The annual fun of the transfer window is over and now we return to the grind of actual football.
There were a lot of concerns coming into this summer related to the window closing before the start of the season, and there’s no doubt that some clubs did not manage to get everything they wanted in the market. That said, the general quality of player purchased was perhaps as high as it’s ever been, with fewer and fewer clubs looking to spend silly money on the kind of ageing “Premier League proven” British player who apparently has a great attitude that we see so often. Last summer, StatsBomb identified Mohamed Salah as the best purchase of the window, and one year on, we feel pretty good about that claim. This year, there perhaps wasn’t a single individual who stood out to the same extent, but with the standard generally being high, here’s five we feel particularly optimistic about.
Buy what you know. In hiring Maurizio Sarri, Chelsea embarked on a process that will see them shift to a much more possession focused system, one that will require a lot of progressive passing from the central midfield trio. Of Chelsea’s options here last season, only Cesc Fabregas offered much of this, managing 10.85 deep progressions per 90 and 2.49 open play passes into the box (per StatsBomb Data). Next best in both cases was N’Golo Kante with 7.4 deep progressions and 1.05 passes into the box, but as magnificent as Kante is, if you’re primarily using him as a passing presence, you may be lacking in that department. Making matters worse, Fabregas is 31 years old and not exactly looking the spry all-action midfielder we saw at Arsenal anymore. A valuable passing midfielder who can still be relied upon defensively was necessary.
Jorginho does these things about as well as anyone else in European football. The Brazilian born Italy international showed himself to be one of the best progressive passers around in a Napoli side managed by, yep, Maurizio Sarri. Playing as the deepest midfielder in a 4-3-3, he still put up 3.8 tackles and interceptions per 90 in a side that dominated possession so much that there were only so many balls to be won. In a Chelsea squad that is still learning the new system, Jorginho will know exactly what is asked of him in the defensive midfield role, exactly when to drop between the centre backs and when to push up, when to make a safe sideways pass and when to take the more adventurous option. At 26, he’s arriving at peak age, and while it’s possible that his defensive work will decline as he ages, his passing is unlikely to do so at the same rate, so Jorginho should be a critical part of Chelsea’s midfield for several years.
Even when Leicester City won the Premier League, right back was never particularly a position of strength. After some early defensive frailties that season, Danny Simpson replaced Ritchie de Laet in the role primarily to offer more defensive solidity behind the attacking threat of Riyad Mahrez down the right flank. The partnership worked well enough to remain across three seasons, and the balance never really shifted. Last year, Mahrez was Leicester’s most important creative outlet, ranking first in the squad for both deep progressions and open play passes into the box per 90. Simpson, meanwhile, was 12th and 11th in these categories. So when Leicester decided to take the cash and allow Mahrez to move to Manchester City, a full rethink was required down the right hand side.
While Rachid Ghezzal has a relatively similar skillset to the departed Mahrez, it is unlikely that he will be able to perform it to such a high level. Thus Ricardo Pereira has arrived to offer greater impetus as part of a revamped flank. His primary role is likely to be as a conventional overlapping attacking right back, staying wide and providing a crossing threat while Ghezzal cuts inside and makes use of his dominant left foot. The secondary role should be as a right midfielder, the position he played in the opening game against Manchester United. Using a full back in a wide midfield role against specific opponents is a tactic Puel has employed in the past with Ben Chilwell on the left, and Pereira looks to have the tools to do it. Having played under Puel for one season previously at Nice, there should be a clear understanding of what the right back offers, and at age 24 he is in no danger of hitting the downside of the age curve. That is how you upgrade a fairly weak position in your team.
