Manchester United have conceded more goals than any other top-six side, but is there a transfer target of Virgil van Dijk’s calibre who could solve their defensive woes?
United suffered their seventh defeat in nine games in the 2-0 defeat to Manchester City on Wednesday – highlighting defensive frailties that were flagged by former boss Jose Mourinho at the start of this season.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has promised a summer rebuild and is likely to start where his predecessor left off – looking to draft a world-class central defender who can have a similar impact to that of Van Dijk at Liverpool.
“He needs to get some players in. Proper defenders,” former United captain Roy Keane told Sky Sports.
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Van Dijk joined Liverpool for £75m in January last year and has transformed the club’s solidity at the back – helping his side concede a league-low 20 goals and keep a league-high 19 clean sheets during their title charge.
So which centre-backs in Europe’s top leagues could transform United’s rearguard with a similar impact? We take a look at a range of options with the help of the data scientists at Football Whispers…
The top suitable targets Matthijs de Ligt
- Club: Ajax
- Age: 19
Ajax captain Matthijs de Ligt partners Van Dijk with the Netherlands, although the 19-year-old is in demand and linked with a blockbuster move to join team-mate Frenkie de Jong at Barcelona.
The teenager was awarded last year’s Golden Boy award – given by sports journalists to the most impressive youngster in Europe – and has helped guide his side to the Champions League semi-finals.
Having already racked up 15 senior caps for his country, he has only missed three games in all competitions this season and played almost every minute of every game.
His stats suggest remarkable likenesses to Van Dijk, matching the Liverpool captain for tackles, interceptions, passing accuracy and aerial duels won.
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- Club: Real Madrid
- Age: 25
Varane has been at Real Madrid for eight years now but has reportedly told team-mates he will be leaving the Bernabeu this summer and has been linked with a move to Old Trafford.
While his fitness may be a concern, having missed a quarter of Real’s games over the past six seasons with numerous injuries, the France international is also contracted with Madrid until 2022 – so the price tag could negate interest.
However, Varane offers top-level experience at domestic and international levels, while his stats are on par with Van Dijk – despite being less likely to build possession from the back in Madrid’s system.
Keane: Solskjaer’s priority has to be the defence
“Unless you have a decent ‘keeper and a decent back four, you start there. In terms of foundations, trophies, competing at the top. I’ve been saying it for a few years at United. Everyone is talking about midfielders and attacking players, first and foremost you get your back five sorted out or else there is a long way back.
“I’d be shocked if they were anywhere near the top next year. That’s got to be the target if you’re involved at Manchester United. When you think about when we were playing and in the 80s you look at Liverpool. Would you have said Liverpool would go 30 years without winning the league? You’d think you’d need locking up.
“The years soon go by and unless there is improvement, we’ll be having the same conversation if you invite me back next year. They won’t get the chance to go forward as a club.
“I hope and pray Ole does well. He’s a good guy and if he’s winning matches you have a chance, if he’s losing he’ll be under pressure. It doesn’t matter whether he was a big favourite or not, he has to win football games. But he’s got to be given some sort of a chance and that is getting a few players into the club that he wants, because clearly he wants a few out.”
- Club: Juventus
- Age: 24
Juventus centre-back Daniele Rugani would appear to be a transfer target within reach, having been linked with a move to Chelsea in January and reportedly being frustrated by a lack of game time in Turin.
However, the 24-year-old has featured more frequently recently in Massimiliano Allegri’s side and played in both ties during their 3-2 aggregate defeat to Ajax in the Champions League quarter-finals.
The Italy international matches Van Dijk across a raft of stats but attempts fewer tackles and passes, while winning half as many aerial duels.
- Club: Bayer Leverkusen
- Age: 23
Jonathan Tah has been a regular starter for Bayer Leverkusen since moving to the club four years ago, but has recently been linked with Barcelona and a plethora of Premier League clubs.
The 23-year-old made his senior debut for Germany against England three years ago but has only managed to rack up four more appearances for Joachim Low’s side since.
However, Tah’s stats are only marginally inferior to Van Dijk’s, while, at 6ft 5in tall, his tendency to venture forwards – winning aerials in midfield and providing attacking threat – may also interest United.
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- Club: Monaco
- Age: 18
According to the Football Whispers boffins, Badiashile has the most similar playing persona as Van Dijk – representing France at every level from U16s through to U19s – having graduated from the Monaco youth team this season.
He has gained considerable experience this term, starting 18 out of the past 21 games in Ligue 1 – missing one through suspension and being benched twice recently – and made two appearances in the Champions League.
Like Van Dijk, the teenager marshals a similar, left-of-centre area and makes more tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes than Liverpool’s captain – as well as matching his 6ft 4in frame.