Liverpool centre-back Virgil van Dijk is being tipped to lift the Ballon d’Or award later this year. Should the Dutchman pip the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to this accolade, he will be the first defender to do so since Fabio Cannavaro secured the trophy since Italy’s triumph at the 2006 World Cup.
Following Luka Modrić’s intervention of Messi and Ronaldo’s duopoly over the individual honour, a path has been paved for variety. Times are changing, and the era of the central defender is unfolding before our eyes.
Matthijs de Ligt and Éder Militão, among others, emerged as sought-after commodities last season, and with Van Dijk in with a strong chance of collecting the Ballon d’Or to proudly assort alongside his PFA Players’ Player of the Year, Liverpool Player of the Season and Liverpool Players’ Player of the Season awards, acclaim for the modern-day centre-back has rightfully risen.
Somewhat unfortunately, as is the case in today’s society, when one entity delivers outstanding performances with regularity and emerges as a specialist in its field, others of more than competent credentials fall unfairly by the wayside. The fracas to covet the shiniest product often leaves its counterparts, still consistent and effective at the task at hand, in its shadow.
Van Dijk was imperious for Liverpool – composed in testing situations, dominant in aerial duels and often breathtaking as he glided through games with effortless grandeur. His displays saw him lauded by supporters and the mainstream media alike as the Premier League’s standout defender, and one of insurmountable authority at the very top.
Without fair appraisal and adulation was Aymeric Laporte, Manchester City’s unassuming, efficient central defender whose influence continues to wrongfully pale into insignificance when unnecessary comparisons are drawn to those whom he shares the Premier League stage with.
In Pep Guardiola’s well-oiled machine, the Frenchman is a vital cog. While he does not typically embark on the same marauding runs that the quintessential central defender of this generation tends to, he exudes calmness and oozes confidence, affording his teammates time to reposition themselves and find space. He is well-loved among the City supporters, but beyond that, he is seldom rewarded with the admiration that his quality richly deserves.
The conversation surrounding who the best central defender the footballing world has to offer generally involves the usual suspects: Van Dijk, Sergio Ramos, Raphaël Varane. However, despite the commonly-acknowledged conclusion that Laporte is indeed a world-class centre-back, his name scarcely pops up in the aforementioned discussion regarding the supposed elites of the position.
Arguments to suggest that a player is underrated are commonly repudiated by the interjecting mention of a transfer fee. After all, Manchester City did break the bank to sign Laporte, spending what was then a club-record fee of £57.2m to recruit him from Athletic Club in January 2017. Even in this case, the signing did not attract widescale attention following Van Dijk’s £75m switch from Southampton to Liverpool earlier in the month, crowning him as the world’s most expensive defender.
Timing has always played its part in the public perception of Laporte. His arrival at the Etihad Stadium was met by little more than a nod of approval – Guardiola had acknowledged his team’s shortage of a dependable central defender following John Stones and Nicolás Otamendi’s frequent lapses in concentration, along with Vincent Kompany’s long-standing injury woes. Perhaps as a consequence of the regularity at which City have spent eye-watering sums on players from across Europe in recent windows, the acquisition of the Frenchman was nothing out of the norm.
In a relentlessly evolving, ruthless team, Laporte is a mainstay. As the ingenious methods of Guardiola blend experience and youth, City are spoilt for choice. The attacking doublet of Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling have been hailed the most for their exploits in the final third in the past campaign. They, incidentally, may be outside shouts for a top-three spot in the Ballon d’Or themselves.
However, owing to the sheer quality in depth that the Premier League champions are blessed with, it is hard to identify players who are the first names on the manager’s teamsheet. There are arguably only three who stand out as indispensable in the City starting line-up: Ederson in goal, Bernardo between the lines, and the ever-dependable Laporte in defence. In fact, the centre-back’s irreplaceability has been only heightened by Kompany’s move to Anderlecht.
Indirect influence is a characteristic that is undervalued in football nowadays: the ability to not only avoid making mistakes individually but to aid teammates and ensure they play to a high standard. Laporte is not the established, archetypal leader that Kompany had been for so long at the Etihad, but he will likely be tasked with marshalling the back-line and offering a similar degree of dominance next season.
City will also be renowned again for their flamboyance going forward, and their aesthetic appeal on the front-foot. Their defenders, rightly or wrongly, have never received appropriate praise, but Laporte, in particular, has had an incredible impact, providing Guardiola with a previously unseen defensive option who boasts not only quality but availability. Since joining the club, he has been sidelined for only two competitive fixtures.
