It has been a tumultuous fortnight for Liverpool fans. What started with indications of ambition from the Reds during this transfer window – two rumoured offers topping their record signing to get in a speedy winger and one of the best defenders in the Premier League, was followed by the underwhelming news that Liverpool have signed Dominic Solanke from Chelsea on a free. Thankfully the youngster has provided some cheer to the Reds with his performances at the U-20 World Cup. But to be honest Solanke is not the big money transfer that Reds were waiting for.
The supporters were then buoyed by Anfield being named as the destination of choice by their Dutch defensive target, ahead of Chelsea and Manchester City. But that bubble was also quickly burst by Southampton dragging Liverpool to the Premier League for inappropriately tapping up their player, followed by the embarrassing apology issued by the Reds to the Saints and their claim that they have dropped all interest in Virgil van Dijk.
The transfer window has not even officially opened and Liverpool’s supporters have been taken on an emotional roller coaster as far as transfer rumors are concerned. It is no secret that the club needs a central defender really badly as both Dejan Lovren and Ragnar Klavan were found lacking throughout the last season. I personally believe that Sakho is the defender Liverpool need but the management as well as many fans do not share my opinion. Only three central defenders will not suffice as the Reds attempt to progress further in four competitions, including in the Champions League next season.
But still a £60 million purchase of a central defender does seem to be a long shot for a Fenway Spots Group owned team, even if it is one earning one of the highest broadcast revenues in the world. So, I set out to find a few alternatives who could perhaps succeed where Lovren and Klavan have seemingly failed – in a partnership with Joel Matip.
I took help of multiple sources including WhoScored.com, Wyscout, Squawka and CIES Football Observatory. The final ranking of the central defenders is using the methodology of the Football Observatory. They rank each player who has played in the top five European leagues and rank their play based on six parameters – Rigour, which stands for successful defensive duelling; Recovery – interceptive defending; Distribution – successful and effective passing; Take On – successive offensive duels and Chance Creation and Shooting, which are both self-explanatory. Of these the Football Observatory believes that only Recovery and Rigour and to some extent Distribution are important for central defenders.
Using the various scouting tools mentioned above, I tried to search for young, highly rated central defenders who got significant amount of game time this season and had a decent season. I also chose to look at the other top four leagues primarily, as VVD was statistically the second-best central defender (after Otamendi) in Premier League last season and everyone who features in a top ten list with him is contracted to Liverpool’s top six competitors. However, I did keep Sakho in the comparison as I still believe that if Liverpool cannot get any other defender, the Frenchman is a perfectly fine foil for Matip.
The list I came up with and their performance across the important metrics is as follows:
Willi Orban had a good season for RB Leipzig in the Bundesliga. The 24-year-old is a right footed 6’1” central defender. He is a fairly busy player putting in 13.05 successful defensive actions per 90 minutes. He gets involved in approximately 7 aerial duels per 90 minutes and wins 1/3rd of them. Orban has two years on his contract and is estimated to be valued at €13.3 million. CIES estimates that he has made 27 more appearances than the big five league average. In six seasons thus far, he has made 151 senior appearances and scored 14 goals. He is the least rated player in the five I looked at.
Eintracht Frankfurt’s is a bright young centre back whose best attribute as per CIES is his age. Just 20 years old, he lags the others in tackling and interceptions but is better than them in distribution. He is slightly less effective and busy as compared to Willi Orban, putting in 9.39 successful defensive actions per 90 minutes and 4.43 aerial duels per 90 minutes at 50% success rate. CIES estimates that he has always received more playing time than he was expected to get at his age – at age 20, he is expected to have appeared 37 times but he has appeared 78 times. CIES values him at €13 million.
The 25-year old Swiss defender plays for St. Etienne in Ligue 1. He is right footed and comfortable all across the central defence. Having put in 11.18 successful defensive actions per 90 minutes, winning 2/3rds of his aerial duels, his strongest attribute as per CIES is his rigour – i.e. dueling. His contract with the Ligue 1 side ends in three years but his value as per CIES is only €3.8 million. But unlike the other two contenders, Lacroix is trailing his average number of appearances at his age. But CIES’ models suggest that the Swiss is a marginally better defender than VVD.
Caldara is a 23-year-old right footed central defender who spent the last season on loan at Atalanta from Juventus. He made 30 appearances for Atalanta in the Serie A. He put in 10.82 successful defensive actions per 90 minutes, also putting in almost 7 interceptions per 90 minutes. His CIES profile also ranks him quite high (80 overall vs 77 for VVD) but rates him the highest on interceptive defensive actions. With his actual number of appearances catching up with the average number of appearances at 23, CIES rates him very highly and values him at €32.5 million. To put that in context VVD is valued at €46.6 million and the fact that the Dutch man plies his trade in the Premier League for a fairly well-off side is built into that price. Caldara possesses the required attributes and also possesses pedigree.
Athletic Club’s young central defender is just 22 years old and right-footed. He made 35 appearances for the Spanish club in this season. Alvarez is rated 82 overall by CIES but his best attribute is his interceptive defense. But unlike a few others in this list, the young Spaniard is good across most defensive attributes and even better than the others in take ons and chance creation. CIES values him at just €13.2 million as he is homegrown at the Athletic Club and has never had a move away. He is also getting appearances at the average rate of a defender his age in the big-five leagues of Europe. The only unattractive part of Alvarez’s profile is that he has a 5-year contract at his club.
There, I looked up some of the central defenders around Europe and came up with these five. I am sure if the Liverpool transfer committee does half a decent job, it could come up with a decent short list and arm themselves with more stats and information to take a better decision. It is not necessary to waste 60 million pounds on a defender just because he has some experience in the Premier League.
Liverpool need to move on from the VVD saga and start making transfers that can signal their intent early – both in the market and for the next season. But that cannot happen if they keep goofing up how they approach players, clubs and the media.