Ange Postecoglou called signing a centre-back a “priority” this January, and Tottenham have dipped back into the Serie A market to bring in Radu Dragusin from Genoa. We assess why they have signed him.
You didn’t need hindsight to know Spurs were taking a huge risk by ending the summer 2023 transfer window with only two recognised centre-backs that their manager trusts in the squad.
Micky van de Ven and Cristian Romero had already shown that they were a perfect fit together, and they had shown that their new partnership had the potential to be a fruitful one for Tottenham for years to come.
And up until November, it looked like the risk might just pay off.
But then Spurs were made to pay. Romero did a Romero and got himself sent off for a wild lunge against Chelsea – leading to a three-game ban – and Van de Ven’s hamstring pinged 12 minutes later. Since returning from suspension, Romero has suffered a hamstring injury of his own (while also getting away with a couple of fouls that might have drawn red cards). With Postecoglou unwilling to play the soon-to-depart Eric Dier or loaned-out-youngster Ashley Phillips, it has meant full-backs Ben Davies and Emerson Royal deputising at the heart of defence. After an unbeaten start to the season, a run of four defeats and a draw saw Spurs’ ever-so-brief title challenge fall apart.
Even if it weren’t for those injuries and suspensions, signing another centre-back in January would surely still have been the “priority” that Postecoglou has called it.
And so, Spurs have completed a deal for Genoa’s Romanian centre-back Radu Dragusin. The 21-year-old becomes the latest import from Serie A – a market Spurs have concentrated on more than any other Premier League side in recent years and have had some real success with. Romero, Rodrigo Bentancur, Dejan Kulusevski, Destiny Udogie and Guglielmo Vicario have all improved Tottenham’s current first-choice XI having moved directly from Italy.
There may be some concern that Dragusin could struggle to adapt to Postecoglou’s style of football. After all, he has been playing for recently promoted Genoa, who have adapted to life in the top flight by allowing their opponents the ball. They rank 18th of 20 teams in Serie A this season for possession, averaging just 42.1%, and allow the opposition to dominate territory, too. As the below graphic shows, Genoa only have significantly more of the ball than their opponents close to or inside their own penalty area.
They rank among the least proactive teams when out of possession, allowing their opponents an average of 14.8 passes per defensive action (PPDA) – the fifth lowest rate in the Italian top tier.
To put it lightly, they aren’t playing much like Postecoglou’s possession-heavy Tottenham, who average 9.7 PPDA – the second-lowest figure in the Premier League this season.
There are a good few reasons not to fear too much, though. Firstly, Postecoglou looks for specific attributes in his players and has plenty of experience in training his squad members to be the players he wants them to be. Take Udogie and Pedro Porro, for example, who a few months ago had basically only ever played at wing-back, and now look like two of the Premier League’s most accomplished inverted full-backs. Or Vicario, who had played behind a much deeper defence at Empoli, but looks perfectly at home playing out from the back and sweeping up behind Postecoglou’s high line. Those three players have been up there with the Premier League’s biggest success stories of 2023-24 so far.
But the main reason to be optimistic that Dragusin could make the adjustment in playing style is that he has done so a few times already in his career. He is adaptable, driven, open-minded and, of course, still very, very young.
“He is totally professional,” Alexander Blessin, the former Genoa manager who signed Dragusin in 2022, tells Opta Analyst. “He works hard on the pitch and in the gym after training. But he was also very inquisitive. We worked with him every week with individual video analysis, and he took everything on. We saw him improve a lot.”
Dragusin moved to Italy back in 2018, when Juventus signed him as a 16-year-old, and he was handed his debut under the possession-focused Andrea Pirlo. Although he only made a few short appearances under him, Pirlo obviously saw in the teenager an ability to play his passing game.
When Pirlo was replaced by Massimiliano Allegri in 2021 – and Juventus’ average possession dropped below 55% for the first time in any season in more than a decade – Dragusin was loaned out to Sampdoria, where he made only 13 appearances, before moving to Salernitana for the second half of 2021-22.
A look at our team styles comparison graph for that season shows the types of team he was playing for. Salernitana were the most direct team in the league, while they averaged the second-fewest passes per sequence, while Sampdoria’s sequences had more passes and progressed up the field more slowly.
