Manchester United is a storied club, winning the most English Premier Leagues and have won the second most trophies of all time after Liverpool. Recently, however, they have been a shadow of their past, with their last major award being the Europa League won in May 2017. They have shuffled through managers like David Moyes, Jose Mourinho and Ryan Giggs to arrive at their current gaffer: Ole Gunnar Solksjaer. Solksjaer has had two honeymoon periods so far: His beginning to the tenure and the ending of the 2019/20 season. 

Since the start of the 2020/21 season, Manchester United have won one game and lost two, beating Brighton 3-2 in a game where they barely deserved the win and lost 3-1 to Crystal Palace and were thrashed by Spurs 6-1. So far, they have the second-highest goals conceded at 11, joint with Fulham and Liverpool. The main problem here is in their defence. Harry Maguire and co. have been awful, with Luke Shaw and Wan-Bissaka being caught up high, and glaring defensive errors from the backline. An improved backline means that they could be pushed up higher in the table from where they stand at 16th place. We will do precisely that in this data analysis by using statistics of the centre-backs in the top five leagues: La Liga, Premier League, Serie A, Bundesliga and Ligue 1.

This analysis will identify the key metrics to finding a good centre-back for the Red Devils based on their tactics. This will be done with data generated from the 2020 calendar year. 

Defensive Ability

The first method of comparison will be of the defensive ability of the players. Of the two starting centre-backs of Manchester United, Victor Lindelof has been the worst in defence, making comical mistakes and not positioning himself well. Maguire and Bailly haven’t been great either, and have compounded to United’s defensive problems. Thus, the first comparison we will make is between the blocked shots of the players and their Possession-Adjusted Interceptions. This gives us the ability of the centre-backs to anticipate the action of the opposition and make decisions based on that:

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The best centre-backs at decision-making and reading the game. This is done by comparing Interceptions and Blocked Shots.

Some players that stand out are Koffi Djidji of Torino, Felipe of Atletico Madrid, Danilo of Juventus, Alexander Hack of Mainz and Chris Mepham of Bournemouth. Danilo seems ruled out considering that he has played for Manchester City already, and wishes to settle in as a right-back. In this data set, Djidji has the most shots blocked per 90 at 1.72 while making 10.3 Interceptions at the same time. This puts him far above average for all the metrics. He is also 27 years of age and could mean that he would slot in for a good medium-term option.

Felipe plays regularly for Atletico Madrid and is the most balanced defender in our stand-outs. He has blocked 1.45 shots per 90, which is great but lower than Djidji. However, he has made 11.5 interceptions, which is higher than Djidji. He is older than the rest of our candidates, meaning he would be a short-term option. His maturity and defensive ability that comes with him is crucial. The only set-back is that Atletico might not be willing to let him go cheap, meaning that there needs to be more investment into buying him. 

The final option that I like here is Chris Mepham of Bournemouth. He is 22 years old and is English born and raised. He is a product of the Chelsea and Brentford academies, meaning that he is better suited to English culture and English football. Statistically, he makes 8.87 interceptions per 90 and blocks 1.2 shots. While this is lower than some of our other centre-backs, he is a longer-term option and has not hit his peak fully yet. He still has positive growth potential and can be put to good use if he gets positive development. 

The next comparison we will make is between successful defensive actions per 90 and defensive duels per 90. This gives us a good idea of the quality of a centre-back in winning their defensive actions. 

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Comparing the number of defensive duels attempted to the successful defensive actions to find the best centre-backs in defence.

The shade of the dots indicates the defensive duels won. The first player that stands out here is Felipe of Atletico Madrid again. Some of our usual players are here, like Hack and Djidji. Marash Kumbulla of AS Roma and Jose Luis Palomino of Atalanta are two players that additionally stand out along with Mattia Bani of Genoa. There is a large focus on the centre-backs from Serie A clubs here. This might be because Serie A is a more tactically rigid league with tight defences. So, the Serie A defenders rank highly here.

