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A look back on football’s most expensive defenders of all time

10 mins read

When we talk of the most expensive signings, defenders usually get left out. After all, they’re usually not the ones banging in the big goals and stealing away the big headlines. That, however, has changed in recent seasons, and there has been a shift in the way defenders are regarded, which has also led to exponentially increased price tags. Hence, we have decided to give them a dedicated, detailed look and write about the most expensive defenders in the history of football. Here is a list of the top 10. Let’s see how they have fared.

 

10. Aaron Wan-Bissaka

Moved from Crystal Palace to Manchester United in June 2019 for £49.50m.

Manchester United raised a lot of eyebrows when they brought in a 21-year-old Wan-Bissaka to Old Trafford in the summer of 2019. After all, he had had all but one senior year with Crystal Palace. But two years down the line, the Englishman continues to show why he was the right choice for the Red Devils.

Converted to a right-back from a right-wing position under Roy Hodgson, Wan-Bissaka exploded onto the scene with his tackling in the solitary year he played for Palace, which ended in him winning the club’s Player of the Year Award. He has built on that in his two years at Old Trafford. While his first season saw him emerge as already one of the best tacklers in the world, the second season saw him improve upon his attacking output, driving upwards more and contributing with the link-up play and crosses down the right-hand side, which was further required of him given United’s inertness in attack down that side. His injury-free profile has seen him already rack up 100 appearances for United in two seasons.

Of course, compared to his other young compatriots – Reece James and Trent Alexander-Arnold – Aaron yet leaves a lot to be desired. He’s often found out with his lack of positional awareness and often comes off as someone lacking creativity going forward. Yet, at just 23, his game has continued to grow season after season. If the past three years are anything to go by, Wan-Bissaka looks set to cement his reputation as one of the most reliable fullbacks in the coming years.

 

Also Read – A look back on football’s most expensive goalkeepers of all time

 

9. John Stones

Moved from Everton to Manchester City in August 2016 for £50.04m.

Stones has divided opinion for the majority of his Man City career. City signed a 22-year-old Stones in 2016 and made him the second most expensive defender ever after David Luiz (Chelsea -> PSG in 2014; £50m). Since then, despite playing a crucial role in City’s three league-winning campaigns, his affinity for mishaps and frequent lapses of confidence have established that despite being a technically gifted, ball-playing centre-back, Stones lacks aggression and physicality, which requires him to be paired up with a leadership figure that can complement his personality.

The departure of Vincent Kompany from Man City affected players all over the pitch, but none more so than Stones, whose City career at one point looked all but over. But the timely arrival of Rúben Dias not only flipped City’s fortunes, but also the Englishman’s.

The first COVID lockdown of the UK gave Stones – much like everyone else – a chance to take a step back and re-evaluate his situation. His professional life was not helped by his personal struggles, for he had been embroiled in a legal battle against his ex – Millie Savage, separated December 2018 – for the custody of his daughter. The lockdown gave him the breathing room to build himself back up again, both mentally and physically.

At the start of the 2020-21 season, Eric García started sounding alarms with his wish to return to Barcelona, leaving Pep Guardiola to look elsewhere for long-term options. When Dias arrived, he was initially paired with Aymeric Laporte, who was regarded as City’s best defender at the time. Stones, however, took his opportunities in the Champions League group stages, signalling he was ready, so when City lost 2-0 to Spurs in November, Pep brought Stones back to pair with Dias; City didn’t look back after that. The title-winning side finished with 86 points (12 clear off second-placed Man Utd), having conceded 32 goals (fewest) and maintained 19 clean sheets (most).

With the upcoming season, Stones enters the final year of his City contract, but there’s no doubt regarding the revival of his reputation as one of the most effective defenders at the moment. If last season’s performances are anything to go by, he will very likely get himself a contract extension that will take him well into his 30s.

 

8. Benjamin Mendy

Moved from AS Monaco to Manchester City in July 2017 for £51.75m.

Mendy was snapped up by City after one season with Monaco in which he lit up Ligue 1 as Les Monégasques went about winning the league that season. However, even after four years at the Etihad, the Frenchman has failed to cement a place in the starting lineup. This is mostly down to his physical fitness, which he has thoroughly struggled with in his time in England, having already missed 124 matches with regular knee and other muscular niggles.

