Liverpool have been strongly linked with a move for Borussia Dortmund’s Neven Subotic this season, but there are question marks over his quality.
Following Jurgen Klopp‘s arrival at Liverpool, Subotic has been one of many Dortmund stars rumoured to be on the German’s radar.
Though while the prospect of signing the likes of Marco Reus and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is entrenched in fantasy, a move for Serbian centre-back Subotic is more realistic.
Dortmund sporting director Michael Zorc recently hinted at a January departure for Subotic, describing his peripheral role at the club as an “unusual and difficult situation.”
Klopp is in need of another centre-back heading towards the January transfer window, but is Subotic the right option?
Subotic Under Klopp
Klopp brought Subotic to Mainz as a teenager in 2006, after a childhood spent as a refugee in Germany and then America, before the Serbian international followed his manager to Dortmund in 2008.
“I wouldn’t be where I am now without Jurgen Klopp,” he told ESPN in 2012.
“First of all, he brought me to Germany from America and I signed my first deal with him at Mainz, and then he gave me the opportunity to join him at Dortmund, which was another big step.”
Subotic is an affable character, intense and loyal, but while Klopp clearly appreciates the personality of his players, he would not have brought him to Dortmund if it weren’t for his quality on the field.
This translated quickly into one of Europe’s most-feared defensive partnerships, alongside German centre-back Mats Hummels, who initially joined Dortmund on loan in 2008.
In 2008/09, Klopp, Subotic and Hummels’ first season at Dortmund, BVB conceded just 37 goals in 34 Bundesliga games—only Schalke conceded fewer (35)—and much of this was due to the defenders’ finely balanced partnership.
While Hummels brought grace and intelligence to the Dortmund back line, Subotic added aggression and a strong positional sense, and this formed the foundation to Klopp’s success with the club.
But, just as Klopp experienced a miserable final campaign at the Westfalenstadion, so too did Subotic, whose downfall has been alarming.
Downturn in Fortunes
Klopp’s final season at Dortmund was littered with injuries.
Lukasz Piszczek, Erik Durm, Marco Reus, Ilkay Gundogan, Jakub Blaszczykowski, Nuri Sahin, Sven Bender and Kevin Grosskreutz all missed lengthy patches of the campaign, and Dortmund suffered as a result.
But while Subotic stayed fit and made 28 Bundesliga appearances, this serves as something of an anomaly for the Serb.
Subotic’s Dortmund career has been hampered with a series of niggling injuries, and these have hampered his progress, none more so than a double-ACL tear suffered in a 2-1 defeat to Wolfsburg in 2013.
It was a freak injury, with Subotic merely landing awkwardly following a challenge with Wolfsburg striker Ivica Olic, but the centre-back has struggled to recover following his six-month layoff.
A drop-off in Subotic’s output on the field jarred miserably with Klopp’s departure and the appointment of Thomas Tuchel, bringing around this “unusual and difficult situation.”
Under Tuchel there is a new pecking order in defence, with Hummels and Sokratis his favoured centre-back partnership, with an out-of-position Sven Bender and regular right-back Matthias Ginter both ahead of fifth-choice Subotic.
Subotic has made just one appearance in the Bundesliga so far this season, in a 4-0 win away to Ingolstadt at the end of August, despite being fit and available for much of the campaign so far.
This comes as something of a surprise, given Dortmund’s defensive woes—Hummels’ poor form has worked to undermine the sensational attacking exploits of Aubameyang, Reus, Shinji Kagawa and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
It could well be that Subotic is now too limited an option for Tuchel: too hit-and-hope in possession, too slow to react in defensive situations, weighed down by the effects of his ACL injuries.
If Subotic is not good enough for Klopp’s successful successor, should he be for the man himself?
An Upgrade on Martin Skrtel?
Now in his 30s and a mainstay of adequate proportions within the Liverpool defence, it is safe to say that finding a long-term replacement for Martin Skrtel should be a priority for Klopp over the next season or two.
Like Subotic, Skrtel is a limited defender; the Slovak is imperious in a physical challenge, and boasts a hugely dependable fitness record, but lacks the nuance of a complete, top-level centre-back.
Klopp should be looking for player of similar quality to Mamadou Sakho, to serve as the Frenchman’s partner.
This centre-back should be physically adept, but also capable in possession and pushing a high line; preferably, this centre-back should be a leader.
Replacing Skrtel with a player of similar attributes in Subotic would not represent a step forward for Liverpool—but the 26-year-old would still be a useful option for Klopp.
Due to his peripheral role at Dortmund, Subotic is likely to be available for a relatively low fee, and as a right-sided centre-back this would allow him to provide cover for Skrtel alongside either Sakho or his fellow Balkan, Dejan Lovren.
His loyalty to Klopp and their strong relationship would be an important factor, as would Subotic’s retirement from international football.
Crucially, Subotic is experienced at the very highest level, as a Bundesliga winner and Champions League finalist, and would add a knowhow to a squad currently lacking in proven winners.
His transition to the Premier League would be fairly simple, too, as he attested in April.
“I can still imagine playing in a league someday which rates physical football,” he explained.
“The game in England is tougher, more aggressive and more physical—in a sportsmanlike sense. As a centre-back I don’t always want to fear just touching an opponent.”
He is clearly eager to test himself in the English top flight, but whether he is capable of thriving as a first-choice centre-back at Liverpool is another matter entirely.
Subotic would not be an upgrade on Skrtel, but as a faithful ally to Klopp and a tested top-level defender he could prove a useful stopgap before a suitable replacement is found.