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A Deep Dive into Defender Underperformance

Updated: Jan 17, 2023

A hot topic of debate this season has been, how bad defenders have been in Fantrax EPL. But what's really the story behind the decline that we have perceived, if indeed it does exist at all? Our perception has been of elite defenders drafted in the early rounds largely letting us down, while streaming defenders has been fraught with danger. In this deep dive I will take a look at how this season compares to last season in various categories and try to drill down into why this is happening and attempt to reach a conclusion on how best to approach the rest of the season.

Are Defenders Underperforming?

First, the question has to be asked, is the lack of performances we've been seeing actually borne out in the stats? The first check is to simply look at how each position is faring this season compared to last season, to see if we can find any significant differences. To do this, all the stats used will be on a per 90 minutes basis for ease of calculation and for fairness of comparison between seasons. In the table below Points per 90mins (PP90) and Ghost Points per 90mins (gPP90) have been compared for each position.

Looking at the table it's clear that the only positions that has improved this season is Goalkeepers, rising by 0.3 PP90 (0.2 gPP90). Forwards have relied on increased attacking returns to remain on the same PP90 but declining by 0.2 gPP90. Midfielder performance has declined by 0.3 PP90, largely thanks to a decline of 0.4 gPP90. However, there has been a steep decline in Defenders performance. We can see a drop of 1.1 PP90 (0.7 gPP90), a significant portion made up from ghost points but also a drop in GACS categories.

What do the Stats Say?

High Level View

So the hypothesis was correct but what is causing this decline? Are there any ghost point categories that are contributing more than others? Are teams conceding more goals/getting less clean sheets? Have attacking returns dried up? Let's take a quick peak at the chart below. At a high level we typically look at ghost points, attacking returns (G+A), clean sheets (CS), goals against (GAO) and other non repeatable categories like red and yellow cards, PKD, PKM and own goals thrown in together. The decline is made up of 0.7 gPP90, 0.3 from G+A, negligible from CS, 0.1 from GAO and negligible from other categories.

Detailed View

To add some depth to the analysis it's worth us segregating the full backs from the centre backs, to see if we can identify any further trends. When we do this its clear that the centre backs are contributing the most to the decline with -1.4 PP90 (-0.9 gPP90), but the full backs aren't exactly covering themselves in glory either at -0.8 PP90 (-0.6 gPP90). In the chart below we're now looking at the difference between the 22/23 and 21/22 seasons performance for all of the Fantrax default scoring categories, to see where defenders are losing out on their points.

Centre Backs

The first thing that sticks out is aerials for centre backs, this is down by 0.5 PP90, which accounts for a whopping 37% of the decline. The other significant ghost point categories down are 0.1 for BS and 0.1 for SOT. The rest of the ghost point stats are all relatively spread out, accounting for less than 0.05 PP90 so not too significant. SOT is interesting though, considering centre backs are getting 0.25 PP90 less from goals as well, so they are getting less shots on target which is likely to correlate with less goals. In fact combining the contribution from SOT and Goals and this contributes to 26% of the overall decline for centre backs. As attacking set pieces are typically a good source of aerials for centre backs, this seems to suggest that attack as well defending in general is contributing to aerials being down. The last significant stat is that GAO is down 0.12 PP90 which is around 9% of the total, centre backs will usually be on the pitch longer than full backs so it's likely they'll pick up more of the goals against and clean sheets for that matter. But generally they're conceding more goals than last season.

Full Backs

Full backs are a bit more of a mixed bag, but the category that really stands out is CoS, this is down by 0.27 PP90 which contributes to 31% of the decline in full backs. While ACNC's were up by 0.08 PP90, KP's are down by 0.14 PP90 and assists down by 0.1 PP90, so these crosses could be lower quality to provide shots and/or full backs are just creating less chances in the rest of their play. KP's and Assists together contribute to 29% of the decline. Goals are down by 0.1 PP90 and SOT by 0.07 PP90, together contributing to 18% of the decline. Interceptions are also down a reasonable amount at 0.11 PP90 for 12% of the total.

