Newcastle United have already found their next rock solid defender - and he'll only cost £20m
Newcastle United have been linked with a bid for a new defender - we look at what the towering centre-back could bring to St. James' Park
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Given the dreadful spate of injuries they’ve suffered, Newcastle United are expected to be busy in the January transfer window, and if a report in yesterday’s Sun is to be believed, the Magpies have found their next central defender – Jonathan Tah, a German international who’s been one of the most reliable performers in a Bayer Leverkusen side that have been pulling up some trees over the last year.
Tah was linked with quite a few Premier League clubs over the summer, with Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, West Ham United and Manchester United all linked with a move – but they ended up looking elsewhere, and Tah remained in Germany, where he has been a key cog in Xabi Alonso’s unbeaten Leverkusen side. Now 27 and in what should be his prime years, if the stated price of £20m is on the mark then he could be something of a steal.
Tah is, in many ways, not a complicated centre-back. His strength isn’t in his technique or passing range – although he is an accurate and intelligent passer and good with the ball at his feet, he prefers to keep it simple and isn’t the kind of defender who advances play quickly upfield. His high pass completion and dribbling success rates are a testament to his understanding of when to take a risk and when not to, but he doesn’t progress play very effectively.
Nor is his strength in his tackling, although his judgement is sound and his success rate respectable. His strengths lie in his physical traits and in his intelligent reading of the game – and in these areas, he truly excels.
Standing at just over 6’3” tall (wrongly stated in the Sun article as 6’5”) and powerfully built, Tah has good pace over distance and can’t be knocked off the ball easily, but what makes him so good at using his physique is his balance and agility. He’s graceful on and around the ball and has the sense of space and understanding of how to use his strength to leverage it perfectly to muscle opponents out of possession without giving up many fouls.
His reading of the game is also excellent. He has great positional awareness and has the experienced and intelligent defender’s capacity to know the angles opposing attackers are trying to use, allowing him to close off channels and cut down shooting opportunities. That skill means he doesn’t need to make rash challenges, and indeed the number of tackles he attempts has dropped drastically over the past few seasons as he has learned to avoid even being in positions where he needs to make them in the first place.
In short, he’s the kind of defender who doesn’t do anything flashy, and who takes a few games’ worth of watching to begin to appreciate – but he has a clear grasp of how to make life harder for opposing attackers without taking risks.
The downside is that, relative to many modern centre-backs, he doesn’t have the ball-playing skills to make big contributions to attacking phases, but that shouldn’t be a major issue for Eddie Howe’s Newcastle, who don’t tend to involve their centre-backs in the build-up and prefer to get the ball into deep-set midfielders and construct attacking plays from there. He might not fit in with the tactical schemes of some Premier League sides, but St. James’ Park looks like a natural home, especially with Sven Botman and Dan Burn among the walking wounded.
While he seems like a natural strategic fit for Newcastle, there is perhaps a slight question mark over the fact that he’s used to playing as part of a back three for Leverkusen rather than in Howe’s traditional back four – and while he’s started the last three games for his national side in a back four, he was playing as a right-back in two of those games. There’s no reason to believe he would struggle in a different tactical scheme, but there is some adaption to be done.
The big question, then, is whether Newcastle will be able to get a deal done in January. Leverkusen’s outstanding start to the season means that many of their best players have become subject to increasing transfer speculation, but the German side are keen to hold on to their best assets given that they have their first real chance of silverware since the early 2000s, when they reached the 2001 Champions League final but still came out of a brief golden era without a trophy to their name. With the impressive Alonso at the helm, a spot at the top of the Bundesliga and good progress being made in both the Europa League and DFB Pokal, there is justifiable optimism that they can finally end a trophy drought that stretches back to 1993.
So while £20m may be a fair evaluation of his transfer value, a deal in January would likely set the Magpies back rather more, if it can be made at all. He is under contract until the end of next season, so a summer deal is extremely plausible, but prising him away from an ambitious team in the middle of their best run in 20 years will be tough to do. Given how easily he could slot into Howe’s side, however, there’s a good chance it would be worth the effort – and the money.