Player Focus: Jean Michael Seri

Signed as the marquee new arrival during the summer transfer window (we aren’t counting Mitro in this) Jean Michael Seri was supposed to add top-level quality to what was the most successful part of the side that won promotion at the end of the 17/18 season. His arrival from Nice certainly raised expectations from those both inside and outside the club. But after a third of the season and one manager out the door, some sections of our supporters don’t seem particularly enamoured with the Ivorian central midfielder and some going further still and not wanting him in the starting 11. So it seems like a good time to have a deeper look into Seri and analyse the standard of his performances so far.

When a new player comes into any football team – whether they’ve been signed by the club or emerged through the youth ranks – the natural thing for fans to do is to compare them to someone that you’ve seen play before. By doing this, you essentially project a playing style or identity onto them because you haven’t seen enough to be able to come to a genuine assessment of their qualities as a player. This is fine and completely natural, but the problems start when this affects your subsequent judgement of a player, even after you have seen them play a few games for the club. This is the main problem when it comes to comparing players, footballers don’t fit into precise definitions.

When Claudio Ranieri arrived as the replacement for Slav, there was a considerable amount of talk that Seri would become what N’Golo Kante was to Leicester in their title-winning season under the stewardship of the veteran Italian. The issue with this point is that it fundamentally misunderstands what Seri is as a player and what he offers to a side in the centre of midfield. While they might make a similar amount of tackles in a game – 1.9 per game on average for Seri and 1.8 for Kante this season – this is where any comparison between the two ends. In terms of covering ground, particularly offensively, the two of them illustrate that just because two guys play in a similar position doesn’t make them the same player. Just look at the chance creation and key passes for Seri this season. Before the win against Saints on Saturday, Seri had created the 5th most chances in the Premier League this season and after the game he had the 9th most key passes for any player in the league. To provide some context, Tom Cairney, the player most widely recognised as providing creativity for us from midfield, is below the numbers on both of these metrics. Evidently, teams play in different systems and therefore it’s not a perfect test case but it does help to show that there is a difference in the perception and reality of the qualities Seri offers to us.

Judging a players’ individual level of performances in this team without considering that the collective has looked shambolic in patches this season would be unfair but it is worth examining. In line with the team as a whole, Seri started the season very promisingly with a goal of the month against Burnley at the Cottage, followed up by a perfect chipped ball for Andre Schurrle to finish at the AMEX against Brighton. But the early promise began to fade soon after that, culminating in the disaster against Huddersfield at the beginning of November. However, singling one player out after that game would have been a mistake and you could quite easily have been scathing about every single player on the pitch that night.

Image: L’Équipe

The regularity with which the statement about the Premier League being the most physically demanding in the world is used almost as often as Big Sam’s number by desperate Premier League clubs in February. But it’s hard to argue the case that there isn’t some truth to it. Despite the high number of tackles Seri has put in so far this season, he has been swamped by some midfields so far this campaign, most notably against the duo of Capoue and Doucoure for Watford, Jefferson Lerma for Bournemouth and the aggressive press of Huddersfield. However, he has lacked a lot of help in the centre of the pitch, either due to the injury of TC, or the lack of reliable protection offered to him by KMac or Zambo Anguissa. Placing the playmaking duties onto a single player in the midfield at this level doesn’t provide a platform for success and that has proved the way so far this season.

The most significant question for Seri since the appointment of Ranieri is how will the change from a possession-oriented system to a more vertical, counter-attacking style affect his performances. Whether it was the sheer lack of viable alternatives or an early show of faith, Seri was restored to the XI after being dropped for the visit to Anfield for Slav’s final game in charge. With a proper defensive shield in Calum Chambers, Seri started deeper than TC and notably got the ball forward quicker to him and the front 3 after the opening 15 minutes at the Cottage. The change in style offers Seri the opportunity to play forward accurate passes for players on the move and should increase his significance to the team. A passing accuracy of 87% already demonstrates a clear ability to find teammates, which, with the greater space that will be available as the team focus more on effective transitions, could well boost the impact of Seri on a consistent basis.

Against weaker sides, the idea of Seri alongside a true defensive midfielder is more appealing but against bigger teams (especially away from home) it will be interesting to see whether he makes way for a more physical player in the starting XI. His skill set isn’t really suited to the number 10 role that TC played so effectively on Saturday, so there isn’t another obvious role for Seri apart from the one we saw him in at the weekend. It will be worth noting whether he retains his place for our visits to Stamford Bridge or Old Trafford, as it will give a lot away about how Ranieri will be looking to approach these upcoming fixtures.

Ultimately, expecting anyone to tear up a league in a country where they’ve never played before is optimistic but the reasons for such high expectations amongst the fan base for Seri – aside from the price tag – is that there is undeniable quality there. A transition to a faster and more dynamic style of play, similar to that in which he shined for Nice under now Dortmund manager Lucien Favre, could unlock the consistency to make him the key player in our central midfield. He might not be breaking any records with his goals and assists but that isn’t the job of a playmaker in any team around the world and it isn’t reasonable to judge him on that basis. It does mean that we should all be aware of the type of player that he actually is – rather than the player some might have imagined when he first joined the club.