Ranking the 20 Premier League Clubs on Their Defensive Strength
With the Premier League season coming to a dramatic and nail-biting finale at both ends of the table, it's worth taking a look at the defences that have got their respective teams to their current standing, be it at the top or bottom.
Looking at the official table, it is easy to guess who has the best defensive record and who has the leakiest backline, but dig deeper and there are plenty of intriguing details to uncover.
Statistics don’t lie, and the figures against Fulham are pretty damning. They have conceded the most goals in the division with 74 in the Goals Against column, while only two teams have enjoyed less possession than them thus far, with an average of just 43 percent of the ball in their 34 games thus far.
They have also conceded an average of 18.1 shots per game, again the highest of the 20 teams and just marginally more than West Ham and Cardiff. Their tally of 22 defeats is also the highest in the Premier League, although with two wins in their last two games against relegation rivals Norwich and Aston Villa, it appears their season is not doomed just yet.
You’d imagine a defence with the vast experience of Brede Hangeland, John Arne Riise, John Heitinga and Kieran Richardson should not be as porous as it has been, but with just six clean sheets it is no surprise to see them at the bottom of this ranking. Their three draws is also the lowest in the division.
19. Cardiff City
Either Cardiff City are the nicest, most mannerly team in the Premier League or they plain just don’t know how to defend. The Bluebirds began the season with Malky Mackay in charge before replacing him with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in January, but very little has changed in the defensive third of the field.
City have won less tackles than any other team, 552 for an average of just 16.2 per game, and conceded the third most amount of shots, 606 for an average of 17.8 each 90 minutes.
They have also committed the least amount of fouls (315, 9.3 per game), received the least yellow cards (43) and are one of only four clubs without a red card, which suggests they are either being overly polite to their opponents or simply aren’t getting close enough to actually make a challenge.
This has resulted in just seven clean sheets, and with just four games to go, the likes of Steven Caulker, Fabio da Silva and Juan Cala would need to start winning tackles if they are to start winning games.
Given that they have propped up the bottom of the table for some time now, it’s no surprise that Sunderland’s desperation and willingness to battle has also seen them fall to the bottom of the Fair Play table with the division’s most cards (7).
You might have expected more from a team boasting the experienced central partnership of former Manchester United players John O’Shea and Wes Brown, with Phil Bardsley and Carlos Cuellar also on hand, but their concession of 56 goals makes them the third most leaky backline in the Premier League.
The Black Cats have scored more own goals than any other team with six, proving that when you’re at the foot of the table your luck really does run out.
The current form table also suggests that they are on a downward curve, having gone nine matches without a win and just two clean sheets in 10 games to leave them firmly rooted to that too.
With just six wins and 19 defeats in 33 games, the Mackems have it all to do if they are escape the drop under Gus Poyet with just five games left to turn it around.
17. Newcastle United
The Magpies are the team with the largest gulf between their actual position in the table and their defensive strength ranking, with eight places between the two.
Defensively, Newcastle United have been a shambles, conceding three goals or more on nine occasions as they have battled with consistency despite some impressive results that suggest they can be a match for anyone on their day.
However, those days have been few and far between, and with just nine clean sheets and four draws - only Fulham (3) have drawn fewer – it is clear to see why Alan Pardew’s men have struggled to pick up points.
Like their north-east rivals Sunderland, they are struggling for form and would be second bottom over the last six games, perhaps as much to do with Pardew’s sideline ban as their defensive indiscipline.
They are not short on experience at the back with Fabricio Coloccini and Mike Williamson providing most protection in front of the highly-talented Tim Krul, but it is clear their defensive frailties will have to be addressed if they are mount a serious European challenge next season.
16. Norwich City
Only four teams have conceded more shots than Norwich City this term as they somehow managed to claim a relatively impressive 10 clean sheets despite showing obvious signs of a porous defence for most of the season.
The Canaries have also conceded three goals or more on eight occasions, their 7-0 defeat at Manchester City in November a particularly low point for the Carrow Road outfit.
With Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal to come in their remaining four games, it is difficult to see how they are going to improve on their current form which has seen them pick up just eight points out of 30 in their last 10 games, which included costly defeats to relegation rivals Fulham, West Brom, Swansea and Villa.
