FootballPremier League

Meet the bargain £22m midfielder that Arsenal and Everton are battling for

July 24, 2019

A wiry, lean 6ft 3, Ibrahim Sangaré looks like a man made of golf clubs, and moves around the pitch with all the grace of a newborn giraffe taking its trembling first steps. Looks can be deceiving, though, as the Toulouse midfielder’s rise to becoming one of Ligue 1’s most-wanted young players attests.

Having previously drawn the attention of Monaco and Lyon in France, it appears increasingly likely that the Premier League will be Sangaré’s next destination, with Everton and Arsenal both reportedly readying moves for the 21-year-old.

But it is the interest of the two French clubs that is most instructive when analysing Sangaré’s skill-set, as the coveted central midfielder combines aspects of the players he’d likely have been identified to replace at Monaco and Lyon.

Monaco sold Fabinho to Liverpool last summer and, after a months-long bedding in period, the Brazilian impressed at Anfield last season, ably protecting the backline from the deepest midfield position and filling the spaces vacated by the Reds’ adventurous full-backs.

Sangaré has exhibited an ability to shield the Toulouse defence in a similar fashion – albeit covering ground with slightly less zip – to Fabinho, anticipating the progression of opposition attacks to smoothly intercept possession or break up play with impeccably timed tackles.

And last season saw Sangaré develop his ability to play through pressure, to the point his weaving forward with the ball at his feet became reminiscent of Tanguy Ndombélé, the gifted midfielder Tottenham have signed from Lyon this summer for a club-record fee.

Toulouse signed Sangaré, a five-cap Ivory Coast international, from AS Denguélé in his homeland as a teenager three years ago. His initial breakthrough at first-team level at the Stadium de Toulouse saw him deployed with a strictly defensive remit, tasked with disrupting opposition attacks but afforded little responsibility on the ball.

But that has changed as he has grown into senior football. Sangaré made 55.3 passes per 90 minutes in Ligue 1 last season, up from 45.7 the season before and 37.4 for the five outings of his maiden campaign in 2016/17. He has also increased his passing accuracy to 79.9 per cent, up more than 10 per cent from his debut season.

More confident now in possession, Sangaré showed off an impressive range of passing last term, effortlessly spraying balls out to flanks to initiate attacks from deep, and driving crisp, low passes between the lines of the opposition to progress play through midfield.

These developments have not come at the expense of his defensive output, though. Sangaré has maintained an average of 3.6 tackles per 90 over the last two seasons, while reducing the number of times an opponent has been able to dribble past him (1.1 per 90 last season versus 2 per 90 the year before). His success as a ball-winner is owed to his unwavering focus in one-v-ones, rarely outfoxed by faints or flicks.

Valued at around £22m, Sangaré is an eminently affordable target for Arsenal, given their supposedly restricted budget this summer. Were the Gunners to move for the Ivorian, they’d at once shore up their midfield, while adding a degree of thrust through the middle third absent since Patrick Vieira’s pomp, or indeed Abou Diaby’s fleeting moments of form and fitness a decade ago.

With Paris Saint-Germain pursuing a move for Idrissa Gueye, there is an obvious opening for Sangaré at Everton, too.

Eight years Gueye’s junior, the Toulouse youngster can’t yet boast comparable numbers to the Senegalese when it comes to ball recoveries, but his rapid development suggests he’d adapt quickly to the role of chief destroyer in Marco Silva’s side. And his diagonal passing and ability to cover space out wide when transitioning from defence to attack would offer greater freedom to the impressive Lucas Digne at left-back.

Toulouse manager Alain Casanova has had the luxury of working with a handful of high-quality midfielders across his two spells with the club, and he believes Sangaré is as good as he’s seen.

“He’s one of the greatest players I’ve had at Toulouse,” Casanova said of the 21-year-old. “I’ve managed high-level midfielders, like Etienne Capoue, Adrien Rabiot and Moussa Sissoko. I think he’s of that level.

“I knew he had potential but I thought he needed some time. On the other hand, I’m not surprised because everyone was saying good things about him. I was told: ‘You’ll see, he’s a very, very high level player.’”

At first glance, he might seem inelegant and somewhat ungainly, all limbs and sharp angles. But judging him on what he does, rather than how he looks while doing it, it is clear that Sangaré is an emerging talent of serious potential.

Arsenal to finish in the top 4 – 6/4