With only a few days left in the January transfer window, Aston Villa’s are still in need of an accomplished holding midfielder to screen in front of the defence. Brighton & Hove Albion’s Yves Bissouma has been considered, but his club have rejected the reported £25 million bid. Given the player subject to a police investigation in a sexual assault inquiry, this should only be considered a good thing. Instead, the club have been heavily linked with a move for 24-year-old Juventus player Rodrigo Bentancur, continuing their ambitious recruitment strategy to disrupt the top eight. The details of the deal are complex, with the Uruguayan’s former club, Club Atlético Boca Juniors, expected to receive a cut of any transfer fee, and any deal depending on several other incomings and outgoings for the old lady of Turin.
For Villa’s purposes, a few factors have to be considered for any incoming defensive midfielder; defensive solidity is key and Villa need a player with a lot of mobility to cover for the advanced full-backs deployed under Steven Gerrard. The defensive structure often has one of the eights cover for the full-back too, so being comfortable in a two-man midfield is similarly key when assessing potential targets. Another important factor is the ability of the modern six to begin attacks as well as break them up, with Marvelous Nakamba eventually returning from injury and still under contract, another midfielder destroyer isn’t necessary. Villa require a defensive midfielder with the ability to progress the ball, with greater emphasis on passing, which would allow the holding presence to progress the ball without compromising the team’s defensive structure. Within the squad, Douglas Luiz fits this profile, however, his more passive defensive style means Villa are likely to drop deep to defend exposing the narrow structure to switches in play. The Brazilian is better used as one of the eights where on the ball qualities can better impact the final third.
So, does Bentancur fit the bill?
The radar plot above comprises some of the key aspects for a holding midfielder and Bentancur shows up well in almost every one of them. It should be noted that this season he has played most of his minutes in a box-to-box role in a midfield two and occasionally a three, which effects his statistics. Coach Massimiliano Allegri has criticised his use in front of the defence under Andrea Pirlo and Maurizio Sarri, and used him in conjunction with Manuel Locatelli. This season, the Uruguayan has mostly been utilised in a double pivot to maximise his effect in build-up and the final third.
In terms of progressing the ball, Bentancur’s main attribute is his passing ability, with a great range of passing. He has completed 75.6% of his passes over 10 yards, putting him in the 74th percentile of all midfielders in Europe’s top five leagues. His short and medium range passing are even better with over 90% completed in which puts him in the top 20% of midfielders. With this ability, he moves his team forward 248.41 yards per 90 (71st Percentile) with line-breaking progressive passes (5.12 per 90, 75th Percentile). This should carry over well to the Premier League as he is just as capable with his left and right foot, and is able to complete passes under pressure, completing 10.59 passes under pressure (91st percentile). Bentancur’s range of passing skills means he is well suited to a team lower in the league’s pecking order than Juventus; his long ball ability helps in quick transitions on the counter-attack, but his short passing would help recycle possession against a low block too. There are other ways to progress the ball, however, and this scattergram demonstrates how Bentancur looks to move the ball upfield.
The scattergram above shows Bentancur’s progressive ability by either passing or dribbling compared to Villa’s current midfield and several other defensive midfielders linked to Villa this window. Despite his good carrying numbers, however, it is clear this isn’t the strongest part of his game - he attempts and completes very few dribbles (31st and 33rd percentile respectively). Bentancur is only successful in 66.7% of his dribbling attempts (57th percentile) and rarely beats players, dribbling past 0.67 players per 90 (34th percentile). Despite his progressive numbers, it’s clear Rodrigo Bentancur’s abilities are best used in the middle and defensive thirds.
In the attacking third he makes little impact, taking very few shots, only 0.48 per 90 (13th percentile), and generates a low xG (0.02 per 90 10th percentile), and fairly average xA (0.06 per 90, 47th percentile) - these measures of the quality of chances created for him and by him demonstrate he isn’t a player who will be among the goals and assists often. While direct chance creation isn’t his strong suit, Bentancur is regularly involved in build-up play leading to chances, which is ideal for a deep lying player. His shot creating actions, any of the two actions preceding a shot, are in the 78th percentile, with his shot creating actions resulting from defensive work, like pressing, putting the midfielder in the top 1% in Europe; just behind Manchester City’s Fernandinho. This weaker part of his on the ball game, however, isn’t a priority for the holding role, and perhaps shows he is better suited to it than his current box-to-box role. The role he has been scouted for at Villa requires a lot of defensive work as well as progressive and this scattergram shows how he balances the two.
The scattergram above shows Rodrigo Bentancur’s ball winning actions compared to his progressive actions compared to Villa’s current midfield and other linked targets, with the result showing he has a good balance between the two and is in fact doing a lot of both. The points on the scattergram show that Bentancur doesn’t cluster completely with the holding players, though he doesn’t cluster with the midfield eights either. Where he falls somewhere in between is reflective of him being moved around and use in a two-man midfield. That experience in a two-man midfield is necessary for Villa’s defensive structure, with one of the eights often covering for a full-back. The high volume of defensive work also makes him well suited to the holding role in Gerrard’s midfield, where the manager has shown a preference for high energy, aggressive players.
Bentancur’s pressing game is impressive too as he is in the top 20% of Europe’s midfielder’s for his overall pressures and successful pressures, with most of them being applied in the midfield third (11.10 per 90, 77th percentile). There are improvements to be made, however, as Bentancur is dribbled past a little too often (1.42 per 90 47th percentile), and only manages to tackle 27.9% of those that attempt to get by him (20th percentile). This could be related to his role though; in the 2019/2020 season under Maurizio Sarri, which saw Bentancur play 13 games as a six in a midfield three, he tackled 42.4% of players attempting to get past him in which put him in the 97th percentile. This is a coaching point Gerrard and his team must be aware of if Bentancur is to be successful at Aston Villa.
The plot also shows the player’s centrality to their team by the percentage of the teams average touches per 90 in which are made by the player. Here, Boubacar Kamara is the most central to his team, Olympique de Marseille, with 12.57% of their touches on average, whereas Marvelous Nakamba is the lowest of the players with over 500 minutes and 8.98% playing a midfield destroyer role. This metric shows Bentancur, with 10.55% of Juventus’ touches on average, is taking part in a good amount of build-up and defending, while not being the only player capable of doing so. As a single pivot in this Villa side, more of the play would go through him, he would be involved similarly to how Douglas Luiz is, who has 10.70% touches on average, and has the capability to take on the responsibility of function in a double pivot.
Rodrigo Bentancur’s statistics show a player best used in a deep lying playmaker role, using his passing to progress the play, and a high defensive output to sweep in front of the defence. Despite the comments on his use in the number six role, it is one that the stats suggest he can grow into at the Premier League level. Bentancur’s lower dribbling ability and impact in the final third suggest other players are better left to the more attacking roles in the midfield three, and his busy high volume of defending would suit this Villa side well. Overall, Rodrigo Bentancur’s numbers clearly demonstrate why he is being targeted by Villa. COVID-19 has provided the club with a unique opportunity to acquire a player with league winning and Champion’s League experience, with few clubs willing to spend big in the January window. Whether this deal is completed in the end or not, it’s a sign of Villa’s lofty ambitions, and ability to challenge the elite clubs of Europe.