An arms race is under way in the Premier League, as England’s top teams compete for the signatures of the world’s hottest prospects.
There was a time when it felt like the country’s elite sides were preoccupied with trying to attract established stars to these shores. A notable shift has occurred in recent years – the ‘big six’ have universally upped their game when it comes to seeking out the next generation of superstars, while also being more willing to give young players a chance in the first team.
Manchester City have built a network of clubs around the globe to ensure they’re first on the scene when an emerging talent appears. Chelsea have been diligently recruiting potential superstars for some time – even if their youth system is only really paying dividends since Frank Lampard was installed in the Stamford Bridge hot seat.
Tottenham Hotspur were always keen to give youngsters a chance under Mauricio Pochettino and the emergence of Trent Alexander-Arnold at Liverpool will have reinforced the value of a flourishing academy to their title rivals.
Both Manchester United and Arsenal seem to have identified a focus on youth as a way of restoring their clubs’ fortunes. For the Gunners that appears to be borne out of a necessity to be more frugal in the transfer market. While for the Red Devils it’s more a case of recreating the ‘United DNA’ that was at the heart of their success in the 90s and 2000s.
The economic situation for Premier League clubs following the COVID-19 outbreak is likely to look markedly different. Which will presumably only increase attention the paid to young players – either because teams look more closely at their own academies to try and save money, or because they want to ensure that any outlay represents an investment which can be recouped further down the line.
It’s therefore unsurprising an emerging talent like Thiago Almada is likely to be in demand this summer. The 19-year-old midfielder has reportedly attracted the attention of Arsenal and Manchester United in recent months, after an impressive 2019/20 campaign for Argentinian side Vélez Sarsfield.
It’s not hard to see why either club would be interested. United lack quality creative depth in the attacking midfield, while Arsenal will be planning for Mesut Özil’s likely departure at the end of next season.
Despite not yet looking like the finished article, Almada has displayed the kind of qualities which suggest he could be polished into a top Premier League player, either in London or Manchester.
A reasonable return of four Primera División goals in 2019/20 included two outstanding long-range strikes, with a spectacular volley against Club Atlético Colón in December particularly eye-catching.
Things haven’t been quite as successful on the assist front, with Almada unable to directly create a goal at any point in the season. But 2.84 expected assists (xA) – inside the top 20 players in Argentina’s top flight – suggests this number could improve with a better final ball or improved finishing from his team-mates.
The fact that he ranks fourth in the Primera División for key passes per 90 (0.9) points to the issue being more with chance conversion, as opposed to the number of opportunities Almada is creating.
That’s just one example of the 5ft 7in playmaker’s excellent distribution and creative instincts. He has attempted an impressive 1.95 through passes per 90 this term and his 1.32 smart passes per 90 (defined as ‘a creative and penetrative pass that attempts to break the opposition's defensive lines to gain a significant advantage in attack’) is inside the division’s top 30 players.
He also performs well when it comes to deep completions – passes into the area 20m or less from the opponents goal – where only 16 players can top his record of 1.67 per 90.
That’s not to suggest that Almada’s game is exclusively about trying to pick out the perfect pass though. He’s also a dangerous crosser of the ball with 42 per cent of his deliveries ending up in the opposition’s six-yard box, as well as a nimble and fleet-footed dribbler.
A more than commendable 3.13 progressive runs per 90 (sixth in the Primera División) help paint the picture of a player who is comfortable with the ball at his feet and capable of either playing an intelligent pass or progressing play forward by bursting through the centre of the park.
Almada is capable of playing on either wing or occasionally up front, but his real strength is being able to dictate play from a more central position. That fits with where both Arsenal and Manchester United could be looking to strengthen at the end of this season. But he won’t come cheap – a reported release clause of £22million may have to be met before Los Fortineros will countenance the sale of their Argentina Under-20 international star.
Whether either club will be willing to part with that amount of cash for a player unproven at the highest level of football remains to be seen. But Almada’s potential is indisputable and whichever team gambles on him may well be handsomely rewarded.