The top ten goalkeepers have been sorted. Now for those blokes who stand in front of them and kick everything.
10. Danny Rose
The player with the fewest appearances in the top ten, but the individual who has undergone perhaps the most drastic improvement. Rose did not even start the season as Tottenham’s favoured left-back – that honour was bestowed upon Ben Davies – but he has been integral to a Premier League title challenge that was unthinkable in August.
Rose would have been forgiven for having his head turned by reports of interest from Manchester City and Chelsea last summer. Tottenham had just finished fifth in the league, and harboured prospects of a push for Champions League qualification under Mauricio Pochettino. But City and Chelsea represented a step up, two sides battling for trophies on four fronts, including the Premier League. Rose remained, and the 25-year-old has been rewarded with his first England caps, a place in next season’s Champions League, and recognition from his peers as the best left-back in the top flight. Tottenham have lost four league games this season; just one of Rose’s 22 appearances has ended in defeat. Naturally, that came against Newcastle.
9. Christian Fuchs
Leicester conceded 19 goals in the first 11 games of their Premier League season. The Foxes sat third in the league at that stage. Christian Fuchs started just three of those fixtures. The Austrian has started each of the following 24 games, with the Foxes conceding just 14 times. They are now top of the league, seven points clear of Tottenham, and require just three more from three games to complete an unfathomably successful campaign. Riyad Mahrez will rightfully take the plaudits, Jamie Vardy has provided the backstory and N’Golo Kante has been the engine of Claudio Ranieri’s machine, but Leicester will thank Fuchs if they win the title.
Leicester enjoyed a good summer transfer window. It is not a groundbreaking theory, but a simple one. Kante joined for £5.6million and has proved a tireless revelation. Shinji Okazaki has been delightfully happy and happily delightful for £7m. Robert Huth has reprised his role as Robert Huth for £3m. Gokhan Inler has expertly manned the bench since August for £5m. But Fuchs, Nigel Pearson’s final free-transfer present before departing, has proved as astute as any other deal. Fuchs’ ratio of goals conceded per game is 0.68. Of all defenders to have made 20 appearances or more, only West Ham’s Angelo Ogbonna (0.66) boasts a better record.
8. Aaron Cresswell
Of the players named in last season’s list of top ten defenders, just one has survived for this year’s edition. Reigning champion John Terry has struggled; last season’s runner-up Laurent Koscielny has once more been solid, but that is not quite enough this campaign; the presence of Ashley Williams, Phil Jones and Pablo Zabaleta from 2014/15 remind us that much can and will change in the space of 12 months. But 10th-placed Aaron Cresswell moves up two spots, and deservedly so.
‘An England call can’t be far away,’ concluded last year’s write-up on West Ham’s left-back. Somehow, it still remains a distant possibility for Cresswell. Rose and Ryan Bertrand have been afforded opportunities to impress on the international stage by Roy Hodgson in Luke Shaw’s absence, but not the former Ipswich man. Just seven sides have conceded fewer goals than West Ham this season, and Cresswell has made at least nine more appearances than any other Hammers defender. He has started all but one league game, only two left-backs have scored more goals (two), and only another two have provided more assists (four). How is an England call still so far away?
7. Chris Smalling
The redemption continues. Chris Smalling ended last season with fewer Premier League starts than Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia and Phil Jones in a Manchester United defence whose record was bettered only by Chelsea, Southampton and Arsenal. He started two England games from August 2014 to May 2015. This campaign has seen him become his country’s first-choice centre-half, starting five of their eight fixtures since September. Louis van Gaal deserves plenty of criticism for his tenure at Old Trafford, but Smalling has undeniably improved under the Dutchman’s tutelage.
Smalling has stepped into the void left by Phil Jones’ perma-injuries and a lack of defensive signings made in the summer at United. ‘There is no doubt that Jones is Louis van Gaal’s first-choice central defender,’ was the consensus on ninth-placed Jones in last year’s list. ‘He could still be Manchester United’s next captain and the leader of their defence.’ Smalling has replaced him on both counts. The 26-year-old is tall, strong and quick enough to counteract any type of forward.
