The conventional wisdom is, by now, rote in its recitation: A good soccer team needs a good striker. A great soccer team needs a great one. Don’t have one, particularly of the mythical “world class” variety, and you’re out of luck. And that’s why good strikers come with astronomical price tags. But but what if I told you the real global talent supply problem lay in central defenders, and that the price of defenders is rising accordingly?
Increasingly, it seems like there are plenty of good to great strikers and a real bottleneck in the supply of even average central defenders. A cursory look around the world’s top leagues reveals defense after defense in shambles, strange transfer activity, and some of the top clubs in the world showing an unashamed desperation for guys who can successfully head and kick the ball away.
Why the global shortage? The first thing to consider is that central defenders are best thought of as carefully formulated partnerships. Unlike most other positions on the pitch, defensive partnerships take both complimentary skillsets and time together to really shine. Remove one half of the equation and suddenly the math is all wrong, which means the numbers on the scoreboard start to look bad.
Arsenal are the most high profile example of this dynamic. Last year, Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker formed arguably the best defensive partnership in the Premier League and one of the best in all of Europe. Their defensive pairing typified the combo of time investment and complementary skills needed to create a top-notch defense. Koscielny’s game is to use his speed and tackling to move around as a mobile defender, while Mertesacker relied on his reading of the game and height to clean up anything which got past Koscielny. Both were healthy almost throughout 2013/14, helping a periodically shaky Wojciech Szcz?sny claim the Golden Glove award.
Now, Koscielny is struggling with chronic tendonitis issues and Mertesacker may as well be a different player. He looks slow and unsure without his French partner. The best pairing in Arsenal’s thin defense is Mertsesacker and the young Calum Chambers, but Chambers is a player in Mertesacker’s mold. There’s no continuity and no left-footed, mobile center back to play off of Mertesacker’s strengths. Arsenal’s defense has been an absolute shambles when Koscielny is injured, which is often.
It doesn’t mean that Mertesacker is suddenly terrible, but it does mean that the partnership, which was the core of Arsenal’s best defense in years last season, has been broken. Look anywhere in any league, and the best defenses are led by a steady, little-changing partnership much like Arsenal’s last season. The John Terry and Gary Cahill duo is rock on which Chelsea’s most recent run of success has been built. They look particularly good this season, as Cahill’s move from Bolton recedes into the distance. At Real Madrid, Sergio Ramos and Pepe are the stalwarts. Until recently, Manchester United’s success ran primarily through the defensive pairing of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic.
This demand for two solid defenders who play in complimentary styles constricts the market. Anyone can buy one good defender, but one isn’t enough. And, for those teams who do have the one good defender who fits a needed profile at a big money club, the solitary defender is a hot commodity. Prices are creeping up and, increasingly, it doesn’t seem like the inflation is a fluke.
Witness David Luiz. Luiz is not a top flight defender. His primary strength is in his versatility, as he can slot into a defensive midfield role fairly easily. But his defending is spotty; he was invariably the worst player not named Fred on the Brazilian World Cup team. Chelsea, having Cahill and Terry as their regulars, saw fit to move him on to in the summer of 2014 PSG for a whopping world record for a defender £50 million.
It was such a ludicrous number that people immediately began talking about some sort of collusion between the filthy rich Chelsea and PSG owners. The speculation was that it had to have something to do with getting around Financial Fair Play regulations. As summer gave way to autumn, it became apparent that PSG really did value Luiz at £50 million.
PSG is an outlier, given their money and clear disinterest in FFP rules, but the market isn’t far off. Manchester United, whose defense has been decimated by both departures and injury, were rumored to be in for Mats Hummels, only to be scared off by a price tag in the vicinity of £35 million. The not really that good and permanently injured Thomas Vermaelen, odd man out after Arsenal settled on a defensive partnership which didn’t include him, moved to Barcelona for £15 million; he hasn’t played a single minute of senior soccer due to his injuries. Real Madrid’s Raphael Varane has been rumored to be on his way out after finding himself in Vermaelen’s shoes with regards to playing time, but the price tag is in the £20 million range.
On and on it goes. Starters are beginning to go for massive, striker-level fees. Backups go for not much less. You can squint and say that, if Luiz can go for £50 million, Hummels (who, despite a down year, is still very much a top defender) is surely worth £35 million. But the backup and middle-tier defender fees beggar belief. United’s cheap alternative to the Hummels interest, Marco Rojo, still cost £16 million.
There’s also no guarantee of what you’re getting if you go with a backup, as in the Vermaelen transfer. The simple fact is that alongside the increasing reliance on steady two-player partnerships comes a dearth of playing time for developing subs. This is the situation Varane finds himself in: highly regarded but without a ton of game testing, on the young side, and in danger of losing key development time because of how hard it is to break into a partnership.
So what happens if someone pays the high fee for a player like Varane? It’s a conundrum, as even at the tender age of 21, you want your defenders playing regularly. Varane will either languish at Madrid for the next few years or move to an equally big club who can afford the fee but who may very well place him in the same situation. Varane would probably play at a big club with an injury crisis in the back, a la Arsenal or Manchester United, or a real issue with quality at the back, like Liverpool. At most clubs that could afford him, nothing would change.
The combination of shortage and expectations means that the world of central defenders has become, suddenly, the place where great teams are forged, both on the pitch and in the transfer window. West Ham and Southampton will tell you, with their cheap captures of Diafra Sakho and Graziano Pelle, respectively, how much a little guile and good business can get you up top. The good strikers are not only out there, but usually fairly obvious. It’s at the back where the real puzzle lies.