The financial restrictions of the pandemic has forced scouting teams to become creative. Those in search of a centre-back should look no further.
It’s that time again. Christmas is over, the new year is upon us but the cause for excitement has not ceased. January is the month of the transfer window after all, where anything is possible.
Heartbreak, joy and mostly disappointment.
In an especially tough climate, teams and scouts will be on the hunt to find bargains. To unearth raw gems in key areas and help overturn a team’s fortune with a miracle arrival.
One position which will be especially scrutinised is the role of the centre back. Sir Alex Ferguson coined the phrase ‘attack wins you games, defence wins you titles,’ and the adage still rings true today.
And for every high-profile big money arrival like Virgil Van Dijk or Harry Maguire, there is also a Nemanja Vidic or Sammi Hyypia – centre-backs who were bought under the radar and for a cheap price.
In this first transfer window special, First Time Finish has shortlisted five relatively unknown centre-backs who could be on the move this January.
1. Illya Zabarnyi
Club: Dinamo Kiev
Market Value via Transfermarkt: £900k
At the beginning of 2020, Dinamo Kiev were faced with a predicament. The club were in a crisis. The club’s three senior centre-backs were all ruled out with long term injuries.
Amidst the uncertainty, Kiev’s veteran coach, Mircea Lucescu, opted to fill the gaps with young stars from Dynamo’s blossoming academy.
In stepped, Ilya Zabarnyi.
The 18 year old centre-back came into the side with zero experience, and helped keep a clean-sheet against Desna in the Ukranian Premier Liga. Four days later a crucial Champions League qualifier beckoned against AZ Alkmaar, where Zabarnyi once again produced the goods and helped his side to another clean-sheet.
Since then, Zabarnyi has been hard to keep out of the team and has missed just one match through suspension.
His performances have been crucial to ensure Dynamo’s lead at the top of the Premier Liga, and also qualification to the Europa League from a tricky Champions League group.
Remarkably, Ilya Zabarnyi has also become a pivotal figure at international level. He has started 4 times in Ukraine’s last 6 international games since September.
A 1-0 victory against Spain being the highlight.
Zabarnyi is an old-fashioned centre-back. He’s not blessed with pace, but he does have an astute reading of the game and he’s relatively reliable on the ball.
He’s also shown he’s capable of competing at the highest levels. Despite his team’s poor 4-0 loss against Barcelona, Zabarnyi could hardly be blamed for any of the goals. He competed in 7 defensive duels and won every single one of them.
At 18 he’s averaged 7.14 interceptions per 90 minutes in the Champions League this season according to Wyscout, the 6th highest for a centre-back. Of course, that statistic will be skewed by the high volume of defensive duties Dynamo were forced to face against tough opposition like Barcelona and Juventus.
However, despite this, the fact that Zabarnyi achieved a 65% success rate in defensive duels is a good marker of his talent considering he faced Ronaldo and Messi in 4 games out of the 6.
In the Nations League where Ukraine faced, Germany, France and Spain, Zabarnyi once again ranked in the top five interceptions per 90 made by centre-backs via Wyscout.
However, an area where Zabarnyi’s inexperience was exposed in the high-profile games he has faced is his positional awareness.
Zabarnyi tends to be a little too rash and can often break defensive lines. Against Barcelona in Kiev, Zabarnyi committed a challenge too early on Coutinho just before Barcelona’s first goal which gave more space in the Kiev penalty area for Barcelona to exploit, and left his defensive partner exposed.
For Barcelona’s second goal, Zabarnyi again broke defensive lines but he was too slow to close down Pedri who was able to play the ball to Coutinho. With Zabarnyi out of position, space opened up for Coutinho to take the shot and win a corner for Barcelona from which they scored.
What must be stressed is that this is a common error for defenders to make at such a young age. Zabarnyi makes up for his lack of pace with his reading of the game, in time he will also be aware and vary of committing himself to challenges and situations where he is unlikely to come out on top.
Secondly, in a lot of instances, the positioning of Dynamo’s midfielders was also to blame for Zabarnyi being exposed. With a better midfield shield in front of him, those errors may be completely eradicated. 6 clean-sheets in 9 games in the Premier Liga in Ukraine is proof of his astute ability.
At such a young age, having impressed against elite teams, Zabarnyi’s potential is worth a small gamble. The Italian league is probably the most suitable destination, but the defender could fair well in the Bundesliga and La Liga too.
