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Strikers stealing the limelight but it’s defenders who are keeping Premier League’s top teams in the hunt

The benefits of the top strikers have been obvious this season, but when the top defenders are missing, you realise their importance

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 December, 2016, 5:22pm
UPDATED : Friday, 09 December, 2016, 9:48pm

Who have been the key players of the English Premier League season? Many would name Eden Hazard and Diego Costa of Chelsea, Alexis Sanchez of Arsenal, Philippe Coutinho of Liverpool and Sergio Aguero of Manchester City. All have one thing in common: they are attacking players who bring flair and excitement in abundance.

That type of player tends to hog the headlines, as Sanchez did last weekend with his brilliant hat-trick in Arsenal’s 5-1 win at West Ham, capped by his impudent dummy before his third goal. It is easy to measure Sanchez’s impact with his 11 goals and four assists, as it is with Costa (11 goals, five assists), Aguero (10 goals, no assists), Hazard (eight goals, one assist) and Coutinho (five goals, five assists).

Yet there is another group of players who could have an influential role in this season’s title race without being so celebrated or feted by fans and pundits. One of them is Joel Matip, the Cameroon international centreback signed by Juergen Klopp for Liverpool in the summer.

Amid all the hype about Liverpool’s attacking prowess, Matip’s important role has been largely overlooked but it was thrown into sharper focus by last week’s collapse in the 4-3 defeat at Bournemouth.

Matip was absent from the starting line-up for only the third time in the Premier League, and it was the second time Liverpool had lost without him. They have conceded nine goals in those three matches, while having the same number of goals-against in the 11 matches he has started. Liverpool are unbeaten with him in the team, with eight wins and three draws.

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Coutinho also missed the Bournemouth match, although it is more difficult to argue that his absence made a telling difference as Liverpool still scored three goals without him. The Brazilian is an important player for the Reds, but the setback at Bournemouth emphasised that defensive improvement is vital for Liverpool’s title hopes and Matip’s solidity could be crucial.

Like Liverpool, Arsenal are often accused of having a soft centre at the back and they also took steps to rectify any weakness with the summer signing of Shkodran Mustafi from Valencia. It is interesting that Arsenal’s Premier League record with the German international in the team is identical to Liverpool’s with Matip – eight wins, three draws and no defeats.

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Mustafi appears to have brought something extra to Arsenal, although their supposed defensive frailty was often overplayed in previous seasons. The Gunners already had one of the top centrebacks in Laurent Koscielny and, by common consent, the best rightback in Hector Bellerin.

The arrival of Mustafi has given Arsenal three strong elements at the back as well as a different option in attack, as their new defender’s long passing is excellent. It was his through ball that led to Sanchez’s first goal against West Ham.

Arsenal’s defensive record was good last season (36 goals conceded in 38 games) and overall this season it is similar, with an average of one goal conceded per match, but Mustafi is pushing the average lower (0.91 goals conceded per game when he has played).

It is surprising that Arsenal’s title challenge is being so easily dismissed by many pundits, on the widespread assumption that Arsene Wenger’s team will crack at some stage. With Mustafi in the side, it could be a different story this season.

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Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante is another summer signing whose defensive capabilities could prove important in the title race. He was a pivotal player in Leicester’s championship triumph last season, topping the charts for both tackles and interceptions.

Leicester are clearly missing him but their loss is Chelsea’s gain, because Kante is fifth this season for both tackles and interceptions. His slightly lower ranking might be explained by the fact that Chelsea find themselves less exposed than Leicester did, but he is still the top-ranked midfielder on interceptions and his recycling of the ball is as important to Hazard and Costa as it was to Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy last season.

The right balance between defence and attack is a vital ingredient of any title-winning side and it is no great surprise that Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool – having built a stronger defensive platform for their attacking talents – have emerged as the current top three.

Their better balance is evident in the fact that they have the best goal differences in the Premier League, and at the moment that is giving them the edge over Manchester City and Tottenham.

With the margins so tight, keeping the back door locked is going to be the unglamorous but still vital task for the title chasers.

Shortlist

Sheffield Wednesday, Fulham, Derby, Sevilla.

Best Bet

Everton on handicap

Best bet in the Premier League

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Big Number

13

League games without defeat for Arsenal