Data analysis: How centre-backs came forward

Technically gifted centre-backs have gone from novelty to necessity — which is reflected in the money top football clubs have shelled out for them in recent years.

After two rejected bids over this summer’s transfer window, Manchester United has managed to get Harry Maguire for a premium fee of €87 million — a world record for a defender.   -  Reuters

After Harry Maguire put in a man-of-the-match performance on his Manchester United debut against Chelsea in a 4-0 win in the English Premier League opener, Jose Mourinho made a snarky remark in the TV studio. He said the Englishman had arrived a year late to Old Trafford.

It was well documented that Mourinho had wanted the former Leicester City centre-back when he managed the Red Devils last season before being sacked in December. The club refused to cough up the asking price of €76 million in 2018 after Maguire had an impressive first season with the Foxes and with England at the World Cup.

Maguire then went on to have one of his best individual seasons in the Premier League despite Leicester finishing ninth in the table. He won 78.1 percent of his aerial battles, the most in the division, making him instrumental in Leicester conceding the least number of goals from set pieces. He is also adept at playing out from the back having completed 16 dribbles, the most among the league’s centre-backs.

READ | Van Dijk beats Messi and Ronaldo to UEFA Player of the Year award

For the incumbent United manager Ole Gunnar Solsjkaer, signing Maguire was the biggest piece of a rebuilding process for a team that kept just two clean sheets at home last season. A year on and two rejected bids over this summer’s transfer window, United has managed to get its man for a premium fee of €87 million — a world record for a defender.

United would have been compelled to making the big splash after witnessing rival Liverpool benefit by making Virgil van Dijk the most expensive defender in the world (€84.65 million) in January 2018. In his first full season at the club, van Dijk earned rave praise and played a crucial role in leading Liverpool to the Champions League title. In the league, Liverpool fell short to Manchester City by a single point despite ending the season with a staggering 97 points, much owing to an improved defensive set-up.

The Reds had the tightest defence in the league, conceding just 22 goals, after having let in 38 the previous season. According to expected goals data from Understat, a website on football statistics, City was expected to have the tightest defence conceding only 25 goals, while Liverpool was expected to have its defences breached 29.15 times.

Strikers win matches, defenders win titles

The role of midfielders and forwards has constantly evolved with time — they have become multi-functional players with flexibility to slot into multiple positions with ease. Centre-backs, on the other hand, have remained more or less traditional — tall, strong, no-nonsense players who relished physical battles and cleared the ball out of danger rather than playing out from the back — until recently.


Barcelona’s legendary back line of Gerard Pique (left), Carles Puyol (centre) and Sergio Busquets.   -  Getty Images


Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering Barcelona sides showed the world the benefits of having ball-playing central defenders who can help build play from the back. Gerard Pique and Carlos Puyol were central to Guardiola’s tiki-taka and most remarkably Javier Mascherano, a 5’9” defensive midfielder, was deployed as a centre-back after being signed in 2010. Soon centre-backs with similar skill sets popped up everywhere — Kalidou Koulibaly, Jan Vertonghen, van Dijk, John Stones, Raphael Varane and Alessio Romagnoli, to name a few.

However, this was not the first time football saw such defenders emerge. Former central defenders Ronald Koeman, Frank de Boer, Franz Beckenbauer, Barry Husshoff, Rio Ferdinand and Rafael Marquez have all been a notable part of the “evolution” over the generations.

But technically gifted centre-backs have gone from novelty to necessity now — which is reflected in the money being shelled out for them in recent years.

ALSO READ | Kompany thinks Van Dijk is Premier League's best ever defender

If you have followed football long enough, you will know that strikers have generally commanded the big bucks. In fact, there are no defenders in the top 10 transfers of all time. Barring the odd player, defenders have always been undervalued in the transfer market and a lot of that can be attributed to the metrics used in evaluating strikers and centre-backs.

Strikers are judged on their goals and assists, statistics that are easy to comprehend. For defenders, however, it isn’t so straightforward. How do you compare the positional play of defenders, their marking during set pieces and the ability to organise an entire backline? And how much of a defender’s performance is based on the tactics employed?

Of the top 50 biggest transfers of all time, 13 are strikers — excluding wide forwards like Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar, who do not get classified as strikers but the flexibility in their roles has them drifting into a centre-forward position from the wings regularly. In comparison, just five centre-backs appear in the top 50 — with the first of those (van Dijk) making the move only in 2018. And of those 13 strikers, clubs had started spending big as early as 2009 — Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Barcelona.


The transfer of Thiago Silva to Paris Saint-Germain in 2012 for €42 million, which was followed by his success with the club, in a way kick-started the trend of teams spending big on centre-backs.   -  Getty Images


But that trend is slowly changing. Centre-backs are usually the leaders of the team, with or without the armband, and clubs have started spending big on them: the five biggest centre-back transfers of all time have happened in the last 20 months. The transfer of Thiago Silva to Paris Saint-Germain in 2012 for €42 million, which was followed by his success with the club, in a way kick-started the trend of teams spending big on centre-backs.

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A comparison of the top 100 striker and centre-back transfers throws more light on that. Of the top 100 strikers, 68 have made their moves in this decade, 30 moved between 2001 and 2010, with 10 players moving in the last millennium. Of the centre-backs, five are from pre-2000, 18 between 2001 and 2010, while 77 transfers were made this decade alone.


The average cost of centre-backs in the last millennium was €19.84 million, while strikers went for an average of €34.335 million. The gap in the average cost between the two has reduced this decade, with more centre-backs being transferred than strikers. Seventy-seven centre-backs have moved since the turn of the decade, at an average cost of €31.38 million, while 68 strikers have moved in the same period at an average cost of €40.65 million.

Growing trend across Europe

A look at the transfer activity of the top 10 richest clubs in a Forbes report further illustrates this.

These top-tier clubs have spent €1,241.54 million on central defenders as opposed to €937.1 million on strikers during this time. And of the top 50 costliest centre-back transfers in football history, only nine happened before the 2012-13 season.

Manchester City has been the biggest trend-setter when it comes to spending big on central defenders in recent years: Aymeric Laporte (€65 million), John Stones (€55.6 million), Eliaquim Mangala (€45 million) and Nicolas Otamendi (€45 million).

Top clubs are also investing heavily on young centre-backs and not just established names. Serie A champion Juventus is known to be prudent with some big-name free transfers over the last few years. However, the club had no qualms in making 20-year-old Matthijs de Ligt (€85.5 million) the most expensive defender in July this year before Manchester United eclipsed it with its fee for Maguire.


Bundesliga champion Bayern Munich straight up paid the release clause of €80 million for 23-year-old Lucas Hernandez on the back of his breakthrough 2017-18 season at Atletico Madrid and World Cup-winning campaign with France.

Likewise, La Liga giant Real Madrid spent €50 million on 21-year-old Eder Militao, who only had a year’s experience in Europe with FC Porto and just five international caps with Brazil.

Tottenham Hotspur, usually frugal in its activity in the transfer market and operating on financial constraints largely non-existent in the other nine top clubs, also broke its transfer record for a then 21-year-old Davinson Sanchez from Ajax in 2017.

With clubs ready to pay a premium for the best talent available, the day is not far off where centre-backs will break the €100 million mark.

Attack no longer is the best form of defence.

Note: Data from  Transfermarkt and Understat.