Aug 18, 2023, 05:00 AM ET
Chelsea have signed 19-year-old midfielder Romeo Lavia for an initial £53m ($67.4m) after a transfer battle with Premier League rivals Liverpool, but what makes him so special?
For any player to emerge from the ashes of Southampton’s 2022-23 relegation season with any distinction is quite an achievement; for them to do so while taking their first steps in senior football is more remarkable still.
After being plucked from Manchester City’s academy in June 2022 for an initial fee of £10.5m, Lavia made his Premier League debut for Saints on the opening day of last season at Tottenham. Aged 18 at that point, he showed that he possesses a truly special midfield skillset.
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Lavia quickly became integral for Southampton, starting five straight games. He scored in his fifth — a long-range rocket against Chelsea — but on the hour mark, he hobbled off injured and wouldn’t be seen again for months. Then-manager Ralph Hasenhüttl’s postmatch comments only served to reiterate how early Lavia was into his career. “Two intense Premier League games in three days is a completely unknown experience for him,” he said. “I have to be more careful about how much we can force them [young players] to show their quality.”
Hasenhüttl’s words made sense, and in a perfect world he would have to stuck to them. But soon after Lavia returned in early November, Saints’ world looked far from perfect. Stuck at the bottom of the table and struggling to turn in good performances, and Hasenhüttl sacked: Southampton had no choice but to turn to the teenager time and time again.
The club tried to limit the number of full 90 minutes he played — he only completed 10 of the 25 games Southampton played following the 2023 World Cup in December, regularly coming off with around 10 minutes to spare — but Saints could never afford to rest him or reduce his minutes significantly, because the team simply could not function without him.
A top midfield prospect
The Belgium international represents the type of midfielder all the top clubs want to sign. Secure on the ball, he’s defensively smart and is in his element playing the deepest role in midfield. With most clubs looking to build from the back, using the goalkeeper and defensive midfielders to play through the opposing press in the first phase, players who have the ability to retain the ball under pressure are in high demand.
Lavia revels in this role. He tends to use “dummy steps” to shift his opponent’s weight to one side, then shows a burst of speed to break into the space he created. He also ranked highly (76th percentile) for successful take-ons among midfielders in Europe last season and ranked even higher (88th percentile) for fouls drawn per 90 minutes (1.9.)
With good upper-body strength and skill, Lavia is really hard to rob of the ball. And once he’s past an opponent, he looks to feed the ball forward and progress play. Defensively speaking, he’s solid enough, but as he gains experience he’ll grow in this area. He’s a good tackler, he regains possession and wins his share of duels, while he does an impressive job of covering the right spaces at the right time to help stop the opposition’s transition attacks.
Southampton’s 3-3 draw with Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium in April signalled just how crucial Lavia was to the team in a defensive capacity, as they were up 3-1 when he left the pitch in the 86th minute. In his absence, the centre of the team caved in, conceded a scrappy goal, and then another. Without him, their midfield could not function.
Romeo Lavia celebrates his goal against Chelsea last season, but now he’s playing for them. Steven Paston/PA Images via Getty Images
The battle to sign him
This summer, a true transfer scrap took place between Chelsea and Liverpool as they battled for his signature. With the Reds having a £60m offer accepted by Southampton, Chelsea saw a £53m offer (with £5m in add-ons) accepted as well, and Lavia chose to move to Stamford Bridge.
Each team likely presented a very different pitch: Chelsea can afford to ease him in over time, given the number of quality young players they have signed in recent months, while Liverpool are in desperate need of a player to step into the XI as soon as possible.
Many will be surprised Lavia opted for the former, but don’t underestimate the influence Chelsea’s co-director of recruitment and talent, Joe Shields, had in this process. He knows the teenager from their time together at Manchester City; he signed him for Southampton last summer after being named their head of senior recruitment and has now paved the way for Lavia to follow him to Chelsea. There’s immense faith and belief on both sides of that relationship.
In the short term, Lavia will certainly need to accept fewer minutes on the pitch. In the last eight months, Chelsea have spent £106m to sign Enzo Fernández from Benfica in January, then £100m (plus £15m add-ons) to bring in Moisés Caicedo from Brighton in August. Both are central midfielders.
Fernández shone despite the Blues’ struggles in the second half of last season and caught the eye again on the opening weekend against Liverpool, while Caicedo is seen as an ideal partner for him. With no European football to juggle due to Chelsea’s poor finish last season, it’s highly likely that new manager Mauricio Pochettino choose to let this partnership blossom — with the other midfielders in the squad handed a backup role.
For Lavia, that might work nicely. His excellent performances last season make it easy to forget, but with just 2,230 Premier League minutes and single cap for Belgium to his name, he is still very new to the elite level of football and his form will undulate.
At a top club, he may not be afforded time to ride those inevitable highs and lows when the pressure to win is so intense. So a temporary step back from the whirlwind, giving his body time to fully acclimatise to senior football, allied with Pochettino’s incredible track record of developing young talent, might be just what Lavia needs in 2023-24. It flies in the face of the conventional logic of “young players need minutes,” but, in this context, it may prove the perfect step.