The goal rush started early. Manchester City have recreated the sofa Erling Haaland sat on as a boy in a City shirt to announce his signing. Liverpool extended Mohamed Salah’s contract and used Sadio Mane’s money to offset the acquisition of Darwin Nunez. La Liga have complained about Paris Saint-Germain following Kylian Mbappe’s decision to stay at Parc des Princes rather than leave for Real Madrid. Romelu Lukaku has quoted one of Shakespeare’s sonnets as he returned to Inter Milan less than a year after his €115m (£97.5m) move to Chelsea. Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to Manchester United appears to be over already and Robert Lewandowski has made his intentions to leave Bayern Munich clear.
Transfers involving strikers made the biggest splash this summer, as they always do. Relatively speaking, Madrid splashing €100m on Monaco midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni barely sparked a flurry of interest. The focus on goalscorers also kept a very strong undercurrent submerged. The centre-back market is, once again, extremely active and could become the dominant trend in the remaining weeks of the window.
One sequence after another shakes Europe. Antonio Rudiger’s Alaba-style bosman in Madrid and Barcelona’s late registration of Andreas Christensen left Chelsea’s defense short. He gave interim sporting director Todd Boehly and head coach Thomas Tuchel the task of rebuilding the backline in a relatively short period of time.
The dominoes begin to fall.
Chelsea have a historic interest in Sevilla’s Jules Kounde. They also like Matthijs de Ligt and that, in turn, has put Juventus in a dilemma. The Dutch international is seen as a leader in Max Allegri’s squad, more than ever after Giorgio Chiellini’s move to Los Angeles FC.
The armband of Juventus passed to Leonardo Bonucci. But at 35, it won’t be long before he’s strapped to the biceps of either De Ligt or Manuel Locatelli. The problem is that with just two years left on his contract, Juventus would like the former Ajax skipper to extend his stay in Turin to avoid losing him for a reduced fee or at no cost in 2024.
A repeat of what just happened with Paulo Dybala is unthinkable. De Ligt, on the other hand, is open to a new challenge and the fact that Chelsea were not dismissed out of hand has not gone unnoticed by Bayern, who signed De Ligt’s former Ajax team-mates Ryan Gravenberch and Noussair Mazraoui. The two are also replaced by One, the agency created by the late Mino Raiola and now managed by Rafaela Pimenta.
Bayern are hardly lacking in talent at the back and could be mistaken for an iteration of Didier Deschamps’ France squad with Benjamin Pavard, Tanguy Kouassi, €80m Lucas Hernandez and Dayot Upamecano at Saebener Strasse. But they need an organizer with command to make the unit cohesive and have missed Alaba’s influence since leaving for the Bernabeu. Niklas Sule’s noncommittal switch to Dortmund, where he joins compatriot Nico Schlotterbeck – a revelation at centre-back for Freiburg in the Bundesliga last season – also leaves the German champions behind.
The potential sale of De Ligt so soon after Chiellini’s decision to embark on an MLS retirement plan is a headache, whatever windfall it will bring. In January, Juventus beat competition for Federico Gatti, a former mason from nearby Rivoli whose next job is to build a wall in front of Wojciech Szczesny’s goal. However, the rise of Serie B side Frosinone will be quite a box leap for the freshly-selected Italy international and Juventus will no doubt have to return to the market.
Whether they can persuade someone like Napoli through and through like Kalidou Koulibaly to follow in Gonzalo Higuain’s footsteps remains to be seen, knowing the effect it will have on his relationship with City. The same goes for owner Aurelio De Laurentiis who comes to the table and does business with the old enemy. Juventus know that Koulibaly is entering the last year of his contract and that Napoli are reducing the wage bill. Star players have been offered reduced terms, which is why Lorenzo Insigne left for Toronto FC and a team from the Isle of Capri are staging a push to sign Dries Mertens. Other centre-backs of interest to Juventus are Gabriel at Arsenal and Presnel Kimpembe at PSG.
On the one hand, the whirlwind of interest from central defenders can be explained by a simple market dynamic of Club A having to replace a player going to Club B. It is simply circumstantial. On the other hand, the swell of players in the position moving this window is, to some extent, the consequence of a tactical trend. More and more elite clubs are playing threesome. Chelsea won the Champions League with one in 2021. Eintracht Frankfurt and Roma became Europa League and Conference League champions by rolling out the same setup in 2022. Bayern and Dortmund were often seen in the even held at three last season and during its introductory press. In conference, Christophe Galtier, the new PSG coach, said: “We are thinking about playing three.”
