14. off the ball of 15 or higher;
  15. team work of 15 or higher;
  16. vision of 15 or higher;
  17. headers won ratio of 60% or more;
  18. shots on target ratio of 50% or more;
  19. number of passes attempted per 90 mins;
  20. number of passes completed per 90 mins;
  21. number of chances created per 90 mins;
  22. number of key passes per 90 mins;
  23. number of assists per 90 mins.

The initial heir to the throne

At the end of the first season, I signed the back-then 18-year-old Ryan Gravenberch intending to groom him to replace Zlatan in a year. Because of his relatively young age and yet quite a bit of experience, Gravenberch was ahead of his development curve. While he still had a wide range of things to learn and improve upon, there was little to dispute his talent and skills. 

Ryan Gravenberch at the end of season 3.

At the time of Zlatan’s retirement, Gravenberch was acting as his main understudy. He also saw first-team action as a shadow striker and even as a central midfielder to ensure his development. While his performances were admirable, I felt he lacked that oomph Zlatan was always able to bring.

He wants to be like me, but no-one can be like Zlatan.

It’s not even like he performed poorly. Despite often coming on as a substitute or playing in different roles and positions, Gravenberch racked up 16 goals and 9 assists across all competitions.

Gravenberch’s stats for the third season.

Compared to his contemporaries in Serie A, he had a stellar season. He outscored, outmanoeuvred and outplayed most of the league… But so did Zlatan and sadly, Gravenberch came nowhere close to that level.

Gravenberch’s stats in comparison to the rest of Serie A.

I am asking a lot from a 21-year-old. He has to fill the boots of the most iconic players Milan’s had this past few seasons. He does show glimpses of raw potential, and his attributes are starting to develop to a level near that of Zlatan.

The attributes comparison.

Looking purely at the statistics, Gravenberch is even performing on par with Zlatan, except in the areas that count; fewer goals, assists and key passes pro 90 mins. It is like he can play, but he fails to deliver an end product.

The statistical comparison.

While I am keeping Gravenberch on the books, I feel like I cannot rely on him for a full season to deliver the goods. I really do need to bring in someone who is old and more consistent than Zlatan.

The shortlist

With these criteria in hand and in the knowledge we had a transfer budget a little over 300 million, I started scouring the ends of the earth for my Zlatan 2.0.

My initial go-to was to use the comparison > find similar players option on Zlatan’s profile to find similar players. This did not yield satisfactory results; a bunch of nobodies (and Fernando Llorente) popped up.

I somehow doubt a U-19 forward for Fiorentina, a reserve option for Bristol City, a youth player from the fourth tier of Italian football and a bench-warmer from the Ligue 2 are the answers to my prayers.

Using the scouting criteria I formulated above yielded no results. It wasn’t until I started fiddling with the criteria that I managed to find some potential recruits. I couldn’t find someone who possessed the full package of skills, but I could recruit someone who could do most of these things.

By using the match tab, you can select how many criteria a player should fill.

The scouting list

Some careful tinkering and fiddling left me with a shortlist of players who could potentially replace the great Zlatan.

Harry Kane

One of my prime candidates was Harry Kane. The England skipper moved to Barcelona and has been scoring for fun for the Blaugrana. He is a world-class player in his prime.

Kane ticks many boxes when we’re looking at the playmaking aspect of the role; high ratings for passing, anticipation, decisions and vision. The PPM tries killer balls often does not hurt either. In terms of the target man aspect, we can see that his close-quarters skills are up to par; high ratings for technique, first touch and strength will help him do a job there. The fact that he has a track record for scoring goals also helps.

On the other hand, Barcelona is understandably very reluctant to part with its main forward. They deem him a star player, and it seems unlikely they are willing to deal. His mandatory release fee is set at 167 million, which is far too steep. His wage demands are, according to his agent, in excess of 300k a week. That’s a bit rich for my taste.

Marko Grujic

Liverpool fans of the world; weep. The former wunderkind has developed into a decent playmaker but consistently found himself on the Liverpool squad’s periphery. His latest loan spell at Zorya Luhansk was not a resounding success, but Grujic performed admirably for a poor team.

