Football Features

Under the radar centre-backs around Europe – and the Premier League clubs who could sign them

By Chris Smith

Published: 18:15, 23 June 2019

With the summer transfer window wide open, the rumour mill is in full operation, linking some of the biggest names in the game with football’s giants.

In recent years, centre-backs have become a top priority in the Premier League, with the likes of Virgil van Dijk (£75m) and Aymeric Laporte (£57m) proving expensive yet invaluable acquisitions.

However, not all central defenders need to come with a mammoth price tag. Just last year, Newcastle United managed to snag Fabian Schar from Deportivo La Coruna for just £3m, with the Switzerland international now pivotal to Rafa Benitez’s defence.

And right now, there is a clutch of players across Europe operating under the radar to be plucked by one of England’s top-flight clubs.

At Squawka, we’ve picked out five of them and paired them with the Premier League club we feel would best suit them.

1. Aissa Mandi (Real Betis)

Who should sign him? Leicester City

Leicester City’s style and swagger greatly improved under the guidance of Brendan Rodgers last season but to take things one step further, the Foxes may need to sign another ball-playing centre-back, regardless of whether or not Harry Maguire remains at the King Power Stadium.

A horrendous drop off in form left Real Betis and manager Quique Setien with no choice but to part ways but anyone who watched them during the early stages of last season will have witnessed something special. Possession football was taken to new boundaries and for a short time at least, Betis were a joy to watch. Central to that was Algerian centre-back, Aissa Mandi.

No La Liga centre-back had more touches of the ball (2904) or completed more passes (2387) than Mandi last season, while he also placed 11th among defenders in the Spanish top flight in terms of blocks (22).

Sure, no centre-back in La Liga made more fouls than Mandi (56), while he received 10 yellow cards in 35 appearances last season. That lack of discipline will need to be addressed. But in the Premier League, Mandi is likely to come across far more lenient referees than he would in Spain. At 27, he would be an upgrade on Jonny Evans in both age and style.

2. Armando Izzo (Torino)

Who should sign him? Arsenal

When it comes to recoveries (252) and interceptions (87), no Serie A defender outstripped Armando Izzo last season, while only Fiorentina’s German Pezzella (121) won more aerial duels than the Torino man (118). He was, quite frankly, a monster.

Of course, playing for a club like Torino – who finished outside of Serie A’s European places last year and are not considered among the Italian elite – is bound to hold your international career back and to date, Izzo has just one cap for Italy.

That in itself should knock off a chunk of Izzo’s price tag, making him a perfect target for Arsenal, with Unai Emery having to work with a shoestring budget this summer when compared the club’s direct rivals.

Izzo’s passing accuracy last season was a modest 78.04% but what Arsenal need right now is a defender who is solid as a rock. The mistakes of Shkodran Mustafi and others were well documented and very costly last season, leaving Emery with no choice but to bolster that backline.

Just recently, whispers in Italy have begun linking Izzo with a switch to north London. This is definitely one to watch develop.

3. Christophe Herelle (Nice)

Who should sign him? Watford

For all their positive progress last season, Watford conceded 59 goals in the Premier League last season with only the division’s bottom seven clubs having a worse record. A huge contribution to that was their seven errors leading to goals, which was the fourth-highest number in England’s top flight. All in all, defensive lapses were the reason the Hornets slipped to an 11th-place finish.

The footballing being played under Javi Gracia is slowly progressing but right now, what Watford need is a centre-back who can hold his concentration and lead the backline. More specifically, they require a replacement for Craig Cathcart, who made four errors leading to shots last season.

Christophe Herelle played 33 Ligue 1 games during 2018/19 for a Nice side that conceded just 35 goals all season – a record equalled by champions PSG and only bettered by runners-up, Lille. Herelle won 101 of his 161 attempted aerial duels (62.73%) last term while, importantly, he didn’t make a single error which led to a goal.

Herelle formed a rock-solid partnership with ex-Bayern man Dante last season but with Nice missing out on European football, the Premier League would certainly be a desirable option for the 26-year-old.

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4. Nico Elvedi (Borussia Monchengladbach)

Who should sign him? Manchester United

Matthijs de Ligt, Maguire, Issa Diop; all centre-backs reportedly being targeted by Manchester United but all major doubts as to whether they will actually end up Old Trafford.

Should Ole Gunnar Solskjaer miss out on this trio, he would do well to turn his attention to Borussia Mönchengladbach’s Nico Elvedi.

At 22, he perfectly suits Solskjaer’s policy of youthful recruitment but a look at his stats reveals a very impressive defender. Elvedi’s 2422 touches of the ball and 1916 successful passes were both the third-highest number of any Bundesliga centre-back during the 2018/19 season, while the Switzerland international ranked in the division’s top 10 for aerial duels won (82). Furthermore, no Gladbach defender made more recoveries (157), clearances (130) or interceptions (48) than him.

Given his age, Elvedi still has much to learn about the real art of defending having made a league-high six errors leading to shots last season. However, a ball-playing centre-back has long been on the shopping list of the Red Devils – as often bemoaned by Jose Mourinho during his tenure.

A year or two working under the likes of Mike Phelan will do his development no harm and in time, those naive errors will iron themselves out just as they did for the likes of Rio Ferdinand at Old Trafford.

5. Salif Sane (Schalke)

Who should sign him? Burnley

Burnley have had some cracking centre-backs over the past few years but just like Michael Keane before him, James Tarkowski is now being linked away, with Wolves the reported suitors. The Englishman’s exit would, once again, leave Ben Mee looking for a new centre-back partner.

No Bundesliga centre-back won more aerial duels than Schalke’s giant, Salif Sane (119), while the Senegal international came second only to Hannover’s Waldemar Anton (31) in terms of blocks (29). Sane didn’t make a single error leading to a goal in the league last season and overall, the 28-year-old is a strong, reliable, no-nonsense central defender. This, of course, plays right into the hands of Sean Dyche’s compact, low block.

It would be unfair to accuse Burnley of being nothing but an old fashioned clogger of a team and when things do become more progressive, Sane is armed and ready with a very respectable 83.16% pass completion rate, leagues ahead of Mee (74.83%) and Tarkowski (69.43%). But, as those aforementioned percentages prove, first and foremost, Dyche values a defender who can defend above all else.

Sane scored four goals across all competitions last season, making him a real threat from set pieces, and while he’s only had one year with Schalke, an offer from a Premier League club would bea likely to turn his head, especially given Die Königsblauen only managed a 14th-place Bundesliga finish last term.

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