May 18, 2024

We are currently witnessing the era of a new breed of midfield players, often referred to as No.6s, and this trend has been developing for some time. In the last two years, the prices for midfielders who possess a diverse skill set, typically featuring a blend of physicality and all-round brilliance, have skyrocketed.

Interestingly, when examining the top 15 transfers since 2021, Romelu Lukaku and Jack Grealish are the only exceptions to this wave of No.6-style players. While they aren’t as high on the list as their contemporaries, they still manage to secure spots within the top 30. Aurelien Tchouameni played a pivotal role in kickstarting this evolution.

In 2021, Chelsea was pursuing Lukaku and, instead of making a serious push for Tchouameni, they opted for the experience and perceived stability of Saul Niguez. During that time, the Real Madrid star secured a transfer for approximately £80 million ($97 million). Since then, the market for these players has become quite chaotic.

Douglas Luiz celebrates after scoring for Aston Villa against West Ham United

In the past year, three players, all aged 24 or younger, have commanded transfer fees exceeding £100 million ($124 million). Jude Bellingham’s transfer came close to this figure at £88 million ($107 million). This group of players has experienced substantial moves, starting with Enzo Fernandez’s £106.5 million ($129.5 million) transfer, followed by Declan Rice’s move to Arsenal for £105 million ($127.67 million), and Moises Caicedo becoming the most expensive at £115 million ($139.8 million).

This trend has unintentionally increased the market value for other players with similar playing styles and positions. Romeo Lavia’s transfer, for instance, reached over £50 million ($62 million) later in the summer. Chelsea had also hiked up the asking price for Conor Gallagher. Somewhat under the radar is Douglas Luiz of Aston Villa, a 25-year-old Brazilian midfielder who has been in excellent form under the guidance of Unai Emery. Aston Villa currently sits just two points away from the top of the table, and they boast the highest number of wins, with only Manchester City surpassing them. However, Tottenham could potentially change this standing if they defeat Fulham on Monday.

 

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It is, then, in this market that Luiz still looks to be a ridiculously cheap option. He was close to leaving Villa last summer with both Arsenal and Tottenham interested in taking him on. The belief was that he may even have eventually become available for free.

However, last summer Villa extended his deal until 2026 and haven’t looked back. They faced a real battle to keep their talisman too, rejecting offers from Arsenal of up to £25million ($30m). That price now looks tiny in comparison to how he is being valued. CIES Football Observatory had a price that was similar to the offers being made by the Gunners but reports suggested that even with 12 months left on his contract at the time that it could take up to £50million ($62m) to price him away from the Midlands.

Now, the same site values Luiz at closer to £45million ($55m). It is a testement to his increased importance for Villa and Emery that this is the case and it has been quite the rise for the former Girona and Manchester City man. Arriving in England as a talent but relatively unknown on the big stage, Luiz has proved adept at anchoring a midfield, playing as a sole defensive minded player but also in a pivot and with team conductor-like style as well.

FBREF compares the metrics of his play and has similar matches between him and Bruno Guimaraes – one of the best in the centre of the park across the country – as well as former Arsenal target Youri Tielemans. Now, though, Luiz would cost more than even his value suggests.

Villa are not only in a strengthened position as a competitor for the top four and for European places but they also have an established manager with pedigree as well as an ambitious team that is still growing together, Luiz is at the heart of this. His work, which has largely gone underpraised, has seen his value shoot up according to Transfermarkt as well, reflecting the state that any potential bid would have to meet.

The stats site has him as being worth £48million ($58.2m), nearly double that of the offers that Arsenal and Spurs were sniffing around with last year. This isn’t just a name plucked out of nowhere either.

Both sides had been looking in the midfield for additional offers during the summer, Spurs were one of those testing Chelsea for Gallagher, whilst Arsenal looked for quite a while to be losing Thomas Partey as well as Granit Xhaka. It has left Mikel Arteta understocked in the centre of the park and relying perhaps too much on Jorginho.

The Italian started alongside Rice at Stamford Bridge but was out-ran and outperformed by Gallagher, Fernandez and Caicedo. That is to be expected for a player sold for just £10million ($12m) in January and replaced by younger legs that also outnumbered him. This falls to the side, though, because what now matters for Arsenal is quality and Luiz brings a more rounded game.

He is not only much more dangerous in the final third, currently in the top seven percent for non-penalty goals amongst midfielders but also because his off ball work is stronger, owing to his ability to eat up ground. As someone to be a genuine Xhaka replacement, a position that Kai Havertz already looks muddled in, Luiz is more of a box-crasher and physical presence.

Given that Partey’s contract is expiring in just over 18 months, there is also a discussion to be had over whether Luiz could be the long-term replacement for Arteta’s secondary midfielder as well. He would be killing two birds with one stone in this scenario and still has plenty of room for development. What is interesting is that Tottenham could also do with someone of his ability.

Although it is the midfield that has been the key to the good work done by Ange Postecoglou since the summer, there have been cracks exposed within the team after Yves Bissouma’s red card. It leaves Spurs needing to turn to Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg for their match against Fulham on Monday.

While this is far from a terrible choice, Hojbjerg has been quickly relegated from first choice option into a peripheral member of the team. The Dane is yet to make a single start in the league despite featuring in all but one of the games so far and has still only played less than 150 minutes.

He has been replaced by Pape Matar Sarr and the more industrious figure of Bissouma playing with confidence and clarity. Luiz, who is older than Sarr but still younger than Luiz and Hojbjerg, would be a nice addition here. He compares well again to the former Southampton and Bayern Munich ace and offers the threat of becoming more than just a squad player.

The issue for both sides is that the fresh place of Luiz as one of the best midfield performers across the league and the age of No.6s means that he is going to cost considerably more than he would have in the past and won’t be that content to be just another option for Postecoglou or Arteta when he is standing out under Emery. The ship may well have sailed, at least for now.

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