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 squad 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.
#6. Carlos Zambrano – Eintracht Frankfurt
While the Peruvian central defender is off playing for his country in the Copa America, we’re taking a look at one of the more interesting choices on this list. If this article were written after the 2012/13 season, readers might ask why Zambrano is so low in the order. However, this is the summer 2015 transfer window — and that changes everything. In the last two years, the Zambrano that helped Eintracht Frankfurt win themselves a place in the Europa League has had a strong dip in form. To be fair, Frankfurt has had their own highs and lows as well. After taking only 36 points from 34 matches in their Europa League season, Eintracht clawed their way back up to a ninth place finish at the end of this past campaign. While the squad improved, Zambrano did not. In a case similar to that of Sergio Romero, perhaps it’s time for a career restart elsewhere. Could a Premier League team make room for a struggling centre-back? With Galatasaray hot on Zambrano’s heels for a signature, the time to move is now.
So, it’s only fair to take a look at what Zambrano is capable of before moving on to where the Peruvian has dropped off. The 2012/13 season was a dream in every sense. After being relegated from the Bundesliga in 2011 and fighting their way back in just one year, Frankfurt ended the campaign in a Europa League place. Then-manager Armin Veh brought the club back up to the top flight and began that season by opening the cheque-book.
For just £1.54 million, Zambrano was brought in from FC St. Pauli, who remained in 2.Bundesliga. A bright young centre-back, Zambrano was given the starting job from the off. The stats above show his performance in the Europa League-finishing year. A solid 82% passing accuracy with a few long-ball and headed chances created. A fair few fouls, but his style is one of robust, hard challenges — cards will come with that. An overall 63 tackles won with a 64% win ratio are good numbers for a 25-year-old defender getting his first real chance in the top flight. Coupled with an average 9 defensive actions per game, and Zambrano made some noise in the Bundesliga.
The Peruvian is strong, quick on his feet, and doesn’t hesitate to go in for a tackle. His decision-making (based on his 2012/13 stats) caused a little concern, but Zambrano still looked to have potential locked away. The right coaching and consistent performance levels could have turned him into a class defender.
But, as mentioned before, there’s a different narrative on display two years later.
You know, the whole team suffered a dip in form here. The Europa League really hampered Eintracht’s performance early in the season. Even though they won their group and went out only to away goals in the knockout round to FC Porto, the damage had been done. Before mid-December, Frankfurt were 2-5-8 in the Bundesliga and lacking any morale. Zambrano’s pass success went up, but tackle success dropped. He earned more yellow cards, committed more defensive errors, and provided fewer defensive actions per match. This was just a poor season all around for everyone at Eintracht.
Does it get better without Europa League, then?
No, it decidedly does not. That is, at least for Zambrano. New manager Matthias Hönerbach takes over for Armin Veh, and Frankfurt find themselves in contention for Europa League again. Finishing in ninth, two places below qualification, the team looks quite a bit better than the previous year. Young talents like Kevin Trapp, Haris Seferovic, Marc Stendera, and loanee Lucas Piazon flourished under a regime that’s built around youth development. On the other hand, Zambrano’s performance dipped further into mediocrity.
Now, there are a couple of potential explanations for this past season. To begin, the Peruvian spent 17 matches on the bench. The largest chunk, from mid-October until the end of January, lasted 104 days and 11 matches. The injury to his knee was pretty severe, too: one ligament torn, the other damaged. Having played only half the season, Zambrano never looked full-speed.
Statistically, his pass accuracy dropped again and, while it looks to have increased, Zambrano’s duel percentage was far poorer. 53% tackle success (up from 46%) and 64% take on success (down from 89%) drastically reduced his defensive performance for Frankfurt. Though Zambrano committed fewer outright defensive errors, the Peruvian looked hesitant going into the tackle and was far less present in the box.
Another potential explanation for the drop-off in form could be the players around Zambrano. This could simply be excuse-making; the other defenders in his position performed at higher levels with the same back line around them. But, as an American, I want to specifically look at Timothy Chandler. Having seen the right-back play for the USA on several occasions, there have been few times that I’ve been impressed with his performance. Much like a Glen Johnson-style wing back, Chandler likes to bomb on and lose the ball high up the pitch. Completely out of position, the right wing is open for attacking wide men to counter. The result: Zambrano, whose robust challenges were well-known until this past season, is left alone to hesitantly defend. Chandler’s play has been detrimental to the USA national team (hence is replacement by Tottenham’s DeAndre Yedlin), and could very well have been detrimental to Zambrano.
Either way, there’s clearly a change needed here, for both club and player. Hönerbach seems to favour Marco Russ and Alexander Madlung in the right-sided centre-back role, especially after Zambrano’s 2014/15 performance. Both are older, more experienced, and have been more consistent than Zambrano the past two seasons. With the Peruvian’s contract expiring at the end of the month, perhaps England can offer a fresh start for the defender.
Surprisingly, there has been no reported interest coming from English clubs as the transfer window approaches. The reasons stated above could be factors. Regardless of interest, there are a few squads with whom Zambrano’s hard tackling could be useful.
Who Would Zambrano Most Benefit?
An aging Fabricio Coloccini will eventually need replacement. Besides the hair, the Argentinian is known for high-flying headers and hard tackles to win the ball back. Zambrano, who unfortunately lacks the hair, could be a fit replacement once the Newcastle fan-favourite decides to hang up his boots. The other bonus here is the player-to-player coaching. Since they play similar styles, Coloccini would surely prove a good role model and tutor for the junior Zambrano. There have been rumours of the former moving into a coaching role once his playing days are over, so the benefit for Zambrano is long-term here. Whether the Argentinian’s time left in the game is short or long, Newcastle should be prepared for his departure. Full confidence here that this free transfer would benefit all parties.
Worth the Buy? Absolutely.
Likelihood of Transfer: Moderate.
A little higher up the table is the bruising Stoke City. Provided Zambrano isn’t worried about his knee, his style is very in line with the Potters’. Although another article in this series mentioned their move away from that style, Stoke aren’t there yet. Especially on the defensive side of the pitch, they’re just as brutal and harsh as ever. The system in place there is a good transition for Zambrano, who naturally plays a harder style of defensive football. The problem with this transfer is that the Stoke centre-backs are all around Zambrano’s age and well-established in their roles. Ryan Shawcross and Marc Wilson (27) are the cemented starters, with Phillip Wollscheid (26) still adjusting to the Premier League. Typical left back Marc Muniesa (23) filled in at central defence for a span of matches as well. So Zambrano (27) would have some proving to do against tough competition. Much like Newcastle, though, Stoke would offer quality training on and off the pitch. Zambrano would be in an environment curtailed to the style of play he enjoys. Perhaps tough competition is exactly what he needs to succeed.
Worth the Buy? Yes.
Likelihood of Transfer: Low to Moderate.
Finally, a newly-promoted Premier League side on the list. Zambrano would be the perfect fit for what Norwich needs to stay in the top flight. A hard worker, strong in the tackle, and (until last season) relatively injury free — provided the summer’s Copa America doesn’t wear the defender out, Zambrano should flourish in Norwich. The club needs to strengthen their spine, which should be the primary focus this summer. They’ve already begun that operation with the Graham Dorrans loan from West Brom made permanent, but there’s more work to be done. After being relegated as recently as 2014, Norwich will want to make sure they don’t fall back down again. A player like Zambrano, already having shown his willingness to fight with a newly-promoted Eintracht Frankfurt, can come in and do a job for the Canaries.
Worth the Buy? Absolutely.
Likelihood of Transfer? Moderate to High.