The 2013/14 Premier League season just passed was not to my surprise the highest scoring season on record. In the modern era, that occurred in 2009/10 when Chelsea narrowly beat Manchester United to the title scoring 103 goals in the process. However, last season was the first to see two teams score over 100 goals and was a season during which only Chelsea really looked like a team which had any coherent defensive structure and stability. The sheer number of exciting and high scoring games will live long in the memory and ensured that for a lover of open, end to end football, it was a spectacularly entertaining season. But, as an advocate of a solid and well drilled back line as the corner stone upon which any great team is built, it was another season spent bemoaning the lost art of defending. Despite this gripe, defenders now also represent valuable attacking options, with full backs providing valuable width, centre backs playing out from the back and defenders scoring increasing numbers of important goals from set pieces.
This pre-season has seen significant investment in new players at every club. Of the transfers completed thus far, which five defensive purchases will prove the most significant for their new teams over the course of the forthcoming season?
Despite lacking pace, this tall and elegant defender has a maturity to his game that belies his young age. He reads the game exceptionally well, is very comfortable on the ball and enjoys getting forward. His quality in advanced positions was evidenced by a superb strike against West Brom last year. More importantly for a side that conceded the most goals in the top eight during the 2013/14 season, he is an extremely capable defender and at 5”11 provides a sizeable physical presence.
There may be an inevitable desire to compare this Welshman with a famous compatriot and former incumbent of the left back position at Tottenham, who is currently the World’s most expensive player. This would largely be arbitrary given the contrast in style, both in football and indeed character of the two players, yet Davies could easily go on to grace the Champions League either with Tottenham or elsewhere. Davies will be presumably be first choice this campaign and has the opportunity to learn a great deal under the tutelage of Mauricio Pochettino. The Southampton players who worked with Pochettino were all glowing in their praise of his managerial ability and the faith he placed in young players during his time at Saint Mary’s, and Davies is ideally situated to develop in a similar manner to Luke Shaw and Calum Chambers.
Tottenham have been crying out for a quality left back for several years with Benoit Assou-Ekotto, Kyle Naughton and most recently, Danny Rose all failing to stake a claim. After his marauding performances from left back at the World Cup, there was some talk of Jan Vertonghen moving across from centre back, but it would appear that in Davies, Tottenham have acquired a specialist left back who will dominate the position at White Hart Lane for years to come.
This commanding Croatian centre back was already being coveted by a number of big European clubs when at Lyon so it was somewhat of a coup for Southampton that they were able to bring him to the South Coast in the summer of 2013. Although he has only stayed for one season, he helped Southampton to an eighth placed finish and the Saints recouped a £20 million pound transfer fee.
Lovren was one of the lynchpins upon which Southampton’s vibrant and exciting young team was built. The Saints kept fourteen clean sheets in the thirty one games that he started. Furthermore, he was a dangerous weapon going forward and indeed headed the winning goal against Liverpool in a 1-0 win. It is not only his aerial prowess that will be a vital weapon for Liverpool. In a comparison with his new Anfield team mates, Squawka found that he came out on top in every department last season. His passing ability is also underrated and his ability to start moves from the back was in evidence throughout last season and also in Liverpool’s recent 4-0 friendly win against Borussia Dortmund. With a better passer at centre back and thus less reliance upon Steven Gerrard to pass from deep, perhaps an incident such as the formers fatal slip against Chelsea may not have occurred.
A lack of defensive leadership and organisation ultimately lead to Liverpool’s late collapse in the title race last season. The three all draw at Crystal Palace especially, highlighted these deficiencies. But Liverpool’s suspect defence and Brendan Rodgers’ regular shuffling of his centre backs was a feature of the entire season. At twenty five years of age, with his first World Cup behind him and an excellent debut Premier League season under his belt, Lovren is of an ideal age and ability to command the Liverpool back line for years to come.
