Replacing Van Dijk: who could fill the gap in Liverpool’s defence?

By The Ai Scout

When Virgil Van Dijk joined Liverpool halfway through the 2017/18 season the impact was immediate. Jürgen Klopp’s side suddenly looked much more solid at the back – particularly from set pieces – and turned that defensive solidity into a platform that helped them win the Premier League and Champions League. But with Van Dijk out for the season, and injury concerns for Gomez, Fabinho and Matip, the need for defensive reinforcements is becoming more pressing. Liverpool may be forced into recruiting a new central defender in the January transfer window but who would be the best fit?

FINDING THE BEST FIT

Ai Abacus use artificial intelligence to predict how a player will fit into a team, comparing the characteristics of a player with those of his prospective teammates, as well as similarities in playing style.

The below graphic assesses how some of Europe’s best central defenders under the age of 25 would fit in at Liverpool based on playing style suitability and chemistry with other players in the team. Players have been selected as their defensive abilities are highly rated by Ai Abacus’ Player Rating Model, whilst the bubble size reflects the current market value of each player, calculated by Ai Abacus’ Transfer Value Model.

TAKING A CLOSER LOOK AT POSSIBLE TARGETS

Using the AiA Simulator, this article assesses the suitability of four players who have been linked with Liverpool in the media. All four players score highly based on Ai Abacus’ Defensive Rating, and with age on their side they should have the potential to improve in the future. However, with Liverpool’s experienced centre backs either injured or struggling for fitness, they need to identify a player who will fit the style and dynamics of the team in order to plug the immediate gap in their defence.

In addition to predicting the suitability of each player based on playing style and chemistry with Liverpool’s players, the AiA Simulator also assesses value for money using the Cost Benefit Index. This metric takes into account current market value and predicted performance versus the proposed contract length, transfer fee and weekly wage that Liverpool may need to pay for each player.

Dayot Upamecano is one of the hottest defensive prospects in Europe. Like Van Dijk, he’s right footed but tends to operate on the left-hand side of a central two or three at RB Leipzig so could suit Liverpool’s system, which often morphs into a back three when one of the midfielders drops deep. His predicted chemistry with other Liverpool players is particularly strong, and although there may need to be some adaptation in his playing style, he’s got the pace to play in Liverpool’s high defensive line. His Cost Benefit Index score indicates he may be the best value for money of the four players, with the proposed transfer fee much less than his current market value due to the £37m release clause that will reportedly kick in next summer.

Defenders don’t come much more imposing than Jonathan Tah. At 6’5”, the German international already has 11 caps for his country and was tipped for a move to West Ham in the summer before he was priced out of a move. He’s had a difficult start to this season, with Leverkusen opting for Sven Bender and Edmond Tapsoba as their first choice centre back pairing. However, of the four players, he scores highest for style suitability and predicted chemistry with Liverpool’s squad. Reportedly available for around £35m, his Cost Benefit Index score suggests this would be a fair price and he could add physicality, positional intelligence and passing ability to Liverpool’s defence.

Ozan Kabak is another rising star in the Bundesliga, winning the league’s Rookie of the Season for 2018/19. He made his debut for Stuttgart at just 18 before being signed by Schalke for £13.5m in the summer of 2019. With the Gelsenkirchen club reportedly open to offers, the Turkish international could be available for less than the £30m proposed transfer fee, representing good value for money given his current market value and potential to improve. However, due to his age and relative inexperience, his Player Chemistry rating is the lowest of the four players so may take some time to settle into the Liverpool team.

Ben White played an integral role in helping Leeds United win promotion back to the Premier League last season. Leeds were keen to sign White permanently in the summer but Brighton rejected their offers and he’s made a promising start to life in the Premier League, demonstrating his versatility by playing on the right of a back three as well as in midfield. His good style and chemistry ratings indicate he would fit in well at the reigning Premier League champions. However, his Cost Benefit score is significantly lower than the other three players due to his lack of top-flight experience and the sizeable transfer fee Brighton would likely demand for a player who is still to prove he can perform consistently in the Premier League.

CONCLUSION

Any team would be impacted by the loss of a player of Van Dijk’s quality, and Liverpool’s need for defensive reinforcements has only been exacerbated by injury concerns for Gomez, Fabinho and Matip. They could have the choice of a number of centre backs from across Europe if they decide to make a move in January. However, it’s important they identify and recruit a player who will fit the style of the team and quickly integrate with the other players in order to make an immediate impact on the pitch.

Replacing Van Dijk illustrates the value of being able to compare and analyse multiple transfer targets. The AiA Simulator harnesses the power of artificial intelligence to simulate the likely success of different recruitment scenarios. By predicting the performance, value and suitability of a player to a prospective team, Ai Abacus can help football clubs and player agents make more informed recruitment and player development decisions.