Modern-day football has been evolving faster than anyone would have expected. In the late 1990s, the game majorly focused on the offensive aspects, wherein a team could go on a scoring frenzy and absolutely destroy the opposition. However, over the past few years, the game has moved towards a phase where defenders win games for their teams by keeping things tight at the back.
A big shift in mentality occurred in 2006 when Italian centre-back Fabio Cannavaro won the coveted Ballon D’Or and was crowned the best player on the planet, although that represents the last time a defender won the accolade.
Last year, Liverpool defender Virgil Van Dijk was one of the favourites to win the prize but he could only finish second to Lionel Messi, therey breaking the hearts of millions of fans worldwide who expected a defender to be appreciated at the world’s biggest football gala.
Nonetheless, the Dutchman was successful in inspiring many defenders worldwide, making them believe that they could make a difference in what has become an attacker’s game in the past decade.
Upcoming central defenders like Matthijs de Ligt, Eder Militao and Caglar Soyuncu have followed Van Dijk in becoming one of the most sought-after names in the game, meaning that their market value has sky-rocketed suddenly.
Today we take a look at five such upcoming centre-backs who might just be the next big thing in world football soon.
# 5: Ozan Kabak (Schalke)
The 20-year-old centre-back, who joined Schalke in a €15 million deal from VFB Stuttgart last summer, has been one of the best defenders in the German top-flight this season. The Turkish player also impressed many critics in his stint with Galatasaray a couple of years back.
Kabak has great tackling abilities and is a huge threat to the opposition when it comes to indirect set pieces. He has 3 goals and 1 assist in the Bundesliga this season.
Talking about his defensive statistics, the central defender has powered Schalke to 5 clean sheets this season, but the numbers do not justify the mammoth impact that he has had on the game for the German club.
Statistically, the Turkish international wins 65% of his one-on-one situations and aerial duels. He likes to play higher up the pitch which makes him suitable for clubs like FC Barcelona, Manchester City and Juventus who operate with high defensive lines due to their possession-based style of football.
In January, Kabak revealed that he wants to play in the English Premier League someday and wishes to emulate Van Dijk's form in English football.
# 4: William Saliba (Saint-Etienne)
Next on the list is Saint-Etienne's William Saliba. Saliba joined Arsenal last summer but was loaned back to his previous club as a part of the £27 million deal between the two clubs.
The 19-year-old ranks as one of the best in Europe’s top five leagues when it comes to tackling success rate as he averages 1.92 interceptions per 90 minutes in Ligue 1 this season, compared to last season's rate of 2.0 interceptions per 90 minutes.
Also, the new Arsenal signing is a good distributor of the ball in dangerous situations, especially in situations of high press from the opposition strikers.
The Gunners will definitely benefit from the signing as Saliba will be a great addition to Mikel Arteta's defensive setup, especially as the existing crop of defenders like Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis Papastathopoulos have been heavily criticised this season for their lack of concentration.
# 3: Alessandro Bastoni (Inter Milan)
Antonio Conte’s new-found gem in central defence at Internazionale, Alessandro Bastoni has been touted as one of the most technically and physically gifted defenders by Italian legend Giuseppe Bergomi.
The Italian, who will turn 21 next month, likes to often play the ball off the ground. He is a huge threat in a team which has good forwards who can run between the opposition’s defensive lines as Bastoni can play some great aerial crosses from his defensive area.
Bastoni has played at Parma and Atalanta in the past few years on loan from Inter before being confirmed as a regular in the Nerazzurri squad this season. The faith shown has since been repaid by him in rock-solid performances for the Italian club.
Bastoni's prowess is justified by gaffer Antonio Conte’s decision to choose the former over veteran defender Diego Godin. The centre-back aims for a long term stint with Inter Milan and wishes to become the captain of the squad in years to come.
# 2: Dan-Axel Zagadou (Borussia Dortmund)
French centre-back Dan-Axel Zagadou is another young starlet who has been one of the top defenders in the Bundesliga for the past couple of seasons. A strong passer of the ball who likes to invite pressure from the opposition attackers, Zagadou is one of the best in the German top-flight when it comes to aerial duels and scoring from indirect set pieces.
Usually deployed by coach Lucien Favre alongside Mats Hummels, the youngster is no less in technique compared to his German World Cup winning defensive partner.
During his time at Paris Saint-Germain before joining Dortmund, Zagadou was usually tested as a left-back which emphasised his lack of pace and ignored his strength and marking abilities. The latter characteristics are exactly what Dortmund capitalised on, making him one of the top defenders in the world at the young age of 20.
# 1: Dayot Upamecano (RB Leipzig)
A product of tactical genius Julian Nagelsmann’s set-up at RasenBall Leipzig, Dayot Upamecano has knocked on the doors of all the European giants with his powerful presence in the back four of the German club.
A Frenchman like Zagadou, Upamecano is a defender who likes to combine with the midfielders, with an excellent combination of short passes, in addition to his impressive tackling abilities.
Having impressed in Leipzig's Champions League Round of 16 win against previous season's finalists Tottenham Hotspur, Upamecano has attracted heavy interest from Arsenal who are ready to break the bank for the defender.
An interesting positive point for the Gunners in this respect is that the French centre-back has also handed a transfer request to RB Leipzig, according to reliable sources. Nonetheless, despite his transfer future, Upamecano seems destined to be a great defender and will be a great player to keep an eye on for the football fans worldwide.