Much of the discussion in the football world the past few days has been about the potential incoming transfer of Wesley Sneijder to Manchester United. Depending on the source, United are either on the verge of signing the Dutch playmaker or as Sir Alex Ferguson indicated yesterday from Seattle while on the club's United States tour, they have "no real interest at this moment in time" for him. Whether or not the boss is being coy, and there certainly are many who feel that way, that saga can be followed in various forums, publications, and pubs. Here though, I simply seek to do an analysis, both tactical and statistical, and use that information in an attempt to logically project how Sneijder could fit-in at Old Trafford.
Sneijder began his career at the famed Ajax youth academy and he made his first professional appearance for the senior side in February 2003. He soon became an established member of the fabled club and went on to score 48 goals in 127 appearances before his £20 million transfer to Real Madrid in August 2007. After spending two seasons in La Liga and netting 11 goals in 52 appearances for Madrid, the midfield general was sold in August 2009 to his current club, Internazionale. During his initial season with the Serie A side, Sneijder found immediate success as he led Inter to the treble - the title haul including the Scudetto, Coppa Italia, and UEFA Champions League. On the international stage, the Dutchman has shined as well - most notably during last summer's World Cup in South Africa where he netted five goals while leading his side to the final.
The attacking midfielder is generally regarded as one of the world's best footballers. His genuine two-footed ability is reflected in both his strong shooting ability and wide range of passing. Although not particularly gifted with pace or height, Sneijder shows quickness in tight spaces and strength on the ball due to a low center of gravity and adequate upper-body strength. His technical and physical ability strongly complements an intelligent football brain - the summation of this is an incredibly dangerous attacker; one that is also lethal on free-kicks.
For both club and country, whether it be it in a 4-2-3-1, 4-1-2-1-2, or various forms of 4-3-3, Sneijder nearly always plays behind the striker(s) as a trequartista. In this role, where the natural territory is between the opposition's defense and midfield lines, the Dutchman is his side's chief creative force. It is through him where goalscoring inspiration often stems from - whether that be in the chances he creates for others with a killer final ball in the attack or the shots he fires towards goal. The skillset mentioned in the introduction - mainly his superb technical ability, vision, and intelligence in finding open space - enables him to unlock opposing defenses.
In the shapes that Sneijder's sides generally play in, he either has two or three other players behind him in the center providing bite and industry. In turn, this provides him the freedom to roam into the areas of open space between the lines with minimal defensive responsibility. If the opposition deploy a shape with only two central midfielders, Inter or the Netherlands will simply overrun them by passing around them through the center. For example, against Bayern Munich in the 2010 Champions League final, the German side's two-central players attempted to close down Inter's two deeper-lying midfielders and as a result, Sneijder was free to drift into the space between lines - from there, his free role was one of the keys to Inter's final conquering of Europe.
More often than not though, Sneijder will find more foes in the center of the pitch - especially in the Serie A where most sides use tactics that congest the center of the park. The trequartista plays a prominant role in Italian football, so much so, that some clubs even use two of them behind a single striker. Therefore, it is not illogical to conclude that the responding tactical trend may have been the use of more holding midfielders or diamond shaped midfields to combat these dangerous playmakers. It is quite impressive that Sneijder has had such consistent success when considering this.
However, despite his world-class ability, Sneijder has not proven to be completely immune to holding players being deployed in the space where he likes to habitat. For example, it could be argued that Sergio Busquets completely man-marked Sneijder out of the World Cup final in South Africa. In order to combat this problem when it arises, Sneijder has often adjusted by coming deeper for the ball. However, while still proving to be effective in swinging the ball around with quick and tidy distribution, Sneijder's influence typically wanes in this scenario because he is farther away from goal - where it is more difficult to use his strength of shooting and providing incisive killer pass in the final third.
Here's an examination of Sneijder's key Serie A season statistics from 2010-11 :
Passes per game
Pass completion %
Shots per game
Key passes per game
Successful dribbles per game
Accurate crosses per game
Fouls suffered per game
Accurate long balls per game
Tackles won per game
Accurate though balls per game
Interceptions per game
In Sneijder's two seasons with Inter, he has started 46 league matches out of a possible 78. Going back to his last season with Real Madrid, he only started 18 league matches out of a possible 38. This rate is alarming and hints at possible durability issues and/or proneness to injury. Perhaps it can be chalked up to bad fortune but it should be noted that these injuries occured during his mid-20s - a span of years that typically lies within athlete's physical prime.
Both Sneijder's 60.1 passes per game with a 85% pass completion percentage is impressive, especially when considering how high up the pitch he plays. This is an indication that he dictates matches for Inter and when combined with his 2.9 key passes per game (defense splitting passes), which ranks near the top in Serie A, it is quite clear that the Dutchman is a creative force. In addition, his accurate crosses, long balls, and through balls per game ranks amongst the leaders in Serie A - further tangible evidence of his incisive passing.
Despite having the reputation as an impressive goalscorer, Sneijder only scored one of his four Serie A goals from the run of play - his goalscoring rate has declined the past few seasons from his debut season at Real Madrid and his latter seasons at Ajax. Nonetheless, the goals are still considered an adequate amount for an attacking midfielder.
