Fancy these, Arsene? Defensive targets compared

Date published: Wednesday 27th July 2016 1:40

With the transfer merry-go-round in full swing, a number of top teams are strengthening accordingly to achieve their seasonal goals. However, a lack of movement for top level centre-backs – Manchester United aside – means Premier League sides run the risk of being caught short at the back in their quest for glory. There have been rumours of a host of defenders swapping Serie A for the Premier League and here, compares the five main central-defensive targets for some of England’s top teams.


Leonardo Bonucci
The primary centre-back donning the back pages this summer, Juventus’ Leonardo Bonucci has been linked with a big-money switch to the Premier League for much of the transfer window. Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United are all keen on adding to the 29-year-old to the ranks, having established himself as one of the finest players in his position on the continent. Of the 35 Serie A games Bonucci started last season, Juventus kept a clean sheet in 18, with the Old Lady hopeful of retaining the Italian’s services.

The arrival of Medhi Benatia puts Bonucci’s Juventus future in doubt, while Daniele Rugani’s continued development suggests the Serie A champions could cope without the Italy international, though it would be a big loss. The three Premier League sides linked could certainly utilise a player of Bonucci’s talent. Of all defenders, only one has played more accurate passes than Bonucci (5295) in the last three Serie A seasons. The English trio favour a system that involves playing the ball out from defence, an area the Juventus man excels in having gained a statistically calculated strength of ‘passing’.

Newly-appointed Chelsea boss Antonio Conte is also familiar with Bonucci’s capability having tapped into the player’s potential during their time together at Juventus, however it looks as though the Manchester pair are leading the race to sign Bonucci. Conte, though, appears to have altered his transfer plans, instead swapping his attention to another Serie A centre-back.


Kalidou Koulibaly
The man dubbed K2, Kalidou Koulibaly was brought to Napoli by former boss Rafa Benitez. In his debut campaign in Italy, the Senegalese defender appeared out of his depth and, after a solitary season, Napoli were rumoured to be considering cutting their losses on the centre-back. However, Maurizio Sarri opted to instead invest the time into improving Koulibaly and was rewarded. Only Juventus (20) conceded fewer goals than Napoli (32) in Serie A last season with the 25-year-old playing an essential role at the heart of the defence.

Koulibaly started 32 of 38 league games for the Partenopei last term earning rating of 7.19 in the process. Like Bonucci, Koulibaly has deservedly earned rave reviews for his ability to play the ball out from the back. Indeed, the centre-back played more forward passes (1268) than any other player in Serie A last season. 2024 accurate passes, meanwhile, was the fifth most in the Italy’s top tier last term, with the player more than capable of instigating attacks from the back.

Having won possession in the defensive third the third most times (159) in Italy last season, Koulibaly’s defensive qualities coupled with his passing ability renders him ideal for Premier League footballer. Sarri famously utilised drones to help improve Koulibaly’s positioning and it’s this approach to coaching that has helped the defender establish himself as one of the most sought after centre-backs on the continent this summer.


Kostas Manolas
It’s hard to believe that Kostas Manolas is only 25-years-old given how assured he has become at the back. Snapped up by Roma two years ago as Benatia’s replacement following his move to Bayern Munich, the Greek centre-back successfully transferred his fine form for Olympiacos to Italy and has quickly risen to prominence as one of the best in his position on the continent, and it’s no secret that Manolas has all the makings of succeeding in the Premier League.

Dominant in the air, it’s no wonder to see the Greece international won more aerial duels (125) than any other player in Serie A last season. With a number of Premier League sides adopting a direct approach, this facet of Manolas’ game would benefit any English team. He’s still far from the finished article of course, having committed four errors that led to shots on goal for Roma in Serie A last season, one of the poorer returns, but there is still ample time for the defender to hone his skills.

However, this is somewhat to be expected from a defender required to – like Bonucci and Koulibaly – play the ball out from defence. A pass success rate of 86.5% from an average of 47.7 passes per game in Serie A last season was a modest return for the centre-back and Manolas is one who would realise his potential with the correct coaching. Roma head coach Luciano Spalletti insists Manolas is not for sale, but that won’t stop Europe’s elite from testing the club’s reluctance to sell.


Defenders whoscored


Stefan de Vrij
One has to sympathise with Stefan de Vrij, whose season was cruelly cut short all the way back in August on account of a knee injury. The problem came on the back of an excellent debut campaign for Lazio, where he gained a rating of 7.35, not to mention a hugely impressive World Cup campaign for the Netherlands that earned him a spot’s team of the tournament. His injury woes, though, haven’t detracted teams from registering an interest in the Dutch defender.

The 24-year-old earned rave reviews on the back of his first season with Lazio, with an average of 3.4 interceptions per game the third best return in the 2014/15 Serie A campaign. While an 83% pass success rate from an average of 40.1 passes per league game that season was hardly ideal, De Vrij’s commendable reading of the game allows for him to start attacks from defence. In a dominant side, that figure would undoubtedly rise.

The risk now is whether he can rediscover his best form after almost a year without game time. There is no denying De Vrij’s obvious talent, which was exhibited to the watching world during the 2014 World Cup. Any move this summer, however, presents a risk given his recent injury and it remains to be seen how far he has come since sustaining the problem on international duty almost 12 months’ ago.


John Stones
Despite an indifferent campaign for Everton, John Stones is a centre-back still highly thought of by England’s top teams. Manchester City remain keen on the England international, with Pep Guardiola hoping to add the ball-playing centre-back to the ranks before the campaign gets underway. The 22-year-old endured his moments of madness for an underwhelming Everton side, but also showed signs of his quality when required at the start of the campaign.

He fits the mould of the ball playing centre-back Guardiola favours and it’s clear he has the potential to forge a successful a career in the Premier League under the Spaniard. A superb pass success rate of 88.7% suggests Stones’ greatest trait is his ability to pick out a team-mate, but the England international very much remains a diamond in the rough. No player committed more errors that led to an opposition goal than Stones (3) of all outfielders in the Premier League last season.

Guardiola, though, has a knack for bringing out the best in inconsistent defenders having moulded Jerome Boateng into one of the finest centre-backs in Europe during their time together at Bayern Munich. While it remains to be seen whether Stones could reach a similar level to the Germany international, he stands a much stronger chance of realising his potential under Guardiola at City than anywhere else.


Ben McAleer

All statistics courtesy of, where you can find yet more stats, including live in-game data and unique player and team ratings. You can follow all the scores, statistics, live player and team ratings with the new free-to-download WhoScored iOS app.

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