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Learning from Van Dijk's move to Liverpool

|| What *that* record transfer can tell us about Harry Maguire's potential move to City ||

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Mark Thompson

Jun 28 2019

8 mins read

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I know that this isn’t the usual Tuesday scheduling, but this thought spun out from this week’s regular newsletter and was too interesting to delay spending time on.

To set the scene: Virgil van Dijk moved from Southampton to Liverpool in January 2018 for £75m, a record for a central defender. Harry Maguire’s rumoured £80m move to Manchester City would break that.

Both are eye-watering sums for central defenders who aren’t/weren’t certainties to succeed. The question: what can I learn from what I thought about Van Dijk pre-transfer (and how his transfer subsequently played out) and apply that to analysing the Maguire situation?

Let’s start this off with one of the reasons I’m sceptical of the Maguire transfer, taken from Tuesday’s newsletter:

[It] isn’t that Maguire is ‘bad’, rather that there are aspects to his decision-making in one-on-one type situations that I find questionable. On the surface, this isn’t necessarily a reason to call off the transfer - everyone has some kind of hole in their game somewhere.

But the thing with City is that I would worry that this is the type of defending that would take up most of Maguire’s workload


(I also mentioned in the piece that Maguire isn’t particularly quick, so we can add that in on top of the one-on-one doubts.)

It’s very rare for a player to go from one club to another and play exactly the same tactical role, and when they move it’s always a bit difficult to know how well they’ll adapt. We’ve all seen transfers happen where a player comes in, disappoints, then leaves and performs well again because they’re back in a role that suits them. What you want to avoid, in transfer policy, is buying players who won’t fit the role you’re buying them for.

Leicester and Manchester City’s centre-backs don’t defend particularly similarly, and stylistic differences have already shown themselves when Maguire is put in an England environment.

Given the difference in defending styles between City’s and Leicester’s centre-backs, then, I’d be concerned about how well Maguire would fit in, but this is where Van Dijk comes in.

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I had similar question marks when the Dutchman’s transfer from Southampton to Liverpool was first rumoured. A scouting video that I did in December 2016 hinted at these doubts (I’ll summarise the key points below if you don’t have five minutes to watch the video).

https://player.vimeo.com/video/197137847?autoplay=0

The key points are: great control of his body, good positional awareness (but was unsure how this would translate to a higher line), but questions around his awareness of striker movement around him.

I think that I assumed he’d have to play a higher, more confrontational style at Liverpool than he was at Southampton, whose system gave their centre-backs a significant amount of protection and sheltering. If this had happened, I’d have been really uncertain about how well Van Dijk would have been able to adapt.

As it turns out, he hasn’t been asked to do that, and the way that he currently plays is part of what makes him so lauded.

Famously, Van Dijk wasn’t dribbled past at all during the 2018/19 Premier League season (according to Opta’s stats). This doesn’t mean that he’s up tackling people at the halfway line and yelling ‘You shall not pass!’; far more often, he’ll wait for forwards to come to him, cruise alongside them, and pick his moment to take the ball away as he forces them to make a decision.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see how Van Dijk’s strengths lend themselves to playing deeper, and this applies to Maguire because it shows that just because a team plays in a way at the moment it doesn’t mean that they will in the future. Maybe the player won’t have to fit the role, maybe the role will be changed to fit the player.

However.

Virgil van Dijk is truly elite at specific parts of his defensive game. I don’t think Maguire is. Letting Van Dijk play to his strengths adds to the team’s defensive capabilities; letting Maguire do so might just be a case of avoiding the downside of playing him in an uncomfortable role.

Maybe the value that Maguire would bring in other areas (on the ball; set-pieces) would be enough to outweigh this. Maybe I’m wrong in the first place about his defensive vulnerabilities!

I broadly trust my gut though, and I think the Van Dijk video from two-and-a-half years ago holds up well enough to back up my credentials (the only part I think I got wrong was his passing, which I was more sceptical of than the hype around it; I think that stemmed partly from a reaction the hype and partly from him having to try and force it at times in a sometimes static Southampton side).

So, I think that we can learn from Van Dijk’s transfer that Maguire might be able to play a similar role at City as he does for Leicester, despite the differences in the current team styles. (Whether this it’s a good idea to buy him and play him in that similar role is another thing.)

The other lesson that we can learn from Van Dijk’s transfer is about the fee. Many, including myself, were uneasy about the amount of money being spent. For £75m, I thought that you would need to be absolutely certain that you were getting a hit, and the difference in team style between Southampton and Liverpool at the time meant that I just couldn’t be certain.

However, the success of Van Dijk (and Alisson) has shown that spending big is worth it to secure the player that you want. In this current age of big money, teams can often afford to spend whatever they need to.

In City’s case this is particularly true thanks to their good squad-building. There aren’t many other places in the team that they need to buy players for, meaning that they can devote more resources to this one transfer.

I’m just still not sure that Maguire is a certainty.

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There are a couple of supplementary thoughts that didn’t fit in anywhere else in the above train of thought.

The first is that part of the price tag will undoubtedly be the fact that Maguire is a homegrown player too. Even before potential Brexit-related restrictions, homegrown player quotas is something clubs have to pay attention to. Tottenham are possibly the most notable example of it affecting a squad.

The second is that if Maguire is allowed to play a more restrained defensive role, then it means that the player alongside him will have to be prepared to be a bit more active (that wouldn’t appear to be a good sign for John Stones).

What amount of game-time everyone would get if Maguire arrived at the Etihad is, in itself, an interested and potentially complicated question.

Maguire is a coveted ‘left-sided centre-back’, but can play on the right too. Aymeric Laporte, the City centre-back people seem to like the most, is a LCB though. Would Maguire play on the right, instead of Stones? How would Stones take that? Surely Maguire wouldn’t be bought for £80m to spend large parts of the season on the bench… A back three maybe?

On Stones, too, it’s worth noting that he’s the current City centre-back who’s most similar to Maguire in his tendency to shy away from one-on-ones rather than diving in. Stones hasn’t exactly nailed down his place in the starting line-up since joining in 2016, partly for performance reasons, but one wonders whether it’s also a stylistic difficulty.

Nicolas Otamendi may also take the signing as a cue to leave, which would leave the fourth slot open to, um…

The final thing to say is that City’s transfer dealing has been so good in the past couple of years that I’m prepared to give them a fairly large benefit of the doubt on this whole thing, assuming that the interest really is genuine. Unlike their city neighbours, they don’t seem like a club wildly throwing money around, and if they’re after a player then it seems like it would be for a good reason.

There’s also the fact that City are currently advertising for a specific set-piece analyst intern. Maguire’s threat from set-pieces was clear at the World Cup last year. This is pure speculation on my part but maybe, just maybe, the prospect of Maguire tipped the balance towards making a position entirely devoted to this area (although not tipping the balance enough to make the position a more long-term, financially rewarding one…)

Finally finally, the morning after I wrote the first draft of this, friend of the newsletter Grace Robertson (who also has a great TV and film newsletter here) had tweets eerily similar to what I’d been writing the night before:

Without doing a proper, fully-researched deep dive into this I don’t want to comment either way, but it’s an interesting thing to end on.

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