Who is the next great ball-playing central defender?

There's more than one way to succeed as a central defender. You have the enforcers, determined to let every pretty-boy CF know that he's been in a game of football. Then you have the aerial specialists, charging up the pitch to the opposition's box on every free kick. Some are hypnotists, expertly reading the play and then diverting each onrushing forward with a series of subtle physical cues until he finds himself utterly befuddled at the end of a blind alley. And then there are the central defenders who populate the dreams of every Cruyff and Beckenbauer disciple – the defenders who, as many a coach will say with a satisfied smile, will "get us playing."

These CBs have a preternatural calm on the ball, glad to carry it forward themselves or to pick the pass that will elicit knowing nods from the anoraks in the crowd. Ajax seems to have a production line for these fellows, and we can see some similarities among their a few of their most successful exports:

We selected two of the most effective seasons for Tottenham's Dutch pairing of Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, and the breakout season at Ajax for Matthijs de Ligt, now of Juventus. All three had a ton of dribbles and link-up passing. The Spurs CBs also contributed some more direct passing. Vertonghen, though he's 32 now and on his way out of North London in the summer, is still the best in duels.

So can we find more players who fit this profile? We did a simple "Search by metrics" where we set some arbitrary minimums for defending quality and ball retention at a Premier League standard (40+ on each). We also looked for a lot of dribbling and link-up play (60+ on each). And just to make sure we hit some minimum standards, we went for 20+ on attacking output and defending quantity. And oh yeah – using a Pro tool, we narrowed the field exclusively to smarterscout young prospects. These were the results at LCB:

Some of these guys haven't played many minutes, so we should take their selection with a grain of salt. But Nicolo Casale and Luis Segovia are surely worth a look, having both played plenty of minutes. The blue-chip options are pretty well known, and naturally they include an entrant from Ajax: Lisandro Martinez, the Argentine who has also starred at DM for the Dutch side. Let's shift to RCB:

This is where Edmond Tapsoba, the Burkinabe international, saw most of his minutes before a January move to Bayer Leverkusen – and where Nino played every minute for Fluminense in the 2019 Brasilerao (except for the two matches when he was suspended). We took a look at CCBs as well, but the only one who showed up was Dayot Upamecano, again.

Now for the nitty-gritty. How do these talented youngsters stack up against each other? Again using a Premier League standard for all of them, so we're comparing apples to apples as much as possible, here's a side-by-side comparison:

Alessandro Bastoni and Upamecano are operating at an extremely high level in their respective leagues. Though it's hard to fault Bastoni's overall defending – a full Italy cap is surely in his future – he's not as good in the air as the Frenchman. We don't have enough data on Tapsoba to rate him in duels (at least, we don't usually present preliminary ratings on our site), but his style fits the ball-playing profile really well, and his model ratings are very good as well. Given that it will probably take upwards of €50m to bring either Upamecano or Bastoni to another club, Leverkusen will surely feel that €18m for Tapsoba was a snip.

[Photo: Steffen Proessdorf]

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