Expiring Contracts – Summer 2015’s Top Ten Free Agents
As the summer transfer window looms before us, transfer talk rages. Squads look to strengthen their roster while players look to make a grand, expensive exit. Some of the season’s most exciting stories emerge from the non-playing period of the summer. While transfer fees are bandied about and the whirlwind of speculative “could he, would he” whips about, there are several cheaper options available. Free agency this summer is full of great talents and squad players that could make the move to or around the Premier League. The following series is an analysis of the top ten best free agents of the upcoming transfer window and how they might fit in English football.
#10. Yoann Gourcuff – Olympique Lyon
To start this list with a little flair is attacking midfielder Yoann Gourcuff. Several Premier League sides could use a little more of his calm, collected personality behind the ball. Gourcuff’s creativity as the sort of “anchor-in-attack” has helped Lyon push past Marseille and AS Monaco in the Ligue 1 standings. Their Champions League finish is more often attributed to Alexandre Lacazette’s finishing prowess, but what’s a striker without a creator behind him? An overloaded attacking midfield in Lyon means there are many players worth noting. But Gourcuff has yet to sign an extension on his contract. Should he become a free agent (as expected), there will be space in England for the 28-year-old Gourcuff to ply his trade.
Over the course of his five-year career in Lyon, Gourcuff has appeared 128 times, scoring 19 goals and assisting another 29. He’s consistently worth around three league goals in a season, assisting four or five in that same one-year span. Over three years, the Frenchman has maintained 83% pass accuracy, achieving his highest, 86%, this past season. His key passing statistics are also worth noting—22 chances were created by Gourcuff in 17 league appearances in 2014/2015.
Looking at these sorts of numbers shows quality passing and vision from the Lyon attacker. Having a holding midfielder like Maxime Gonalons behind him frees Gourcuff up to dictate that fast-transition style and pace of the attacking play. The aforementioned Lacazette and fellow forward Nabil Fekir work a great tandem in front of Gourcuff, providing quick outlets that are willing to press the back line and get the ball into the final third quickly. However, Lyon has some younger attacking players that are growing into that creator role: 24-year-old Clement Grenier has gotten a few chances this season and 23-year-old Rachid Ghezzal has proven that he can bomb past Gourcuff for a secondary passing option out of the midfield. Perhaps this is why the Ligue 1 veteran isn’t getting another contract offer.
Throughout his Lyon stint, Gourcuff has played an average of 1,640’ per year. That game time translates to what is shown in the images above: the Frenchman is good for around 18 matches a season. A huge flag must be raised here: Gourcuff’s injury record prevents him from playing in nearly half his league matches. Include the Champions League and Europe League matches that he’s also missed out on, and there’s a clear concern for the player’s health. Gourcuff’s knees and ankles continue to be the problem: several ligament injuries have forced him off the pitch, and he’s literally had his ankles broken on a couple occasions. The Premier League knows all about glass cannons—the Daniel Sturridge problem while at Liverpool comes immediately to mind.
All things considered, a free transfer here would benefit several teams. Despite injury problems that have plagued his career, Gourcuff has attacking movement and final ball vision that would strengthen any squad. To preface potential club interest, there are two sections to note: squads reportedly interested and squads receiving the most benefit from a purchase. Over the course of this series, we’ll take a look at both and determine where and how scouted players would be the most effective.
As recently as the beginning of May, Arsenal have been connected with Gourcuff. Apparently of the opinion that a free transfer wouldn’t hurt the club, the Gunners have been attracted to the Frenchman. Linked with Gourcuff in the past, when the midfielder was called “the next Zidane,” Arsenal could make the affordable move here for squad depth. Tomas Rosicky is still an asset, but an aging one. Santi Cazorla is also getting a little on the older side. Many argue the Spaniard has reached his peak later in life, seeing his best play since moving to Arsenal from Malaga in 2012. Disregarding his performance, the Gunners should be looking for a cheap squad player to fill in as creator. Gourcuff could very easily fit that bill. Coming off the bench instead of starting every game should help Gourcuff stay healthy as well.