The best centre-back that we did not look at before is Marash Kumbulla, who is at AS Roma on loan from Hellas Verona. He has the most defensive duels attempted in the top 5 leagues at 11.46 and has a success rate of 69.9%. The Albanian-Italian centre-back also has one of the most successful defensive actions in our dataset at 13.17. The added advantage is that he is only 20 years old, and has a lot of time and room for development. He should not be very expensive either as an option for centre-back. Kumbulla ranks above the average in the interceptions-blocked shots graph as well. 

Another option is Jose Palomino of Atalanta. He is 30 years of age and would be a slightly short-term option but is a good option nonetheless. He makes the second-most defensive duels in the top 5 leagues at 10.8. He has a similar success rate to Kumbulla at 66%. Palomino has the fourth-most successful defensive actions in our dataset as well at 13.94 which is higher than Kumbulla.

The next part that is important for a centre-back is how good they are on-the-ball. To understand it better, we will look at the players’ ability to create chances and how they advance play by making passes. Thus, we will be comparing progressive passes made per 90 and passes into the final third to see how they progress the play.

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Finding the best progressive passers in our data set

We have some newer and more popular faces on this list. The Bundesliga players lead the way in this metric. The top four players in our list are David Alaba and Jerome Boateng from Bayern Munich, Fernandinho from Manchester City and Dayot Upamecano from RB Leipzig. The Bavarian’s centre-back pairing is the two best centre-backs here in terms of ball progression and is indicated by their numbers. Alaba is Munich’s left-back that was converted into a centre-back by Hansi Flick. He was previously linked to United because his contract expires in 2021. He has attempted 15.67 passes into the final third which is the highest in our data set. He also attempts 14.4 progressive passes per 90. He is 28 years of age and in his prime, and should be a great coup if signed by the Red Devils. 

Another key player we see here is Dayot Upamecano. The 21-year-old Frenchman has been a great prospect for Leipzig and looks set to move to either Manchester United or Liverpool. His data for his age is interesting as well, with 10.5 passes into the final third and 12.56 progressive passes per 90. This bodes well for the young talent and is also affordable. According to Sport BILD, he has a release clause of 36.5 million pounds. 

The Shortlist

Now, after looking at the statistics above, we have found some of the best centre-backs that Manchester United should be signing. Some players, like Koffi Djidji and Felipe, have been discarded, but they are still quality defenders.

David Alaba

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David Alaba’s Statistics

David Alaba is Bayern Munich’s left centre-back. He can double up as a left-back and provide great competition for Luke Shaw as Alaba is the more superior defender. He is the most versatile player on the list, as he can play at defensive midfield as an inverted full-back as he did under Guardiola. This shows his passing prowess, that we can see in his statistics above.  He is also left-footed, meaning that he can make a great pair with Harry Maguire. His left-footedness means that he can pass the ball around well from left to right. He brings experience, having won loads of trophies like the Champions League, various Bundesliga titles, and a Club World Cup. 

Dayot Upamecano

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Dayot Upamecano’s Statistics

Dayot Upamecano is RB Leipzig’s centre-back. He has been stellar for Leipzig thus far in the Bundesliga. His defensive prowess has already attracted Europe’s top clubs into buying him. He is a good, young centre-back that is great on the ball, as we can see in his passing statistics above. He is also more balanced, with his great passing ability and good defensive ability. 

Marash Kumbulla

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Marash Kumbulla’s Statistics

Marash Kumbulla is the more defensive centre-back in our shortlist. He excels in attempting and completing defensive duels, winning balls aerially, and is good positionally when making interceptions and blocking shots. This means that he is a pure defensive option as centre-back and will be strong playing alongside a ball-playing defender. 

Conclusion

Manchester United’s defensive nightmares are undeniable and horrid for a club of their size. It is not all the fault of Solksjaer but can be attributed to poor tactics and horrid investment into the club. While Manchester United generate the third-most revenue in the world, the Glazers (Avram Glazer, Joel Glazer and Bryan Glazer) have been pocketing lots of the revenue for themselves instead of putting it into the club. This means that the club has lesser to spend with as we saw in the Jadon Sancho negotiations.

Buying any of the three options identified in this data analysis using data and statistics is quality medium to long term options to reinforce Manchester United and help them in their rebuild.