When Kevin De Bruyne was first linked with City, the discourse surrounding him was not positive. On the eve of his transfer to City, back to league he departed from, the Daily Mirror branded the transfer ‘60m for Chelsea Reject’. Paul Merson said now-Chelsea player Pedro is ‘probably twice as good’ as De Bruyne. These, of course, were as funny at the time as they are now. But it is proof of the arrogance some attach to the Premier League: if a player has not succeeded here the first time, the idea of them coming back a better improved player are impossible, or so the narrative goes. De Bruyne, Nemanja Matic, Paul Pogba – even David Luiz is now showing his ability at the heart of Antonio Conte’s defence. Enter Steven N’Zonzi. The former Blackburn and Stoke midfielder signed for Spanish giants Sevilla in 2015 for a fee of around £7m. This was meant to be the end of his Premier League journey. Yet some seriously impressive form has put N’Zonzi back in the spotlight, and interest intensified when Graham Hunter reported that ‘Sevilla expected to lose N’Zonzi’ to City or Juventus, as he had a release clause of about £25.6 million.
Before beginning his professional career, N’Zonzi had spent 3 years at French giants Paris St. Germain, but left the club as he turned 14. However, it was then Ligue 2 team Amiens who would give him his debut in a Coupe de France match as a substitute, and then a few months after turning 20 earned his first start for the side in April 2008. During the summer break N’Zonzi was given his first professional contract and was instilled as the starting defensive midfielder for the club playing 34 times in the league, however Amiens would end the season being relegated to France’s third tier. Despite the poor fortunes of his club, Blackburn manager Sam Allardyce (how many clubs has he managed now, 42?) decided to sign N’Zonzi for around £500,000. Upon signing, Steven proudly proclaimed that ‘every weekend footballers of Ligue 1 watch the Premier League’ and that he was ‘really pleased’.
N’Zonzi’s debut was actually against City, as the blues rolled out 2-0 winners at Ewood Park, with Adebayor and Ireland grabbing the goals, N’Zonzi playing the full 90. N’Zonzi impressed and was voted Blackburn Rovers player of the 2009-10 season, leading him to sign a new 5-year deal in August 2010. However, this form would not last, as he fell out of favour with Sam Allardyce, who himself was sacked midway through the season to be replaced by Steve Kean. The trouble did not stop there, as Blackburn were suddenly in financial trouble: many speculated N’Zonzi would have to leave to secure the clubs future. To add to this, in the 2011-12 season N’Zonzi served a 3-match ban for elbowing Stoke defender Ryan Shawcross in the face, and the season would end in the second relegation of N’Zonzi’s so far, short career.
However, despite it looking like N’Zonzi would have to play with Blackburn in the 2012-13 season, hours after the deadline Stoke City announced that they had captured N’Zonzi for a fee of around £3.5m, which would reach £5m if targets were hit. Again, his debut was against City, in a match that ended 1-1 with N’Zonzi winning Man of the Match, and he would go on to make 109 league appearances for the Potters. During his time at Stoke, his manager Tony Pulis stated he believed Steven was destined for Champions League football and proclaimed him ‘one of the best signings’ he’d ever made for Stoke. In the three years he spent at the Britannia, he put in two transfer requests, which were both rejected. By the end of the 2014-15 season, Steven was named Stoke’s player of the year. Manager Mark Hughes hoped N’Zonzi would sign a new deal, but instead, as his contract was running down, got a move to Sevilla for £7m, a relatively low fee. N’Zonzi had scored 11 goals, received 32 yellow cards and 3 red cards in 195 league games.