Fitness issues aside, there is absolutely no doubt regarding Mendy’s talent. A brilliant crosser of the ball, Mendy’s happy-going attitude also fits him in nicely into the dressing room. However, in his absence, City are left to rely on the likes of João Cancelo (right-back), Nathan Aké (centre-back) or Oleksandr Zinchenko (midfielder), all of whom are very reliable options but aren’t out-and-out left backs. Going into the 2021-22 season, City are already reported to be looking for a new left-back, and with two years left on Mendy’s contract, they wouldn’t be averse to letting him go if the right offer presented itself.

 

Also Read – A look back on football’s most expensive player transfers of all time

 

7. Aymeric Laporte

Moved from Athletic Bilbao to Manchester City in January 2018 for £58.50m.

Laporte arrived at City midway through the 2017-18 season. Despite enjoying what would eventually end up being their best-ever campaign under Pep Guardiola, City were facing injury issues at the back, leading the hierarchy to move in for Laporte in the winter to fix the issue. Immediately, the former Bilbao man slotted into the backline and became one of the best defenders in the league.

Despite his reliable performances, Laporte has also had moderate issues with recurring injuries, having missed 48 games in the past three-and-a-half years because of them. He was also toppled off the starting lineup last season with the emergence of the Dias-Stones partnership. But at 27, Laporte’s reputation as a sure-footed elite centre-back is well established. With four years left on his City contract, and having recently switched his nationality from French to Spanish, Laporte continues to be on the right track.

 

6. João Cancelo

Moved from Juventus to Manchester City in August 2019 in a cash-plus-player deal with Danilo going the other way £33.30m; overall evaluation – £58.50m.

Cancelo moved to City in 2019 after just one season with Juventus. Having been earmarked as an exciting prospect since his Benfica days, it wasn’t until his second season with the Cityzens that his true potential actually started bearing fruit. He might not be the best traditional fullback, but his technical abilities make him one of the best options – if not the best – to work in a Pep Guardiola side. Those technical abilities were exactly what Pep exploited last season as he tweaked his system to integrate Cancelo more into the build-up play, having him move inwards into the midfield from his fullback perch.

With four years left on his City contract, we’re likely to see Cancelo feature even more heavily in the coming seasons, especially as long as Guardiola presides over the squad.

 

5. Rúben Dias

Moved from SL Benfica to Manchester City in September 2020 for £61.20m. Nicolás Otamendi went the other way for £13.50m.

In becoming City’s most expensive signing, Dias also proved to be the game-changer who’d play the pivotal role of turning his team’s fortunes around. Arriving just after the Sky Blues’ 5-2 thumping at the hands of Leicester City, the Portugal international went straight into a backline that was crying for some reinforcement and immediately slotted in, as if he had been playing there for years. With John Stones, he formed the most formidable partnership in the league, helping City catapult to the top of the table and comfortably secure the title, while himself being crowned the FWA Footballer of the Year, Manchester City’s Player of the Season, and the Premier League Player of the Season.

If you see him play, you’d almost be forgiven to not realise how young he is. Despite only being 24, his precocious persona and composed style of play means City chose the right player to break their transfer record for. The 2019-20 season saw the Cityzens rue the absence of Vincent Kompany, but if Dias’ last season is anything to go by, they already look to have secured a long-term replacement for their former leader.

 

Also Read – TOP 10 CENTRE-BACKS IN THE WORLD RIGHT NOW

 

4. Lucas Hernández

Moved from Atlético Madrid to Bayern Munich in July 2019 for £72m.

Probably the most lukewarm entry in this list thus far. A graduate of Atlético Madrid’s youth setup, Lucas spent the first five years of his senior career with Los Colchoneros before some scintillating performances in his final years at the club, including his World Cup-winning run with France, convinced Bayern to break their – and Bundesliga’s – transfer record to bring him to Bavaria.

Lucas’ strengths lie in his versatility. He’s reasonably quick, is good on the ball, and offers adequate physicality to be able to work both as a centre-back and a left-back. His first year at Bayern (the 2019-20 season) saw him struggle with fitness, as an ankle injury took him out in October for three months (14 games); by the time he came back, David Alaba and Alphonso Davies had secured the left-sided centre-back and left-backs positions between themselves, reducing his chances for the season (25 apps; 1,119 mins). The second season, however, saw the minutes increase (37 apps; 2,691 mins), and now that David Alaba has moved on to Real Madrid and Bayern look to revamp their defensive setup for the next season, the 25-year-old has the perfect platform to establish himself as a regular in the starting lineup.

