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Everybody Wants a Midfielder

Will Barcelona finally replace Andrés Iniesta? Does Chelsea really want to get rid of Nemanja Matic? And can Liverpool figure out how to land Naby Keita? Let’s take a ride on the midfield carousel.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

There’s one club in the world with a settled midfield, and it’s the team that just won back-to-back Champions League titles. With Toni Kroos and Luka Modric, Real Madrid have two midfielders with a claim to the being the world’s best. It’s a pairing that essentially can’t get any better. Everyone else is searching for the missing piece (or pieces) to solve the midfield puzzle. As such, it’s Europe’s most prized position this summer, and among all the big clubs, each midfield transfer will have its own kind of ripple effect. Less than a month into the summer transfer window, let’s take a look at where things are.

Marco Verratti to Barcelona

I wonder if Blaise Matuidi knew something we didn’t:

Or maybe he saw his team, led by Verratti, surpassing Barcelona in the European club hierarchy, so he figured there was no harm in talking some shit. Well, a few weeks later, Barcelona revived themselves by stealing PSG’s mortal coil, and three months after that, they’re now trying to steal Paris’s best player.

At just 24, Verratti might be the most talented player available this summer. He’s Andrea Pirlo — except he can dribble by you and pick your pocket, too. Other than Thiago Alcántara at Bayern Munich, there isn’t another midfielder who can contribute at such a high level on the defensive end, control a game with the quantity of his passing, and consistently break an opposing defense down with a dribble or a through ball.

Barcelona need to get younger and they need to find a replacement for Andrés Iniesta; signing Verratti would accomplish both. Of course, PSG can essentially afford to never sell anyone, and the Italian’s contract extends to 2021. Yet, Verratti called Barcelona “the best team in the world” back in February and has reportedly told PSG that if they don’t sign a few big names this summer, he wants out. The only way this transfer happens is if Verratti actually agitates for a move and Barcelona approaches the Parisiens’ asking price, which is supposedly €100 million — just below Manchester United’s record purchase of Paul Pogba last summer.

According to the latest rumors, if Barcelona don’t land Verratti, they’ll opt for Premier League washout Paulinho, who started 38 games for Tottenham across two seasons before moving to China’s Guangzhou Evergrande in 2015. As someone who once tried to buy a Range Rover, couldn’t settle on a number, and now rides a skateboard to work, I understand their priority structure.

Fabinho to PSG

Who could replace Verratti? They’re not at all the same player — and if you try to replace Verratti with a similar player, you’ll just end up plugging in someone worse — but Monaco’s Fabinho ran PSG out of the stadium when the two sides met back in January:

The 23-year-old Brazilian was arguably the most important part of Monaco’s title-winning 2016–17 season. An all-around midfielder with preternatural positional sense, Fabinho allowed his team to cram loads of attacking talent on the field at the expense of a third midfielder. He’d be able to function in a similar role in Paris, and grabbing the best midfielder from their closest rival would consolidate PSG’s hold atop the French league.

However, reports of PSG’s interest in Fabinho just recently started to bubble up. A week ago, he was fielding questions about what number he was hoping to wear at Old Trafford. Only for Manchester United to formalize their interest in another two-way midfielder …

Nemanja Matic to Manchester United

Here’s Matic from last November:

The horror: Jose Mourinho subbed him on at halftime and then subbed him back off 27 minutes later in a game nearly that happened nearly two years ago. But even if Matic has recovered from the apparently bone-deep humiliation of seeing his number lit up and held aloft the fourth official’s head, this move doesn’t make a ton of sense for either side.

For United, £40 million is a lot of money for a guy who had his best season three years ago, was legitimately terrible in 2015–16, and wasn’t necessarily a first-choice starter this past season. They need someone who’ll give Pogba and Ander Herrera some defensive support — but more importantly, they need someone who’ll keep the about-to-expire Michael Carrick and the unreliable-at-best Marouane Fellaini off the field. Matic can do that, but he’ll be 29 at the start of the season, and he doesn’t quite fit the timeline of a team filled with young talent.

As for Chelsea, they walked to the Premier League title last year, but they did so without the burden of midweek Champions League games. They ran out a squad of essentially just 13 players, but with an extra game per week this year, that’s not gonna fly.

