The role of the defensive midfielder has transformed drastically in the last five to ten years. Where the likes of Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane once prowled the halfway line, bruising and battering the opposition, now we find the destructive element of the position phased out in favour of mobile, tactically minded players like Sergio Busquets and Sami Khedira.
Enter William Carvalho. The Sporting Lisbon midfielder has made a name for himself as a fearsome physical competitor, breaking into Leonardo Jardim’s team last year and attracting interest from the likes of Arsenal and Manchester United. And with Sporting supposedly willing to negotiate, and both teams lacking in a strong midfield presence, Carvalho might find himself relocating from Portugal to England in the near future.
Born in Angola, Carvalho moved to Portugal with his family at a very young age, and at thirteen years of age was admitted into Sporting Lisbon’s youth setup. He made his debut for the team at just nineteen, but Sporting saw fit to send him out on loan, first to lower league team, C.D. Fatima, and then Cercle Brugge in the Belgian Pro League.
Having already produced the likes of Eden Hazard, Vincent Kompany and Romelu Lukaku, the Belgium Pro League looked a fine test to hone Carvalho’s obvious skills and reward his potential with first-team football. He racked up 32 appearances overall, with two goals scored, and was a key component of the team, which helped the club survive relegation.
It was his return to Sporting Lisbon in 2013/14 which proved to be his breakout season. Under new coach Leonardo Jardim, Carvalho was chosen as the first-choice defensive midfielder, and was a key component in Sporting’s resurgence following a difficult year the previous season.
Often likened to Arsenal and France legend, Patrick Vieira, Carvalho is a formidable physical opponent, and is not afraid to throw his weight around. However, he combines brains with brawn, often hassling and pressing opposition players out wide or away from his goal with sheer presence, rather than ever diving in and committing to a tackle.
A calm presence on the ball, Carvalho refuses to be panicked into a pass, showing considerable composure despite his tender years. Preferring a short, simple passing game, he’ll often nick the ball off the opposition and play it forward to a more technically gifted teammate, dropping back to cover his defence in case of a counter-attack.
Who’s Interested? Arsenal
Arsenal have never found a true successor to Patrick Vieira. While Arsene Wenger is a firm believer in the notion that the days of the midfield destroyer is over, it’s clear through his pursuit of Sami Khedira and rumoured interest in William Carvalho suggest he’s open to adding a strong physical presence to his midfield.
In the middle of the park, the Arsenal midfield is disjointed. Where you have the dynamic passing range of Jack Wilshere and the box-to-box dynamism of Aaron Ramsey, the likes of Mikel Arteta and Matthieu Flamini have hit their early thirties and lack the athleticism and range to properly compliment their younger compatriots.
William Carvalho would offer an exceptional foil to Wilshere and Ramsey, however. He’s a born defensive midfielder, preferring to be the anchor to a three-man midfield pivot, and his defensive duties and physical presence would offer the perfect foundation for the more attacking-minded Arsenal players to build on.
Who’s Interested? Manchester United
David Moyes battled hard last summer to snap up Carvalho from Sporting, but manager Jardim’s assurances of first team football and an inability to see eye-to-eye over a price led to yet another unsuccessful transfer pursuit at United.
However, with a new manager at the helm and significant transfer funds available – and a fierce desire to ensure that the same transfer mistakes are not made again – we could see United reignite their interest in Carvalho.
Marouane Fellaini failed to shore up the United midfield last year after a big transfer, and it’s hard to see van Gaal – who favours hard-working, disciplined players above all – opting to start the wayward, often lazy Belgium. Carvalho is young, willing to learn and under van Gaal’s tutelage could develop into a true great.
Words by Julius Pepperwood