The Hard Tackle takes a closer look at the plethora of central defenders linked with Manchester United and assesses who could make the switch to Old Trafford.
The summer transfer window may still be quite a few months away but the rumour mill is already abuzz with speculations, some very plausible, some outright laughable.
Manchester United, as is the case leading up to and during every transfer window, seem to be linked with almost every other player doing well for his respective club. Heading into the summer, the Red Devils will be needing some major investment as they look to take the next big step in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s rebuild and add trophies to the progress they’ve achieved so far.
A new centre-forward is set to be on the top of the list for Manchester United with Anthony Martial struggling and Edinson Cavani facing an uncertain future. The right wing problem will again be something that could be looked at while the question marks over Paul Pogba and Donny van de Beek could lead to interest in a central midfielder as well.
But a lot of the talk has been surrounding the potential arrival of a new centre-half as Solskjaer scours the market for an ideal long-term defensive partner for captain Harry Maguire and understandably so. Manchester United have conceded 32 goals in the 29 Premier League games this term (1.10 goals per game). In contrast, they shipped only 36 in 38 games last season (0.94 per game).
There has been a run of clean sheets over the past month or so but the result against Leicester City in the FA Cup highlighted how sloppy things can get at the back for the 20-time English champions. Maguire, for all his defensive nous and physicality, lacks mobility which leaves him exposed against anyone with pace.
Victor Lindelof, on the other hand, has had the problem of not being able to match up with powerful, strong centre-forwards throughout his stint at Old Trafford, something that has affected him this season as well. Then there’s Eric Bailly, who looks top-notch when fit but is out on the treatment tables more often than not.
Furthermore, Bailly is set to enter the final year of his contract with Manchester United and has reservations over signing a new one, leading to the possibility of the club deciding to cash in on him in the summer. And with Axel Tuanzebe still lacking the requisite experience at the highest level, a new top-quality centre-back becomes a necessary addition for United.
A number of defenders ranging from Kalidou Koulibaly of Napoli to Fiorentina’s Nikola Milenkovic have been linked. However, a recent report from 90min.com is now saying that Manchester United have narrowed in on two priority targets for the summer in the form of Sevilla’s Jules Kounde along with Pau Torres of Villarreal.
Apart from the two La Liga defenders, the report also states that the 20-time English champions are also considering four other centre-backs – Caglar Soyuncu (Leicester City), Manuel Akanji (Borussia Dortmund), David Carmo (SC Braga) and Benoit Badiashile (AS Monaco), with the club said to be scouting all six defenders extensively.
Here, The Hard Tackle evaluates what the aforementioned defender could bring to the table at Old Trafford and assesses the probability of them making the switch to the Theatre of Dreams in the summer.
Starting off with the priority targets for Manchester United, Jules Kounde is a player who they got a good look at when Sevilla eliminated them from the UEFA Europa League semi-finals last season. And, having played a key role in their triumph in Europe, the Frenchman has only grown from strength to strength in the current season.
A force to be reckoned with in aerial as well as ground duels, Kounde oozes confidence and composure on the ball and can carry it out from the back effortlessly, play it forward through the lines or hit the long diagonals out to the wide players. This term, the Frenchman has completed 64.8 passes per ninety minutes, 27.9 of those being forward passes.
Kounde, at 22, will only continue to get better with experience, already has exposure to European football and has got the taste of trophies as well. Throw in his all-round abilities and Manchester United would have an ideal partner for Harry Maguire, considering that he has an impressive recovery pace which should go along well with the Red Devils’ skipper.
The only problem for a deal going through would be the £70 million release clause, which Manchester United are unwilling to meet given that they need to strengthen in other positions as well. So, a deal as much as it would appeal to Solskjaer & co. might not go through unless Sevilla lower their asking price for the 22-year-old. Recent reports have claimed that £50 million could be enough to strike a deal, though.
Transfer Probability: 7/10
A product of the Villarreal academy, 2019/20 season saw Torres enjoy a breakthrough campaign with the first-team after impressing away on loan at Malaga the previous campaign and he has never looked back since. Comparable to someone like Manchester City’s Aymeric Laporte in his style of play, the 24-year-old has swiftly established himself as one of the most reliable centre-halves in La Liga.
Possessing good game-reading abilities, Torres has posted 5.9 ball recoveries every 90 minutes this season – a tally only bettered by Manuel Akanji (6) on this list. The Spanish international offers a solid presence in the air but the most pleasing aspect of his game is his distribution from the back, with Torres completing 56.5 passes per 90 minutes at an impressive accuracy of 87.84%.
Add to it, his pace – last season Torres was La Liga’s fastest defender as per data compiled by La Razon, having clocked a top speed of 34.9km/h. Throw in the fact that he is a left-footed player, he might have the slightest of advantages over someone like Jules Kounde or Akanji, both right-footed, with Solskjaer desperate to add a natural left-sided centre-half.
