El Hadji Ba is a player that Sunderland have been rumoured to be monitoring for quite some time now. Sunderland's interest first came to our attention when he was mentioned as a player that Sunderland were actively targeting to bring in during the last January transfer window. However, the move did not come off in January, possibly due to the club deciding to take advantage of the fact that Ba was reportedly letting his contract at Le Havre run down so that he could move for free in the summer. This is what has happened now, with Sunderland securing Ba on a free and only making a compensatory payment of €400,000 due to the player's young age.
Sunderland are by no means the only club to have recently been linked with the young Frenchman. Illustrious clubs such as Borussia Dortmund, Tottenham Hotspur and, erm, Wigan Atheltic and Newcastle United, have all been reported admirers of the player. Spurs were even supposedly extremely close to signing him in the summer transfer window of 2011 as a possible long-term replacement for potentially out-going Luka Modric (of course in the end Modric stayed another season and Ba stayed with Le Havre).
So, what do we know about this apparently highly rated young player? He's 20 years old, hails from Paris and stands at 6ft tall. His first club was the small French side Aulnay, where he was based from 1999 until he moved to Le Havre aged 14. Whilst he's made only 13 first team appearances for Le Havre in France's Ligue 2, he's a regular for French International Youth squads, and often partners the Juventus player (and Le Havre and Manchester United alumni) Paul Pogba in the centre of midfield. Indeed, Pogba appears to be somewhat of a role model for Ba with the player saying earlier in the year;
He [Pogba] is definitely the one for me to follow in his footsteps at the moment...Pogba is doing very well and I am happy for him to be playing for one of the top teams in the world in Juventus.
He carried on to talk about the rumoured interest from various Premier League clubs;
I want to improve, and it is very good to hear that clubs have been scouting me. I would love to play in England one day. If teams have a good enough offer, then they (Le Havre) will let me go.
Positionally, Ba is a deep central midfielder whose style of play has been likened to that of his compatriot Alfred N'Diaye. His strengths are seen as being his physical strength and his aerial ability. Like N'Diaye, during a game Ba can be seen either moving deep to receive the ball directly from his centre backs, or bursting forward when his midfielder partner drops to attempt to create or finish a chance. His one goal for Le Havre came when he burst into the box in a manner not dissimilar to what we have seen N'Diaye do a few times since his arrival in January. However, unlike N'Diaye Ba managed a neat chip over the goalkeeper instead of thumping a nose-burster into the crowd behind the goal.
His 12 Ligue 2 appearances for the Le Havre senior side in the 2012/13 season saw him pick up 3 yellow cards, and no reds. This is a similar statistic also to N'Diaye's for Sunderland (3 yellows in 16 appearances), but is a higher caution rate than that of Sunderland's most common choice in central midfield last season, Seb Larsson, who picked up just 6 yellow cards in 38 appearances. Obviously, though, when examining these statistics we have to take into account the relatively small sample size for Ba.
It is hard to see El Hadji Ba going straight into the first team at Sunderland. From what little we know about him his primary position seems to be filled by new signing Cabral, as well as by pre-existing players Alfred N'Diaye and Lee Cattermole. As well as this, he is still extremely inexperienced as a professional footballer with just 30 appearances for club and country (not including appearances for Le Havre reserve squads) under his belt. Instead, it is likely that this promising youngster will be at first an important player in Sunderland's development squad, probably alongside fellow new signing Duncan Watmore. Hopefully he will also impress enough to gain some game-time in the early stages of cup competitions, and perhaps also a few substitute appearances as cover for the first team.
It's hard to do a simple summary of El Hadji Ba's strengths and weaknesses due to how little football he has played at this early stage in his career, but we'll give it a shot;
Full of promise, previously a target of some of Europe's top clubs (and Wigan and Newcastle).
- Strong and good in the air.
- Able to drop deep to receive the ball, and to burst forward when opportunity arises.
- Very inexperienced, so somewhat of an unknown quantity.
So in summary, don't expect to see too much of El Hadji Ba in the first team this upcoming season - however it may be worth keeping an eye on his performances for the development squad.