Leicester City’s hunt for a centre-back finally ended on deadline day. They announced the signing of Molla Wague on loan from Granada via a two-and-a-half-year loan stint at Udinese.
The arrival of the 25-year-old must have been a welcome relief for Claudio Ranieri and his recruitment team after they reportedly saw bids rejected for Sassuolo’s Francesco Acerbi, Anderlecht’s Kara Mbodji, Lazio’s Wesley Hoedt, Schalke’s Matija Nastasic and FC Copenhagen’s Mathias Jorgensen earlier on in the window.
After the 1-0 defeat to Burnley, the Premier League-winning manager confirmed the signing of the Malian international and was complimentary of his new player.
“He is a good player,” he said. “Strong and he can help us give more change to the team, and give some rest to my central defenders.”
The Foxes were in desperate need of central defensive reinforcements after allowing Luis Hernandez to join Malaga. The 27-year-old was by no means an integral part of the squad, making just four appearances in his short stint at the club, but his departure meant Ranieri was left with Robert Huth (32), Wes Morgan (33) and Marcin Wasilewski (36) for the relegation fight they find themselves in, as well the Champions League tie with Sevilla. It was hardly ideal.
They needed to improve not just the depth but the quality at their disposal, as well as injecting some youth into an aging area of the team. Wague ticks all of those boxes. He’s also eligible to play in the Champions League. Upon his unveiling he revealed what his intentions would be during his stay at the King Power stadium.
“I'm delighted to be at Leicester City and I can't wait to get started,” he said.
“It's a wonderful club and I'm excited to have the chance to show what I can do in the Premier League with the champions.
“I've always wanted to play in England so I'm looking forward to the challenge and to getting to know my new team-mates over the coming weeks. I'll work hard to get my chance and when it comes I hope to show that I will give everything to help the team.”
Who is Molla Wague?
The former Caen defender joined Granada in 2014 but was immediately sent on loan to Udinese. During his stint in Serie A he played intermittently and had made just the six appearances this season before he headed off to the Africa Cup of Nations with Mali.
Despite such limited playing time over recent seasons, he has showed glimpses of what he’s capable of and he seems, on paper at least, well suited to the demands of the Premier League. He covers ground quickly, he reads the game well and is always looking to be proactive in his positioning. He’s powerful in the air, using his 6ft 3in frame to win an impressive amount of aerial duels — averaging 2.9 per game over his three seasons in Italy.
For context here, Huth has averaged 3.3 aerial duels per game since joining Leicester in 2015 and Morgan’s rate since promotion to the Premier League stands at 2.8 per game. The team won’t lose out on any aerial presence If he stands in for either centre-back.
Stats paint a pretty picture of the defender. While at Udinese he averaged 2.7 tackles and 2.4 interceptions er outing. These are impressive numbers when compared to Morgan (1.2 and 2.2) and Huth (1.1 and 1.2). It backs up the claim that he’s a proactive defender. It’s easy to see why he’s able to post such stats when you watch him play.
In the series of pictures above you see a whole host of traits that Wague has to offer. In the first picture he’s up against Serie A hot-shot Andrea Belotti. The defender’s starting position allows him to get in front and intercept the pass before it reaches the Torino No.9. He stops the attack dead and, in turn, starts one of his own.
He doesn’t opt to play the easy pass but instead takes on the responsibility to drive forward into the space ahead of him. He carries the ball into the attacking third before playing a simple pass to the man on the right. He’s positive in his play and aggressive on the ball.
Leicester may not need that from their centre-backs but the fact he has it in his locker is surely a positive.
This time he’s up against a rampant Inter Milan. The away side bypass the Udinese press and Stevan Jovetic is in a lot of space as they look to play the ball to him.
However, Wague makes up the ground to not just pressurise the former Manchester City man, but he dispossess him before once again getting his side onto the attack. Morgan often tracks attackers like this but isn’t as prolific in his ability to knick the ball back as the new Leicester man.
This is the sort of thing that can go under the radar: the attacker is shielding Wague from the ball and has the momentum to turn without taking a touch. In this scenario many defenders would be on their heels and easily turned, or they’d simply giveaway a penalty.
Wague does neither, though. He just casually manoeuvres the man off of the ball before he’s able to get a shot in and plays a pass forward. It was a tricky situation and he made it look effortless.
He’s comfortable on the ball, too, averaging more passes per game (32) than the current centre-back pairing of Morgan (24) and Huth (21), and he has a better pass success rate — 80 percent to Morgan’s 73 percent and Huth’s 72 percent.
He likes to play long balls which get the opposition running back towards their own goal and they’re the sort of passes which may suit Islam Slimani, Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez.
Could this be yet another Leicester City masterclass in the transfer market? You shouldn’t bet against him finishing the season as a starter.
Islam Slimani's potential move to China is discussed on episode nine of Football Whispers TV.