Five young defenders to watch in 2018

Player Analysis
Lee Scott

Lee Scott

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As part of writing for this site as well as scouting for a professional club I watch a lot of football, I am lucky enough to have access to a scouting platform that gives me access to footage from across the world and I take full advantage of that. As such I have decided to put together a mini series for you looking in a bit more depth at fifteen young players that I will be keeping a close eye on in 2018. We will start by looking at five defenders before moving on to five midfielders and then five attackers.

First though a small disclaimer, football is for me a completely subjective sport, in particular when we are talking about young players with potential rather than actualised ability. As such five people could watch the same player in the same game and form five very different opinions of that player. In part this is why it is so important for any scouting process to assess an individual player several times. Equally important is to watch that player in a series of different environments, at home, away from home, in adverse weather conditions, against top sides and against poorer sides. This allows you to build a more comprehensive picture of a players mental profile as well as their technical and tactical profiles.

There is also a certain amount of bias involved when viewing football. We all have our own opinions as to what constitutes good football. As such we all have profiles of players in certain positions that we consider to be important for a player in that role. I am no different in this and there will no doubt be certain themes that arise amongst each position group that we look at.

Benjamin Pavard

Age: 21

Nationality: French

Club: Vfb Stuttgart

The young Stuttgart central defender is enjoying somewhat of a breakout season this term. Originally a youth product at French side Lille where he made 21 senior appearances for the first team he joined German side Stuttgart in 2016. So impressive has been his form this term he has been called up to the senior French international squad and won his first two caps, he is seen as having an outside chance of making the French world cup squad at the end of this season.

Capable of playing as a right sided centre back or as a right back or wing back the versatility of Pavard has been of huge benefit to Stuttgart this season as they look to establish themselves back in the Bundesliga.

Part of what has impressed me so much with Pavard has been his ability to step in to midfield when in possession of the ball. He rarely loses possession and looks to pass forward to break lines instead of maintaining possession in areas that don’t threaten the opposition. Indeed to date this season Pavard has played 1530 minutes for the first team making on average 60.5 passes per 90 minutes with a completion ration of 85.9%. For a defender who looks to pass forward these are impressive numbers.

Here we have Pavard in possession of the ball moving towards the centre of the pitch. The first thing to note is that he is not in comfortable possession with two opposition players moving in to areas that will allow them to close the ball down. He has passing options open to either side and a vertical passing option as the wide player has dropped in to the half space.

Instead of using these options however Pavard is able to read the game well enough to identify the space in the opposition defensive line created by the wide players movement. He hits the more direct vertical pass in to space where his striker is making an angled run to exploit the open space.

In being versatile and being comfortable in both central and wide defensive positions Pavard also displays an ability to defend in the wide or half spaces when isolated against opposition attackers. He is agile and quick enough to hold his own against pacy wide players and his knowledge of angles and positioning mean that he is rarely caught out of position when the opposition attack in quick transitions.

In this example Pavard is the last defender isolated against an attacker who is moving at speed. In the first instance note the body position of Pavard as he is looking to force the attacker to continue to attack on the same line and prevent the cut inside.

As the play develops the attacker feints to attack down the outside before looking to cut quickly inside. Pavard however has excellent balance and agility and is able to adjust his feet quickly to easily dispossess the attacker and immediately look to transition in to the attacking phase.

Duje Caleta-Car

Age: 21

Nationality: Croatian

Club: Red Bull Salzburg

When you consider the best developers of talents in European football then you tend to think about the usual suspects, Ajax, Lyon, Chelsea or even Dinamo Zagreb would be right up there. In recent seasons however Red Bull have shot to the forefront of talent identification and development. The media concentrated last season on the performances of RB Leipzig as they finished second in the Bundesliga in their first season in the top flight. The Red Bull revolution however is further established in Salzburg where Red Bull Salzburg serves as a finishing school for the best young talent in the system.

Duje Caleta-Car is a perfect case in point. A 21 year old defender who has spent time in the Red Bull system first with feeder club Liefering where he made 20 appearances and then with RB Salzburg where he is now a first choice central defender.

The Croatian national has represented his national side at youth level and has been included in several senior squads without making his senior debut. He is very much a defender who is most comfortable in central areas with his size and physicality making him an imposing opponent for attackers. For all that he is powerful and quick however is is his ability to use the ball when in possession that has really stood out so far in this campaign.

Comfortable stepping out in the midfield areas and receiving the ball under pressure he is capable of picking passing lanes against sides that look to sit in a deep block.

Here we can see that Caleta-Car has stepped out to support his midfield players in possession of the ball as the opposition drop back to defend their defensive third. Instead of trying to force the ball through a tight space we see Caleta-Car instead identify the space in the wide area before clipping the pass over the top and allowing his wide player to run on to the ball to threaten the corner of the penalty area.

