HOW THE PREMIER LEAGUE HAS SEEN THE RISE OF BALL PLAYING DEFENDERS OVER THE YEARS
The Premier League has seen its fair share of some all-time great defenders. Names like Tony Adams, Sol Campbell, Rio Ferdinand, Steve Bruce, and the like who have lighted up the English game for years. They were renowned for their hard tackles, putting their body in front of the ball whenever the time came and challenging for every loose ball as if their lives depended on it.
This concept of defending is what most people have grown up with, how these players have to be the toughest on the pitch and how their most important task has to be stopping the opposition from scoring. However, in recent times, the role of defenders has shifted radically from just being focused on their defensive duties to a more all-rounded nature in accordance with the game.
Betway sat down with former Premier League stars Nigel Winterburn, Gary Pallister, Mikael Silvestre, and Lauren, where these legends pointed out how the art of defending is ‘lost’. They even looked at the new evolved and different roles defenders have played for title-winning teams in recent years.
BALL PLAYERS NEEDED
The last few years in the Premier League has really seen the rise of defenders who can perform a myriad of other tasks adeptly as well. Nowadays, if one wants to cut it as an elite level defender, they have to hone their passing skills first and foremost. Playing out from the back with short goal-kicks and even with opposition players putting on the pressure is something that has seen a marked increase. Rarely now does a goalkeeper hoof the ball downfield which translates to just how efficient the players immediately in front of him have become.
🗣 Pep Guardiola: "[Johan] Cruyff told us that the players with the best ball-handling skills should be the defenders, as they need to bring you out of trouble and set up the forwards with their play." pic.twitter.com/mfEOiQfnB2
— Football Tweet (@Football__Tweet) June 7, 2019
Manchester City, under Pep Guardiola, have mastered this art to a tee as the Spaniard insists even his custodian has to be a top ball player. John Stones and Ruben Dias formed one of the most terrifying partnerships last season in their title romp but apart from their defensive duties, one major factor has been just how consistently they were able to find a teammate.
Most completed passes this season 🎯
— Premier League (@premierleague) April 8, 2021
Dias, the FWA Player of the Year, had a passing accuracy of 93.5%, completing 2499 of his 2672 passes. Furthermore, the levels of completion increase even higher when it comes to short and medium distances. The Portuguese had 95.4% and 97% accuracy over short and medium distances respectively.
Rúben Dias’ game by numbers vs. Man Utd:
107 total touches
100% duels won
100% tackles won
92% pass accuracy
2 shots blocked
1 clean sheet
Absolutely massive performance. 🇵🇹 pic.twitter.com/KOnDBXeBc9
— Statman Dave (@StatmanDave) January 6, 2021
His partner at the back, Stones, who has been with the Cityzens since 2016 has been putting up mind-boggling numbers ever since. In the three title-winning campaigns since, Stones had a pass completion of 96.4%, 95.2% and 94.3% respectively with almost one-third of them covering progressive distances.
Like Dias, when it comes to short and medium-range passing, it does not drop below 95%. What has been even more impressive is how rarely there is a bad pass. Stones has had only 27 passes intercepted over the past four years combined while a further 22 have been blocked. Clearly, it is a testament to what Guardiola believes in and how he wants his team to play.
Rúben Dias and John Stones have played 970 minutes together in the EPL, in which MCI have conceded 1 goal, (0.09 per 90 mins) and have scored 27 (2.5 P90).
Both display a passing accuracy of 93% (84 acc. passes P90 for Stones and 79 P90 for R. Dias).
— Soccerment (@Soccerment_Blog) February 4, 2021
The only team able to break Manchester City’s hegemony on the title has been Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool in 2019-20. Their rock at the back and talisman Virgil van Dijk has been an imperious presence ever since his signing and that is backed by the numbers. Apart from winning headers most of the time in the air, his passing tells a lot about his importance to the side.
