With the football season reaching its business end, most clubs around Europe will have a fair idea of where they stand concerning next season; whether they will keep their place in the division, qualify for Europe, win a title and so on.
With respect to the Premier League, the title race has been long over, so the attention, naturally, has shifted to the battle for European spots and the relegation struggle. However, this article will focus on several teams in between who are not in danger of relegation but are looking to take a big step forward next season. With that in mind, here are 5 midfielders across Europe that mid-table Premier League clubs should be looking at very seriously.
#5 Iddrisu Baba (RCD Mallorca) Market Value: €2.50 million
Of all the players on this list, Iddrisu Baba is perhaps the most underrated and most unnoticed one. Born in the Ghanaian capital of Accra, Baba has spent his entire professional career in Spain, mostly in the lower divisions, coming through the ranks at Leganes and Barakaldo before breaking into the Mallorca first team in 2018.
In the current Mallorca side, which is fighting against relegation from La Liga (they are 18th at the time of writing, one point away from safety), Baba often plays as one half of a double pivot alongside Salva Sevilla in a 4-2-3-1 system but has also showcased his tactical flexibility when he has been handed the lone pivot role in a 4-1-4-1 formation. This easy adaptation to different roles is something that could prove valuable to several sides in the Premier League.
When Baba has another midfielder alongside him, he is often called upon to take up much of the defensive duties in the middle third of the pitch, a role which he is naturally suited to, given his athleticism and reading of the game. This is backed up by his numbers for the season; 1.2 interceptions and 1.7 tackles (at a 55% success rate) per game, in addition to only committing 1.2 fouls whilst earning 2 per game for his side. Playing him in this particular role, however, does do a slight disservice to his immense ability in possession.
When playing as the lone holding midfielder, Baba has far more responsibility, as he is expected to break the opposition press and initiate attacks, in addition to shielding the back-line and it is in this kind of role that he is sure to thrive. He averages 1.4 dribbles per game overall, a figure which rises to 1.7 when he is the single pivot, an encouraging sign as it shows his ability to escape markers and emerge with the ball. What really stands out, however, is the progressive nature of his passing. Mallorca, as a team, average nearly 20 passes into the final third of the pitch per game and Baba himself is responsible for 28% of those passes, at nearly 5.5 per game.
Baba would be a good fit either for a team which looks to play on the counter-attack, by soaking up pressure for long periods before releasing their attackers, or a side which prefers to dominate possession and needs a security system in the middle of the park. With these two styles in mind, he would be an excellent pick up for a team like Newcastle United or Brighton and Hove Albion and would be sure to catch the eye of bigger clubs in the future.
#2 Manuel Locatelli (Sassuolo) Market Value: €17 million
Perhaps one of the more expensive players on this list, former AC Milan prodigy Manuel Locatelli, now plying his trade for Sassuolo, has been in excellent form over the last 18 months or so and could make the Rossoneri regret their decision to sell him sooner than one could say, "Manuel, come back!"
Still just 22 years of age, there is more than enough time for Locatelli to improve and refine his game, which is a truly frightening prospect for opposition teams and players alike. This season, similar to his time at Milan, Locatelli has often played as one of the two deeper-lying midfielders in a 4-2-3-1 system, or even as part of a three-man midfield in a 4-3-3, but with a similar role.
Locatelli's skill set makes him an extremely effective weapon for any side and indeed any style of play, in world football. He stands out as one of the best ball progressors in Serie A, alongside the likes of Piotr Zielinski, Fabian Ruiz and Luis Alberto, as he ranks 5th for completed dribbles and 4th for passes into the final third amongst midfielders in the league. This enables him to dictate his team's play from deep, often controlling the tempo of the game while his midfield partner provides a solid platform for him to work with.
In terms of actual numbers, Locatelli completes 1.9 dribbles and 6.8 passes into the final third per game, which shows that, like Baba, he is extremely adept at bypassing the first line of the press and getting his team on the front foot. To add to his playmaker credentials, Locatelli also possesses an excellent passing range, as he completes nearly 70% of his 5.3 attempted long balls per game and has a 90% success rate on shorter passes.
Locatelli would excel in a team that has a wealth of attacking talent and a good primary creator, but that is in need of someone who can consistently get it up to these players, who can then make things happen. A good destination, therefore, would be Southampton, who can rely on the attacking prowess of Danny Ings, Nathan Redmond, Sofiane Boufal and Moussa Djenepo and have a creative hub in the form of James Ward-Prowse. Slotting Locatelli in behind these players, perhaps alongside Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, could potentially have a huge impact for the Saints going forward.
#3 Pierre Kunde (FSV Mainz 05) Market Value: €10 million
The first of two Bundesliga players on this list, Cameroonian international Pierre Kunde, was born in Limbe, Cameroon in 1995, but started his senior professional footballing career in Spain, with Alcobendas in 2012. It is perhaps a sign of how highly he was rated at the time, that he was signed by Atletico Madrid in 2014, albeit for their B team.
Kunde was sent out on loan twice during his time in the Spanish capital-to Extremadura and Granada-following which, in 2018, he made the move to Germany with Mainz. Now in his second season with the club, Kunde has consistently been a vital cog in their set-up, with his skill-set proving extremely useful to several tactical systems.