2. Attila Szalai
Club: Apollon Limassol
Transfer Value via Transfermarkt: 720k
In the dying embers of Hungary’s European Qualifying Play-Off, Iceland surged forward one final time. The bouncing ball was attacked by the impervious Attila Szalai who booted the ball high up in the air for the referee to blow the final whistle a few seconds later and confirm Hungary’s place in the European Championships next summer.
The clearance capped off an impressive breakthrough year in international colours for Attila Szalai.
With the towering young centre-back playing as the LCB of Hungary’s 3 men low-defensive block, Attila Szalai helped the nation to 4 clean-sheets in 7 games and only conceded 4 goals. Compared that to 11 goals conceded in the same time period and in the same amount of games last year, with just 1 clean-sheet without Attila Szalai, his influence is clear.
As a result Szalai has earned a new sobriquet as the ‘Hungarian Virgil Van Dijk’ in his homeland.
One of the reasons is due to his towering stature and relatively fast speed. It helps him with winning ball recoveries and tracking back against fast opponents.
In addition to that, Szalai’s contribution going forward is impressive too.
Szalai who is also comfortable playing as a left-back is composed on the ball and he often instigates attacks from the back.
In the Nations League for Hungary, the centre-back ranked in the top five for most progressive passes made in total with (62) via Wyscout. Coupled that with ranking as the 2nd best centre-back for most passes made into the final third with the best accuracy, Szalai’s ball playing ability is clear.
And that is supported by the fact that he has the best ball progression per minute with 5.17 for U25 players.
Another factor which makes the centre-back a raw gem is his ability in the opposition box. The Hungarian’s aerial threat has become a major asset for Apollon Limassol at club level with Szalai having already netted 3 goals this season. He’s also chipped in with 3 assists in just 19 games.
Defensively there are areas of Szalai’s game which he still needs to polish. He’s rather composed and his 5.3 interceptions per 90 is an indication that he reads the game well. However, Szalai is most comfortable playing in a back three.
There are thus questions raised whether he would thrive as much in simple centre-back pairing, without the extra man cover at the back.
Last season’s Europa League Qualifier against PSV was a dire indictment of that with the Dutch outfit able to pick apart Apollon’s defence and running out as 4-0 winners over Szalai’s side.
However, in time Szalai will learn to play better in a back two. His leadership has been impressive for the Hungarian senior national team in the absence of Willi Orban. And there are signs of a great modern centre-back in Attila Szalai.
A move to Fenerbache beckons. If he does well, there is no doubt the Hungarian has the ability to play in one of the top five leagues in Europe.
3. Valentin Antov
Club: CSKA Sofia
Transfer Value via Transfermarkt: £900k
Perusing through the web you would struggle to find another 20 year old in world football who is the captain of the best team in their country.
But Valentin Antov is exactly that.
The Bulgarian is a rare breed. He’s captained CSKA Sofia at every age group since the age of 14 including the first team. Antov debuted for the Bulgarian giants in cup game all the way back in 2015.
He bleeds CSKA. The fans adore him and despite his tender age he is the beating heart of the team.
Antov is the stereotypical no-nonsense tough tackling Eastern European centre-back in the same mould as players like Nemanja Vidic and Martin Skrtel.
But he’s hardly one dimensional. In fact, Antov is astute on the ball. He’s made the fourth most progressive passes of any centre-back in the Bulgarian First Division this season via Wyscout, with the fourth most passes into the final third highlighting his ability to penetrate passes from the defensive half.
His skills on the ball is probably thanks to Antov’s ability to play as a CDM too which could come in handy for any potential suitor.
In two outings against AS Roma this season in the Europa League Antov showed he is ready for the next step.
Against tougher opposition, the Bulgarian won an amicable 5 defensive duels out 8 and in the second match 4 out of 6.
He’s blessed with pace, and sometimes Antov can rely on that when he over commits. An example of this would be a recovery he was forced to make against AS Roma after the Italians broke into the box. Antov loves to go to ground and he timed his challenge to perfection winning the ball from Borja Majoral just as he was about to shoot preventing a certain goal in the process.
Antov’s slide-tackling ability is one of his best traits. It’s a trademark he has perfected. In the Europa League only two centre backs have a higher slide-tackling average per 90 than Antov and both are above 25 years of age (At least 482 minutes played).
