An €80 million signing from Southampton in 2018, centre-back Virgil van Dijk has been a transformative player for Liverpool, helping the club to win the Champions League and Premier League titles and finishing second behind Lionel Messi in the Ballon d’Or voting in 2019.
However, this season his form has dipped and, while the whole team has had its ups and downs, it’s been especially noticeable in such an influential player. Though it’s premature to suggest that Liverpool should be looking to replace the Netherlands international in the first XI, he turns 32 in July and has a contract that expires in two years, which suggests they could bring in a younger centre-back this summer to spend a season as his understudy.
Liverpool signed Ibrahima Konate for €40m from RB Leipzig in 2021 with an eye on the future, but there’s no ready-made replacement out there for Van Dijk. His combination of pace, experience, leadership, ability on the ball, aerial dominance, charisma and uncompromising defending is almost impossible to reproduce.
So, in taking a look at some possible candidates who could be his long-term successor at Anfield, I’ve considered players who have some of the same skillsets and reasonably similar stats, along with others who still have things to work on or would need to adapt to a different system. Many are not easy to sign, given the fees involved, but even if Liverpool end up disappointed (as they were with Borussia Dortmund midfielder Jude Bellingham), these players would be worth pursuing.
*Transfer valuations via Transfermarkt.
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Josko Gvardiol, 20, RB Leipzig
Transfer value: €75m
Finding a young defender who has the authority of a 30-year-old is hard, yet, despite his age, it’s easy to imagine Gvardiol taking on a leadership role at a bigger club than RB Leipzig. Used to playing in a high defensive line, the Croatia international has the pace to make recovering runs and knows when to take up advanced positions and when to drop back. His varied passing skills also make him ideal to take charge of the distribution from the back, be it precise passes through the middle or picking out a teammate’s run with his excellent left foot.
Technically adept and resolute in his defending, Gvardiol is already approaching the profile of a complete centre-back. And, as a result, there’s likely to be a significant queue of elite European clubs — including Manchester City and Real Madrid — lining up to sign him when he departs Germany. Unless eighth-placed Liverpool can make a late charge for Europe, they may struggle to fight for his signature this summer.
Having allowed star defender Kalidou Koulibaly to join Chelsea for €40m last summer, Napoli made a transfer masterstroke by replacing him with Kim for just €18m from Fenerbahce.
The South Korea international has been one of Serie A‘s best players this season and has been crucial to Napoli’s march towards a long-awaited Scudetto in his debut campaign. Playing on the left — despite being right-footed — of a central defensive partnership with Amir Rrahmani, Kim has impressed with his remarkable concentration and mental alertness.
His game-reading abilities allow him to avert early danger by anticipating an opponent’s movements and, once the duel is won (he has come out on top in an astounding 75% this season), he gets the ball forward quickly to start off a counter-attack. On top of being a fine passer, Kim is also a competitive defender in the box and always seems to be on hand to block efforts or clear aerial challenges (he has a 71% success rate this season, which is not far off Van Dijk’s exceptional 76%.)
The Barcelona centre-back fits the bill for Liverpool in most departments. His assertiveness in challenges and aerial dominance measure up against the highest Premier League standards, while his agility and pace mark him out as one of the best young defenders around.
Though playing out from the back is not his main forte — he tends to leave those duties to his central defensive partner or shift an easy pass out to the right-back — the Uruguay international has grown in confidence in this aspect of his game.
Araujo has the natural aggression and mentality of a defender that suggests he genuinely enjoys the physical side of his job, so it’s easy to envisage him feeling at home in English football. Luring away one of the best centre-backs Barcelona have fostered for a decade is no simple task — and he is contracted for another three years — but the LaLiga club’s perilous financial situation may present an opportunity for Liverpool to make a move.
Alessandro Bastoni, 24, Inter Milan
Transfer value: €55m
Usually played on the left side of a back three — and given more attacking freedom as a result — the left-footed Italy international has a slightly different profile to the other candidates on this list. Yet it’s not unthinkable that Liverpool might feature a back three at some point in the future and Bastoni could certainly adjust to being part of defensive duo as well if required.
While the 24-year-old usually prefers to take up deep positions, his recovering pace was evident in Antonio Conte’s high-pressing Inter side of 2021 and his aerial capabilities are improving by the year. A committed tackler (2.8 tackles per 90 minutes) with a fine left foot, Bastoni is more than capable of picking out gaps in midfield to play a pass or hit crossfield switches.
Similar to Barcelona, Inter appear under pressure to move players on this summer to balance the books so it might be the right time to consider an offer for a centre-back whose contract expires in a year.
The Leverkusen youngster might also be accustomed to playing in a back three, but under Xabi Alonso’s stewardship he’s shown the flexibility to step in across the defensive line — often on the left side — without it causing him any problems.
Despite being naturally right-footed, the Burkino Faso international is comfortable receiving the ball and moving it on with either foot. While Tapsoba is composed in possession, he generally keeps it simple, often opting to limit his distribution to low-risk deliveries along the ground (though his long passes are of a high standard too.)
His somewhat laid-back style can make him seem casual, but his pace and mental sharpness make him a decisive defender in one-vs.-one situations. Sixth-placed Leverkusen have struggled a bit this season but Tapsoba has progressively picked up his performance level after the turn of the year and will be on the radar of plenty of clubs this summer.