A new centre-back has emerged on Liverpool’s radar as the search for a Dejan Lovren replacement continues, so who is Real Betis’ Aissa Mandi and what could he offer?
While Lovren’s £10.9 million switch to Zenit St Petersburg seemed to have developed swiftly following the delayed end to the season, to those at Anfield, it was a long time coming.
Jurgen Klopp was able to convince the Croatian to stay for another season amid speculative interest from AS Roma last summer, but having featured just 15 times throughout the campaign, Lovren needed to move.
His destination may have been unknown, but those within the corridors of Melwood will have been working on his replacement for a lengthy period, identifying possible targets and in-house options.
If reports are to be believed, the situation has left Michael Edwards and his recruitment staff to earmark Mandi as the primary centre-back target ahead of 2020/21.
Sources in both Spain and England claim Liverpool have approached Betis with a bid of around £9 million for the Algerian, with the Liga club looking for £10.8 million.
But who is Mandi, and what could he bring to Klopp’s squad?
Who is Aissa Mandi?
While he may be a relative unknown in England, Mandi is an accomplished top-flight centre-back with over 300 appearances to his name across spells in France and Spain.
Born in France to Algerian parents, he joined local side Stade de Reims as a youngster and, having worked his way through the ranks in their academy, made his debut for the first team in 2010.
At that point, Reims were in Ligue 2, but the following campaign—his first as a regular starter—they earned promotion to Ligue 1, where they stayed for the rest of his time with the club.
Relegation in 2016, after a season spent as captain, prompted Mandi’s switch to Betis, who were under the management of Gus Poyet for the grand total of six months.
Mandi retained his place upon the appointment of Victor Sanchez, and stayed as first-choice starter under Quique Setien and then Rubi, while also taking up a key role with Algeria following his maiden callup in 2014.
At 28, he is an established senior centre-back with experience in two of Europe’s top five leagues, and with 55 caps and standing as vice-captain is one of the most dependable figures for an Algeria side who are current champions of Africa.
What is his style of play?
Interestingly, Mandi first broke through at Reims as a full-back, playing on both sides before settling at right-back, where he played almost exclusively until his final season with the club.
It was during his time as a right-back that he was earmarked as a possible successor to Bacary Sagna at Arsenal, though his defensive naivety as a youngster may have prompted Arsene Wenger to overlook him for Mathieu Debuchy in 2014.
Mandi has developed since then, and his years as a full-back, complemented by a strong, 6’1″ frame, have allowed him to transition into a composed, front-footed centre-back.
Adept as a covering defender, Mandi has the speed to recover quickly and cut out dangerous attacks, preferring to employ a slide tackle when required to nip in before his opponent and wrestle back possession.
He can also use his strength to muscle forwards off the ball, both on the ground and in the air.
It should be noted, however, that Mandi won just 56.8 percent of his aerial duels in LaLiga last season, which is on par with Joe Gomez (59.3%) but much lower than Virgil van Dijk (75.8%) and Joel Matip (90.9%).
Mandi is comfortable playing out from the back, and is proficient at the type of long-range passes that the Reds utilise to switch from the centre-backs to the flanks, or behind the defensive line.
His pass success rate of 89.7 percent last season was similar to Van Dijk (89.1%) and Gomez (88%), while his accuracy with long balls (58.6%) was higher than Van Dijk (55.1%), Gomez (49%), Matip (41.8%) and Lovren (32.3%).
There seem to be elements of both Gomez and Matip to his game, which would suggest he could fit in well at Anfield.
Where would he fit in at Liverpool?
As a potential replacement for Lovren, it is notable that Mandi typically plays as the right-sided centre-back.
He is naturally right-footed, and partnered the left-sided Marc Barta for most of last season, occupying the right of the trio when switching to a three-man defence, too.
Mandi’s heatmap for the 2019/20 Liga campaign, courtesy of SofaScore, highlights where he is most often found, and this is strikingly similar to that of Lovren in the Premier League:
With Van Dijk becoming the first Liverpool outfielder since Steve Nicol to start all 38 league games in consecutive seasons, it is understandable that a specialist left-sided centre-back would not be a requirement.
The Dutchman will, bar any unexpected injury problems, continue to start almost every game for the Reds moving forward, which leaves Mandi primarily as competition for Gomez and Matip.
But his ability to also play both right-back and left-back makes him an attractive option, similar to that of Ragnar Klavan when the Estonian joined in 2016.
Mandi would effectively serve as cover for the entire back line, on the proviso that Van Dijk, Trent Alexander-Arnold or Andy Robertson are hugely reliable in terms of performance and fitness, and Neco Williams will be the priority backup at right-back.
Like Klavan, it seems he would be able to step in and quickly settle into the demands of Klopp’s system while providing a no-nonsense solution in more than one role.
And joining the Premier League champions, and current champions of the world, it is safe to assume he would initially settle for a role as fourth choice.
Is a deal likely?
Though Mandi’s contract is claimed to include a release clause of €30 million, Liverpool find themselves in a strong position due to there being just one year left on his deal.
Betis head into the market with a decision of whether to cash in on one of their coveted players or risk losing him on a free transfer in 2021, and suggestions the Reds are just £1.8 million short of their valuation indicate they will sell.
Whether Mandi is Liverpool’s priority target is unclear, with Schalke’s Ozan Kabak and Brighton‘s Ben White also mentioned as possible candidates, but he may well be the most cost-effective.
If the clubs do meet at a fee of £10.8 million, the Reds would essentially be swapping Lovren for Mandi, and likely reducing their wage bill in the process, with their former No. 6 earning £100,000 a week on Merseyside.
Bringing in Mandi, who turns 29 in October, would ensure another experienced option in defence while—unlike with Kabak (20) or White (22)—not blocking the pathway for either Ki-Jana Hoever or Sepp van den Berg for the long term.
One obvious red flag, of course, would be the prospect of losing him to the Africa Cup of Nations midway through the 2021/22 season, as with Mo Salah, Naby Keita and Sadio Mane.
But the hope would be, of course, that by that point Gomez, Matip, Hoever or Van den Berg would provide sufficient depth next to Van Dijk.
It may be a move out of the leftfield, but signing Mandi this summer could be a strong solution for Liverpool, while not breaking the bank in a difficult market.