His defensive numbers match his reputation as a lackadaisical defender. However, because of the free role he is given high up the pitch, where his defensive responsibility usually includes tracking the opposition's deepest-lying midfielder or a center-back, this is not particularly alarming - it merely provides no evidence that he can defend in a two-man central midfield.
Is Sneijder a fit at United?
Before discussing where Sneijder could possibly fit-in at United, it would be sensible to first discuss the tactical systems used by Fergie. During his quarter-century reign at the club, the manager has evolved as a tactician and this progression has seen more success for the club in Europe during the past decade. While he is willing to fiddle between two or three man central midfields, usually opposition dependent, two constants have remained in Fergie's tactical strategy in either system: (1) the use of wingers to attack from the flanks. (2) a creative player that roams between the lines.
When using 4-4-2, or a closely resembling variation, Fergie typically has one central midfielder play slightly deeper with ball-winning responsibility (e.g. Roy Keane, 2011 Michael Carrick) while the other is afforded a bit more freedom to join the attack (e.g. Paul Scholes, 2011 run-in Ryan Giggs). The latter is probably the role most envision when they seek the "Scholes' replacement." As for his striker partnership, one typically stretches the opposition's defense by playing on the last defender's shoulder (e.g. Chicharito) while the other drops deeper and operates in the hole (e.g. Eric Cantona, 2011 Wayne Rooney).
When using a three-man central midfield, typically in a 4-3-3/4-5-1 hybrid shape, one of the two central midfielders from 4-4-2 typically drops a bit deeper to provide extra defensive cover while the additional third central midfielder acts as an attacker higher up the pitch - just slightly deeper than the role of a withdrawn striker from 4-4-2.
Where does Sneijder fit in these systems? This much is clear - he'd likely be an ideal attacking midfielder in a 4-3-3/4-5-1 shape while the likes of Rooney, Nani, Antonio Valencia, etc play in the attacking band. With Rooney in a false nine role, one in which he thrived in during the 2009-10 season, and with Carrick and either Darren Fletcher or Anderson behind him, Sneijder would be free to wander between the lines in order to link the midfield and attack. If the players behind him were able to dictate matches with consistent ball-winning and tidy distribution, Sneijder could be left to provide defense splitting passes that unlock the stingiest of defenses.
Where does this leave Chicharito and Dimitar Berbatov? Where does this leave Rooney, who regained his form as a talisman last Spring in a withdrawn and playmaking role from playing between the lines - a role he personally prefers? Perhaps because of this, Fergie went with a 4-4-1-1 shape for the title and Champions League run-in and essentially ditched the idea of a three-man central midfield for the time-being. Rooney's industry from a withdrawn role enabled him to track back and defend against the opposition's deepest-lying midfielder against opposition with an extra man in the middle. In addition, Carrick and Giggs gained form and formed a fine complimentary partnership behind Rooney. This worked very well, including against quality sides such as Chelsea FC, but it was exposed by both Arsenal FC and FC Barcelona late in the season - two sides that move fluidity and understand movement between the lines.
There are two questions to ask if Sneijder is bought by United in the coming days:
(1) How does Fergie get Rooney, Chicharito, and Sneijder all on the pitch together? More specifically, can Sneijder operate in a two-man central midfield? This is the true role that has been vacated by the retirement of Scholes - a player that plays deeper than a trequartista and dictates matches with controlled and assured passing while providing the ability to get forward for delayed runs into the box. While Scholes was never the greatest of defenders, he at least proved himself adequate to operate in a two-man midfield -albeit aided for years by the incredible Keano. Valid questions remain whether Sneijder can operate adequately in a similar role where he drops deep, picks the ball up from defenders, and provides enough bite defensively in a central midfield two.
(2) If the answer to the above question is no, or even an uncertainty, then the second question would be how much is Fergie going to use a three-man central midfield? Answering this question with certainty is impossible for anyone outside the club, but there are no indications that Fergie would completely drop a 4-4-2 system, albeit with tweaks, that has successfully been in use for the past 25 years. Rooney thrived by playing between the lines last season so there is a feeling of redundancy by bringing in Sneijder - especially for ~£35 million.
Sneijder is undeniably brilliant, and because of this, I would not feel the move is foolish if he were to be brought in. Fergie would surely have a plan (I've selectively forgot all about Juan Sebastian Veron). In fact, with his recent tendency to miss a number of matches throughout the season due to injury, perhaps he could be rested for a number of Premier League matches, where Fergie would likely prefer to go 4-4-2 for the majority , and then used in Europe and for big domestic matches. If Rooney could once again find his form as a false nine, then this would certainly makes us better against our more formidable opponents.
However, is this an efficient use of resources for a player that is tactically limited to our specific club? A lot of uncertainties seemed to come to up in regards to this potential signing. Although he seems keen on going to Chelsea at this point, I can't help but to think what Tottenham would think if we came to them with £35 million for a certain Croatian (no, not Niko Kranjcar) that would provide a more prudent fit. If Lionel Messi's experience with the Argentina national team has taught us anything, it is this - no matter the greatness of any footballer, even possibly the greatest on the planet, the right system fit matters - this is my concern.