Despite the rumours surrounding Virgil Van Dijk calming down just a little bit over the past few weeks due to his injury, there is still a very strong chance of the Dutch centre-back leaving St Mary’s this summer.
The Southampton defender has impressed tremendously in the Premier League since his move from Celtic in 2015, and at 25 years of age, is at the perfect time to take the next step in his career to a Champions League team.
Whether van Dijk’s next destination is Liverpool, Manchester or London, Claude Puel is likely to have to plug a big gap in his squad over the upcoming transfer window.
With few great centre-backs available to Southampton both financially and project wise, the French manager will need to uncover the next Premier League revelation, something the club have been very good at doing in the past.
While there are undoubtedly many uncovered gems around Europe, our bet would be for Puel to turn to his home country to find his van Dijk replacement, with a handful of possible candidates already making a name for themselves.
As is the norm at Sport Witness, three options will be put forward.
The young ’un
The obvious name here would be Nice’s Malang Sarr.
After all, the 18-year-old knows Claude Puel well, and his emergence at the beginning of the season under Lucien Favre suggested he was going to be the next big thing in France.
However, ever since Nice got thumped 3-0 by Monaco, the youngster has pretty much disappeared from the face of the earth, only returning to the bench last month, and only making two one minute appearances over the past couple of weeks.
Furthermore, Puel’s former club, with Champions League football looking likely next season, will want to keep Sarr a bit longer before cashing in on their youngster in hope he once again finds form during the 2017-18 campaign.
This is why we’ve decided to put Joris Gnagnon forward instead, for multiple reasons.
To start with, he’s a bit older (20), and has a little bit more football under his belt than his Nice counterpart.
Furthermore, since coming into Rennes’ first-team on the 30th of October in a 1-0 win against Metz, the young defender has started every game for the Ligue 1 club.
While not the tallest (6’1”), Gnagnon more than makes up for his lack of height with his defensive skills.
Very adept at ‘mirroring’ his opponent, the young defender rarely has his back to the ball, tracking the attacking player until he sees the opportunity to pounce and win the ball back.
His age does mean he gets a bit carried away at times, leading him to commit on average one foul a game, but with refereeing slightly more lenient in the Premier League than in Ligue 1, he’d probably get away with a bit more across the Channel.
Rennes showed last year with the sale of Ousmane Dembelé that holding onto their top talent is nigh on impossible if the right offer comes along.
With a contract running out in 2019, Rennes won’t be able to hold teams to ransom, but, even if the talent is there, this would be a gamble from Claude Puel, and considering this is to replace someone as important as Virgil van Dijk, would such a bold move be wise decision? We’ll have to see.
The physical specimen
Leaving France and Auxerre at the age of 20, Christopher Julien decided Freiburg was the best option for him to develop as a centre-back.
Only ever making one appearance for the Bundesliga side during his time there, irony would have it that a loan back to France with Dijon is what allowed the now 24-year-old to relaunch his career.
Snapped up by Toulouse last summer once his loan came to an end, the 6’5” defender has been one of the standout defenders this season in Ligue 1, helping his new club stabilise things at the back alongside promising defender Issa Diop, conceding just 33 goals in 32 games this season.
Taller than van Dijk, Jullien’s style of defending is a stark contrast to Joris Gnagnon’s.
The Toulouse defender likes defending up close, often seen sticking to his opponent’s back before he even receives the ball, trying to use his bulk to put his adversary off.
One issue with this is Jullien’s ‘in your face’ approach tends to lead to more fouls, but considering his average is 1.1 while Van Dijk’s is 0.9 this season, the difference isn’t huge.
His height, while being an advantage at the back (over 7 clearances per game), is also a huge threat going forward, with the 24-year-old the club’s third top scorer in the league after finding the back of the net four times this season.
Signing last year for just over £2m, Toulouse won’t want to see him leave so soon, especially after his impressive season, yet anything around £10m will probably be accepted due to their constant need to balance their books with a big sale.
A relatively like for like replacement, Jullien’s lack of top flight football is a worry, but his assured performances this season have shown he has what it takes if given the chance.
Whether Puel goes for him remains to be seen, but we wouldn’t be surprised if Jullien wasn’t at least on his list of targets were van Dijk to depart.
The safe option
By safe, we mean the option Claude Puel should probably go for.
Cheap, reliable and ready made for the Premier League, Angers SCO’s Romain Thomas is a player who should already be playing in England’s top tier.
While Southampton fans might not know who he is, their West Brom counterparts certainly do, as the Baggies have already tried to buy him twice from the Ligue 1 side, failing both times.
One of the best centre-backs in the league for the 2015-16 season, Thomas has continued his form into this campaign, even if the rest of his team haven’t.
Always composed at the back, the 28-year-old is far more experienced than both Gnagnon and Jullien, and it shows.
Committing fewer fouls than the other two (0.6 on average), Thomas prefers to use his intelligence and timing of the tackle rather than his strength to win the ball back.
However, that doesn’t mean the 6’4” defender is clearance shy, as, using his height, he averages 6.3 per game, the 10th highest in Ligue 1.
Furthermore, the Angers stalwart is incredibly reliable, missing just three league games over the past two seasons.
Already spending a year more than he wanted in France, this season will likely be Romain Thomas’ last in his native country.
Wanting to move to England, someone will convince Angers to let him go, and if van Dijk does leave in the summer, it really should be Southampton.