Guest post: The case for the defence (part two)

In part one of his guest post, Ruth_NZ looked at the reasons why Premier League clubs keep clean sheets and divided them into four groups, starting with four sides that prioritise defence (Group A): Chelsea, Southampton, West Bromwich Albion and Watford. In part two he looks at the other three groups and how players from these groups can fit your team structure:

Group B – Pragmatic (Balanced Defensive)

West Ham United, Swansea City, Norwich City, Sunderland

For Group B I am also looking for two things:

  • The manager has a balanced approach and a willingness to adopt to a more defensive style when necessary – in other words the mindset is pragmatic;
  • The team has demonstrated an ability to be organised and to put such tactical adjustments into practice.

Swansea are fairly obvious I think – their 1-0 win at Arsenal at the back end of last season demonstrated it clearly. Some have said they were lucky to get that clean sheet. What I saw was great organisation, resilience and a determination to fight for it. And that’s what I’m looking for, teams that have that kind of character on the defensive side of the game. Swansea are not a defensive team but they are no pushover either.

West Ham have earned their place here on the basis of three stellar away results and three clean sheets in their first six games under Slaven Bilić. They have been very impressive in defence apart from when they got sucked into a goalfest against Bournemouth that obviously infuriated their manager (who made a “rage substitution” of one of his defenders before half-time). I doubt that will be allowed to happen too often, especially when Alex Song strengthens them further in the defensive midfield position.

My inclusion of Sunderland here will probably be laughed out of court. However four clean sheets in eight games under Dick Advocaat last season showed what could be done when the chips were down. Sunderland have added a bunch of new players and probably don’t quite know what they are right now. But I’d expect their defensive resilience to improve in due course and when it does they could offer very good rotation options at bargain prices.

Norwich are similar – they managed nine clean sheets (21 goals conceded) in 25 games under Alex Neil last season. Neil is a pragmatic manager who values good defending, so whilst Norwich may not be the most reliable defensive team right now but I’d expect them to become harder to beat as the season wears on – especially when Martin Olsson is fully fit again as currently they effectively have a winger (Robbie Brady) playing left back.

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Group B players

The idea of a Group B player is that they are good rotation options who can also be played with a fair chance of a clean sheet in tougher-looking fixtures. My recommendations here would be:

Swansea – Ashley Williams.

He’s one of the best centre backs in the Premier League and a good bonus point producer. Some will prefer a fullback (Kyle Naughton or Neil Taylor) for the greater assist potential and I wouldn’t argue with that either. Personally I like the defender likeliest to get three bonus points in a 0-0. I would disregard Lukasz Fabianski because he’s the same price as his defenders (whereas Asmir Begovic and/or Boaz Myhill can be had below the price of their defence).

West Ham – Winston Reid, Aaron Cresswell.

Reid seems to be the best shout for bonus points in general, while Cresswell will probably just about justify the 0.6 hike from his attacking points. Take your pick really, though 5.6m is maybe too much for a defender that you won’t play every week , in which case it would be a matter of getting Cresswell for good fixture runs and then out again perhaps.

Sunderland – None.

None to recommend right now, that is. But the Sunderland defence is dropping in price all the time and later in the season, when (if) Sunderland focus on being hard to beat, it is quite possible that good value rotation defenders at 4.2 or even 4.1 will be available there.

Norwich – None.

Russell Martin has three goals in six games and won’t conceivably sustain it. As with Sunderland it will be a matter of watching and waiting for signs of the defensive toughening up. Norwich have a nice run of games after Christmas – maybe that will be a good time to take another look and if Olsson is 4.4/4.3m around then he could be a good rotation player to have.

Group C – Balanced Attacking

Manchester United, Everton, Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool, Bournemouth, Stoke City, Newcastle United

There are two types of team here:

  • Teams where the manager has a more defensive incline but where the fans or board expect a more offensive approach (Manchester United, Spurs, Stoke);
  • Teams where the manager prefers a more attacking style but tries to restrain himself, not always successfully (Everton, Liverpool, Bournemouth, Newcastle).

