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It’s two weeks into the season but it’s never too early for a power ranking.
I’ve judged all 20 Premier League teams out of 5 on the strength of their starting centre-backs and then out of 5 on their squad depth for the position. To boost my credentials, in case you’re a relatively new reader, I’ve been writing about and analysing centre-backs for about four years now. There’s basically no-one else who does it, but I hope I more than pass over that low bar.
The scores roughly go as follows:
The Premier League is a bit big to do it all in one, so I’ll split it 20-11 (the more interesting half, really) this week and 10-1 next week. Teams are scored on the combined score of strength and depth, and where there’s a tie it’s the strength of the starters that’s the tie-breaker.
Don’t shout at me for the power rankings, they were handed down on stone tablets from the footballing gods. (The only teams I apologise in advance to are the promoted ones, whose CBs I’ve had less chance to watch and receive low scores kind of by default).
Strength of starters: 1. Depth: 2.
I’ve put Norwich and the next team as equal 19th given that I haven’t had a huge amount of time to watch them. I hope to come back to the rankings later in the season, because the score for depth in particular is a bit of a default.
Still, Grant Hanley’s own goal against Liverpool, while unfortunate, betrayed genuine footwork issues and Ben Godfrey hasn’t been entirely convincing, in my eyes.
That said, I quite like them as a combination. Godfrey has the speed and on-ball ability to make up for Hanley’s deficiencies in those areas. Given more time to watch them, I can see them moving up my power rankings, particularly if the pair’s complementary skillset continues to shine through.
Strength of starters: 1. Depth: 2.
Tactical innovation aside, I’m unsure how good the trio of Chris Basham, John Egan, and Jack O’Connell are defensively. Each of them have had shakey moments in the parts of the opening games that I’ve watched.
What they — not just the centre-backs but, like Norwich, the team itself — have going for them, though, is the team chemistry. Communication or wavelength problems are going to be far less frequent if you’ve played with each other for a year (or more in some cases).
I’m sorry Blades and Canaries. Both of you have piqued my interest to keep an eye out for you in the coming months, if that’s any consolation.
Strength of starters: 1.5. Depth: 2.
One of only two teams who I’ve given a something.5 score to. I have very few opinions about Bjorn Engels, apart from I hope to see some good communism jokes in future (if he does a Vinnie Jones then will he be ‘seizing the means of production?’). But Tyrone Mings is pretty good. Not £20m good, but the price factors into the point made above about Sheffield United and Norwich City. He’s played with a bunch of the players around him for a season, and that matters, particularly in defence.
Mings seems a pretty decent presence at the back too, which Bournemouth could use, but I wonder how much of an influence John Terry has had on Villa’s CBs. I’ll defer to Cherries fans but I don’t recall Mings being the leader he seems to be at Villa when at Bournemouth.
They have James Chester as back-up too, which is decent.
Strength of starters: 2. Depth: 2.
Southampton is the only team left who I feel like I’ve marked harshly, but I’m not sure which part of my scoring system I’d add another point onto. I’m also probably penalising their centre-backs for how bad the team is, because for a team who regularly plays with a three at the back they frequently look pretty shaky back there.
Hoedt has qualities but is a big guy, with the movement and speed (running or just in sharp movements like tackling) limitations that brings. I like Vestergaard slightly less — I think his awareness and positioning are a bit iffier — but he’s also a big unit and, as The Athletic’s Southampton correspondent Carl Anka pointed out, is surprisingly mediocre in the air for such a tall guy.
Jannik Vestergaard is 6ft 6, but is one of the shakier defenders I've seen in the air in a while. Wonder when he got his growth spurt, seems like he's never worked out the muscles in his lower back and built that leaping technique.— Carl Anka (@Ankaman616) August 19, 2019
(Related, Anka also has a good piece on Southampton’s set-pieces here)
Yoshida is decent if a bit error-prone. Jack Stephens is… I mean, he’s decent on the ball. I’ll keep an eye on him to see if I warm to him any more than my currently fairly cool opinion.
In a better system, would some combination of Vestergaard, Hoedt, Yoshida, and Stephens be a comfortable mid-table partnership? Maybe? Until then, am I convinced that they serve as good depth for each other? Maaaaaybe?
If some of them find form, they could well move up the rankings But Southampton’s defence confuses me at the moment, and not in a good way.
Strength of starters: 3. Depth: 1.
Every time I think of Everton’s centre-backs, I think I’m forgetting someone.
“Ok, so they have Michael Keane, Yerry Mina… Uh. They have Mason Holgate? But aren’t I forgetting someone?”
Kurt Zouma is back at Chelsea. An old Phil Jagielka is back home at Sheffield United. I’ve checked the club website once again and yup, that’s it. Maybe Fabian Delph fills in back there? idk.
Keane reads the game decently and is fine on the ball, but is really slow on the turn. Yerry Mina is pretty good. But they have the absolute worst depth in the league. They’re really praying neither of their starters gets injured.
