Let’s take a trip down memory lane. It’s the 17th of October and were 5 minutes into a heated Merseyside derby. Liverpool are bossing the game and lead 1-0 through a Sadio Mane strike and then it happened.
The most destructive and calamitous moment of Liverpool’s season had occurred. Jordan Pickford injured Virgil Van Dijk with an ill-timed tackle. The 6ft 4 centre back was figuratively torn in half, as he hobbled off the pitch with assistance.
This was like an evil nightmare for Liverpool fans worldwide as they watched with grimaces on their faces. Life without Van Dijk was a realm they hadn’t experienced in a while with the 18/19 PFA Player of the year not missing a minute of Premier League football since September 2018.
The Reds had every reason to be worried with the Dutchman being a major factor in their ascension to the top. Van Dijk completed more passes than anyone in the Premier League last season with 2902, whilst only Burnley’s James Tarkowski was the only defender to win more aerial battles.
To compound misery on Liverpool’s lengthy injury list, Joe Gomez suffered a serious knee injury whilst on international break and is set to miss most of the season. Gomez established himself as first choice alongside Van Dijk.
Joel Matip is now the only fit recognised centre back, whilst defensive midfielder Fabinho can also slot in. The Reds do have Rhys Williams, Nat Phillps and Billy Koumetio from the academy to call upon, but it would be deemed questionable to ask them to replace Van Dijk long term. So, Liverpool need to buy a centre back in January, right?
To play for the reigning Premier League champions, you have to be of a high standard, manager Jurgen Klopp requires a lot from his players. The Reds have built up an excellent reputation with their recruitment over recent years, with the likes of Sporting Director Michael Edwards and Pep Lijnders getting it right, more often than wrong.
The recruitment team will have a criteria for the defender to match in order to them to bought. Firstly, as I have mentioned Van Dijk is a ball playing defender, so the replacement will need to be comfortable on the ball. Like most teams nowadays the Reds play their way out from the back and this will be a priority for the recruitment team.
Liverpool also play with a high line to complement their pressing system, so the defender will be left isolated on occasions and face a lot of duels. Virgil Van Dijk won 75% of all his duels in the 19/20 campaign, whilst Joe Gomez won 56% of his. Although both are top defenders, the signing would have to possess similar numbers.
One of the best attributes a defender can have to complement a high line is pace, this would allow the player to recover in moments when the high line is beaten. However, Fabinho and Matip are not the quickest and are still able to cope in a high line with great anticipation and reading of the game. Lighting pace is not a necessity but would be desirable.
In other words, the required personnel would need to be dominant, pro-active, quick, good in duels and comfortable in possession. That’s no easy feat but Liverpool are mounting a title challenge, and anything less may put this in peril.
I am going to play the role of Michael Edwards and assess the options that may come in the January transfer window. The picks have come from this Kop End Fracas’ tweet (below), as they gave their choices on who would be suitable for the Reds.
The Chosen Few
Let’s address the elephant in the room. RB Leipzig’s Dayot Upamecano has been linked strongly with Liverpool for the past 12 months. The 22-year-old has made a name for himself and is widely regarded as one of the best young centre backs in Europe.
The Frenchman stands at 6 ft 1 and has a man-mountain physique just like Virgil Van Dijk, so he certainly fits the dominant bracket. In terms of duels, Upamecano has won 61% of his aerial battles with a total of 53% duels won, so he is impressive in the air.
One of the attributes that makes Upamecano probably the most sought-after defender in the world is how comfortable he is on the ball. Upamecano epitomises the modern-day defender boasting an 89% pass completion success rate this season.
Leipzig’s run to the Champions League semi-final allowed Upamecano to showcase his ability on the world stage. In the semi-final defeat to Paris Saint German, he broke the lines with vertical passes 113 times. The young defender thrives off bringing the ball out from the back.
Just like a double-edged sword this may be seen as a weakness too, as Upamecano is inclined to dribble a lot sometimes leaving holes in the defence. RB Leipzig do play with a 3 at the back system, so the gaps are more likely to be filled then in a two-man pairing but this is something which Klopp may want to limit.
“I’ve not seen a faster centre-back and Dayot has an unbelievable physique”, this is what former Leipzig teammate Timo Werner said to Bundesliga.com. Upamecano’s schooling under Julien Naglesman, who has a very similar philosophy to Klopp and attributes allows me to believe he would be well suited to the Reds’ system.
According to transfermarket.co.uk, the Frenchman is valued at £54 million pounds, however, this is where things get interesting because German outlet Kicker reported that he has a £40 million release clause which can be activated in the upcoming summer. So, the dilemma for Liverpool would be whether to wait until the summer to activate his release clause or to break the bank for him in January. Upamecano would cost upwards of £50 million but do the Reds have the funds to purchase him now?
Quietly going under the radar is Upamecano’s defensive partner Ibrahima Konate. After signing for Leipzig on a free transfer, the Frenchman has become one of the teams most reliable and solid players at the tender age of 21 years old. Again, Konate more than fits the bill for Liverpool in terms of being dominant, the youngster stands at 6ft 4, so he is very imposing physically.
The Leipzig defender obtained a success rate of 75% in his total duels in the 19/20 campaign, which was the same number as Van Dijk. Winning battles aerially and on the ground is the biggest strength of young Konate, who relishes the physical side of the game.
I believe those numbers indicate that Konate would be able to transition to the physical side of the Premier League smoother then most. The youngster also has the speed to play in the Reds high line, which should allow him to not be exposed much.
Just like his physical attributes, the Naglesman education would also be seen as an advantage for the Reds recruitment team as I have mentioned Leipzig play a similar brand of football.
