Defenders – the permanently underappreciated ilk of footballers. Forget Ballon d’Or trophies, they rarely get player of the month awards. Their performance gets scrutinised a lot when their opponents run riot but if the game finished as a low scoring game, their performance needs to be nothing short of heroic to be even considered worthy of limelight.
But at the same time they are awfully important for their teams. Despite being on top of the league and despite hammering Watford 6-1 at Anfield, Liverpool are still not clear favorites to win the league this season as per most of the pundits out there. The reason – the Reds have let in 14 goals in 11 games. Most of the experts believe that to be title favorites, I bet you could have received good odds over at Bethut.co.uk before the season started. The experts still feel that Liverpool need to improve defensively. Klopp does not like the criticism but it is true. Title challengers score goals but more importantly stop the other team from scoring too.
So I thought it would be good to take a look at the defences and defenders who are doing well in the Premier League this season, as of now (11 games in). This first part is about teams that are defending well.
Top Defences in the League
So if Liverpool have a shoddy defence (they really do!), which teams have some of the better defences in the League? As per Squawka, Arsenal, Chelsea and Burnley have the three best defences in the league currently, followed by Manchester United and Spurs. The top two teams in the league ranking do not feature in the top five defences. Manchester City are a still respectable 7th, but Liverpool is at the bottom of the defence league.
Squawka’s scores are to be interpreted as influence of the defensive (in the case of defence score) actions on the pitch along with several variables including action types, execution, success or failure, and type of player executing the action. Poking around the data also tells us that the score is higher for fewer but effective defensive actions, as compared to more but ineffective ones. Given this definition, Liverpool’s influence in terms of defending really seems shoddy. The fact that they are at the top of the league just emphasises their amazing performances in other areas.
But coming back to the top, Arsenal are deserved leaders in the defence category with 1243 points in defence. Despite playing a bit high in defence, their blocks (2.5 per game) and clearances (19 pg, lowest in league) and fouls (9.6 pg) – desperate actions – are on the lower side. Their interceptions (20 pg) and ability to catch opponents offside (3.4 times pg) are among the best in the league as is their ability to block out passes (9.7 pg). Due to these factors, they allow their opponents to shoot only 10 times per game, and have conceded at an average of once per game (10% of total shots). While they are the best only in fouls committed and offsides earned, their defence is able to exert enough influence on the pitch to earn them the first place.
Chelsea are one of the three teams to have conceded fewer goals than Arsenal – 9 in eleven games. They are also the second best in terms of conceding shots – 8.4 shots per game. Although they are mid to low on all defensive actions – blocks (2.7 shots pg), clearances (20.7 pg), offsides earned (1.7 pg), interceptions (14.4), tackles (26.5) and fouls (9.7). But only Manchester United stop as many dribble attempts as the Blues. Despite middling stats on defensive actions, their score is higher because of more influence their actions have on the field (5 clean sheets in the league on the trot).
While Arsenal and Chelsea are putting in decent but highly influential defensive performances, Burnley are notching up some of the best defensive stats but are not as influential (allow more shots, goals and loss of points). They are in the top defences out of necessity as they block the highest number of shots and crosses (7 and 3.5 per game respectively). They also clear the ball the most often – 36 times per game, while they are 3rd best in earning offsides (2.5) and fourth-best in interceptions. But they allow 21 shots per game, which is the second-worst. This means their defence is open enough to allow so many shots but it only concedes 1.36 goals per game reflecting the great season Heaton is having between the sticks.
Thus far, United have allowed 10.1 shots per game (similar to Arsenal) but have conceded 13 goals, two more than the Gunners. United are third-best in interceptions (17.6 pg) and fourth-best in earning offsides (2.4 pg). But they do clear more than 13 other teams (27.8 pg) and foul more than 17 others (13.5 pg), indicating their hasty and a bit abrasive defense. They have a high volume of defensive actions leading to their top-five defence score but the problems with United lie more in the middle and the front.
Spurs have let in the fewest goals in 11 games – only 6. That’s ~half a goal per game but they do concede more shots per game (10.2) as compared to Arsenal. Despite their high-pressing game, they put in fewer tackles than 13 other teams (26.8 pg) and fewer interceptions (10.2 pg) than 19 other teams. They have the second highest clearances (31.1 pg), but their blocks are in the mid-range (3.1 pg). They also commit the second-highest number of fouls per game (13.7 pg). The image that emerges from this is of a hasty defence that’s allowing more shots than other top teams, but Hugo Lloris is in such great form that his defenders have not had to rue their hastiness too much.
Manchester City and Liverpool (especially the Reds) are less influential defensively but their lethal attacks and strong midfield performances make up for them. Liverpool especially are completely imbalanced, skewed towards attack. They have a defense score of 5 points, which becomes an even crazier mystery when we learn that they concede the fewest shots per game (8.1). But from those ~89 shots, they have let in 14 goals, almost 16% of the shots indicating extreme frailty in goalkeeping.
In the next post of this two-part series, we will look at the top individual defenders and shine some much needed light on the under appreciated lot.