Football Features

Untapped talent or overrated? How Mario Lemina compares to Premier League top-six midfielders

By Ollie Thomas

Published: 14:17, 10 July 2019

It appears that this summer’s transfer window is going to be dominated by central midfielders.

With Rodri, Tanguy Ndombele and Youri Tielemans all securing big-money moves to the Premier League already this summer, the big sides have shown that they are not afraid to spend big in order to strengthen in the middle of the park and, if reports are to be believed, this spending spree is not over yet.

Mario Lemina has been very public about his desire to leave Southampton and seek pastures new. The 25-year-old arrived at St. Mary’s in 2017 for a then club-record £15m from Italian giants Juventus. Despite coming with a glowing reputation as a player with bags of potential, Lemina is yet to truly settle on the South Coast.

There is no doubting that Lemina has a lot of natural ability and is at the physical level required to make it at the very top, reflected by the reported interest shown by the likes of Arsenal and Manchester United. Reports this week claim that Lemina favours a move to Old Trafford and, with the future of Paul Pogba still very much in the balance, there could be a gap that needs filling in their midfield.

However, the fact that Lemina is yet to really get going in the Premier League – albeit partly due to injury problems – has certainly led to question marks as to whether he is ready for a shot at a top club. We compared his statistics from last season to the other box-to-box midfielders from the top six that he would be competing with in 2019/2020 to see whether the numbers suggest that he’s ready.

On the ball

The first thing that must be noted when analysing these statistics is that Lemina missed large chunks of last season, whether it be through injury or simply being out of favour. That is why the usage of the ‘per 90 minutes’ metric has been included, as this is a much fairer representation of his output.

It goes without saying that the most important prerequisite of a top midfielder is ability on the ball. This will be far more relevant at a top-six club than it would have been at Southampton: whoever Lemina plays for next season will likely enjoy far more of the ball than the Saints do (only four teams had a lower average possession than Ralph Hasenhüttl’s men last season).

When it comes to his ability on the ball, it becomes very clear where his strengths and weaknesses lie. Lemina’s passing accuracy was the worst out of the seven players we analysed (86.03%), and only Arsenal’s Lucas Torreira (0.61) created fewer chances per 90 minutes that the Gabonese (0.72).

These numbers, however, may be slightly less concerning than they first appear: after all, his passing accuracy is barely lower than Torreira and Ander Herrera, who has joined Paris Saint-Germain. Equally, whilst Lemina is box-to-box, there is no question that he will not be burdened with the sole responsibility of chance creation at his next club.

Arguably, the main thing to take from these statistics is his mightily impressive dribbling: ball-carrying midfielders are harder to come by than playmakers, and he stands comfortably above plenty of the other midfielders who played in England last season. Of course, Ndombele’s output puts the others to shame, but whether he will be able to maintain that in the Premier League is a different matter. Stepping up from the level of Ligue 1 is a challenge in itself. Meanwhile, Lemina has proved he can hold his own in the most physical league in the world, and that should not be ignored.

Defensive capabilities

The difference in rankings for Lemina’s on the ball capabilities compared to his defending is like chalk and cheese. Per 90 minutes, only Herrera’s tackling (3.46) is superior to Lemina (2.68), who is also making double the amount of interceptions (2.4) and clearances (1.67) as N’Golo Kante (1.28 and 0.76), who is widely regarded as one of the best midfielders in the league.

It appears that Lemina would be a capable replacement for Herrera in regards to defence. The Spaniard was comfortably United’s most active defensive midfielder and Lemina’s numbers suggest that he would be able to slot in to replace Herrera.

Again, however, it is important to recognise the context in which these statistics exist. Southampton do not dominate the ball and spent the majority of games last season on the back foot and playing on the counter-attack. Thus, Lemina is likely to have done far more defending than some of his counterparts. The fact that Torreira and Herrera produced similar numbers to Lemina playing in more dominant teams may be food for thought for Unai Emery and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

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The modern midfielder

Traditional possession and defensive statistics are, of course, crucial to analyse, but we’ve chosen three other areas that have proved to be key when it comes to succeeding in the Premier League.

A characteristic of the best teams in England in recent years has been a high press: Liverpool and Manchester City, the European and English champions respectively, are renowned for the intense pressure they put their opponents under on the ball. Per 90 minutes, Lemina won the ball back 0.45 times, more than Gini Wijnaldum.

Given the fact that Southampton are not exactly known for sending their central midfielders into the final third to win the ball back, the fact that Lemina can even compete with the likes of Wijnaldum, Ndombele and Torreira is impressive.

Lemina also won the same amount of fouls per 90 minutes as Herrera (1.28), with only Torreira (2.91) and Ndombele (2.41) winning more. In fact, the Uruguayan and the Frenchman are also the only pair to boast a better dual success percentage (57.19 and 58.09) than Lemina (53.25). These two statistics prove that Lemina is physically excellent and can comfortably compete with the best in the middle of the park.

With the reported price tag of Lemina set to be around the £20 million mark, the 25-year-old is surely worth a punt for a big side. He’s cheap, a good age and can also boast Premier League and Champions League experience. Whilst he is far from the finished article, he seems to have the base attributes to potentially play a key role for a club higher up the food chain.