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Thursday, August 2, 2012
Five excellent, under-the-radar moves

By Michael Cox
Special to ESPN.com

Theodor Gebre-Selassie, Jamie Ness and Michu
There have been a number of shrewd moves this off-season involving the likes of Theodor Gebre-Selassie to Jamie Ness and Michu.

Europe's transfer season is still waiting to truly kick off -- the biggest anticipated moves with the likes of Robin van Persie and Luka Modric have yet to happen, and therefore the knock-on transfers are being held up.

But the most astute transfers are rarely those that involve the highest sums of money -- in fact, they often don't involve the top clubs at all. With much focus on the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Shinji Kagawa, Jordi Alba, Oscar, Olivier Giroud, Thiago Silva and Marco Reus, let's take a look instead at five excellent purchases by sides that aren't even contesting European football in 2012-13.

Michu, Swansea

In choosing Michael Laudrup to replace Brendan Rodgers, Swansea was continuing with its policy of appointing coaches who greatly admire Spanish football, attempting to build sides that are technically proficient. Like both Rodgers and his predecessor Roberto Martinez, Laudrup has dipped into La Liga to find himself a potential bargain.

Michu
Michu didn't waste any time getting stuck in for his new club.

Michu is likely to play the central attacking midfield role in a 4-2-3-1, the position occupied by loanee Gylfi Sigurdsson in the second half of last season. But the former Rayo Vallecano player isn't necessarily a classic creative midfielder; he's a tall, lanky figure who spends much of his time getting into goalscoring figures.

Michu's play in deeper positions tends to be about clever link-up with his back to goal and encouraging midfielders to get forward instead of executing penetrative passes himself. He often appears to be a center forward playing in a deeper position, but he also helps out defensively. At just 2.5 million euros to bring Michu to Swansea, this could turn out to be the bargain of the Premier League season.

Theodor Gebre Selassie, Werder Bremen

One of the few individuals who looked particularly impressive during the Czech Republic's surprise run to the quarterfinals of Euro 2012, Gebre Selassie linked well with Petr Jiracek down the right and got the better of all three left-wingers he encountered in the group phase. He was outclassed by Cristiano Ronaldo in the knockout stage, switching off for Ronaldo's headed winner, but plenty of other right backs have fared worse against the Real Madrid man.

"Everyone saw his performances during the Euros," said Bremen coach Thomas Schaaf, an incredibly loyal one-club man who has been at Bremen as a player, coach or manager continuously since 1972. "His willingness to go into challenges and his running, and the fact that he is an attack-minded defender, those are the things that stood out."

Schaaf needed a new right back because he preferred to play Clemens Fritz on the right of midfield last season, while Sokratis Papastathopoulos, whose loan has been made permanent, is more of a center back. In combination with fellow new arrivals Eljero Elia from Juventus and Kevin de Bruyne on loan from Chelsea, Bremen should play with great attacking width next season.

Borja Valero, Fiorentina

Despite its relegation from La Liga, Villarreal had a stunning array of talent up for grabs this summer. Much focus was on the forwards: Nilmar, who has moved to Qatari club Al-Rayyan, Giuseppe Rossi, who won't move until he recovers from a serious knee injury, and Valero, who arrives at Fiorentina this season.

In the previous 2010-11 season, Villarreal finished fourth, primarily because of its excellent ball retention -- its central midfield combination was Valero and Bruno Soriano, and though the latter was the more reliable in possession, Valero offered something slightly more attacking and adventurous, a sudden change of speed and an eye for a forward pass. He was the Andres Iniesta to Soriano's Xavi Hernandez.

Fiorentina's transfer season has been its most exciting in years -- strange, given that this is the first summer since 2005 that much-heralded sporting director Pantaleo Corvino hasn't been at the club. Chilean Mati Fernandez has been signed to create -- perhaps the closest Fiorentina have had to a real No. 10 since Rui Costa left 11 years ago -- but Valero will play deeper, see more of the ball, and turn defense into attack.

The Spanish international found it difficult to adjust to the pace and physicality of the Premier League during a one-year spell at West Brom four seasons ago, but the more patient setting of Serie A should suit him well. Fiorentina is busy assembling a talented side, but seemingly also a very attractive one.

Jamie Ness, Stoke

Whereas Villarreal can expect to lose the majority of its squad, SPL's Rangers will lose their entire playing staff. The club was liquidated this summer and will play this upcoming season in the fourth tier of Scottish football. Players are free to leave.

Jamie Ness wasn't exactly one of Rangers' biggest names. He played only 16 games during an injury-hit 18 months in the first team. But he appeared to be the future of the club, having broken through from the youth ranks to become a highly rated midfielder. Rangers' head of youth development Jimmy Sinclair was particularly sad to see Ness leave, saying he had "missed a chance to be a hero," but one can hardly blame him for seeking his fortune in the Premier League.

In theory, Ness isn't particularly well suited to Stoke's physical, straightforward style of play. He's a more technical player, retaining possession well and fitting more naturally in a short passing side. However, the pass completion rates of Stoke's central midfielders such as Glenn Whelan and Dean Whitehead are always surprisingly high, because they spread the play from flank to flank reliably to facilitate Stoke's crossing game. Ness could play that role and add a little guile to the center of the pitch.

Stoke coach Tony Pulis says Ness must become stronger if he wants to challenge for a place in the Stoke midfield, but hopefully he'll retain his technical ability. He has the potential to make Stoke a more positive footballing side.

Gabriel Torje, Granada

Granada has benefited greatly from its relationship with Udinese in recent years. Italian businessman Gianpaolo Pozzo owns both clubs and ferries youngsters to the south of Spain every summer, giving them a chance to experience football in a different country and exposing them to more first-team football. Pozzo's acquisition of Watford this summer is another string to his bow -- the north London club has taken five players on loan from Granada and Udinese this week.

But Granada is the beneficiary of some brilliant talent, and Torje might be the most exciting player it has received from Udinese so far. In truth, Torje shouldn't be in this position -- this time last year, he was being linked with a move to Arsenal, among others, and he seemed set to be a fine replacement for Barcelona-bound Alexis Sanchez. Like the Chilean, Torje seems like a natural winger because of his pace and dribbling ability, but he can play as an attacking central midfielder, too.

Torje's natural ability is not in question; inevitably, he's been nicknamed the "Romanian Messi." But his tactical appreciation of the game is poor, his movements often obvious and his passes too frequently astray. Unable to change his style of play to suit the tactical, strategic environment of Serie A, he might be more at home with freedom to express himself in Spain.

"I have seen many games of Granada's and what I like is the fans," says the Romanian, speaking about the supporters who gained a reputation for noisily travelling across Spain in great numbers last season. Those supporters will expect great things from Torje -- if so, he won't be there for a second season.

Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He runs zonalmarking.net.