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Alternative Transfer Targets: Looking for a defensive midfielder

7500 To Holte role plays as Johan Lange’s search for a defensive midfielder continues after Villa drop out of the race for Pape Matar Sarr.

Olympique de Marseille v FC Lorient - Ligue 1 Uber Eats Photo by Jonathan Bartolozzi/Olympique de Marseille via Getty Images

As the attention of the national press has been focused on football coming agonizingly close to home, there has been little to chew on in terms of Aston Villa incoming transfer news. One bit of information that has come out in the last week, however, is that Villa may have dropped out of the running to sign Metz defensive midfielder, Pape Matar Sarr.

With defensive midfield being a transfer priority, 7500 to Holte puts itself in the role of a data scout for Aston Villa, providing a number of realistic alternative transfer targets for Villa’s midfield.

The club have had a few serious links throughout the transfer window, which can provide some insight into Dean Smith’s thinking. Pape Matar Sarr, James Ward-Prowse, and even lesser links like Will Hughes and Harry Winks, all share qualities that are missing in Villa’s current midfield. All these players offer defensive cover in a three or double pivot, which would allow John McGinn to range forward more often.

While Marvelous Nakamba is adept at sweeping in front of the defense, he doesn’t offer much on the ball in which limits Villa in possession and forces McGinn to drop deep to collect the ball. The other quality that these linked players have in common is a higher volume of passes than most of Villa’s current midfield. Douglas Luiz is the only current Villa midfielder who fits this mold, but he will not get a summer break due to his Brazilian national team commitments, which after a COVID shortened season, makes a burn out possible.

When looking for players to highlight, we looked at these characteristics: (1) active defenders who can progress the ball, (2) as well as fitting Villa’s likely budget, and (3) age limit. Another thing our highlighted players share is a physical presence; adding height to Villa’s current midfield. The results of this sort of transfer can be seen in West Ham’s excellent season following the addition of Tomáš Souček, making the Hammers difficult to break down — adding trust going forward and being an additional threat from set pieces.

Ibrahim Sangaré

The first player we will highlight is former Toulouse and current PSV Eindhoven player, Ibrahim Sangaré. At 23 and 1.93m (6’3 for the imperial users), he fits the physical requirements and looking at the radar chart below, he scores very highly in defensive statistics on a per 90 minutes basis (based on 2019/20 data from Ligue 1 due to unavailability of Eredivisie statistics). Both the number of tackles he makes (3.55 per 90) and the number of those in which his team win posession (2.81) are particularly impressive; stacking up well in the number of pressures he makes (23.3) compared to Villa’s midfield as well.

Ibrahim Sangaré’s player profile.
Stats from Statsbomb via fbref.com. Graphic by Daniel Pritchard for 7500 to Holte.

The above plot also demonstrates some of Sangaré’s progressive abilities as he makes an average of 42.9 passes per game; more than any of Villa’s current midfield options. He is also way out ahead in terms of the number of progressive passes he makes — passes that advance the ball at least 10 yards, excluding the defensive third — making 5.87 per 90; meaning that he can find line-breaking passes into Villa’s forward players. However, his long passing could use some work with only 62.4% of those passes finding their target.

Granada CF v PSV Eindhoven: Group E - UEFA Europa League
Sangaré would add physicality and progressiveness to Villa’s midfield
Photo by Álex Cámara/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Sangaré would be an ambitious move for Villa. The player is highly rated and his current club PSV regularly finish in the top two of the Dutch league, making them European football regulars. It would also involve buying a player who only joined the Dutch outfit a year ago after his former club Toulouse were relegated. But his stats show a player who may well be destined for the top end of the game; exactly where Villa’s ambitions lie.

Denis Zakaria

Our next highlighted player is Switzerland international, Denis Zakaria, who plies his trade at Bundesliga side Borussia Mönchengladbach. The player has had some inconsistent form of late, having suffered a hamstring injury late into the 2019/20 season, though the same can be said of Gladbach’s form as a whole in 2020/21. Zakaria, who has previously been linked to Liverpool and Arsenal, is a capable defensive midfielder who can also play further up the pitch as a box-to-box midfielder and has also played as a centre-back; covering another priority position for Villa during this window.

The chart below perhaps best shows Zakaria’s dip in defensive output when compared to 2019/20, but this can be in partly explained by the consistent presence of Christoph Kramer in Gladbach’s number six role, leaving Zakaria with fewer minutes within his favored position after returning from injury.

Denis Zakaria’s player profile.
Stats from Statsbomb via fbref.com. Graphic by Daniel Pritchard for 7500 to Holte.

What can be seen in the chart, however, is Zakaria’s progressiveness. He would be slightly outside the high-volume passer role Villa seem to want, but makes up for that with his ability to carry the ball out of danger, making 2.28 per 90 (more than McGinn). With that in mind, he can still find a progressive pass (3.48), producing a similar number to that of Douglas Luiz.

