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

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

December 29, 2023

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. 

In this article, I have decided to give defenders a dedicated, detailed look and write about the most expensive ones in the history of football. Here is a list of the top 10. Let’s see how they have fared.

Note: the ranking, the transfer fees, and the player stats have all been sourced from Transfermarkt. Content updated as of December 2023.

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

10. Marc Cucurella

Moved from Brighton & Hove Albion FC to Chelsea FC in August 2022 for €65.3 million (deal reportedly worth £55 million at the time as per UK outlets, with potential to rise up to £62 million)

Marc Cucurella’s one-year spell in the Premier League for the Seagulls was sufficient to convince the new Chelsea ownership to move for him in the summer of 2022. A well-rounded player, Cucurella can occupy almost all left-sided roles on the pitch — be it a midfielder or a centre-back. The ongoing turmoil at Chelsea means few players have stood out or justified the hefty price tags paid for them, and Cucurella is no exception, though given he is still just 25 years old with many years left on his contract, there’s enough time for this move to come good.

9. Matthijs de Ligt

Moved from Juventus FC to FC Bayern Munich in July 2022 for €67 million

That Matthijs de Ligt features on this list twice just shows how very highly he has been rated ever since going pro. With injury struggles, he may have struggled to show at a regressing Juventus the same brilliance he demonstrated on the pitch during his Ajax days, but he collected just enough plaudits for the Old Lady—and not to forget that he was still only 23 when this move came about—to be able to recoup a fair bit of the amount they shelled out for him.

The Bayern defence has not become impregnable with De Ligt’s addition — so far. Injuries still keep him away from the starting XI quite frequently, though he looks sound in his game every time he does take to the pitch. If he manages to shake off his injuries issues for good, De Ligt will find himself not too far from the heights he was destined for as a teenager. In fact, do not rule out the possibility of him earning a third entry on this list in the near future.

8. Achraf Hakimi

Moved from Inter Milan to Paris Saint-Germain FC in July 2021 for €68 million

Given how long he’s been around for and the teams he has already represented, it’s remarkable that Achraf Hakimi is still only 25. It was quite the financial win for Inter when they moved him on to PSG just a year after bringing him over to Italy from Real Madrid, pocketing around €25 million in profits.

Defensively sound as a right-wingback and exquisite going forward, Hakimi has shone everywhere he’s been. Much like De Ligt, he’s another one who could go on to have multiple entries on this list.

7. Rúben Dias

Moved from SL Benfica to Manchester City FC in September 2020 for €71.6 million (deal reportedly worth £61.64 million at the time as per UK outlets, with Nicolás Otamendi going the other way for £10.64 million)

In becoming Man City’s most expensive signing, Rúben 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 early in the 2020/21 season, 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 centre-back pairing in the league, helping City catapult to the top of the table and comfortably secure the title, while picking up for himself the FWA Footballer of the Year, Manchester City’s Player of the Season, and the Premier League Player of the Season awards in the process.

The 2019/20 season saw the Cityzens rue the absence of Vincent Kompany, whose void Dias has gone on to fill as seamlessly as anyone could. Dias has at least a decade of playing at the highest level ahead of him, and yet we can safely call this move a resounding success.

6. Lucas Hernández

Moved from Atlético de Madrid to FC Bayern Munich in July 2019 for €80 million

Probably the most lukewarm entry in this list. A graduate of Atlético Madrid’s youth setup, Hernández 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 the German Bundesliga’s — at-the-time transfer record to bring him to Bavaria.

Hernández’ strengths lie in his versatility. He is reasonably quick, 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-back positions between themselves, reducing the Frenchman’s chances for the season (25 apps; 1,119 mins). The second season, however, saw the minutes increase (37 apps; 2,691 mins), and David Alaba’s move to Real Madrid offered Hernández the chance he was looking for to get into the starting XI. Next season, he played 2,700 minutes of football across 34 appearances. The season after that, however, he sustained a cruciate ligament tear in November that knocked him out until the end of the season, effectively ending his Bayern career as well.

Ahead of the 2023/24 season, Bayern moved Hernández on to PSG in a €45m deal. So far, he has proved to be a crucial part of Luis Enrique’s plan, so it’s safe to say that the move worked out for all parties. Given the fact that Bayern managed to recoup roughly half of the price they paid for the now 27-year-old after getting four seasons out of him, I’d describe his time at Bayern with the very word I used at the beginning: lukewarm.

5. Wesley Fofana

Moved from Leicester City FC to Chelsea FC in August 2022 for €80.4 million (deal reportedly worth £70 million plus £5 million in add-ons at the time as per UK outlets)

Make no mistake — Wesley Fofana is a phenomenal talent. But it’s very hard to make a case for either the amount Chelsea paid Leicester City for him or the seven-year contract they offered him.

Fofana arrived at Leicester City in 2020 from French side Saint-Étienne, spending two years at the King Power during Brendan Rodgers’ heyday that resulted in the Foxes winning an FA Cup, an FA Community Shield and twice almost qualifying for the Champions League. However, after a very promising debut season in which he established himself as one of the most exciting prospects in the league, Fofana suffered a broken fibula during a pre-season friendly in the summer of 2021 which sidelined him for the better part of the 2021/22 season. When he returned in the second half of that season, he made only 12 appearances in total.

