Do their goalscoring exploits actually mask their flaws?

Everyone loves Fantasy Football, it dominates our thoughts the closer we get to a new Premier League season, we can spend hours pouring over the information before we settle on our side. A key component of this is picking players that will score goals in positions that don’t normally rely upon them, such as a goalscoring centre-half or full-back. With this in mind, do we overrate goalscoring defenders? Ando do we let them off lightly when it becomes to their defensive deficiencies because they happen to be good at finding the back of the net? Fantasy Football has a lot to answer for….

I’m a sucker for goalscoring defenders may I just say begin with. My fantasy football teams at school always, always included Everton’s David Unsworth (45 goals in 445 games) and Leicester’s Matt Elliott (70 goals in 589 games), with the occasional nod to Julian Dicks (55 goals in 379 games). They were invaluable, the poorness of the defences they played in was completely counter-acted by the points they’d get me for their inevitable solid five-goal a season return. Heck, I even had Gary Cahill (21 goals in 234 games) and Mats Hummels (17 goals in 162 games) in my Euro 2012 side until injury cruelly robbed me of the former, while the other never bloody scored.

The short but simple fact is that everyone loves a goalscoring defender. We love the unexpected nature of their forward forays up the pitch. We love the fact that because they can clear the ball a whopping great distance means, this all of a sudden qualifies them as a free-kick expert. However, does this mean that we shy away from criticising them for doing the job that they are actually paid to do, which is defend?

According to the Premier League’s own player performance index, Arsenal’s Thomas Vermaelen was the 58th best player in the top flight last term. His season was interrupted by injury on ocassion, but he still managed to complete 29 league games, scoring six goals in the process. He made 29 clearances, 11 blocks and helped his side to 11 clean sheets during his time in the starting eleven. At the other end of the pitch, though, he finished the campaign with 37 shots, five crosses and one assist – not too bad at all for a centre-back it has to be said, certainly more than a lot of the deadwood currently at the club are capable of (I’m looking at you Park Chu-Young and Marouane Chamakh).

On the face of things it would seem like he had a very good season, would it not? However, Vermaelen has developed a worrying propensity to get dragged out of position, as was clearly in evidence during the 3-3 draw against Norwich last season at home, where he was quite frankly all over the place. He was far from his best throughout the course of the campaign, with partner Laurent Koscielny the superior partner for the most part.

Upon arriving in England, it was noted that at just 6ft tall, he looked a tad on the short side to be a commanding centre-half, but his aerial ability is one of his greatest strengths and plays a large part in his prowess in front of goal. To talk about Vermaelen in terms of criticism, he rarely comes in for any flak considering his poor positioning.  He’s quick on the ground, mobile and decent on the ball, so anything that isn’t seen as a positive is conveniently glossed over.

Jonny Evans last season was the main beneficiary of Nemanja Vidic’s season-ending knee injury, going on to play 27 times for Manchester United as they were pipped to the post for the title by bitter rivals Manchester City. He has often been made out to be a scapegoat by many fans, yet he managed 30 blocks, 56 clearances and 16 clean sheets in less games than Vermaelen. The crucial difference is he doesn’t offer anything going forward and any mistake at the back is magnified tenfold, whereas with Vermaelen it is not.

We often gloss over the glaring weaknesses in a defender if they manage to chip in with the odd goal. John Arne Riise had an excellent first few years at Liverpool, but then spent his last two seasons trying to replicate his goal against Tottenham from 40 yards out every single time he crossed the halfway line. Matt Taylor suffers from a similar flaw. To call it frustrating to watch would be an understatement, yet at Fulham last season, shorn of his pace at 31 years of age, he looked a much better defender than his final couple of years at Anfield, but he had no goals in 40 appearances to show for it, despite his best efforts at breaking his duck.

Taye Taiwo managed to score 23 goals in 253 games at Marseille, where his job was to bound beyond the winger down the left-hand flank and he became a key part of their style of play. He then moved to AC Milan but struggled, as it seemed nobody actually checked first if he was any good at this defending lark before being farmed out to QPR on loan in the second half of last season. He’s full of energy, built like a tank but seems oddly unsure of where to actually stand when he’s on the back foot and is hugely susceptible to a ball played in behind him, a common occurrence for pacy full-backs these days.

Andreas Granqvist managed to bag 11 goals for Groningen in the Eredivise the year before last, but Wigan fans will remember a defender frightfully out of kilter with the pace of the top flight, yet AC Milan and Inter are rumoured to be interested in the Swede this summer after a decent first year at Genoa in Italy. It’s all about striking the right balance.

Ian Harte, Marco Materazzi, Daniel van Buyten, Naldo, Alex all made headlines for their goalscoring exploits in their respctive leagues over the years but they all have obvious flaws to their game. It’s when the goals become solely what they are remembered for that you start to worry and Vermaelen is in danger of falling into that trap.

The likes of Brazilian centre-half Juan, Sami Hyypia, Robert Huth, Sergio Ramos and Diego Lugano are all remembered for their defending first and foremost, with their attacking prowess just an added bonus, which is why they’re quite rightly regarded as superior players to the aforementioned list above, Vermaelen aside.

It may not solely be the result of Fantasy Football, but something has become distorted along the way – goalscoring defenders are judged on their abilities further forward just as much as they are on their ability to stem an attack at the back and that’s a worrying trap to fall into. We should treat the goalscoring defender as a positive, they bring unexpected joy to the terraces and every side likes to have one in their side, but they have to be good enough defenders first, otherwise, that’s a slippery slope to head down.

You can follow me on Twitter @JamesMcManus1

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