Just as many midfielders do these days, Kunde often forms one half of a double-pivot in the centre of the park, mostly in a 4-2-3-1, but can also play the role of the deepest-lying player in a midfield diamond, although this is often restrictive to his style of play. Kunde's main strength is his fantastic endurance and stamina, rather than his technical ability. While he is technically proficient, it is the aforementioned physical characteristics which enable him to be a significant presence in both boxes and help him get up and down the pitch with ease.
Further evidence of his ability both in and out of possession is seen in his impressive statistics; Kunde completes 2.2 dribbles per game at a 76.7% completion ratio, in addition to taking care of the defensive side of his game with 1.9 tackles per 90 minutes at a 52.6% success rate. It is worth noting that both these numbers showcase his evolution as a player, from a primarily defensive player to a more well-rounded one.
Kunde would be effective in a team which prefers to play a high-tempo style of football, as it would mesh extremely well with his own style of play. It would also probably help if the team in question also already possesses players who are primarily responsible for the creative and defensive sides of the game, as Kunde could serve as a supporting act for both of them. Everton would seem a good fit, where the creative side of the game is more than taken care of, with the likes of Gylfi Sigurdsson and Andre Gomes and the defensive responsibilities are shouldered by Tom Davies, Morgan Schneiderlin and, ostensibly, Jean-Philippe Gbamin (when he returns from injury).
#4 Angelo Fulgini (Angers SCO) Market Value: €5 million
French youth international Angelo Fulgini has been well-known to French football fans for more than a while now, but his reputation outside of France is largely non-existent. Indeed, the general public is almost unaware of his existence, save for a portion of Liverpool fans who had seen him linked with their club in 2016, when he was just 20.
Having been born in the Ivorian capital of Abidjan, Fulgini is also eligible to represent the African nation at the senior level, but if his youth career is anything to go by, he may well lean towards the country he has been given his footballing education in, in France. After breaking through at Valenciennes, he joined Angers in 2017 and has been ever-present for the club ever since.
This season, under manager Stephane Moulin, Angers have tended to line up in a 4-1-4-1 formation, with Baptiste Santamaria occupying the deepest midfield position, and 2 other players taking up 'floating 8' roles, who are more often than not Fulgini and veteran Thomas Mangani. Playing in this system, with these players, Fulgini is often freed from the defensive side of his game and can focus more on what he does extremely well; getting the ball to attacking players in dangerous positions and looking to carve out opportunities both for himself and his teammates.
This season, Fulgini has averaged 4.2 passes into the final third of the pitch per game, as well as completing 3.4 dribbles at a 76% completion rate. It is also interesting to note that despite his lack of defensive responsibility, he still attempts nearly 3 tackles per game, an indication of his willingness to put in the hard yards to win the ball back after losing it. Given the adventurous nature of his passing, his pass success rate stands at a fairly average 82%.
Fulgini tends to operate well in a system where he is not strictly bound by position and is given the freedom to drift from his position into areas where he can influence the game. He is particularly adept at getting in between the lines and being an effective presence in the half-spaces, the gaps between the centre-backs and full-backs. It would be interesting to see how he would fit in at Wolves or Sheffield United, but the most suitable club for Fulgini could perhaps be Brighton, where he would thrive in Graham Potter's possession-based system and form a lethal creative partnersip with the likes of Aaron Mooy and Pascal Gross.
#5 Marko Grujic (Hertha BSC, on loan from Liverpool) Market Value: €18 million
Premier League fans will already be familiar with the name Marko Grujic, as the 23-year old is currently on loan at Hertha Berlin from league leaders Liverpool. The Serbian was signed by the Merseyside club in 2016, at the age of 20, from boyhood club Red Star Belgrade.
A part of the Serbian team that won the U-20 World Cup in 2015, Grujic never really made the grade at Liverpool, but has impressed so far in what is his second season in the Bundesliga, with capital side Hertha Berlin. While he was seen by many as the successor to Steven Gerrard at Liverpool, Grujic's career has not panned out as such and the way he has developed into has shown that he is neither the same type of player nor character as the Liverpool legend.
During his time at Hertha, Grujic has been deployed as a deep-lying playmaker in a 4-2-3-1 system, being partnered mostly with Per Skjelbred or Vladimir Darida to form a double pivot. More often than not, Grujic's partner is tasked with being the more defensive of the two, while his role is to ensure that the players in front of him receive quality service, while he himself rarely ventures too far forwards.
In terms of progressing the ball, the Serbian is certainly partial to passing it soon after he receives it, rather than dribbling and looking to carry it forward himself, with his numbers of 1.3 dribbles per game and 3.7 passes into the final third backing this up quite solidly. In addition, Grujic has developed into a more adventurous passer since his early Liverpool days, as he attempts more long balls (nearly 8 per game) at a completion rate of over 80%, which leads to him creating more opportunities for his teammates. Indeed, across the last 2 seasons he has averaged 0.62 key passes per game, an impressive number, considering his position and role in the team.
Grujic has expressed a desire to return to Liverpool and prove himself on Merseyside, but it remains to be seen whether the club feels the same way and given that his contract expires in 2021, Liverpool would likely be willing to sell for the right price this summer. As Grujic's style of play is quite general and not system-specific, he could fit in at any number of clubs in England.
At 6'3", he would add a certain amount of muscle to the midfield of whichever team is willing to take a gamble on him. To see him at Sheffield United would be extremely interesting, as his game would only improve under Chris Wilder and to see a partnership form between him, Sander Berge and the likes of John Fleck and John Lundstram is an exciting proposition.Published 16 Mar 2020, 17:09 IST