Being linked with a former Stoke City player is should never be the highlight of your summer, unless that player is also a rumoured transfer target for Barcelona and Juventus and his name is Steven N’Zonzi.
The 28-year-old French midfielder has come on leaps and bounds since moving from Blackburn Rovers to the Potters and now is another target for Tottenham Hotspur as they try and bolster their midfield ahead of the new season.
Back in the middle of June, it looked certain that Serie A champions, Juventus, had all but sealed a deal to sign the central midfielder, but now both Spurs and Barça are reported to be considering a €40million deal, meeting his release clause and signing him from Sevilla.
“I haven't closed the door to Juventus because perhaps it's something that interests us and we may even benefit from it [his transfer],” Sevilla president Jose Castro told El Confidencial newspaper regarding Juve's interest in N'Zonzi. “We haven't spoken to N'Zonzi about his release clause.”
The Frenchman signed a new deal with Sevilla in January, keeping him at the club until 2020, but it also moved his release clause from €30million to €40million, the deal seems to have stalled since the Italians are looking for deal just shy of the asking price.
Spurs have been linked with a few options in the middle of the park, from Nice’s dynamic Ivorian, Jean Michaël Seri, to Adrien Silva, the Sporting Lisbon playmaker who admitted an interest in a move to England this week.
“I was not in touch with anyone during the Confederations Cup. I preferred to focus completely on this event and finish it in the best way,” Silva said when asked about the Spurs rumours.
“The best players are there [in the Premier League], and the English championship is recognised by all as one of the best.
“Let's just let things run. I have a contract with Sporting, but nothing is certain.”
The 28-year-old scored in the 2-1 playoff win against Mexico in Russia, before losing on penalties to Chile in the semi-finals.
Links to the Portuguese player show what Mauricio Pochettino is looking for. He may already have Mousa Dembélé and Victor Wanyama, with Eric Dier ready to step into the midfield and young Harry Winks eager to demonstrate he’s ready for the step up.
Yet, when you are looking to progress in the UEFA Champions League and grow a squad ready for the assault on various club competitions, you need that vital mix of youth and experience.
Silva would bring that, but N’Zonzi has more game-time at a higher level, is very familiar with English football and is one of the most impressive players in his position outside of the normal top European clubs.
Spanish football expert Graham Hunter described the former Stoke City midfielder as “the best organising central midfielder anywhere in Europe right now” when he appeared on Football Whispers TV at the start of the year and his comments back-up the fantastic performances the Frenchman has been putting in since he moved to Andalusia in 2015, and why clubs are apparently willing to match his release clause.
Manchester City were the interested club at the time, so if he was good enough for Pep Guardiola, he must contain enough quality for Pochettino too.
What N’Zonzi would add, compared to what they already have and the also rumoured transfer target, Adrien Silva, is a huge physical presence. Not just in terms of his height, but his athleticism and mobility.
On first look, he has a lazy, languid style, which give the impression he’s not quick, but that gets blown away when you watch him play. There are similarities to N’Zonzi and what Dembélé brings to Spurs' midfield, but the former Stoke City man also brings the physical aspect of Wanyama too.
N’Zonzi’s Versatility in Midfield
He is aerially dominant, but you’d expect that from someone who stands at 6 foot 3 inches tall. Primarily he’s a protector, either sitting in front of the defence in Sevilla’s 4-1-4-1, or he can play a little further forward when they go 3-5-2 and soon to be Leicester City signing, Vicente Iborra, on his way to Leicester City, plays as the sitter. Although he's not classed as a box-to-box midfielder, N’Zonzi has the tools to do everything.
That means he could play in place of both Pochettino's preferred starters, but also break the lines and add to the attack.
Against Lyon in the UEFA Champions League, you can see from the graphic below that the Spanish side are playing with two banks of four. There is a lot of space between the two lines, so the obvious pass to Arsenal transfer target Alexandre Lacazette is on.
N’Zonzi (yellow), almost inviting the ball to be played is poised to make his move. As soon as Sergi Darder tries to thread it through, the midfielder is waiting to ponce, he reads it well, gets to the ball before the forward and clears the danger.
That’s a move that Lyon play so well and then look for little link passes, N’Zonzi’s reading of the situation was perfect.
N'Zonzi may not attempt or make as many tackles as the Spurs duo, but he wins a large percentage when he does and with 1.1 interceptions, like he showed above, he is just as capable of getting in the right areas, not needing to go to ground.
Underrated Attacking Instincts
The 28-year-old is far from just a destroyer though. His intelligence in reading the game comes in handy when the Spanish side want to play on the front foot.
In the 4-1 win over Malaga last season, it was the Frenchman that got the home side rolling. The ball is won back on the left, the midfielder (yellow), playing just ahead of Iborra, takes a look ahead of him before he even receives the ball and sees space to attack. Rather than wait for the ball to attack, he pushes up into the gap, giving him a better starting position.
His pass is slipped perfectly with his left foot into Luciano Vietto and the Argentine forward is in for the easy finish.
Not only did that move display has passing range and his vision, it showed his natural ability on both feet. He can pass and shoot with his left, even though he feels most natural on his right.
Due to his speed across the ground, long legs and strength on and off the ball, smaller midfielders often don’t stand a chance. He’s almost the perfect physical specimen – something that would definitely appeal to the Spurs boss.
On the downside, you feel as if you are still waiting for N'Zonzi to show more of a consistent threat in the attacking third. Quite often he’s the pass that gets the team moving forward, rather than the final ball. However, with Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane ahead of him, that's not always going to be an issue. Perhaps less so than it was at Sevilla.
Too often when you have a player starting out of position, or getting used to a new system, they can steam into tackles, rush to make a move and get caught out. N’Zonzi, now a seasoned veteran, has the sense to know what’s going on and pick the best option for the team.
Against Granada in the league, there was a moment that showed his anticipation and reading of the game. The ball was cleared out of the home team’s penalty area and they look to spring a counter. With the ball in the air, it’s there to be won and many a midfielder would have jumped in regardless of being the clear winner or not.
As you can see from the graphic below, there is no one behind N’Zonzi (yellow) to protect the break, so rather than steaming in, as soon as the Granada player is focused on the header, the Sevilla man, peels off and chasing down the runner.
The Frenchman gets there well before his opponent and the attack breaks down due to his vigilance.
When you play 3-4-3, with just two central midfielder, or even with 4-2-3-1 and the full-backs given license to bomb forward, you need that extra intelligence and security.
It may not be the name or profile that gets fans instantly excited, but N'Zonzi is shown his quality time and time again at Sevilla and now he's ready to make the move to a top Champions League club, Spurs would be lucky to pick him up this summer.