Laporte’s unwaveringly unflustered displays saw him rewarded with a place in the PFA Premier League Team of the Year at the end of the 2018/19 campaign. He was fabulous throughout the season and was well worth his place in the line-up. Once more, though, there was instead a mere acknowledgement of the player’s role in City’s incredible campaign rather than the warranted approval that his manager clearly has recognised from the outset.
“Wow, what a central defender we are able to take here,” said Guardiola just days after he wrapped up the signing of the Frenchman. “People say he is expensive – maybe he will be cheap.” The Spaniard, as he so often is, was correct. Laporte was a steal at the reported figure of £57.2m, an outlay beaten only by the arrival of Riyad Mahrez for £60m the following summer.
Guardiola has always been full of praise for the 25-year-old. He demands his troops remain grounded but favours those who display confidence – a well-natured arrogance, perhaps. In Laporte, he has the ideal defender to comply with his needs; his passing is exquisite over varied distances, he reads the game as though it is second nature, and his aerial ability makes him a match for the Premier League’s physical opposition. The beauty of the Agen-born defender is that there is precious little he is unable to accomplish.
Except, it would seem, win over Didier Deschamps. The France boss has led his country to glory in the past year, securing them their first World Cup trophy since 1998, and he did so without the help of Manchester City’s ever-present centre-back. Incidentally, the national team manager won his country’s first World Cup as a player alongside Bixente Lizarazu – the only other Frenchman aside from Laporte to have played for Athletic.
One of football’s many modern-day mysteries is just how Laporte has yet to pull on Les Bleus’ shirt on the senior stage to this day. At youth level, he appeared on 51 separate occasions, captaining France at under-17, under-18, under-20 and under-21 level, but under the stewardship of Deschamps, he has barely been given a look-in.
Again, timing appears to have dealt the defender a cruel blow. He is caught in a generation of outstanding French talent, with Samuel Umtiti and Varane ahead of him in the pecking order, along with the likes of RB Leipzig pair Ibrahima Konaté and Dayot Upamecano progressing well from the youth ranks. Competition may be fierce for places in Deschamps’s plans, but Laporte was indisputably the best-performing French central defender in 2018/19, and his exclusion from the national team is unfathomable.
Varane and Umtiti took their usual places in the squad for international fixtures in June against Bolivia, Turkey and Andorra while the City star was left behind with little to do but observe in disbelief as Clément Lenglet and Kurt Zouma were called upon. One wonders what Laporte must do to receive appropriate recognition for his routinely commanding performances, both from a mainstream perspective and on the international stage.
“I cannot comment because I have to respect the decision of the national manager. He takes his own decisions, so I cannot be involved with that,” Guardiola said when quizzed about his defender’s continuous omissions from the France squad in March. “All I can say is what Laporte has done is incredible; incredible both defensively and offensively at set-pieces, and so on. We are delighted with his performances this season with us.”
The City boss admires those who play at the back for his teams. He has often commended their bravery and their willingness to follow his instruction without question, playing risky passes and trusting their own abilities. An interesting paradox is created when this potentially dangerous approach is mixed with Laporte’s no-frills style, but he adapts with seamless serenity, easing his way through matches and providing his side with the calming influence of a player far beyond his years while his technical prowess – moulded by Marcelo Bielsa in Bilbao – prevails as he initiates attacks from deep.
Laporte cannot seem to win. Complimentary comments regarding his skill set are often followed up by higher praise for the likes of Van Dijk, and his true quality does not appear to have been fully appreciated just yet. Akin to the debate that has perpetually surrounded Messi and Ronaldo, reverence seemingly cannot be apportioned to Laporte without preceding a counter-argument, and this has left the defender underrated by many.
He may not be the glue that sticks Manchester City together, nor the best central defender currently in the Premier League, but Aymeric Laporte is a world-class player with his best years still ahead of him, and he is only going to get better. He will quietly continue to shepherd his team’s defence with elegance and aplomb, but whether or not he will be treated as the special talent he is remains to be seen.
If Laporte continues to be overlooked and have his qualities demeaned by those who fail to look beyond the lust of coveting ‘the best’, he could regrettably see his name inked into the unwritten history books of the Premier League’s most under-appreciated footballers ever.
By Luke Osman @LukeOsmanRS