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Could Manuel Locatelli be our Midfield Maestro?

By Jahid Islam

Hello readers of We Love You Arsenal! I’m Jahid, and this week we’ll be looking at yet another midfield target for the Gunners. Our focus this week is on Manuel Locatelli; a rugged, suave, and versatile midfielder who’s garnered significant attention from Juventus and Arsenal thanks to his exploits in Italy’s triumphant Euro 2020 campaign… or 2021. Whatever.

Firstly, a bit of background on the fella. Born on 8th January, 1998, in the modest town of Lecco, Italy, Locatelli began his footballing education as a nine-year-old for Atalanta. His talent was evident from the outset and two years later, AC Milan signed the young midfielder. He made his debut for AC Milan’s first team in 2016 at the age of 18, and he went on to feature 48 times competitively for the Rossoneri. That’s probably where he picked up his impeccable fashion sense. I mean, just look at that sweg!

However, Locatelli struggled as a deep-lying central midfielder during his spell at the San Siro. Per popular news outlet "AC Milan Offside:"

“Locatelli clearly looked uncomfortable and unable to cope in his role as a defensive midfielder during the preseason ICC matches, and it doesn’t come as a surprise to see him depart the club for a loan. He clearly wasn’t ready for a starting role at the club, but given his young age, that’s not surprising.”

A season long loan with an obligation to buy to Sassuolo ensued, as Il Diavolo looked to rebuild without his services. His overall game improved year on year in Modena, especially his through balls, which have shot up from 0.00 per 90 during his last year at Milan, which ranked him in the 17th percentile, to 0.16 per 90 – in the 76th percentile. As of last season, Locatelli’s passing metrics are jam-packed with stats that place him in the 90th percentile and above, across the board. His numbers truly have set a statistical benchmark for midfielders worldwide. Don't believe me? Just take a look below.

And yes, I say it week after week when I profile players. Stats alone can be deceiving! Especially when you're trying to get a fuller picture of a a particular player. However, when watching Locatelli, you can see where the hype comes from almost immediately. He possesses fantastic vision that would earn him many a kind word from the attackers at Arsenal, his close control is inch-perfect, and his switches of play are a sight to behold.

As a box-to-box midfielder, it’s imperative that Locatelli chips in defensively too. With 2.72 tackles per 90, he ranks in the 85th percentile for central midfielders in Serie A. In comparison, Xhaka’s 1.95 per 90 places him at a lowly 36th percentile. If Locatelli is meant to be Xhaka’s replacement, we won’t be missing much. Quite the opposite. Xhaka’s notorious left-footedness has been hounded as a liability for years, but Locatelli’s shown a proficiency at passing with both of his feet, completing16.76 left-footed passes per 90, which may not seem like much, but ranks at 87th percentile among right-footed midfielders. His progressive passing and ball carrying tied in with his astute defending make him an exceedingly desirable central midfielder. Most importantly for us, he profiles and plays in a style that would slot straight into a midfield trio. If Arteta so desperately wants to play a 4-3-3, Locatelli’s suitability to such a system is glaringly obvious. Like a bright neon sign.

The one drawback we must take into account is the disparity between leagues and the difference in playing styles, you know the drill. Yawn. We talk about it again and again, but it’s a key thing to consider. Italy is just that little bit slower-paced, and far less physical. Could a player like Locatelli perform in the Premier League? Where players have a lot less time on the ball? A Lot less time to pick out a pass? Judging by his adaptability to a creative role at Sassuolo, not to mention his very solid performance in a No. 8 role at Euro 2020, there’s definitely room for optimism.

Sadly, there’s one huge, unavoidable, and seemingly irreparable issue. He doesn’t want to leave Italy. His heart is set on playing for Juventus, and that blind love for the old lady obscures the alluring, exciting, and sexy little rebuild taking place at London Colney. With Edu off to persuade the player, much to the contradiction of Arteta’s own philosophy of only signing players who want to join, it’s a matter of time before we know the effectiveness of his convincing. My money’s on Edu failing miserably. I desperately hope he succeds though.

Reports of an offer of £40million from Arsenal having been accepted have been making the rounds on Twitter, with Juventus stumping up £10million less, not to mention a loan deal with an obligation to buy, rather than an outright purchase. Sassuolo would benefit financially, as well as competitively, by offloading Locatelli for more money to a club they won’t face in the near future, and possibly not ever. Sassuolo aren’t resigned to losing him either. An ultimatum of ‘Leave for England, or stay at Sassuolo’ isn’t off the table if Juventus are unable to eclipse our bid. I can’t help but think about Aaron Ramsey’s exorbitant wages at Juventus having hurt the old lady’s purse over the last few years.

Maybe it was all part of Wenger’s grand plan:

Step one: Refuse to offer Ramsey a better salary.

Step two: Juventus offer £200k-per-week.

Step three: Ramsey joins them on a free, sapping their finances.

Step four: They can’t compete with us for Locatelli, and we sign him instead.

Arsene Wenger, he’s done it again.

It all makes perfect sense, right? Except for the fact that Wenger retired in May of 2018, when Locatelli was still struggling at AC Milan, and way before Ramsey’s contract extension saga. Oops. That theory’s in the bin then.

All in all, signing Locatelli would be a great move for Arteta, Edu, and the board. He's another promising player to trust Arteta’s process, validate his rebuild and grant credibility to the project. He’d be brilliant for us tactically, and slot directly into a midfield trio with Partey and another midfielder. But as Arteta himself insisted, he doesn’t want a player that has to be persuaded to join us. A player who would always be yearning for a move back to Italy. It’s a precarious situation, and I don’t envy the job before Edu in making this deal happen. However, I am absolutely giddy at the prospect of a Aouar-Partey-Locatelli midfield trio. It would be magnificent.

I’ve been Jahid, and thanks for reading! See you next week for more bad puns and interesting takes. Ba-bye!

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