Worth the Buy? Yes.
Likelihood of Transfer: Moderate to High.
Another attacking player with injury issues—if the shoe fits, right? Liverpool have several upgrades to make in the upcoming transfer window, and there were reports in February that there was interest in Gourcuff. With the purchase of Lallana a year ago, there doesn’t seem to be much need for the Frenchman at Anfield. With several other problem areas that need addressing, the Reds scouts should look at other players to add to the roster. The back line remains in question, a solid defensive midfielder is desperately needed, and a consistently-healthy goal scorer should be the focus in Merseyside. The question is, what will get addressed come July? More attacking midfielders, or the key additions the Reds need?
Worth the Buy? No.
Likelihood of Transfer: Moderate.
Who Would Gourcuff Most Benefit?
Under Sam Allardyce this season, West Ham have reinvigorated their style of play with consistent use of the 4-Diamond-2 formation. The pace of Sakho and Valencia would be the perfect transition for Gourcuff; playing with Lacazette and Fekir in Ligue 1 would translate nicely in this scenario. The usual transfer fee demands of a Gourcuff-style player might exceed what the Hammers can afford. In this case, then, the free price tag should be forcing scouts to have eyes and ears in Lyon. Systemically, the transition is also relatively flawless. Gourcuff would be playing behind two fast, pressing strikers with wide midfielders as creative outlets. Stewart Downing, who’s been shunted into the central role several times this season, could be shifted back into his preferred wide role more consistently. Having a solid defensive midfielder behind Gourcuff would be an issue that requires addressing by West Ham—Alex Song has played well this season, but his loan ends this summer. West Ham will need to either shore up that deal permanently or find a quality replacement to maintain a healthy spine on the pitch. At any rate, the Hammers don’t seem to be looking in his direction, which is a shame.
Worth the Buy? Yes.
Likelihood of Transfer: Low to Moderate.
Why, when Gylfi Sigurdsson has settled in so well? One perk of Gourcuff is variety—the Frenchman has played in both central roles and on the left-hand side. Swansea secured a quality winger in Jefferson Montero last summer. However, Montero has been played out left while favoring the right side for most of his career. Wayne Routledge has fulfilled the left winger role as well, but his once-blistering pace is no longer the threat it used to be. Concerning creativity, Routledge isn’t the best: 77% pass accuracy this season and 26 chances created in 29 matches can be improved upon, surely. That upgrade could come with the likes of Gourcuff. On the other hand, the Swansea system is dictated by speed out wide and creativity from central roles. Provided Sigurdsson is seated firmly in his starting position, Gourcuff won’t get many looks. Wales is an unlikely destination for him, in that case.
Worth the Buy? Yes.
Likelihood of Transfer: Low.
Finally, the remaining Merseysiders make this list. If not Liverpool, then Everton would be a good fit for Gourcuff. This choice is, admittedly, a bit of a stretch; Steven Naismith acts as a shadow striker behind big Lukaku, creating a sort of 4-2-2-2 out of a 4-2-3-1 set-up. Martinez likes the interchange between Lukaku and Naismith, and the latter’s work rate tracking back defensively is a desirable quality that Gourcuff doesn’t have. The Frenchman averages just one defensive action per match while the Scot triples that output. Including Gourcuff would require a system change, but that might not be such a bad thing. Acting as a creative anchor rather than a deep-lying forward would allow a more effective interchange between Gourcuff and Everton’s wide players. Specifically looking at the creativity and finishing prowess of Kevin Mirallas, a partner in the midfield would greatly benefit the Belgian. Regardless of these pros, though, Everton will probably maintain their system unless a change of manager and style come in tandem.
Worth the Buy? Probably.
Likelihood of Transfer: Very Low.