Transfer Targets – Central Midfielders

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The winter transfer window kicks off on Saturday, January 2, although LaLiga and Serie A sides will have to wait until Monday to begin their business for the new year.

There are plenty of teams who will be looking to bolster their squads over the next four weeks, and there are even more players who could be on the move in the January window. Here are three midfielders who could be set for a big transfer in 2021.

Jordan Veretout – Roma – £0.65

As Kevin Friend blew the final whistle on April 16, 2016, the traveling supporters who had braved the trek from Birmingham to Manchester felt the crushing weight of reality sink in. Aston Villa had been relegated to the Championship for the first time in 29 years following a 1-0 loss to Manchester United, suffering one of the worst campaigns in Premier League history. Four managers. Three wins. 17 points from 38 matches. Any Villa supporter who stuck it out to watch their team’s catastrophic performances would have been forgiven for thinking that every single player in that squad would be destined to fade into oblivion.

Four-and-a-half years after that historic relegation, Aston Villa are back in the top flight and fighting for European football, whilst several of the players who composed that wretched squad are now thriving at the top level. Ashley Westwood and Jordan Ayew are starting for Premier League teams, Adama Traoré is blossoming into one of the most dangerous wingers in England under Nuno Espírito Santo at Wolves, whilst Idrissa Gana Gueye and Jordan Amavi are playing regularly in Champions League sides. Jack Grealish was a 20-year-old prospect who was gaining more headlines for his hard-partying lifestyle than his performances on the pitch, but today, he’s fast emerging into one of the finest footballers in Europe and wearing the armband for Dean Smith’s Villains. To the east, Jordan Veretout is finding a new lease on life in Italy. 

Born in Ancenis, France, Veretout joined Nantes’s academy in 2003 and worked his way up the ranks at La Maison Jaune before making his professional debut on May 13, 2011 in a league match against Sedan. Veretout would nail down a starting spot the following season, and the season after, he played a leading role in Nantes’s promotion under manager Michel Der Zakarian. He could not spend too much time celebrating the triumph with his Nantes teammates, though, as he was obligated to pack his bags for Turkey to compete in the 2013 FIFA U-20 World Cup. Veretout started in every single match for France alongside Paul Pogba and Geoffrey Kondogbia in midfield as Les Espoirs went on to defeat Uruguay in the final in Istanbul. 

Veretout soon gained a reputation as an all-action, box-to-box midfielder capable of filling in multiple roles across the front six, attracting the attention of a variety of Premier League sides ranging from Tottenham, Liverpool and Leicester City. The Foxes looked close to sealing the deal when Aston Villa swept in at the last minute and purchased him for €10 million on July 31, 2015. Instead, Leicester were forced to settle for a 24-year-old Caen midfielder by the name of N’Golo Kanté.

After Veretout put pen to paper on a five-year contract, manager Tim Sherwood said: “I’m really pleased Jordan decided to choose Aston Villa over the other options he had and opt to continue his development with us. He is only 22 years old but he is vastly experienced for someone that age. I know he is very highly rated over in France so we are delighted to get this deal over the line.”

However, Veretout struggled for minutes under Sherwood and would have to wait until the arrival of his compatriot Rémi Garde to enjoy a consistent run of starts in the team. Garde took over on November 2, with Villa bottom of the league, but after failing to improve upon their status, he too was given the axe on March 29, 2016, as relegation edged ever closer. Veretout would not make a single appearance under managers Eric Black and Roberto Di Matteo, although he would later claim that he was frozen out in order for Villa to avoid paying him performance-related bonuses. Whilst Kanté earned a £32 million move to Chelsea on the back of a Premier League-winning season with Leicester, Veretout joined Saint-Étienne on loan.

Having struggled to settle into life in England due in part to the language barrier, Veretout adapted well under manager Christophe Galtier, scoring four goals and five assists in 43 appearances as Les Verts finished 8th in the table. Saint-Étienne looked close to sealing a permanent deal for Veretout when Fiorentina swooped in and purchased him for €7 million, leaving ASSE sporting director Dominique Rocheteau seething.

“We know [Veretout] well as a man and a footballer, but frankly we were surprised and disappointed by his conduct,” he said.

“He didn’t respect the word he had given us and the agreement we had with him. His arrival had already been organised, but he then told us he wanted to go to Fiorentina. His choice is a sporting one. Now we’ve discovered that we weren’t his first choice.”

Veretout quickly became one of the first names on the team sheet under manager Stefano Pioli, starting alongside Milan Badelj in the double pivot of Pioli’s 4-2-3-1. But on March 4, 2018, he would suffer the worst heartbreak imaginable when club captain Davide Astori passed away in his sleep prior to a league match against Udinese. Fiorentina’s squad bounced back from that tragedy in heroic fashion and finished 8th in the table, but the following season, their form came crashing down to Earth.

