January Transfer Window – Centre Backs
Its January and the window is officially open. But we couldn’t wait that long and have been doing some shopping around for the best centre backs in Europe.
On average, Prem teams this season have conceded 1.3 goals per game. This is one of the best rates over the big European Leagues – only La Liga has a lower rate. That being said, the grueling Christmas calendar has sidelined near on 30 first team Premiership defenders.
Luckily, there is some fine defensive talent currently on display across Europe that have the potential to fit in to the Premier League. The table below is the shortlist of centre backs who have been performing well this season, we then take a deeper look at the picks of the bunch.
Pressing Actions – Combination of Tackles and Interceptions
SoP per PA – Seconds a players team is out of possession before that player makes a Pressing Action
The Dynamo – Bruno Ecuele Manga
The 25 year old Gabon international is having a pretty good season. To be fair, his stats suggest that he hasn’t really had a bad season since taking over as centre back at Lorient from Laurent Koscielny some three years ago. This was something that hasn’t escaped the attention of Roberto Martinez, who was rumoured to have wanted to make Manga his first signing for Everton.
Manga has appeared in all 19 of Lorient’s Ligue 1 games this season and has amassed some impressive numbers in that time. He has made the most interceptions per game of any centre back in France’s top flight and is one of the most successful tacklers in Europe winning 83% of all tackles he has attempted. This is particularly pertinent when we take into account that 28 of those tackles have been made within Lorient’s final third:
In fact, when we look at all of Manga’s successful defensive actions this season, it looks like a one-man wall across the Lorient penalty area:
This graphic is a real testament to Manga’s ability because, as we shall see, no other shortlist pick has such a wide coverage of defensive actions across the pitch. And, without wanting to sound like a used car salesman, with a valuation of only £4.4m that is a lot of coverage to the pound. Perhaps with Phil Jagielka out with a hamstring injury and Sylvain Distin winding down his career, Martinez will reignite his interest in Manga this month.
The One That Got Away – Shkodran Mustafi
Speaking of Everton, almost a year ago to the day David Moyes released his young German defender Shkodran Mustafi to Sampdoria on a free to relieve wage stresses. Twelve months later and Mustafi has become an indispensable part of the Italian outfit. He is one of the most succesful header(er)s of the ball in Serie A, winning 73% of all his heading attempts:
The versatile CB who can also cover at right back also has one of the highest pressing actions per game rates in the shortlist (6.3). This may have something to do with the fact that former Sampdoria manager Delio Rossi used him as part of a three-man defence, thus giving him more defensive duties than may be expected in a flat back four. However, since new manager Sinsa Mihajlovic has switched the team to a 4-2-3-1, Mustafi’s overall defensive actions per game has risen from 13 to 15 – a league high.
Mustafi is still only 21 and has a bit to learn. His passing game, whilst accurate is infrequent, probably due to a preference to clearing the ball (7.1 times per game). That being said, his accuracy has improved under Mihaijlovic and perhaps a grounding in a more passing oriented team will improve his very modest £880,000 price tag.
The Young Buck – Luca Antei
Both Leandro Castan and Mehdi Benatia made the shortlist but it’s Roma’s on-loan under 21 that deserves a closer look. A 21 year old on loan at a relegation threatened club may seem like an unlikely target for a best of Europe CB piece, but Luca Antei looks to be extremely special. His stats suggest that he is the best hope Sassuolo have at staying up this season.
Sitting on the right hand side of a three man defence in a team that has only 44.8% possession, it may not be a surprise that Antei leads the shortlist for Pressing Actions per game and SoP per PA. But it is the margins by which he leads the group that suggests that this one may be special. He makes almost three more challenges per game than his nearest competition on the list – Mustafi- and takes 99 secs less out of possession before making a pressing action. That means that every fourth pressing action that Sassuolo makes is performed by Antei.
With forward thinking fullbacks in operation, the young Italian has to cover both the centre of the park and the right wing. The graphic shows that Antei is performing his duties well, in fact, Sassuolo have one of the lowest rates of shots conceded from the right side of the pitch (as well as the middle).
Like Mustafi, Antei will probably have to improve his passing game, he has the lowest rate of passes per game in the shortlist and also likes to clear the ball a little too much when perhaps playing it out may be more beneficial to the team. But this is just nit-picking, and surely his meager £175,000 price tag will increase in the near future.
The All Rounder -Fabian Lustenberger
Last season Hertha Berlin were competing in the second tier of German football. Going into the winter break of 2013 they now find themselves 6th in the Bundesliga after a 2-1 away victory against Borussia Dortmund. Of course we all know that football is a team game but two players in particular have been integral to Hertha Berlin’s revival – their long serving Colombian forward Adrian Ramos and their equally long serving centre back Fabian Lustenberger.
The performances of the Swiss international as holding midfielder last season, not only earned him the vote for Hertha fans player of the year but also the captain’s armband for their return season in the Bundesliga. And, whilst he has made brief cameos in his midfield position, he has mainly led by example in the back line.
And what an example he is setting. He is there-or-there-about on every measurement in the shortlist. He has made the second highest number of pressing actions, the third highest number of pressing actions per game and the fourth highest passes per game rate.
Perhaps most tellingly he has the highest percentage of teams pressing actions (15.68%) – a real sign of a devoted servant. Moreover, he’s bloody good at his job – he has a 77% tackle success rate, a 53% heading success rate and, just for kicks, 100% take-on rate.
A price tag of £2.8m means that there are centre backs out there doing a lot less and costing a lot more, but something tells me Lustenberger is priceless to Hertha and perhaps vice-versa.
The Ball-Player – Joël Veltman
Joël Veltman could very well have been the all rounder of this shortlist, unfortunately due to a recurring knee injury the 21 year old Dutch defender started his season 10 games into Ajax’s campaign. Since his return he has played almost every minute of his team’s matches and has notched up some impressive defensive stats, but his numbers perhaps are not a fair enough representation of his centre back qualities as compared to the players on the list who have played half a season-worth of games.
Still, the signs are there. He has a 65% and 68% tackle and header success rate respectively and is currently second on the shortlist for SoP per pressing action. And he also does things like this:
What isn’t in question even after a comparatively short amount of game time is Veltman’s passing credentials. He has already amassed the 4th highest number of accurate passes on the shortlist and is already miles ahead in the number of average passes per game (79) with an 89% accuracy.
And these are not just short passes or passes back to the keeper that you may expect from a centre back playing in a team that averages nearly 63% of possession.
Veltman is mixing up his passing game and they are coming from all over the pitch. The result is 2 key passes and 2 assists – not a bad amount for a centre back 9 games into his season. And look at this boy:
He has future national team captain smeared all over his chiseled moosh. And the current market price for this strapping lad … £525,000. Roll on January.