We can’t be too sure about how much attention Premier League clubs pay the players they have sold. If Stoke City kept tabs on Steven N’Zonzi immediately after they sold him to Sevilla, they probably would have smiled at the fact they had just got £8.5million for him.
N’Zonzi was sent off in his first game for Sevilla during a bore 0-0 draw with Málaga. It was an inauspicious start that provoked an impassioned reaction, with Spanish journalist José Manuel García saying he moved like an “elephant in a pottery shop”.
However, that was not to be a portent of things to come. Instead of falling out of favour and languishing mostly on the substitute bench, N’Zonzi has transformed into a brilliant creative midfielder and one of La Liga’s hottest properties.
Now in his third season at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán Stadium, N’Zonzi is immensely popular with the supporters, who will be slightly nervous about recent reports linking the France international with a return to the Premier League.
After admitting his ‘love’ for the Premier League, the Daily Mail are claiming new Everton boss Sam Allardyce wants to make a move for the midfielder. It remains to be seen if such speculation develops into something with more substance, but one thing’s for sure, N’Zonzi has certainly done enough to warrant a transfer tug-of-war, with Arsenal and Manchester City also linked to him in recent weeks..
Who Is N’Zonzi?
The midfielder started his career at Amiens having previously been part of the Paris Saint-Germain youth set-up. Although the club were relegated to the French third tier at the end of the 2008/09 season, N’Zonzi’s consistency was highlighted and had drawn interest from clubs in England.
Blackburn Rovers won the race to sign him that summer and Sam Allardyce immediately made him a first-team regular. After impressing in his first season, he was handed a new deal but never really managed to recapture the form he showed in his first season.
After signing for Stoke in 2012, N’Zonzi mixed man of the match displays with ill-discipline, getting sent off twice for reckless challenges. He was also prone to “theatrical sulks”, as Potters assistant manager Mark Bowen called them.
Indeed, at the end of his first season with Stoke, he handed in a transfer request which was rejected. In his final season, though, N’Zonzi was a standout performer, playing 42 times as clubs began to circle.
In the summer of 2015, Mark Hughes unsuccessfully tried to convince the Frenchman to stay. However, the midfielder was determined to play Champions League football and when Sevilla offered him just that, he was off to Spain.
N’Zonzi’s Main Strengths
And Seville has been the scene of N’Zonzi’s thrilling reinvention. The midfielder helped Unai Emery’s side to the Europa League in 2016, being named in the squad of the season too. N’Zonzi was particularly impressive in the final when Sevilla beat Liverpool to clinch their third successive Europa League title.
N’Zonzi was influential, with only Éver Banega playing more passes. It was a confident, controlled display which acted as a precursor to the 2016/17 season, when N’Zonzi really began to blossom under Jorge Sampaoli.
Guided by the former Chile manager, N’Zonzi became an accomplished all-rounder. Although it was distinguished Sevilla sporting director Monchi (now at Roma), who recognised N’Zonzi’s potential, it was Sampaoli who unleashed it.
A mobile and intelligent presence in the middle, N’Zonzi regularly controlled the rhythm of Sevilla’s attacks. His passing accuracy in the league last season was 89.9 per cent, averaging 79 passes per game. He also averaged 0.6 key passes per game and notched three assists.
Overall, in the 2016/17 La Liga season, N’Zonzi played 2470 passes (more than any other player), 1538 of which were forward passes, so that dispells any cynical notion that he may be a ‘safe’ passer. On the contrary, when N’Zonzi is in possession, he is progressive and thoughtful.
But he shines in the defensive side of the game too. Sevilla’s brand of football was structured around aggressive pressing off the ball. If that failed, N’Zonzi was often left exposed and in challenging one-on-one situations with an opponent.
However, he excelled thanks to his intelligence. He only averaged 1.9 tackles per game, but that’s because he only made one when it was absolutely necessary. Instead, he would use his physique and understanding of blocking off the opponent’s route to frustrate and protect his defence. He also knows how to use his 6ft 3in frame to his advantage, winning 75.7 per cent of his aerial duels.
In addition to that, N’Zonzi was crucial to distributing passes to Sevilla’s wide players. The quick transition to attacking down the wings was a key component to Sampaoli’s philosophy and the coach knew he could rely on the former Stoke favourite to make quick, sharp passes to the left and right-backs.
N’Zonzi’s partnership with Vicente Iborra, now at Leicester City, was also indicative of the Frenchman’s intelligence as the duo could comfortably swap between operating deeper in front of the defence and pushing forward into more attacking roles. N’Zonzi’s defensive and attacking abilities allowed him to do both effectively, flourishing as part of Sampaoli’s fluid and flexible 4-2-3-1.
This season, under new boss Eduardo Berizzo, N’Zonzi has been similarly metronomic, averaging 71.3 accurate passes per game. When it comes to midfielders in Spain, only Real Madrid’s Toni Kroos has more.
It is worth noting that N’Zonzi is not flawless. He had made one defensive error leading led to a goal this season and hasn’t offered much of a goal threat, with only three key passes and six shots in ten appearances. It could be argued that, without the detailed instructions of Sampaoli, his performances have dipped somewhat, but that does not mean recapturing his finest form is beyond him.
How Much Is N’Zonzi Worth?
N’Zonzi’s current market value, as per Transfermarkt, is £27million. Considering that he will be 29 next month, some top clubs may think that there would be better value for a younger player who has his best years ahead of him.
However, N’Zonzi still has comfortably three or four years left in him at the highest level and would offer Premier League clubs a wonderfully composed, efficient midfield presence. Since leaving England three years ago, he has improved dramatically as a player, becoming more rounded, disciplined and experienced – and that will certainly attract some suitors.
Sevilla let Iborra join Leicester in the summer and, considering that N’Zonzi is a regular starter under Berizzo, the club won’t let him leave until they find a replacement. Also, N’Zonzi signed a new contract extension in January keeping him at the club until 2020, so they are under no intense pressure to sell him.
However, it was reported back in August that N’Zonzi wanted to leave Sevilla, just weeks after Sampaoli left to take charge of the Argentina national side. David Cartlidge, a reporter with beIN Sports, confirmed that the player’s release clause was £35.5million.
Should Arsenal, Everton or Manchester City Sign N’Zonzi?
Undoubtedly Idrissa Gueye was one of the signings of last summer, but at times this season, Everton have looked overawed in midfield.
N’Zonzi is no doubt a Big Sam sort of player, with his physicality, and would definitely add protection in front a back line that’s been very leaky this season.
Toffees fans will surely hope he isn’t the only arrival in January though, with a forward arguably being a much more pressing issue.
Manchester City have a brilliant holding midfielder in Fernandinho, but the Brazilian will be 33 before the end of the season, so it’s understandable that Pep Guardiola would be shopping for a long-term replacement.
Of course, N’Zonzi’s recent admission of love for the Premier League may be enough for a club to pursue a deal. Should a bid surface, he may find it difficult to say no.