Transfers You May Have Missed – Part I
As the transfer window comes to a close, we'll pick out the under-the-radar deals that caught our attention. In part one, Stephen Ganavas looks at the moves made by three products of Australia's A-League.
LIBERATO CACACE (2000)
Move: Wellington Phoenix to Sint-Truidense VV
Fee: €1.2 million
This transfer must be in the running for the best value signing of the summer. At €1.2 million, it's the highest fee received by an A-League club for a player in almost five years. For Sint-Truiden, it is a drop in the sea for a young player with significant potential already playing at a high level. Furthermore, he's a known quantity for their coach Kevin Muscat from his time coaching in the A-League with Melbourne Victory.
It's a good move for Cacace too. With Muscat’s backing, he should assert himself as the undisputed starter at left-back pretty quickly. Belgium is a great fit for him to find his footing at European level as well. Many A-League exports have struggled when leaping directly into some of the continent’s tougher leagues in the last decade, but the Pro League offers a very manageable step up in quality.
The New Zealand left-back has only recently turned 20 but is already adequately equipped (especially physically) to deal with the demands of top-flight senior football in Europe. Muscat will be relying on him to continue doing the things that made him such a dominant force in the A-League; using his engine to command the entire left flank, bossing his one-on-one duels, and carrying the ball forward with purpose. If he can continue to add final third product to his game – which he started producing towards the end of his stint with the Phoenix – he's going to be a difficult player to handle.
And he's already started strongly in Belgium. On his debut against KV Mechelen, Cacace had highly-rated 19-year-old Issa Kaboré struggling to cope with his two-way running. He has also featured in a more conventional left-midfield role. In both instances, his touch maps for his two matches so far with STVV highlight his high intensity, box-to-box work rate.
Cacace has a slightly unconventional style in possession, but he's nonetheless effective. He dribbled far more than any other A-League full-back, but he doesn't typically use deft touches and slick moves to beat players, relying on a less subtle strategy of bulldozing through players instead. Nonetheless, this is the attribute that raises the most questions in terms of whether it can translate to the rigours of European football.
The early signs are promising, though. He is showing a willingness to drive towards the penalty area and shift the ball onto his right side, which should make him more unpredictable in the final third and allow him a little more space when he chooses to drive to the by-line to slash balls across the penalty area.
DANIEL ARZANI (1999)
Move: Manchester City to FC Utrecht
Deal: Season-long loan
It's been a tough couple of years for Daniel Arzani since sparkling for the Socceroos at the World Cup in 2018. Back then, an electric second-half of the 2018 A-League season with Melbourne City catapulted him into the national team set-up and an intra-City Football Group move to Manchester City.
He was sent on a two-year loan to Celtic not long after. Then, playing in his first game in Scotland, Arzani ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament. The injury and its associated set-backs saw Arzani miss around 15 months of football. By the time he returned, Celtic had moved on. He played just 28 minutes of senior football across his loan spell.
Fast forward to now, and after a spell at home in Australia during the pandemic lockdown period, the 21-year-old has gone out on loan to the Eredivisie with FC Utrecht.
And he's looking sharp. Arzani has always been an explosive athlete, but now he looks a little bit stronger. It doesn’t look like he's lost any of his speed either in his early substitute appearances for Utrecht. The quick changes of direction and slalom dribbles remain a prominent feature of his game, which is important since they were key to getting him to this level in the first place.
The Australian winger is exciting in possession and makes things happen with his direct running, either cutting inside or hitting the by-line. He can shift the ball extremely quickly from foot to foot, allowing him to create separation as he drives either side of the defender. However, he generally opts to conduct most of his ball carrying on his right side. It might seem limiting, but he's very good at it, changing direction and stopping the ball dead to shake off defenders.
His major weakness is that he drops too deep to collect possession. It leaves him a lot to do to reach the penalty box to create for others or score himself. This is reflected in the numbers; just one non-penalty goal and four assists in around 1,400 minutes competitive senior football (mostly in the A-League) isn't a particularly good return for someone of his position/skillset.
While Arzani likes to play on the left side, where he can cut inside onto his right foot, his best performance for Utrecht thus far has come playing on his orthodox side. Playing on the right presents a good opportunity for Arzani to really stretch his legs as he eases himself back into playing regular football, hitting the by-line mainly, but also testing himself to come inside and create play on his left. However, with Gyrano Kerk still around and operating from the right, Arzani's best chances to play will probably be on the left.
RILEY MCGREE (1998)
Move: Adelaide United to Charlotte FC; loaned to Birmingham City
Deal: No fee reported; season-long loan
In one of the stranger and surprising moves on deadline day, Adelaide United’s Riley McGree joined Charlotte FC. Since the expansion franchise are not due to play in MLS until 2022, this meant that the Australian would need to be loaned out – that's where Birmingham City come in.
It's not the first time McGree has joined a team in Europe. He spent six months in Belgium with Club Brugge, but didn't play a single senior minute before he returned to Australia on two separate loan spells. He then returned to his hometown club, Adelaide United, on a permanent deal in 2019, and he's grown a lot since that initial move to Belgium.
Primarily, the change has been positional. As he's developed, McGree has routinely found himself playing in more advanced areas in midfield after beginning his career playing most of his football as an eight or a six. Last season, he managed to rack up 15 goal contributions (ten goals, five assists) in 1,989 minutes, operating in an extremely attacking midfield/shadow striker role. It's a role that suits him well and maximises his skillset.
The 21-year-old is super-effective in attacking transition, actively hunting pockets of space as his team breaks forward. He's then extremely direct when he takes possession in these scenarios, taking risks with his distribution and dribbling to try to unlock the opposition’s defence. With Adelaide, he was given a lot of positional freedom to roam around in attacking midfield to position himself as the fulcrum of these transition moves. He's perhaps not the most technical or creative attacking midfielder, but he does his damage with an ability to seek out positions to become the next link in the chain of fast-breaking attacking moves. His great spatial awareness extends to the penalty box, where he routinely finds himself on the receiving end of cutbacks and rebounds, the source of the majority of his goals.
Some of the other general aspects of his game could use a little more work. To stand out as an attacking midfielder, he will need to be able to create more shots for others when the play is slowed down – he only averaged 1.7 key passes per 90 minutes in the A-League. He needs to add more dimensions to his attacking arsenal.
At Birmingham City, it wouldn't be a surprise to see McGree play in a variety of positions, whether it be as part of a double-pivot, on the wing, or in his preferred position playing off the striker. The competition for the attacking midfield spot will be fierce, with two former Arsenal academy players, Jon Toral and Dan Crowley, also vying for minutes. Interestingly, they're also both on short-term deals that expire at the end of the season – although the club has options to extend for a year in both cases.