That’s why the French champions are in extended talks with Inter Milan over the acquisition of Milan Skriniar. The Slovakia captain has operated in a back three since joining the San Siro five years ago, first as a stopgap on the left and then moving to the right once Alessandro Bastoni returned from his Serie A internship in Parma. The projected Skriniar-sized hole in Inter’s defense will have to be filled by Fiorentina’s towering Serbian Nikola Milenkovic, while league defender of the year Gleison Bremer is set to take over from aging Stefan de Vrij and swap Turin’s full-back three for a new one.
The defense that Antonio Conte has become Italy’s best is changing personnel just as it outfits Tottenham to align more closely with its own ethos. After replacing Nuno Espirito Santo last November, Conte opted for a makeshift setup with Ben Davies, Eric Dier and last summer’s big signing Cristian Romero. The current season-long loan from Barcelona for Clement Lenglet isn’t the sexiest option, but it’s functional and that’s all that matters for Conte, who wants his wide centre-backs to come in through the middle of the ground and participate in the attacks.
By using a back three rather than an orthodox centre-back partnership, teams need more cover and need five defenders for these positions rather than four. Manchester United, for example, have six and are unlikely to be in the market for a centre-back this summer, especially after signing Raphael Varane last season. But here they are once again vying with Arsenal for Lisandro Martinez, the diminutive midfielder turned centre-back, as Erik ten Hag assembles a squad with rookies trained in the Ajax way. As with Lenglet at Tottenham, Martinez would restore the balance at United where two-footed Varane is the only left-hander at centre-back.
The demand for these players, as analyzed by my former colleague Tom Worville, is particularly high, especially with the game from the back and the construction which is becoming increasingly important for this generation of coaches. It’s a factor in the interest Manchester and Tottenham clubs have shown in Villarreal’s Pau Torres and was incidental in the valuation of Sven Botman, who eventually moved to Newcastle at the end of last month for 37million. euros plus add-ons. The consideration Chelsea give to Nathan Ake’s return for another stay at the club owes something to the fact that Malang Sarr is the only left-hander Tuchel can call on at centre-back.
It remains to be seen whether a new record amount will be set for a player in this position over the summer. United set the bar high by paying Leicester €87m for 26-year-old Harry Maguire, a price influenced by interest from City and what Liverpool had invested in Virgil van Dijk 18 months earlier.
Some believe the valuations reflect the scarcity and dwindling pool of top centre-backs. Premier League clubs can, for the most part, afford to overpay and make mistakes because the league model allows it. Continuing with the existing domestic TV deal and signing bigger and better international rights deals means they are by far the richest league in the world. This is why Bayern signing Hernandez and Juventus paying what they did for De Ligt are outliers unless, i.e. both clubs relied on the stock of centre-backs continuing to play. increase with a view to then selling to PSG or an English club at a profit. later down the road.
Other sporting directors see it in terms of opportunity cost and won’t risk paying more than 30 or 40 million euros for a central defender for the simple reason that the difference in quality of players is marginal and if the defender a big-budget central gets injured or flopped, the club loses a lot of money that they won’t get back.
Executives with this outlook tend to be of the opinion that good centre-backs are not uncommon. Leipzig, for example, replaced Upamecano with then-little-known Croatia Under-21 international Josko Gvardiol for €16million and such interest is there that they can now sell him for multiples to a host of clubs in the world. ‘elite. Mohamed Simakan arrived from Strasbourg as Ibrahima Konaté’s successor. AC Milan wanted him too but, after missing him, turned their attention to Fikayo Tomori, who was a €28m steal – just not as much of a bargain as partner Pierre Kalulu, as the scout Milan chief Geoffrey Moncada snatched at Lyon. academy when the player was between two contracts.
It’s a fascinating sector of the market, especially when you look at the hinges on which Premier League title races have swung in recent years. In 2019-2020, you could say it was Aymeric Laporte’s injury. In 2020-21, you could say it was Van Dijk’s. It may be anecdotal, but Chiellini couldn’t help it during his unveiling with LAFC last week. “Attackers sell tickets,” he said. “But defenders win the league.”
So forget all the fanfare about the strikers. The most influential signing this summer could be the one involving a centre-back.
(Photos: Getty Images/Design: Sam Richardson)