Torres’ release clause stands at £50 million but Villarreal are open to doing business at a lower fee if a player, their former defender Eric Bailly in particular, is offered in exchange. Given as the Ivorian’s contract expires in a year and his reluctance to pen a new deal, such a move would definitely appeal to Manchester United. And, Torres, too, seems keen on a switch to Old Trafford as per recent reports, making this the likeliest deal to go through.
Transfer Probability: 8/10
A Premier League proven defender, Soyuncu has been with Leicester City since 2018 but it was not until last season that he got an extended run in the side. Having replaced Harry Maguire as the starting centre-back alongside Jonny Evans following the Englishman’s record move to Manchester United, the Turkish international has ensured that the Foxes have not missed Maguire at all.
Even though he has had troubles with injury this term, the 24-year-old has looked rock solid when on the field, building from what was an exceptional 2019/20 term which played a key role in Leicester securing a top-six finish. A towering presence at the back, Soyuncu offers decent quality on the ball as well, which would aid United’s attempts in playing out from the back.
However, any chance of a transfer to Old Trafford looks nigh on impossible in the summer. Leicester, having already sold one of their top defenders to Manchester only a couple of years ago, would be reluctant to do so again. Even if such a possibility arises, the Foxes are likely to demand a premium transfer fee again, like they did with Maguire.
Given the current financial climes as well as the fact that multiple areas need to be strengthened, United would be reluctant to shell out a huge fee on a single defender alone.
Transfer Probability 3/10
An interesting option for Manchester United, the Borussia Dortmund man has had a solid season so far even though his team haven’t been performing to the best of their abilities. Having been with the Bundesliga outfit since January 2018, when he signed from FC Basel, Akanji has shown a steady improvement in his game with every passing season.
In the ongoing campaign, though, he has been in terrific form. A strong, tall unit physically, Akanji can be an imposing presence at both ends of the pitches. Throw in his game-reading ability and defensive nous, he shores up things at the back solidly.
At the same time, Akanji is a technically sound player and can play out from the back comfortably. This season, he has completed 80.7 passes every 90 minutes (87.5 attempted), 31.8 of those being forward passes – both being the best by any player on this list – along with five long passes. With his experience of playing in Europe with Dortmund, in an all-round sense, he would tick a lot of boxes for Manchester United.
A transfer going through also has a strong possibility given as Akanji is set to enter the final year of his contract with Dortmund. With the Bundesliga giants staring at the possibility of missing out on the UEFA Champions League, they could be forced into offloading players while the defender himself would be keen on testing himself at the highest level.
Transfer Probability: 7/10
The youngest defender on the list, at 20, Benoit Badiashile has established himself as a mainstay at the back for AS Monaco and is someone that Manchester United have tried to sign in the past. A product of the Monaco academy, the centre-half has gone on to make 76 appearances for the Ligue 1 outfit, 30 of which have come in the ongoing season.
Indeed, Badiashile has missed just one of Monaco’s 30 Ligue 1 games this term, impressing with the maturity that he has shown belying his young age. At 1.94 m, he too can be an imposing presence at the back while his age means there’s still room for him to develop further physically as well. This season, the Frenchman has won 3.5 aerial duels per 90 minutes.
Despite being a bit rough around the edges, Badiashile has demonstrated plenty of positive attributes on the ball as well, completing 26.8 forward passes and 6 long passes every 90 minutes. The drawback, however, for Manchester United would be the lack of experience at the highest level, given that he has played just two Champions League games in his career so far.
Badiashile signed a new contract with Monaco about fifteen months ago, extending his stay at the club till 2024. So, Monaco would be in a strong negotiating position if Manchester United do make a move for him. And the fact that manager Niko Kovac rates him very highly and does not want to sell him would make the prospect of a transfer unlikely.
Transfer Probability: 5/10
A defender that has grown through the youth ranks at SC Braga, whom he joined in 2017, 21-year-old David Carmo has been hailed as the next best defensive prodigy coming through in Portugal. Having broken into the first-team in January last year, the giant of a centre-back, standing at 1.96m, has gone on to make 40 appearances so far for Braga.
21 of those 40 appearances came in the 2020/21 season before his campaign was cut short by an ankle fracture back in February. Prior to that though, Carmo had been in good nick, demonstrating solid defensive abilities coupled with composure and quality on the ball. Indeed, the 21-year-old completed 1.8 tackles per 90 minutes this term in the league while also playing 8.1 successful long balls.
Carmo’s quality has attracted interest not only from Manchester United but the likes of Liverpool and Real Madrid as well. In fact, the Portuguese centre-half was close to completing a January transfer deadline day move to Anfield, as per his manager Carlos Carvalhal. That should provide an indicator of the potential that he possesses.
— SPORT TV (@SPORTTVPortugal) February 10, 2021
But the serious injury he picked up, which happened at a very inopportune moment for the youngster, could put paid to any hopes of a summer exit. While a promising prospect, Manchester United are likely to hold off on his pursuit and see how he recuperates from the injury instead of pushing for his signing immediately so that they don’t end up with another Eric Bailly situation.
Transfer Probability: 5/10
Stats Courtesy: Squawka.com