Leicester City are in the mood to splash the cash this summer, and are the latest club to be linked with Sampdoria’s star midfielder Dennis Praet.
The Foxes have already added to their squad with the signings of Luton Town full-back James Justin for a fee that could rise to £8million, Newcastle United striker Ayoze Pérez for around £30million, and former loanee Youri Tielemans for a club record £40million from Monaco.
Brendan Rodgers' side look well placed to launch an assault on the top six then, so it is perhaps something of a surprise to see Leicester linked with a move for the sought-after Belgian international Praet, who would set the Midlands club back a modest £15million if reports are to be believed.
Their decision to pursue the 25-year-old may well be dictated by the value he appears to offer in a typically inflated transfer market, but a midfield of Tielemans, James Maddison and Wilfred Ndidi already looks strong enough to take on the Premier League’s big boys.
While greater squad depth is always an asset, the question is whether Praet is an improvement on Leicester’s current midfield options, or whether they would be better off using the funds to strengthen elsewhere?
The Foxes are certainly in good company when it comes to their attempts to sign the Sampdoria man, with AC Milan, Valencia and Arsenal all rumoured to be chasing his signature. The continental reputation of those clubs is no guarantee of a player’s quality, but it raises the possibility Leicester would be pulling off something of a coup if they were to steal a march on the other interested parties and bring Praet to the King Power Stadium.
If he was to end up at Leicester then Maddison and Tielemans are the former Anderlect star’s obvious rivals for a starting midfield berth. But how does he compare with those two big hitters?
When we look at Praet’s data from the 2018/19 season, the first thing that becomes apparent is he is a very different player to Maddison, despite both being considered attacking midfielders. Whereas Maddison is all about creating and scoring chances, Praet’s strengths lie in retaining the ball and winning back possession in the centre of the park.
The numbers reflect this. If we compare the two players’ averages per 90 minutes played, Praet’s 47.09 completed passes are notably better than Maddison’s 37.16, and he attempted almost ten more passes per game (53.96 vs. 44.36). With fewer turnovers of possession per 90 minutes (1.3 vs 1.61), the Belgian is clearly a neat and tidy player who is careful when it comes to his use of the ball.
He also gets heavily involved in the play, with an average of over six more touches than Maddison per 90. Furthermore, he won possession back in all areas of the pitch more effectively than the 22-year-old creator.
On the other hand, Maddison is superior to the Leicester transfer target in all the areas that you would traditionally associate with an attacking midfielder. His cross completion rate of 2.14 per 90 minutes is significantly better than Praet’s 0.8 and, perhaps unsurprisingly for a man with five more league goals last season, his expected goals (xG) total was 8.69 compared with 2.13.
With Maddison recording more shots, assists, dribbles and Big Chances created, it may be that a better comparison would be to assess Praet’s performances against fellow summer signing Tielemans. How do his displays last season match up to Rodgers’ flagship acquisition?
Interestingly, a lot of the same strengths and weaknesses in Praet’s game are exposed when we compare the Sampdoria midfielder with Leicester City’s newest recruit.
While he performed better against Tielemans when it came to cross completion in 2018/19 (0.8 per 90 minutes compared with 0.42 for the former Monaco star) and dribbles completed (1.15 vs 1), we largely see the familiar pattern of a player who excels at ball retention, pass completion, tackling and having a high number of touches. While this is at the expense of shots and chance creation, it clearly demonstrates Praet would offer the Foxes something they don’t already have in their armoury.
Therein lies the answer to whether signing the Leuven-born Belgian would improve Leicester City’s midfield. Praet might not necessarily be an improvement on Maddison or Tielemans but he is a different kind of player and would give his prospective team another option in the centre of the park.
There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and in games where you need to retain possession, he is undoubtedly your man. You need a variety of different approaches to be successful across a Premier League campaign, and that reason alone makes Praet a worthwhile signing at such a bargain price.