Top 10 Defenders of the Premier League season

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Defenders get no love.

Ask any defender and that’s what he’ll say. And if his teammates, manager, owner and, heck, even the fans are being honest, they’ll agree.

Fact is, there’s little glory being a defender. Goal line clearances are clearly just that but are not afforded even near the adulation given to actually scoring a goal. To a slightly lesser extent, the same applies for interceptions and key tackles in the defensive third. Noted but never lauded.

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So in this column we give some much-needed love to the big men who hold down the fort while the glamor boys are out poaching goals and dancing at corner flags. But before we do, let’s note a few guys who deserve recognition but didn’t get the nod: Cesar Azpilicueta, Dejan Lovren, Sylvain Distin, Steven Caulker and Laurent Koscielny. All five played key roles for their clubs and, with the exception of Koscielny (who was brilliant in 2012/13), each enjoyed the best season of his career.

But it takes a little bit extra to make ProSoccerTalk’s Top 10 Defenders of the 2013/14 Premier League season. So without further ado, let’s get to it.

source: Reuters10. Per Mertesacker (Arsenal)

With Thomas Vermaelen a shell of his former self, Mertesacker and Koscielny were left to forge a brilliant partnership that resulted in only 41 goals conceded. Mobility was always an issue for the big German but this year he looked lighter on his feet and was rarely left in the dust for pace. Highly intelligent, Mertesacker possesses brilliant organizational skills and leadership qualities that keep Arsenal’s back four in proper shape. Perhaps his best trait, however, is his perfectly timed lunging tackles that denied so many opponents a look on goal and rightfully earned the man who resembles Gandalf the Great a spot on the prestigious German 30-man World Cup squad.

9. Vincent Kompany (Manchester City)

Arguably the best center-back in the world, Kompany struggled at times this season. Maybe it was due to the time needed to adjust to Martin Demichelis or maybe it was the new manager but for much of the season Kompany seemed off. Missed tackles. Slip ups. Errant passes. In the end though, he remains an absolute beast of the back line and when City needed someone to step up, Kompany was there scoring the second goal of their title-clinching 2-0 win over West Ham.

source: AP8. Luke Shaw (Southampton)

Speaking of beasts, Luke Shaw is 6’1″ and 185 lbs of hulking mass with a ridiculous motor and the skills of an attacking midfielder. There’s a reason Manchester United is going to pay upwards of $45 million: Because at 18-years-old he’s a fully developed professional with a long and potentially very successful career ahead of him.

Commiserations, Southampton.

7. Gary Cahill (Chelsea)

A lot of pundits are sky-high on Cahill but press them as to why and they flounder. Cahill is a solid, no frills, dependable, center-back who can get forward and score goals. But he’s not Vincent Kompany. He’s not John Terry. And he’s definitely not, at least yet, world class.

source: Getty Images6. Curtis Davies (Hull City)

Davies flies under the radar when it comes to best center-backs in the Premier League. Without question Hull City’s most important player this season, Davies is the driving force in Steve Bruce’s back line. Strong enough to lead a back three and equally capable of organizing a back four, Davies is dominant in the air, has dialed-in concentration and is an exceptional tackler. At 29-years-old he’s getting up there in age but could be a sneaky good buy for a top club looking to add center-back depth this summer.

5. Leighton Baines (Everton)

Brilliant move by Roberto Martinez to hang onto Baines last summer. The best left-back in England, Baines provides skill, speed and goals down the left flank while remaining a stalwart defensively. Don’t be surprised if next year Bryan Oviedo’s return to health sees Baines move to holding midfielder a la one of the best full-backs in the world, Philip Lahm.

source: Getty Images4. Branislav Ivanovic (Chelsea)

No one wants to play against Branislav Ivanovic. Defensively, he’s a nightmare. A brutal tackler, Ivanovic will stop at nothing to thwart his opponent. He’s dangerous going forward and equally strong at center-back as he is at right-back. Easily Chelsea’s most valuable defender, although one of his peers did enjoy a better season…

3. John Terry (Cheslea) 

After barely playing last year, most thought Terry was cooked as a player. But in comes Jose Mourinho and he decides he’s going to revive England’s Brave and boy did he ever. Terry was fantastic in defensive and an animal going forward making him a surefire member of Best XIs all around.

