The most exciting transfers aren’t necessarily the biggest names, the players going to the biggest clubs or the players commanding the biggest fees. Often, it’s when a good player is joining a good club, but you’re not entirely sure where they’ll fit in or how they’ll adapt to their new surroundings.
Recruitment isn’t simply about buying good footballers; it’s about buying good footballers who are right for your team. Here are five intriguing summer signings: good players, but will they fit?
Pedro | 28 | winger | Chelsea
Pedro is among the most decorated players to have ever joined the Premier League, but how will he cope outside his comfort zone? Having thrived at Barcelona and Spain because he was brought up in that environment and played with many of the same players for both club and country, it’s always been difficult to work out how transferable Pedro’s skills are. Is he a great player, or just a great player for Barcelona?
Pedro’s debut at West Bromwich Albion showed his counter-attacking quality, although both his goal and his assist featured an element of fortune. Under Jose Mourinho, Pedro will spend much more time defending than at Barca, and in Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1 system will have to get back behind the ball and protect his full-back rather than pushing high up the pitch to press. He’ll also be asked to supply others more readily; at Barca, he was often making default runs rather than playing assists.
Basically, at Chelsea he’ll have more responsibility.
There’s also added intrigue considering Manchester United missed out on his signing so dramatically — before instead spending much more money on the considerably less proven Anthony Martial. Football being football, Pedro will probably make Louis van Gaal regret that error when the clubs meet in December.
Ola Toivonen | 29 | forward | Sunderland
One of the most peculiar players around, Toivonen is a type of forward particularly prominent in Dutch football: tall but not particularly physical, and instead neat and tidy, determined to move toward play rather than going in behind, and not very prolific. The De Jong brothers, Luuk and Siem, are also in this mould.
It means that when Toivonen plays as a No. 9, he looks like a No. 10. And when he players as a No. 10, he looks like a No. 9. He’s certainly not a bad footballer, but it feels like no one’s ever entirely sure precisely what he excels at, who to play around him and quite what style of football he wants.
His goal-scoring record with PSV was decent — 61 goals in 139 games — although we all know the Eredivisie is an unreliable barometer of goal-scoring quality, because the standard in the division varies so much.
It’s difficult to see him being a true success at Sunderland, a team that makes a few unusual signings every year and never appears to have a truly cohesive philosophy. Toivonen will be attempting to adjust to English football around others doing the same, and while he’ll show some good touches, it would be a surprise if he hit double figures this season.
James Milner | 29 | midfielder | Liverpool
Milner’s decision to leave Manchester City for Liverpool was somewhat surprising, even if it had been rumoured for months. Having been accustomed to challenging for the league title, with his new employers he’ll merely be challenging for a Champions League place, and therefore it represents a significant step down.
Financial decisions played a part in the move, and, if Milner knew both Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne were set to join City, it might have been a wise decision to jump ship. But supposedly another key part of Milner’s decision was about his position. Having been used regularly on the wing for Man City, Milner wanted to revert to the central midfield role he played at Aston Villa.
Brendan Rodgers guaranteed him opportunities in that central position, but it wasn’t surprising to see the roles of Milner and Jordan Henderson overlap significantly in Liverpool’s opening-weekend victory at Stoke. Rodgers tried to play both in the centre of the pitch with no holding midfielder behind, and neither could storm forward into attack as much as they would like. Milner has been useful so far, but it feels like he’s stealing Henderson’s thunder; and after Liverpool’s new skipper spent the past couple of seasons as the counterweight for Steven Gerrard’s positional needs, he’d expected to be the main man in midfield now.
Besides, are we even sure Milner is effective in the middle? He performed well for Villa, but at City he made several crucial contributions from the wing in a title-winning side. The reality might be that, unfortunately for him, he’s simply better out wide.
Jonny Evans | 27 | defender | West Bromwich Albion
It feels like Evans never received the credit he was due at Manchester United. Although rarely an undisputed first-choice and eternally playing understudy to the likes of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, Evans quietly performed a solid job. He made nearly 200 appearances for United, winning three league titles along the way, and it seems odd that he’s now turned up at Tony Puils’ West Bromwich Albion.
Pulis, as we know, loves centre-backs. At the Hawthorns he’s regularly been fielding a quartet of natural centre-backs together along the back line, providing a physical, formidable barrier for opponents looking to penetrate through the centre of the pitch. Pulis’ tactics invite crosses, which is fine when you have plenty of players to head the ball away.
Evans isn’t really a typical Pulis centre-back, though. He’s a more timid, subtle footballer who likes outwitting opponents through positioning rather than physique. He’s occasionally very good on the ball, and capable of spraying passes into attack with both feet — maybe Pulis will attempt to use him to play longer balls toward Salomon Rondon?
In truth, it feels like Evans could have done better — Everton or Southampton, perhaps, maybe even a move abroad. But his weakness is that he’s not imposing enough, and he needs to play alongside a top-class defender rather than being the side’s leader. With the Baggies, will he evolve into a different type of character?
Shinji Okazaki |29 | forward | Leicester City
For the past half-decade, Japan have been a watchable but somewhat frustrating national team. Their passing is good, their movement is slick, but they’re simply not productive enough in the final third. Their playmakers don’t create quite enough chances, and their strikers aren’t clinical.
Okazaki, as much as anyone, epitomises that. A hugely likeable footballer because he’s always running, always thinking, always selfless and attempting to help out teammates, he’s never seemed like a natural goal scorer.
And yes, he is Japan’s record marksman, but the vast majority of his goals have been scored against weak opposition — he’s netted against Palestine, Uzbekistan and Iraq in the past year. In his two and a half years with Stuttgart, he netted just 10 times in 63 games.
But 27 goals over his past two seasons with Mainz shows Okazaki is improving, and the funny thing about his move to Leicester is that they have an extremely similar player already in Jamie Vardy. He runs all day, he never gives defenders a moment’s rest and he sets a fantastic example to the rest of the side. But will he ever be prolific at this level? Probably not.
Still, it creates a brilliantly high-energy forward duo that has earned the Foxes eight points from their four league matches so far. Neither Okazaki nor Vardy are the ideal players for playing alongside natural wingers like Riyad Mahrez and Marc Albrighton, but with Claudio Ranieri playing those two on the “wrong” flanks, they’ll cut inside and exploit the space created by the front two. Opponents will have four players buzzing around unpredictably, which makes Leicester a very exciting proposition.