With the PFA Young Player and Player of the Year nominees for the current season having been released last week, only one of the 12 nominees plays a defensive role for their team. Jack Butland, Stoke’s goalkeeper, was shortlisted for the Young Player of the Year Award, yet with a season, which has seen impressive defensive performances from multiple players, why is it that the art of defending is so undervalued?
The goal is why, as fans, we watch football. It is that rush of happiness when our team breaks through a wall of ‘baddies’ and gets the ball into the back of the net. It’s that “finally” moment when your team goes in front, equalises or practically kills the game off. It’s the memories of the tricks and flicks, the intricate passing and creativity of forward players that stay with us after games. The fact that the goal is so valued by fans automatically devalues the defender who is trying to stop it from happening.
It is easier to see and understand the impact that a goal has on a game, rather than a block, tackle or save. The best outcome for a defender is a goal not being conceded: an event that doesn’t actually exist. The fact that you will never be able to see what would have happened had a shot not been blocked means that, as viewers it is difficult to comprehend the importance of the act. It means that in order for the act to be appreciated to the full it must be of the best quality, meaning that for a defender to be appreciated they must have outstanding performances every single game, something which is extremely difficult.
On the other hand scoring a goal is obvious: it is what everyone is looking to happen, making it easier for us to celebrate the effects it has. Unlike defending the skill within an attack is also easily recognisable. Watching players dribble past defenders, play the perfect pass at exactly the right time or curl the ball into the top corner from what would first seem an impossible angle can leave you in awe. Defending is harder to make look pleasing and too much defending is often labelled as boring and unskilful. For a tackle or block to be appreciated it often has to be difficult to pull off and to be frank tackles only really leave you in awe if the he manages to get back from far up the pitch to make the tackle. Yet moments as such do not present themselves on a platter and good defenders, arguably, shouldn’t be caught in positions which would lead to this happening. This partially explains why since 2001 there have only been two winners of the PFA Player and Young Player of the Year who are defenders, (John Terry and Kyle Walker respectively) or why only four defensive players have won the Ballon d’Or.
“Goals change games” is a phrase constantly heard in football, but how accurate is this? The statement is true if you look at it from the perspective of someone who is losing. First and foremost the goal will even up the score, it adds momentum for a potential comeback. However if you look at it from a perspective of a team that is winning a goal only strengthens that win. Yet comebacks are always possible until the dying minutes of a game.
Our need for goals has meant that we ignore the counterbalance of a defence and an attack within a team. To win a game firstly you need to break the deadlock through gaining the lead, but then you must defend it. If you can’t keep a hold of the lead then the value of the goal scored is lost, in addition trying to regain that lead can be even more difficult. Analysis by Chris Anderson and David Sally in their book ‘The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Football Is Wrong’, proves that actually not scoring is more important to picking up points that scoring is. Clean sheets on average produce 2.5 points per match, compared to scoring a goal, which on average earns about one point per match, making not conceding twice as valuable. One reason for this however is that teams start a game with one point, so if neither team scores you leave the game with what you entered it.
League leaders Leicester are a prime example of this. This season they have kept 14 clean sheets out of 34 games played so far in the Premier League this season. At the beginning of the season Claudio Ranieri stressed to his players the importance of the defence by offering them pizza if they kept a clean sheet in a game. Leicester can rely on their attacking players to score at least one goal a game, normally from a counter attack, before sitting deep and guarding their lead. They have built their unexpected title campaign on being defensively organised. Three Leicester plays have been nominated for this years PFA award, yet neither are out and out defensive players.
While it doesn’t look likely that this attitude will change any time soon, as a viewer of the game I ask you to appreciate the defensive moments in a game as much as an attacking. Not only when they are made during season or game defying moments but in all games, at all times.
By Francesca Byrne, TFN Columnist on 17/04/2016 at 20:26
Follow Francesca on Twitter @diernamite