Man United: How do Frenkie de Jong and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic compare?
For what appears to be the tenth consecutive summer, Manchester United have been linked with a transfer of Lazio midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic.
With their pursuit of Barcelona’s Frenkie de Jong – the player sought by new manager Erik ten Hag more than any other this summer – seemingly at a standstill, the Old Trafford club have been forced to seek alternatives.
Reports in Spain suggest De Jong will only leave Barcelona for United’s Premier League rivals Chelsea.
Sergej Milinkovic-Savic is said to be on Manchester United’s radar again as they seek to fill a gaping void in midfield ahead of the new season
Barcelona’s Frenkie de Jong is United’s first choice but is hesitant to come to Old Trafford and would rather sign for Chelsea in the Premier League
New United manager Erik ten Hag has made it clear he wants De Jong to be his No.1 priority signing
United and Barcelona have agreed a transfer fee of £71.5m for De Jong, a player Ten Hag sees as fundamental to the style of football he wants to play.
But the Dutch international is reluctant to swap Barcelona for Manchester despite his current club’s urgency to offload him and ease his financial crisis.
Reports suggest he is worried about the way United are run and would only have eyes for Chelsea if he came to England.
They say all roads lead to Roma and as a result United may well be on the verge of a return for Milinkovic-Savic, the 27-year-old box-to-box midfielder for whom Lazio are asking nearly £60m. pound sterling.
And as Ten Hag seeks to resolve a midfield confusion that has proven beyond at least three of his predecessors, Milinkovic-Savic could well prove to be an excellent alternative to De Jong.
Stats from the last three seasons – the period when De Jong played in a top European league with Barcelona after joining Ajax – show that the Serb has the advantage in several key departments.
How Frenkie de Jong and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic compare over the past three seasons
De Jong took part in Barcelona’s pre-season tour of the United States and is looking forward to staying
In all competitions, the pair have played roughly the same number of matches (De Jong 140; Milinkovic-Savic 131) and the numbers are interesting to read.
Milinkovic-Savic certainly has the advantage when it comes to going forward. He scored 27 times against De Jong’s 13, took far more shots and provided more assists (27-15).
In terms of creating chances, Milinkovic-Savic put up 171 to De Jong’s 149, and the Lazio man entered the opposition’s penalty area on many more occasions.
Both occupy a central role in midfield in the majority of games, but it all depends on the license granted to them.
Serbian international Milinkovic-Savic has a license at Lazio to advance and score goals
Box-to-box midfielder Milinkovic-Savic may have to adapt to a more defensive role at United
At the Stadio Olimpico, Simone Inzaghi and his successor Maurizio Sarri trusted Milinkovic-Savic to come out of midfield and threaten the opposing penalty area at every opportunity.
There was usually a midfield behind him to allow this, although that didn’t mean Milinkovic-Savic shirking his defensive responsibilities.
With Barcelona and De Jong, it was more about maintaining and rotating the ball. So passes could just as easily be lateral as forwards – De Jong played 236 passes into the opposition box in those three years compared to Milinkovic-Savic’s 462 (almost four per game).
Probably because many of those passes were safer as Barcelona looked to dominate possession in their traditional fashion, De Jong’s passing accuracy is much higher.
De Jong clearly understands what Ten Hag demands of his teams from their days at Ajax
But that record of 91.77% of the ball finding its target – which remains quite stable at 90.57% in the attacking half – is certainly very impressive and would help United overcome last season’s lack of rigor.
Milinkovic-Savic’s passing stats aren’t quite as good, but he would likely go for a ball more often with a lower probability of going out and higher up the pitch.
Equally relevant given United’s intentions for the player they sign, Milinkovic-Savic has a better record in tackling, intercepting the ball and recovering possession than De Jong.
We must add the caveat that Milinkovic-Savic had long been established in the Lazio team (he signed in 2015) before these three seasons, while De Jong had to adapt to new teammates, although at a club with a similar philosophy to Ajax.
De Jong has impressive passing accuracy but is more inclined to play safer ball at Barca
However, you can’t deny that from this substantial sample size, Milinkovic-Savic’s numbers in Serie A are quite impressive.
De Jong’s time with Barcelona has been pretty average and he hasn’t reached the heights that many expected. Xavi doesn’t knock on Joan Laporta’s office door to ask why they want him sold.
But that doesn’t mean Milinkovic-Savic is the ideal United candidate. They’re not looking for a midfielder who can lay down a nice pass that splits a defense or someone who pops up regularly to score goals.
They already have Bruno Fernandes and have just signed Christian Eriksen for such purposes. They are more looking for a defensive midfielder who can protect a backline that was worrying and fragile last season.
United already have Bruno Fernandes to play defensive passes and create chances
Christian Eriksen has also joined the club and will boost his creativity in midfield
In Ten Hag’s style of play, someone willingly stepping forward from deep midfield to support the forward line could be useful, as long as he has the energy to come back if United lose the ball.
But the main objective will be to act as the link between defense and attack, to get the ball out and to move the team forward on the pitch.
Milinkovic-Savic would offer a lot and is undoubtedly adaptable to a deeper role, but there’s a reason why De Jong is Ten Hag’s No.1 choice for a very specific target.
However, if he were to stay at Barcelona or come to Chelsea and United to sign Milinkovic-Savic, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.