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Last week I ran down 20-11 in my centre-back power rankings (which is here, if you want it), with the headline news being Newcastle in 11th (I’m a big fan of their depth).
I’ve judged all 20 Premier League teams out of 5 on the strength of their starting centre-backs and then out of 5 on their squad depth for the position. It’s something I’ll try and come back to during the season, and I’ve already reassessed a couple of things (as we will soon discover).
The scores roughly go as follows:
Strength of starters || Depth
5: Title contender quality || S-T-O-C-K-E-D. Basically no drop-off.
4: Good for Europa, need to upgrade for UCL || Comfortable depth
3: Good for mid-table, need to upgrade for UEL || average depth
2: Would need to upgrade for mid-table || worrying depth
1: Ideally want to upgrade to stay up || no depth
So. Let’s go.
Strength of starters: 2; Depth: 3
As soon as I hit ‘Schedule’ on last week’s newsletter I knew that I’d made a mistake. Wolves are technically 12th in the rankings now, but I’d had their strength of starters on 3 last week. I’ve since come to my senses and downgraded.
Wolves are a phenomenally well-drilled and tactically constructed team in defence, to the extent that judging individual player quality within the system is difficult. Fans seem to like Willy Boly in particular, so I’ll take their word on that. I shrug at Ryan Bennett, but at least have opinions on previously-lauded Conor Coady.
It’s undeniable that Coady has a sound presence. As much as one can tell from a distance, he seems to have those indefinable ‘club captain’ qualities that a) are beneficial to a team b) win over fans and pundits a lot.
I think the latter have overshadowed the former a bit and influenced pundit opinion of him, because he has flaws. He’s looked vulnerable in the air before (so it’s handy for him that he’s in a back three) and his positioning— he’d defend on the edge of the six-yard box if he could. I ain’t convinced. I’m open to being proved wrong.
In depth they have Jesus Vallejo, who I don’t know much about but he’s surely at least as good as Bennett and Coady.
Strength of starters: 3; Depth: 2
Another that I’ve reassessed since last week, which technically takes them down to 10th (and below Newcastle United, who are now 9th — the rest of the power rankings from 8th up are fine, bear with me).
Jonny Evans has a fair amount of love in the general public so I don’t think I need to cover him much. His starting line-up partner Caglar Soyuncu is a bit of an unknown though, so here we go.
The 23-year-old was actually signed last season by Leicester but made just six appearances, presumably while he bedded in (and he was unlikely to oust Evans, Wes Morgan, or Harry Maguire from the starting line-up at that time). His style is much more front foot than Evans (or Morgan or Maguire, for that matter), and he has the mobility and judgement to go with it. From early viewing, he can sometimes be a little over-eager, but not in the Shokdran Mustafi/David Luiz mould.
I get slightly-concerned vibes about his awareness around the 18-yard-box, but, so far, he hasn’t looked out of place at all. His and Evans’ styles also make for a decent partnership, which is nice. Behind them, though, you have an ageing Wes Morgan and an untested-in-the-Premier-League Filip Benkovic. They’re both clearly trusted enough for Leicester not to splash on a Maguire replacement, but for the moment I’d feel a little worried if Evans got a long-term injury.
Strength of starters: 3; Depth: 3
So, if Wolves are a team whose strength of defensive organisation makes it difficult to assess individuals within the system, West Ham are the opposite.
At the start of last season, I thought that the club had got two great finds in Issa Diop and Fabian Balbuena. Even though I was aware that the system might be helping them (by instructing them to drop off if teams broke against them, rather than engage high up the field), I still had things I liked about them.
This season, though, it’s like something’s flipped. Diop seems to burst into challenges like a defensive Bambi; Angelo Ogbonna is… ok? But more concerning is that they both just look badly coached.
There’s a tell-tale movement defenders make where they start to drop a yard or track a run, but stop themselves almost before their legs have moved — you can see the brain’s already dropped back though — that just screams uncertainty bred from a rigid defensive approach.
I liked Diop last season. I liked Balbuena, and Ogbonna’s replaced him, so he must be decent too. I like Winston Reid, who’s a back-up. I think they all merit a ‘3’ on my scoring system. But, at the moment, it’s kinda hard to tell.
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Strength of starters: 4; Depth: 2
The slightly up-market version of Everton’s centre-back situation: Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen are fine enough that Chelsea, in their current state, don’t need to worry too much about them.
Neither are perfect, though, and are upgradeable if Chelsea wanted to go for a title-push in the next couple of years. But then, Chelsea need more depth anyway. Kurt Zouma made a mistake in the season opener which was just a bad decision to go in for a tackle, and I’m still not a huge fan of his bouncy footwork.
I know absolutely nothing about [googles name to make sure I get it right] Fikayo Tomori. If I have to find out then it’ll mean Chelsea have two injuries at the back, so they’ll probably be hoping he isn’t needed too much during the season.