6. Virgil van Dijk
Could Southampton repeat the trick? In recent seasons, Saints have lost a myriad of key players, yet have been able to seamlessly replace them in the same transfer window. When Luke Shaw left for Manchester United, Ryan Bertrand ably replaced him. Adam Lallana’s summer 2014 departure heralded the introduction of Sadio Mane. Graziano Pelle was drafted in after Rickie Lambert exited. Cedric Soares counteracted the loss of Nathaniel Clyne. Toby Alderweireld represented a possible upgrade on the departing Dejan Lovren when he joined on loan in summer 2014. When the Belgian left St Mary’s the following year, a replacement would once again have to be sourced.
There were questions over Virgil van Dijk’s suitability when Southampton parted with £11.5million to sign him last summer. Just as with Victor Wanyama and Fraser Forster – the last two players to move from Scottish giants Celtic to the south coast – many wondered whether excelling in a one-team league could translate to success in England. Thankfully for Southampton, Van Dijk has enjoyed a similarly joyous transition as his two former Celtic teammates.
“He is strong, he’s fast and he’s important in the way we like to build-up [from the back],” Saints manager Ronald Koeman said of his compatriot in March. “He is good at short passing, he has a good long pass and he has got a good partnership with Jose Fonte and last Saturday he was good in tandem with Ryan Bertrand. He is also a good header of the ball, has a good shot and is a good free-kick taker. He’s a very good centre-back.”
Strong. Fast. Good passer. Good header. Good shot. Good free-kicks. Good centre-back. And that’s coming from Ronald bloody Koeman.
Best defender this season?
5. Kyle Walker
This season started much like any other for Kyle Walker. On the opening day against Manchester United, the England international attacked down the right-hand side with diligence, providing a crucial outlet for Tottenham. At the other end of the pitch, he made more tackles than any other player (eight). Yet this was Kyle Walker, and his first-half own goal proved to be a decisive mistake.
A question mark has overshadowed Walker’s development from Sheffield United youth to Premier League veteran at Tottenham. Throughout his career, the 25-year-old’s attacking talents have provided scope for criticism, but his defensive traits have left more than a little to be desired. A lack of discipline, poor positioning and too many mistakes had blighted the promise of Walker’s early career. Mauricio Pochettino has nurtured those attacking instincts, but refined his defensive game. No right-back has made more tackles (78), more interceptions (83), or created more goalscoring chances (28) than Walker. If one player typifies Tottenham’s transformation from porous defence to solid unit, it is him. Unfortunately for the England international, while his season could end with Champions League qualification and a starting berth at Euro 2016, he is not the best right-back in the Premier League. He is not even the best right-back in north London.
4. Hector Bellerin
That role belongs to the man who banished Mathieu Debuchy from the Emirates. Given Hector Bellerin’s seamless rise to the first team at Arsenal, it is easy to forget that this is the Spaniard’s first full season of professional football. The ease with which the right-back has settled is alarmingly impressive. Having turned 21 only last month, Bellerin is the youngest on this list by over three years, but the Spaniard is as accomplished as his peers.
With Per Mertesacker and Gabriel contending over who can be more inept and exposed as Arsenal’s right-sided centre-half, Bellerin has been required to provide cover in defence. The 21-year-old is also one of the club’s most valuable components in attack, and so his importance to the Arsenal cause should not be downplayed. He has completed at least 14 more dribbles than the next best right-back in the league, has made 146 more passes than his contemporaries, and has the most combined goals and assists (five) from the position. Bellerin has started and completed all but two games, sitting out both the opening-day defeat against West Ham and the 1-1 draw with Tottenham in November. Without the former Barcelona youngster, the Gunners look a different team.
