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No Bruno, no problem - Why Marseille's Morgan Sanson could be the answer to Manchester United's midfield woes

Morgan Sanson could be an alternative to Bruno Fernandes for Manchester United
Morgan Sanson could be an alternative to Bruno Fernandes for Manchester United
Rahul Iyer
ANALYST
Modified 25 Jan 2020, 16:08 IST
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With just 6 days left until the closure of the January transfer window, and injuries to key players such as Scott McTominay, Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford, Manchester United are staring down the barrel when it comes to achieving their objectives for the current season, something which may have proved difficult even with the aforementioned players available.

As things stand, United have just three fit forwards, in the form of Anthony Martial, Daniel James and Mason Greenwood (four if you count Juan Mata) and three fit midfielders, in Fred, Nemanja Matic and Andreas Pereira, which most United fans and indeed, rival fans (albeit gleefully) will tell you is hardly of the standard required to even qualify for Champions League football.

The squad requires a lift, which the hierarchy is allegedly trying to provide by completing the purchase of Bruno Fernandes, but that is a saga which never seems to end and which is unlikely to be concluded by next Friday. Fernandes could potentially be exactly what United need, but if they miss out on him, they would do well to make sure that, whether in the next week or the next window, they do not miss out on a potential gem in Morgan Sanson.

Who is Morgan Sanson?

Currently turning out for Olympique Marseille in Ligue 1, Sanson is a former France Under-21 international, who made the move to the Orange Velodrome from Montpellier, almost to the day, 3 years ago.

He is a creative midfielder, who usually plays the more dynamic role in a double pivot in a 4-2-3-1, but can also excel as the primary creator, in the number 10 position, with fewer defensive responsibilities. Sanson is usually quite reliable when it comes to providing from midfield, as he averages around 5 goals and 6 assists per season, across his career at Le Mans, Montpellier and Marseille.

Sanson playing for Marseille in Ligue 1
Sanson playing for Marseille in Ligue 1

Visually, Sanson is quite similar to someone like Ross Barkley or Mesut Ozil (when going forward at least) due to his (relatively) lanky frame and similar height. His ball control is impeccable, with a first touch the German would be proud of. When striking the ball towards goal, however, Sanson's technique is reminiscent of Paul Pogba's; an almost undercutting of the ball which enables it to gather speed and height on its way to the target, as well as a firm base in the non-shooting leg. He is also comfortable passing and shooting with either foot, which makes him unpredictable for opposition defenders.

Valued at €28 million by transfermarkt, rumours have abounded about Premier League sides West Ham United and Everton being interested in him, with a few publications going so far as to say that West Ham have even made a concrete offer. Most recently, he has also been linked with Zenit St. Petersburg in the Russian League.

While the calibre of clubs rumoured to be interested in him may seem slightly unflattering, it is perhaps more a measure of the extent to which Sanson flies under the radar, because his output on the pitch has undeniable quality.

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So, what's good about him?

Once we start to break down Sanson's game, the true quality of his play begins to emerge, because the surface numbers seem quite "normal", so to speak. It is the underlying statistics, however, that showcase his all-round ability.

Sanson compared to midfielders of a similar age range and playing time
Sanson compared to midfielders of a similar age range and playing time

In the above graph, we have plotted the number of shots taken and key passes provided against the expected goals value of the shot arising from these situations. In essence, it gives us a measure of quantity versus quality of the players' creative output.

So, for example, players like Piotr Zielinski, Maximilian Arnold and John McGinn take more shots and provide more key passes than Sanson, but these are not usually very good quality chances. In fact, Sanson is just one of four players in the "high quality, high quantity" bracket, along with John Lundstram, James Ward-Prowse and Jean-Paul Boetius.

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Boetius often plays as a winger for Mainz, which explains his high output, as crosses tend to create high-quality chances. Ward-Prowse takes penalties and set pieces for Southampton, which explains why he is so far ahead of Sanson and Lundstram is another player who starts in the centre of midfield, but due to Sheffield United's unique system, often finds himself in crossing positions as well.

This, therefore, makes Sanson's numbers all the more impressive, as he does almost all of his work from the middle of the park, where it is most congested and is also not Marseille's primary set piece-taker. Hence, as a midfielder who can consistently carve out good chances for himself or his teammates, Sanson, by this metric, could prove to be exactly the type of player United's midfield is crying out for.

Sanson compared to midfielders of a similar age range and playing time
Sanson compared to midfielders of a similar age range and playing time

The above graph will serve to illustrate another point, as well as hammer home the fact that Sanson would be an excellent fit for United. It shows the expected goals value of all possessions that the player is involved in (known as xGChain, on the x-axis), plotted against the percentage contribution of shots and key passes to that value. Essentially, it helps us get a clear picture about whether the player is contributing more in the final third, or is simply involved as an intermediary.

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For example, players such as Tiemoue Bakayoko and Mateo Kovacic are both heavily involved in the build-up but are usually facilitating others to provide the spark which leads to a goal, as shown by their relatively low (around 15-17%) reliance on key passes and shots to achieve high xGChain values.

However, if we take a look at Sanson, we see that his xGChain value is one of the highest (0.45, second only to Rodrigo de Paul's 0.47) and that he has by far one of the highest reliances on his shots and key passes, at 71.1% (Boetius is next with 63%). What this tells us, therefore, is that he is not a mere passenger in attacking moves. Rather, he is the one who takes the game by the scruff of its neck and tends to make things happen.

That's great and all, but isn't Fernandes much better?

Sanson vs Fernandes, rating values courtesy of smarterscout.com
Sanson vs Fernandes, rating values courtesy of smarterscout.com

The above radar comparison shows a contrast between Sanson and Fernandes in terms of their outputs with ratings provided by smarterscout.com. The reason smarterscout data is often more reliable than others is due to the system having the capability to compare leagues of different quality, so, setting the Premier League as the benchmark, we can see which player could potentially perform better in England.

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What jumps out instantly in the fact that Fernandes tends to pass towards goal far more often than Sanson does, but beyond that, the Portuguese does not seem to have a lot on the Frenchman. Sanson is more adept at dribbling and shooting and can protect the ball far better, as well as being a more willing defensive contributor.

A major contributor to Sanson's superior numbers is the fact that he has been putting up excellent performances in Ligue 1, which is much closer in quality to the Premier League than Liga NOS, where Fernandes represents Sporting Lisbon. One point in Fernandes' favour is that he has contributed 8 goals and 7 assists so far this season, compared to Sanson's 3 goals and 2 assists, but it is worth noting that Sporting are far more dominant in Portugal than Marseille are in France, as well as the fact that 6 of Fernandes' 8 goals have been scored from the penalty spot.

To conclude, it may well be that Fernandes turns out to have a better career than Sanson, but what cannot be denied is that the Frenchman certainly deserves a chance to showcase his skills at the very top level of European football, and while United may have had their fingers burnt in the past with a French midfielder named Morgan, a move for Sanson could end up being a massive win for everyone involved.

Published 25 Jan 2020, 16:08 IST
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