Fulham have had quite the overhaul upon their return to the Premier League. High profile signings from top European leagues such as André Schürrle and Sergio Rico are complemented by relatively young domestic talents like Alfie Mawson and Joe Bryan. Surely, the most exciting addition, though, is Ivory Coast creative midfielder Jean Michaël Seri. It seems likely that Fulham will continue with the 4-3-3 formation they deployed against Crystal Palace, with Aleksandar Mitrović as the striker flanked here by Schürrle and Ryan Sessegnon (though they now have a number of options). That front three has a good blend of pace and aerial threat, though none are especially noted for outstanding creative passing.
The midfielder’s outstanding passing ability has been noted on StatsBomb by Mohamed Mohamed, who described him as a player who can “break defensive lines with regularity, and not even look like he’s breaking a sweat while doing so. He’s such a good passer during buildup play and in the middle third that even if he only tops out at producing 6-8 non-penalty goals + assists over 2500+ minutes, he’ll still be an asset because he’s very helpful in getting from one zone to another before even approaching the final third. The versatility in his passing range is legitimate, and it doesn’t feel as if the ball gets stuck to his feet for longer than it should. It’s in and out in no time”. Playing next to Tom Cairney (no slouch in the passing department either) and protected by Andre Zambo Anguissa (a more natural destroyer who should help provide balance to the side), Seri should have plenty of opportunities to receive the ball to feet and help pick out Fulham’s pacey forward options. At 27 he’s coming in at peak age, though with his contract potentially running until age 31 there should probably be an attempt to sell him before then, even if he does have a skillset that ages relatively well. For now, though, Fulham are getting a very high quality player in their first season back in the top flight.
The Arsenal rebuild has begun, and in truth many of the signings have been underwhelming. A number of players are at the wrong end of the age curve, including the transfers from head of recruitment Sven Mislintat’s former club Borussia Dortmund. It is of great relief, then, to see these players accompanied by 22 year old Lucas Torreira, a midfielder with a wide range of skills.
One of the most obvious changes from the Arsene Wenger era seen in Unai Emery’s opening game against Manchester City was a greater emphasis on a compact, aggressive midfield. When looking at where Arsenal pressured the ball in this weekend’s home game against Man City, there’s a clear aggressive attempt to stifle the opposition in the centre of the pitch.
By comparison, when looking at last season’s home game against Man City, there’s much less of a clear pattern, with Arsenal seemingly unwilling or unable to press City in central areas.
This football requires a different type of midfielder. Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere, known for their talents on the ball but somewhat limited off it, have left the club, while Torreira has arrived. The Uruguayan is able to combine a strong ball winning game of 4.9 tackles and interceptions per 90 last season while completing his passes to an impressive level. There are concerns that he is sometimes too patient with his passing, often taking the simpler option of retaining possession than a more ambitious move, and this may hinder Arsenal slightly in their ability to break at speed. Standing at 5’6, he is unlikely to dominate in the air, either. But those are essentially the only faults one can find in this versatile midfielder, and someone who can be a key element in a new Arsenal more focused on pressing in central midfield.
If one were to build an ideal midfielder for a Jürgen Klopp side in a lab, you might end up with Naby Keita. The Guinean signed from RB Leipzig never seems to stop moving, being very aggressive in pressing and winning the ball back while offering huge value in possession. His trademark move is to dribble through congested central areas almost as though the opposition players aren’t there, and he has the decision making in the final third to make those runs worthwhile. With the exception of his small stature, there really isn’t much one could ask from a midfielder that he doesn’t offer.
The injury to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, ruling him out for the whole season with questions over whether he will ever fully recover, lefta hole in Liverpool’s midfield. The squad is generally filled with midfielders like Jordan Henderson, James Milner, and Gini Wijnaldum: useful players, but ones who do not hugely excel in any aspect of the game other than work rate. While this wasn’t the initial plan when he was purchased, Keita can offer the dribbling threat and ball progression previously delivered by Oxlade-Chamberlain at an even higher level than the Englishman. Keita’s arrival at Liverpool took a year longer than originally planned, but there’s no reason at all to think that this will prevent the 23 year old from being a success this year. Good things come to those who wait.