Consistency paying dividends for the Premier League's best Centre Back combinations
On the face of it alone, it is difficult to know what to make of the fact that 98 different starting centre-back combinations have been used in the Premier League this season. It certainly sounds like a lot, at first glance. 21 game weeks of 10 games is 210 matches thus far, so that means 420 separate lineups named. That makes it nearly one in every four team selections that there is a change at centre-back. In a position where consistency is one of the most essential of ingredients for the success of a partnership, this suddenly seems like a lot of unwanted chopping and changing.Take
Take Chelsea, for example. José Mourinho has had the luxury of knowing his first choice central defensive pairing from the very start of the season and has reaped the benefits of them both remaining fit. Chelsea have conceded only 19 goals in the 20 Premier League games John Terry and Gary Cahill have started together this season - and that includes the catastrophe that was the 5-3 defeat at White Hart Lane. People often talk of the strength in depth that the richest clubs are afforded, but depth at the back has been far from the reason for the current league leaders' formidable defensive record.
At the other end of the spectrum, Manchester United boss Louis van Gaal has had to contend with a vast number of injuries at the back. He has also shown a great deal of uncertainty, too, however, in what exactly is his first choice centre-back combination; he clearly doesn't even know whether he prefers a back 3 or 4. In the recent draw at Tottenham all three of the substitutes he introduced were defenders, and none had any impact on the game.
Van Gaal has used some 13 different central defensive combinations in just 21 matches so far this season, some 5 more than any other team. Chris Smalling-Marcos Rojo has been their most frequently used pairing, utilised just 4 times, with seven different combinations each used in only one game. With the number of injured absentees in central defensive positions down to only one at Old Trafford (in Rojo), Van Gaal was (almost) able to select freely against Southampton at the weekend.
He opted to pick another new combination (Jones-Smalling-Blind) and also made a change to it midway through the second half, with Tyler Blackett preferred to Paddy McNair and Jonny Evans as Luke Shaw's replacement and Blind shifted further forwards.
Granted, he hasn't been helped by woeful injury problems at the back, but Van Gaal making changes so frequently will not have bred confidence in his team. They once again appeared shaky at the back this weekend and the uncertainty their manager shows just further highlights the inherent problems they have. The lack of organisation for Dusan Tadic's winner on Sunday and Ryan Shawcross' opener the week before might even have been avoided had the defence played together more often. It still isn't entirely clear who the defensive marshall, the organiser, is. A little consistency could go a long way.
For Aston Villa, organisation has been key, but Paul Lambert, too, has made too many changes. Whereas Van Gaal has done so to preeminently solve problems, Lambert's changes have been purely reactive. As and when his team has success, the Scot keeps things as they are, and only makes alterations when he sees that things are not going to plan. A run of clean sheets and low-scoring games of late have seen Lambert make a couple of attacking changes but settle on the centre-back pairing of Ciaran Clark and Jores Okore.
When starting together, Clark and Okore have seen Villa concede an average of 0.83 goals per game, making them the joint-second best partnership that has been used at least 5 times in the Premier League this season, with as good a record as Vincent Kompany with Eliaquim Managla and Jose Fonte with Maya Yoshida. Interestingly, at the start of the season, these two were considered fourth and fifth choice of Villa's centre-backs, with injury and suspension allowing them the opportunity to stake a claim for a starting berth.
They are the eighth different combination Lambert has used this season, and with Clark's suspension and Philippe Senderos and Ron Vlaar injured, there will be a ninth used this weekend, as Okore partners Nathan Baker. Time will tell whether this combination has any legs, but be sure to see them keep their place if Villa manage another clean sheet at home to Liverpool this weekend.
The Premier League's most impressive defensive partnership hails from this season's surprise package, Southampton. Fonte and Toby Alderweireld combine muscle, experience and leadership with youthful exuberance, power and athleticism to wonderful effect.
The loan signing of Belgium international Alderweireld was certainly something of a coup and he has become almost indispensable to the league's best defence. When he was forced off after 21 minutes at Old Trafford last week it was considered a minor disaster for the team, but Florin Gardos deputised well enough under the stewardship of captain Fonte, who deserves great credit for Saints' exemplary defensive record.
Their first choice duo have started 13 games together, shipping a Premier League low of 0.69 goals per game, and is one of only 4 pairings used by Ronaldo Koeman.
While injury - and a distinct dearth of defensive ranks - has rendered Arsenal unable to keep up standards at the back, defensive errors have meant Mauricio Pochettino has continually changed his defence at rivals Tottenham. Laurent Koscielny alongside Per Mertesacker is amongst the most watertight of combinations (0.9 goals conceded per game), while Spurs are picking up more points per game with Federico Fazio partnering Jan Vertonghen than with any other combination.
At Liverpool, 7 different combinations have been used already this season, that's 2 more than over the whole of last campaign. Their defensive shortcomings are well documented, and are undoubtedly borne out of Brendan Rodgers' struggles to decide on his best back line.
With United and Villa amongst the teams with the best defensive records in the league, it seems unclear quite how important consistency truly is at the back. However, a partnership that gets to know how to play with those around them also has benefits going forwards, with those at the back charged with starting moves off.
Both Van Gaal and Lambert's sides have looked decidedly lacklustre going forward too often this season, and those problems stem from incoherence between defence and midfield. Chelsea, Southampton and Manchester City, the current top 3, are showing the others how it should be done.
Which central defensive partnership have you been most impressed by this season?