England hopeful John Ruddy has been in decent form once again between the posts, and with the experienced Sebastien Bassong and Michael Turner marshaling the defence there is some hope that a footballing miracle could occur under new boss Neil Adams.
15. West Bromwich Albion
For a team just above the relegation zone, West Bromwich Albion’s statistics are pretty much where you’d expect them to be.
The most disappointing figure to report is the paltry six clean sheets that England World Cup hopeful Ben Foster and his defence has managed to earn, while they have also conceded three or more goals on eight occasions.
Their 12 defeats is by far the least of the clubs currently in trouble at the bottom, but their 15 draws is a whopping five more than Stoke City, who are next on the list.
New boss Pepe Mel has led his sides to commendable draws against Everton, Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham since arriving in January, but their failure to keep it tight at the back and close out games means they have only six wins to their name, to tie with Sunderland for the least in the division.
14. Swansea City
Swansea City have experienced a mixed bag of it this year after the success of their maiden season in the Premier League and their Capital One Cup success at Wembley last year.
Their impressive possession-based game has persisted again this season even after Garry Monk’s replacement of Michael Laudrup in February, and they lead the stakes in this category with an average of 58.6 percent per game.
This, however, does not translate into clean sheets, goals scored or victories, and they have conceded three or more goals in seven games. They have also only managed to keep seven clean sheets, although their concession of 420 shots on goal – an average of 12.4 per game - is only bettered by six clubs.
An interesting statistic to show up was that they had won the least amount of aerial duels in the division, as much to do with their penchant for keeping the ball on the deck as an unwillingness to head the ball.
13. Aston Villa
Aston Villa are another side to struggle with consistency, especially defensively, with just eight clean sheets to show for their toils this campaign.
They have lost 11 games by just one goal, and added to their seven draws, it suggests that Paul Lambert’s men are not too far off contending for a European place next year.
Brad Guzan has impressed again between the posts with eight clean sheets, while it is clear that Villa are not afraid to get stuck in, as they can lay claim to the Premier League’s most fouls (447) and most yellow cards (73) this term.
Lambert has placed an emphasis on youth and this factor, as much as any, has probably led to the team’s occasional lack of concentration at the back, even with the more experienced Ron Vlaar and Ciaran Clark leading their defensive charge. They have conceded three or more goals in just four games thus far.
12. Stoke City
In Mark Hughes’ first season in charge, Stoke City are poised for their highest ever Premier League finish, their current 10th position achieved by a combination of typical stubbornness at the back and a new sense of intent and opportunism up front.
Asmir Begovic has excelled in goals with nine clean sheets, although the Potters have conceded three or more goals on eight occasions to date.
It is no surprise that such a tall and physical team lead the way in terms of aerial duels won with an average of 26.3 per game (893 out of 1466), while they also are responsible for the second most fouls committed with 434, although they have played a game less than the most prolific culprits Villa.
Also boasting the second most yellow cards received, City are contenders to finish bottom of the Fair Play league.
On the positive side, they currently sit an impressive fifth in the form table with 18 points from a possible 30, the same as faltering title-contenders Manchester City. Only Chelsea (4) have conceded less than them (8) in the last 10 games, with Ryan Shawcross, Marc Wilson, Geoff Cameron and Erik Pieters solid in defence.
11. Tottenham Hotspur
Tottenham Hotspur are surprisingly low in this ranking for two main reasons; their inability to keep a clean sheet and their spectacular habit of collapsing against the division’s top teams.
Tim Sherwood’s side have struggled with consistency since he succeeded Andre Villas-Boas in December, and have managed just 10 clean sheets all season.
However, it is the nature of their capitulations against Manchester City (6-0 and 1-5), Liverpool (0-5 and 4-0) and Chelsea (4-0) that ranks them so lowly here, their lack of defensive mettle ruthlessly exposed for the world to see.
Five clubs below them have conceded less, and it is only their occasional success in front of goal that allows them to occupy sixth place in the standings and the final Europa League spot.
Goalkeeper Hugo Loris and centre-back Michael Dawson have played more games than anyone this year, but it is the lack of quality and consistent reinforcements that has been Spurs’ undoing in defence thus far.