The Serbian playmaker has the physical prowess to do a job for us. The fact that he is a natural playmaker should help tremendously. Liverpool doesn’t want him anymore, so he is available on a free transfer, which is a huge plus.

If I want to field him as an advanced playmaker, Grujic needs to be retrained. His PPM to play way out of trouble is also a problem. He needs to develop and grow before he is ready for first-team action. I’m also somewhat worried about his goalscoring potential.

Dejan Kulusevski

Juventus’ Dejan Kulusevksi pops up as an intriguing option. Though he has primarily played as an inverted winger or inside forward on the right flank for the Bianconeri, he is a natural for the attacking midfield position. He also has a decent Serie A track record when it comes to scoring goals and providing assists.

I’m seriously digging the idea of robbing Juventus of one of its star players. The fact that Kulusevski is Swedish and has already told people he idolises Zlatan kinda suits the narrative of the save. I also like how Kulusevski is a creative playmaker, who can score a goal, yet who doesn’t have a diminutive physical frame. He’s not quite as tall as I would have liked but he’s no shorty either at 1.86 metres.

The main issue here is Juventus’ reluctance to sell Kulusevski. It seems likely that the Turin-based giants want a fee of over 100 million for their Swedish starlet. I feel there’s some form of poetry there though. Sign one Swedish star to replace another.

Giovanni Moreno

An unlikely entry on this list is the Colombian playmaker Giovanni Moreno, who represents Shanghai Shenhua of the Chinese Super League. Over the past decade or so, Moreno had made quite a name for himself in Asian football, and he has been nothing but stellar for the Shanghai side.

Despite being older, he could keep up physically with my demands. Technically and mentally, he can also offer more than enough to get the job done. His high natural fitness isn’t quite on Zlatan’s level but sufficiently high to ensure that he wouldn’t need three weeks of recuperation after a single appearance. His PPM’s are also very suitable for an advanced playmaker.

While Zlatan proved that age is but a number and Moreno possesses an impressive natural fitness, it does feel like signing Moreno would be a stop-gap-solution; a temporary measure or short-term fix used until someone better can be obtained. I’m after a more long-term solution. The Chinese Super League level is also a cause for concern, can Moreno hack it in the Serie A?

Rafael Leão

One of my former players is next on the list; Portuguese winger/forward Rafael Leão moved to Chelsea for the start of season 3. After a transfer saga of nearly a year-and-a-half, the Blues managed to unsettle Rafael Leão, forcing me to sell him for 150 million. Such a price-tag raises expectations, and quite frankly, the Portuguese failed to live up to them. He made 46 appearances in all competitions, scoring a mere 11 goals and contributing 7 assists.

Physically, Rafael Leão is one of the most impressive candidates on the list. Pace, power, aerial prowess, height, he has it all and in spades. He has also shown himself to be a natural finisher, scoring nearly a goal every two appearances for us. His mental attributes are relatively low, but I feel that we can get those up to scratch with some retraining.

There are two major issues with this transfer option. The first and most important one is that Rafael Leão does not want to move back to Milan. He is happy at Stamford Bridge and doesn’t want to leave. Or so his agent informed me anyway. The second issue is that Chelsea is asking silly money for his signature; I’m not paying over 200 million for a player, any player for that matter.

Aleksandar Mitrovic

Serbian forward Aleksandar Mitrovic is a cliché targetman; the bulky Serbian scored double digits every season for the past three years, keeping Fulham in the Premier League with his goals and hard work.

When you want someone to hold up the ball upfront and be a physical force to reckon with, Mitrovic is your man. Despite his sheer size, the Serbian also boasts a surprisingly strong first touch and excellent technique.

As a pure playmaker, he seems more average. I would have to retrain him to be a truly effective force for us, which takes time and puts more pressure on Gravenberch to perform immediately. In other words, Mitrovic would not be an instant-impact signing.

Paul Pogba

World Cup winner Paul Pogba has had a rather steady career so far; after his move from Juventus to Man Utd, he continued to play for Man Utd. He hasn’t scored a great amount of goals or racked up an impressive number of assists, but his average rating is consistently over a 7.00 over the course of a season.

