Premier League

Saints have found right man to gaard their defence

 • by James Nalton
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Southampton’s acquisition of Jannik Vestergaard went somewhat under the radar this summer, among a flurry of eye-catching attacking signings across the Premier League in the recently closed transfer window.

On the opening day of the 2018/19 season, many match previews didn’t even have the Dane down as a starter, despite his arrival on the south coast for an eye-catching £18 million.

This fee made him the club’s most expensive summer signing, just ahead of winger Mohamed Elyounoussi arriving to replace Dušan Tadić who had departed for Ajax.

The fee alone suggested he would be a starter, and he duly took his place in the lineup for Mark Hughes’ side’s first game of the season against Burnley.

Despite playing in a back four for much of his time in the Bundesliga, he slotted straight into the Southampton lineup in the middle of a back three, and this could be his best position going forward.

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The squad contains a number of central defenders including Wesley Hoedt, Jack Stephens, Maya Yoshida, Jan Bednarek and Vestergaard himself, but there is no real standout first choice pairing.

Hoedt and Vestergaard might now be considered the two best defenders at the club, but both are used to playing on the left side of defence. If one were to operate on the right of a pair, then it would likely be the right-footed Dane, but the back three makes more sense.

Standing at two metres tall, he is the tallest outfield player in the Premier League and the second tallest overall, just a centimetre below team-mate Fraser Forster. This naturally sees him put up good numbers when it comes to winning aerial duels across the pitch, and especially in both boxes.

He was regularly near the top of the aerial duels won column during his time in the Bundesliga, with one particularly dominant season for Werder Bremen in 2014/15 when he averaged a towering seven aerial wins per 90 minutes.

Incidentally, this was the amount he won in his first game as a Southampton player. He battled with Chris Wood as new Burnley goalkeeper Joe Hart continually aimed goal kicks in his direction.

Height isn’t always something managers look for in a defender in the modern game, but in the Premier League, especially against sides such as Burnley, it can be a valuable asset.

The real tests for Vestergaard will come against the sides who boast quick, agile forwards who are able to buzz around the feet of central defenders of his ilk. This may see him removed from his comfort zone somewhat, but is also where the back three should be useful.

In this formation, he’ll have support from two team-mates rather than being isolated one on one, and from there he’ll be in a good position to deal with anything aerially on either side of the box.

The 26-year-old is eager to emerge from the defensive line to deal with things in general play, so having cover will be handy here too.

An area he might look to improve upon is his involvement when the side are in possession. A lot of this is down to the manager and whether he wants the centre-backs to lump it long into the channels, or build up from the back.

But regardless of the style, Vestergaard will be looking to improve on his poor showing in possession during the opening game, when he completed just 63 per cent of his passes and one of six attempted long balls.

He will need to turn his headed clearances into more accurate passes, keeping in mind where his team-mates might be ready to pick up the scraps as he challenges for the ball in the air.

During his time at Borussia Monchengladbach he averaged around 85 per cent pass accuracy throughout the season, but at Werder Bremen earlier in his career, this particular stat was in the low 70s. Southampton will be hoping he’ll nudge this up closer to 90 as the season progresses, otherwise, there will be a lot of wasted possession.

The Football Whispers player persona model provides some hope in this area, with Vestergaard showing well in terms of build-up passing.

The comparison with former Southampton star Virgil van Dijk, above, takes into account data from the past two seasons and the first game of the new one. It suggests that though his passing isn’t always accurate when he does manage to find a team-mate he can play an important part in build-up play.

In a back three, this should be even easier as he’ll have plenty of passing options around him unless instructions dictate that he should look to go long more often than not.

Vestergaard certainly faces a daunting challenge in his new surroundings, not least stopping the likes of Eden Hazard, Mohamed Salah, Raheem Sterling, and Harry Kane when they face the league’s top sides.

For now, Vestergaard can continue to bed in against opposition with similar aims, and he’ll be hoping for a second clean sheet in a row when Saints make the visit to Merseyside.

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