It’s said that defences win championships. There is no doubt when you look at every Premier League-winning side you’ll find a central defender or two of great repute.
However, a great centre-back can do wonders for those battling at the bottom, just as much as having a serial goalscorer.
With the winter transfer window open, expect to see incredible business as clubs up and down the Premier League seek an improvement on what they have. For some, it’s aiming for the greatest prize, while for others just consolidating their league status is paramount.
Goals win games but oft-forgotten is the importance of keeping them out. Central defenders are now just as valuable as playmakers, wingers or centre-forwards. It’s why Manchester United, for example, are willing to break the bank for Napoli’s colossus Kalidou Koulibaly.
He is a high profile name. As follows are those not in the same conversation as Koulibaly but playing an equally good season, and which Premier League club should sign them.
Mattia Bani (Chievo)
Who should sign him? Bournemouth
Bournemouth are likely to dip into this month’s transfer window following the injuries sustained to full-backs Adam Smith and Simon Francis.
At the moment, head coach Eddie Howe has enough central defensive options, but would there be any harm in bolstering that particular area, especially as The Cherries have recently started to play a back-three?
Someone who could slot in and make an impact is Mattia Bani. The 25-year-old, a member of Chievo since 2016, has been one of Serie A’s leading centre-backs this season, particularly when it comes to adopting a take-no-prisoners mentality.
Key stat: Mattia Bani has made more tackles (2.6) and blocks (1.1) per game than any other Chievo player in Serie A this season.
Jeffrey Gouweleeuw (Augsburg)
Who should sign him? Brighton & Hove Albion
When he broke through at boyhood club Heerenveen all those years ago, Jeffrey Gouweleeuw was tipped for big things; by now, many observers felt he would have been a regular Dutch international. Unfortunately, those visions have not come to pass.
With that being said, he’s forged a credible playing career in Germany with Augsburg, but the native of Heemskerk must feel the itch for another challenge.
A capable ball-playing centre-half, Gouweleeuw could, for example, bolster Brighton’s build-up play.
Key stat: Jeffrey Gouweleeuw has successfully completed 98 long passes in 16 Bundesliga games this season, only Wolfsburg’s John Brooks has more in the competition.
Vitor Hugo (Fiorentina)
Who should sign him? Huddersfield Town
This month is a big one for Huddersfield Town, who are staring a relegation battle in the face. David Wagner’s men are currently bottom after 21 matches played and eight points adrift from safety.
However, they are not the worst in terms of goals conceded, but there’s no chance of them resting on their laurels. Bringing a central defender with an incredible force of personality can often make the difference. Vitor Hugo, an ever-present for Fiorentina this season, is a potential candidate.
Key stat: Vitor Hugo has made the most tackles (2.5) and clearances (5.2) per game for Fiorentina so far and ranks fourth for interceptions made by all players in Serie A this season (42).
Aissa Mandi (Real Betis)
Who should sign him? Cardiff City
Aissa Mandi has been a real under the radar success this season. His contributions are one of the reasons why Real Betis presently sit just two places (and four points) below the Champions League spots in La Liga.
The 27-year-old Algerian international does the basics well, but it’s Mandi’s command with the ball that’s setting him apart from the rest. Someone with his particular set of skills is going to be valuable to a side desperately in need of calmness at the back. Step forward Cardiff City.
Key stat: Aissa Mandi has a 93.5% pass completion rate in LaLiga this season, the third best in the competition among players to have made at least 10 appearances.
Davide Biraschi (Genoa)
Who should sign him? Crystal Palace
No league is more synonymous with defensive excellence than Italy’s top division. Some of Europe’s very best play here; among the celebrated are many others who don’t always have the spotlight on them but excel in their own right. A good example is Davide Biraschi.
He’s been nothing short of excellent for Genoa this season. Someone of his class would be an asset. Crystal Palace could only improve with him at the helm, especially given Biraschi’s love of carrying the ball out of defence. Palace, always a threat on the counter, would become a more dangerous proposition.
Key stat: Davide Biraschi has made more interceptions than any other Genoa player (43) and is one of just six outfielders in Serie A to have played every minute of the season so far.
Stefan Bell (Mainz 05)
Who should sign him? Newcastle United
Rafael Benítez undoubtedly wants reinforcements this month, though whether he gets them is another matter. One area Newcastle United should be looking to strengthen is in central defence.
There’s an onus on the modern centre-back to chip in with some creativity. Stefan Bell of Mainz 05 is doing just that so far this season. For club’s battling to stay up, which the Magpies are, it’s nothing but a bonus.
Key stat: Stefan Bell has won 62 aerial duels in the Bundesliga this season. Only Salif Sane has won more aerial duels among central defenders in the Bundesliga so far.
Bernardo Espinosa (Girona)
Who should sign him? Burnley
Few things get people off their seats more than a defender that means business. A well-timed challenge here, a clearance there, having some who embodies these virtues goes a long way to calming their side and supporters in the stands.
Girona are feeling that way about Colombian enforcer Bernardo Espinosa, who not long ago represented Middlesbrough. His time in England was largely forgettable but that doesn’t mean he can’t succeed here. Maybe it takes playing under a manager like Sean Dyche.
Key stat: Bernardo Espinosa has made the most interceptions (24) and blocked the most shots (24) for Girona in LaLiga this season and ranks first for clearances made in the division (128).
Gianmarco Ferrari (Sassuolo)
Who should sign him? Fulham
Fulham were looking at Gianmarco Ferrari last summer but nothing came of their interest. Given their predicament, being the league’s worst defensive side, having shipped in 47 goals across 21 games, there is no doubt they are more than keen to address the situation this month.
Claudio Ranieri, whose pragmatic approach enabled Leicester City to become unlikely Premier League champions in 2016, will be focused on improving their defence. Rekindling their pursuit of Ferrari would be a step in the right direction. The 26-year-old Italian sees his present deal with Sassuolo expire in 2021 and may feel now is the time for an English adventure.
Key stat: Gianmarco Ferrari leads Sassuolo’s stats on clearances (50), blocked shots (14) and aerial duels won (34) in Serie A this season.