Strength of starters: 2. Depth: 3.
Now we reach a mass of teams who all score similarly. I’ve separated them a little bit on some general feelings I have, but there’s plenty of scope for these teams to move up or down.
Burnley usually play with a system that is pretty nice for centre-backs, with a pretty firm positional/zonal system that takes a lot of awkward decisions out of their hands. It actually makes it pretty hard to judge their ability, although I think Ben Mee and James Tarkowski are ok. Ben Gibson and Kevin Long on the bench are both passable too so, considering the system, they should be able to weather injuries pretty well.
Strength of starters: 2. Depth: 3.
Shane Duffy and Lewis Dunk are what they are, and now Graham Potter has Dan Burn playing as an overlapping centre-back…
Leon Balogun did well enough last season when he had to fill in for Lewis Dunk, and if injuries hit then they could always drop to two centre-backs instead of the three they’re currently playing.
No strong opinions here, so moving swiftly on.
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Strength of starters: 2. Depth: 3.
I can’t decide if these scores are unfairly high, or should be switched around, or what. I don’t like Sebastian Prodl, who’s a back-up, but I do quite like Christian Kabasele. Adrian Mariappa is there too, so the depth is pretty decent even if it’s not hugely inspiring.
I kind of like both of the starters too. I rate Craig Cathcart, and have been sad that he’s struggled with injuries for periods of the past few seasons. Craig Dawson is a decent addition too. Solidly mid-table decent? Hmmmmmm. We’ll see.
Strength of starters: 2.5. Depth: 2.5.
I’m confused about Bournemouth. If Southampton’s CBs have taken the brunt of me not giving them the benefit of the doubt then Bournemouth’s are benefitting from me giving it to them.
As slightly-more-downmarket-Phil-Jones as he can be, I like Steve Cook. I think he’s got decent footwork and he’s decent enough on the ball and a decent enough reading of the game. But he makes weird decisions rushing into challenges.
So does Nathan Ake who, at times, also looks like he’s kind of dizzy. It would explain the odd balance and decisions that he at times suffers from. THE TWO OF THEM TOGETHER SHOULD PROBABLY BE A BAD COMBINATION. But they both seem to have the quality to more or less muddle through it.
The midfield in front of them isn’t always convincing either, although their styles are more equipped to deal with the mess of a porous midfield than other CBs. Simon Francis and Chris Mepham are ok as direct back-ups.
Their depth should probably be downgraded. Their starter strength could be upgraded. They confuse me but are exciting to watch. We all have players who we like more than their quality really merits. Danny Welbeck is a good attacking example of this. For me, in terms of centre-backs, I think it’s Cook and Ake.
Strength of starters: 2. Depth: 4.
Jamaal Lascelles, Florian Lejeune, Federico Fernandez, Ciaran Clark, Fabian Schar, Paul Dummett as a passable wide centre-back in a 3 option… Newcastle are weirdly stacked at centre-back for a team who, most likely, will be fighting relegation this season.
I’ll be honest, I’m a little puzzled as to how Dummett started against Norwich ahead of both Fernandez and Clark, but I’m sure Steve Bruce had his reasons. As a usual left-back, Dummett probably understands the positional aspect of that wide centre-back role fairly well? *shrugs*
But you could throw any of those first five together and come up with a pairing, or trio, that I would mostly like (for a club of Newcastle’s level). They all have deficiencies of some form, but they all also have some nice qualities. Lascelles has good footwork and is clearly a good presence, Schar is very cool on the ball even if his defensive decisions are questionable, Lejeune reads the game pretty well and has a decent pass on him, Fernandez and Clark are both CBs that I think a lot of the bottom-third teams would appreciate having on their books.
If the rest of the Newcastle team was better (read: capable of constructing a half-decent attack), then this centre-back corps would be the envy of the bottom-half of the table. As it is, they’re probably going to get overlooked, and if Newcastle go down, there’ll be a bunch of teams looking to strengthen their squads with a bargain.
I hope they don’t. Bonne chance, Newcastle.
Well then, that’s 20-11 out of the way. I hope I’ve treated your club relatively fairly, and I mean it when I say this is the more interesting half [boy, way to sell next week’s newsletter Mark]. There are a lot of CBs mentioned here who have some nice features, but some flaws, and it’s intriguing to see how they and their teams coax the former out and cope with the latter.
Next week we’ll storm up the table from 10-1. Who will make the (meaningless in this league table) Top Four? Who will be in danger of slipping into the bottom half? And who reigns supreme at the top?
Send me your guesses and generally get in touch about the newsletter. Either feedback on this edition or on Get Goalside! in general, it’s great to hear from you. If you have a quick comment about any team’s CBs (maybe I’ve been unfair to your team, maybe you’re just a big fan/sceptic of a particular club) then I’ll put that in next week’s newsletter.
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