After years of being linked with Manchester United, Nicolas Gaitan looks like he might actually be coming to the Premier League – but not with the Red Devils.
The Argentine playmaker has spent the past eight months with MLS side Chicago Fire but despite having an option to extend his contract there through the 2020 season, reports suggest Gaitan prefers a move back to Europe.
As such, the official MLS website recently announced Gaitan among a number of players that the Fire had “declined contract options on”, leaving the 31-year-old free to negotiate elsewhere.
The Guardian believes West Ham United and Aston Villa are the two most likely destinations for Gaitan, while Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United are also keeping tabs on the situation.
Their report suggests the two claret and blue sides are the frontrunners for his signature, so can Gaitan still cut it at Premier League level? And how could he fit into Manuel Pellegrini and Dean Smith’s sides?
Is Gaitan still producing the goods? Five things to know…
- After previous spells at Boca, Benfica and Atletico Madrid, Gaitan moved to China with Dalian Yifang in 2018.
- His time there was short-lived and Gaitan joined Chicago Fire in March.
- The Argentina international managed four goals and 11 assists in 27 MLS appearances in 2019.
- Gaitan ranked second among Fire players for take-ons completed (40) and big chances created (12) last season.
- But he’s been accused of “going missing” too often and lacking defensive work-rate.
How could Gaitan fit in at West Ham?
Pellegrini has primarily adopted a 4-1-4-1/4-2-3-1 hybrid this season, so it’s safe to assume he won’t be changing that for the sake of one player.
Throughout 2019, Gaitan often lined up through the middle in a No.10 role, but was given freedom to drift out to the flanks where he could connect with teammates or isolate the opposition full-backs. The 31-year-old ranked fifth in MLS for assists (11) and 14th for big chances created (12), so he could become an able deputy for the injury-prone Manuel Lanzini in the Hammers’ creative hole behind Sebastien Haller. From here, Gaitan, Felipe Anderson and Andriy Yarmolenko could rotate positions much as they do now, posing a number of questions to the opposition.
However, what you’d gain in creative output, you’d lose in defensive contribution with Gaitan, who made just eight interceptions and won only 118 defensive duels in MLS last season – he ranked 319th and 136th throughout the league for those respective metrics.
That said, in Anderson, Pellegrini has another creative player who is far more mobile and willing to contribute defensively, with the Brazilian making the second-highest number of tackles per 90 minutes (3.01) in the Premier League among West Ham players this season. The likes of Pablo Fornals (1.87) and Yarmolenko (1.27) are also not shy when it comes to chipping in out of possession.
West Ham rank 10th in the Premier League in terms of average possession (51.58%) this season and while that is a respectable number, the Hammers will spend a lot of time without the ball against bigger sides.
For that reason, it’s hard to see Gaitan being a regular starter, but having somebody with his experience and creative output to fill in for the likes of Lanzini and Anderson when injury, fatigue and suspension requires could make him a valuable asset to Pellegrini, especially on a free transfer.
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What about Aston Villa?
Smith has deployed a 4-3-3 system with Aston Villa so far this season, although it can also become a 4-1-4-1 similar to that of West Ham’s when the Midlands club are under pressure. It’s safe to assume that, should Gaitan move there, he would be part of a front three. In this system, he would offer Smith far more options than Pellegrini.
Gaitan has the potential to line up on either wing, where he could combine with his full-backs or drive inside at opposition centre-backs, or thanks to his experience playing through the middle, operate as a false nine, dropping into the midfield a la Roberto Firmino to make space for quicker, more dynamic teammates either side of him. His tremendous ball-playing abilities also enable him to play defence-splitting passes from deeper positions.
As mentioned, Gaitan lacks the mobility to press but Aston Villa have won possession in the final third the second-lowest number of times (31) of any Premier League team this season, while they also have the fifth-lowest average possession share (43.5%). They certainly don’t go aggressively hunting for the ball.
Rather than hounding opposition defenders into mistakes, Gaitan would be part of the first line of defence in a low block, charged with blocking passing lanes and only pressing in response to a heavy touch or mistake from opposition players.
Anwar El Ghazi, Trezeguet and Wesley Moraes have all been among Villa’s top performers this season, so ousting any of those three would be a difficult task. However, the fact remains that Gaitan is an Argentina international with titles under his belt in both Portugal and his homeland – he’ll provide brilliant depth at the very least, if not pose a threat to those in Smith’s starting XI.