Ever since the forthcoming move of Nemanja Vidic to Inter Milan was confirmed, speculation about his successor in Manchester United’s defence has been abundant. Southampton’s Dejan Lovren was one of the names being mentioned when David Moyes was in charge, per the Daily Mail's Sami Mokbel, although few could have foreseen the possibility of such a development in his career up until recently.
This time last season, Lovren was not in a good place. After his defensive mistake led to a goal that saw his Lyon side lose to Sochaux in an important league game, he was effectively ostracized from the team and didn’t appear in their remaining eight matches.
The Croatian centre-back set a negative record by being named Ligue 1’s worst player of the week three times that season by L’Equipe, France’s prime daily sports newspaper. He wasn’t a starter for his country’s national team, either.
Back then, if you were to suggest Lovren could have a future with one of the biggest clubs in Europe, much less be considered a candidate to replace their celebrated skipper, there was a good chance you would be laughed at. Offloading the player to Southampton for €10 million, two more than they had paid to Dinamo Zagreb for him in 2010, must have made Lyon ecstatic. The transfer fee raised more than a few eyebrows in Croatia, as well.
But things have changed; fewer people are laughing and fewer eyebrows are raised now.
Lovren has had a great debut season with the Saints, proving to be their best summer signing. He established himself as a fan favourite at St Mary’s and impressed many with his solid defensive performances. Renowned tactics expert Michael Cox even included him in his Premier League Team of the Year.
And while it is true he never really excelled for the national team, he should now be their first-choice centre-back alongside Vedran Corluka (formerly of Spurs, now at Lokomotiv Moscow). The World Cup in Brazil is Lovren’s big chance to prove himself in his homeland, where he is still arguably underrated. He left the country as a 20-year-old, still very much unproven at the time, and the fans haven’t really warmed up to him so far.
Meanwhile, some serious squad rebuilding is set to commence at Old Trafford this summer, after a very disappointing season. Regardless of whether the expected hiring—per The Guardian's Jamie Jackson—of the maverick manager Louis van Gaal is confirmed or not, it’s more than fair to assume the Red Devils will be in the market for at least one centre-back.
Captain Nemanja Vidic is leaving, and veteran Rio Ferdinand may well follow suit. That leaves Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans—not nearly enough for a club of United’s stature, where they are fully aware that another season without Champions League money and glamour could have dire consequences.
Dejan Lovren is just one of many names mentioned among possible transfer targets—but does he fit the bill?
His stats at Southampton speak volumes. According to WhoScored, he’s the fourth-best-rated centre-back in the Premier League. He’s in the top 10 by interceptions (2.8 per game) and joint-first by offsides won (1.4 per game). That tells us the defender is apt to play in a high line, as favoured by his manager Mauricio Pochettino.
He’s also comfortable with the ball, making 52.9 passes on average with 82 percent success. Particularly impressive is the part about long-range passes: Lovren hits six accurate long balls per game (65 percent accuracy). The Croatian also produces 2.0 tackles and 7.8 clearances per game, winning 61 percent of his aerial duels (3.3 per game).
If you compare all that to Nemanja Vidic’s stats from this season, numbers say the Serb has been stronger in the air and has made more clearances (he’s among the league’s top performers in those two categories), while his potential successor is better when it comes to interceptions, tackles and offsides won. While Vidic’s pass accuracy is slightly higher, Lovren passes more often—especially to longer distances.
Some of these differences may be down to the fact that Southampton, who actually led the league in ball possession and have conceded the fewest shots on goal per game, play with a rather different style than Manchester United. However, it’s certainly worth noting where Lovren’s strengths are, particularly if the reports of Louis van Gaal taking over at Old Trafford prove correct. The Dutch manager is a strong advocate of possession football and prefers to play with a high defensive line.
Lovren certainly wouldn’t come on the cheap, though. Southampton will be reluctant to part from the player who has fit in so well after just one season in English football. And even if they would agree to sell, they would probably ask for somewhere in the region of £15 million. That’s a lot of money for a defender, even if United will be willing to spend a considerable amount on transfers this summer.
They will also have to compete with Liverpool, whose interest for Lovren has also been widely reported, per the Mirror. After all these years of looking down on their bitter rivals, Manchester United are waking up to the reality that it's the Reds now who can offer a player something they can’t—and that’s Champions League football.
However, what the next season’s United manager will be looking for is a long-term replacement for Nemanja Vidic, a player who has left such a big mark in the last eight-and-a-half years spent with the club. And Lovren, who turns 25 in July and appears to be finally living up to his potential, could just be the right man for the job.