The Premier League season may have only drawn to a close last weekend but the transfer vultures are already circling around St. Mary’s.
Indeed, fearing that the coming World Cup could turn crazy season into super-crazy season, driving up Premier League price-tags beyond proportion until fiscal value loses all meaning, Liverpool have wasted no time in lodging a £20million bid for Southampton midfielder Adam Lallana, whilst England prodigy Luke Shaw has become the object of Manchester United’s transfer desires via an apparently rejected £27million offer.
But with both sides in desperate need of some patching up at the back ahead of next season, should their attentions be focused on a different Saints star – centre-back Dejan Lovren?
The Croatian international arrived on the south coast last summer in an £8.5million deal and has since proved to be a major coup. Working in close tandem with centre-back partner Jose Fonte, Lovren has played a leading role in the Saints recording the fifth-best goals conceded record in the Premier League this season, 46, whilst in the clean sheet rankings they also stand proudly at fourth with 15.
In other words, only Everton, Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea have defended better than Southampton this term. It’s an enormous improvement on last season, where the Saints conceded 16 more, ranking them 13th for the year, and recorded only seven clean sheets, ranking them 16th. Although one can point to in the influence of Mauricio Pochettino arriving in January 2013, in terms of playing personnel the only difference this season has been Lovren’s presence at the heart of defence. The rest of Southampton’s back five, barring the recent introduction of Callum Chambers at right-back, remains completely intact from last term.
It would be wrong to suggest that Lovren has been the difference entirely, but his individual performances this season have been equally as impressive as Southampton’s inspiring defensive statistics.
His 3.3 aerial duels won per match is a better return than Chelsea’s John Terry, Arsenal’s Per Mertesacker, Everton’s Phil Jagielka and Fulham’s Brede Hangeland, all of whom are widely considered to be the Premier League’s leading dogfighters. Likewise, Lovren’s 2.7 interceptions per match is the eighth-most of any top flight player this season, and is only beaten throughout the division by three centre-backs – Swansea’s Chico, Hull’s Curtis Davis and Arsenal’s Laurent Koscielny.
Both statistics highlight the Croatian international’s most underlying strength – his willingness and ability to attack the ball in a variety of situations, be it on the deck or in the air. That same rare quality is what has made Gary Cahill such an astute signing for Chelsea, and likewise Laurent Koscielny for Arsenal.
For his first campaign in world football’s toughest top flight, Lovren’s performances, earning two Man of the Match awards from Whoscored.com, have been incredibly impressive. But the Croatian is no one-season wonder – in fact, his prior history suggests that this kind of form in his debut term should have been expected.
Lovren previously plied his trade with Lyon in Ligue 1, regularly competing in Europe – in fact, Lovren has amassed 38 outings on the continent including his time at Dynamo Zagreb – and helping them claim the Coupe de France in 2012. Back in 2009, he was approached by Chelsea but the rejected a move West London, instead favouring the opportunities of regular football in France.
And many were surprised in Southampton’s ability to attract the £8.5million defender last summer. Earlier in this article I described the deal as a major coup, in no small part due to the fact Lovren was attracting interest from several Champions League sides at the time, including Barcelona, AC Milan, Arsenal and the Blues once again. It appears Saints’ haste last summer paid off, having wrapped up Lovren’s signature by mid-June.
Admittedly, swapping St. Mary’s for Anfield or Old Trafford is an enormous step, one that many a Premier League defender have failed to bridge before. But both Liverpool and Manchester United are facing significant defensive frailties ahead of next season and Lovren could be the answer they’re looking for, furthermore at significantly less cost than many of their other centre-back targets reported in the tabloids.
For example, with Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand both leaving on bosman departures this summer, United need to replace two quality centre-backs with two juxtaposing styles. Vidic represents the towering, commanding defender, whilst United’s backline has lacked that front-footed presence ever since Ferdinand’s pace begun to evaporate a few seasons ago.
Lovren on the other hand, encompasses both moulds of centre-back. His aerial dominance this year has been previously discussed, and although the 23-cap Croatian may not be a playmaking, buccaneering defender of the Jan Vertonghen variety, an 82% pass completion rate this season, in addition to six successful long passes per match, suggests he’s more than comfortable on the ball.
Likewise in regards to Liverpool, Brendan Rodgers’ immediate concern will be plugging a defence that have the worst goals against record in the Premier League’s top nine. Lovren has proved this term that he’s more than capable of addressing that intrinsic issue, whilst also meeting the Anfield gaffer’s other immediate requirement for a central defender – the ability to play out of the back.
It’s where Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger have most consistently faltered this season, and if the Reds are to continue with their high-velocity attacking philosophy next term, acquiring a centre-back that can keep better possession and offer greater defensive protection simultaneously will surely be a leading priority for Rodgers this summer. Quick off the mark too -at least, by centre-back standards – those counter-attacks which have cost Liverpool so many goals this season should become a thing of the past.
Is Dejan Lovren on course to become the greatest centre-back the Premier League has ever seen? Although I’ve been blowing his trumpet ceremoniously throughout this article, probably not. Furthermore, singlehandedly replacing the two greatest centre-backs in Manchester United’s history, or alternatively bringing an end to a culture of lazy defending at Anfield, is an impossible task.
But the Croatian international would certainly be a step in the right direction for both clubs. And whilst the likes of Mats Hummels, Eliaquim Mangala or Ezequiel Garay boast huge £30million-plus price-tags, Lovren could be available for a pittance in comparison. Perhaps most importantly, the Southampton centre-back has been tried and tested in the English top flight and passed with flying colours.
Lovren is clearly destined for a higher calling – the fact he’s just 24 years of age but has already proved himself in the Premier League is enough evidence of that. Yet, whether he answers it this summer remains to be seen – I have no doubt his performances this term will have already caught the eye of certain scouts at Anfield and Carrington, but with Southampton already resigned to the fate of losing Lallana, Shaw or both this summer, it’s likely they’ll be incredibly uncompromising in assuring their best defender doesn’t leave St. Mary’s too this summer.
Lovren’s anticipated ascendancy may have to wait for another year.