Southampton may have finally found their Virgil Van Dijk replacement at last in 6 foot 3 centre-back Mohammed Salisu, who signed for the club last season in a £10m deal with Real Valladolid – but it was another defender who caught the eye yesterday during their 3-1 FA Cup fifth-round victory at home to West Ham.
Yan Valery, who was standing in for Ghanaian 22-year-old Salisu who is out with “a little bit of a problem” was praised by manager Ralph Hasenhuttl, who was running out of superlatives for the Frenchman.
“Valery played a fantastic game as a centre-back,” said Hasenhuttl.
“Valery, very impressed, unbelievable performance. With the ball he can still be a little bit calmer, he didn’t want to take too many risks today, absolutely okay.
“He played a few more long balls, absolutely okay. Against the ball, how he defends now, I know that he can do this. His whole body language and his belief in what he has doing has changed completely for us and this is for me very important.
“When we played at Chelsea in the cup game, when he played in a back-three, I knew he was strong but now getting into a back four, sliding, defending, making decisions, it is much more difficult and you need to have more quality but fantastic, I must say, fantastic.”
The 23-year-old natural right-back was once described as the Saints’ “weak link“, but he’s now finally beginning to prove his harshest critics wrong. He has made just six appearances this season so far, with Tino Livramento and Kyle Walker-Peters ahead of him in the pecking order – so with that in mind, it was an excellent decision to begin transitioning the Saints star into a central defender.
The last match before yesterday he played was against Coventry City in the fourth round of the FA Cup, and he was once again deployed as a central defender, this time on the right side of a back-three, and he also did very well – achieving a 7.4 match rating.
Should the homegrown defender continue his solid form as a centre-back, he could save the Saints millions on a new defender in the future, and potentially even form a solid partnership with Salisu at the back.