Why is this Happening?

So how can we makes sense of this? The first thing that came to mind, was the lack of a Sean Dyche team which would typically engage in aerial warfare. This didn't just help their centre backs though - looking at you James Tarkowski and Ben Mee - who even at their new clubs are leading the league in aerial duels (50 and 59 respectively) for defenders. This helped every centre back they played against who would have to deal with the aerial bombardment targeting the big man Chris Wood or later Wout Weghorst and the aforementioned centre backs on set pieces. Who could forget Grant Hanley's magical 21.75 and 24 point double against Burnley last season, boosted by a total of 14 aerials.

To put this into a bit more context, similarly to how we use PP90 against in our Fixture Difficulty Tracker, I have tracked aerials against each team which paints an interesting picture, particularly when we think of streaming defenders. In the graph below we can see that last season, as expected Burnley lead the way in Aerial duels per 90 (AER/90) scored (2.6) and conceded (2.7). The other relegated teams, Norwich and Watford, don't appear to score too many Aerials themselves (1.6 and 1.8 AER/90 respectively), however they concede a ton of Aerials to their opposition (2.2 and 2.6 AER/90 respectively). So this season we have lost 3 teams who were ranked 1st, 2nd and 6th for conceding Aerial duels. This shows that these teams likely had a more direct style in attack which accounted for 19.1% of all Aerials (compared to the average expected of 15% for 3 of 20 teams).

Now looking at this season alone in the graph graph below of AER/90, the promoted sides are nowhere near as prolific, with BOU, FUL and NOT scoring 1.0, 1.5 and 1.7 AER/90 and conceding 1.9, 1.8 and 1.9 AER/90 against them respectively. These numbers are considerably down on last season, but the aerials conceded still rank amongst the highest in the division, so it appears these teams are mixing up the way they attack. Fulham with Alexander Mitrovic (69 AER, 5.2 AER/90) and Bournemouth with Kieffer Moore (45 AER, 4.4 AER/90) have the option for a more direct style yet don't seem to rely on this as much as we might expect, given the AER/90 against numbers. Interestingly Forest don't have any standout attackers which contribute to winning aerials with Brennan Johnson (10 AER, 0.6 AER/90) and Taiwo Awoniyi (7 AER, 0.9 AER/90), so much of their aerials conceded are likely to come from set pieces.

While we can see a drop in the promoted teams compared to the relegated teams from the season before, it's apparent that this clearly has some impact, but of the 17 other teams, almost every one of them are scoring less aerial duels than the previous season. The graph below compares how each teams centre backs scored for AER/90 this season compared to last season. Only two teams, TOT (0.01) and WOL (0.04) show any improvement, but barely. On average the 17 teams scored 2.5 AER/90 last season compared to 2.1 this season. So who are the worst offenders? Brighton lead the way with 1.3 less AER/90, Southampton with -0.9 and Villa with -0.8. Liverpool with -0.7 are also an interesting case, with Virgil Van Dijk (-0.8 AER/90) and Joel Matip (-2.8 AER/90) particularly nowhere near their form from last season.

Conclusions and Recommendations from the Data

So what conclusions can we draw from all of this? Unfortunately I don't see a significant change for the rest of the season in terms of defender underperformance. Across the board we are seeing pretty much every scoring category down, with aerials for centre backs and dribbles for full backs the worst offenders. The promoted teams are less aerially biased than the relegated teams they replaced and the other teams appear to be down as well, it seems we have seen a shift in the approach in the way teams attack. We could see a bit of an uptick in some of the smaller categories as less than 0.05 PP90 isn't too significant, but I think the trend we are seeing will remain. Elite full backs such as Trent Alexander-Arnold, Andrew Robertson, Joao Cancelo and Reece James returning to form could certainly help the full backs cause but it's a wait and see on that front. But how does this affect our approach to defenders for the rest of the season?

