It is that time of the year again.
Silly season, also known as the January transfer window. All logic goes out of the window and there are links to new players daily. It is hard to keep track, especially when those rumoured to be of interest aren’t your household names (see: Leny Yoro, Ko Itakura and Ousmane Diomande). There isn’t exactly a guide out there to help identify who might be a genuine target and who is purely paper talk.
So, we thought we’d create one.
I know what you’re probably thinking; what makes me such an authority on this?
Well, I’ve been profiling Liverpool targets for the best part of a decade. I’ve been able to come up with a model and years before the Reds signed the pair, I flagged Ibrahima Konate and Diogo Jota as players who are likely going to be on the club’s radar, purely because of their key metrics.
Obviously, there will be exceptions and outliers. You also need to factor in a number of things when assessing a player such as team profile, their role for their club and, of course, whether their numbers are scalable.
Given Liverpool are in the market for a centre-back, it makes sense to detail how you might be able to spot a real transfer target amongst the many, many names being linked with a move to Anfield.
Key stats: passing and aerials
So, we’ll start with the basics – the stats.
When looking at defenders, you want to look at pass volume, pass success rate, aerial duel volume, and aerial duel success rate.
Why are these metrics so important?
Well, Liverpool dominate the ball and the centre-backs often see a lot of it. So anyone coming in needs to be confident and comfortable in possession. If a target has a 90% success rate but is only attempting 25 passes per 90, there may be a considerable drop-off in quality if they’re tasked with attempting 80 passes per 90.
It is a completely different position but the same thing happened with Nathaniel Clyne, to an extent. After his move to Merseyside, he was seeing more of the ball and it was easier to notice his limitations in possession.
Konate averaged 54 per 90 with RB Leipzig across four seasons. He was at 67 per 90 for Liverpool across his first two campaigns on Merseyside and this season he’s averaged 84. The jump is tied to the change in the system as well as his development as a ball player.
He’s been fairly consistent with his pass completion rates, always coming in at around 88%. There’s been a noticeable improvement in his use of the ball this season too but the foundations were always there.
Setting the foundations for the press
Aerial duels are often overlooked but this is one of the reasons Liverpool have been so dominant under Jurgen Klopp. You can only press aggressively as a team if you have centre-backs that are capable of dominating in the air. It is as simple as that.
Across the 2018/19 and 2019/20 campaigns, Virgil Van Dijk, Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip all won a minimum of 65% of their aerial duels. If the opposition went long, more often than not, the ball was coming right back at them. They had no time to regain control of things.
The weak link, at the time, was Joe Gomez. But he was often targeted purely because he was not Van Dijk and teams would focus their efforts on the right side of the Liverpool defence.
Konate eventually replaced Lovren. While in Germany, he was winning 75% of his aerial duels and he was involved in around four on a per 90 basis. Since the move to Merseyside, he’s involved himself in around 4.2, though it has jumped this season to almost six. He was winning 77% last season and he’s at 70% this term.
Volume matters here because if a defender is essentially allowed to cherry-pick the duels he competes in, he’s going to come out looking favourable.
That happened with Bremer during his time with Torino. He looked aerially dominant when he wasn’t involved in many but his success rate dropped considerably when he was involved in more duels.
So, if you want to know whether a transfer link to a defender might be genuine, look to see if the player is averaging over 50 passes per 90 and has a success rate of over 85% and then focus on aerial duels.
You want over three duels per 90, with a success rate of as close to 70% as possible.
Obviously, many other factors (age, price and personality) come into play as well in the transfer process. But when the Reds do eventually announce a deal for a new defender this year, you can bet they'll fit the metrics outlined. Before that happens, any rumoured targets that don't can likely be easily dismissed.