As they did with Harry Maguire before him, Leicester City set an unreasonably-high price tag for Fofana when Chelsea came calling in the summer of 2022. Much like Manchester United, however, the new Blues ownership complied and paid the fees, leaving Leicester with little reason to keep the Frenchman.

Fofana featured sporadically in his debut season for Chelsea, making 20 appearances for them across all competitions. However, early in the 2023 pre-season, Fofana suffered an anterior cruciate ligament tear that is currently keeping him out for the better part of this season.

At 23 years of age, Fofana’s talent is undeniable, but he has already sustained two big injuries — each on its own capable of ending a player’s career in a worst-case scenario. If Chelsea’s decision to pay north of €80 million for him looked dicey at the time, it looks even worse now. The young man will require a lot of patience now only from himself but also his surroundings as he works towards a full recovery, and hopefully in time he may be able to set himself up for a scintillating career. But odds are stacked heavily against Chelsea as far as their chances of being able to consider this move a sure success are concerned.

4. Virgil van Dijk

Moved from Southampton FC to Liverpool FC in January 2018 for €84.65 million (deal reportedly worth £75 million at the time as per UK outlets)

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. The Dutchman 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 Liverpool had the final two pieces of the Jürgen Klopp jigsaw that could take them to silverware glory.

For his performances in the 2018/19 season, which 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). He would go on to again prove crucial in Liverpool ending their three-decade-long search for the league title the season after.

Van Dijk 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 in October 2020 made him the biggest loss in an array of injuries that derailed Liverpool’s title defence that season. He managed to fully recover from that in time, though many would say that he is no longer at his peak.

Now 32, it is arguable that Van Dijk’s best days are behind him, though what we currently see from him is not bad in the slightest. That probably tells you all you need to know about how good Van Dijk has been at Liverpool. Therefore, despite this move being on the pricier side, given the turn of fortunes it has gone on to bring for Liverpool, it’s hard to not call it a success.

3. Matthijs de Ligt

Moved from AFC Ajax to Juventus FC in July 2019 for €85.5 million

De Ligt had been a precocious talent ever since he arrived onto the scene. He was part of that Ajax side that made it to the semi-finals of the Champions League in the 2018/19 season — a side that has since been picked apart, piece by piece.

The Dutchman had a lot of suitors by the end of that 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. He never truly managed to dislodge either of them, however, and was moved on to Bayern in the summer of 2022, as Juve’s financial misgivings made them look at De Ligt as a key asset they could use to generate funds.

Suffice it to say, De Ligt did not uproot any trees in Turin, though given that Juve managed to recoup most of the money they spent on him makes it hard to call this move a complete failure.

2. Harry Maguire

Moved from Leicester City FC to Manchester United FC in August 2019 for €87 million (deal reportedly worth £78.30 million at the time as per UK outlets)

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

Maguire is a good player for whom Man United overpaid by a lot — of this there is little doubt. But that’s not to say Maguire never played well for United. In his first two seasons at the club, he was not only the best defender but also a crucial cog in Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s machine. His stock at the end of the Euros in 2021 was at an all-time high, though United’s transfer shenanigans and tactical inadequacies ahead of the 2021/22 season primed them for a year of devastative defensive demonstrations, and a blend of high price tag and a mild-tempered personality made Maguire an easy target. Very soon, he found himself stuck in a “bad performance results in vitriolic criticism results in worsened morale resulting in bad performance” loop that he failed to get out of all season. In the 2022/23 season, the tactical preferences of new manager Erik ten Hag wrong-footed Maguire in more ways than one. The loop persisted. By the time June 2023 rolled around, consensus dictated that it was in the best interests of both United and Maguire to part ways.

Maguire had a different plan, however. Stripped of the team’s captaincy and having lost his berth in the starting XI, a move to West Ham United in the works, and England manager Gareth Southgate having made it clear to him that not getting regular minutes in club football could cost him his spot at the Euros in 2024, Maguire chose to stay at United and fight for a spot. To his credit, once he got his opportunity on the back of United sustaining an array of injuries, Maguire proved to be much more capable in performing the role he was struggling in the season before.

And that’s where we are at the moment. Maguire has mildly resuscitated his reputation amid United going through another topsy-turvy season. Justifying Man United spending £80 million on him shall forever remain an unenviable task, though they might still be able to reap some returns.

1. Joško Gvardiol

Moved from RB Leipzig to Manchester City FC in August 2023 for €90 million (deal reportedly worth £77 million at the time as per UK outlets)

Man City understandably decided not to pursue Harry Maguire in 2019 given Leicester City’s £80m price tag, though they required little persuasion four years later to go for it when a chance to pick up Joško Gvardiol arrived for the same amount of money.

And it’s hard to argue against their call. Barely 22 years old, Gvardiol is already one of the best defenders in Europe. His positional awareness in defensive situations and composure on the ball already make him a solid player; what he could grow into under Pep Guardiola’s tutelage makes him a scary prospect.

Whether he stays at City his entire career or moves elsewhere, Gvardiol looks already on his way to reaching the highest of heights, which makes calling this move a likely success easier than many of the others on this list.

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

Anshuman Joshi

Anshuman Joshi is a senior writer at SportsKhabri with special focus towards all things football. His other interests include languages, world history and some good fiction.

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