Streaming Targets

Firstly in terms of short term streaming options it's a good idea to lean heavily on the Fixture Difficulty Tracker. However, as we have been looking at centre backs vs full backs, and noted significant differences, it's worth us splitting the defenders FDT into CBs vs FBs and also look at home vs away performance. In the table below I have shown defenders overall PP90 against and home vs away PP90 against, full backs and centre backs PP90 against and centre backs AER/90 against for the 22/23 season. As we have noted that aerials are significantly down for centre backs and that some teams concede more aerials to their opposition defenders than others, this can also guide us on which teams to target for streamers.

To identify which teams to target for streaming defenders, we need to draw a line at a point where we are comfortable taking a chance on them. Now typically the better players will score more points and these players will be rostered already, so the average we see in the table will likely be even less for those available on the waiver wire as streamers. As such, drawing the line at 7.5 PP90 feels about right, if your streamer gets you say 7.0 FPts, it's not an amount you're excited about, but you certainly won't be too disappointed. So which teams does this leave us with?

First of all we can see that with the exception of Man City (+0.9 PP90) and Brighton (+0.2 PP90), every team gives up more points to full backs than centre backs, which is as we've come to expect in Fantrax scoring. Both these two teams are giving up such low numbers you are likely going to avoid them when targeting streamers anyway. The same goes for Newcastle, Fulham, Man United, Spurs, Liverpool and Arsenal. But which teams do we want to target? I have added a guide in the table and some more detail below.

  • Quite clearly Bournemouth are the top team to target for defenders no matter which position they play in and are particularly poor away from home. Southampton are an interesting case, while they concede the most aerials (2.8 AER/90) to opposition centre backs, they score score much fewer points (-5.0 PP90) than full backs against them. Targeting full backs and aerially dominant centre backs makes sense against the Saints, home and away.

  • West Ham are giving up more points away from home, but both full backs and centre backs have joy against them, with centre backs enjoying a decent 2.3 AER/90. With a 6.7 PP90 against at home you likely want to avoid, but in a pinch it's not the worst option.

  • Crystal Palace (-4.2 PP90) and Everton (-2.9 PP90) both have a large differential in favour of full backs, looking like good options to stream full backs against home and away. The centre backs PP90 against is quite poor around 6.0 PP90, however, Everton concede 2.6 AER/90 so it might be worth punting on a centre back against them if they're an aerial monster.

  • Wolves appear a good team to target both home and away for both positions. However, with new manager Lopetegui on board we may need to monitor closely whether this will continue.

  • Forest are an especially clear case of a team that are performing well at home and abysmally away. Giving up just 4.6 PP90 at home, but a whopping 10.9 away from home. They give up just 7.2 PP90 to centre backs but also a generous 2.5 AER/90 so if you have an aerially dominant centre back, I would be happy to trot them out if they're playing at home. Forest have had a bit of an uptick in form after the World Cup, so possibly another one to monitor on whether these numbers are representative.

  • Brentford don't seem to perform too differently home or away, at 7.8 PP90 against for full backs you're not excited to target them but you could do a lot worse. Villa and Leeds give up decent scores away from home, but avoid centre backs against them. Chelsea also sneak into this at 7.7 PP90 away from home. There seems no differential between full backs or centre backs so if you really need to it's not the worst option to stream against them.

  • Leicester are really bucking the trend big time, giving up 8.1 PP90 at home, yet just 3.3 PP90 away. A bit perplexing but, this potentially gives you another option to stream a full back against.

So in total, 12 teams for target for full backs, yet just 4 for centre backs, expanding to 7 if they're aerially dominant. Not great reading for the centre backs especially as you'll mostly want your streamer to be playing at home!

Long-Term Targets

So a lot of information there which should hopefully help in identifying who to stream against. However, with defenders not performing very well generally, it may still be difficult to get this right even with the information above. With a scarcity of good defenders, it makes those few that are performing well even more valuable. My first piece of advice, is if you don't have at least two defenders who are of good quality, then you should look to trade them in right away. Given the lack of forward depth you're likely going to be looking at moving on a midfielder but this will depend on your roster. It is usually pretty easy to add a decent floor midfielder from the waiver wire.

