Premier League clubs are falling over themselves to throw money at midfielders this transfer window.
It all kicked off when former Liverpool target Jude Bellingham joined Real Madrid from Borussia Dortmund in a deal worth £88.5 million (€103m). The Birmingham native was going to solve all of the Reds’ midfield issues, but instead he’s having a ball in La Liga and looking like the superstar he is.
Then Arsenal broke the bank for Declan Rice, beating Manchester City to the West Ham favourite by agreeing a transfer fee of £105m. At the same time, clubs were snapping up number eights all over the place: Mason Mount joined Manchester United for £65m, Liverpool signed Alexis Mac Allister and Dominik Szoboszlai, while Newcastle splashed £55m on Sandro Tonali, who can also play as a six.
In the past month the transfer market has gone into overdrive as Chelsea and Liverpool fought over both Brighton’s Moises Caicedo and Romeo Lavia of Southampton. The two players chose to move to west London for a combined £173m, a monstrous amount of money for two players with just one full season of Premier League experience each. Liverpool settled on Wataru Endo, who cost a modest £16.2m from Stuttgart.
What is behind the sudden explosion in transfer fees for midfielders, then? It might be tempting to blame Saudi Arabia, who have caused one of the biggest inflations in the market since Roman Abramovich first docked his superyacht on the Thames 20 years ago. But don’t forget that it was Chelsea, under the new ownership of Todd Boehly and Behdad Eghbali, who set the baseline by handing Benfica £106.8m to prise away World Cup winner Enzo Fernandez.
Everything flows from there. But the surge in demand for midfielders is also emblematic of recent changes in tactical trends.
The biggest shift in recent years has been the emergence of attacking full-backs, with managers willing to take players in a traditionally defensive position and let them off the leash. There have, of course, been attacking full-backs in the past, but now we were seeing the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold, Andy Robertson, Reece James, Ben Chilwell and Joao Cancelo put up never before seen numbers. It was more apt to call these players wingers or playmakers.
Over time, however, the drawbacks of this trend have become clear. Teams are more open at the back when one of their defenders has bombed up the pitch to join the attack. Jurgen Klopp would often account for this by having Jordan Henderson shift over to the right to cover for Alexander-Arnold, but this meant he had a lot more space to cover.
The lack of balance in midfield was unsustainable, something had to give eventually. Alexander-Arnold was eventually moved into midfield, albeit only in possession; he was still required at right-back in defence.
This itself became the new trend, as managers traded attacking full-backs for inverted ones. Pep Guardiola was already ahead of the game on this when he sent Joao Cancelo packing to Bayern Munich last January. Since then he’s been fielding four centre-backs, with John Stones stepping into midfield in build-up play.
Mikel Arteta followed suit, putting Thomas Partey at right-back so that he can step into midfield to give Arsenal another passer. Ange Postecoglou is doing similar at Tottenham, with both Emerson Royal and Destiny Udogie stepping infield when in possession against Brentford.
But with full-backs stepping into midfield, actual midfielders have been roving forward to join the attack. Despite making his name as a defensive midfielder, Casemiro regularly got into very advanced positions for Manchester United against Spurs last Sunday. He uncharacteristically popped off five shots in that game alone, three of which were in the box, but the Red Devils were wide open at the back and ultimately paid for it.
Chelsea and Liverpool exposed each other’s midfield with regularity on the opening weekend, and it wasn’t the only match from the first two weeks that felt like an open-ended slugfest. The need for a proper central midfielder has never been more apparent.
The rush to sign midfielders shows that Premier League clubs clearly value the position, but it also tells us that they’re not necessarily happy with the ones they already have. With the demand outstripping supply, prices have skyrocketed.
Manchester City were willing to pay mad money for West Ham’s Lucas Paqueta before betting allegations emerged, while Fulham want even more for Joao Palhinha than they got for selling Aleksandar Mitrovic. It all makes the £40m Newcastle paid for Bruno Guimaraes and City’s £62m fee for Rodri look like absolute bargains.