Football Features

Ball-playing centre-backs Liverpool could sign if Jurgen Klopp bows to “paramount” transfer call

By Chris Smith

Liverpool centre-back transfer targets

Published: 14:14, 31 December 2020 | Updated: 10:47, 13 January 2021

“It’s like a ‘wandering’ injury,” Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp said after having to substitute Joel Matip in the weekend’s 1-1 draw with West Brom.

Suggesting Matip’s adductor problem may be due to certain muscles compensating for other sore areas, he added: “He had a problem with his ankle, but could play on. He then got a back problem.

“Everybody knows he was limping from time to time and then he got a back problem (because of it). We worked on that, on both (injuries), and now he has an adductor (injury).”

Matip, according to Transfermarkt, has missed 27 games since December 12th, 2018, due to fitness issues and now once again it is Klopp who must compensate for the absence of a senior centre-back.

Join Football Index* in three steps:

  1. Head to the Football Index website using this link here and click ‘join now’.
  2. Enter your details, including a valid email address.
  3. Deposit funds to get underway and start buying shares.

*You have to be 18+ and Gamble Aware to sign up to Football Index. Values correct at time of writing 17:00, 28/12/2020.

Months have passed since Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez were ruled out until the end of the 2020/21 season at least, and Klopp has so far reacted by using existing options within the squad. Midfielder Fabinho, himself no stranger to the treatment room, has slotted in at centre-back, while the massively inexperienced Rhys Williams and Nathaniel Phillips have also deputised.

But in reaction to Matip’s injury, former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher now believes it is “paramount” his old club sign a centre-back in the upcoming January transfer window.

“It’s a massive worry, but it’s not a new worry,” Carragher told Sky Sports. “Joel Matip will not play every game between now and the end of the season. We knew that even before the injury today. That’s why it’s paramount Liverpool sign somebody in January. I said that as soon as Virgil van Dijk had his injury against Everton […] Joel Matip is too injury prone, his body can’t take the rigour of playing Premier League football week in, week out, we know that since he joined.”

So, just who could the reigning Premier League champions bring in during the transfer window?

The ‘Dream’ Signings

A) Kalidou Koulibaly, Napoli

Time and again, from Liverpool to Man City, with Man Utd and Chelsea mentioned for good measure, Kalidou Koulibaly is linked with a move to the Premier League. And yet, he remains in Serie A with Napoli.

The 29-year-old has enjoyed a wonderful rise over the past few years to become one of Europe’s pre-eminent ball-playing centre-backs. He is Napoli’s most active defender, having won possession on more occasions in the defensive third (40) and midfield third (41) of the pitch than any teammate in Serie A, while he ranks second at the club for interceptions.

Kalidou Koulibaly’s defensive stats via Football Index

What sets Koulibaly apart league-wide statistically, however, is his volume of work in possession. Since the start of last season, Koulibaly has played more passes per 90 minutes than any defender (and at an accuracy rate of 91.3%).

Borussia Dortmund wonderkid Erling Haaland knows a thing or two about top-class centre-backs having already made a fool of a few during his short career so far, and he recently named Koulibaly alongside Van Dijk as one of the world’s best, adding that they share similar physical and mental traits.

“I think the three best centre-backs in the world are Sergio Ramos, Virgil van Dijk and Kalidou Koulibaly,” said Haaland. “All three are very physical, but are also very intelligent in the way that they play.”

Liverpool legend John Barnes is also an admirer, having suggested Koulibaly is the only centre-back they would consider signing next month.

An £80m asking price was referenced in passing by Napoli president Aurelio de Laurentiis back in August. Although that may start to drop as the player approaches the final two years of his contract, he’s still likely to be out of Liverpool’s price range right now.

B) Dayot Upamecano, RB Leipzig

Few centre-backs have risen in stock over the past year or so than RB Leipzig’s Dayot Upamecano. The 22-year-old has firmly established himself as a key member of Julian Nagelsmann’s side, helping them to Champions League qualification and a title tilt against Bayern Munich this season.