Fiorentina’s performances on the pitch took a backseat to the growing discontent surrounding the owners, Diego and Andrea Della Valle, who had been in charge since 2002. La Viola sat 10th in the table when the club brass released a statement to “defend” Pioli, who had been under fire for the team’s worrying form. “Commitment must be total on the part of everyone. The club also ask Coach Pioli to manage this period with the competence and sincerity he showed in the first half of the season. Now we need conviction and pride from all those who take to the field, to try to bring home results that are absolutely within reach.”

The following day, Pioli resigned, forcing the Della Valle brothers to hire manager Vincenzo Montella, who had previously managed the Tuscan club between 2012 and 2015. Fiorentina’s form continued to worsen, as they took two points from their final seven league matches and finished just three points clear of the drop. Italian-American businessman Rocco Commisso purchased the club on June 6, 2019, bringing in a range of new signings such as Franck Ribéry, Erick Pulgar and Kevin-Prince Boateng. However, Veretout left Tuscany and headed for the capital, joining Roma on loan with a €16 million obligation to buy.

At 27 years of age, Jordan Veretout is currently playing the best football of his career under manager Paulo Fonseca. He has scored eight goals in 16 appearances this season — approaching his career-high of 10 goals in 2017/18 — and has cemented a starting spot next to Lorenzo Pellegrini in the double pivot of Fonseca’s 3-4-2-1. In fact, amongst midfielders in Europe’s top five leagues, only Lars Stindl and Bruno Fernandes have scored more goals than Veretout.  As Fiorentina attempt to escape another relegation fight, Roma are third in Serie A, just seven points behind league leaders Milan.

Boubakary Soumaré – Lille – £0.58

On Friday, December 18, Gérard Lopez agreed to sell his 95% stake in Lille Olympique Sporting Club to Luxembourg-based investment fund Callisto Sporting after mounting pressure from the club’s creditors, Elliott Management and JP Morgan. The decision comes amidst a financial crisis for the French team and growing concerns over Lopez’s inability to pay back over £100 million in loans, a perfect storm stemming from the LFP’s botched broadcasting rights deal with Mediapro, the economic blowback from the COVID-19 pandemic, a bloated wage bill, and a €618 million stadium project that has not paid the dividends that were expected upon its unveiling in August 2012.

With Lille’s finances under intense scrutiny from the Direction Nationale du Controle de Gestion (DNCG), French football’s FFP watchdog, it seems likely that Les Dogues will be forced to part with at least one of their young prospects in the January transfer window. Renato Sanches could be in line for a return to the Premier League with Liverpool reportedly eyeing him to replace Georginio Wijnaldum, whilst Sven Botman has gained plenty of suitors since arriving in the summer from Ajax for €8 million. But there is another player, who, just one year after rejecting a deadline day move, could be set to depart for a mouth-watering transfer sum.

Born and raised to first-generation Senegalese immigrants, Boubakary Soumaré began his career at Paris FC before joining Paris Saint-Germain’s academy in 2011. Soumaré rose up the ranks at PSG’s youth facility alongside the likes of Mattéo Guendouzi, Moussa Diaby and Dan-Axel Zagadou, earning the moniker ‘Bougba’ in reference to his similar playing style and physical characteristics to Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba. However, he soon realized that he wasn’t going to break into the first team under manager Unai Emery with Marco Verratti, Thiago Motta and Adrien Rabiot ahead of him in the rotation. He decided to leave PSG on a free transfer in the summer of 2017, joining Lille on a three-year contract which automatically triggered a two-year extension on the basis of Lille staying up in Ligue 1.

Soumaré began his time in Lille playing for the reserve side, but on November 5, 2017, he made his professional debut in a 3-0 victory over Metz. He continued to impress under manager Christophe Galtier, who replaced Marcelo Bielsa midway through the season with Lille ensnared in the relegation zone, but he would have to wait until the final weeks of the 2018/19 campaign to get a consistent run of starts in midfield. Soumaré took advantage of Thiago Mendes’ departure to Lyon in July 2019 to consolidate a starting spot, forming a solid midfield duo with Benjamin André in Galtier’s 4-2-3-1. His performances attracted interest from the likes of Manchester United, Real Madrid, Tottenham Hotspur and Napoli, but it was Newcastle United who came closest to signing him. The Toons had agreed a £45 million deal with Lille in the waning days of the January transfer window, and had even charged French players Allan Saint-Maximin and Florian Lejeune with giving Soumaré a virtual tour of the club’s training facilities via FaceTime, only for the player himself to reject the move.  “I do not see myself leaving. I feel good here. A departure is not on the cards,” Soumaré said in an interview with L’Équipe.