2. Pablo Zabaleta (Manchester City)

Skillful, quick, calculating, tough-tackling, agile, fierce, intelligent. Zabaleta has it all and does it all every match for Manchester City. Their unsung hero by a mile.

source: Getty Images1. Seamus Coleman (Everton)

Every year since his $750,000 transfer from Sligo Rovers, Coleman has improved by leaps and bounds. Always eager to use his speed and skill going forward, this year Coleman hit pay dirt six times in the league. But more than that Coleman improved his defense, relentlessly pressuring opponents high up the pitch and refusing to get beat off the dribble. Once overshadowed by Baines, Coleman has provided a much needed balance to Everton’s pitch, making them the best full-back duo in the game.

Arsenal sends Gabriel Paulista to Valencia

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Arsenal has a thin defense, but that hasn’t stopped Arsene Wenger from thinning the squad even further.

Gabriel Paulista is headed back to the Spanish top flight after the completion of his transfer to Valencia. The Brazilian was sold for a reported $12.8 million, just below the $14 million price tag Arsenal coughed up to Villareal back in January, 2015. He will partner with Manchester City loanee Eliaquim Mangala at Valencia.

The 26-year-old made 64 appearances for the Gunners across all competitions, including 46 in the Premier League. His only goal for the club was Arsenal’s first of a 2-0 win over Bournemouth in December, 2015. His high-water mark with the club was a 120-minute performance against Manchester City in the FA Cup semifinals where Arsenal came back to win 2-1 on an Alexis Sanchez goal in extra time.

“We would like to thank Gabriel for his contribution to the club and to wish him well for his return to La Liga with Valencia,” Arsenal said in its confirmation of the deal.

Paulista was utilized more than expected last season thanks to an injury crisis at the back, and still the Arsenal squad doesn’t seem fat enough to offload defenders, but Gabriel’s over-aggressive nature and tackling inaccuracy led him to an early exit.

With Arsene Wenger now deploying a back-three, the only natural central defenders currently on the roster are Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker, Shkodran Mustafi, and Rob Holding. Koscielny is suspended from a red card at the end of last season, and Mertesacker is battling a head injury. Sead Kolasinac, Nacho Monreal, and Calum Chambers have played CB for the Gunners in the recent past, but it is not their natural position.

Fabian Johnson misses Gladbach training with injury

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With John Brooks already out long-term due to a thigh injury, the United States may have another key injury to work around.

According to Borussia Monchengladbach manager Dieter Hecking, full-back/winger Fabian Johnson missed training on Friday due to an unspecified injury, and is now a question mark for Gladbach’s home match on Sunday against FC Koln. It could be nothing, but even the scare is cause for concern among U.S. fans.

Johnson has battled a few injuries the past couple of seasons, including a hamstring problem last spring that kept him out for nearly two months, including a pair of World Cup qualifiers in March.

Johnson’s absence would leave a hole at right-back for the United States. The 29-year-old has been deployed some at right wing for the USMNT, but he has been relatively poor at that position in the national setup, looking better when pushed further back where he is given more defensive duties, roaming forward with less frequency but more intent.

In place of Johnson, another converted winger in Graham Zusi has been seeing more time at right-back, but he offers less in the attack and lacks Johnson’s recovery speed, meaning mistakes by the Sporting KC veteran are punished more often.

Falcao scores again to extend red hot start

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Monaco is hoping to ride out the final two weeks of the transfer window with 18-year-old wonderkid Kylian Mbappe still in tow.

While they wait, they aren’t missing a beat.

