Jurgen Klopp looks set to continue his recruitment drive on Merseyside, with Udinese midfielder Piotr Zielinski reported as a summer target.
Another under-the-radar target has emerged ahead of a likely busy summer of business for Liverpool, in Empoli’s on-loan Udinese midfielder Zielinski.
Reports suggest that, while Klopp was interest in sealing a January move for the 21-year-old, the Reds are resigned to plotting an end-of-season switch for the Polish international, who is said to be valued at around £11 million.
So who is Zielinski, and what could he bring to Liverpool?
Zielinski is a rare breed as a Polish footballer in Italy, having made the move to Udinese from Zaglebie Lubin as a 17-year-old in 2011.
After one year in the Udine side’s youth setup, Zielinski was promoted to the first team in 2012/13, and is now an established Serie A talent, currently in his second season on loan with Empoli.
Zielinski is one of only six Poles in the Italian top flight, alongside Jakub Blaszczykowsi, Kamil Glik, Wojciech Szczesny, Pawel Wszolek and Empoli team-mate Lukasz Skorupski.
Handed his Udinese debut by now-Swansea City manager Francesco Guidolin, Zielinski quickly settled into life in Italy.
But with Udinese struggling in 2013/14, the midfielder found his first-team opportunities limited, and after having made nine appearances—including four starts, in the league in the previous campaign—he was restricted to 127 minutes of Serie A action, over 10 games.
Having finished fifth in 2012/13, Udinese dropped to 13th by the end of the following season, despite Antonio Di Natale’s typical haul of 17 league goals.
The sales of Juan Cuadrado, Medhi Benatia, Antonio Candreva and Pablo Armero saw Udinese stutter, and Guidolin left in the summer of 2014, with Zielinski soon to follow—though as a more temporary measure.
Over the course of one-and-a-half seasons with Empoli so far, Zielinski has grown into a considerable talent, and has made 50 appearances, including 28 starts, dovetailing brilliantly with former Middlesbrough striker Massimo Maccarone among others.
Strengths, Weakness & Style of Play
Zielinski is a nimble, technically gifted midfielder most at home in the middle of the park, but capable of operating on either wing and in a supporting role behind the strikers.
Slight at 5’8″, Zielinski utilises his quick feet to navigate the midfield battlefield, and his comfort in possession makes him an invaluable option for Empoli.
Noted for his distribution, Zielinski is able to dictate play from his central role, enjoying a strong understanding with talented attacking midfielder Riccardo Saponara.
Typically employing a short passing game, Zielinski looks for positive openings and works towards the opposition’s penalty area.
When the pass isn’t on, the Pole is capable of shuttling the ball up the field with his impressive dribbling ability.
So far this season in Serie A, Zielinski has averaged 1.7 key passes per 90 minutes, which is equal to that of Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho, and while this has resulted in just four assists, he plays a focal creative role for Empoli.
What is perhaps most impressive about Zielinski is his determination in driving his team-mates forward. Not content with prompting a dangerous move with a neat pass, Zielinski will follow the path of the ball in support of Empoli’s attacking line.
At 21, however, he is far from the complete central midfielder, and there is a reason why Udinese were happy to sanction a second loan spell last summer.
While Serie A is far from the most physical of leagues, Zielinski’s small build gives him a significant disadvantage against more bullish opponents, and he is easily beaten both in the air and on the ground.
This is, fortunately, not for want of trying, as Zielinski averages 2.3 successful tackles per 90, second only to Leandro Parades (3.7) in terms of Empoli’s regular first-team players.
Furthermore, while Zielinski is a strong creative player, his tactical naivety sees him let down in his use of the ball.
Of Empoli’s regular outfielders, only Saponara (74.5%) and Maccarone (70.8%) have posted a lower passing accuracy than Zielinski, who has completed 80.5 percent of his attempted passes.
Perhaps most notably, Zielinski’s lack of tangible output in front of goal, with only two goals and eight assists in 50 appearances for Empoli, could be perceived as his biggest weakness—particularly when considering Liverpool’s need for goalscoring midfielders.
But at such a young age, these are all areas of Zielinski’s game that can and should be improved.
So where would the 11-time Polish fit into Klopp’s Reds squad?
Where Would Zielinski Fit in at Liverpool?
With Klopp looking to beef up his midfield with the addition of 6’3″ Serbian youngster Grujic already ahead of the 2016/17 season, a move for Zielinski is an intriguing one.
To make a comparison with one of the players currently at the German’s disposal on Merseyside, Zielinski is most similar to Joe Allen.
Both Zielinski and Allen are slight, nippy midfielders, comfortable in possession and committed to supporting the attack.
Both are typically dominated in terms of physicality, playing more of a knitting role between the lines.
But where Allen stands out above Zielinski is his tactical intelligence, with the Welshman one of the most mature players in Klopp’s Liverpool squad, capable of outmaneuvering physical encounters.
With Allen looking likely to leave Liverpool in the next 18 months, as no contract extension seems forthcoming, Zielinski can be considered a replacement for the former Swansea City man.
However, while he is clearly a talented midfielder, whether he can be considered an immediate upgrade at this stage is highly questionable; his signing would be a risk, though the reward could be vast.