Transfer Targets – Attacking Midfielders

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The January transfer window is officially open for all of Europe’s five major leagues, and after RB Leipzig’s purchase of Dominik Szoboszlai, there are plenty of attacking midfielders who could be on the move this month.

Here are three attacking midfielders who could be set for a big transfer in 2021:

Rodrigo De Paul – Udinese – £1.73

From Alexis Sánchez to Márcio Amoroso, from Juan Cuadrado to Mauricio Isla, few teams have a better track record than Udinese Calcio when it comes to spotting raw South American youngsters, developing them into premium talents who are prepared for the top level, and selling them for a massive profit. And whilst Udinese haven’t quite tasted that same prosperity since the summer of 2015, when they sold Roberto Pereyra, Allan, Luis Muriel and Adalberto Peñaranda for mouth-watering fees, there is one Argentine playmaker who could be set to land them a record transfer sum this very year.

Born in Sarandí, Greater Buenos Aires, Rodrigo De Paul joined the academy of Racing Club de Avellaneda at the age of eight, rising up the ranks before making his debut on February 10, 2013, replacing Mauro Camoranesi in a 3-0 loss to San Martín de San Juan. He quickly became a starter, registering six goals and six assists in 56 appearances, before joining Valencia on May 9, 2014 for a fee of $6.5 million.

De Paul’s time in Spain started off on the wrong foot; after replacing Paco Alcácer in the 65th minute in the season opener against Sevilla, he was sent off just a minute later after elbowing Aleix Vidal. Nevertheless, the Argentine became a valuable ‘super sub’ under Nuno Espírito Santo, recording two goals and four assists in 29 appearances as Valencia finished fourth in the league.

The following season, on the other hand, was not as kind to Los Che; De Paul started Valencia’s first two league matches, but he would play just 59 more minutes before Nuno was sacked on November 29 following a 1-0 loss to Sevilla. And whilst he did start back-to-back matches against Real Madrid and Real Sociedad under new manager Gary Neville, he soon found himself below the pecking order and decided to return to Racing on loan for the remainder of the season.

Upon his return to Europe, De Paul was promptly shipped out to Udinese, with Valencia accepting a loss of €1.7 million on the €4.7 million that they had paid for him just two years prior. After narrowly avoiding relegation in 2014/15 and 2015/16, the Friuliani have gradually established themselves as a mid-table side in Serie A. Players like Bruno Fernandes and Piotr Zieliński have departed Udinese, eight separate managers have come and gone since the start of the 2016/17 campaign, and the club’s recruitment and ambition has suffered as the Pozzo family ownership has turned the bulk of their investment to Watford.

But Udinese have punched above their weight on the back of De Paul, who has gone from strength to strength in Italy: nine goals and seven assists in 2018/19, seven goals and seven assists in 2019/20, and three goals in three assists in 15 appearances this season. It makes for impressive reading, but not quite as impressive as his underlying stats: amongst midfielders in Europe, De Paul ranks first for expected assists (xA), progressive runs, successful passes in the opponent’s area, and successful dribbles.

De Paul signed a five-year contract in October 2019, but at 26 years of age, it seems a matter of time before he gets a big move. Inter are reportedly interested in signing him as a replacement for the wantaway Christian Eriksen, whilst Juventus are also eyeing him as a potential reinforcement for their front six. One possible suitor could be Leeds United, with Marcelo Bielsa keen on bringing his compatriot to Elland Road. Whilst De Paul has played across the attack for Udinese, he has mainly played on the right side of midfield in Igor Tudor’s 3-5-2, and his versatility will certainly come as an added boost to whichever team wins the race for him.

Pizzi – Benfica – £0.30

Since joining from Atlético Madrid for a club-record fee totaling €14 million, Pizzi has been an example of consistency and production at Benfica, playing a vital role in four league titles and playing 87 consecutive Liga NOS matches, a streak that ended last month after the midfielder became infected with COVID-19. However, at 31 years of age, it seems his time in the capital could be set to end soon, with manager Jorge Jesus claiming, “Pizzi is an influential player in the team, but in today’s market, nothing is certain.”

