A striker scores goals, a defender prevents them, but a midfielder is the one around which the whole team revolves. As football continues to be dominated by possession and pressing-heavy tactics, the importance of midfielders continues to grow.
The 2019/20 Premier League title race is a good example of the same, with Jordan Henderson leading Liverpool's title charge. On the other hand, Manchester City have crumbled due to the absence of Fernandinho from the middle of the pitch.
However, recognition for a midfielder is hard to come by, as in the case of both Henderson and Fernandinho, whose importance was only recognised during their team's title runs. Several midfielders still go unnoticed, despite acting as the linchpin around which their whole team functions.
We take a look at five such underrated midfielders from Europe's top five leagues who top clubs should consider while addressing their needs.
Note: For this article, we have restricted the list to all players under 26 years of age who have played 90 minutes at least 15 times this season.
#1 Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg (Southampton)
Few could have predicted that Denmark international Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg would be involved in more relegation battles than title charges when he broke onto the scene at Bayern Munich. However, seven years on from winning the German top division title, the Dane finds himself helping Southampton stay in the Premier League.
Despite the Saints' struggles season after season, Hojbjerg has remained one of the league's most underrated midfielders. His performances across seasons have remained consistent, while at 24, he also is the league's youngest club captain (jointly with Jack Grealish).
Hojbjerg has averaged 56.7 completed passes per 90 with a completion rate of 77.4 per cent this season while playing almost every game. His statistics when on the ball are even more impressive, as he completes 78.7 per cent of his dribbles per 90 - the fourth-best figure in the league. He also completes 44.4 ball carries on average and is the only player from the bottom-half sides to make the top 10 in this category.
The ex-Bayern Munich starlet is also among the chief shot- and goal-creators at his club, having contributed 55 shot-creating actions and five goal-creating actions so far. The Denmark international is defensively sound as well, winning 1.80 tackles per 90. He is also among the best in the league in terms of successful pressures (7.17) per 90.
#2 Konrad Laimer (RB Leipzig)
Julian Nagelsmann's RB Leipzig side is an exciting one. Timo Werner is the crown jewel of a thrilling attack while Dayot Upamecano is the rock at the back. However, amongst the plethora of talent, one name that is often sidelined is Konrad Laimer.
The Austrian central midfielder has been particularly impressive for Die Rotten Bullen this season. He is part of a double-pivot with compatriot Marcel Sabitzer upon which the whole team hinges.
Stats suggest that Leipzig like to press teams in the middle of the park and Laimer is the one leading the charge. The Austrian international tops the subset both in pressures (37.1) and successful pressures (11.9) per 90 with a success rate of 32.1 per cent. He is also ranked first in tackles attempted per 90 while his record of 2.47 successful tackles see him take the second spot on the list.
The Laimer-Sabitzer double-pivot is the one around which the whole team revolves and the Austrian pair is tasked with turning the defence into attack. As such, the 22-year-old is the fifth-most targeted player for a pass in his subset, receiving 46.5 passes on average per match. His success rate of finding a teammate is over 90 per cent.
The youngster's modest numbers in passing and carrying the ball suggest that he is successfully able to switch play time and again for his team.
Laimer has become indispensable for Leipzig this season, evident by the fact that he tops the chart for points per match (2.23) among the regular starters for his team. He has also been key to his side's European march this season and was exceptional during their two-legged win over Jose Mourinho's Tottenham Hotspur. In the age of pressing and attacking football, a 'big' club needs to take a chance on him.
#3 Manuel Locatelli (Sassuolo)
An unfortunate habit AC Milan picked up during their descent from the top was letting go of good prospects early. Academy stars such as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Bryan Cristante became victims of the same, albeit both have since found success elsewhere.
Central midfielder Manuel Locatelli seems to be the latest in the long line of transfer blunders committed by the Milanese club, with the youngster now shining for Sassuolo in Serie A.
Locatelli chose to leave his boyhood club permanently in 2018 when Milan loaned in Chelsea flop Tiemoue Bakayoko. The Italian midfielder joined Sassuolo on loan with an obligation to buy, which the Serie A side triggered a year later.
The 22-year-old has been excellent for the Neroverdi this season, playing a key role in Roberto de Zerbi's exciting system. He has mostly been deployed as a deep-lying central midfielder, a role in which he has shone.
From deep, Locatelli has completed 62.5 passes per 90 - the third-best figure in the league - while maintaining 84.8 per cent accuracy. The youngster has also recorded 87.3 touches and 62 carries per 90 this season and is only surpassed by Napoli's Fabian Ruiz on both occasions.
Furthermore, Locatelli has the second-most tackles (2.27) per 90 in the league after Marko Rog while he has also completed 1.25 interceptions on average per game. Add to that four assists and one can see why the Rossoneri faithful are ruing his exit for a meagre €12.5 million.
#4 Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa (Villarreal; on loan from Fulham)
The story of Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa's Fulham stint is a sad one. The Cameroonian midfielder joined the Cottagers for a hefty fee during their disastrous summer splurge of 2018. A persistent ankle injury, as well as the problem of being played out of position, derailed his campaign and just a year later he was shipped off to Spain with the tag of 'Fulham flop'.
However, instead of being washed away in a highly technical league, Zambo Anguissa has flourished. The Cameroon international has found his place in Javi Calleja's Villarreal side pushing for a European spot. The on-loan Fulham star has been a key cog in Villarreal's midfield, often occupying the right central midfield spot.
Zambo Anguissa is tasked with the dual responsibility of protecting the right flank as his teammates bomb forward while also providing his defence with an outlet to pass the ball. The Cameroonian's numbers on the ball make up for impressive reading.
He is the third-best passer in his subset in the league in terms of completion rate, finding a teammate 87.2 per cent times successfully. He is also an excellent dribbler, evident by the fact that he completes 2.99 dribbles per 90 with a success rate of 86.2 per cent - the best in his category.
The 24-year-old's pressing numbers in the middle third of the pitch are the fourth-best in his subset while he also ranks high in interceptions (1.60 per 90). The Cameroonian's reputation was certainly hit by a tumultuous Fulham stint, however, he could yet prove to be a shrewd buy for any 'big' club.
#5 Baptiste Santamaria (Angers SCO)
In 2015, Leicester City looked to France to address their midfield needs and ended up signing an unknown player - N'Golo Kante. The Frenchman quickly established himself as one of the best specialist midfielders in the world and went on to win two Premier League titles, a Europa League title, and a World Cup in the following years.
As such, when a player is tagged as the next Kante, one is bound to sit up and take notice.
The year Kante moved to Chelsea, Baptiste Santamaria joined Ligue 1 side Angers SCO. In the four years since, the Frenchman has been one of the better midfielders in the French domestic competition, while also being one of the most consistent.
During the 2019/20 season, Santamaria covered the most ground of any other player in Ligue 1, while also partaking in all 28 matches. He recorded solid numbers in passing, completing 40.2 passes per 90 with a completion rate of 83.4 per cent.
He was also the second-best midfielder under 26 years of age in terms of completed long passes. The Frenchman had been defensively sound as well, recording 2.09 successful tackles and 1.44 interceptions per 90.
Stats also suggest that the midfielder rarely lost the ball and was able to receive passes with a success rate of 94.3 per cent - one of the best in the division.
Following the success of Kante, teams have started paying more attention towards Ligue 1, evident by the fact that several clubs - including Everton, Napoli, and Tottenham Hotspur - have been linked with Santamaria.
The Frenchman could prove to be a solid buy, should one of the teams decide to take a chance on him.Published 26 Apr 2020, 17:10 IST