It’s a summer of change at Anfield.
Many familiar faces have left for pastures new – Roberto Firmino, Jordan Henderson and Fabinho (although not confirmed) have headed to Saudi Arabia, James Milner made the move south to Brighton and Naby Keïta is back in Germany with Werder Bremen.
The one area of the side that is so far untouched, is the defence. However, with a new shape impacting how Klopp uses his left-back, and the ageing and declining profiles of both Joël Matip and Virgil van Dijk, there is a clear need for defensive reinforcements in the immediate future.
The Athletic have reported that Liverpool are on the lookout for a central defender this summer – but only one that fits the right profile. That profile is one aged twenty-three or under and wouldn’t command a hefty fee. The ideal situation for the club is bringing in a 'project' centre-back, one that wouldn’t demand to come in and start over van Dijk and Ibrahima Konaté, but one that would be able to make an impact sooner rather than later.
I’ve decided to take a look at some potential options for the club, but before doing that, it’s important to identify what is needed if a defender is to be brought to the club in the coming weeks.
What type of defender do Liverpool need?
In a perfect world the player coming in will be left-footed, and able to cover both the left back position whilst being more naturally a centre back. This would allow Liverpool’s new shape to thrive, as Konaté covers the space vacated by Trent Alexander-Arnold into midfield, van Dijk shepherds the central space and Andy Robertson is asked slot in at left centre back – a role that is not suited to his strengths as a marauding, all-action fullback. This player needs to be comfortable with the ball at their feet and receiving the ball on a consistent basis, they ideally also need to be progressive in their passing (van Dijk usually sits while Konaté is more of a progressive carrier). Lastly – and perhaps most obviously – they need to be a good defender, solid in both ground and aerial duels and positionally always switched on.
The player I’ve just described is essentially Chelsea’s Levi Colwill, a player linked with Liverpool on what seems like a weekly basis. Yet it will be almost impossible to get him out of Stamford Bridge. That leaves Liverpool looking elsewhere, and I’ve identified some names that would make sense for Klopp’s Liverpool.
Castello Lukeba, Olympique Lyonnais (20)
xTV range: €14m – €23.3m*
Lyon’s academy is a talent factory. Year after year they churn out players for the first team. They’re currently going through another golden generation with Malo Gusto (already departed for Chelsea), Bradley Barcola, crown jewel Rayan Cherki and the one we’re going to focus on – centre-back Castello Lukeba. At just twenty years of age, he already has over 50 Ligue 1 appearances in two years. While there is a culture of youth at the club, this is a strong indicator of how highly the Lyon-born defender is considered.
He fits many of the boxes that Liverpool are looking to tick. Top of that list is just how comfortable the France under-21 international is on the ball. He’s an extremely high-volume passer, averaging around 68 per 90 minutes of football (for context, van Dijk averages around 78 in a much more possession dominant side). He’s someone that is always looking to move the ball forwards, shown in his 4.05 progressive passes per 90 – ranking him in the 76th percentile for centre backs in Europe’s top five leagues. He’s also extremely secure in his passing game, completing almost 90% (89.9% to be exact) of his passes.
Off the ball his strength lies with his reading of the game. He ranks in the top 1% of central defenders for interceptions – showing his ability to anticipate and break up attacks. He’s an extremely proactive defender and won’t be afraid to aggressively go after the ball – which obviously has both its pros and cons. One area of concern is his height and aerial ability. At 6ft he is slightly smaller than Liverpool’s average centre back and with a career aerial win percentage win of around 53% it is much lower than central defenders the club typically target.
It's rumoured the defender is available for around £25-30m this summer with RB Leipzig the most likely destination. Given the German clubs repertoire of defenders in recent times – including Liverpool’s Konaté – it may be worth getting in ahead of them this summer.
Gonçalo Inácio, Sporting CP (21)
xTV range: €22m – €36.7m
This – unlike the other two suggestions – is someone that may be familiar to Liverpool fans. Gonçalo Inácio is a name that has been linked to the club over the last few months, due to his form for Sporting and some standout performances in the Europa League.
The 21-year-old has an apparent release clause in his contract of €60m (£51m), although it remains to be seen if the Lisbon giants can be negotiated down from that. While on the more expensive side, Inácio seems fairly tailor made to Liverpool’s new system. Sporting religiously play a three at the back system, with the Almada-born defender often utilised on the left-hand side of the defence. While the out of possession role would be a learning curve, in possession he would slot into what is essentially a similar role to what he’s played in for his current club.
In possession, Inácio is both an adept passer and extremely comfortable in carrying the ball into the midfield areas and beyond. He’s an extremely high-volume passer – more so than Lukeba – with 88.63 per ninety. He’s a much more progressive passer than the Frenchman with 9.04 per 90 (is nearly a full five per 90 more than Liverpool’s most progressive central defender Joël Matip). What stands out in his in-possession play though are his driving runs forward. Despite his long limbs making him look uncoordinated, he’s able to waltz his way through pressing attackers before having the decision making to release the ball.
Just look at Inácio’s heat map, while he can come in and immediately benefit the side from the left, he also provides depth for the right-hand side too.
Giorgio Scalvini, Atalanta (19)
xTV range: €18.9m – €31.6m
Liverpool haven’t tended to have much luck with Italian signings. Andrea Dossena had a week of madness with goals against Real Madrid and Manchester United but not much else, Alberto Aquilani was injured more often than not, and Fabio Borini simply wasn’t good enough. Yet there is very little doubt about Lombardy-born Scalvini’s quality.
This is perhaps a more left-field suggestion (pardon the pun) as Scalvini is the only naturally right footed player on the list. Despite his natural right footedness, the Italian tends to favour the left-hand side of the pitch. That’s where he spent most of last season for Atalanta, but Scalvini offers positional flexibility that the others don’t. He’s as comfortable stepping into midfield as he is in defence and has even covered right-back before. For now, though, he loves to spend time in the wide left area, which is perfect for Liverpool.
His on the ball ability is excellent. While he isn’t as high volume a passer as Inácio and Lukeba, everything that Scalvini does while in possession of the football is with the purpose of moving the ball to the opposition goal. He ranks in the top two percent for centre backs in Europe’s top five leagues for progressive passes (6.09 per 90) and the top 26th percentile for progressive carries per 90 (0.85). Scalvini almost operates as both a defender and midfielder at the same time, almost performing both roles simultaneously in the same game.
The downside to the Italian is that despite his large frame (he’s 6ft 4in), he is not the most aerially dominant (ranking below average in aerial duels won at 1.89 per 90). He can also be quite slow in turning when receiving the ball, and if pressure is applied in this situation and he is caught then it often results in a numerical advantage for the opposition in an attacking situation.
Al three are very different in styles and would offer different things to Liverpool’s backline but would all likely stylistically fit with the LB/LCB role that has been created in this new system. Lukeba offers a left footedness with huge upside in defensive duels and progressive passing. Inácio is probably the most positionally compatible and would allow Liverpool a defender who is adept in both stepping into midfield and long-range passing. Then there’s Scalvini, who probably has the most upside of the three, although it is unlikely that Liverpool would field a backline of all right foot dominant players.
It remains to be seen what will happen in this area, and there is the possibility that the club sit on what they have for a year and reassess the market in 2024. But if they were to go for one this summer, all three of the above could be valuable options.
*xTV = expected transfer value, using Football Transfers' AI powered model to estimate an accurate transfer fee for a given player.