10. West Ham United
For a team so high up the table and under the usually shrewd and thrifty stewardship of Sam Allardyce, it is surprising to learn that West Ham United have conceded three or more goals 11 times this season.
However, the 12th placed Hammers have managed to keep an impressive 12 clean sheets en route to 10 wins and seven draws to leave them well placed to survive the drop with just four games remaining.
They’ve also lost by just one goal in six games thus far, which makes it even harder to understand why so many Hammers fans were calling for Big Sam’s head after beating Sunderland recently.
Their recent form is as you’d expect from a mid-table side, five wins and five defeats returning a zero goal difference over the last 10 games, with goalkeeper Adrian impressing in front of a back four that has seen only James Tomkins and Guy Demel make more than 25 appearances.
9. Hull City
Only four teams have conceded fewer goals than Steve Bruce’s high-flying Tigers, with the Yorkshire side proving a tough nut to crack for most opponents.
Their 10 clean sheets, 40 goals given up and nine defeats by a solitary goal give an indication of how resilient Hull City have been, and but for their profligacy in front of goal, they would certainly be higher up the table.
They’ve only been beaten by three or more goals three times, while they have also enjoyed three clean sheets on their impressive run to the FA Cup final.
Curtis Davies, Maynor Figeroa and Liam Rosenior have been key figures in front of goalkeeper Allan McGregor, while veteran Steve Harper has also contributed in goal.
And although not yet safe from the trap door into the Championship, their current form suggests they can get the necessary points to achieve safety with five games still to play.
On current form, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Arsenal were a mid-table side rather than the pace-setting, title-chasing juggernaut they were until early in 2014.
Arsene Wenger’s men have suffered an alarming loss of form, winning just twice since, and including, their 5-1 thrashing at Liverpool on February 8. Since then they have also been humbled 6-0 by Chelsea, and added to a 6-3 defeat away to Manchester City, it is fair to say that those deserve to be fighting it out for the title while the Gunners try to hang on to fourth spot.
Although they have managed to keep 13 clean sheets, their current run of form of 20 goals conceded in 10 games means Arsenal will be lucky to hold off the charge of Everton for that final Champions League place.
Only Cardiff City (43) and Newcastle United (45) have less yellow cards (47), with only Cardiff (9.3 per game) committing less fouls than Arsenal (9.4 per game).
Centre-backs Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny are still to fully convince as a partnership at the highest level, but with the attack-minded Bacary Sagna and Kieran Gibbs occupying the full-back berths, they were always likely to be overexposed.
7. Crystal Palace
Crystal Palace are perhaps the most surprisingly ranked team on this list, but their turnaround since Tony Pulis succeeded Ian Holloway at the end of November is nothing short of spectacular.
With just seven points on the board following a disastrous start to the season, Pulis has instilled a defensive fortitude that has seen them register nine clean sheets, 10 wins to climb to 40 points and relative safety with four games to go.
The Welshman has given the Eagles the same confidence, work ethic and resilience that characterised his Stoke City teams, a point proven by the 763 tackles they have won and the 624 interceptions they have made. That makes them leaders in both categories and identifies them as a tigerish and unrelenting opponent, especially when contrasted with a league-worst possession rate of just 37.4 percent.
Argentine Julian Speroni has excelled in goals, while Damien Delaney, Joel Ward, Danny Gabbidon, Adrian Mariappa and Scott Dann have contributed to their stunning revival.
BBC Sport worked out what the table would look like if the season started when Pulis took over. With 22 games gone, Palace would be in a lofty eighth position, which illustrates further their improvement, with only Chelsea (14) conceding less goals (20).
They say the best form of defence is attack, and that statement rings true for Southampton, who have impressed again this season under Mauricio Pochettino.
The Saints boast the division’s second highest possession rate at 58.4 percent which, unlike Swansea, has translated into the fewest shots conceded, their figure of 330 matching Manchester City’s with City playing one game less. Despite that, they have still managed to ship three or more goals in eight games, including 3-0 reversals at home to Liverpool and Chelsea and a 4-1 defeat at Manchester City.
After a stunning start to the campaign that saw them rise to fourth, the Saints’ season has trailed of somewhat, although their 12 clean sheets have helped keep them in touch with the European spots for much of the season.