Not many players will come to Chelsea with an already bulging trophy cabinet but Luis and his former Atletico Madrid team mates Diego Costs and Thibaut Courtois are three such examples. They were part of an unbelievably successful project at Los Rojiblancos lead by the enigmatic Diego Simeone, winning the Copa Del Rey, Europa League, UEFA Super Cup and La Liga. At the foundation of this success has been Simeone’s insistence upon an absolutely resolute and water tight defence of which Luis has been a key component.
In last season’s epic La Liga triumph Atletico only conceded twenty six goals. That record was seven better than their closest competitors, Barcelona and was achieved against two rivals who boast some of the world’s most fearsome attackers. Similarly, in their magnificent Champions League run they conceded only three goals in the group stage and three goals in three knock out ties before running out of steam in extra time against their city rivals Real.
Luis is not an explosive or flamboyant full back. However, he is, like the man he replaces, Ashley Cole, an outstanding defender. He has a great engine and will rarely lose a one on one battle with an opponent. It was a shock to see both Luis and defensive colleague Miranda excluded from the Brazil squad for the recent World Cup. I have absolutely no doubt that Luis would have provided far more steel and discipline at left back than the errant Marcelo. Jose Mourinho is however, far more appreciative than Luiz Felipe Scolari, of the seemingly obvious need for defensively sound defenders. In Felipe Luis, Mourinho has acquired a player in whom he can place his absolute trust.
23 year old Frenchman Mangala may not yet be a household name to viewers of the Premier League but he soon will be. City will be glad to have finally signed this defensive colossus after a long running transfer saga, as their failure to find an adequate partner for the imperious Vincent Kompany was exposed again last season, despite their eventual claiming of the Premier League title. Over the last couple seasons Stefan Savic, Joleon Lescott, Matija Nastasic and Martin Demichelis have all played alongside Kompany and none have appeared to possess the requisite attributes to perform to a high level week in week out. With Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United all strengthening, Manuel Pellegrini will have been well aware of the necessity to sign a high quality centre back.
Mangala has all the necessary characteristics to do well in the Premier League. At 6”2 he provides a formidable physical presence and his goal scoring record over the last two years (he scored twelve goals for Porto) highlights the threat he provides going forward. He is also comfortable on the ball and is extremely quick across the ground, which will come as a huge relief to City fans given the dearth of pacey options at centre back when Kompany is out.
At £32 million he is the most expensive defender in British football history. Given his age and relative lack experience at the highest level alongside the failure to establish himself as a starter for the French national team, there may well be some concern that this purchase provides a high element of risk. Undoubtedly it is a lot of money, but Mangala has Champions League experience, has had a taste of winning trophies and is young, hungry and talented. He will prove a great signing for Pellegrini’s men.
Whilst the other players detailed so far will be challenging for trophies and Champions League qualification, this talented shot stopper will in all likelihood be battling to help his new club beat relegation. While perhaps he may have hoped for a higher profile move, Forster now has the opportunity to establish himself as one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League and with that potentially the England number 1 jersey.
In Scotland, during domestic games, he was largely consigned to a spectator with the biggest issue the need to maintain focus throughout proceedings. With three out of last season’s back four pursuing big money moves away from Southampton, along with a number of other key players, Forster will face a complete change from his Celtic days, in terms of the amount of saves that he will be required to make during league games. However, Forster has shown his ability make multiple saves, during Celtic’s recent Champions League campaigns. In particular, several outstanding performances against Barcelona raised his profile both in the UK and abroad and led to a deserved England call up. Having made the recent World Cup squad, and with the prospect of no further Champions League football and another one horse title race, Forster may have felt the time was right to return south of the border.
Southampton cannot merely hope that Forster is one of the top defensive signings of the summer, their very survival depends upon it. Whilst his ability to make great saves is unquestionable he will have to become more dominant and vocal in order that Southampton’s new look back line is as effective and efficient as possible.
Who do you think the best defensive signing has been out of these 5 in the Premier League, or is there one at your club that we have missed? Let us know in the comments or on twitter @TBRFootball .