The Hard Tackle takes a look at the best central defenders of the recently concluded 2016/17 Premier League season.
The recent Premier League season has seen a good lot of centerbacks who have been pivotal to the successes of their respective clubs. The Hard Tackle takes a look at such noteworthy contributions as part of our End of the Season Awards.
Cesar Azpilicueta – Chelsea FC
At the end of the final 95 minutes against Sunderland at Stamford Bridge, Cesar Azpilicueta became only the fourth outfield player to have played every single second of their side’s Premier League winning campaign, joining the likes of John Terry, Wes Morgan and Gary Pallister.
Despite transforming himself into a center-back this term, the Spaniard was also Chelsea’s distributor-in-chief. He is the only defender to make more than 2,000 passes with 2457 in the Premier League season, a statistic made even more impressive by his 86.98% success rate.
He created 21 goal scoring chances for his teammates over the course of the Premier League season and registered 4 assists to his name, the highest for a center-back this term. He also put in 84 successful tackles over the course of this campaign, a league high amongst centerbacks.
Since arriving at Chelsea in 2012, he has played in every position asked of him. Mourinho turned him into a left-back and now Conte into a top class center-back and at every positional change, not only has he held his own but he has thrived.
In fact, his presence on the right of Conte’s back 3 has a lot to do with another important Chelsea player’s rise to prominence this term – Victor Moses. The Nigerian has thrived under his Azpilicueta’s guidance and cover on the right wing and has been one of the League’s finest players this term.
The 27-year-old has been one of Antonio Conte’s most reliable players this term, so much so that the Italian once said that Azpilicueta would play in goal him he asked him to – a testament to the Spanish International’s reliability and his commitment to Chelsea’s cause.
Toby Alderweireld – Tottenham Hotspur FC
One half of Spurs’ near indomitable center-back pairing, Alderweireld has once again been a model of consistency this season and has shone at the heart of Pochettino’s defence. Alongside Jan Vertonghen (and occasionally Eric Dier), he formed the best defence in the Premier League.
His importance to this Spurs side can be further emphasized by their dip in form during his absence. The 28-year-old suffered a knee injury which kept him out from the middle of October all the way till the start of December.
In that time, they played 10 games across all competitions and won 2. They drew 1 and lost 2 crucial Champions League Groups games which got them knocked out of the competition and also their EFL Cup 4th Round match against Liverpool.
In the Premier League, they won 2 games, lost a crucial game against Chelsea and drew relatively easy fixtures against the likes of Bournemouth and Leicester. They were also held to a 1-1 draw by Arsenal and all these results, eventually cost them the title.
Not only has he matched the consistency of his superb debut season, but he has in fact upped his standards and become a more formidable force in defence. Were it not for his injury, one can only wonder how much better Spurs would have fared in the Champions League.
The Belgian international’s stunning performances this season will no doubt attract interest from top clubs across Europe and Daniel Levy & co. would do well to extend his contract and tie him down to a long term contract as soon as possible, even if it means breaking their wage structure.
Virgil van Dijk – Southampton FC
The Dutchman has continued his rapid ascent in form and quality after his debut season and has now safely established himself as one of the top defenders in the first division and also the most in-demand defender amongst the Premier League elite.
Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool are all said to be vying for his signature in the summer with his price expected to be upwards of £50 million and this widespread interest for arguably Southampton’s most important player is not unjustified.
In what has been a largely disappointing season for Claude Puel’s side, Van Dijk was a standout performer in the heart of the Saints’ defence. Upon Jose Fonte’s departure, he was handed the armband on numerous occasions prior to picking up an injury in January.
Restricted to only 21 appearances this past season, the 25-year-old has created 5 goal scoring chances for his teammates, had an 84% pass completion rate. He’s made 30 successful tackles and has won an astounding 75% of his aerial duels.
Strong, very fast for his size, technically adept and calm in possession. He stands at an impressive 6’4, which makes him extremely comfortable in the airs. His physical traits combined with hi strong leadership skills, it comes as no surprise that he is wanted by a number of clubs.
Puel has previously mentioned that Southampton were ‘lucky’ to have a player like him in their ranks and there can be no disputing that. The Saints face another difficult transfer window ahead where they will likely face a fight to keep their players and holding down to Van Dijk for another season may be the best piece of business they do in the summer.
Jan Vertonghen – Tottenham Hotspur FC
The 2016/17 season was arguably Vertonghen’s best ever in the Spurs’ shirt, with regard to individual performance. A towering presence Pochettino’s defence, he continued to build upon an already great understanding with Alderweireld this term to form the best defence in the League.
He has excelled in both a three and a four man defence this term and has his exclusion from the Premier League Team Of The Year raised a number of eyebrows as his performances this season have helped keep his side in the title race.
He’s come as close as possible to being a technically sound, modern center-half who is comfortable on the ball without comprising on his no-nonsense and resolute style of defending and that is what makes him such an important part of Tottenham’s defence.
He created 7 chances for his teammates in the League and 1477 of his 1678 passes have been forward. With an 85% pass completion rate, has proven to be a more than capable distributor of the ball, a crucial part of Pochettino’s possession based style which involves building up play from the back.
Vertonghen’s association with Alderweireld began when they were youngsters at Ajax and in Alderweireld’s own words: “He[Vertonghen] has everything – he’s quick, he’s strong, good on the ball, good at heading and he’s clever. There are no weaknesses in his game and that makes him one of the best.” We can only agree.
David Luiz – Chelsea FC
There was a lot of head-scratching and widespread bewilderment as to why Chelsea would spend nearly £35 million on bringing back David Luiz from Paris Saint-Germain, only two seasons after selling him for a world record £50-million-transfer fee.
Luiz by no means was considered a mediocre defender, but his penchant for gaffs and occasional mental lapses during the game had brought him a fair amount of critics from studio and arm chair pundits alike in his first spell at the club.
Never before in the Premier League era, would a return of a player to his former have been met with so much ridicule and befuddlement from the footballing world. However, it was ultimately the Brazilian, Conte and Chelsea who have had the last laugh.
He made his debut in Chelsea’s 1-2 loss against Liverpool and Stamford Bridge, which was followed by a 3-0 thrashing at the hands of Arsenal at the Emirates. However, a few changes in personnel and formation were made by Conte during half-time, and the rest is history.
Luiz has since thrived in the center of the 3-man-defence. Chelsea were in desperate need of a natural ball playing center-back and his abilities were utilised superbly in between Cesar Azpilicueta and Gary Cahill, whether it was distributing the ball across the field or taking it out of defence.
We witnessed a stronger, more stable Luiz than the one that left and as he admitted himself, a more mature one. Now 30 years old, the Brazilian is in the form of his life under Antonio Conte and has bought into the Italian’s philosophies and work ethic wonderfully. Conte has ironed out all the creaks from Luiz’s game and we are now witnessing the former Benfica man finally scale the heights he was expected to reach in his first spell at the club.
Who is your pick for best Premier League center-back of the 2016/17 campaign? Take the poll and let us know!