The transfer window “slamming shut” (as Sky Sports loves to tell us it does) is fast approaching and there are still major questions marks about Liverpool’s squad.
There is no recognised defensive midfielder and no left sided centre back. While there is an alarm-bells-ringing-at-a-worrying-level need for players that can come in and be starters immediately, this window has also highlighted another gap in the club’s strategy – being proactive in the market.
The extremely public pursuit and failure to secure the signature of Moisés Caicedo raised questions about the way the club operate. Paul Joyce reported that Liverpool turned down the chance to sign Enzo Fernández last summer for £15 million when he was at River Plate, Brighton signed the now-record Premier League signing Moisés Caicedo for less than £5m and more and more clubs are buying directly from lower value but high upside markets, cutting out the middleman.
This brings us to what feels like the millionth name linked with a move to Anfield this summer.
🚨 𝗡𝗘𝗪: Liverpool are one of a number of clubs interested in Lille's highly-rated young midfielder Carlos Baleba. Brighton are also in discussions over a move for the midfielder, offering a fee of £15m fee plus add-ons. [mail]
He'll probably be worth £100m next year then 🤣 pic.twitter.com/D12iEEyJri
So, who is Carlos Baleba? He is a recent arrival in European football, signed by Lille in January 2022. Before then he was born and raised in Cameroon, trained at the École de Football des Brasseries du Cameroun academy in the country’s largest city, Douala. He spent most of early life in Northern France playing for their ‘B’ team in the Championnat National 3 – France’s fifth tier.
The following pre-season was when things started to happen for the 2004-born midfielder, leaving an impression on new manager Paulo Fonseca. Last season he played 625 minutes for Lille (just under seven full 90s), but in limited game time has impressed enough to earn links to Brighton, Manchester United and now Liverpool. I’ve taken a deeper look at the Cameroonian midfielder to determine whether he is worth the hype:
Baleba isn’t particularly tall in stature, listed at around 179cm tall (five-foot-eight, and I’d argue this is a conservative estimate). He is, of course, not fully physically developed at 19-years-old, he’s still already well built and is able to use his strength to his advantage in duels. The Cameroonian is predominantly left footed, to the point where it is noticeable when watching him that he’s actively avoiding using his right (not that this is necessarily a bad thing, it’s just more noticeable when it’s a left-footed player).
Despite his heavy reliance on his left foot, he’s predominantly played on the right-hand side of a double pivot in Paulo Fonseca’s 4-2-3-1. Here is his heat map from his limited game time last season (via SofaScore):
Fonseca’s teams are notoriously forward thinking (often to the detriment of the defensive side of the game). Although Baleba starts in a deeper lying role, he is usually asked to be the aggressor of the two, with Benjamin André the more positionally disciplined of the two. While he has played as a defensive midfielder, it’s probably not where he’s best suited – especially as a long anchor of a midfield. His ideal position currently is as an eight, allowed to free roam to some extent.
To preface the following, Baleba’s sample size is limited to just 531 minutes played, so while they give us an indication of the sort of player he is, they are skewed (all percentiles are against midfielders in Europe’s top five leagues).
What stands out in particular – at least on the ball – is his ball carrying. Although Baleba is listed at five-foot-eight (again, I think he may be taller than this), his legs are long and lanky, and deceptively nimble. In his limited gametime he’s averaged 2.88 progressive carries per ninety (putting him in the 91st percentile), and averages 2.54 successful take-ons per ninety (putting him in the 99th percentile). His dribbling style isn’t the cleanest, but it’s extremely effective. It will often look like he’s about to lose the ball, knocking it too far in front of him, only to get one of his long limbs to it and take it away from an opponent’s grasp. Baleba is at his most effective when he is given licence to burst forward, either into the final third or into opposition boxes.
His previously-mentioned long limbs also help him a defensive capacity, specifically with his tackling. Baleba can wrap his leg around the ball and win the ball back when it looks like the ball is gone. He likes to press intently on to his man and use his frame to poke the ball away from his opponent, either then trying to chase down the loose ball or in the direction of a teammate to start a counterattack. During his time with Lille’s first team, he has been a high-volume tackler (2.88 per 90) but also an extremely efficient one, winning 2.03 of those per 90 (that’s a 70% success rate for those that can’t be bothered doing the maths). He's extremely effective in dealing with people dribbling at him, winning 66.7% of duels against dribblers he engages in.
Areas for Improvement
Defensively, he can be undisciplined in his approach. Often things can be too hectic from Baleba, rushing into press an opponent and allowing them to bypass him easily. His rushed approach leaves him committing one too many fouls (over two per 90) and three bookings and a red card in his small game time last season show a player that shows too much youthful exuberance. This is, of course, something that comes with experience and coaching, knowing when to jump towards the ball and when to sit, but right now it’s something the Cameroonian particularly struggles with.
His passing game is also unrefined at the time of writing. He’s a high-volume passer (57.29 per 90) but struggles with accuracy, completing around 83%. His one footedness in these situations doesn’t particularly help him. He can make things harder on himself by passing with awkward angles with his left-foot rather than using his right.
Baleba’s reading of situations is also at an early stage, but again this can be reasoned by his age and inexperience. He isn’t particularly someone that is going to identify where an opposition player is going to send a pass and cut it off, represented by his 0.51 interceptions per 90.
If Brighton’s scouts have picked up on your talent, there’s a very high chance that you’re a good player. Baleba – despite his rawness – is just that. He’s extremely fun to watch and even though he’s still unrefined there is obvious upside in his game. A move to Liverpool this summer would likely be far too soon, and regular gametime at a club like Lille, knowing for developing young talents makes much more sense.
However, if Liverpool were to sign him, he’d see limited gametime due to the plethora of ‘eights’ the club has now and a loan would be better suited. Already an excellent carrier of the ball and tackler, with further experience and improving on areas like reading of the game and decision making and it won’t be a surprise to see Baleba at a top club in the future. For now though, he’s better off staying in Ligue 1 and developing his game in a league known for its patience with young talents.