Having previously rejected a £36 million move to Wolves five months earlier, Soumaré’s desire to remain at the club for the rest of the season and join a Premier League top six club in the summer caused plenty of consternation within the Lille boardroom. Owing to an internal conflict with the board, Soumaré did not play a single match for over a month before making a brief substitute appearance in a 1-0 victory vs. Lyon, the final match before the cancellation of the 2019/20 Ligue 1 season.

Soumaré has regained his starting spot in midfield this season, playing an integral role in the sensational form of Lille, who are currently second in Ligue 1, only behind Lyon on goal difference. His biggest test so far this season came on December 20, when he faced off against his former employers at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy. The 21-year-old midfielder was everywhere, keeping the flow of possession ticking, using his ample physique to shield off opposing players, and maneuvering his way out of pressure. Perhaps even more impressive was his performance out of possession; constantly in the right position to sweep up loose balls, sticking a foot in to win the ball back without running the risk of conceding a foul, and pushing forward at the right moment and to snuff out attacks, a testament to both his physical skill set and anticipation.

Such qualities have endeared him to the likes of Manchester United, Milan, Arsenal and Newcastle United, and there are even rumors that Lille could be forced to sell Soumaré for just £22.5 million due to the club’s growing financial crisis. With his contract set to expire in 2022, it seems a mere formality that the French midfielder will depart Hauts-de-France sooner rather than later.

Otávio – Bordeaux – £0.39

“You watch the game, you don’t see [Sergio] Busquets. You watch Busquets, you see the whole game.”

Those were the words of former Spain manager Vicente Del Bosque on his midfield metronome, but they could have just as easily been applied for Bordeaux midfielder Otávio. As manager Jean Louis Gasset said prior to Wednesday’s match against Reims: “We don’t have anyone who has the same profile as Otávio in the team. There is not a player who can play like him.”

With Otávio unavailable due to suspension, Gasset turned to Yacine Adli in midfield, but it was to no avail; Bordeaux were thoroughly outplayed and outfought in a 1-3 home defeat. 

Born in Maceió, Alagoas, Otávio joined Athletico Paranaense’s academy at 14 years of age in 2008, rising up the youth ranks before making his Série A debut on April 20, 2014. He would nail down a starting spot the following season, becoming a vital performer in midfield and earning the interest of Bordeaux, who signed him for a fee of €5.2 million on August 8, 2017. 

The Brazilian quickly nailed down a starting spot in the holding midfield position alongside Lukas Lerager and Younousse Sankharé, impressing in the center of the pitch as Les Girondins took 15 points from their first seven matches. However, their form quickly took a U-Turn as Jocelyn Gourvennec’s side fell to 15th in the table. Bordeaux’s malaise was further exacerbated on January 16, 2018, when, after a 0-2 defeat to lowly Caen, Otávio and his compatriots Jonathan Cafú and Malcom filmed themselves smiling and laughing and uploaded the video to social media. Captain Jérémy Toulalan asked the club to rescind his contract as he was unable to stand his Brazilian teammates’ immature behavior, and Gourvennec was forced to step down before being replaced by Gus Poyet until the end of the season. Cafú joined Red Star Belgrade on a season-long loan whilst Malcom headed to Barcelona for a club-record sale of £36.5m, but Otávio remained in France.

Former Bordeaux manager Ricardo Gomes returned to his post following the sacking of Poyet, but he too was given his marching orders on February 26, 2019 before being replaced by Paulo Sousa. Under the Portuguese manager, Otávio developed into one of the most dominant midfielders in France both on and off the ball. “I evolved a lot with Paulo Sousa,” he said in an interview with Terra de Zizou. “He spoke to me about all the details in my game every day, and this made me exit my comfort zone and try to improve every day. This was fundamental in my growth.”

Otávio marries a composed and precise approach in possession with an aggressive style in snuffing out opposition passes and making vital interceptions to stop the opponent’s counter-attack. He is the glue in midfield, a restless workhorse with the ability to weave out of pressure and execute top-tier man-marking jobs on players such as Neymar, a smooth operator whose quality and importance is only truly appreciated during the matches where he isn’t available. 

It has been a tumultuous season for Bordeaux, who currently sit 13th after 17 matchdays. Sousa left his managerial position a mere 10 days before the season opener, citing growing discontent with club president Frédéric Longuepée and the club’s recruitment strategy, before being replaced by Gasset, who came out of retirement and returned to the club where he previously had served as an assistant under Laurent Blanc from 2007 to 2010. Hatem Ben Arfa’s arrival on a free transfer has provided a creative oasis going forward, but overall, they have paid the price for not having a reliable, goalscoring center-forward of the ilk of other mid-table sides such as Reims’s Boulaye Dia, Strasbourg’s Habib Diallo, or Montpellier’s Andy Delort. Nevertheless, one player who has been a consistent bright spot at Nouvelle-Aquitaine is Otávio. At 26 years of age, the Brazilian is entering his prime years as a midfielder and will be in line for a big move before his contract expires in 2022.


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