With less than a month to go before the season kicks off, carrying on from our focus on a number of top young full-backs across Europe, we look at a handful of centre-backs who will be looking to continue their impressive development in the 2012/13 campaign. The following five players have been chosen as a few lesser-known alternatives to keep an eye on next term, and all will begin the season under the age of 23.
Matthias Ginter (Freiburg) - 6.77
Just two days after his eighteenth birthday, Freiburg centre-back Matthias Ginter marked his first senior appearance for the club with a goal from the bench back in January and went on to feature heavily in an impressive end to the campaign. In the 10 games that the youngster started since March, the side lost just once on the final day of the campaign to champions Dortmund, with Ginter integrating into the first team set up with real maturity.
Standing well over six foot, the teenager's main strength is unsurprisingly in the air, winning more aerial duels (2.8) than any teammate last term with an impressive 73.2% success rate. An average of 2.8 interceptions per game also shows an admirable reading of the game at such a tender age, though if there is one real area for improvement it may lie in the German's tackling, with an average of 1.2 tackles a match fairly meagre for a centre-half.
Over 13 appearances in the league Ginter averaged a WhoScored rating of 6.77, but when only counting the 10 starts he made at centre-back this jumps to an impressive 6.91, and it is clear he may have an important role to play in ensuring survival again next season.
Matija Nastasic (Fiorentina) - 6.76
Playing in a three-man backline in much of his appearances in a debut season for the Viola, 19-year old Serbian teenager Matija Nastasic's game developed with the experienced heads of Gamberini and Natali alongside him last season. The teenager settled in quickly at the club despite a difficult season and having helped his side keep clean sheets against the likes of AC Milan and Roma at the end of last year he found himself as a regular when the league reopened after the winter break.
Consistency is still, unsurprisingly, an issue for the youngster, picking up some excellent ratings over the season but also some pretty shoddy ones. Despite this, Nastasic manages to top his aforementioned defensive mentors for both tackles (2.2) and interceptions (2.5) per game. The Serbian was, however, dribbled past (12) twice as many times as Natali and four times as many as Gamberini, as well as winning significantly fewer aerial duels per game (1.2), so there are certainly things he still has to learn.
An excellent pass accuracy of just under 82% will do his chances of getting more game time next season no harm and if new coach Vincenzo Montella sticks with a back three Nastasic could develop even further next season. Either way, with Cesare Natali now 33, Fiorentina seem to have a ready made replacement lined up for the long term.
Ezequiel Munoz (Palermo) - 6.71
Palermo's signing of Argentine compatriot Matias Silvestre last season saw youngster Ezequiel Munoz play a bit part in the first half of the campaign after an impressive debut season at the club. The 21-year old did, however, manage to force his way back into the side after the winter break and hasn't looked back since with some assured performances in both the heart of the defence and on the right. The quick departure of the aforementioned Silvestre to Inter this summer should see Munoz feature at centre-back more often again next season and he is likely to have a key role.
A physically uncompromising defender, Munoz's tender age is somewhat unbelievable when looking at him and he also shows maturity beyond his 21 years in his play. Averages of both 2.6 for both tackles and interceptions per game are better than those of the outgoing Silvestre, while he is also very willing to throw his body on the line, blocking 9 shots last season despite only starting 8 games at centre-back.
An excellent near 74% success rate from aerial duels, of which he wins 1.8 per game on average, goes to prove that he has everything it takes to become a top player. Without any real weaknesses to his game in a defensive sense, Munoz should star for the Rosanero next season and may well be set for bigger and better things beyond that.
Jannik Vestergaard (Hoffenheim) - 6.68
The third of four teenagers here, 19-year old Hoffenheim defender Jannik Vestergaard is another of those to jump at his opportunity in the first team and cement down a place in the second half of last season. Although he didn't do enough to break into the Denmark squad for Euro 2012, having played at every youth level for his nation he looks set to make the step into the senior side sooner rather than later and a full season in the side for the German outfit would do him no harm.
Breaking into the team just before the winter break, Vestergaard made the most of teammate Isaac Vorsah's African Cup of Nations duties and did enough to ensure the Ghanaian started just 3 more league games upon his return. The Dane netted twice as well as picking up 2 man of the match awards with his tackles per game average of 2.6 up on fellow centre-halves Vorsah and Compper. However, standing over 6'5" tall it is aerially where the teen is busiest, winning a massive 2.1 duels per game, though a success rate of just over 59% is modest given his height.
More room for improvement lies in his tendency to commit to tackles, meaning he was dribbled past a costly 28 times last season, though he is far from dirty, conceding just 1 foul per game. The youngster certainly has a long way to go but is likely to start the season in the side and will only improve with playing time.
Kurt Zouma (Saint Etienne) - 6.53
A WhoScored rating of 6.53 may not seem something to write home about, but in handing Kurt Zouma as many as 21 Ligue 1 appearances (14 starts) at the age of just 17 it is clear how highly the defender is rated at Saint Etienne. When starting in his favoured centre-back position, as he did 12 times last season, Zouma's average rating stood at a significantly more encouraging 6.73 and gives reason to those who see him as one of the brightest prospects in France.
Standing at 6'2" inches tall, Zouma has impressive aerial stats, winning 1.5 duels per game with an overall success rate of over 70%, proving he is already capable of handling himself at a high level. His pass accuracy of 83.7% is superb for such a young defender and is a key strength to his game, while he proved all but impossible to beat last season, being dribbled past on just 3 occasions.
However, his tackling statistics are fairly poor as he looks to avoid diving into challenges. He averaged just 0.8 tackles per game last season, committing just 0.6 fouls a match in the process, and may need to be more willing to get involved in the dirty stuff more often if he is to become a top defender. On the positive side, decent averages for interceptions (1.5) and clearances (5.9) per game are further cause for optimism for Saint Etienne fans, though keeping hold of the youngster could prove difficult in the coming years.