Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal, Liverpool, Everton – most top Premier League clubs will dip into the market for a new centre-half this summer.
When a big Premier League club announces their interest, fees will inevitably skyrocket. Clubs often end up paying over the odds for youth, sometimes paying a premium for the name alone.
Upamecano, Koundé, Konaté – we’ve been touted these names repeatedly over the past couple of seasons. But how have Europe’s elite young defenders performed this season?
Here are European football’s best young centre-backs…
Jules Koundé – Sevilla
Speculation about Koundé’s future may continue to roll on, but it doesn’t seem to have impacted the Frenchman’s performance levels. Thrust into the spotlight during Sevilla’s Europa League winning 2019/20 campaign, the 22-year-old has rapidly become one of European football’s hottest properties.
Koundé has played a key role in the Sevilla defence this season, leading the Andalusian outfit to 14 clean sheets. Los Palanagras, as they are known locally, have conceded just 21 goals in their 29 La Liga outings. Since Koundé’s arrival from Bordeaux in 2019, the club’s defensive record has been impeccable. Sevilla have achieved an impressive 28 clean sheets across the Frenchman’s 54 league appearances for the club.
1 – Jules Koundé 🇫🇷 in the first half against Barcelona:
2 shots – 50% of Sevilla’s shots (2/4)
45 passes completed from 49 (91.8%) – 2nd most by a Sevilla player
0 fouls conceded
— OptaJose (@OptaJose) February 10, 2021
Koundé’s raw athleticism is his most valuable asset. He has the pace, the stamina and the competitive streak – attributes any top defender should possess. He’s also adept on the ball. With a passing accuracy of 93.8%, he’s ranked among Europe’s top-5 young centre-backs in short passes completed per 90mins.
Old Trafford or The Parc de Princes have been mooted as the Frenchman’s most likely future destinations. However, for a player of Koundé’s age and top-level experience, he’ll undoubtedly remain on the radar of just about every top team in Europe.
Wesley Fofana – Leicester City
If not for a certain Portuguese defender we’ll discuss later, we might be hailing Leicester’s young Frenchman as the best young centre-back in the Premier League, possibly in Europe. At just 20-years-old, he is one of the brightest stars in Leicester’s dazzling constellation of talent. Signed from Saint-Étienne for a reported £36m in October, the French youth international’s season has gone from strength to strength.
At 6’3” the youngster is well-equipped to deal with the physicality of the English top-flight. Indeed Fofana’s key strength is his ability to contest, and win aerial duels. Among the Premier League’s young centre-backs, Fofana ranks 1st in aerial duels attempted per 90mins (5.4) and 2nd in aerial duels won per 90mins (3.2).
“I’m really happy with my progress.” 😄
“I’m learning every day.” 🧠
“We want to set the record straight against Everton.” 💪
“I can’t wait for the fans to be back.” 🔵
— Leicester City (@LCFC) January 26, 2021
The other aspects of the Marseilles-born defender’s game have also blossomed this term. Among his peers, he ranks 1st in interceptions per 90mins (2.5) and has a short pass accuracy of 90.7%.
Much like his compatriot Koundé, it is Fofana’s versatility that makes him such a valuable commodity. The Frenchman can handle the bustle of the big target-man just as well as the speed merchant trying to run in behind.
Despite just 27 appearances for Leicester, Fofana’s name is already being bandied around by Europe’s top clubs. Man Utd (who else?) have been linked with the defender throughout the past couple of seasons. But with Leicester looking odds-on to secure Champions League football, we can only assume it would take a cosmic fee to prise him away this summer.
Dayot Upamecano – RB Leipzig
Bayern-bound Upamecano’s talents have been analysed to the nth degree – and with good cause. He’s a fantastic athlete, an accurate passer of the ball, and equally as dominant on the ground as in the air. While others deliberated, the Bavarian outfit wasted no time, were first to act, and secured the French international’s services. Despite the adoration of Thomas Tuchel and Jurgen Klopp, flirtations with Real, Juventus, Man City and Man United, it seems the lure of the European champions was too attractive to refuse.
It is alarming that, by the 22-year-old’s own high standards, his form has been a tad underwhelming this season. Among the Bundesliga’s young centre-backs, the Frenchman ranks outside the top 5 across almost every key defensive metric this term. He is ranked 7th in total completed tackles, 11th in total interceptions, 10th in total clearances and 8th in shots blocked per 90mins.
