With another injury to Fernandinho in the Carabao Cup final, concerns have arisen once again that City are without long-term options in defensive midfield. However, it’s worth remembering that the club has already signed a potential successor to their Brazilian bastion this season, writes Will Schofield.
An Unexpected Arrival
Sitting somewhere between organised disorder and the whirlwind of chaos that is a revolution sits transfer deadline day. A nightmare for players and managers, Christmas-come-early for journalists and fans. The constant twists and turns represent a narrative fit for Game of Thrones rather than a real-life football story.
Okay, sometimes the allure of deadline day takes over the reality. It can ascend to a fantasised notion where the footballing world stops for just one day, and anything seems possible. At its core, it represents panic buys and last-ditch attempts to make a financial statement that, in two months time, end in tears.
The day has been defined by personalities throughout the years; Peter Odemwingie, in 2013, famously drove 120 miles from Birmingham to London to speed up a move to QPR. Four years later, Riyad Mahrez left the Algerian national squad to pursue a move away from Leicester. Soon after, Craig Shakespeare, Leicester’s manager, lost Mahrez’s whereabouts as he flew around Europe.
But why stop at the players? Fans desperately crave for attention behind the Sky Sports cameras whilst unassuming journalists must continue none the wiser. Or pretend it’s not happening behind them, easier said than done especially when you’re having a dildo shoved in your ear, but hey, it makes a good story.
However, once in a blue moon, deadline day can live up to its hype. Dimitar Berbatov seemed destined to be a Manchester City player come 11pm in August 2008, only to make a last-minute U-turn to the red side of Manchester. Despite City missing out on their top target, it turned to be a blessing in disguise. The static Bulgarian was replaced with Robinho, who was nicked out of Chelsea’s grasp in the 11th hour.
With all that excitement, you can only imagine a journalist’s dismay when a young clean-cut Ante Palaversa walked through the Etihad Campus doors in January. The Croatian sporting a buzzcut and black turtleneck looked to have his feet on the ground and the world at his feet.
The young man from Split has impressed Croatian journalists with his maturity and it showed here – the young man clearly has his head screwed onto his shoulders. However, it’s not just his mentality that has been turning heads; Palaversa’s maturity on the field shines through as he plays with a tactical nouse and swagger beyond his young years.
The 19-year-old cuts an imposing figure in central midfield standing at 6″1. But mistaking Palaversa as just a big man would be a colossal mistake – it’s his technical ability that sets him apart from the rest.
The revolutionary Johan Cruyff defined technique as:
“Not being able to juggle a ball 1000 times. Anyone can do that by practicing. Then you can work in the circus. Technique is passing the ball with one touch, with the right speed, at the right foot of your teammate.”
What Cruyff was alluding too is completely right. Palaversa possesses some intangibles that can’t be taught. Yet, it’s these raw qualities that encompass an architectural Pep Guardiola player. The natural ability to run for 90 minutes, the psychology of a midfielder that only world-class players possess and that seemingly innate ability to read a game to near perfection. Because of this, it seemed his destiny to cross paths with Guardiola one day.
Let’s get straight to the elephant in the room though – he’s not Frenkie De Jong or Tanguay N’Dombele. The Croatian plays predominantly as a central midfielder for Hadjuk Split and is no prodigal defensive midfield extraordinaire that is threatening to dethrone Fernandinho as soon as he arrives.
But with youth on his side, a change to defensive midfield is on the cards for Palaversa. Having been loaned back to Hadjuk Split for the rest of the season, his chances of stepping straight into the City midfield next season are fairly slim. Unless of course, we see a Matteo Guendouzi situation play-out, but that is as far out on the unlikely scale as Eliquim Mangala making his triumphant come back at centre back for City towards the back end of this season.
[Editor’s note: Will has untold mystical powers having written this piece prior to Mangala’s surprise contract extension.]
