Leicester City currently sit 10th on the table in the Premier League. I don’t think I’m being controversial when I say that this is a disappointment. The reason for the underwhelming results is fairly obvious. City have scored 34 goals, the 6th most in the league. However, we’ve shipped 37, which is also the 6th most.
I don’t think many people would argue with the proposition that the defence has failed to meet expectations. There is, however, a fair amount of disagreement as to which players have been the biggest problems at the back. With the assumption that the club are looking forward to next season in mind, let’s take a look at how the four primary central defenders have performed for City this year.
The statistical sources we used for this article are:
WhoScored- Their overall rating is all we’re using. I’ve found it to be directionally accurate when comparing players at the same position even if there are more sophisticated tools out there.
Football Reference- A statistical source as opposed to an analytic one, they provided our per 90 minutes actions.
Soccerment Football Analytics- I’m not as wild about their overall rating as I am about the one on WhoScored, but I do like the spider graphs.
SmarterScout- They do a nice job breaking out the quality and the quantity of defensive actions, which will be very telling as we go down the list.
There is none. We’re trying to bring together rating from different sources as well as raw statistical data and trying to mash them together in a rating system doesn’t make any sense at all. I’ll offer my opinions based on the various points of data, but that’s the extent of the method.
WhoScored rate Evans as our best defender, the reasons for which aren’t immediately apparent. While he has the most interceptions per 90 minutes of any of our defenders, he’s at or near the bottom in the other categories. Smarterscout offers some insight as to why he’s highly rated: while his number of defensive actions are limited, he’s very successful when he gets involved.
In short, this is the profile you’d expect of a veteran defender. He’s careful. He makes the defenders around him better, but his impact is waning due to injuries and just not having the legs for it. I would argue that this suggests he still has a role to play, but he’ll be increasingly exposed in a high line without support.
Cags is seen as our second-best defender by WhoScored and our best by Soccerment. He is by far our most active defender, appearing at or near the top in almost all statistical categories. He’s also been our best aerial defender, although that is more a matter of lack of competition than anything else.
Söyüncü is easily our most “Rodgers’ defender. His pace and workrate fit perfectly with the system the gaffer likes to play. The primary criticism of him, which is borne out by subjective experience, is that he struggles when he’s leading the back line. He’s more comfortable with a veteran by his side, staying home and allowing him to take more risks. Think “John Stones but with much better hair.”
Vestergaard has been the poster boy for our defensive problems this year and while there is some truth to it, I think these claims are overstated. He’s our top tackler in defence and he’s good at hoofing the ball out of trouble. He seldom gives the ball away in dangerous situations.
But...he’s got a low rate of defensive involvements and those involvements have seldom been positive. He’s a perfectly usable defender in a deep setup where his lack of mobility isn’t exposed. When he’s asked to play in the opposing half, which has been the case far too often, he’s going to have attackers getting behind him.
Amartey has received a great deal of praise for stepping into the back line and performing admirably. He’s been our best blocker of the ball and the defending he’s done has been league-average quality. He’s young enough and new enough to the role that he may yet improve. That about exhausts the positives.
At this point, Amartey is still extremely limited as a defender. His positioning is such that he’s not involved nearly enough and, while it doesn’t show up in the statistics I’ve chosen, he struggles mightily when on the ball. To me, he’s best used as a 5th defender who can step in and give you a good effort, but probably shouldn’t be considered a candidate for a regular place in the side.
Three other players have started in central defence for the Foxes this year. None of them have done so often enough to make for any meaningful metrics. Wilfred Ndidi, Hamza Choudhury, and Ryan Bertrand have made five starts between them and, while some of them have been successful, none of them are central defenders and they shouldn’t be considered as such in our plans going forward.
Finally, there the elephant in the room:
There’s no discussing the Leicester defence without discussing What Could Have Been. The pre-season was going swimmingly and the Foxes were leading 3-0 against Villarreal, when Fernando Nino’s horror challenge snapped Fofana’s leg. From that moment forward, City have struggled to gather any momentum or consistency.
Comparing stats from different seasons is a mug’s game, but we have little choice in this instance as Fofana is yet to play in the 2021/22 campaign. His statistics from the previous term place him at or near the top in literally every category. He does everything, and he does it well. There’s really nothing bad to say beyond the broken leg. Would the defence be better if he were available? Of course it would. Literally any defence would be better with Wesley Fofana.
What Does This Mean For Next Year?
That’s the question, isn’t it? Even if Fofana returns this year, I suspect the owners are setting up for the summer rather than plotting an unlikely run for a third straight Europa League slot. Assuming that is the case, here’s how I would imagine things will play out:
Evans: Will stay with the club but in a reduced role, ideally starting only 20-25 matches. Even with his reduced pace and injury concerns, he’s the leader of the unit.
Söyüncü: He’s a brilliant #2 defender and suits our current style of play. So long as he’s playing alongside either Evans or Fofana, he’ll be fine. I could see the team deciding he’s too inconsistent, which is a fair assessment, but we’d be selling low on him.
Vestergaard: He’s in the wrong band. His strengths and weaknesses don’t fit Rodgers’ system at all. Now, if Rodgers were to change his style (unlikely) or seek employment elsewhere, it is possible Vestergaard could fit in here. I still see him as a substitute on a team with Leicester’s aspirations.
Amartey: If he’s content to be the #5 defender and a utility player, he’s a nice player to have. My guess is he’ll depart for a place where he’ll have an opportunity to play a bigger role.
Fofana: I’d rather see him take his time returning than try to rush back to salvage this season. We need him as he could be our best defender for the next decade. I might consider accepting a £100 million bid if he were determined to leave, but even then, I’d have to think on it.
I’d be happy going into next season with Evans, Söyüncü, and Fofana so long as we signed one additional central defender who suits the manager’s system. I don’t think we can count on Evans for 30+ matches when he’ll be 35 next year.
Vestergaard hasn’t been as poor as many people believe, Amartey hasn’t been as good, but neither of them strikes me as key pieces going forward. In most years, the quality of your 4th, 5th (and sometimes 6th, 7th, and 8th) central defenders is not a key factor in the success of your season.
I tried to think of a good poll to put at the bottom of this, but instead let me just ask you a question: Who should stay, who should go, and how many central defenders should we be looking to bring in this summer? Let us know in the comments!
* If you didn’t already know, this line courtesy of the great Ted Leo and his Pharmacists.