A surprisingly average return from such an exceptional talent, especially considering Leipzig have the joint-best defensive record in the Bundesliga this season. Despite the dip in his defensive performances, Upamecano’s distribution of the ball has still been of the highest standard. He is ranked 2nd among Bundesliga defenders in both short (90.8%) and long (68.4%) passing accuracy. The Frenchman’s ability to carry the ball out from the back is also unparalleled.
113 – @RBLeipzig_EN Dayot Upamecano has made 113 progressive carries forward (5m+) in the Champions League this season, the most in 2019/20 and at least 27 more than any other player involved in the semi-final (Neymar 2nd with 86). Impetus. #RBLPSG pic.twitter.com/a5N0vxHQKd
— OptaJean (@OptaJean) August 17, 2020
His patchy form this season may simply be a bi-product of the speculation surrounding his future. That aside, there remains little doubt about the Frenchman’s future as one of Europe’s best. With so many shrewd signings over the past few seasons it’s almost impossible to view Upamecano’s acquisition as anything other than another coup for the German champions.
Bayern’s much lauded transfer policy of signing youth has produced so many hits of late, Upamecano looks certain to become a firm favourite at the Allianz for the next decade to come.
Cristian Romero – Atalanta
There’s a certain je ne sais quoi about Argentinian centre-backs. Passarella, Ayala, Sensini – they were all great readers of the game who practiced a rigid, no-nonsense approach to defending. It’s still early days for Atalanta’s Cristian Romero, but the initial signs are that he is cut from a similar cloth.
The defender, who is on a two-season long loan from rivals Juventus, has an extremely developed football brain for a 22-year-old. The Argentinian has completed more interceptions (75) than any other centre-back under the age of 25 across all of Europe’s top divisions. In a side that are known for their aggressive pressing, he has chipped in with an impressive average of 3.8 interceptions per 90mins this season.
🚨| Atalanta has every intention of buying Cristian Romero at the end of his loan. La Dea has the opportunity to pay €16M to Juventus at the end of the loan to secure the services of the player. All the roads lead to this strategy [#RomeoAgresti via @Elvin_JFC]
— JuveFC (@juvefcdotcom) March 28, 2021
Every time I watch Atalanta, Cristian Romero does at least one thing that makes my jaw drop. Unbelievable recovery tackle on Lukaku tonight.
— Sam Tighe – Ranks FC Podcast (@stighefootball) March 8, 2021
The Argentinian U23 international is equally well-equipped to handle individual battles. Incredibly, he has completed more tackles (53) than any other young centre-back in Europe, averaging a total of 2.7 per 90mins. Atalanta, who currently sit third in Serie A, may delight fans with their attacking prowess, but it is players like Romero who facilitate this attractive style of play.
The Bergamo based outfit, who have an option to buy Romero for a bargain 16m euro, look set to make the defender’s move permanent in the summer. Deemed surplus to requirements at Juve, he has been linked with Chelsea of late. Speculation about his future will undoubtedly intensify as his stock continues to rise.
Rúben Dias – Manchester City
Dias has been, without question, Europe’s outstanding young centre-back this season. The Portuguese international hit the ground running at The Etihad. Any initial reservations about his hefty £61m price tag were quickly quashed. His formidable partnership with John Stones has been fundamental to City’s assault on the title. Hailed as the long-awaited spiritual successor to Vincent Kompany, it seems The Citizens have finally got their man.
A Rolls-Royce of a defender, the 23-year old Amadora native is equally competent in and out of possession. City have conceded just 21 goals in the Premier League this campaign. Dias, who has missed just one match since his arrival in the summer, has been key to that defensive frugality.
Heaping praise on Ruben Dias 🤩
— Manchester City (@ManCity) January 19, 2021
The Portuguese has made more clearances (76) and blocked more shots (18) than any of his team mates, and is second only to João Cancelo in interceptions (31). Dias is officially the most accurate passer in the league. With an accuracy of 93.5%, he has completed more passes (2264) than any other Premier League player this campaign, averaging a total of 86 passes per match. The variety in his passing is highlighted by the 103 successful long balls he has sprayed this season – the third highest among Man City players.
It is Dias’ combination of defensive aptitude and reliability in possession that potentially makes him the defining centre-half of his generation. If he can maintain his form over the next few seasons he may yet be hailed as the greatest defender in the world.