In other words these are teams that tend to fall into a more attacking mode by default and often lack the defensive resilience we are looking for in a reliable clean sheet team. United might be wrongly grouped here, it is too soon to tell. I think Louis Van Gaal would prefer his team to be in Group B (or even Group A) but the pressure for United to be an attacking team is very high. The same applies, perhaps to a lesser degree, to Mauricio Pochettino at Spurs whilst Mark Hughes has to demonstrate added attacking flair to justify his replacement of Tony Pulis – that is what he was brought in for.

Meanwhile, it is clear that Roberto Martinez, Brendan Rodgers, Eddie Howe and Steve McClaren are managers that prefer attack but try to temper that to the realities of the Premier League. When their teams are in very good form they may get runs of clean sheets (Liverpool had seven in nine games during their purple patch last season) but they will be harder to predict or rely upon.

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Group C players

I would therefore tend to mainly look among these teams for players with worthwhile attacking or bonus point potential and aim to bring them in for good fixture runs. They wouldn’t be staples I’d expect to keep for long periods.

Manchester United – Marcos Rojo, or possibly no-one.

Luke Shaw was a very good option until his injury, he was in my team in fact. But the card-prone Matteo Darmian doesn’t offer the same threat on the other flank and Chris Smalling is expensive at 6.2m. Rojo should be a regular at 5.4m and we will know that by the time United hit their next good fixture run (Gameweeks 12-18). I wouldn’t be bringing a United defender in before that.

Everton – Seamus Coleman, John Stones.

Everton’s good fixture run is from Gameweeks 11-20, during which they have six home games in 10 games and no traditional “Top 5” teams to face. Coleman’s attacking threat is well demonstrated and in a fixture period where Everton should also achieve some clean sheets he could well be worth his 6.0m tag. Stones is 0.5 cheaper and has less attacking threat but is better for baseline bonus points. He’s clearly a better choice than Phil Jagielka who does less well on bonus points and is also more threatened on game time after the arrival of Ramiro Funes Mori.

Stoke – Glen Johnson. Or possibly no-one until Ryan Shawcross returns.

Stoke are in their good fixture run right now (until Gameweek 11) and Johnson has a good record of assists and the odd goal. The problem is that Stoke keep so few clean sheets; so often they seem to find a way to concede one goal. They only managed two clean sheets before Christmas last season (despite conceding only 45 goals in the whole season) and look set on a similar track again. Johnson is in my current team but I wouldn’t bring him in if I didn’t already have him.

Spurs – Kyle Walker, Eric Dier.

Spurs have a very nice fixture run from Gameweeks 15-25 and by that time we’ll be clearer whether Dier has locked down the defensive midfield position. Otherwise Walker at 5.0m would seem to be a good pick with a decent record of assists. Ben Davies will likely see some rotation with Danny Rose over the Christmas period at least.

Liverpool – None.

I just don’t trust Liverpool defensively under Rodgers and they don’t have a defender with significant attacking prospects. Martin Skrtel is a bonus burglar and could be considered for Liverpool’s decent fixture run (Gameweeks 14-20) but I’d want more threat for 5.5m really.

Bournemouth – None.

I’m not at all convinced that Eddie Howe will prioritise defense sufficiently to make a Bournemouth defender valid outside of a very good fixture run. And the next of these doesn’t occur until after Christmas. Francis at 4.5m is clearly the one to have because of his assist potential but not before Gameweek 21 as far as I am concerned.

Newcastle – Daryl Janmaat, Massaido Haidara.

Newcastle continue to look quite hapless defensively despite McClaren’s obvious attempts to organise them better. However it is true that their opening run of fixtures has been really tricky with United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City to face in a six-week period and other tough games like Swansea away. Newcastle have a much kinder fixture run from Gameweeks 9-19 and Janmaat, especially, could be a very good fixture-based selection during that period. At 4.9 or 4.8 and with a great assists record there is a lot to like there. Haidara at 4.5 also has some attacking prospects and could be a worthwhile rotation option during that period. Tim Krul could rotate well with McCarthy but Heurelho Gomes looks preferable at the same price.