Konate differs from his teammate Upamecano in the sense, he is less adventurous with the ball and is inclined to be safer with his distribution. Although the Frenchman has a pass success rate of 89% this season, I believe Konate would need to expand his passing range in order to match the level of control Liverpool’s centre backs bring. The centre back is valued at £36 million according to transfermarket.com, so a bid of £40 million upwards may bring him to Anfield.
Sticking with the Bundesliga, I bring you a peculiar option in Bayern Leverkusen’s Jonathan Tah. The 24-year old’s inclusion in the Kop End Fracas’ tweet was a fascinating surprise as he hasn’t been linked with the Reds recently. However, there is some sense to the madness.
The German is a daunting and commanding centre back, who stands at 6 ft 5 and is a monster in duels. His sample size from this campaign was miniature but, the Leverkusen defender achieved a success total of 65% in all duels, with 72% coming aerially in the 19/20 season.
Tah should match up physically in the Premier League but the concern would be his pace. Tah isn’t the quickest and this may be exposed in a high line, with attackers looking to run in behind. This is something the recruitment team would consider.
The German’s time on the pitch this campaign has been limited with the defender falling out of favour at Leverkusen. Manager Peter Bosz has opted for a different centre back pairing with Tah spending a lot of time on the bench. Liverpool would be weary of this as a lack of game time is never a positive.
Tah was set for a bright future, when he was valued at £36 million by transfermarket.com in 2018, now he’s priced at only £18 million. I do believe a deal that would suit both parties would be a short team loan in January.
This would be a cheaper option for the Reds, but it would also suit Leverkusen, who may not want to lose the talent permanently. Liverpool could possibly bring Tah in on loan and then activate Upamecano’s release clause in the summer. Attaining Tah in a Ragnor Klavan stop-gap like deal may not be a bad option. Told you, there was some method to the madness.
A man Liverpool may bring in to bolster their defensive ranks is Marseille’s Duje Caleta-Car. The Croatian is a strong and athletic centre back who likes to move the ball forward. Caleta-Car will be somewhat of an unknown quantity to many readers, but the 6 ft 4 defender is quickly making a name for himself in Europe.
Caleta-Car rejected a move to West Ham in the summer in order to play Champions League football. His biggest strength is his aerial prowess, he has won 68% of his duels in the air. Just like Van Dijk, Caleta-Car is a threat in the opposition box, bagging 2 goals already this season.
Another positive to the 24-year-old, would be how relaxed he is in possession, achieving an 84% pass success rate this campaign. Marseille is a side who dominate most of the possession in Ligue 1, so Caleta-Car is used to being involved in build up play and controlling possession, he is adept at finding front men with long balls which is something that would impress the Liverpool recruitment team.
Th cause for concern would be Caleta-Car does have a tendency to go the ground in situations which is very unlike Liverpool’s current centre backs, who are cool and unphased. He has a 46% win rate of duels on the ground this season, which would have to improve when playing for the Premier League champions. Whether Klopp could improve this remains to be seen.
Caleta-Car is priced at £20 million by transfermarket.com, so a bid of £25 million should be successful. The Reds are known for buying bargains such as Andrew Robertson and Gini Wijnaldum, so this could potentially be one of them signings that turn into an absolute steal, given the right coaching. The risk would be whether he is able to transition from Ligue 1 to playing for one of the best clubs in the world.
Brighton’s Ben White will be a more familiar name to the readers. The 23-year-old has caught a lot of attention since winning the Championship with Leeds and Marcelo Bielsa last year. The Englishman has since moved back to his parent club and impressed in the Premier League against some of the division’s top attackers.
When talking about ball playing defenders, White has to be up there with some of the best in the country. In the 19/20 campaign, he averaged 7.51 progressive passes, with a total distance of 306.46 metres per game according to totalfootballanalysis.com, which are impressive statistics for a midfielder yet alone a defender.
White is not only able to play vertical passes but also be a threat from the backline assisting Patrick Bamford multiple times for Leeds in that season. He’s got an 82% pass success rate this season which indicates how bold he is with his passing; an attribute Klopp would love.
White is left footed which would mean he would slot perfectly into the role Van Dijk has vacated, as there currently isn’t a naturally left sided centre back at the club.
As I have mentioned previously it’s important for Liverpool’s centre backs to be dominant in the air and this is the department where White lacks. Standing at 6ft, this proves to be a weakness for him, as he ranked 81st in the Championship for aerial duels with 4.87 attempted per game.
The drop between Van Dijk winning 76% of his aerial battles and White winning just 54% last season is significant. White has marginally improved in that area this campaign, but it may concern the Reds.
Brighton rejected a £25 million deal in the summer and signed him to a new contract so, White may cost Liverpool a premium considering he is home grown. Graham Potter is building an interesting side over at Brighton and may want to keep his young star.
Liverpool have also been linked with the likes of Ozan Kubak, Perr Schurrs and even Wolves’ Connor Coady. Every option has its pros and cons however, if I was Michael Edwards, I would break the bank for Dayot Upamecano.
I believe the young defender is suited to the Reds in being such a dominating presence. He would be able to step into the Premier League champions seamlessly. His ability on the ball would allow Liverpool to have a similar level of control their defenders currently bring.
Although, he would cost a premium in January, long term it would be beneficial as the Frenchman could turn out to be one of the best centre backs in the world. However, if Upamecano is unattainable I would go for his Leipzig teammate Konate who would be slightly cheaper but still more than adequate defensively.
Replacing the excellent Virgil Van Dijk is almost impossible but there are some players out there who could add quality to this juggernaut of a Liverpool side. It’ll be interesting to see what Michael Edwards and the recruitment team conjure up in January when their hand is forced.
You can read more of Peter’s articles here: Peter’s Football Thoughts (sport.blog)