Upamecano played more Bundesliga minutes (2,199) than any other Leipzig player across the 2020 calendar year. Accordingly, the sheer scale of his time on the pitch has allowed him the team’s most prolific and dependable defender. During 2020, he won possession in the defensive third 156 times, at least 79 times more than his nearest teammate, Marcel Halstenberg (77).

The former Liefering man also ranks first for clearances (70) and third for tackles (34) and interceptions (35), all of which has added up to earn Upamecano his first three senior caps for France and his first goal for Les Bleus in a Uefa Nations League match against Croatia.

On the ball, Upamecano has the fifth-highest average in terms of long passes completed per 90 minutes (6.46) among all Bundesliga centre-backs since the start of last season. Consider how much emphasis Klopp places on his defence playing sweeping diagonal balls out to Liverpool’s talented full-backs and attackers, and this makes him seem an even better fit.

According to the Athletic, Upamecano could be available for around £40m at the end of the season and appears right up at the top of Liverpool’s shopping list. Obviously, the problem with that is it rules Upamecano out from being an immediate solution, meaning the Reds would have to soldier on with what they have, unless they stumped up an extortionate amount of cash to persuade Leipzig to part ways with a key player mid-season.

All in all, this one looks like it could happen, just not in the January transfer window. Which brings us to…

The realistic options:

A) Ozan Kabak, Schalke

Having already represented three clubs at just 20 years old (Galatasaray, Stuttgart and Schalke), it looks like Ozan Kabak is set to move again.

The seven-time Turkey international has been making a name for himself as the standout defender for struggling Bundesliga giants, first with Stuttgart and now with Schalke, who sit bottom of the table with no wins and just four points so far.

Naturally for a defender in a team with just eight goals to their name from 13 games, Kabak has been kept busy at the other end. He is in the top five Bundesliga centre-backs for aerial duels won this season per 90 minutes (4.21), a list topped by teammate Salif Sane.

Kabak also favours the right side of central defence and so, unlike most of the others mentioned in this article, there would be no awkward conversation as to who vacates Van Dijk’s spot on the left upon his return.

At 6ft 1″, Kabak is a remarkable physical specimen who is dominant in the air but also calm with the ball at his feet. In fact, in an interview with the official Bundesliga website in 2019, Kabak revealed Van Dijk is his idol, hoping to emulate the Dutchman in the future.

“My personal aim is to become a top defender in maybe two or three years, like Virgil van Dijk. He’s my idol, I really like him,” he responded when asked about his biggest career goals. “I like his style and how he plays, so I can say he’s my football idol.”

The likes of Manchester United, AC Milan and RB Leipzig have all been linked with Kabak, but if Liverpool were to meet his reported £20m asking price (much closer to the figure Klopp would prefer to spend in January), you’d wager they would be his preferred destination, enabling him to learn first-hand from his idol.

B) Milan Skriniar, Inter Milan

Under Luciano Spalletti, Milan Skriniar established himself as one of the most consistent central defenders in Europe at the heart of a back four and looked set to stay among the best for some time. However, since Antonio Conte took the reins in the summer of 2019, his status at Inter Milan has become more and more diminished as the former Chelsea boss employed his fixed back-three formation.

Stefan de Vrij is Conte’s middle-man of choice among his three starting centre-backs, leaving Skriniar out wide where he must cover his marauding wing-back and protect De Vrij from overloads, forcing him into one-on-one duels with regularity. Skriniar is an excellent defender but there is a popular notion that he struggles with the distance he has to cover defensively.

Journalist Fabrizio Romano recently suggested that Skriniar would be available for around £45m, with Inter needing the cash on top of the stylistic misfit with Conte.

“Milan Skriniar’s situation hasn’t changed. Inter Milan needs money,” he said on the Here We Go podcast. “If Spurs arrive tomorrow morning with £45m, Inter will sell him. [The deal for Skiniar] is up to Tottenham now.”

As Romano mentions, Spurs have recently been linked with the 25-year-old, but ESPN have also thrown Liverpool’s name into the mix and should that move transpire, there’s every chance Skriniar would be a success.