Dejan Lovren, Luke Shaw, Jose Fonte and Nathaniel Clyne have all caught the eye in front of Artur Boruc, although their recent form has seen them slip back with just 13 points from 30.
5. Manchester United
New Manchester United manager David Moyes has taken a lot of stick for a lot of things, but one area he has managed to keep relatively intact is United’s mean defence.
Only three clubs have conceded less than the reigning champions, who have endured a miserable season by their high standards following the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson as manager.
An aging and much-criticised backline which has been robbed of key members like Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Johnny Evans, Patrice Evra, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling for significant spells has still managed to keep 12 clean sheets and only concede three goals or more in three games.
With the summer departures of Vidic, Evra and Ferdinand expected, reinforcements will be needed if United are to reclaim past glories.
League leaders Liverpool have blazed a trail in front of goal this season, but defensively they have not fared too badly for a team whose ethos is to attack under the astute guidance of Brendan Rodgers.
With 42 goals against, only seven teams have better records and their 11 clean sheets show that they can keep it tight, even though they went through a spell where it felt like they were scoring own goals for fun.
The Reds have conceded four own goals, the joint second highest with Fulham, but they’ve also only given up three goals or more in three games to date.
They also have had the joint least defeats inflicted on them, with title rivals Chelsea also suffering just five league defeats.
With Martin Skrtel leading by example at both ends of the pitch, and bolstered by youngster Jon Flanagan, Glen Johnson, Daniel Agger and veteran Kolo Toure, the defence has been remarkably consistent in front of the solid Simon Mignolet in goal. Their efforts this year also puts them top of the Fair Play league with the finish line in sight.
A bit like Southampton, attack has been their best form of defence, and as long as they are scoring more goals than the opposition, which they have done in 11 straight victories, then Rodgers, his team and the Anfield faithful won't care how many they concede.
There were many fears around Goodison Park that the arrival of Roberto Martinez would spell the end of dogged Everton of recent years and that their thrifty defence would be compromised by the Spaniards attacking ethos.
However, those fears were soon allayed with three clean sheets in his opening four league games and the Toffees have already amassed 13 shutouts thus far.
Phil Jagielka, Sylvain Distin, Seamus Coleman, Leighton Baines and newcomers John Stones and Bryan Oviedo have all been in sparkling form in both defence and attack when fit and available, while only Southampton, Manchester City and Arsenal have enjoyed more possession.
Everton have let three or more goals past them on just four occasions, while their seven wins and three defeats in the last 10 games has them in third place in the form table as they chase stuttering Arsenal for fourth spot.
2. Manchester City
Manchester City have built their recent successes on their attacking prowess and ability to retain possession, and this current vintage under Manuel Pellegrini’s tutelage is no different.
However, with commanding and influential figures such as Vincent Kompany, Aleksander Kolarov and Pablo Zabaleta spearheading their rearguard action, City have become assured at the back and boast the second meanest defence in the Premier League.
Like Everton, they have 13 clean sheets to their name and have only conceded three or more goals in three fixtures.
And with Joe Hart reinstated in goal after a run of poor form earlier in the campaign, it looked like things were coming together for the Etihad outfit, but five goals conceded in two games to earn them just one point has taken the wind out of their sails at a critical time in the title run-in.
Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea stand head and shoulders above the competition when it comes to defensive thriftiness, conceding just 24 goals in 34 games as the Blues chase leaders Liverpool down the final straight.
Alongside the Reds, they boast just five defeats, while an outstanding tally of 17 clean sheets has helped propel the Blues to within touching distance of the title.
It came as a surprise to learn that Chelsea executed the least interceptions per game, just 10 on average, while they also only ranked eighth in terms of tackles won.
John Terry and Gary Cahill have been superb at the heart of their defence, with David Luiz, Branislav Ivanovic and Cesar Azpilicueta playing a pivotal role in the Premier League’s tightest rearguard.
They have conceded just four goals in their last 10 games, nine less than Liverpool, but it only translated to 22 points with the Reds claiming a maximum 30 points.
And with Chelsea to travel to Anfield on April 27, it is more than likely the winner of that clash will decide where the 2014 Premier League trophy will reside for the coming year.