In a way, I consider Pogba the lesser version of Milinkovic-Savic. The raw talent is there, he is tall, powerful, and a great playmaker, but there seems to be no end product. Barely any goals or assists.

Man Utd are not very keen on losing Pogba; they’re demanding in excess of 130 million for him. The PPM dwells on the ball is also a red flag. His lack of output is also worrying.

Crowdsourcing options

One of the issues I encountered was a lack of confidence in my scouts. They are pretty dense most of the time, and that’s when they’re dealing with conventional tactics and player roles. Even with a thorough set of criteria, I reckon my scouts cannot get the job done on their own.

That’s when I thought to turn to you, my loyal readers and followers. While my club’s scouts can’t be everywhere, you can! I believe that in this particular case, player scouting will only reach its full potential by engaging the collective wisdom of the Football Manager fan base. Plus it makes for great conversations.

Mario Balotelli

One of the first recommendations was enfant terrible Mario Balotelli. After a less than impressive stint at Monza, which is actually a feeder club to Milan, Super Mario departed for Austria’s St. Pölten. So far, he hasn’t been able to set the Austrian league ablaze.

Super Mario Balotelli in 2023.

I can see the appeal. Super Mario is Italian, he has a history with our arch rivals, so he could come back to spite Inter and show all of Italy that he can redeem himself after his disappointing stint with Brescia. The narrative aspect of this deal is bloody brilliant.

On the other hand, so far he has been unable to break into first-team in the Austrian league. He has to take over for Zlatan, the talisman of Europe’s strongest clubside of the moment. I’m not sure Mario is up to the task.

Sergej Milinkovic-Savic

An option so good he was brought to my attention three times. Milinkovic-Savic is no stranger to Italian football. After several seasons representing Lazio, the Serbian was snapped up by PSG, where he not only held his own but became an undisputed starter in a star-studded outfit.

Sergej Milinkovic-Savic in 2023.

It’s not hard to see how the Serbian midfield maestro could fill the gap left behind by Zlatan. He is tall, he is powerful, he is a great playmaker, and while his goalscoring record is historically nowhere near Zlatan’s, he has the right attributes to ensure that he will score goals in the right tactical setup.

On the other hand, PSG is not very keen to lose their midfield engine. While I can spend 300 million, I have no intention of splashing all that money on one player. The 250k wages are not that big of an issue, although it seems likely that he will demand a raise when we come knocking—definitely a great option but not a cheap one.

Felipe Caicedo

Caicedo is another who is well-known by anyone with an interest in Italian football; the Ecuadorian spent four seasons at Lazio, before moving to France to revive his career at Lille. With 18 goals in two seasons, he has done well in the North of France.

I can see the appeal. On the ball, he would make for a great playmaker dash targetman combination. He has the close-quarters skills to control the ball and keep possession, as well as the mindset to choose and execute the proper follow-up pass.

On the other hand, I reckon he is not physically strong enough to play in such a role. He’s not quite as tall as I would like, nor is he as strong and powerful as his predecessor.

Erling Haaland

Another pure striker who recommended to me as the next Zlatan. Haaland has made a name for himself at Dortmund, where he seems to score just for fun. Some of Europe’s finest and Chelsea are after him right now.

It’s hard not to see the appeal. One of the greatest goalscoring talents in the game and one with a proven track record so impressive he’s almost like a cheat code. He has the right physique, he can score a goal, and he possesses the right mental attributes.

On the other hand, he is not an instant impact player in the role I want him to play. He will need time to re-adjust. Even Zlatan needed time in season 1; Corona fucking up the transfer market meant I couldn’t bring anyone in, so he had the time to learn. Haaland wouldn’t get that time. His playmaking skills need developing as well, and honestly, it would feel like I’m destroying his career by retraining him now.

Ciro Immobile

The Lazio marksman has been one of the most lethal strikers in Europe over the past three seasons; 30 goals in season 1, followed by 22 in season 2 and another 19 in season 3. Immobile is a goal scoring machine.

Immobile wouldn’t need retraining, as Lazio already deployed him as an attacking midfielder regularly. He seems equally adept playing as a shadow striker, which would make him a versatile option. His technical and mental attributes are bang on the money for what I need. High natural fitness rating means he can keep going for quite a few years.