I would say most of the defenders that are guaranteed starters with 8+ PPS are worth trying to bring in. Personally with this in mind, in one league where I was looking light in defence, I traded out Demarai Gray for Luke Shaw before the World Cup. In another league where my defence was ravaged by injuries, I brought in Dan Burn for Daniel Podence and Sven Botman for Casemiro. This means that I likely only have to stream one defensive spot each week rather than two, which has given me more much more consistent scoring, something that is very important in the head to head format.

In terms of identifying these longer term trade targets/pick ups that you will keep on your roster, the 8+ PPS rule is a good place to start but not the be all and end all. As we analyse defenders for their usefulness, we clearly look at past performance but we also would like to identify any underperforming assets, that based on expected or historical stats could improve to be worth rostering. This could also include players who have been injured and are now fit or even players that have someone in front of them in the pecking order who may have recently got injured and now have the chance to prove themselves. We also need to consider how defenders performances are linked to their teams ability to keep clean sheets and limit goals against, so we need to assess how if their team is shaping up well for the rest of the season.

I'm going to separate the analysis into players with 50%+ starts and players with less than 50% starts. These guys will likely be nailed starters in the team. The 50%+ group will be harder to bring in through a trade, while the 50%- group will be less expensive to get in but could potentially become more valuable.

Trade-in Targets

In the 8+ PPS group with 50%+ starts we have the following players. I have provided some pertinent stats from the Useful Draft Metrics page, ordered by xPP90, which can shine a light on how the defenders are performing.

Players to Target:
  • No surprises that every Newcastle defender features here, Kieran Trippier will likely be unattainable unless you give up a seriously top player, but going after Fabian Schar, Sven Botman or Dan Burn will be a much more easier way into the stand out defence in the league on 55% clean sheets! Schar may be a tad more difficult but I'd happily give up say Morgan Gibbs-White or Christian Eriksen for any of those three.

  • The United full backs have been standout performers too, Luke Shaw's recent form will make him expensive, but Diogo Dalot's recent injury woes may be enough for a manager to give up on him. If it's confirmed he's out for just a week or so, I'd happily give up say Mason Mount or Bernardo Silva for him, given his amazing ghosting performances.

  • Joao Cancelo has been struggling for starts recently and could be another good buy low option, I think the current situation is to do with fitness coming back from the World Cup, but this is a relatively risky play given you'll have to give up a high quality player to get him.

  • Serge Aurier seems to be coming into some great form recently and Forest seem a much better prospect than prior to the World Cup.

  • Brentford centre backs, Ben Mee and Ethan Pinnock have shown good consistent form and do ghost particularly well, especially in that all important aerial department. They are players that you can likely bring in relatively cheap too. Pinnock is probably the one to target, likely to come cheaper due to less starts, has more ghosts than Mee, and is underperforming his xPP90. You could try and move on say Harvey Barnes or Casemiro for them.

  • Gabriel Magahales is the pick of the Arsenal defenders, his ghosts aren't too high but Arsenal have the 2nd highest clean sheet percentage at 47% this season and add to that he does have a real aerial presence attacking set pieces. So you have to think of him as a bit more boom or bust than other defenders on this list. I'll also shout out Ben White who only just misses out on this list with 7.9 PPS, who's scoring profile is very similar to Gabriel's and is surely worth a hold when Arsenal have more favourable fixture runs.

  • Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson have underwhelmed this season, in attack but defensively as well, with Liverpool going from 55% clean sheets last season to 23% this season. That's a huge drop and Van Dijk's injury could further the defensive frailty. However, Klopp has rectified things before, with the unlikely duo of Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams holding the fort. So it would be a gamble but the potential is there to target Trent or Robbo, who are at least looking slightly better on the attacking front based on recent form.

Wait and see:
  • Pascal Struijk, this is a wait and see based on how the new Leeds signing Max Wober fits in the team. He is a left back/centre back which could push Struijk either out of the team or back into Central Defence where his ghost and attacking potential will be much more limited. We need to see how the situation develops, but if Struijk remains at left back I'd definitely be looking to bring him in

Players to Avoid:
  • James Tarkowski and Everton's defensive form has been a shambles recently. They were far outperforming their expected goal against and it looks like they are finally reverting to the mean. Tarkowski is clearly fine to hold if you have him but I wouldn't look to bring him in given it wouldn't come cheap based on his early season form.

