The dynamic of football is changing and it is most evident in how defenders have carried themselves over the years from when they were expected to be the leaders and physically robust men in the side by default to the more rounded version of defenders that have dominated Europe and their respective domestic leagues in recent seasons by playing a key role in the build up from the back. The two most successful managers in the modern era Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola alongside a host of other top managers like Carlo Ancelotti, Diego Simeone and the like have embraced this and implemented the same in their constantly evolving systems.
Although it’s not strictly necessary to have the best defensive unit (as Leicester City have proved) to win the ultimate prize in English football – the Premier League, it’s vitally important for the team to be able to hold their own in times of crises no matter how prolific the team is going forward – there will be times when a side would look up to their back four or five to seal the doors and keep them in the game long enough for the forwards to go out and win it. That is why all the top teams and managers in England vying to contest for the league title have strengthened their rear in the summer – particularly the traditional heavyweights in Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool.
Arsenal have brought in Skhodran Mustafi for a huge sum of money after years of dithering under Arsene Wenger and as a result they finally look like a side with enough depth to battle on all four fronts. Mourinho’s United had arguably the best transfer market of all teams in terms of the quality they managed to rope in, in the summer, which included a raw but hugely promising talent Eric Bailly for a large sum from Spanish side Villareal. Jurgen Klopp meanwhile had to rely on his previous experience and expertise of German football and has bolstered his back four with a very shrewd defender/defensive midfielder in Joel Matip on a free transfer.
Interestingly, the impact of aforementioned three new arrivals at their respective clubs from different leagues have been very similar and overwhelmingly positive. Comparing the three foreign imports to Tottenham Hotspur defender Toby Alderweireld, who has for the last 12-14 months, been the best centre-back in the league. does paint a clear enough picture as to how much each of these three players has settled down in England and been able to affect their club’s performances and outcome.
Despite the fact that Mustafi arrived after the Premier League had well and truly begun and hence featured in only 4 of the opening 7 league games, he’s looked the most effective, especially in the vital wins against Chelsea and Burnley before the international break. With 3.25 successful tackles per game and more than 3 interceptions per 90, the German has added the steel and conviction that the North London outfit so badly lacked in front of the goalkeeper and it will be interesting to see how well his partnership with Koscielny can evolve to push Arsenal closer towards that Premier League.
In terms of being value for money, it’s hard to argue against a free transfer, particularly, if the player could play an important role in the first team which is exactly what Klopp has managed to do with the signing of Joel Matip. The German born Cameroonian defender who can also play as a defensive midfielder has taken his time to take to the rigors of the league but some his numbers for Liverpool in a short space of time have been equally impressive. Matip may have to face the challenge of playing in front of a goalkeeper of lesser quality than the other two, but that is only going to keep him focused and ready for when the big games arrive thick and fast in the coming months.
When it comes to raw talent and potential for growth, there is probably very few in England that could match the Ivory Coast centre-back. The 22-year old has been a revelation for Mourinho and Manchester United and the ease at which he has impressed not just the boss, but also the 75,000 pairs of eyes that watch United at Old Trafford every other week, has surprised many. Bailly, strong as a rock for his age and blessed with natural pace, is already being touted within their camp as the long term successor of Vidic but what he needs now is a string of good performances, starting from October when Manchester United will come up against the likes of Liverpool, Chelsea and City in quick succession to validate the comparison.