With Mbappe out of the squad, Radamel Falcao has begun the 2017/18 Ligue 1 season as Europe’s hottest goalscorer. He bagged a hat-trick last weekend with Mbappe on the bench to give him four goals in the first two league matches. Then, with Mbappe out of the squad entirely, Falcao netted the winner in a 1-0 road win over FC Metz.

Falcao has scored five goals so far this year, and his club has a +5 goal differential. In a way, Falcao has already been worth six points thus far.

Thanks in part to Ligue 1’s early start, Falcao’s five league goals are by far more than anyone else in the major European leagues. Four players have scored a pair of Premier League goals, nobody in La Liga or the Bundesliga have scored more than one, and the Serie A season has yet to start.

The Colombian did the same thing last season. After eventually coming off the shelf from to hamstring and concussion problems to start the season, Falcao scored 10 goals in 10 Ligue 1 matches leading up to the new calendar year.

At 31 years old, Falcao isn’t a long-term solution and the club will clearly look to retain Mbappe despite Falcao’s hot start, but should they lose the young Frenchman, the club will be in good hands while they search for a replacement over the next year.

Arena should give Ream a look in Brooks’ absence

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With John Brooks out three months thanks to a horribly timed thigh injury, the United States yet again has to scramble to fill a void at the back. It’s not the first time an injury to Brooks has left the USMNT scrambling for cover at a thin position.

In the successful Gold Cup this past summer, with a largely domestic squad in place, Omar Gonzalez saw the bulk of the time at central defender, with Matt Besler his partner through the final two matches. However, with European-based players now in contention for spots with the early September international break, those two are unlikely to continue, at least not together.

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The most obvious choice to start September 1st against Costa Rica and likely shoo-in should he remain healthy for the next two weeks is Geoff Cameron. The 32-year-old has been back and forth between defense and midfield with club and country, and although he has publicly acknowledged his preference for a spot higher up the pitch, he was used in a back-three in Stoke City’s Premier League opener last weekend and is steadiest at the back.

But with a spot next to Cameron up for grabs in Brooks’ absence, a player who should get serious consideration is United States fill-in extraordinaire Tim Ream.

Ream has had to work hard to earn his place with the U.S., and while he’s seen time of late, he’s not been a first-choice pick. The 29-year-old has four caps so far in 2017, with two of those starts, including one in the impressive 1-1 draw against Mexico at the Azteca with the US still clawing its way back up the Hex standings. Even then, Ream would likely not have earned that spot had Arena not chosen to rotate nearly the entire squad between the pair of qualifiers in that window. His other start this year, the 1-1 draw at Panama, only came after Cameron pulled out of the squad the day of the game with a late injury. The last time Ream started back-to-back matches for the U.S. came back in 2015 when he was somewhat of a regular through the second half of the calendar year.

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But now, with Brooks out, Ream looks like the perfect man to fill in again. The 29-year-old defender finished last season in top form as Fulham narrowly missed out on promotion, earning the official website’s Man of the Match award in a May 2nd draw with Brentford, and won it again in the club’s final match of the season.

Without missing a beat, Ream has picked up where he left off last campaign in the first few matches this month. Last weekend against Reading at the Madjeski Stadium, Ream’s center-back partner Tomas Kalas was sent off 36 seconds into the match, forcing Fulham to play a man down for 89 minutes. Ream and company solidified the back, conceding just once in the 61st minute en route to a 1-1 draw.

The club still likely requires reinforcements at the CB position – Ream was forced to partner with right-back Denis Odoi against Reading with Kalas suspended and Michael Madl injured – meaning Ream could see an influx of competition in the coming weeks. However, as it stands, the American is far and away the best (and most improved) central defender on a club favored for promotion.

Gonzalez performed well in the Gold Cup, and Matt Besler was serviceable, but with few other options in the heart of defense to take Brooks’ place, Bruce Arena could yet again look to Ream for an in-form replacement.