Born in Bragança, Portugal as Luís Miguel Afonso Fernandes, he would often wear the jersey of Barcelona striker Juan Antonio Pizzi, and his similar goalscoring exploits in neighborhood matches saw him earn the nickname ‘Pizzi.’ Pizzi began his career with GD Bragança before joining Braga’s academy in 2008, although he would make just two appearances for the Minhotos, spending the bulk of his time out on loan.

On August 30, 2011, Pizzi joined Atlético Madrid on loan with a €13.5 million option to buy, but he struggled for minutes at the Estadio Vicente Calderón and subsequently joined Deportivo de La Coruña on loan the following season. Playing largely as a left winger, Pizzi registered eight goals and seven assists in 36 appearances during his time in Galicia, earning the attention of Benfica, who paid €6 million for half of his economic rights before loaning him to Espanyol for the 2013/14 season.

Upon his return to Portugal, Pizzi initially struggled for minutes under Jorge Jesus, but he finally gained his first Liga NOS start on January 31, 2015, providing an assist in a 3-0 victory over Boavista. Similar to his predecessor Enzo Pérez, Jesus converted Pizzi from a winger into a central midfielder, and the results soon followed; he provided four goals and eight assists in 31 appearances as the Encarnados narrowly edged Julen Lopetegui’s Porto side to the league title.

Jesus controversially left Benfica in the summer to join Sporting, the club where he had begun his footballing career back in the 1970s, but Pizzi reached a new level under manager Rui Vitória. After slimly defeating Jesus’s Sporting to win a third straight league title in 2015/16, Pizzi provided 13 goals and 12 assists in the following campaign as Benfica claimed a domestic double, eventually being named Player of the Season at the LPFP Awards. 

The following season, Porto denied Benfica in their quest for an unprecedented fifth league title, but they bounced back in 2018/19 under the leadership of rookie manager Bruno Lage, who took over in the summer after previous stints as Carlos Carvalhal’s assistant and coach of Benfica B. Whilst he began the season as a central midfielder, Pizzi was gradually moved into the right flank of Lage’s 4-4-2 following the emergence of 19-year-old Florentino Luís, who formed an assured double pivot with Gabriel Pires in the middle of the pitch.

Bolstered by the breakthroughs of Florentino, Ferro, and João Félix, Benfica closed the distance on Porto and eventually leapfrogged them in the league table following a 2-1 victory at the Estádio do Dragão. Leading the way was the veteran Pizzi, who became one of the club’s captains following the retirement of Luisão and provided 15 goals and 23 assists as Benfica won a record 37th league title. He one-upped himself in 2019/20 with 30 goals and 19 assists and, although it wasn’t enough to prevent Sérgio Conceição’s Porto from regaining their Liga NOS crown.

Whilst Pizzi began the league opener against Famalicão on the bench, he has still managed to register 10 goals in 20 appearances this season under Jorge Jesus, although his status as an undisputed starter has come under threat with fierce competition from Adel Taarabt and Julian Weigl. With Benfica spending close to €100 million in the summer and aiming to reinforce their midfield in the January window with rumored targets Gustavo Assunção and Willian Arão, Pizzi could be set for a departure this year.

According to Goal, Jesus has given the green light to the board to negotiate the sale of Pizzi, as well as other players such as Ferro, Chiquinho and Andreas Samaris, and with teams from the United States and England reportedly interested in completing a transfer, Benfica will be looking to bring in a fee of €10-15 million for their jack-of-all-trades.

