There’s a lot being made of the 20 year old Aymeric Laporte at the moment, with him getting a lot of attention from the French national manager and big clubs alike. I thought I’d have a look at him (first halves against Real Madrid and Elche, and the full game against Villarreal) to see what the fuss was about.
First of all, it has to be said that he is indeed a very good defender. I’ve been looking at some other centre-backs and some have what I call a ‘half-second delay’; it takes them a half-second or so to react to a threatening situation like a run of a striker or a dangerous space on the pitch opening up. This half-second delay is rarely visible in Laporte.
This is hard to demonstrate in one-off examples, but one instance of this is apparent from the match against Elche.
(1) Elche are breaking. Laporte (in the yellow ring) has to track the forward over his right shoulder. From this position, the Elche player on the ball can play a pretty dangerous through ball (either of the red curved lines, into the red boxed area).
(2) Laporte deliberately drops off deep. He isn’t interested in intercepting the pass to the Elche forward, he’s interested in preventing a central through ball (yellow dotted line), which is the most dangerous option. It leaves a pretty easy pass out wide, but that’s not an especially dangerous area here, so he doesn’t mind.
(3) The yellow box is the central area that Laporte is essentially covering as the ball is being played (the ball is just visible in the air to the right of the linesman’s flag). The forward, once he recieves the ball, has to go wide towards the corner flag. As it is, he miscontrols, taking him even further from goal, and Laporte comes over to tackle him and emerges with the ball.
(4) If we go into a hypothetical, parallel universe and take Laporte back a couple of yards in his run (compare it to picture 2), we can see that the yellow dotted pass is still on. The yellow dotted line from the striker is the run he could make behind Laporte. It would depend on a good ball and a quick forward, but a more dangerous through ball would very much be a possibility.
What really cemented my view of Laporte as an intelligent defender was an incident against Villarreal. As a centre-back with forwards trying to pull you in all sorts of directions with different runs, you need to know when to track and when to leave a forward, when you’re being dragged out of position. Here, Laporte ‘hands off’ (/leaves) the forward he is tracking perfectly.
(1) Villarreal are attacking quickly down the left, Laporte is marking a striker (both within the yellow circle). The red curved line shows the ball across the six yard that is the most likely and most dangerous in the present situation.
(2) The striker is making a front post run (red arrow), just as the winger looks like they’re making a cross. However, another Villarreal player is entering the scene (right at the edge of the picture on the right, circled in red). The two dotted green lines show the two possible crosses – the low one to the near post, and the looped one to the runner at the far post. You can probably see that Laporte (in the yellow ring) has already started the motion of handing off the striker to his fellow centre-back so that he can go towards the player entering the box, basically leaving one runner to pick up another.
(3) The ball (half-visible, circled in white in the middle of the central ‘bet365’) is in the air and Laporte is already covering the Villarreal runner, ready to jump and make a header. Had he handed off the striker that he was initially marking (who you can see at the near post) any later, he’d still be scrambling across to cover the player entering the area that he should (and is, in this situation) responsible for.
It’s not just positioning that Laporte excels at. He is very good in the air, both dominant and accurate with his headers. In the halves I watched him in, he did show some strength, holding off a Villarreal striker for the keeper to collect a chipped ball over the back line, but in the same game was held off a long ball and turned by a striker which could have been costly.
In the half against Real Madrid that I watched him for, he didn’t look out of his depth. He intercepted a cut-back cross well, and made some other tackles and interceptions too, although he was caught in possession from a short goal kick by Benzema, and was very lucky that it was deemed to be a foul. He also seemed to be having a bit of a battle with Ronaldo, which I quite liked.
His distribution is also very good. He’s comfortable playing it short and retaining possession for the team, he can play eye of the needle passes through opposition midfields (one of which came against Real) and he can play beautiful cross-field passes, which might be the part of his passing game that impresses me most, although cross-field balls are a particular gripe of mine. These aren’t the potshot passes that we see a lot in the Premier League; his are, firstly, accurate, but they’re also quick and flat which allows the play to be switched quickly. Let’s be honest, there’s no point in a cross-field ball if the opposition has had time to get across the pitch by the time the pass has got to its target.
He’s not the complete package, he’s not perfect, but he’s 20. He’s a very calm presence without straying into being dopey, but there were a couple of times when he made mistakes or was in a position that was slightly off and might have been exploited by better opposition. That said, he’s a central defender that you’d quite happily swap in for any of your current centre-backs.
With time, he’ll be able to fine-tune his positioning and decision making, and probably his passing as well, which’ll be fantastic.This isn’t usually a skill talked about with players, but he looks like he’s capable of following instructions. It’s fairly clear watching Bilbao that they’re told to play a flat back line to play for offsides, which Laporte does well, and he knows which are ‘his’ areas of responsibility on the pitch.
Hell, it’s worth jumping on the bandwagon just for his cross-field passes let alone his defending, in my opinion. I just hope its a moneybags English team that buys him instead of a moneybags Spanish or German team that buys him so that I can watch him in the Premier League for years and years to come.