Where are all the good centre-backs? Scouts at the Premier League’s big six will have their work cut out for them this summer, while Jurgen Klopp may as well sit back with a cigar and relish the fact that, for now, he looks to have made one of the most important signings of a generation in Virgil van Dijk.
Not only has the Dutchman been hugely influential for Liverpool in their rise to becoming Premier League and European Champions, but he also happened to be the last (for now) of an apparently dying breed.
Most of the big six were after Van Dijk while he was at Southampton, and how they must all be ruing the day they were beaten to his signature. Now every single one of Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham needs not only one top centre-back signing this summer, but arguably two.
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Vincent Kompany’s departure has been felt at City this term, with the club losing nine games in the Premier League in a weak defence of their title, with the likes of Nicolas Otamendi and John Stones clearly not up to scratch, with even a 35-year-old Fernandinho often drafted into central defence. Aymeric Laporte has been a top performer for Pep Guardiola’s side, but has had an unfortunate injury record of late.
Chelsea have signalled their intent with a strong start to the summer in securing deals for Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech, but they’ve conceded a very poor 49 Premier League goals and the unconvincing form of the likes of Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen could be about to see them miss out on an all-important top four place. New attackers have already been signed, but where are the defenders?
Tottenham had a rock-solid defensive pairing in Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen that will have been the envy of many of Europe’s super clubs maybe three or four years ago, but the duo are now past their peak. Davinson Sanchez looked a talented youngster when he arrived, but has not developed as hoped, meaning there’s an argument to be made that Spurs could do with two or maybe even three centre-back signings this summer.
Manchester United spent big on Harry Maguire last summer – arguably too big, such is the market at the moment, and yet they surely still need another signing to come in next to him, with Victor Lindelof not really looking top four material, while Eric Bailly has had his moments but is too injury prone, an Phil Jones is, well, Phil Jones.
And finally, Arsenal, who actually look to have done pretty well in this difficult defender market to sign a genuine top young talent in William Saliba, who will return from loan at Saint-Etienne next season to link up with Mikel Arteta’s side. Still, this is a club who will still urgently need to replace a frankly embarrassingly long list of mediocre defenders in David Luiz, Shkodran Mustafi, Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Calum Chambers, Rob Holding and Sead Kolasinac.
It’s surreal that not so long ago the big clubs boasted defensive talents like Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, John Terry, Gary Cahill and Vincent Kompany all at the same time, with none of this current crop fit to lace their boots. Vidic and Kompany were not the biggest names before they joined, and the Premier League’s big boys will have to hope their scouts can uncover similar talents once again, because at the moment it’s not obvious where these players are.
Van Dijk was an ideal signing for Liverpool as he was just approaching his peak whilst playing at a non-elite club. Right now, however, it could be argued that there’s no one that simultaneously fits into those two categories, which is bad news when United, Chelsea, Arsenal, City and Spurs probably need to find about ten central defenders between them.
After Van Dijk, the best centre-backs in the world right now are probably Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly and Juventus’ Matthijs de Ligt; the latter only just joined his current club last season, and the former may arguably already be on the way down as he’s just turned 29 and had a season plagued by fitness problems. After those two, there’s a significant drop – Raphael Varane at Real Madrid? Not the player many thought he would be, but good enough that they won’t be selling him any time soon, especially with Sergio Ramos getting on. David Alaba at Bayern Munich? A fine, versatile player, but not a specialist centre-back, and not really at his peak anymore either.
Beyond that, it’s about looking at the future stars of defence, but none of these exactly stands out as being ready to make a Van Dijk-like impact at a top club straight away. Dayot Upamecano has impressed at RB Leipzig, but he’s still only 21 and is yet to win a senior cap for France. Pau Torres, Merih Demiral and Ruben Dias are decent up-and-coming players, but nothing special, and would need to adjust to the Premier League.
One of Chelsea’s most underrated signings of the last decade or so has to be Gary Cahill, could there at the very least be one of those just around the corner? Caglar Soyuncu has had a decent season with Leicester in the Premier League, but has also faded as the campaign has gone on. Ben Godfrey looks a promising young talent, but has just suffered relegation with Norwich City. James Tarkowski has looked solid for Burnley, but doesn’t scream top four material. Lewis Dunk may be one of the most impressive defenders outside the traditional big clubs, but turns 29 in a few months. Ben White has caught the eye this season, but that’s on loan at Championship leaders Leeds. No wonder Chelsea’s best bet may be signing West Ham midfielder Declan Rice and moving him into defence.
All in all, this spells very good news for Liverpool; Klopp would no doubt love for both Joel Matip and Joe Gomez to have more reliable injury records, but Fabinho has shown he can operate at centre-back if need be, and there is little sign of any of their rivals closing the quality gap in this area of the pitch any time soon.