 

3. Virgil van Dijk

Moved from Southampton to Liverpool in January 2018 for £76.19m.

This is the one that proved that big-money transfers, if executed properly, can also turn out to be absolute bargains.

Then of Southampton, van Dijk had been a long-term target of Liverpool, but his huge price tag kept putting the Reds off. However, when Philippe Coutinho’s move to Barça came through, it gave Liverpool the funds to take the punt on the guy they were convinced was the correct answer for their frantic defence.

And it didn’t take long for them to be proved right. Virgil immediately established himself as the best defender in the side, and quickly rose to become one of the very best in the world. The arrival of goalkeeper Alisson Becker in the very next transfer window meant both he and Virgil were the final two pieces of the Jürgen Klopp jigsaw that finally took Liverpool to silverware glory.

For his performances in the 2018-19 season, that saw Liverpool win the Champions League and finish second in the Premier League, van Dijk won the PFA Players’ Player of the Year, the UEFA Men’s Player of the Year, and also came a close second in the Ballon d’Or rankings (behind Leo Messi).

Virgil not only has a remarkably cool and composed personality, his ability to read the game and lead his side from the back, coupled with some deceptive pace, makes him near impervious on an average day. The anterior cruciate knee ligament injury he suffered in the Merseyside Derby last October made him the biggest loss in an array of injuries that derailed Liverpool’s title defence. Now, about to turn 30, he has returned to light training, and if all goes to plan, he should be ready for the start of the upcoming season. If we were to guess, we’d say it won’t take him long to return to his usual best.

 

2. Matthijs de Ligt

Moved from AFC Ajax to Juventus in July 2019 for £76.95m.

Despite still being only 21, de Ligt has half-a-decade’s worth of experience on the senior level thanks to his precocious talent. He was part of that Ajax side that made it to the semi-finals of the Champions League two seasons ago – a side that still continue to be picked apart, piece by piece.

The Dutchman had a lot of suitors by the end of the 2018-19 season, but was ultimately snapped up by Juventus as they looked to find a long-term answer for the ageing Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci. Two years down the line, de Ligt is yet to dismantle the two from the starting birth, but in his time at the club, despite an average first season, he has continued to improve and get more game time, as he grows into the role asked of him to prevail in this side with big expectations. Neither Bonucci nor Chiellini is getting any younger, and with Max Allegri back the club – the guy who saw his Juve side get knocked out by de Ligt’s Ajax in the UCL two years ago – the 21-year-old Dutchman has both time and fortune in his corner pounce on the opportunities he gets and become the great defender everyone expects him to become.

 

1. Harry Maguire

Moved from Leicester City to Manchester United in August 2019 for £78.30m.

Maguire’s hefty price tag does a lot of heavy lifting in driving the general opinion on the 28-year-old. The Englishman had been a target of Man United since the summer of 2018, when Leicester were demanding a fee in the region of £45m for his services. In response, United decided to duly reject that offer and return the year after to pay twice that amount – an amount that turned many heads, since it made Harry the most expensive defender in the history of football.

Unquestionably, Harry Maguire is a fantastic defender. His physicality, spatial awareness and ability to drive the ball up the pitch tell you why Man City were also keen on him, before turning away because of the price tag. In his two years at United, Maguire has not only continued to build on his defensive nous, he has also grown to become a veritable leader from the back. But he isn’t without his flaws. While being defensively sound, Maguire is relatively slow on the turn, and since he is primarily paired with a defender that doesn’t complement his style of play (Victor Lindelöf), Maguire’s many strengths often end up leaving United vulnerable.

Now 28, Maguire’s importance to his sides – both Man United and the England national team – has been felt more than ever, now that he has spent over a month out with an ankle injury. Before that, he had played every single minute for Man United, managing to rack up over a hundred appearances in just under two years. In his absence has become apparent all the good that he brings to the team. As he returns to action for England in the ongoing Euros, we should expect him to continue building on his fitness ahead of the start of next season, so that he returns to the United starting XI with his newfound reputation.

Numbers Source
Transfer fees – Wikipedia
Playing stats – Transfermarkt

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