3. Robert Huth
They say that previous experience of winning trophies is one of the most important aspects in claiming the Premier League title. Great sides such as Liverpool and Newcastle, brilliant players such as Steven Gerrard and Gianfranco Zola, excellent managers such as Rafael Benitez and Kevin Keegan can mount a challenge for the top-flight crown, but if they lack the requisite title-winning nous, it will eventually cost them. The Leicester City squad comprises players who have won the Championship, Leagues One and Two, the Conference, and a multitude of trophies in Argentina, Belgium and Italy. As the only previous winner of the Premier League, Robert Huth is shouldering quite the experienced burden.
Signed by Nigel Pearson last February, Huth moved to the King Power Stadium on loan from Stoke. Leicester were 20th, having won four and lost 14 of their 23 games, conceding 37 goals. Since April 2015, the German has played 43 of a possible 44 games, with the Foxes winning 29, losing four and conceding 40. After inspiring the Great Escape, Huth has joined permanently and helped orchestrate an incredible rise which leaves Leicester on the brink of winning the Premier League title. His central defensive partnership with Wes Morgan has provided the most belligerent and battle-worn backbone possible. And if you are looking for the most crucial goal in this season’s title race, stop your search at January 13: Tottenham 0-1 Leicester (Huth 83′).
2. Wes Morgan
John Terry. Vincent Kompany. Nemanja Vidic. Tony Adams. Steve Bruce. If Leicester are capable of scrabbling together three points from their final three games, Westley Nathan Morgan will join the list of central defenders who have captained their side to a Premier League title. For Morgan to even be considered among five players who either have or one day will go down in English top-flight folklore exemplifies just how remarkable this season has been.
‘Leicester are not yet over the line but, like his teammates, Morgan is showing very few signs of weakness. That old Nottingham Forest chant may have been issued with tongue in cheek, but the new reality is not far from the truth. It really is hard to beat Wes Morgan,’ wrote Daniel Storey in April. The 32-year-old has been Leicester’s immovable object.
In a title challenge that has been built on consistency, Foxes manager Claudio Ranieri has handed starts to just 18 players. By way of comparison, 26 different individuals have started at least one league game for Manchester United, with 23 for Arsenal, and 22 for Manchester City. Only four outfielders have featured for every single minute of this Premier League season. Just one of that quartet is on the verge of lifting the trophy.
Morgan does not rank highly on individual defensive stats – 105 players, including Sebastian Coates, have completed more tackles, 17 players win more aerial battles, and he makes just 21.9 passes per game at a completion rate of 74.2% – but the Jamaican is as fast as he is strong, and is an imposing figure for any opposing striker. Lionel Messi should be afraid.
1. Joleon Lescott
1. Toby Alderweireld
All it took was £11.5million. Tottenham’s defence in the 2014/15 season was riddled with mistakes, impinged by problems and condemned by Federico Fazio. They conceded 53 goals. Mauricio Pochettino identified the issue, acted quickly and drafted in Toby Alderweireld. With three games remaining in this campaign, they have more than halved the number in the ‘Against’ column. Eric Dier deserves credit for his role in defensive midfield, but Alderweireld has been the true difference-maker.
So why did Tottenham face competition from only Southampton for the Belgian’s signature last summer? Place Alderweireld in any team aside from leaders Leicester, and improvement is inevitable. Arsenal would look considerably more solid with the 27-year-old alongside Koscielny. Manchester City spent £70million scouring Europe for Nicolas Otamendi and Eliaquim Mangala when Alderweireld was in plain sight. As impressive as Daley Blind has been, Manchester United required an excellent centre-half – they still do. And they do not come much better than Alderweireld.
Along with Morgan, Alderweireld has played every minute of the Premier League season for Tottenham. The north London side have conceded just 26 goals in 35 games, with their defensive talisman directing proceedings. Alderweireld boasts every necessary attribute for a successful centre-half. He has been dribbled past on just 16 occasions, yet has made only 42 tackles, and has somehow committed just nine fouls. Since moving to the Premier League with Southampton in summer 2014, Alderweireld has played 61 games. In that time, he has conceded 49 goals. He is the other Player of the Year.