The Bulgarian is a well spoken man with a maturity that is beyond his years. Having already captained Sofia and with 76 games under his belt, Antov could be the next great talent to emerge from the Eastern European country.
Thanks to his charisma and talent, there is no doubt he will be playing at the top level in the near future.
4. Igor Diveev
Club: CSKA Moscow
Transfer Value via Transfermarkt: £5.40m
Despite the fat that Igor Diveev is only 21 years of age, it feels like he has been around forever. A regular in the Russian first division since 2018, and having been heavily linked with a move to Arsenal over the past couple of years, Diveev has certainly caught the attention of many.
A towering hulk of a figure, Diveev commands the CSKA Moscow backline.
Diveev reads the game well which is the hallmark of a good centre-back and something most scouts look for. No centre-back made more interceptions per 90 in the Europa League this season than the Russian with an average of 9.1.
His brawny frame, long legs and towering stature also makes it pretty difficult to get past him for opposition players. Especially when it comes to one vs one situations.
This season according to Fbref, Diveev won 7 out of 9 of his 1 vs1 dribbles in the Europa League. Only two players who have played at least five 90 minutes in the competition this season have a better success rate, PSV’s Olivier Boscagli (6 out of 7) and Leicester’s Wesley Fofana (5 out of 6).
One area where Diveev could use a bit of improvement is his lack of acceleration. Players of his stature and height often get turned by nifty and speedy diminutive players. It’s why positioning is so important for a defender. At times the Russian centre-back can be rash, and when he isn’t able to close down his opponent in enough time, he can be easily beaten with a quick change of pace.
But as he adapts and learns, that area of weakness will be polished.
One of Diveev’s biggest strengths is his ability in the air. This season no player has a better aerial duel winning percentage than the Russian in the Europa League (Wyscout). Diveev has won an impressive 88% of his aerial duels.
His 70.24% success rate ranks him in the top three centre backs in the Russian league too (at least 1250 minutes played).
Diveev is a menacing defender. At such an impressive height and build there is no doubt he has the trademarks of a potentially world-class defender.
However, like a lot of his countryman of late, the question which will loom over him is whether he will be able to move out of Russia and enjoy the same level of success at the top level abroad.
That will not hinge on him entirely. As the most expensive player on our list, and with the saturated values of Russian players, CSKA Moscow might demand a steep figure for their star man which could deter European clubs.
5. Valeriy Bondar
Club: Shakhtar Donetsk
Transfer Value via Transfermarkt: £3.15m
When a Covid-19 stricken Shakhtar Donetsk lined up to play Real Madrid in the Spanish capital, the score line could have only gone one way.
The home side were the favourites by far. Shakhtar lined-up with 8 players under the age of 23 in their starting line-up.
Meanwhile the merciless Madrid, introduced players like Luka Modric, Marcelo and Casemiro from the start.
So when the score-line showed 3-0 at half time, most observers would not have batted an eye at first. Until they realised the 3 goals were scored by the away team.
In the first half the attention was on the Ukranian team’s attackers. In the second half the focus fell on the defenders.
Shakhtar’s young players produced a terrific performance to withstand the onslaught of Madrid attacks.
At the heart of the terrific display was 21 year old Valeriy Bondar. The young man produced a solid display. He won 3 out of 4 of his aerial duels. Made 9 interceptions in total and 7 clearances to stifle the likes of Benzema and Vinicius Junior.
Since then Bondar has been ever present in what has been a fairly successful Champions League campaign for Shakhtar.
He’s caught the eye too with some astute performances.
Bondar’s best asset is his ability to read the game. No centre back made more interceptions in the Champions League group stages this season than the 21 year old according to Wyscout (53).
Of course while Shakhtar managed to shut out one of the most potent attacking partnerships in world football at the moment in Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez with Bondar playing at the centre of defence, the interesting caveat is that they also shipped 10 goals in 2 games against Borussia Mochengladbach.
There are definitely inconsistencies in Bondar’s game. But that’s to be expected.
Prior to this season Bondar had played just 12 senior games for Shakhtar.
Areas where he can improve are definitely his ball playing ability.
In the Champions League he made just an average of 1.41 passes into the final third per 90 according to Wyscout with an accuracy rate of 44.4%. That’s a poor output and something he would need to work on to get to the top.
However, defensively, Bondar has shown he could already be a good asset for a team at a higher level. Especially one that will help to build and nourish his game. There is the potential there for an excellent centre-back.