Why it’s time for a defender Player of the Year award

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With the awards season in full swing as the Premier League campaign draws to a close, there has been little surprise regarding the two big prizes given out thus far. Jamie Vardy has won the Football Writers’ award while Riyad Mahrez won the Professional Footballers’ Association award for player of the year.

It would always be difficult for panels to look beyond the stunning story that is Leicester City’s run to the title this year, but leaving aside for a minute whether the two were worthy winners, another point is worth making.

It is now over 10 years since a defender last won the PFA award (John Terry in a campaign where Chelsea romped to the title with 95 points), and since then the award has been purely the reserve of attacking-minded players. While the Barclays Player of the Season award is more well-rounded, with Vincent Kompany and Nemanja Vidic both winning relatively recently, almost half the 21 awards given out thus far have been won by forwards.

Robin Van Persie, Luis Suarez, Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs, Eden Hazard, Gareth Bale, and now Riyad Mahrez are all fine players who would have strong claims of winning the award regardless, but one cannot help but think their candidacies were helped by the fact that it is so much easier to measure an offensive player’s contribution to the team.

Reading Mahrez’s stats this year, you can see that out of the 64 league goals Leicester have scored, he has scored 17 and assisted 11, for a direct involvement of 44%. Aside from being directly involved in nearly half his side’s goals, his pass completion percentage and chance creation statistics too are known and his tricky style of play and excellent close control see him pass the eye test as well.

A defender will struggle to match those stats. Yes, tackles and interceptions are read out, but so much about defending relates to organizing a defense, communicating with the rest of your team, and what you do without the ball. It is not a sexy position. In fact, in some teams it doesn’t matter if the defender has a poor touch, a poor passing range, and can’t shoot or dribble, as long as he’s tall and strong he’ll serve his purpose as a brick wall.

Clean sheets, too, are a team effort. A central defender can have a perfect game but if his partner makes an egregious error, it can cost his side a goal and blot everybody’s copybook. Offensive players capture the imagination. Defensive players do the dirty work.

This holds true throughout the modern game as well. The discussion about who is the best player in the world always focuses on the attacking stars. The last defensive Balon d’Or winner was Fabio Cannavaro in 2006, and before that (leaving aside defensive midfielder Matthias Sammer) we need to go back to the era of Beckenbauer for a defender winner.

Other leagues and sports where attacking play takes most of the credit such as basketball and the NBA feature a Defensive Player of the Year award to reward this most overlooked side of the game. This, alongside a dedicated goalkeeping award would help to reward achievements and roles that are no less important than their offensive counterparts.

Who would be in the running this year? Whenever it is discussed who deserves to go alongside Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the names of Luis Suarez and Neymar, Gareth Bale, and Thomas Muller are often mentioned. Jerome Boateng doesn’t get serious consideration, neither does Giorgio Chiellini. Rounding out the nominations could be some defensive minded midfielders such as Sergio Busquets and excellent fullbacks (the hardest job in soccer) like Dani Alves and Phillip Lahm.

That is an illustrious list, and they do not get the recognition they deserve.

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