Club: Sporting CP
Position(s): DM, CM
Preferred Foot: Right
Strengths: defensive understanding, anticipation, control, timing, security, positional discipline
Areas for Development: speed, agility
It has been nothing short of a scintillating transfer window for Sporting CP. They have brought in their long-term replacement for Pedro Porro, who departed in January, with the arrival of Iván Fresneda from Real Valladolid. They have brought in Viktor Gyökeres, a physically imposing striker who is a constant threat in front of goal. And whilst they have lost one key player in Manuel Ugarte, who has joined PSG for €60m, they have secured his replacement in Danish midfielder Morten Hjulmand, who joins from Lecce for €18m.
Born in Kastrup, Denmark, Hjulmand moved to Austria in 2018 and spent two years at Admira Wacker before heading to Lecce in January 2021. The following season would see the young Dane play a key role in their promotion, before captaining the Salentini as they narrowly avoided relegation. He made the move to Sporting in August on a five-year contract, partnering Hidemasa Morita in the double pivot, with the Lions edging Famalicão 1-0 before drawing 1-1 in Braga.
Hjulmand headed off for international duty, making his Denmark debut after coming off the bench in a 4-0 win against San Marino, before returning and scoring in their 3-0 win against Moreirense — his first goal since October 19, 2019. He retained his starting spot over the next two matches as Sporting opened their Europa League campaign with a comeback 2-1 win at Sturm Graz, before winning the ball back in a dangerous area and providing the assist for Marcus Edwards’ goal in a 2-0 win against Rio Ave.
Sporting sit atop the league table with 16 points, level with Porto, one above defending champions Benfica, and three above Boavista, and they have a +6 goal differential in contrast to Porto’s +5. Whilst Porto will face off against Benfica at the Estádio da Luz in the first Clássico of the season on Friday, Sporting will travel to the Algarve on Saturday and take on newly promoted Farense, before kicking off October with visits from Atalanta and Arouca.
A defensively intelligent midfielder who reads the game to a high level, he has great anticipation which allows him to read the opposition’s next attacking moves, giving him an impressive 2.15 interceptions per 90 (top 1%). He has effectively replaced Ugarte’s tenacity off the ball and provided much-needed leadership to Sporting, capable of playing the defensive midfielder role to perfection with a positional discipline that allows him to sit just in front of the defense when Sporting is out of possession, preventing opponents from testing the goalkeeper from long range and quickly progressing play after winning the ball or receiving a pass.
He’s not too aggressive to the point that makes him rash or pulls him out of position, but he’s very strong and tenacious in duels and positions his body well to win them, boasting great upper body strength as well. Once Hjulmand can’t reach the ball to make a standing tackle, he executes a slide tackle with great timing to win the ball. 2.54 tackles per 90 isn’t crazy high (76th percentile) but this is partially due to him reading the game well and making tackling a last resort.
Don’t let Hjulmand’s low pass completion of 78.6% fool you into thinking he’s not technically secure. At Lecce, they only had an average of 41.3% possession last season which meant he wasn’t a high-volume passer (41.74 attempted, 32.82 completed). In fact, Hjulmand is much more technically secure than the data suggests. With superb control of the ball, he recycles possession at the base of midfield. He has the vision to play line-breaking passes, and his 5.05 progressive passes per 90 are cause for optimism considering Lecce’s lack of possession.
This is bound to change at a more possession-based club like Sporting, and today, he has racked up an average of 34 accurate passes per 90 and 85% passing accuracy. Moreover, despite being just 24 years old, Hjulmand is already a born leader who can step up when needed, constantly showing the effort and accountability of a captain, leading by actions not just words.
One area of his game that is particularly underrated is his shooting, especially from long distance. He’s a real threat from outside the box and uses his spatial awareness to hover around the edge of the box unmarked before unleashing powerful shots on goal. The additional threat of being able to score goals as a DM is what separates a good DM from a great DM. The ability to get match winners from distance. The best DMs have this trait – Rodri, Declan Rice, Casemiro, Aurélien Tchouaméni, Thomas Partey etc, but Hjulmand needs to make the most of this trait and increase his shooting volume (only 0.50 per 90).
In terms of areas of improvement, despite being a great athlete with an engine to get up and down the pitch all game, Hjulmand lacks elite physical attributes such as speed & agility. Speed isn’t essential for his position but it would enable him to recover and catch players on the counter. He turns a bit slow at times which is partly why he couldn’t play further up the pitch. If he worked on his agility then it would make him a great option to play as an 8 too due to his passing and distance shooting prowess.
In 2022/23 Sporting’s set-up was a 5-2-3 shape where the wide CBs (Gonçalo Inácio & Ousmane Diomande) progressed play, wing backs (Matheus Reis / Nuno Santos and Ricardo Esgaio) provided width in all phases of play. The wingers (Francisco Trincão, Marcus Edwards & Pedro Gonçalves) inverted & linked up with the target man ST (Paulinho).
The main role of the two central midfielders was to win the ball & recycle possession. The double pivot was Ugarte and Morita. Ugarte was the defensive destroyer who’d win the ball, whilst Morita was more of a deep-lying playmaker who’d progress play. Naturally, Hjulmand is Ugarte’s replacement. With clubs like Liverpool, Manchester United and Bayern Munich searching for a positionally aware defensive midfielder this summer, it’s a shock that no team went in for Hjulmand at just €18m.
Over 20 years since the legendary goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel led them to the Primeira Liga title, Hjulmand has become the second Danish player to suit up for Sporting CP, and he looks set to play a key role in midfield for a team that has enjoyed a scintillating stellar to the 2023/24 campaign under Rúben Amorim.
By: Ben Mattinson / @Ben_Mattinson_
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Octavio Passos / Getty Images