His physicals, however, are not. Not quite tall and powerful enough for what I want him to do. Signing him anyway and moving him out wide seems a waste of talent, as it will hamper the development of players like Daniel Maldini and Yusuf Demir.

Elmin Rastoder

An easy suggestion to scout, as he was not in my game. While I do not look down on team’s like Grasshopper, it seems unlikely that he would’ve been able to fill Zlatan’s boots straight-away, even in season 3 of the game.

Sergio Gomez

https://twitter.com/HugoHaHansen/status/1344351866386325506

Sergio Gomez was snapped up by me at the end of the first season. After an uninspiring debut season, I loaned him to Juventus, where he blossomed. He will return to San Siro next season, but can he replace Zlatan?

As a playmaker, I’d say he is absolutely world class. Technically and mentally, he has it all, the complete package. His performances for Juventus back this up, 9 goals and 11 assists is a perfect season for a central midfielder.

Which is my main concern here. Gomez is fine as a central midfield playmaker, when he’s flanked by one or two team-mates. He lacks the physical requirements to play in the same manner as Zlatan.

Lionel Messi

While I get the appeal of such a transfer, Messi had already decided to retire at the end of the season, so yeah…

Karim Benzema

Age was never an issue for me. It was for Karim, apparently. Like Messi, he announced his retirement at the end of the season.

Alexander Isak

Another Scandinavian forward who came highly recommended was Alexander Isak, dubbed the new Zlatan by Swedish pundits. Isak played for Real Sociedad and got his fair share of goals.

Alexander Isak is tall, powerful, strong in the air, capable of scoring a goal and possesses excellent close-quarter skills. Mentally, there is room for improvement, but he looks like he can do a job. The new Zlatan replacing the old Zlatan is also an excellent narrative.

The downside is that Isak is another player who needs retraining before becoming effective, as well as not being an excellent playmaker. Sociedad look certain to sell, but I’ll be facing stiff competition from PSG and Man Utd.

Gianluca Scamacca

Even though he is a fairly young player, Gianluca Scamacca is a bit of a journeyman. So far, he has represented eight clubs during his career, most on loan from Sassuolo. While he is touted as a potential international in real life, his FM counterpart is not quite that good.

While you could argue that he’s tall and powerful, that’s about it. He looks like a capable footballer, but any footballer not plying his trade regularly at Sassuolo and Cagliari, isn’t going to walk into my Milan side.

Sebastiano Esposito

Sebastiano Esposito is one of those household names amongst FM players; the young Italian is a talented forward, capable of spearheading your forward line for many years to come.

Sadly, in this save, he is not yet ready to spearhead anything. He had a decent loan-spell in Serie B at SPAL, but he is struggling to break into the Internazionale team. Right now, he is simply not good enough.

Mikel Merino

Real Sociedad midfield dynamo Mikel Merino has slowly developed from a budding talent to one of the best midfielders in La Liga. Real Madrid and Barcelona are after his signature, but Sociedad are reluctant to sell.

Looking at my purposes, Merino would offer an allround alternative. He has the physical power required, as well as the playmaking skills I like to see. He can do a job holding the ball up as well.

Goalscoring is probably a skill Merino is less adept at. The competition from Barcelona and Real Madrid will make his wage demands skyrocket as well. His minimum release fee is set at 92 million by the way, and there is no indication Sociedad will sell him for any less.

Mikel Oyarzabal

Another Sociedad player, Mikel Oyarzabal is a home-grown Sociedad player and a traditional playmaker. So far, he has been a one-club player, and Sociedad wants to keep it that way, asking over a hundred million for him.

As expected, Oyarzabal makes a great playmaker. Sadly, he looks like he might struggle with the target man aspect I demand. Sociedad’s reluctance to sell him is not helping his case. He is not world-class, and I’m not paying over a hundred million for someone who is not world-class.

Gaetano Castrovilli

Fiorentina’s mezzala Gaetano Castrovilli offers an intriguing perspective; he has hardly been setting the Serie A ablaze with his performances, but there is the nagging question of what could have been, had he been deployed properly.

Despite his size and strength, Castrovilli is a surprisingly mobile player. He is capable of scoring and he looks like he can do a job as a playmaker. He really meets all the criteria, sort of.

