For all his Liverpool deficiencies, Dejan Lovren is actually remembered fondly by Southampton fans as a pacy, reliable, ball-playing defender who surprisingly did very little wrong. Brought to St. Mary’s from French club Lyon for £8.5 million, Lovren’s performances were enough to convince Liverpool to part with £20 million for his services just one year later. The hilarity that is Lovren in the red colors of Liverpool has by now been very well documented, but nevertheless his contribution to the Saints having the sixth meanest defense two seasons ago mustn’t be overlooked.
Last season, Ronald Koeman and the Saints board embarked on the difficult mission of replacing the Croat and their other departed stars with more affordable acquisitions. Lovren was successfully replaced by loanee Toby Alderweireld, with Koeman’s side conceding just 33 goals, only one more than champions Chelsea. Mission complete, but with Southampton unable to retain the services of the Belgian, and time-bomb Maya Yoshida partnering captain Jose Fonte at the heart of defense, Southampton conceded five times in their first two Premier League matches, obtaining just one point along the way.
Something clearly had to give, and Koeman sought the answer north of the border when the services of compatriot Virgil van Dijk were obtained from Celtic. In two seasons in Scotland, the Dutchman forged a reputation as a skillful, reliable goal-scoring center back, tallying 15 goals in all competitions. Celtic’s assistant coach and Scotland great John Collins admitted that he will be greatly missed as he has “a lot in his locker.”
Towering at 6-feet-4-inches, van Dijk is an asset in the air, winning seven aerial duels in his recent man-of-the-match performance against Swansea and five against Chelsea this weekend. In comparison, John Terry and Fonte won just two each on Saturday. His passing skills are also more than decent for a center back, managing an 81% passing accuracy rate against the defending league champions. His strength at set pieces isn’t just heading the crosses in; it’s also taking them. The center back’s stunning free kicks against Dundee and Inverness in April were a joy to watch, with both strikes ending up being the winning goals.
Gary Cahill and John Terry were arguably the best defensive partnership in the Premier League last season, but as they were embarrassed time and time again by Graziano Pelle, Sadio Mane and Dusan Tadic, Jose Mourinho must have cast envious gazes at the Saints’ backline.
The Premier League has actually been lacking of quality defensive performances from center backs this season, with Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld the only center back pairing showing real promise. John Stones, Vincent Kompany and Ashley Williams have impressed at times but injuries have hampered the first two.
With Liverpool and Arsenal comical at the back, Manchester City still unable to find a suitable partner to Kompany and Daley Blind still not convincing entirely as a center back (despite his marvelous passing range), Fonte and van Dijk’s partnership can arguably develop into one of the strongest in England.
It’s still early days but the initial signs look promising. Just ask the beaming Ronald Koeman!
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