On the 9th of January 2010, twenty-six-year-old Jose Fonte of Crystal Palace dropped down a division into League One, after being impressed by the ambition that Southampton Football club showed. Fast forward six years, and I think we can all agree that this decision paid off. Southampton are now an established Premier League club, with Fonte holding the title of captain and fan favourite of the St Mary’s faithful. But, after an illustrious tenure on the South Coast and slight cracks beginning to show, is it time we look for his replacement?
Fonte joined the club for a fee believed to be around £1.2 million in 2010, and since then, he’s paid that back ten fold – his form during the 2013/14 and 2014/15 Premier League campaigns especially, play testament to this. He wears his heart on his sleeve and has been ever-present in the side since his debut against Millwall in 2010. During his six years with the club, Fonte has played alongside eight different centre back partners. This not only highlights his quality to fend off competition, but it also displays his immense leadership skills and consistency throughout the years and divisions.
When Saints were promoted back to the Premier League after their 2011/12 Championship season, many were sceptical whether Fonte would be able to cope with the pedigree of Premier League attackers. During our debut season, Fonte ,unfortunately, lost his place in the side to newly recruited Maya Yoshida. At this time, it appeared that Fonte was struggling to adapt to life in the Premier League. However, after a full Premier League season under his belt, Mauricio Pochettino knew that Fonte was more than capable to rub shoulders with the Premier League’s best. To help take Fonte and the defence to the next level, Pochettino recruited Dejan Lovren. Fonte and Lovren formed a formidable partnership at the back which stemmed after Saints’ 1-0 opening day victory at West Brom. There were a few raised eyebrows when Fonte was on the team sheet to partner Lovren, but he proved valuable in keeping a clean sheet to secure the three points that day. Forgetting his actions at the end of the season, it was undoubtable that Lovren brought the best out of Fonte. The Portuguese international finished the season in the top ten best defenders in the Premier League, with 75 interceptions and 312 clearances, above Lovren.
After a summer exodus at St Mary’s with key players leaving for seemingly better clubs – including Fonte’s defensive partner Lovren – Fonte remained loyal and is currently reaping the rewards. With Southampton appointing Barcelona’s legendary centre-back Ronald Koeman as manager, this allowed Fonte to continue his progress in becoming one of the best defenders in the league. He was appointed captain when Adam Lallana left, and alongside loanee Toby Alderweireld, Fonte remained a rock at the back, helping to guide the Saints into the Europa League. Fonte also received recognition from the Portuguese national team, making his debut in a European qualifier against France. This gifted Fonte the opportunity to line up with his idol, Cristiano Ronaldo.
This season, however, it appears Fonte’s age is beginning to catch up with him. During our worst run of the season, with one win in ten, Fonte appeared to be sluggish in decisions, off the pace physically and lacking his usual instinctive defensive style – It wouldn’t take a genius to see that our defence was the weak point during that barren run. Only when Fraser Forster returned from a lengthy injury, did Fonte and the defence look as solid as it did the previous year. The defensive line then went on to achieve six consecutive clean sheets, with Fonte and Van Dijk showing their best form of the season. However, the Portuguese international did receive a red card against Sunderland when bringing down Borini. A smart foul you may argue, but that cost Southampton, as they only managed to draw to the relegation-threatened Sunderland at home. To me, it proved what we all know, that Fonte is an excellent defender. However, what fans may find hard to accept is that when ageing in such a fast paced division like the Premier League, errors will begin to creep into his game more and more regularly. It’s only natural and it happens to us all. Simply look at John Terry’s past two contrasting seasons as proof of age suddenly catching up.
The main question, however, is who would be able to replace such an adored and established Southampton legend?
One candidate could be Stefan de Vrij. The Dutch international formerly worked under Koeman at Feyenoord and was once linked with a move to St Mary’s. After an impressive World Cup, Lazio were quick to sign the central defender. De Vrij is currently eight years younger than Fonte and has a lot of years to improve his already impressive game. In this season’s Serie A, De Vrij averages 4 tackles and 6.5 clearances per game. In comparison, Fonte registers 1.4 tackles and 5.8 clearances per game. One major factor which sees de Vrij a suitable replacement is an already formed partnership with Van Dijk. Due to international commitments and the Danny Blind’s newly reformed Holland side, Van Dijk and de Vrij are first choice centre-half partners.
Staying in Italy, another potential replacement could be 23-year-old centre-back Antonio Rüdiger who plays for Roma, on loan from VFB Stuttgart. He made his professional debut for the first team against Borussia Mönchengladbach at the age of just 19 and since then, he’s been capped nine times by the German national team – making his debut in 2014 during a 0-0 draw against Poland. The overriding problem here, however, is that he’s only on loan at Roma this season, and they are likely to make the loan permanent with a €9 million transfer fee already in place at the end of the season.
The third centre-back who would be a suitable fit is Niklas Süle. Süle has been capped for the German U21 side 10 times and has played 70 games for 1899 Hoffenheim. He is widely regarded as a hot prospect in Germany and has a strong all-round game, especially in his ability to time a tackle and retrieve the ball back. After sustaining a horror ACL injury, Süle has returned to be an indispensable member of the Hoffenheim back four. Süle may be available this summer due to Hoffenheim being threatened with relegation, but Liverpool are keeping tabs on the youngster.
The final player is Aleksandar Dragovic, who could be considered a like-for-like replacement. At just twenty-three years old, he has proved himself to be an incredibly smart, strong and tactically aware centre-half. He has built a reputation as a tough-tackling defender with technical ability in abundance. Any who have watched Dynamo Kiev, will be aware that they play a fast-paced brand of football, with Dragovic playing a key role in that link up between defence and attack. Such a role can be physically demanding on a player, even more so in the Premier League. But Dragovic has the natural stamina and ability to dig deep in the dying moments; lazy last minute lunges and tired legs are not a feature in his game.
I’m not saying Fonte’s race is run, far from it, but I think we should act now if we are to sign a suitable replacement. Jose has been the perfect example of what’s been great about the club since Markus Liebherr took over in 2009, and I will be deeply saddened to see the day where he isn’t leading the team onto the St Mary’s turf. However, if we bring in a replacement now, they could learn and be moulded into the next Fonte and fill the void that he will leave when he’s gone.