Van Dijk’s passing range completely transforms how Liverpool attack.
✅ Switches to the left wing
✅ Switches to the right wing
✅ Direct passes in-behind
✅ And even when his passes “fail” & are intercepted, they create pressing opportunities which a Klopp team thrives on pic.twitter.com/HYZ8iKs7o2
— Premier League Panel (@PremLeaguePanel) August 15, 2021
The Dutch international averaged 91% pass completion from 2017-18 to 2019-20. During the title-winning year, Van Dijk was unstoppable over short and medium distances as that percentage swelled to 94.2%. Additionally, he had 24 shot-creating actions which is more than Stones has managed ever which underlines how much forward he likes to play the ball.
The same but van Dijk, 18/19
95% Pass acc
56% Long pass acc
74% Pass to final third acc
32% Pass to penalty area acc
83% Dribble completion
68% Duels won
79% Defensive duels won
65% Offensive duels won
65% Aerial duels won
62% 50-50 duels won
60% Sliding tackles won https://t.co/yF4BoOHSmJ pic.twitter.com/89PctShTEk
— The Tactical Times (@Tactical_Times) January 14, 2021
Apart from the winners of the Premier League, there have been other savvy examples who have a propensity to carry the ball forward. Harry Maguire, Andreas Christensen, Thiago Silva are just some of the names who are very assured on the ball no matter their own position at any point of time.
FULL BACKS ARE ALSO FOR ATTACKS
Moving on from the centre-backs and their assuredness on the ball, the role of full-backs has become increasingly attack-minded. Guardiola was one of the earliest pioneers of what is known as “inverted full-backs” and their importance in dominating teams. Indeed, his usage of Kyle Walker, Danilo, Oleksandr Zinchenko, Joao Cancelo over his spell in England have seen them become immensely successful.
Kyle Walker – Premier League 17/18 | #PFAawards
Defensively excellent and a lot of build up passing. The radar doesn't really do his overall attacking influence justice either. Still has six assists this season despite low crossing numbers. pic.twitter.com/cNd0ljcG5K
— Football Radars (@FussballRadars) April 18, 2018
Walker in particular has been involved in almost 200 shot-creating actions over the past four seasons given how upfield he likes to get. Not only do they accomplish their defensive duties but are also expected to join in attacks whenever the chances arise. Moving infield from the flanks helps create incessant pressure on the opposition which allows them to win the ball. That is why playing against City has gotten so suffocating given how effectively they use their press.
These two 𝐚𝐥𝐰𝐚𝐲𝐬 deliver 👏📦
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) June 21, 2021
However, the true essence of just how important full-backs have gotten for a team’s scoring chances is underlined by the two players at Anfield. Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson have redefined attacking play for their position. Their mastery over set-pieces, devastating pace, and intelligent ball playing are encapsulated by the fact that they are the top two assists providers amongst defenders.
📊 Most Premier League assists since the start of the 2018-19 season:
• Andy Robertson = 28
• Kevin De Bruyne = 28
• Trent Alexander-Arnold = 27
Liverpool's full-backs really are special.
— Oddschanger (@Oddschanger) December 19, 2020
They had 25 assists and 42 goal-creating actions combined during 2019-20. The havoc they cause down the flanks is terrifying to contain most times and the fact that they are able to come infield to boost up the midfield numbers also helps a lot.
Some of the other full-backs who have greatly evolved their attacking threats have been Luke Shaw who had a fantastic 2020-21 campaign. Kieran Tierney and Reece James are others who have come to be known for their affinity to provide crosses and even take on shots themselves.
A REJUVENATED ART
Having seen just how much the game has moved on from the days of bloody faces, busted heads and crunching challenges, it is no surprise why managers now want defenders who are capable of more than only restricting themselves to preventing goals. One thing to keep in mind in all of this is that these players are no slouches when it comes to their core values. The art of defending has definitely not been lost, it has been upgraded to a much cleaner and effective version.