Italian football has always traditionally been viewed as the homeland of appreciating the defensive duties of the beautiful game, however it has also found plenty who adore the art of keeping clean sheets in the Premier League.
Be it the great Arsenal sides of the 1990s, or the Jose Mourinho staple of ‘absorb and bite back’ approach at Chelsea, the Premier League has seen a plethora of sides emerge with an emphasis on building their strength from the backline, usually to counter a variety of attack-minded opponents.
However, after a period out of the limelight, English football has found itself in a position where a dominating defence is no longer an option for a team with aspirations of winning the league,
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Changing The Trend
When Liverpool won the Premier League in 2019/20, they did so on the back of building one of the sturdiest defences in the land. Not only did it represent a reverting of philosophies for Jurgen Klopp’s ‘heavy metal’ football he had first arrived in England with, but a wider, more far-reaching approach to coordinating a successful title push.
Teams like Manchester City could no longer rely on scoring a century’s worth of goals in their 38 games to see them coast to the title, instead they would have to look for more measured, pragmatic options when it came to setting up and sustaining a team.
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This became even more evidently clear during the 2020/21 season, where teams seemed to play with much less fear behind closed doors than what managers like Guardiola, Klopp and co. were accustomed to.
The aftermath of Liverpool’s dominant title win has seen a flurry of high-profile and often expensive recruitment from rivals at the top table of English football, with each and every side noticeably attempting to recreate a certain blueprint in particular…
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The Van Dijk Effect
When Liverpool finally got their hands on Virgil Van Dijk in January 2018 for £75 million after a highly publicised summer attempt, most in the football world thought the team were buying a good, if not especially world class, centre-back in an area the side were seriously lacking.
However, it quickly became clear that Liverpool had signed someone special from Southampton in Van Dijk, with the Dutchman slotting in to the side’s backline and instantly establishing a domineering prescence through his immense ability on the ball, potent aerial threat, physical strength and overall leadership qualities totally changing the fabric of how the side conducted themselves on the pitch.
With 17 more goals to their name than Liverpool, Manchester City were top goalscorers in 2019/20, bagging over 100 goals in a league season for the second time in three seasons, but the following summer window saw Pep Guardiola opt to change tact with the arrival of two new centre backs: Nathan Ake and Ruben Dias.
Dias’ effect on City has mirrored what Van Dijk has brought to Liverpool, dominating the defence as an ever-present as Guardiola masterminded a return to title-winning form in 2020/21. Dias bagged the UEFA Defender of the Season, FWA Footballer of the Year and Premier League Player of the Season award for his performances across the campaign, with City only conceding 17 goals from open play (down from 25 in 2019/20), with a far healthier xGA of +2.40 better than what they ‘should’ have been conceding.
The blueprint has since been replicated around the league, with Thiago Silva joining Chelsea at the expense of prodigy players such as Fikayo Tomori and Kurt Zouma, and Manchester United have picked up four-time Champions League and World Cup winner Raphael Varane in the hopes of mirroring what Liverpool and Manchester City have achieved on the back of this warrior-like leader in the defence.
For Varane at United in particular, nailing this blueprint is already shaping up to be one of the most crucial components in whether or not the Red Devils are going to be able to muster a serious title challenges and being a dominant player in the fixed football odds in the years to come.
All of the major players at the top table of English football now rely on at least one of their central defenders being one of their absolute star talisman. The roles and responsibilities on the modern day centre back are more diverse and far-reaching than ever before, though there’s certainly no denying that the potential returns a true leader can bring are more defined and apparent than ever before in the Premier League.