Which team wins the central midfielder battle?

Date published: Thursday 21st July 2016 8:30

With Paul Pogba reportedly edging closer to a record-breaking return to Manchester United, the debate as to whether there is any value in the market these days, particularly in the Premier League, rages on. While undoubtedly one of the top talents on the continent, Pogba’s price tag is set to make the rest of the deals in England’s top-flight look like small fry.

That said, there have still been plenty of significant comings and goings in the Premier League, not least in midfield positions. Some of the leagues big hitters have been quick to try to add strength in central areas, and WhoScored.com compare the value for money of a number of top signings so far.


Granit Xhaka (Arsenal)
As things stand Arsenal’s signing of Swiss international Granit Xhaka is still the most expensive in the Premier League in this window, arriving for a fee that could reach close to £40m. The 23-year old pulled the strings for his national side this summer, averaging a mammoth 104.3 passes per game, with his mandate to keep things ticking over in midfield.

He certainly did that for Borussia Monchengladbach last season, averaging fewer passes than only Xabi Alonso in Germany’s top tier (82.7) and, while the vast majority of those are simple, sideways attempts, Xhaka’s range of passing was also on show; he completed more accurate long balls per game than any outfielder (7.4). With 2.4 tackles and 2.7 interceptions per game his industry will be a real asset at the base of the Gunners’ midfield, but the young midfielder often finds himself in the book and his temperament will need to be, well, tempered.

Only one player committed more fouls in the Bundesliga last season (2.6 per game), and the five red cards he has picked up over the last three seasons is the second most in Europe’s top five leagues. He’ll fit into Arsenal’s possession based approach with no fuss whatsoever, but while a rating of 7.35 from WhoScored.com last season – ranking 12th in Germany – was a strong score, whether a player of Xhaka’s ilk is worth the money that Arsenal paid is certainly debatable.


N’Golo Kante (Chelsea)
After a  sensational debut season in England’s top-flight for a player who only three years ago was plying his trade in France’s third tier, interest in N’Golo Kante was bound to be high. It was Chelsea that eventually met Leicester’s release clause for the tireless midfielder, and Kante will surely be a favourite of new Blues boss Antonio Conte given the Italian’s demanding tactics.

In that sense, the Frenchman – who turned 25 in March – does appear to be an astute acquisition for the Londoners, representing a vast upgrade on John Obi Mikel and an improvement too on Nemanja Matic based on last season’s showings. Indeed, while Matic fell from 11th in WhoScored’s 2014/15 rankings to 101st last season, Kante placed way up in sixth with a superb rating of 7.61.

The Frenchman made the most tackles – a feat Matic managed the season previous – and interceptions in the Premier League for the highest combined total in Europe’s top five leagues (331), while playing a significant role in the Foxes’ counter attacking approach. It was up to Kante to break up play and ensure his first action thereafter got Leicester moving forwards. Only Ranieri’s two wingers completed more dribbles (47) and while a pass accuracy of 81.6% may seem modest, it was the best for a side that looked to get the ball forwards as quickly as possible. While the fee for his services was considerable, it should prove money well spent by Chelsea.


Ilkay Gundogan (Manchester City)
While on paper a £23m deal to sign one of the Bundesliga’s very best midfielders may seem like very smart business on Manchester City’s part, and may well prove to be just that, there are extenuating circumstances that will dictate whether it represents great value. The German will miss the opening months of the season with a serious knee injury and has a concerning injury record.

At his best Gundogan has proven to be one of the very best box-to-box midfielders around but the fact that, at 25, he has just 16 international caps to his name is telling. Indeed, the former Dortmund man has only started more than 22 league matches in a season once in his career (26 in 2012/13). A career-threatening back injury keeping him out of action for 18 months, including almost all of 2013/14 campaign, meaning that he played just 52.4% of the available Bundesliga minutes during his five years with Dortmund.

His latest setback is particularly frustrating having reached something close to his best form last season, having struggled initially to reach the standards he set before his back problems. Indeed, despite starting just 22 of 25 league appearances, the all-action midfielder won possession in the midfield third 108 times last season and completed 475 passes in the final third – both ranking third in Germany’s top-flight. A subsequent WhoScored.com rating of 7.43 ranked ninth in the Bundesliga and if Gundogan can recapture that sort of form then City may have secured a bargain. It remains an expensive gamble.


Victor Wanyama (Tottenham)
As with Gundogan’s switch to Manchester City, Victor Wanyama’s transfer fee seems modest but was a consequence of the length of time remaining on his Southampton contract. A fee in the region of £12m saw the Saints make their money back on the original investment, although they would no doubt have expected to make more profit on the midfielder.

Wanyama formed a very strong and reliable partnership with Morgan Schneiderlin during Mauricio Pochettino’s reign at St. Mary’s and, while the Argentinian was keen to add the Frenchman to his ranks at Spurs last summer, it’s the former Celtic man that has ultimately followed him to White Hart Lane. In truth, Wanyama somewhat underwhelmed last season following Schneiderlin’s departure, seemingly distracted by off-field issues, with his desire to leave the club affecting his performances on it.

The 25-year old’s rating of 7.02 was modest, but figures of 3.1 tackles and 2.3 interceptions per game still indicate just how effective he can be in terms of breaking up play. Wanyama has all of the physical attributes to dominate matches in the middle of the park but his consistency but discipline has let him down in the past – he, along with Xhaka, was one of only four players to be sent off three times in Europe’s top five leagues last season. If he can get his head down and focus on football once again there’s little doubt he can prove a success at the Lane.


Martin Laurence

All statistics courtesy of WhoScored.com, where you can find yet more stats, including live in-game data and unique player and team ratings. You can follow all the scores, statistics, live player and team ratings with the new free-to-download WhoScored iOS app.

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