On Guendouzi, he has certainly benefitted from his trial by fire but hasn’t done so without his critics. It was the situation rather than Guendouzi’s ability as a player, which he has bags off, that led to this. Arsenal hit the reset the button when Unai Emery came in, leaving ample opportunity for an unknown player to stake a claim to the first team. Ultimately though, with all due respect, Arsenal are not battling on four fronts for four trophies – one trophy would be unprecedented with Champions League qualification their main goal.
For Guardiola to throw Palaversa in this City side with that kind of pressure, of having to succeed in four competitions, would be mentally damaging for the youngster who would probably find himself scapegoated for the losses.
What Palaversa does have is technical ability that is head and shoulders above his current teammates in Croatia. Something I noticed when watching him play was his willingness to receive the ball under pressure yet still have the first touch to control the ball and spin out away from the defender.
Likewise, there were times when Palaversa would find himself surrounded by the opposition and with some quick feet was able to escape from the pressure. His quick feet are deceiving for someone of his stature as teams would expect him to physically challenge them, not dance around them with the grace of a David Silva.
Perhaps most promising for City’s current style of play is Palaversa’s Hajduk Split matches are almost defined by his late runs into the box. Those type of pullbacks Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane produce after attacking the byline? They are the type of balls Palaversa loves to attack.
He tends to hang back during the initial attack and analyse the best moment to make a late run into the box in a style that Italians would call a “mezzala”. However, Palaversa doesn’t predominantly operate in the halfspaces. Instead, he sits centrally controlling the space by using his vision to scan the field ahead of him picking and choosing the latest possible movement to arrive, something that would certainly interest Pep Guardiola.
Now here we get to one of Palaversa’s most glaring weaknesses – speed. Having watched the Croatian, it was evident that after beating defenders or receiving the ball in space, he seems to hold the ball for a second too long.
The distinctive speed that Palaversa reads the game isn’t quite up to par with how he is able to execute it at present. Palaversa sees movements and patterns like Andrea Pirlo, and like Pirlo posses a cool demeanour on the ball. However, unlike Pirlo, the speed at which he sees the movement and acts upon it is often not quick enough. In the 1.HNL Palaversa can get away with it but, in the Premier League, he would be found out quickly, just as we have seen with former City target Jorginho.
When Chelsea signed Jorginho in the summer he was, perhaps, the highest rated defensive midfielder available. A standout at Napoli, the Brazilian born Italian native appeared to Man City’s top target and despite showing all the promise in the world at Napoli, Jorginho has struggled to adapt to the Premier League. It could be that Palaversa’s physicality makes up for this shortcoming as, unlike Jorginho, the Croatian can match the league physically.
When rumours about Palaversa began to surface, it immediately brought similarities to Ante Coric, another young Croatian midfielder who had previously been linked with City. Coric never pulled on the sky blue, but like Palaversa, was a standout in his native country. In the case of the former, questions were asked about a potential move to the Etihad, with doubts over his skill leaving him to stay at Dinamo Zagreb.
However, a couple of seasons later, Coric finally moved to Roma where he has enjoyed a good start. It is possible City have opted to take this type of move with Palaversa, with part of the deal his deal seeing him remain in Croatia for another 18 months.
However, I believe this deal closely resembles that of City revelation Oleksandr Zinchenko. Three years ago, the Blues signed an unknown commodity from Siberia, landing a young Ukrainian from Ufa who quietly moved to Manchester via a loan spell in Holland and began plugging away in the reserves.
Zinchenko arrived as an attacking midfielder but under Guardiola began a strict regime, where he retrained as an inverted left-back. An outlandish Football Manager scenario in the flesh. A similar positional change could be in store for Palaversa who has the physical prowess and playing style to play the Fernandinho role. Yet Zinchenko and Palaversa’s similarities run deeper – both possess the same ability to switch play that drops the jaw of even the most experienced midfielder.
So maybe, just maybe, in a couple of seasons, we could see Palaversa starting to break into the City lineup. However, pending the Football Leaks scandal and the subsequent ban that City could find themselves saddled with, a potential debut could be closer than many may have anticipated.
You can follow Will on Twitter: @TheWSchofield
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