Wales v Switzerland - UEFA Euro 2020: Group A
Zakaria is a top talent who could be available this summer.
Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images

While Zakaria’s performances have dropped, the 24-year-old could show again why he was targeted by some big Premier League clubs in the past. He is being highlighted here in part because of opportunity as the player only has one year left on his contract. It has been reported that Gladbach would be open to offers for him and fellow Swiss international, Breel Embolo, in order to generate funds for new coach, Adi Hütter, after missing out on European football last season.

Boubacar Kamara

The final highlighted player is French up-and-comer, Boubacar Kamara, of Olympique de Marseille. Kamara broke through at the French side as a centre-back and even as a right footed left-back at 18 before moving further up the field into the defensive midfield position, becoming a mainstay there this season at 21-years-old. His defensive statistics show great promise too. Being a former centre-back, he has a high number of aerial battles won for a midfielder, as well as standing out in number of tackles — making 3.04 per 90 and winning 2.14 of them.

The chart below also shows his aptitude in making blocks (1.77 per 90) and clearances (2.20 per 90), though his number of interceptions and the amount of pressure he puts on opponents needs some work.

Boubacar Kamara’s player profile.
Stats from Statsbomb via fbref.com. Graphic by Daniel Pritchard for 7500 to Holte.

Kamara’s passing his also demonstrated in the chart, attempting 63 passes per 90 and completing 87.2% of them. His short (under 15 yards) and medium (under 30 yards) passing is particularly noteworthy, completing over 90% of his attempted passes. His long passing is also impressive, completing 72.4% of them in which is just short of Douglas Luiz’s 74.8%.

The areas Kamara plays his 4.50 progressive passes into are dangerous too as he makes 5.06 passes into the final third, 0.5 passes into the box, and 0.68 passes leading to shots; all per 90. Where he could use some coaching is in his dribbling ability; only being successful in 65% of his dribbling attempts, though he doesn’t dribble often and he can be dispossessed in which occurs 1.21 times per 90.

AS Saint-Etienne v Olympique Marseille - Ligue 1
Kamara is a promising up and coming talent.
Photo by Marcio Machado/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images

Kamara is another player who potentially represents a good opportunity for a player on their way into the elite for a low price as he could be available for €15 million due to the difficult financial situation in Ligue 1. He has worked with January signing, Morgan Sanson, before and at 21, doesn’t immediately take Douglas Luiz’s starting spot — himself a promising young player — and could allow the Brazilian more freedom to roam forward in a midfield three.

Comparison

Comparing the players with each other in the chart below shows how they stack up, with Sangaré and Kamara standing out as having similar profiles in the metrics we are looking at. However, Sangare is a busier defender and more adventurous with the ball, making more progressive passes, but completing fewer of his passes when compared to Kamara overall. As previously stated, Zakaria’s numbers have dropped, but he does stand out for his dribbling ability and the number of interceptions made when compared to those who have been previously mentioned.

Comparison of all three players profiles.
Stats from Statsbomb via fbref.com. Graphic by Daniel Pritchard for 7500 to Holte.

When contrasting these players passing to Villa’s own midfielders, Kamara stands out for the number of passes he makes as well as the number completed in short, medium, and long passes. Additionally, for attempts over the 15 yard mark, Sangaré’s number drop significantly. Finally, Zakaria’s numbers remain respectable despite his preference for dribbling the ball out of danger, but he does not stand out in regard to his passing compared to Villa’s current midfielders.

Types of passes made by our highlighted midfielders compared to Villa’s current midfield.
Stats from Statsbomb via fbref.com. Graphic by Daniel Pritchard for 7500 to Holte.

As for progressiveness, we can hope to see more of Morgan Sanson moving up the field with the ball at his feet next season and it is clear that John McGinn is using his passing ability more in his deeper role. Sangaré comes out ahead in the number of progressive passes and could likely increase the number of carries he makes if asked to. Zakaria makes a high number of dribbles, although not as progressive as desired, while Kamara actively looks to go forward when he controls the ball despite his low dribbling numbers.

Comparing the progressiveness of these targets and Villa’s midfield.
Stats from Statsbomb via fbref.com. Graphic by Daniel Pritchard for 7500 to Holte.

Verdict

All three of these players would bring defensive solidity and the ability to maintain the amount of possession in which Villa are looking for next season. Due to his age, coach-ability, and availability, 7500 to Holte’s pick would be Boubacar Kamara. The player’s passing ability makes him stand out next to Villa’s current midfielders and he adds the physical presence missing in that part of the pitch, while also providing cover for the right-sided centre-back spot. At such a young age, Kamara has impressed and could be an exciting target should the club choose to pursue him in the near future.