Using Data to Find a UCL Club for Lovro Majer

Varun Vasudevan uses an array of data to suggest which club would make the most sensible move for the Croatian playmaker after a stellar season at Rennes

There are many reasons why the best football clubs succeed, but squad-building is a huge factor in both achieving and sustaining success. Scouting players with potential and then developing them, either for sale for profit, or into a player worthy of a starting berth at a Champions League level side, is a necessary skill for all but the richest teams; and even those should be trying to do this too.

Crucially, teams need to identify players who can not only develop, but also will be a good tactical fit for the purchasing team. It’s not enough to know that a player is, or can be, great; they need to suit the existing style of play or the transfer at best requires significant adaptation by the player and is at worst doomed to fail. This is why scouting must take play-style into account, and that’s what we will be doing again today. Our first piece of this ilk, finding a good stylistic fit for Josko Gvardiol, explains some of the thinking.

This piece focuses on midfielder Lovro Majer. Hailed as the ‘next Modric’, Majer moved from Dinamo Zagreb, just like Modric, and had a superb debut season for Rennes in Ligue 1 in 2021/22. But what is his best role? What are his strengths and weaknesses? And which club mihght suit his playing style most?

Lovro Majer profile

Age: 24
Club: Rennes

Nation: Croatia

Position: Central Midfielder, Attacking Midfielder
Foot: Left (89% usage)

Contract ends: June, 2026

Current market value: £18m

Rumoured transfer value: £20m to £30m

Following his move from Dinamo, Majer took time to settle in a new environment. He started the season with four appearances from the bench and only registered 7 starts in his 14 games at Rennes. Having settled, though, he featured far more regularly and ended the season strongly with 11 starts in Rennes’ last 12 games in all competitions. He finished the season with 21 league starts.

Rennes largely played a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 in 2021/22, with the former being the go-to formation. In both iterations, Lovro Majer operated as the most advanced midfielder, with full licence to create, link play to the final third, and find pockets of space in the opposition half to help the team progress and break down defences. From these positions in the half spaces and pockets around the opponent’s box, he had the creativity and drive to impact proceedings, either finding his teammates with clever passes or fashioning himself a chance. Majer’s return of six goals and nine assists in 20.4 league 90’s shows this kind of high-quality impact.

In terms of movement, it’s clear how attacking Majer is. His heat map is indicative of his majority position as an RCM in a midfield three, with licence to attack. He often receives on the right wing, as can be seen in his pass reception map, which leads to overloads on that wing and drag opponents towards that flank. He’s very adept in wide areas, using his ball control to dribble down the wings and support his wingers as an option to cut back to or pick out on the underlap. These passing combinations with his wide players then release him in spaces between the centre-back and full-back, or enable him to pull opposition central midfielders out wide towards him to disrupt the opposition defensive shape.

Majer’s role for Rennes is what Italians (and Football Manager fanatics) refer to as a ‘mezzala’. In simpler terms, it equates to a playmaking box-to-box midfielder who often offers support to wide players in the half-space. Perhaps the most obvious current example is Nicolò Barella of Inter Milan.

Next, let’s take a look at Majer’s progressive passing and chance creation. Usually we’d split the progressive passes set into three zones: from the defensive third, the middle third, and the attacking third. But Majer just had two passes from the defensive third all season, so we dropped that. This confirms one thing about the role he played last year: he did not participate in deep build-up and rarely dropped back into midfield to progress from there. This gives us a clarity on what Majer is not, a deep-lying playmaker or even box-to-box midfielder who participates in deep build-up.

Ironically, an example of a player who does link play and progress into the final third, in addition to dropping deep to help the build-up, is the youngster Majer was touted as a replacement for, Eduardo Camavinga. Majer does not progress the ball in the same way the way the Frenchman did, but did provide a high threat in the final third, which Camavinga did not. It isn’t a like-for-like replacement in that sense.

It is therefore apparent that Majer’s strengths lie in progression from and in the middle and final thirds. He’s excellent at finding wide players from the centre of midfield and even better at playing passes into the box in the form of crosses, cutbacks, and deft set-ups. We talked about his movement into the half-spaces before. His final third progressive pass map and key pass map give a good indication to what he does from those half-spaces. Majer scored a 99th percentile for xA last season among Ligue 1 midfielders. The 42 chances he created for Rennes were the second most for the club.

In terms of what hasn’t been covered above, one aspect is his defending. For such an attacking player, Majer boasts some decent defensive stats. He ranked 91 percentile and 98 percentile for final third tackles and final third pressures respectively for 2021/22. His pressures in all zones stands at 24 per 90, which is 82nd percentile across Europe. Majer is clearly a player who would fit right into a team employing a high press.

