With a big summer transfer window ahead and the need for reinforcements in midfield, our new Analytics writer Dan Butler (@dbanalysis on Twitter) takes a look at where improvements can be made in the midfield area, with Leander Dendoncker and Joao Moutinho in particular in the firing line.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a piece where I attempted to find Wolves a new left-back using data and a hint of the eye test. It seemed to go down well, and so here we are – using the same approach to compile a shortlist of players who could partner Ruben Neves next season. Both Vitinha and Owen Otasowie show a lot of promise, but given how young they are, and the relatively small sample sizes we’ve got available to us to judge them upon, I think it would be risky for Wolves not to recruit another central midfielder this summer.
What are we looking for?
The midfield has been a strange place for Wolves this season. We’ve learned that Neves is able to muck in and do the dirty defensive work to what should be considered an elite level. But we’ve also seen systemic issues, Neves and Joao Moutinho don’t engage the ball as high up the pitch as they did last season which has meant the opposition can form patterns of play around us. This Wolves side was a middle-third menace last season, pressing and harrying opponents into mistakes from which counter attacks would be started. So we’re looking for players that are good at breaking up play slightly higher up the pitch than Wolves do right now, are capable of beating the press via a pass or ball carry, and have some influence in the final third.
Let’s start with a look at the central midfielders across Europe that break up play in the middle third:
I’m not going to put too much stock in this right now as it’s simply a starting point. Right now what we have is incredibly noisy, and contains players that, for a number of reasons, Wolves would never or could never sign. For that reason I’ll apply the following criteria:
Market Value of £30m or less
Under 26 years old
Not from a direct rival
Let’s see how we’re looking now:
Some names to keep in mind from this first graph that could be interesting as we delve deeper: Ainsley Maitland-Niles, who Wolves were heavily linked with last summer and Weston McKennie, a player that’s reportedly been made available to Premier League clubs for a fee in the region of €30m. There are also a whole host of Ligue 1 midfielders that feature in the top right of the graph. French football is currently dealing with serious financial issues, and this might well be a situation Wolves can take advantage of this summer.
Let’s move on to players that are able to pass out of the press, and those who frequently progress the play through their passing. I’ve already applied the aforementioned criteria, so here’s what we’re looking at:
This is quite revealing. Maitland-Niles featured strongly on the first graph, but this one suggests that passing out from the press might not be his strong suit. There’s also the suggestion that his passing isn’t particularly progressive, though I want to be cautious with that considering a Sam Allardyce team is likely to bypass the midfield entirely in the build up, giving him little chance to progress play.
I think it’s time to highlight Maxence Caqueret (21), Bruno Guimaraes (23) and Yacine Adli (20). All three are plying their trade in France at the moment, and all three have featured in the top right quadrant of both graphs. I’ve highlighted the trio in previous pieces I’ve done, and they appear to be seriously good options for central midfield. Adli is an imposing figure in the middle of the park, with the physical build of a DM, but the attacking quality and intent of an AM, making him a hybrid of sorts.
The final area I want to highlight is the ability to carry the ball from deep, and carry the ball into dangerous areas. One of the biggest issues at the moment is that Wolves’ midfield is simply too pass dependent. Neves, Moutinho and Leander Dendoncker aren’t in the mould of players who drop a shoulder and beat a man, instead they prefer to progress play by passing. That’s fine, but at the minute it’s one-dimensional. I think if Wolves can add a body in that area who can carry the ball up the pitch, it gives the opposition something else to think about. It’s why the side has – at times – looked reinvigorated when Vitinha and Morgan Gibbs-White have featured.
Here’s the last graph to try and give us our final shortlist:
I think based on his position in the last two graphs I’m happy to omit Weston McKennie from the final shortlist. The American has potential, but probably isn’t well-rounded enough to warrant Wolves spending somewhere in the region of €30m. I do however think Renato Sanches is probably worth the club looking at. His defensive output isn’t great, but we now know Neves can do that role, and the numbers speak for themselves when it comes to Sanches’ influence further up the pitch and ability to beat the press. He would also add some much needed mobility to the midfield and crucially is a Jorge Mendes client.
Wolfsburg’s Xaver Schlager (23) has gone slightly under the radar so far, but also looks a good prospect. The Austrian is a Red Bull Salzburg academy graduate and is comfortable as a six, eight or even a ten. The fact he’s able to use both his left and right foot to a strong level means he would add some much needed balance to the midfield.
It’s beginning to look like Bruno Guimaraes and Maxence Caqueret are stars in the making and so they’ll definitely make the final five, along with Yacine Adli who I previously flagged.
So there it is, in no particular order, five central midfielders who Wolves should consider this summer, based on the data:
Bruno Guimaraes, 23, Lyon, £25m
Maxence Caqueret, 21, Lyon, £13m
Renato Sanches, 23, Lille, £25m
Yacine Adli, 20, Bordeaux, £8m
Xaver Schlager, 23, Wolfsburg, £20m
These prices are not going to be completely accurate as there are always mitigating circumstances that impact how much players are bought and sold for, but the data Transfermarkt provides is the best we have at the moment.
Thanks for reading!
All data accurate as of 08/05/2021, sourced from Fbref.com.