  • Ben Davies appears to be a rotation piece with Clement Lenglet now at LCB so I would avoid him as a long term hold, particularly with the poor form Spurs have shown of late. But he's certainly worth a stream in favourable matchups.

  • Timothy Castagne and Leicester's recent form has nosedived and with a 49% GACS reliance there's too much risk there for my liking to try and bring him in, as he will be rostered.

  • Kenny Tete has been in great form and would likely come cheap, but he has been massively overperforming his xPP90 and now they have their double out of the way, they have a really tough run of fixtures ahead, so I would avoid until after that run.

Potential Targets

This is more a list of players that have limited starts this season, but if things change, whether that be back to historical form or something changes at their clubs to give them an opportunity for more starts, then they could be very good value. Most will be wait and see, but some could be worth a pick up/trade in now. Due to the limited number of starts I have ordered by xPP90 to get an inkling into their potential.

Players to Target:
  • Matt Doherty looks to have won his place back in the XI, he finally looks fit and seems to have earned Conte's trust again. We know that when he starts in his preferred right wing back role he scores well, 11.5 PPS from 6 starts this season and even better form is a testament to that. The only lingering doubts that remain are whether Spurs will sign anyone in the January transfer window with Pedro Porro from Sporting Lisbon rumoured. However, this would be a big money move and one that may make more sense in the summer for Spurs, so I'm hopeful that Doherty will be no.1 for the rest of the season as long as he can stay fit.

  • Reece James and Ben Chilwell are currently out injured, yet we know how vital they are (particularly James) to how this Chelsea side perform. If you can use the injury to get them in on the cheap, it could be worth the risk to get such a high level asset. The flipside is, this time of year with doubles and blanks coming up, it may be hard to burn a bench spot for too long, especially if you have any injuries in your squad already. Not for the faint hearted, this is maybe a trade you would be more inclined towards if you have ground to make up in your league. Nowhere near the level of the full backs but Wesley Fofana should be returning from injury soon too, I think he'll likely replace (in a back 4) or play alongside (in a back 5) Koulibaly and could be a solid option, not amazing but certainly better than what's typically available on the waiver wire.

  • Joel Matip and Ibrahima Konate have barely started this season due to injuries and haven't set the world alight when they have played, quite the opposite in fact! Yet they're now both fit and in Van Dijk's extended absence could form a solid partnership if Liverpool can get their act together. This really is a punt, but could pay off, even if you just hold to wait and see. I've also included Joe Gomez here, it only takes one injury from the aforementioned players and he's next in line, can also cover at right back and has shown that he can score well this season. Definitely a wait until the situation changes to pick up though.

  • Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Kostas Tsimikas, Matt Targett, Rayan Ait-Nouri, Takehiro Tomiyasu, Kieran Tierney, Ryan Sessegnon, Harry Maguire - all players I'm going to lump into the category where they could be great assets if the players in front of them in the squad get injured. At the moment I'd refer to them as premium streamers, you likely won't hold them long term, so you will need to be on it with injury news to pick them up from the FA/WW pool. A perfect example is Dalot's injury in the FA Cup match against Charlton, it's yet unknown how long he'll be out for but it surely gives Wan Bissaka another opportunity to start.

New Transfers

I'll add that of the players recently transferred in I would take a punt on the following, but check out DraftLad's Fantrax 22/23 Incomers Stats & Callouts spreadsheet for full details on their Fantrax performance at their previous clubs.

  • Max Wober - the Leeds left back role has certainly provided a ton of ghost points this year with Struijk having an amazing season, if Wober manages to take this role, rather than the centre back position, think of him as a potential Struijk light.

  • Alex Moreno - Likely to either provide cover/replace Lucas Digne at left back for Villa. One to take a punt on as prior to this transfer, Villa and Digne had been in good form since the re-start.

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