When Manchester United completed the signing of Harry Maguire from Leicester City for a record fee of €87M, as expected, people said that this was not worth the money; “he’s not worth more than Van Dijk”, “Manchester United have been robbed”, and so on. I justified this by saying that a player is worth whatever a team is willing to spend on that player, and how they value that player (be it the “wrong” way or the “right” way) is their problem and way of operating. But I want to use this example as a way to explore centre-backs, and how their growing importance coupled with the generally inflated transfer prices has had an impact on their market values.
Over the last half-decade or so, there has been an increase in importance being given to centre-backs who can “play out of the back” and who are “good with their feet”. What has caused this? One reason is that more teams have started pressing higher up the pitch and adopted a counter-pressing style to regain possession in the final third. To counter this, teams require players in all areas on the field to be skillful with the ball, needing defenders who are able to string passes comfortably from the back. This is one of many reasons why there has been a rise in demand of these versatile centre-backs.Soccer is a skills business, and like any skills business, as skillsets become more defined and rarer, their value proportionally should increase. Such has been the case with centre-backs as well. This demand of centre-backs as not only defenders, but as players who can contribute to possessions has caused this inflation of prices. Another symptom of this is that we seem to find fewer top-grade centre-backs now, because our criteria for judging them has changed. Quite simply, the standards have shifted.
Observe the following visual, which highlights the increase in xGBuildup contributed by centre-backs in Premier League teams over the past five seasons. By definition, xGBuildup is the “total xG of every possession the player is involved in without key passes and shots”.
So this is pretty clear, centre-backs are now more involved in starting/being part of meaningful possessions than before, and this will only continue to grow. Now, let’s compare this with the transfer prices of centre-backs. The transfer prices are rapidly increasing as well, representing the value being attached to these players. Of course, let’s keep in mind the general inflation of transfer prices over the last half-decade, but the centre-back valuations have gone up drastically even given this inflation.
Furthermore, if we categorize the top 25 centre-back transfers of all time, here’s how they shape up in terms of seasons, and we can see that heavy bias towards the past few years, again signalling the increase in value and demand for players in this position.
By taking into account how rare a good ball playing centre-back in England’s first division is, how inflation of transfer prices have generally created such a market of free spending, and the fact that Manchester United played 23 different defensive lines last season, United’s decision to spend a record fee on Harry Maguire is at least a little justified. They are willing to splash out so much money for a player who can solve their defensive instability, is still relatively young (26 years old), English, and can confidently carry the ball into the midfield – which is something Ole Gunnar Solskjær looks to implement in his team. I tweeted a short thread about his intent and centre-back options going into the new season, and how he finds himself with three very comfortable ball-playing centre-backs.
The biggest thing signing Maguire does is give United three options at the back who are all equally comfortable with the ball in him, Lindelof, and Tuanzebe
— Yatin Kapur (@yatin_kapur) August 5, 2019
This entire post is starting to lean towards a defense of Manchester United’s purchase of Maguire, but I think what stems from that idea is a bigger discussion about how the game is changing. The game has changed the demands of centre-backs faster than the centre-backs have evolved and adapted to those demands, causing this misalignment in our valuation of players and their actual transfer prices. However, I don’t think this trend will continue for too long, as teams and coaches start training defenders differently in order to adapt to this change; creating that supply of “young ball-playing centre-backs” who are in such heavy demand.
Feedback welcome, as always.