Liverpool were already tipped to be on the lookout for a new centre-back option but speculation has intensified ahead of the January transfer window now that Virgil van Dijk has been ruled out for an extended period of time.
Dejan Lovren’s departure in the summer left the Reds with only three recognised senior central defenders, and now Jurgen Klopp is facing up to the rest of 2020/21 with Joe Gomez, Joel Matip and midfielder-by-trade Fabinho as his options.
There’s never a shortage of transfer rumours regarding Liverpool at the best of times, and van Dijk’s injury has only accelerated the volume of stories.
The latest player to be linked is Schalke’s Turkish international centre-back Ozan Kabak. The Mirror reported Liverpool opened talks regarding a £20m transfer but it is understood these fresh links have been met with some head scratching inside the club.
If a deal were to be completed, Kabak would be representing a fourth club in just three seasons, having already also played for Galatasaray and Stuttgart despite being just 20-years-old.
Schalke have really struggled during his time with them, so it’s hard to get a good read on what kind of player he is from his statistics. They will have had to have done far more defending than the Reds normally have to.
But he does have one vital attribute in that he is strong in the air. It’s an area where Liverpool look set to struggle with in the absence of van Dijk, as the Dutchman is the Premier League’s aerial master.
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Kazak had the ninth best aerial duel win percentage in the Bundesliga last season (via FBRef) and is already second in the early days of 2020/21.
The player analysis site smarterscout also suggests that his performances last season were most similar statistically to Diego Godin’s efforts for Inter Milan. There aren’t many better defenders to be compared to.
However, there are other central defenders who Liverpool have been linked with in the past who are also good options for life at Anfield.
Ben White of Brighton is one such player. He made his name with Leeds United in the Championship, playing every minute of their title winning campaign last season.
It’s interesting to note that it’s in the air where he tends to struggle though. Indeed, Football Insider have even claimed that this deficiency in White’s game has dissuaded Liverpool’s scouts from pursuing the player. It could be that he could make a good partner for van Dijk rather than as a replacement while the number four is on the side-lines.
And there’s no issues with the other aspects of his game. At the time of writing he has the joint-16th best pressing success rate in the top flight (per FBRef), and he also topped the Championship for interceptions last season despite Marcelo Bielsa’s side dominating possession most weeks.
If Liverpool want the best of both worlds though – and as they’ve built their success on a remarkably good hit rate with transfers, they obviously will – then Dayot Upamecano should be the man they go for.
The RB Leipzig centre-back has more big league experience than either Kazak or White, and has also appeared in the Champions League. The French international also has the aerial ability of the former with the anticipation of the latter.
Upamecano won 81.1 per cent of his aerial duels in 2018/19 (per FBRef) which was the second best rate in the Bundesliga that year, and even narrowly tops van Dijk’s best season too. While his form in this area has dipped, he has still won over two thirds of the headers he has contested since the start of last season.
And in 2019/20 he was also among the continent’s top defenders for successful pressing as well as dribbling and passes into the final third. He can defend well, help his side to advance the ball up the pitch, and should be the man from this trio who Liverpool target as their next centre-back signing.