Then Genoa and Blessin came calling after being relegated to Serie B. That move and his debut soon after meant Dragusin had played senior league football for four different teams in less than two years. With Genoa aiming to be a possession-dominant force in Serie B, it meant another drastic change in style for Dragusin.
Blessin had seen enough in a player who was still only 20 to be convinced he should do everything he could to sign him, even though he had been playing for a more defensive side than he wanted Genoa to be.
“He was my dream player for Genoa that season,” Blessin says. “Still young, but physically strong, a model athlete and a very good defender.
“We still had to work on some things with him. We did a lot with him on his tactical behaviour and positioning against the ball.
“Also, he is right-footed but played on the left side of defence and sometimes his build-up play wasn’t so strong. But he worked very hard every day and got better and better.”
The results from that 2022-23 campaign speak for themselves. Genoa won automatic promotion straight back up to Serie A, with Dragusin playing more regular-season minutes (3,375) than any other outfielder in the league.
He played a key role in Genoa building through the lines, ranking third in Serie B for successful passes (1,641) and successful passes in his own half (1,213). He also ranked 11th in the league for the number of different open-play passing sequences in which he played a part (1,425). He was clearly heavily involved in the in-possession side of the game for a team that wanted to keep and dominate the ball. They were near the slower and more intricate end of our team style comparison scale in Serie B, having been at the opposite end in Serie A just a season before. Dragusin was key to that transition going smoothly.
He did plenty of important work bringing the ball out of defence. Only two other centre-backs made more carries – defined as moving with the ball a distance of at least five metres – than him (435) in Serie B in 2022-23, with almost half of those carries (208) defined as ‘progressive’, which means moving at least five metres up the pitch towards the opposition’s goal. Dragusin ranked fifth, meanwhile, for carries that ended with a pass (370), showing that he kept his composure and looked to find a teammate after breaking a line or drawing in pressure by carrying the ball forward. His aforementioned passing numbers suggest he was often successful with his passes, too.
Having gone back up to the top flight this summer and made his move to Genoa permanent – finally taking the brave decision to leave Juventus behind for good – Dragusin has seen less of the ball and has had to do far more defending. Again, he has proved able to adapt.
Only Cagliari’s Alberto Dossena (97) has made more clearances in Serie A this season than Dragusin (87). He also ranks third both for headed clearances (45) and aerial duels won (59), with the latter tally the most of all defenders.
When the ball is on the floor, he prefers not to make an attempt to win the ball with a tackle, instead hoping for a physical battle – he has actually had more shots this season (17) than he has attempted tackles (16). He is very strong and extremely quick – something that will help him in Tottenham’s high line and cover across the pitch in the space vacated by the attacking inverted full-backs – so he is more than happy for his opponent to try and take him on.
His tendency not to attempt tackles and the fact he has good recovery pace mean he doesn’t get caught out very often (sounds a bit like Van de Ven, right?). He has only been dribbled past once all season and has also only been booked once. By way of comparison, one of Tottenham’s current stand-in centre-backs, Emerson Royal, is being dribbled past on average 1.7 times every 90 minutes this season and has three yellow cards to his name in 14 hours less playing time than Dragusin (777 minutes compared to 1,710).
It would be difficult for any new signing to be more rash than the woefully ill-disciplined Romero but Spurs fans will still be pleased nonetheless to know how infrequently Dragusin gets booked.
He has mostly played in a back three over the past 18 months for Genoa, but Spurs often build with a three-man defence as both full-backs invert simultaneously, so he could well learn their in-possession game without too much trouble.
He is also extremely versatile; despite playing most of his football at left centre-back, he can play across the back line. In Genoa’s last six games, for example, he has played on the left side of the back three twice, in the middle of the three on three occasions, and once on the right side of the three. The fact that he alone can act as a back-up to both Van de Ven and Romero as a left-sided or right-sided centre-back is a huge bonus. He also has the potential to one day usurp one of them.
Blessin, having worked closely with the youngster, is in no doubt as to Dragusin’s prospects in the Premier League.
“He is a model professional,” he says. “He has the perfect character to make his next step a success.”
All the ingredients are there to suggest this is another Serie A import that Spurs fans should be excited about.