As the Pogba story continues to bore and drag inexorably towards a finale fit for an audience of trainee clowns, I am feeling a suspicion creep up my spine. For Beppe and Fabio have too much class to have been on the edge of their seats, waiting to act if need be, holding each other close whilst praying to the lords of the underworld that our gallic gladiator will remain, and if not, squealing in unison out of fear for the bleakest of futures after such an explosion of agony. No. This is not the case. Deadlines were set, and they have since passed. Nothing has remained in the balance but the fees. Our targets are within our grasp and we are well prepared.
Pogba is a special player. His talents are mainly offensive. Yes yes! He is capable of nicking the ball, of intercepting, yet his major strengths are flair, powerful shooting from outside the box, dribbling whilst protecting the ball with his physical prowess and intelligent passing both short and long. He is a box to box midfielder, but he needs the ball fed to him more than he wins the ball near his own box then drives the side forward. I am outlining what Paul takes with him from our resources.
We have improved our ability to create, with Pjanic mainly, yet also Alves and Pjaca. We have greatly improved our ability to finish chances, with the arrival of Higuain. Asamoah has returned to somewhere near his full strength and is a major addition to the squad as a dynamic, pure box to box midfielder.
What we are lacking, as far as I can conclude from an appraisal of a world class defence, intelligent and creative midfield, talent on both flanks, immense flair and youthful exuberance from Dybala and top drawer finishing from Higuain…is a destroyer, a hatchet-man, a player who can break up the play, and begin the response, hopefully with elegance and élan. A player who can strongly affect or dictate the tempo of the game.
Matic is understandably wanted by Conte. Which is a shame, as I am a great fan of the Serbian. He ticks all the boxes, despite his poor season last term (which was mirrored by a multitude of other ultra talented players around him). PSG have no reason whatsoever to do us any favours – given the Coman story and our attempts to repeat the trick with Ikone – and neither do they have any reason to sell a mainstay of their side for a fair price. Which brings me to the Belgian…
Axel Witsel has a year remaining on his contract. He has openly stated his interest in joining Juventus and has apparently declined other offers, which perhaps would have come close to Zenith’s valuation of around 30-35m. At 27 years of age, the defensive midfielder is reaching the peak years of his career which has seen him excel at every club where he has played.
His skill-set is very much suited to our needs. Adept at covering the back four, operating as the fulcrum of the side and very capable of creating from deep, his only major weaknesses appear a tendency to involve himself in petulant running battles and the lack of goals up top. If his desire to move to Juve is real, as seems the case, the cards are in our hands and the player’s. For will Zenith risk losing whatever we are offering, which could be around 25m, only to see him join us for free next year? As we have seen with Pogba, ultimately money talks.
Unfortunately there is one episode I must mention, which plays on my thoughts as I ponder how valuable a signing he could prove for the club.
During an ill tempered match between bitter rivals Standard Liege and Anderlecht in 2009, Witsel committed a brutal crime…
Wasilewski, a player renowned for his own ultra vicious butchery on the field, threw himself into a tackle which found Witsel’s studs, leaving the Anderlecht defender with his right leg broken in two places. He returned to action within a year and has since gone on to embark on a successful career, but the tackle, enquiry and repercussions scarred the then 21 year old Liege midfielder. Hounded by death threats during the subsequent 18 months, widespread antipathy, painted as a savage not fit for the game (mainly by Anderlecht and Poland fans), Witsel moved on to Benfica in 2011. Excelling to such a degree that Zenith paid 40m for his signature in 2012.
The tackle changed him. From any angle it was a horrid moment, yet its a big jump to suggest he had intended to cripple the player.
“People insulted him, some even threw stones through our windows”, remembered his dad in an interview. “The incident has changed Axel. There is an Axel before the tackle, and an Axel after. His character became more closed. You could see in his face that he was touched by the storm around him. That lasted a few days and then he made the switch.
“We haven’t pushed him into a transfer. We never advised him to leave Belgium at that time, to flee from the media attention. He has created a thick skin and became mentally strong and balanced. No one can drive him crazy anymore.”
After watching the compilation of Wasilewski below, I feel slightly less appalled by Witsel’s challenge.
Such an appalling injury couldn’t happen to a more nasty customer. Perhaps there is a natural balance of justice in the world, karma in effect before the afterlife?
Witsel has no form for committing potentially career ending tackles before or since the incident. He has played as a winger, an attacking midfielder and in recent years deeper in midfield more centrally. Applauded for his ability to lead with calmness, dictate the tempo, tirelessly screen the defence and launch attacks from the back, he has been on the radar of many top clubs for a number of years. Now is the time to move, to test himself at the very top and a move to Juve offers him the potential starting berth at an elite club.
I am not comparing him to Pogba, for they are markedly different types of player. Although it is fair to say that he possesses a similar physical power and physique to the frenchman which makes him very hard to knock off the ball and victorious in most 50/50 battles. He also has good feet for a big man.
I do not believe we signed Pjanic to play as a regista a la Pirlo. Regardless of what Allegri has been saying. He is a trequartista, and whilst he offers a gorgeous passing ability, he brings very little defensive zeal. Which you could say of Pirlo in turn, yet Pirlo was one of the finest players on the ball of history. His sublime talent allowed him to function in the role, especially with the immense defence behind him and Vidal often in cohorts nearby to add muscle and bite to proceedings. Marchisio offers a viable option in the role given his world class reading of the game and tendency to give his all for the cause. Yet Il Principino is not ear-marked for a return to the first team until October at the very earliest. How long it will then take him to recover his match sharpness is another question entirely.
Mandragora could have been interesting, as an apprentice to the regista position, yet he has succumbed to another injury delaying his return to the field. And is vastly inexperienced at a high level of the game. Which leaves us not one natural defensive midfielder in the squad presently. As dar black expressed –
I am getting worried that we don’t have any really reliable midfield ‘hod carriers’ in the line up (as Cantona famously said about Deschamps and the need for players like that). We need a hod carrier! Once Marchisio is back then all is fine, but 2017 is a long way off if his injury is stubborn.
The Zenith star very much falls into this category and I couldn’t agree more with the concerns of the juvefc regular, whose analysis is often spot-on. Yet Witsel is far more capable than merely as a tidy destroyer able to break up the play at the base of midfield. He has a very high level of technique and reads the game superbly, rarely opting for the fantastic when the simple option presents itself.
Every team other than Barcelona needs a player able to deliver the dirty work, by which I do not reference the assault on the spiteful Polak, but tackling, covering, keeping things swift, straight-forward and flowing. Able to put their foot on the ball, pick out a pass from deep and allow the offensive talents to bomb forward confident that what lies behind is rock solid.
His signing would lend to a 4-3-1-2 or variant, with Pjanic able to be deployed in his most potent position. It seems the best deal on offer of all the midfielders with whom we are linked and I hope it comes to fruition. Unless by some stroke of good fortune we can secure Matic! Either player would transform the side and add weight to a more serious challenge on all fronts.