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Defensive pair key to Saints success

WhoScored's Ali Tweedale picks the top five Premier League centre-halves so far this season, with Southampton's defensive duo well-placed.

Last Updated: 23/10/13 at 21:10 Post Comment

Dejan Lovren: Impressed so far for Saints

Dejan Lovren: Impressed so far for Saints

In terms of goals and action it has been an unremarkable start to the season for Southampton, but the unspectacular has been the basis for an opening two months that sees them milling around the Champions League qualification spots after eight matches.

Robin van Persie's goal against Saints at the weekend, in the build-up to which Wayne Rooney might even have been flagged offside, was only the third they have conceded all season, giving Mauricio Pochettino's side the second-best defensive record in the top five European leagues this season behind Roma (1).

Key to that record and at the heart of that defence has been their only two ever-present outfielders, Dejan Lovren and Jose Fonte, who rank first and third in WhoScored.com's statistically calculated ratings amongst Premier League centre-backs this season, with respective ratings of 7.67 and 7.48. Saints impeccable 'goals against' tally is the result of the players' nigh-on perfect implementation of Pochettino's pressing game, rallying in attacking areas to put opposing defenders under pressure, and if they get past that line, then the midfielders do the same.

The impact on the team is that the defence also have to play high up the pitch in order to ensure gaps are not left between the lines for opponents to exploit. In Lovren and Fonte, Southampton don't have the fastest of centre-backs and when Rooney - just about - broke the offside trap, they were eventually punished. The backline have stepped up as the last man to catch an attacker offside 15 times between them already this season; to put that into perspective, their 15 is more times than seven of the Premier League's 20 teams have managed overall, and that will have played a huge part in only two teams (Man City and Chelsea) having conceded fewer shots on target than Southampton (26).

To play with such a high line requires a fantastic deal of organisation and tactual nous on the centre-backs' parts, and they seem to now be well-drilled in exactly what their manager wants of them. Extrapolating from eight games is, of course, reductive, but if Pochettino's team were to continue to ship goals at this rate, they would concede only 14 goals over the whole season, though the bubble will surely be burst soon enough.

Preventing the Saints pair from occupying the top two Premier League centre-back spots is second-placed Curtis Davies with an average rating of 7.63, who has had an extremely impressive debut season so far for Hull since completing his summer move from Birmingham.

He has been vital to the Tigers' form that has left them ninth in the table, behind champions Manchester United only on goal difference, but having conceded fewer goals. Davies has made the second-most clearances in the Premier League this season (84), whilst also winning the most aerial duels of all non-strikers.

What is more, as his years advance, his reading of the game and his opponents improves, having made a combined total of 37 tackles and interceptions, a tally no other central defender in the top flight can better. Any talk of a recall to the England squad is wholly premature (yes, he was in Fabio Capello's first squad), but as the best-rated English centre-half, if his performances remain at their current level, he could well give Roy Hodgson something to think about.

The fourth highest-rated centre-back in 2013/14 is West Ham's goal hero from the win at White Hart Lane, Winston Reid, who has established himself as Sam Allardyce's first choice at the back; he is the only defender to have started all eight league games so far. The New Zealand international is the only central defender that can match Davies' tackles and interceptions total for the season (37), and he has proved to be incredibly reliable, failing to commit a single error that has allowed an opponent a chance, despite playing every possible minute so far this season, over which he has maintained an average rating of 7.48.

Veteran Sylvain Distin is now in his 14th season in the Premier League but is showing little sign of letting up, even though he will be entering his 37th year at the beginning of December.

The Frenchman has been integral to his side's three clean sheets with 8.9 clearances per game and 27 successes in the air against challenging attackers. He is a technically gifted defender who brings the ball out from the back to find a midfielder more often than he looks long, unlike defensive partner and current England starter Phil Jagielka. Distin's pass success rate of 85.9% means attacks can be built on the defender's prompts, and he is deserving of his ratings of 7.40 so far this season.

By Alistair Tweedale - follow him on Twitter here

All statistics courtesy of WhoScored.com, where you can find yet more stats, including live in-game data and unique player and team ratings.

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