The Slovakia international’s defensive qualities in a two-man centre-back partnership are not in question, but in Skriniar, Liverpool would be getting a prolific ball-playing right-sided centre-half who can fill the void when it comes to helping build attacks like Van Dijk but also serve as a long-term partner for the Dutchman when he is fit again.

Since the start of the 2017/18 Serie A campaign, Skriniar has attempted a relatively low 5.15 long passes per 90 minutes but his high accuracy rate of 65.6% is suggestive of a player who goes for precision rather than aimless lumps downfield. The former Sampdoria man is also adept at beating the opposition press, while he regularly shows himself for the ball to help his team play out. It’s this sort of composure, coupled with real defensively solidity, which Liverpool might need during the title run-in.

Skriniar is expensive, but you’re getting a lot of quality and, importantly, experience for that money, making it a little different to the Upamecano situation.

The wildcard candidates

A) Jannik Vestergaard, Southampton

Sandwiched between defeats to Spurs and Man City in September and December respectively, Southampton enjoyed a run of just one loss in 11 Premier League matches, pushing them up the table and firmly in contention for European qualification. One man who was absolutely critical to that run was centre-back Jannik Vestergaard.

Previously considered a liability, the Denmark international played the full 90 minutes in each of those 11 matches, during which time he ranked sixth in the Premier League for aerial duels won (48) and headed clearances (30) as he helped Saints to five clean sheets. Those are hardly surprising numbers for a centre-back standing at 6ft5, but it’s his ball-playing prowess that really caught the eye.

Vestergaard completed the third-highest number of passes (594) among Saints players during that run and although this is pretty typical for a central defender, his 41 long passes completed — the highest of any outfield Saints player — shows he is not limited to simple balls to his fellow defenders. Rather, he’s progressive with his play, always looking to get Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side moving forward. His range of passing during Southampton’s 3-0 win over Sheffield United in mid-December was particularly impressive, with Vestergaard regularly hitting long diagonals out to the right flank, switching play to cause disorganization in the Blades’ ranks, thus allowing his attacking teammates more space.

That night, he won a team-high eight aerial duels at an impressive 72% success rate, while no player completed more than his 78 passes. This is a small sample of Vestergaard’s wider form this season.

Many have tried to compare Vestergaard to Van Dijk, the man he replaced on the south coast, but the 28-year-old has insisted he’s his own man, focused on improving his own game.

“I’m trying to be myself, I’m not trying to be Virgil van Dijk,” he said last year. “He is obviously one of the best centre-backs in the world – if not the best – right now, so that hasn’t been on my mind at all.

“I’m trying to find back to myself and to my level to show what I know I can do. I think the last couple of weeks have been a good step towards that and now it’s about doing it on a consistent basis.”

Jannik Vestergaard’s three-month value on Football Index

That said, it would be poetic (if also a case of going back to the well one too many times) were Liverpool to try and fill the hole left by Van Dijk and their other sidelined defenders with the very man who replaced their £75m centre-back at Southampton.

B) Benoit Badiashile, Monaco

If Liverpool were looking for a diamond in the rough resembling the defensive options they already have but with plenty of room for growth, they could do much worse than Monaco’s Benoit Badiashile.

Badiashile emerged during the 2018/19 campaign and despite being just 19 years old, is already a veteran of over 60 games for Monaco. This season, the teenager has featured in 16 of their 17 Ligue 1 outings to date.

During that time, Badiashile has combined style with substance to establish himself as one of the most promising young centre-backs in Europe (and a France youth-team regular) and the stylistic comparisons to Van Dijk are very hard to ignore, as is the fact he also stands at 6ft4 tall.

Both players frequently look to play penetrating, line-breaking passes, allowing their side to be quick, progressive and ambitious in possession.

It was reported that Man Utd had a £22m bid for Badiashile rejected in the summer and Monaco vice president Oleg Petrov later explained to GFFN that although the player was considered “bankable”, head coach Niko Kovac insisted that he not be sold.

This suggests signing Badiashile would require an irresistible offer but if Liverpool could get a deal over the line, they would be signing one of the most exciting defensive talents in Europe who appears ready-made for Klopp’s style and with more experience under his belt than Williams and Phillips combined, despite not yet being 20 years old.