They’ll get a nice return for Matic, but Antonio Conte and Co. need to be building up their squad, not removing and replacing key contributors. Plus even if Matic isn’t a long-term fit, he immediately plugs a hole for United. Mourinho’s side finished 24 points back, United remain direct competitors with Chelsea. Why give them an unnecessary boost?

Tiemoué Bakayoko to Chelsea

To replace Matic, it appears that Chelsea will bring in Monaco’s Bakayoko. Let’s take a look at a highlight clip from a completely unbiased source:

The 22-year-old Frenchman just earned his first cap for Les Bleus, but among all the young talent at Monaco, he is the biggest question mark. Everyone else has discernible and applicable skills; with Bakayoko … it’s unclear. In Monaco’s midfield pivot, Fabinho carried a larger chunk of the passing load and was generally more active on the defensive end. As you can see above, Bakayoko’s standout attributes are his dribbling and his defensive range — both of which are becoming increasingly valued by top teams … and both of which are things that Chelsea’s N’Golo Kanté already does better than just about anyone. It’d be a fascinating pairing for Conte — like dual Ed Reeds, picking off passes and then trying to run them back for touchdowns — and he thinks Kanté can get even better after two Player of the Year–worthy seasons. But we’ve never really seen enough of that kind of redundant combo or enough of Bakayoko to know how it would play out.

Corentin Tolisso to Bayern Munich

Earlier this summer, Chelsea were linked with Lyon’s Corentin Tolisso, another 22-year-old French center mid. He’s more versatile than Bakayoko has shown himself to be …

… and he would’ve made more obvious sense for Chelsea because of how his skills compliment Kanté’s. I should start a Twitter account called King Tolisso and only post this clip. It’s everything you want from a midfielder — anticipation, strength, first-touch, vision, and passing ability — in an eight-second span:

Instead of heading to Stamford Bridge, he’s joining Bayern Munich for a club-record fee of €41.5 million (and putting another obstacle in the way of last year’s midfield prodigy signing, Renato Sanches, ever starting his own career). Somehow a team with Robert Lewandowski, Arjen Robben, and Franck Ribéry has never spent more than that on a player, but he’s worth it.

Naby Keita to Liverpool

Tolisso-to-Bayern was surprising due to the record fee, but also due to what it signified Bayern wouldn’t do.

As a German club, there’s only one way to know that you are making Bayern nervous: They buy your best players. From Lewandowski to Mats Hummels, the Bavarians have been ransacking Borussia Dortmund’s title campaigns for the past decade. However, this past season there was a new second-place club in Germany.

Behind the money of an energy-drink company, a club-wide devotion to vertical passing, hyper-pressing, and buying young, RB Leipzig flirted with first place for the first half of the Bundesliga season before falling off over the second half and finishing 15 points behind Carlo Ancelotti’s title-winning side. Oh, and they did it a year after being promoted from the second-division. Leipzig’s best and most symbolic player was 22-year-old midfielder Naby Keita.

Keita is essentially playing a different sport and playing at a different speed than all of his colleagues and competitors. He’s already one of the best midfielders in the world, and he got there by doing it his own way. Gone is the ball retention and the patient build-up of the Xavi-esque midfielder, and it’s been replaced by disruptive actions: a barrage of shots, through balls, dribbles, tackles, fouls, and interceptions. Keita doesn’t control the game, he wants to shatter it into pieces.

If you’re a Liverpool fan, you’re drooling right now — if you haven’t been for weeks. Keita has told Leipzig that he wants to leave, but the club reportedly will hold firm on its asking price:

That fee would nearly double Liverpool’s club-record deal for the since-departed Christian Benteke in 2015, but Jurgen Klopp’s team is the only one that’s been consistently linked with Keita this summer. Plenty of transfer rumors are nonsense, if not outright insider trading — except there’s an overwhelming amount of noise with this one. Keita’s the kind of talent-fits-scheme player who could take Liverpool from a one-season Champions League curiosity to a consistent European and domestic title contender. He’s that good, and at just two years north of 20, he’s only going to get better.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly referred to RB Leipzig as “Red Bull Leipzig.”