This could have been the end of the Steven N’Zonzi and Premier League story, it may well still be the case. However, since his move to Andalusia, N’Zonzi’s form is what has earned him a new set of admirers from Europe’s elite, from City, Juventus and even Barcelona, who see him as a back up to Sergio Busquets. In his first game, it may not surprise you, he was sent off. In the 2015-16 season N’Zonzi would play 28 La Liga games, with 6 of them coming from the bench, scoring an average of 6.86 for the season at WhoScored. However, it was in the Europa League N’Zonzi excelled, where he would win the competition as Sevilla were crowned champions, but he would also make UEFA’s ‘Squad of the Tournament’, testament to his changing fortunes as a player. Yet, building on the renaissance he underwent in the second half of the season, it has been the first half of this season N’Zonzi has really impressed and has attracted suitors, so far playing at an average rating of 7.21. Perhaps another reason is that at Sevilla, Steven is playing for a so-called ‘disciple of Guardiola’, Jorge Sampaoli, who hosted Patrick Vieira for coaching sessions in November. Could Patrick have reported back to Pep on N’Zonzi?
So, now you know your N’Zonzi history, here are three stats to highlight N’Zonzi’s brilliant form.
N’Zonzi has an 89% pass completion rate which is similar to the rate of City’s midfielders at the moment, with Yaya Touré having a 90% completion rate, Fernandinho on 86% and Fernando Reges on 88%.
N’Zonzi has won 56.92% of his duels this season which beats all the City midfielders by some way: the closest is Yaya Touré on 49.35%.
N’Zonzi has won a staggering 73.08% of his aerial duels partially due to him standing at 6’3, but the closest City midfielder is Touré on 58.62%.
These three stats (pass completion, duels and aerial duels) show us that N’Zonzi would potentially add a new dimension to our game whilst aiding the current one we play all the same, particularly thanks to the defensive aspect of his game. However! Stats have flaws.
N’Zonzi has grown since his time in England. Probably due to his time under Tony Pulis, many would simply discard N’Zonzi, one for playing for Blackburn and then Stoke in the first place, but two for being ‘a typical combative midfielder’ fit only for a team managed by Tony Pulis. However, it is important not to simply discard his time in the Premier League. His time here was not just spent watching long balls fly over his head, then two footing anyone who came near him wearing offensively bright boots. Instead, his success in England, though it may appear relatively modest, allowed N’Zonzi to prove to anyone he could cope with all the physicality the league had to offer. But his rebirth in Seville helps us see a greater picture regarding N’Zonzi. His talents are being maximised as his positioning has improved, alongside his frightening aerial duels statistic. Furthermore, contrary to the aggressive Otamendi behind him, N’Zonzi is well regarded for being able to simply guide the opposition out of possession rather than a diving lunge. In some areas he is matching Busquets, and as we have seen this has led to serious interest from Europe’s elite.
Would Big Steve (hope this catches on if we get him) be a good buy? Well, unlike other midfielders we’ve been linked with, until he signs a new contract he has a ceiling in terms of price, £25.6m. He’s 28, which means City could get 3 to 4 seasons at least at the top level out of him, depending on how he ages. With his height he could be a valuable asset for a team that seems to consistently fail to score from set pieces, and what strikes me as useful about is height is when Claudio Bravo is forced to go medium-long with his kicks, we could at least bank on N’Zonzi helping to win the ball more than we would without him. However, what worries me about N’Zonzi is his form. Though he has been in great form for the best part of a year now, having watched Wilfried Bony master the Premier League for a year and then come to City and… yeah. But, they’re different players, in different roles, so it seems like a slightly tenuous link. Plus, if he came in in January, he would certainly help assure our leaky defence for the rest of the season. He would not be a fashionable buy, a player who at first would elicit much jealousy from our rivals, but he would be a useful cog in the Guardiola system.
My rating: 8.5 out of 10. His almost bargain price means that, if he lives up to how he has played in his time at Sevilla for a few years he would pay off the fee. He would be by no means be our first name on the team sheet, but the injuries problems of Gündoğan and Delph, the age of Touré and Fernando Reges being Fernando Reges (despite his marked improvement recently, I’ve voted him for my Player of the Month and you should too), City need to improve their central midfield. Though many fans would prefer a big name signing, N’Zonzi would by no means be the same player that left England for Sevilla, and I would tip him to improve City’s midfield by several notches.