He is also a strong ball carrier, boasting 90+ percentiles on all positive carrying traits. Last but not least, Majer again performs superbly for all shooting stats. He is shooting from slightly further than he should and his shot quality isn’t top-class, but these are aspects that could be improved if he plays for a better club that has better providers around him that enable him to shoot from closer to goal. The underlying signs in terms of shot technique and execution are solid.

Majer’s profile can be summarised with his 21/22 pizza chart. He is a central midfielder who plays as the most attacking player in the midfield unit, almost like an attacker, loves to go wide and link with wide players, and pops up in dangerous pockets and half-spaces in the opponent’s half. He boasts very strong metrics for creation and carrying while being a good high presser, but all this comes at the cost of retention, deep progression and safety.

Finding a UCL club for Majer

Rennes finished 4th last season, just missing out on a Champions League spot. It is a good assumption, given Majer’s meteoric rise, that his next club should be one participating in the Champions League. Indeed, he has been strongly linked to Real Madrid, with the likes of Paris Saint-Germain and Inter Milan rumoured to be fighting the Blaugrana for his signature.

The starting point for our tactical comparison is therefore the top five league clubs participating in the Champions League in the 2022/23 season. Understanding the ease of tactical translation from Rennes to one of these clubs won’t be straightforward, but let’s dive into it via a few key metrics.

Compared to the top five leagues’ UCL clubs, Rennes had among the lowest short pass attempt percentage, indicating that they weren’t keen on playing short passes, preferring longer ones. Only Juventus and Frankfurt had a lower short pass attempt percentage, while Sevilla, Liverpool, Leverkusen, and AC Milan are somewhere close. In terms of possession, Rennes are somewhere below the average of these clubs with Inter, Leipzig, and AC Milan the nearest neighbours.

When it comes to pressing, Rennes look better, with only a handful of clubs applying more pressures. Given Majer’s excellent pressing numbers, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that individually, he could make the step up to any of those high-pressing teams. It is worth noting, though, that Rennes are in the bottom three for pressure success.

Finally, a PPDA vs OPPDA plot sees Rennes somewhere around the median in both cases. Rennes are average in this set, both in terms of press-resistance and in terms of having a high press that can dismantle an opponent’s build-up. Inter, PSG, Napoli, and Dortmund feature close to Rennes in this aspect. 

Combing all of these graphs, the teams that profile closest to Rennes are: Chelsea, Napoli, PSG, Inter Milan, AC Milan, and Sevilla.

Chelsea and PSG have a good amount of attacking midfielders already, with the former focusing on defensive options before the window ends, and the latter just having bought Vitinha and Renato Sanches. We can rule them out for now.

Using TransferLab’s Coach ID tool, we look at the profiles of the other four teams compared to Rennes. Firstly, here are Renns under Bruno Génésio. The key facets are deep circulation, leaning quite heavily on build-up in wide areas, and less emphasis on long passes or ball retention for long periods in the opposition defensive third (high retention).

And here are Sevilla, Napoli, and the two Milan giants.

The remaining four do look similar to Rennes, confirming our shortlist process so far. Among the four, the two teams that look closest in terms of playing style are Sevilla and Inter.

In the case of Inter Milan, Majer’s ideal role is occupied by someone to whom we already compared him at the beginning of this article. Nicolò Barella is the player Majer can aspire to be and, at the age of 25, he’s peaking at the right time and is a key starter in Inzaghi’s 3-5-2. With the creative Hakan Calhanoglou occupying the other advanced slot, there doesn’t seem to be an opportunity for Majer to be a differential signing, and he’s too good to be a stand-in.

Sevilla play a 4-3-3 under Julen Lopetegui, which transforms into a 3-4-3 in possession. With the anchorman staying back between the centre-backs, the fullbacks and central midfielders push up to support the front three. Assuming that Fernando or Thomas Delaney take the deepest role, the advanced slots in midfield are between Ivan Rakitic, Joan Jordan, Oliver Torres, and Isco, the latter arriving as a free transfer recently. There are obviously options there, but most of them lack the creativity and drive to contribute goals and assists, which was a big issue for Sevilla last season. Lopetegui’s team were defensively solid, but unable to create consistently in the final third. Given that Sevilla have spent just £25m this summer and are probably capable of spending more (they spent £66m two summers ago), a move for Majer to enhance the creativity and attacking threat of that midfield could be a great move for all parties. 

Final Verdict: Lovro Majer to Julen Lopetegui’s Sevilla FC

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