Hakan Çalhanoğlu – AC Milan – £2.01

After suffering through a decade of mediocrity, Milan are enjoying a red-hot start to the season under manager Stefano Pioli. The Rossoneri currently sit atop the Serie A table with 37 points from their first 15 matches, whilst they are also set to face Red Star Belgrade in the UEFA Europa League Round of 32 after topping their group. However, as Milan attempt to put an end to Juventus’s domestic dominance, a dark cloud hangs over their season: the future of star playmaker Hakan Çalhanoğlu.

Born in Mannheim, Germany to Turkish parents, Çalhanoğlu began his professional career with Karlsruher SC in the 2. Bundesliga, and whilst he was unable to save them from relegation, his impressive form caught the attention of Hamburger SV, who brought him in on a four-year contract before loaning him back to Karlsruher. With 17 goals and 14 assists in 40 appearances, Çalhanoğlu played a leading role in the club’s immediate return to Germany’s second tier, and his impressive form carried over to the top flight, providing 11 goals and 5 assists as Die Rothosen narrowly avoided relegation. 

Çalhanoğlu would only remain one season in Hamburg before controversially joining league rivals Bayer Leverkusen on July 4, 2014 for a fee of €14.5 million. He quickly became one of the first names on manager Roger Schmidt’s team sheet, establishing himself as one of the deadliest set-piece technicians in Europe and combining with the likes of Chicharito, Julian Brandt and Karim Bellarabi in attack.

His 2016/17 season came to an abrupt end on February 2 after receiving a four-month ban from FIFA for a breach of contract dating back to 2011, when he received €100,000 from Trabzonspor after agreeing to sign with the Turkish club, before extending his contract with Karlsruher. Nevertheless, that did not stop Milan from signing him in July for €20 million rising to €24 million, with the Turkey international penning a four-year contract at the San Siro.

His time in Italy got off to a rocky start, with Milan falling to as low as 11th place in the league and manager Vincenzo Montella getting the sack after a 0-0 draw to Torino. Gennaro Gattuso was brought in and managed to steady the ship, but he never quite managed to get the best out of Çalhanoğlu, using him almost exclusively as a left winger.

Marco Giampaolo replaced Gattuso in the summer of 2019, but he fared even worse in a deeper midfield role, with Giampaolo being given his marching orders on October 8 with the Rossoneri 13th in the table. Stefano Pioli took the reins, and whilst he originally used the Turkish playmaker on the left wing in both a 4-4-2 and a 4-3-3, he switched to a 4-2-3-1 in February with Çalhanoğlu operating as a ‘trequartista’ behind Zlatan Ibrahimović.

After the coronavirus break, Milan returned to the pitch with a tiger in their tank, taking 30 of a possible 36 points, defeating the likes of Juventus and Lazio, and finishing sixth in the table. The Rossoneri have continued their red-hot performances under Pioli this season, and Çalhanoğlu has run the show from the #10 position, playing ahead of Ismaël Bennacer and Franck Kessié and in the heart of the action. He has been given the keys to the team’s attack following the summer departure of Giacomo Bonaventura to Fiorentina, and Milan have reaped the benefits. At 26 years old, Çalhanoğlu is finally delivering elite performances on a consistent basis.

There’s just one problem: Çalhanoğlu’s contract expires on June 30, and up until now, it seems there’s too much of a distance between his wage demands and Milan’s current offer. Manchester United, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain have all been linked as potential suitors, and Pioli will be keen to keep hold of his Turkish playmaker.

“Calha is fantastic, he is intelligent, he can move well, he knows how to attack and he knows how to connect the game. He sacrifices himself,” said Pioli in a post-match interview on December 23 after Çalhanoğlu provided a goal and an assist to lead Milan past Lazio in a 3-2 victory. “The club, technical area, the player and I want the same thing, he has reached important levels and can still grow. He’s a player to bet on.”

As Ivan Gazidis, Paolo Maldini and Frederic Massara attempt to seal the fate of 21-year-old goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, whose contract also expires this summer, they will be looking to tie up Çalhanoğlu’s long-term future as well in order to eliminate any off-the-pitch distractions in the second half of the campaign.


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