What I do want to discuss is (a) which players allow us to execute this strategy and (b) is this strategy always reliable.
How comfortable would you be picking your weekly defence from Richard Dunne, John Terry, Nemanja Vidic, Roger Johnson and Jody Craddock? Last season these players ranked 1st, 3rd, 8th, 18th, and 35th (Vidic was injured) among all defenders in the game and totalled 657 points between them. At the same PPG rates this year they would amass 630 points even if they each played in a conservative 32 games each (or an incredible 749 points if they each played every week). At the time of writing this group of players will set you back 31.0m which means you would receive a PPMS of 0.636. Solid numbers but not amazing value when you consider that no less than 17 defenders delivered a PPMS above 0.800 last season (only taking those players who played more than 1,000 minutes).
Now how would you like to have this group for 25.1m (and bag a PPMS of 0.784)? You could select Luke Young (saving 2.0m), Alex (saving 0.9m), John O’Shea (saving 1.5m), Scott Dann (saving 0.5m) and Steve Foley (saving 1.0m) and still get the same clean sheet points as the aforementioned star lineup. After all, the raison d’être of defenders is to defend and win clean sheets, doing so as a unit and hence rising and falling as a team. With that in mind, my favourite undervalued teammates are below (keep reading below them for the caveat of this analysis):
Barring injury or an unexpected signing by Chelsea I think Alex will finish the season as one the highest value players available. The issue of who will partner Terry appears to have been settled and Ferreira’s performance at right back have been shaky suggesting that Ivanovic will lock down that spot, making this one of the more settled backlines around. Sure, he might lose the odd game for Champions League rotation but I think Alex tops 30 games easily this term. Also, consider his love for the occasional long shot and free kick and he may even outscore Terry in the non-defensive point rankings .Alex is no more risky than any top level player and deserves to be held by substantially more than his current 6% holding.
Luke Young (5.0m)
I am not as confident on Young as Alex for two fairly obvious reasons:
- His job is not quite as safe with Cuellar and Beye waiting in the wings, and
- Villa’s defence has been wildly inconsistent to date this year.
Paul Koncesky (5.0m)
Though not always true, you have to assume that a manager brings in new players to play each week, a scenario that would make Konchesky outstanding value at 5.0m. Available for 2.5m less than Glen Johnson (8% owned), this difference would represent the largest discrepancy among all teammates this season. True, Liverpool do not appear to be a defensive force this season but Hodgson made Fulham very solid in his time there and you have to think that this unit will improve at some point. Remember too that they have already faced Arsenal and City, while recording a clean sheet against West Brom in GW3. Watch this situation closely and jump on Konchesky as soon as it becomes evident he will start at LB (perhaps even wait until after the trip to Birmingham in GW4 to be sure).
John O’Shea (5.5m)
Many owners were on Johnny Evans early and he has delivered good value with two clean sheets in the first 3 weeks. However, the return of Ferdinand is imminent and that should put pay to Evans run in the side. O’Shea however is a different story. Rafael, Neville and Smalling were supposed to be threats to his minutes but so far they have not managed to wrestle a single one from him (Vidic and Evans meanwhile have both been subbed this season). An added bonus is that if Ferguson wishes to give Rafael a run out, O’Shea still has a chance to start elsewhere in the team due to his versatility. I think it is safe to target O’Shea now so long as you can handle the games he will occasionally miss by having a decent bench.
Steve Foley (4.0m)
Wolves have been become a useful unit and are very hard to beat. They have conceded a goal in each of their three games this year against okay opposition but I can see them getting a few clean sheets when all is said and done. At 4m Foley is as cheap as you get for your backline and as an every week player he represents good value, ahead of the higher owned Berra and Ward, and the ridiculously overpriced Craddock.
There are a couple of other candidates that could be thrown onto this list, including Micah Richards, Martin Skrtel, Tony Hibbert, and Steve GohouriBoateng) or they are the cheapest player on a garbage team (Gohouri).
Testing the theory
I noted above that there is a caveat to the above picks and it needs elaborating here. While defenders’ main job is to defend (and keep clean sheets) you cannot ignore the fact that they do score attacking points in the form of goals, assists and, crucially, bonus points.
I am going to largely discount goals here as for all but a handful of players they are almost totally unpredictable and should not be a major factor in picking a player. Consider that last year there were 107 defensive goals (excluding Graham Alexander’s penalties which now reside back in the Championship), which in itself sounds a lot. However, assuming most teams play four defenders in most games, there were 3,040 appearances by defenders, giving the average defender a score once every 28 appearances. Trying to catch this lightning in a bottle is pretty futile as you need to target a player then play him every week (even in bad matchups) if you want to maximise your chances of netting a goal.
Assists are a bit different and can be targeted by picking certain players (i.e. attacking full backs). Twelve players managed to notch four assists or more last season and nine of these would be considered premium players (Mears, Berra and Scharner being the exceptions). It is for that reason that I was careful to compare Alex to Terry earlier rather than Ashley Cole who has been enjoying great freedom down the Chelsea left side (though even he only has one assist to show for his work this season).
The place where this theory can fall down is with the awarding of bonus points. Two factors conspire to ensure that the more expensive players gain more bonus points in general. Firstly, they are expensive for a reason: they are good players playing on good teams. Second, and crucially, the pundits tend to get one player stuck in their head as being the leading man in a defense’s success and reward him when the team plays well, regardless of who actually makes the most tackles, blocks, interceptions etc. This was evidenced last year by Richard Dunne (who played well but not more than twice as well as Collins) and Nemanja Vidic in the preceding year.
The awarding of ‘phantom’ bonus points can tip the advantage in the premium players favour and hence sometimes make them worth the extra investment but so far this season, this does not appear to be the case. Indeed the 9 most expensive players available have yet to notch a bonus point between them (32 have been awarded to defenders in total) and just Agger (3 points) and Carragher (2 points) have gained bonus recognition among all defenders valued at over 6.0m. Consider the situation for midfielders where 31 points have been gained by those valued at over 7m (a smaller population that the aforementioned defender pool). This could indicate that the pundits are no longer levelling the playing field and the likes of Konchesky, Young and Alex could deliver not only better value than their more expensive teammates but even similar levels of actual production (which is what we are actually looking for at he end of the day).
I have preached my loyalty to budget defenders in the past and suggested that the linkage between money spent and points earned is not that strong. I am therefore targeting the aforementioned players (particularly Alex, O’Shea and Konchesky) to give me access to top teams at a budget price. I invite you to discuss below if you are thinking of following suit.