Football Features

Another one from Fonte’s finishing school? Liverpool linked to a ‘machine who doesn’t make mistakes’

By CJ Smith

Liverpool transfer news: Reds linked to 'machine who doesn't make mistakes'

Published: 19:20, 3 January 2021

Liverpool’s rumoured hunt for a centre-back is said to have led them to Lille youngster Sven Botman.

Jurgen Klopp’s defending champions currently top the Premier League but their lead over Man Utd has been slashed to goal difference after consecutive draws with West Brom (1-1) and Newcastle United (0-0).

Given the attacking riches at their disposal, Liverpool’s record of just one goal across those two games is expected to be a mere blip. However, one cause for genuine concern at Anfield is the fitness of the Reds’ centre-backs.

Fabinho has had to deputise alongside Joel Matip, who was Liverpool’s last remaining fit senior central defender, in the absence of Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez. But Matip is now also out for three weeks, too, having been injured in the home draw against West Brom.

As such, reports now suggest Botman is Liverpool’s most likely target in the January window. The 20-year-old even posted a story on his Instagram page suggesting he is working on some kind of business with his agency, Muy Manero.

“What they’re working on, according to my information, is a deal for a player who’d be significantly cheaper (than Dayot Upamencano) and that’s Sven Botman, who is in first his season at Lille,” journalist Duncan Castles claimed on the Transfer Window Podcast.

“Lille have very difficult financial difficulties. My understanding is that Lille would be willing to sell the player probably for twice and a little bit more than what they paid Ajax for him in the summer.

“So you’re looking at a 20-year-old just turning international defender who has fantastic statistical attributes.

“My information is that they have been calling and speaking to Botman’s agent and that Botman’s agent likes the sound of the conversations.”

Who is Sven Botman?

In the six months since he joined Lille from Ajax, Botman has been one of Ligue 1’s most dominant defenders in terms of certain one-on-one duels. Only four players in the French top-flight have won more than his 65 aerial duels this season, for instance.

The Badhoevedorp native also appears to possess a reading of the game beyond his years, having produced elite output in terms of interceptions and success in 50-50 duels.

Klopp’s style of play means Liverpool would be hunting for far more than a mere destroyer to sit at the heart of their defence. The Reds dominate possession and press high, so need someone who is both calm and progressive in possession and capable of defending in a high line.

Botman seems to tick each box. The former Heerenveen loanee is among Ligue 1’s most productive centre-backs when it comes to touches, attempted passes into the opposition half and take-ons completed. He also makes a comparatively low number of clearances, which could be suggestive of a less reactive, more measured approach when it comes to getting the ball away from danger.

With Botman partnered alongside the 37-year-old Jose Fonte, Christophe Galtier instructs his side to defend in a mid-block with a narrow shape. This reduces to the space behind the defence, allowing for Fonte’s lack of pace. That said, Botman’s speed and athleticism are attributes typically well-suited to aggressively high lines such as Klopp’s.

‘A machine who doesn’t make mistakes’

Fonte has partnered the likes of Van Dijk, Toby Alderweireld, Ricardo Carvalho and Pepe for club and country across his lengthy career, but he is said to regard Botman as the best centre-back he’s played alongside.

“One other thing I think will be interesting to Liverpool supporters is that Botman plays alongside veteran Portugal defender Jose Fonte at Lille this season,” Castles added.

“Fonte has played with an array of top-class centre-backs in his career including Virgil van Dijk, Toby Alderweireld, Pepe in the Portuguese national team and Gabriel last season who is now at Arsenal. From what I understand of Fonte’s impression of Botman, he thinks he’s the best of all of them.

“He describes him as a machine and a man who doesn’t make mistakes and also indicates that for a young player playing alongside an experienced professional, he’s very open to learning and taking instruction and improving his game.”

Liverpool transfer news: Botman rumours

Fonte stirred the pot himself by replying to a post on the Squawka Instagram page suggesting the veteran defender might “losing another partner to the Premier League”.

“Another one… (DJ Kalled voice). Always happy to help,” Fonte said.

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What happened next? Jose Fonte’s former defensive proteges

Whether accurate or not, the Botman to Liverpool rumours inadvertently highlight the wealth of quality defensive partners Fonte has formerly played alongside.

The 37-year-old shared the pitch with the likes of Pepe, Bruno Alves and Ricardo Carvalho for the Portuguese national team, while he also enjoyed an extended spell alongside Radhi Jaidi during his Southampton days. More recently, Fonte has played in tandem with Manchester City’s Ruben Dias at international level.

But Fonte has also played alongside a number of younger centre-back partners who went on to make moves to bigger clubs thanks to their form while partnering him:

  • Dejan Lovren (from Southampton to Liverpool, £20m): Before Fonte and Van Dijk, there was Fonte and Dejan Lovren, who were the solid base to a Southampton side which finished seventh in the Premier League in 2013/14 with the sixth-fewest goals conceded (46). Lovren then made the £20m switch to Anfield, but injuries and inconsistency hampered his time with the Reds. The Croatia international now plays for Zenit St Petersburg.
  • Toby Alderweireld (on loan at Southampton, moved from Atletico Madrid to Spurs for £11.4m): Fonte’s list of centre-back partners at Southampton is quite the read, but one who is often overlooked during that spell is Toby Alderweireld, who spent the 2014/15 season on loan at St Mary’s from Atletico Madrid. Fonte and Alderweireld paired up in 27 Premier League games, conceding just 25 goals during that time and helping Saints to another seventh-placed finish. Alderweireld’s form was so impressive that it prompted Spurs to pay £11.4m for his services.
  • Virgil van Dijk (from Southampton to Liverpool, £75m): Fonte and Van Dijk formed a brilliant partnership at Southampton across 51 games between 2015 and 2017, with the latter eventually making a mega-money move to Liverpool and becoming the world’s greatest centre-back.
  • Gabriel (from Lille to Arsenal, £25m): Fonte’s most recent protege partner, Gabriel played 42 games alongside the Portuguese veteran across the 2018/19 and 2019/20 seasons, allowing only 42 goals during that time and guiding Lille to second and fourth-placed finishes. In their final six games with a Fonte-Gabriel partnership, Lille picked up 18 points and conceded just one goal, ending their time together with five consecutive clean sheets. Since joining Arsenal for £25m last summer, Gabriel has established himself as one of Mikel Arteta’s most consistent players.