Caleta-Car is not only confident in his ability to pass the ball through or around defensive blocks, he is also confident in taking on an opponent in a one on one battle when in possession of the ball. Here Caleta-Car is in possession of the ball as an opponent moves out to close him down. Instead of looking for a quick out ball to escape the press however we instead see Caleta-Car confidently take on the pressing forward beating him easily before stepping forward in to a pocket of space.

It is at this point that the defender identifies and uses a passing lane to move the attack in to the final third.

Nordi Mukiele

Age: 20

Nationality: French

Club: Montpellier

Nordi Mukiele is a French defender of Congolese descent. Having started his professional career with Laval, after making 34 senior appearances for the club over three years he moved to top flight Montpellier before the start of this season. He has represented France at youth level although he is yet to take the step in to senior international football.

Mukiele is another on my list with the versatility to play either as a central defender or as a right back. His size translates well to both roles and at 6ft1 he is comfortable defending the back post when operating as a right back. Quick and forward thinking Mukiele would fit well in and possession based team that like to move the ball vertically in order to play between the defensive lines of the opposition.

Here we see Mukiele playing in the centre of the defence and looking to use the ball to move his side forward in to the final third. There are short passing options open to him but instead Mukiele looks to take advantage of the turnover in possession in order to catch the opposition out of position.

A quick vertical through ball releases the attacking player in to space where he can threaten the opposition penalty area.

In the defensive phase Mukiele also has an aggressive streak that serves him well when defending in space, he is more likely to defend proactively as opposed to dropping off the man in possession and allowing him to control and play comfortably. This aggression is especially useful for sides that play a high line and look to prevent attacking players from taking possession of the ball and playing forwards.

Here the opposition are looking to progress the ball forwards the man in possession looks to feed the ball in to the central striker to provide a platform from which they can play. Mukiele however is defending aggressively and he steps out to engage the ball at the point that the striker would receive. He wins possession and immediately can look to start a counter attack for his side.

Thilo Kehrer

Age: 21

Nationality: German

Club: Schalke

At the beginning of this season Schalke made a bold choice in appointing the 32 year old Domenico Tedesco as their new head coach. Tedesco came in and immediately turned Schalke in to a more defensively capable outfit as he implemented a three man defensive line with wingbacks who drop right back out of possession in to a back five. Capable of playing across the defensive like Thilo Kehrer has quickly become key to the Schalke defensive system.

Whilst he is capable in possession of the ball and confident in bringing the ball out from the ball it is his defensive performances that have caught the eye so far this season. Kehrer is quick and powerful making him capable of defending against central forwards as well as wide forwards comfortably.

In this example Kehrer is defending out in the wide left area against a player who is looking to run in behind the defensive line. His body shape shows that he is looking to move in and engage the wide player should he take possession of the ball. As the man with the ball moves forward he looks to release the runner in the wide area.

Instead of looking to cover the run to contain the threat of the attacker Kehler instead immediately engages the ball and uses his power to quickly dispossess the man in possession to win the ball back.

This time Kehler is isolated out on the right hand side of the defensive line against Julian Brandt. Again his body shape suggests that he is looking to force the Leverkusen attacker to attack down the wide area away from goal. As Brandt looks to take advantage of the isolated defender he first feints inside before quickly looking to shift weight and attack the corner of the penalty area.

Instead of being unbalanced by the initial feint we see Kehler comfortably shadow the attacker before challenging for and winning the ball in the penalty area before starting an attack in transition.

Dayot Upamecano

Age: 19

Nationality: French

Club: RB Leipzig

Dayot Upamecano is another who, like Duje Caleta-Car, has benefited from the talent identification and development system at Red Bull. Having been part of the youth setup at Valenciennes he was signed by Red Bull Salzburg before starting his professional career at Liefering, it did not take long before the defender was promoted to Red Bull Salzburg and before this season started he moved again to RB Leipzig.

Upamecano’s biggest strength is his physical capacity, only 6ft1 he is exceptionally powerful and able to hold his own against a wide range of forward players. Quick and technical on the ball the French defender is looking like developing in to one of the best young defensive players in European football.

Here we see the pace and power of Upamecano in action. Wolfsburg are attacking in the wide area and the ball is fed in to space for the attacker to make an angled run. Upamecano is ready for the threat however and he comfortable outpaces the forward player to get to the ball first. Not only does he reach the ball first he is then strong enough to hold off the challenge of the forward player before passing the ball forwards in to the midfield.

Again in this example we see the defensive instincts and power of Upamecano in action. As the ball is fed by the opposition from midfield out in to the wide area the forward makes a run to try to attack the free space at the edge of the Leipzig defensive structure. Despite the attacker having 5 yard start on Upamecano the French defender is still able to get out to the ball first to win possession.


There we have it, five young defensive talents with a slightly different skill set who have caught my eye this season. In truth I have a list of 20 young players in each position who could easily have been included. If this initial set of pieces proves to be popular then I may well look to produce some more.

Have I missed anyone glaringly obvious that you think should have been included? Feel free to let me know.

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