That’s probably his main problem. He meets all the criteria, but he excels in none of them, except for dribbling and flair. Is he really capable of replacing the iconic Zlatan?

Ilaix Moriba

La Masia graduate Ilaix Moriba has made a single appearance for Barcelona’s first team. He has been a stalwart for their B-team, performing admirably in Spain’s second tier.

As the crowdsourced scout report says, he’s tall enough, unreal physicals and great technicals for such a young player. Finishing isn’t bad either. The only problem is that Barcelona is unwilling to do business and according to his agent, so is Moriba.

Reducing the pool of options

During this process I look at the options at my disposal and I go through several rounds of culling, reducing my options with every round. These are generally the steps I take.

The circles indicated in red are immediate reasons to remove them from the shortlist, those in green are generally kept on the list. A club unwilling to deal can change its mind, players who are not immediate reinforcements can still be interesting prospects if the price is right. The green categories are always kept on the shortlist, even if they are not immediate transfer options.

Round 1; players who are about to retire

Lionel Messi and Karim Benzema had both announced their impending retirement. Scrapping them from the list was pretty much a no-brainer.

Round 2; players not willing to move

Out of all the players on the list, only one was unwilling to move to Milan. Barcelona’s Ilaix Moriba figured he could get into the Barça squad and wasn’t willing to move to us, or so his agent informed us when I enquired.

Round 3; players lacking quality

Another four players were axed because they were not good enough at this moment in time. Mario Balotelli, who had struggled to hold down a spot in the starting eleven for Austria’s St. Pölten, was the first to go. A former player or not, he just wasn’t good enough.

Internazionale’s Sebastiano Esposito might become good enough in the future, but right now, he isn’t in a position to challenge for a spot in Inter’s first team, let alone mine. Five appearances in two year’s time and a rather unconvincing loan-spell at SPAL in Serie B are not enough to persuade me to give him a chance.

Lille’s Felipe Caicedo is a decent player, but at his age and with his track record, he would struggle to get on the bench for this Milan side, let alone take over for Zlatan.

The last option to get cut was Sassuolo’s Gianluca Scamacca. While he does possess a number of interesting characteristics and attributes, the fact that he amassed seven first-team appearances over the past two seasons for Sassuolo and Cagliari (on loan) does not bode well for him.

Round 4; players whose club is unwilling to deal

Out of the remaining lot, there are a few players whose clubs are not willing to play ball. Harry Kane is the most prominent of the lot; Barcelona is not willing to sell its main forward to a club they deem as a rival for European silverware.

Chelsea paid us 150 million for Rafael Leão last season, and they have no intention of selling him back to us. Sociedad seems rather reluctant to let Merino and Oyarzábal leave the club. Similarly, Paul Pogba was deemed a key player by Man Utd.

I looked at the mandatory release fee clause for the three players based in Spain, but those values were around or over 100 million. There were no bargains to be had in this regard.

Round 5; players who are not an immediate reinforcement

Mitrovic, Haaland and Isak are natural forwards. While no-one is going to dispute their obvious skill at playing football, they would need to be retrained to play as attacking midfielders and advanced playmakers, making their signings even more costly beyond the transfersum. It will take time to retrain a forward, and in that time, I might drop points or field inferior players.

Round 6; players to choose from

I ultimately included the players removed during rounds 4 and 5 into the final pool, just to give me more options. This left me with 14 options to work with.

I decided to see if statistics could give me an edge here. Looking at the volume of passes attempted and completed per 90 minutes, we can see that a few players stand out.

Paul Pogba leads the pack in terms of sheer volume, followed closely by Castrovilli, Milinkovic-Savic and Kulusevski. The latter is a surprising inclusion, as he generally plays as a right winger for Juventus.

By looking at the difference between attempted and completed passes, you get an indication of a player’s passing ratio as well. We can see that Pogba and Milinkovic-Savic undertake more risky passes (or simply play more poor passes), whereas Castrovilli and Kulusevski seem more tidy in their passing.

Naturally, these stats mean nothing on their own. A player who is part of a possession-hungry team will generally rack up more passes per match, as well as racking up short, low-risk passes, which influence the completed passing tally.