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Group D – Attacking Priority

Manchester City, Leicester City, Arsenal, Crystal Palace, Aston Villa

Group D are teams that are designed to attack first and foremost. It might seem strange to say that considering City’s five clean sheets so far but as I said previously, a lot of that can be put down to City’s “shock-and-awe” attack and Vincent Kompany’s resurgence. It is no surprise that City have gone on to concede five goals in just over two games since Kompany’s injury against Juventus. There is still no evidence that City can be relied on as a clean sheet team, especially whilst Kompany is out. Manuel Pellegrini is on record as prioritising attractive, attacking play. That’s not so good for clean sheet prospects in the long run, though City have such a strong squad that they will doubtless get a fair few.

The same can be said about Arsenal, though Arsene Wenger seems even more stubbornly wedded to his preferred style. The refusal to sign a central/defensive midfielder in the last three transfer windows leaves Arsenal very reliant on Francis Coquelin (a player who was out on loan in the Championship nine months ago). They also have a weakness in central defence, with only the inexperienced Gabriel and Calum Chambers to stand in for the injury-prone Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker. Can Arsenal be relied on as a clean sheet team? Not for me, not right now, not even with Petr Cech in goal.

Leicester, Palace and Villa have one clean sheet between them after 18 games played, managers who like to attack and, in Pardew’s case, have even stated that he “wants his team to focus more on scoring goals than on not conceding them”. Clearly not teams to look to for clean sheets.

Group D players

Manchester City – Aleksandar Kolarov, Kompany.

City are in the middle of a good run of fixtures and only have two tough away games (United, Arsenal) before Christmas. While Gaël Clichy is out injured, Kolarov is gametime secure and he has great attacking potential. Right now, a good pick. As for Kompany, he’s probably less good value but if it is clean sheets you are after, City seem more likely to get them with Kompany in the team.

Arsenal – Héctor Bellerín, Nacho Monreal.

Arsenal have a kind fixture run from Gameweeks 9-20 with only two or three obviously tricky ones during that period. Bellerín and Monreal seem much of a muchness for attacking threat and game time security, but personally I think there are better options at 5.5m.

Leicester – None. Not even the goalkeeper really, there are better options at 4.5.

Villa – None. Not right now.

Villa have a kinder fixture run from Gameweek 18 (Christmas) and possibly Jordan Amavi or Leandro Bacuna could be looked at for attacking threat then. But both seem very heavily priced at 5.0m in a team that can’t be predicted to keep many clean sheets.

Palace – Alex McCarthy.

I wouldn’t touch a Palace defender with a bargepole; none of them have anywhere near the attacking threat to compensate for the very few clean sheets they are likely to achieve. But McCarthy is 4.1m (the cheapest first choice goalkeeper in the game), appears to be his manager’s preferred goalkeeper and has save points on his side. Coupled with a goalkeeper that can play most games he’s a very good selection.

Ruth_NZ suggested defence


I am now transitioning to a 4-4-2 structure in my squad, so for me I want five or six of my seven defensive slots to be filled by long-term “staples” (from Group A or possibly Group B) and one to two variables based on fixture runs and attacking threat, mainly from Group B and C. For a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 formation it is only then a question of whether you effectively “kill” a defender slot by having a 4.0m defender you will never play. So here’s my summary of the players I’d look at. It’s quite a short list!

Staples – Good clean sheet and bonus point or save candidates

  • Goalkeeper pairs – Myhill/McCarthy (Ben Foster/McCarthy later), Gomes/McCarthy, Begovic/McCarthy, possibly Krul/McCarthy if Newcastle improve
  • Defenders – César Azpilicueta, Jose Fonte/Ryan Bertrand, Jonny Evans/Craig Dawson, Craig Cathcart, Williams, possibly Reid/Cresswell

Fixture-based selections (good fixture runs)

  • Goalkeeper – best to have a long-term cheap pair
  • Defenders – Rojo, Walker/Dier, Coleman/Stones, Janmaat/Haidara, Kolarov, possibly Francis, possibly Bellerin/Monreal

By constructing a defence in that way, I believe you give yourself stability, the best chances of consistent clean sheets and the opportunity to maximise returns from more attacking defenders when circumstances favour them without making too many defender transfers.