Looking Closer: Axel Witsel

Belgian midfielder linked with move to the Potteries

Stories have emerged this week regarding Stoke City and their alleged £11m bid for Zenit St. Petersburg and Belgium central midfielder Axel Witsel. Zenit confirmed that Stoke moved for Witsel this Winter with a similar bid, obviously this was unsuccessful but the Russian club also alluded to the fact that they would “fail” to keep him this Summer with Witsel’s agents dreaming of moving their client onto a bigger league. The £11m is more than likely not enough to tempt Zenit into selling straight away; but with one year left on his contract Witsel himself admitted that his club would not be looking for an extortionate amount in exchange for his services. So, what exactly would Witsel bring to Stoke City?

Witsel began his footballing career at Standard Liege, playing for them until mid-2011, when he switched to Portuguese side Benfica. He spent a singular season there before impressing Zenit enough to make a huge £30m move for him; at the time he was a 23 year old exciting prospect and it was around this time that he became one of the first names on the team sheet for his national side. I covered Witsel in my ‘One For The Money’ blog a couple of weeks ago (hint hint) and in there I identified Witsel as an all round midfield powerhouse, chipping in with his fair share of goals and assists as well as satisfying his defensive duties and turning defense into attack.

Witsel has missed three games for Zenit last season including the last games of the League campaign, the first round of the Russian Cup and one Champions League game due to a yellow card suspension. The Russian League season only consists of thirty gameweeks but with the domestic and European competitions he also takes part in, he more than proves his fitness to be able to complete a full 90 minutes regularly. He’s helped guide Zenit to the last 16 of the Champions League and win the Russian Cup, despite finishing third in the Russian League which means Zenit qualify for just the Europa League next term. He’s also score some absolute belters this season, as you can see in the obligatory YouTube video:

So what would this mean for Stoke City? Well as mentioned earlier, Witsel is currently a box-to-box midfielder, which means that he would be competing with Giannelli Imbula, Ibrahim Afellay (when fit) and Charlie Adam. However, like Imbula, Mark Hughes may seem Witsel’s role different from what is generally perceived and may in fact become competition for Glenn Whelan in the defensive role; however with such offensive prowess, this is unlikely. It’s also unlikely that Hughes would steer away from playing Imbula and the arrival of Witsel would probably see the pair playing together, meaning their defensive duties would probably be shared, or perhaps would cause a change in formation.

Witsel’s reputation clearly speaks for itself and would become a major asset to Stoke City’s midfield options: he currently plays in midfield for (according to the FIFA world rankings) the second greatest national footballing side in the world. In all seriousness, his performances for both club and country means he’s highly regarded throughout the footballing community and has previously been linked to some major clubs, such as Spurs, Roma and Man United. At 27, Witsel is at the age in his career now where he’s entering his prime physically and has enough experience in the game to know how to make an impact. Stoke City would be investing in Witsel’s current ability rather than his potential and, with the figure that’s being touted for him, would mean that Mark Hughes would hope that Witsel can announce himself as a world-class footballer on the Premier League stage. The question is whether the club can lure in such a talent and whether they would be willing to part with the money that is required to bring him to the bet365 Stadium.

It was confirmed at the end of the season that Afellay’s injury means that Hughes’ transfer plans would now accommodate a central midfielder and the club have also pledged to break their transfer record again for the right deal; so all of the criteria seem to be met from a Stoke perspective. Zenit may look to cash in on Witsel before his contract runs out and Witsel has claimed that he may be interested in a Premier League move. Although this interest from Stoke may spark other clubs to swoop in, which will surely be the biggest threat to the deal being sealed. If the club can pull off the deal, it would be a sensational one in the eyes of football, but only time would tell if the player could live up to the high expectations that surround him.

In the words of fellow TBPTV blogger, Tom Hammersley: “We could win the Champions League with the addition of this Belgian, crazy haired wonder child”. I’m paraphrasing, I can’t share with you what he actually said about his hair, family show and all that.

Written by Ben Rowley

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