The other aspect lacking in such a graphic is the actual outcome of the pass. If Pogba takes more risks and thus misplaces more passes, but also provided far more assists, key passes and created chances in this way, it’s the manager’s discretion to deem this an acceptable risk or not.

I decided to pack all three variables into a single graphic because of team-mates. Someone can play a brilliant through-ball, but if the forward fluffs the chance, it’s no longer an assist. Since xA is not a thing in FM (yet!), I have added the key pass and chances created as well.

Looking at this graphic, we can see that Pogba drops off the charts in terms of his actual output. This could be because Utd continue to field him in deeper midfield roles, keeping him away from the opposing goal more and more. The actual playmakers and even strikers are shining more and more in this graphic, because they get closer to the penalty area.

Another shout-out here for Dejan Kulusevski, who racks up a tidy number of key passes and even assists per 90 minutes, without creating many chances. I am baffled by how that is possible, but he makes for an intriguing option. Milinkovic-Savic and Merino are also noteworthy here, combining high passing volumes with efficiency.

The final statistical comparison focuses on the aerial prowess of this batch. I looked at the attributes I deem important for winning aerial duels and compared that with their headers won per 90 mins and the ratio at which they win their aerial duels.

Again, we can see Milinkovic-Savic excelling near the top of the table, with Merino being another surprise act up there. Grujic performing nicely as well, whereas Kane, Immobile and Kulusevski seem a bit underwhelming.

Conclusion

According to the statistics and the comparison, Milinkovic-Savic and Merino ought to be my primary targets. I courted both of them. PSG told me to bugger off, including rude gestures and taunting.

One cannot help but be intimidated.

Sociedad proved equally unwilling but I activated Merino’s release clause at 92 million. At this point, my own board stepped in and told me to sit down, as they were reluctant to pay 92 million for this specific player.

Looking at my analysis, I was reluctant to go after Pogba. Not only were Utd going to snub me, his actual output seemed too low to warrant such a steep transfer fee.

Ultimately, I decided to hedge my bets between the two Swedes on my shortlist. I found it sort of poetic to replace one Swedish star with another. I approached both Kulusevski and Isak. Juventus declined my bid for Kulusevski, so I focussed my efforts on Isak. Sadly, PSG were also after Isak, and they offered him more money. We lost out. Again.

I went back to Kulusevski and tried to negotiate with Juventus, in the process trying to unsettle the Swedish star, so he would force Juventus to sell him. The negotiations lasted for nearly a month before we finally managed to seal the deal to bring Dejan Kulusevski to Milan, for a mere 66 million. The price dropped significantly after Kulusevski became unhappy and caused a dressing-room revolution.

Guido is the founding father of Strikerless and main nutjob running the show.

Categories: Tactics

Guido

Guido is the founding father of Strikerless and main nutjob running the show.

6 Comments

Graham · January 16, 2021 at 3:38 pm

Great read, really enjoyed the way you narrowed down your picks. Kulu is a good choice and should serve you well… Bargain as well!

    Jimmeth · January 25, 2021 at 9:02 pm

    Find myself checking your website everyday hoping for an update to your blog!

Diimaan · January 28, 2021 at 11:14 am

Nice detailed write up guido, as usual. One question I would like to ask you! What role Zlatan was playing in your setup? SS or AM?

    Guido · February 7, 2021 at 9:50 pm

    AM, as an Advanced Playmaker 🙂

      Diimaan · February 8, 2021 at 7:33 am

      Great! I was using him as a DLF A. And he was on beast mode throughout and especially a killed it with Bully ball set pieces 😀
      When he retired I replaced him with CR7! I got him at the end of his contract with the agreed 400k/w which was considerably less than what he was getting at Juventus – 850k/w. 🙂
      Even though he doesn’t have as much a physical presence as Zlatan, he was lethal in his scoring. Topped the scoring charts in the League as well as CL. And he has necessary stats to be a captain to replace Zlatan too.
      Did you thought of looking into him? Now Real Madrid wants to buy him at the end of 22/23 season for 80 M 😛

Colour · July 28, 2021 at 4:04 pm

Chelsea won the Champions League Dickhead

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