One of the tragedies of football is that the jobs which are the most unseen are often the most important.
Ballons d’Or and player of the year awards are usually doled out to attacking players for their goals, while goalscoring defenders are heralded above all others. Just look at Garth Crooks’ team of the week on any given Monday morning to see a mismatched team of outfield players all of whom scored goals, including the defenders.
But the Premier League is becoming a more sophisticated place. As statistics enter the collective consciousness to a greater degree, players like N’Golo Kante get recognised more and more, and this season’s PFA Player of the Year was indeed a defensively minded individual.
He’s noted for his tackles, though. And as a defensive player, if you’re not scoring goals, the best way to get noticed is by making tackles. And yet, there’s a school of thought which holds that tackles are an inherently bad thing: if you have to make a tackle, after all, it’s because you’re making up for bad positioning.
But perhaps it’s just a different method of defending.
This season, the likes of Oriol Romeu, Ander Herrera and Jordan Henderson joined Kante on the list of players who made the most tackles, suggesting that tackling is more of a midfielder’s pursuit these days. Defenders don’t make the tackles if they’re protected by midfield players who do it for them. It’s probably little coincidence that N’Golo Kante plays for teams who win things.
It’s when it comes to interceptions that defenders seem to earn their coin. This season, the most interceptions per game was made by Curtis Davies, and that was by a country mile. No one even came close. Whilst the Hull City defender made exactly as many interceptions as Arsenal’s Laurent Koscielny, that was done in far fewer appearances. But the fact that the Hull man made so many may not be a huge surprise – his side’s defence was placed under enormous pressure in the first half of the season.
It’s perhaps more surprising that Nicolas Otamendi is in the top six: Manchester City conceded fewer shots than anyone else in the Premier League this season, even though their defence looked vulnerable on the counter attack throughout. Otamendi’s prowess in winning duels and executing lunging interceptions with Action Man-like physicality are probably the reason for that.
Also on the list, though, is Southampton defender Virgil van Dijk. The Dutchman could be on his way to a bigger club this summer, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him expand on those interceptions next season in a top team with a struggling defence: Liverpool and Manchester City would be obvious destinations.