Strength of starters: 3; Depth: 5
Palace are one of only four clubs that I’ve awarded a 5 in one of the categories. Let me just list their centre-back options in alphabetical order:
Gary Cahill, Scott Dann, Martin Kelly, Mamadou Sakho, James Tomkins
For a club like Crystal Palace, who are probably expecting a mid-table finish with an upper aim of, what, top half at most(?), this is a great selection of CBs. I think Dann and Tomkins are under-rated and they’re possibly only third and fourth choice. Cahill may be on his last legs, and, I thought, looked not wholly convincing against Manchester United, but he’ll certainly have value to a mid-table side. Mamadou Sakho is equally a good get (when he gets back to fitness).
The Palace squad may be uninspiring in some other places, but at centre-back I’m quite a fan.
Strength of starters: 4?; Depth: 4?
The uncertainty over Shkodran Mustafi affects the scores I’m giving, although it seems like both the club and the fans would be glad to see the back of the German. He’s flawed, but worth pushing out of the club? *shrugs*
Sokratis is ok, David Luiz is, defensively, maybe as flawed as Mustafi, maybe slightly less so (Arsenal got a good taste of Luiz-world against Liverpool).
In terms of depth, Arsenal fans seem to like Rob Holding a lot, and I defer to them on that. Calum Chambers and Kostas Mavropanos are, y’know, probably not going to make it as first-choice Arsenal centre-backs. There’s also Nacho Monreal, I guess, if things really get desperate.
If Sokratis gets injured, I’d be pretty worried about the heart of Arsenal’s defence.
We’ll get to the top four in a sec. But first, if you haven’t already subscribed to the newsletter, sign up below
Strength of starters: 4; Depth: 4
As much as I’ve had doubts about the value in buying Harry Maguire for the price of a small town, he and Victor Lindelof are a good pairing for a team who finished sixth last season.
They’ve both got their flaws — Maguire is slow on the turn, Lindelof is weak in the air, Maguire is questionable in one-on-ones, Lindelof’s awareness can be vulnerable. But both have their qualities, not least in progressing the ball.
If I sound weary it’s because of the hype Maguire has received, which I think is a little overblown and largely based on the fact he’s a threat from set-pieces.
I’m more buoyant about United’s depth. Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo may all be players that fans would gladly wave out of the door, but as fill-ins it’s a strong calibre. And there’s Axel Tuanzebe getting time on the bench too!
Strength of starters: 5; Depth: 3
These scores could well change depending on the contract situations of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen, which the Tottenham fans I follow on Twitter seem VERY WORRIED about. It seems unlikely that either would leave during this season, but with their contracts running down can we really rule anything out?
But anyway, the defending. Alderweireld and Vertonghen are rightly highly-regarded with good reading of the game, good body positioning, good awareness. Davinson Sanchez and Juan Foyth have both looked shaky at times during their outings but are perfectly decent back-ups.
But, typically for Tottenham, that’s about it for depth, and if Alderweireld or Vertonghen scarpers then they’re depth no longer. Eric Dier would probably get drafted in. That does not inspire me.
Strength of starters: 5; Depth: 3.5
Aymeric Laporte, Nicolas Otamendi, and John Stones is a nice trio to have. And then that’s it. Maybe Fernandinho? Maybe Zinchenko? Maybe a youth team player (unlikely, it seems).
I like each of the first-team centre-backs and think it’s very nice indeed for a team to be able to go ‘ah, one of our first-choice centre-backs is injured/out of form; John, you’re up’.
It’s nice that Nicolas Otamendi has been getting starts and, with it, kudos at the start of this season. He was unfairly maligned under Manuel Pellegrini, and then forgotten about last season. Sure, he sometimes takes risks in challenges, but he’s by and large a solid defender.
Aymeric Laporte and John Stones are decent too. For the sake of a competitive title race, though, it might be nice if they both decided to take an eight-month sabbatical.
Strength of starters: 5; Depth: 4
Given public opinion, I don’t think I need to spend much time defending this choice.
It was a narrow fight, but it, for once, has gone Liverpool’s way. Virgil van Dijk is elite at what he does; Joel Matip may have some of the best footwork in the game, even if he looks a bit unsure of himself at times; I’m a big Joe Gomez fan (and he’s only 22!); Liverpool may have outgrown Dejan Lovren but as a fourth-choice he’s not a bad option.
So, after the tweaks that I’ve made in the last week, here are the rankings in full:
Southampton (Wojciech Augustyniak emailed in to point out that I’d missed Jan Bednarek and that Wesley Hoedt had been loaned out last season and, it seems, has been frozen out a bit. The presence of Bednarek bumps them up, although I’m baffled by the disappearing of Hoedt).
Everton (@tinyhamnation on Twitter pointed out that Gbamin has played at CB before which may address their utter lack of depth, but I’ll wait to see if and when that happens as to how it affects the rankings)
Sheffield United & Norwich
No-one because I’d feel mean
*phew* That was pretty mega. I hope you’ve enjoyed these. I’ve certainly enjoyed paying close attention to the early weeks of the season to do them as well as possible. Thanks for reading, and be back next week :)