If you listened to yesterday’s Viola Station podcast (and if you haven’t, you should), you heard Mike and me discussing the rumors about Napoli leftback Faouzi Ghoulam. The Algeria international has barely played these past two and a half years as he recovers from a string of knee injuries, but he’s undeniably a talented and proven Serie A performer. Even so, he’s not the right player for the Viola right now, despite the reported interest. Here’s why.
From what we’ve gleaned, the Partenopei put a €35 million buyout clause in the 29-year-old’s last contract (which doesn’t expire until 2022), which is way more than he’s worth right now. Even if the player and club are willing to strike that and allow a move for €15 million, which seems a bit more possible, that’s still a lot to pay for a guy who’ll turn 30 next year and will likely want one more reasonably lengthy contract while he’s in his prime.
It also sounds like Napoli are interested in a swap deal. Their preferred target is Nikola Milenković, but we can all agree that Daniele Pradè would laugh that offer out of the building. Germán Pezzella, however, might be a slightly more amenable target, as he’s older and may not be in the club’s long-term plans, as evidenced by all the chatter about his impending exit. Still, let’s remember that Pezze is only 28, a full Argentina international, and the club captain. Moving him along for a guy who’s been, at best, a rarely-used backup for the past 2 years would be malfeasance.
Even if the sides can agree to a fee, there’s still the issue of personal terms. Ghoulam’s making somewhere around €4.5 million per year, which would put him right around Franck Ribery’s level. While we’d guess that he’d take a slight pay cut, that’s still a massive hit to the wage bill, even though Rocco Commisso is clearly willing to open up the checkbook in that department. Ghoulam may not be the right player to shake up the entire pay structure for.
Fiorentina have the youngest squad in Serie A. As we mentioned above, Ghoulam is 29. That makes him older than everyone slated for the first team next year except for Ribery, Martín Cáceres, and Pietro Terracciano. For a player in his prime, a move to a team competing in Europe is often preferable to joining an up-and-coming side that’s probably a year or two away from really making some noise.
Furthermore, most of Fiorentina’s veterans are defenders. Pezzella, Cáceres, Federico Ceccherini, Dalbert (if he returns), and Cristiano Biraghi (ditto) are all on the older side compared to their Viola colleagues; another more seasoned dude would further fracture the club’s midfield and attack from the defense. Given that Commisso’s instructions have been to bring in young, exciting (and preferably Italian) players who can grow together, Ghoulam’s trajectory seems to point elsewhere. While Pradè specializes in gambles on cheap veterans, he’s been confined to free or nearly free options this time around in Ribery and Kevin-Prince Boateng. This is a very different sort of deal.
While I’m not always convinced that injury-prone players deserve the label, it’s fair to wonder about Ghoulam. He’s had so many issues with his knees since 2017 and has also struggled with soft tissue problems as well that you have to wonder if it’s a structural problem now. That his knee hasn’t seemed to fully recover, and that it may have had some knock-on effects, doesn’t bode particularly well for his prospects of returning to his previous level. I hope he does, just as I hope that all players avoid injury and become the best they can be for as long as they desire, but Ghoulam’s recent history is a reason for serious concern.
4. Scheme fit
This one’s a bit more nebulous and not as much of a concern, but it’s still worth considering. Ghoulam is plenty versatile, having spent most of his career at fullback but having also filled in as a winger. That’s enough to make you expect that he’d slot in at wingback very easily indeed, and that may be the case. However, Giuseppe Iachini’s system can cramp fullbacks who’ve made their living getting forward—we’ve talked about Dalbert’s step back since Beppe came to town—and Ghoulam is nothing if not a forward-thinking fullback.
The caveat, of course, is that we’ve also heard that Iachini may well be on his way out, with more positive managers like Sassuolo’s Roberto de Zerbi lined up as replacements. I think that Ghoulam’s quality on the ball means that he’s an excellent fit in De Zerbi’s system, but there are way too many unknowns in this scenario for me to feel certain.
5. Jorge Mendes
This certainly isn’t a reason to discount a player entirely, but we’ve seen enough hijinks from player representatives at Fiorentina to last a lifetime. Whether it’s Fali Ramadani snaking Mohamed Salah out of his loan deal or Dejan Joksimović badmouthing the club for years or any number of other examples, big name agents can be more trouble than they’re worth, especially for a club that’s not at the top of Europe. Mendes has a reputation for pushing his clients to the highest-profile outfits and for prioritizing his clients’ movement (which is good, as that’s his job); neither quality points to Florence. It’s also worth mentioning that the last Jorge Mendes protégée that the Viola signed was Gil Dias.
Speaking of Mendes, he has, if you believe le10sport (if you know anything about their reliability, let me know, as I’ve heard mixed reviews), offered Ghoulam to PSG. The Parisians are likely interested, as they need an experienced leftback with Layvin Kurzawa on his way out and no proven options behind Juan Bernat. Ghoulam was born and raised in France, so a deal with his birth country’s biggest club would be tough to turn down even without the untold millions it could bring him. While Rocco’s ambition may be limitless, his wallet doesn’t reach the depths that Qatar’s does.
To repeat, none of this is me saying that Faouzi Ghoulam is a bad player or that he wouldn’t improve Fiorentina. He would probably be an improvement over Dalbert and/or Biraghi and would add a year or two of stability on the left flank. However, that €15 million is a bit hard to swallow; for comparison, that’s how much the Viola spent on 22-year-old Pol Lirola this summer. While I fully expect the Viola to spend pretty big on a leftback this summer, Ghoulam comes with too many red flags for me to see the value. Which, given my track record on these, means that he’s likely signing a 48-year deal tomorrow.