01 July 2015

On Nathaniel Clyne

Liverpool buying a player from Southampton? What could possibly go wrong?

Okay. Now we've gotten that out of the way.

Liverpool really aren't messing around this summer. Nathaniel Clyne just became Liverpool's sixth signing, after Milner, Ings, Bogdan, Gomez, and Firmino. Liverpool have announced replacements for Colin Pascoe and Mike Marsh.

Last summer and last season demonstrated that massive player turnover can be very much a bad thing, but Liverpool at least seem to have a plan this summer. And Liverpool have addressed almost every area of the pitch so far – even if there's still some way to go at the sharp end – midfield improved, attack improved, goalkeeping improved, and now, defense improved.

Let's be honest. Clyne's not incredibly impressive going forward, competent but slightly overrated and preferring to cross once he gets there. He is, however, very good in the tackle, good at avoiding fouls, good at keeping possession. He is, however, terrible in the air. He is solid, but not spectacular.

And, like Milner, like Ings, like Firmino, Clyne is durable, excellent at avoiding injuries. He started 35 and 34 games in 2014-15 and 2012-13. He only started 25 in 2013-14, but that was mainly due to splitting time with Calum Chambers more than injury, missing six matches because of two minor injuries.

As you may have noticed, Clyne's aerial statistics are really bad. That those totals span all three of his Premier League seasons, have stayed consistent through three different Southampton managers, means they're probably not improving much. That's a bit terrifying.

His key passes map is also slightly vexing. Eight of Clyne's 22 key passes (36.4%) last season came from crosses. That total was 11 of 28 (39.3%) in 2013-14 and eight of 20 (40%) in 2012-13. That's a fairly high total. Last season, if he got within 18 yards of the byline, he often crossed, and that was especially true when he created chances. And, as I'm sure you may remember, Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool do not cross all that often, although that might change somewhat depending on which striker Liverpool end up buying.

And, to be fair, I suspect that was at least partly by Southampton's design, with Graziano Pelle as target-man. Only West Ham averaged more crosses per game than Southampton last season. Only Swansea attempted fewer than Liverpool. You may also remember Clyne wreaking havoc in the box in the first game of last season. He might not get forward as often as other fullbacks, but he can be capable once getting there.

I wish I had Steve Finnan's stats from around the time he joined Liverpool in 2003-04, his last season with Fulham and his first few with Liverpool. I bet there'd be more than a few similarities. Clyne's almost certainly better going forward – Finnan scored just once and made only 11 assists in his five Liverpool seasons – but both are/were solid, steady, defensive-minded fullbacks who kept it simple and safe and committed few fouls. Similar was true for Alvaro Arbeloa.

I remember a lot of Liverpool supporters spending those two players' tenure wishing for the spectacular. And we got that with Glen Johnson: a tremendous attacking right-back, arguably the best in the league for his first few seasons, then an utter liability for the last couple when his legs went. Given both Rodgers' philosophy and Liverpool's flaws, solid and steady is probably better for the club at the moment. And it's absolutely an improvement on what Liverpool had at right-back last season.

Comparing Clyne to other Premier League right-backs generally thought of as some of the best last season leads to the same conclusion. He's not the best at anything, but he's rarely the worst either. Clyne completed fewer key passes compared to the other five players, but that might well be a function of what Southampton – read: Koeman – required from its fullbacks. And yes, Clyne's aerial ability will remain a preeminent concern; it's not as if Liverpool are already competent at defending crosses or set plays. But Clyne's seemingly aware of that weakness – every single player he's compared to above, Liverpool or Premier League, attempted more aerial duels. Not even aerial duels per 90. In total. Either that, or Southampton went out of their way to protect him from that weakness.

But otherwise, there are few holes in his game.

Nathaniel Clyne's solid and steady, dependable and durable, consistent, fairly well-rounded, and still fairly young having just turned 24. If everything goes to plan – and, admittedly, that doesn't happen for Liverpool all that often – this should be the right back position nailed down for the next five to eight years.

£12.5m certainly isn't cheap. I can't remember many Premier League teams paying more for fullbacks in the past ten years: Johnson and Moreno for Liverpool, Luke Shaw and Calum Chambers from Southampton, Boswinga, Kolarov, Filipe Luis, and maybe Debuchy are all that come to mind.

But considering Clyne is a newly-established English international, considering the fees Southampton received for Shaw and Chambers and Lovren and Lallana, considering the rise in transfer prices thanks to the ever-increasing influx of TV money, £12.5m actually does kind of seem cheap, even for a player in the last year of his contract.

Welcome to Liverpool, Nathaniel.

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