If you take a look at the goals conceded column in the league table, you will be able to see that we third best in the league in that regard. Only 5 goals separates us from Manchester City, who have the tightest defence in the entire league thus far. Compare that to 2011/12 season in which we had the 8th best defensive record. Even Sunderland and yes, Sp*rs did better than us last season.
We have to talk in relation. By that I mean comparatively to how others are doing within the same season. We currently have conceded the same number of goals as champions Manchester United. The big difference is in terms of the number of goals scored, in which they have 13 more than us at 79 goals. We scored 74 goals last season, not hard to imagine that if the improved defensive resilience was paired with a maintained attacking force, we could have been much closer to the champions.
I’m not going to focus on the attacking side here but rather on the “improved” defensive performances that we’ve done this season. We’ve even cut down on the own goals, none this season compared to 5 in the league last season. Thanks to @Chiefinho and @audreytal for that. The numbers are there to be seen but we remember the criticism all season about how our individual defensive errors are costing us points and wins.
It’s hard not to see the improvement that we’ve made since winning at Bayern Munich. However, it would be a failing not to see an overall improvement in the team compared to last season. When a defence is good or not, generally the consensus depends on whether the centre backs are playing well. The midfielders and strikers also perform their defensive duties, as does the full backs but it’s the centre backs who form the cornerstone of any defence.
Here’s how ours compare.
The graph below shows the defensive attributes of Koscielny, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Ferdinand and Vertonghen. Immediately, it’s obvious that Koscielny and Mertesacker mirrors that of Ferdinand while the two former Ajax players have similar traits. The latter duo likes to nip in early and this is reflected by their high interception rates. Also, on the negative side, both are also more likely to be dribbled past and commits higher number of fouls because they don’t always time the interceptions right.
As for Koscielny, Mertesacker and Ferdinand; the graph shows that they are similar in a lot of ways. All 3 indicates that they pick and time their interception well and are less likely to conceded fouls. Though Koscielny do sometimes get caught out because he gets a little overzealous with his challenges. For Mertesacker, his lack of pace exposed his frailties when getting run at, leaving him with the highest number of times he was dribbled against, amongst the trio.
What we clearly lack behind the other two would be in the area of picking the right defending positions or reacting to passages of play. The latter, inclusive of play where the centre back might be at fault for creating the danger in the first place. Ferdinand and Vertonghen doing more clearances than all 3 of our centre backs combined. All training ground work, to improve on this. We’ve heard about how George Graham worked his defenders to death and got each one of them to automatically know where to best position themselves. Steve Bould was part of that unit and it’s up to him to ensure the same efficiency exist within the current squad.
For the modern game, the defenders can at times be pivotal to the attacking side of the game as well. However, these part of the game could impact on the defensive side of things. Vertonghen’s tendency to support the attack, very telling in the above graph. He does most of the forward play well but it is also because of his cavalier nature, that he gets dispossessed a lot and gives the opponent the chance for a quick break. In the above aspect, our trio of centre backs comes off really well. Koscielny and Mertesacker seldom drive forward and thus doesn’t lose possession of the ball. Our improvement could be tied down to them being selected as the partnership and ensuring that we don’t get exposed on the counter attack with our centre backs in off positions.
Last but not least, we come to compare their passing. Retention of possession when successful and possibility of being attacked when unsuccessful. It’s an important component of the game. If the accuracy of the passing is off or the choice between going short or long is wrong, we are only going to surrender possession and give the opposite side the chance to put our defence under pressure. It is obvious that we should resort to minimise long balls whenever we can until such times that our accuracy in that regard has improved. As for the short passes, the numbers doesn’t show whether those are forward, sideways or back passes. Koscielny and Vermaelen needs to pick and choose the right pass to as not to put ourselves under pressure.
In summary, I don’t think there’s a huge discrepancy between the quality of our centre backs against what is perceived widely as the best centre backs in the league this season. That’s not to say we’ve got nothing to improve. Defensive positioning for one, is an area where the coaches could look at. Like I said earlier, defending is not only for 2 players, the other 9 will have to do their job well also. However, I believe we’ve got the right tools and player to become a resolute team on the defensive aspect. Hopefully the standards will only improve next season.
(All data from the wonderful WhoScored website)