Bias for defense

Sorry I didn’t post yesterday, I spent the day compiling stats instead of writing. I did want to reply to the comments about my bias against Elneny.

It’s true, I have a bias: I expect players to be defenders first and attackers second. In fact, I prefer teams that start with a strong basis in defense and extend the attack from there.

I’ve learned that defense first can take many forms in football. There is ball-control defense, as practiced by Guardiola sides. There are pressing defenses, like Klopp. Mourinho’s sides play a variety of defenses. Simeone’s teams play counter-attacking football. And Arsene Wenger has taken several different defensive approaches over the years: this season, he’s doing something creative and weird by putting Coquelin in between the lines and having him quick press when we give the ball away.

As an aside, this trope that “Wenger doesn’t do defense” is prima facie false. He might not spend as much time drilling players on defense as some of us would like, and his defensive schemes can sometimes be odd and frustrating, but he absolutely teaches defense. Wenger has a bias toward attacking but he doesn’t neglect defense.

My bias is applied to players, in a big way. I used to demand forwards play defense, and guys like Özil and Pires drove me crazy, but recently I’ve softened on that position. Özil is an atrocious defender but he gets a free pass because he wins us games.

Cazorla isn’t a great defender and he’s not running around snapping into tackles or intercepting passes left and right but he does what’s needed to help the team: he tracks back, he covers space, and he presses as part of a unit without the ball. It took him an entire season to learn how to do all of those things, and before he did I was badmouthing him constantly, but that is my baseline minimum I expect from a center mid.

Elneny doesn’t do those things, at least not consistently, and when your center mid isn’t playing defense, the whole team is exposed. He’s not a bad human. He’s also not even a bad player. But he needs to learn how to apply himself more to his defensive duties. Just like Cazorla did. Just like Theo Walcott did. Just like Iwobi needs to do. That’s my whole beef with Elneny.

This is what drives me crazy about Aaron Ramsey. He often abandons his defensive duties, making crazy runs into the opposition 18 yard box. He can also be seen slowing his runs back on defense so that he can “be available” for a counter attacking pass. That last one drives me absolutely spare: it’s like he’s saying “you guys go clean that up for me, I’ll be here waiting to take the glory.” I played with a guy like that. He once told me “defenders should defend and attackers should attack.” I told him to fuck off. If he didn’t want to play defense, he could find another team to play with. He did.

This is also why I have an irrational love of Alexis Sanchez. He’s a beast. I would die on the pitch for a forward like Alexis. Not only is he a classy forward, he is a guy who recognizes that you need to win the ball back to win the game.

This bias comes from my own playing days. I have played all the major American sports and I’ve always been a defender. In High School, I was a strong safety. The key to that position is in the name, think of it as the American football version of defensive midfielder. In baseball/softball I’m a catcher. In basketball, I’m that annoying guard who steals your passes, grabs an unrealistic number of rebounds, dives for every loose ball, and frustrates your best player with solid face-to-face defending. In football, I prefer to play defensive midfield but I’m comfortable in any of the defensive positions. And if I’m lucky enough to get on a team who let me play forward (I have good touch and I’m strong on the ball) I take the forward’s defensive duties very seriously.

My bias is that I want every player to play like me because I know that if everyone isn’t giving at least the minimum to defense, it makes my job a lot harder. Elneny’s lax approach to defense cost Arsenal the game against Liverpool, and nearly the game against Man U. And when he’s on the pitch, Coquelin’s job is that much harder.

If you think about it for a few minutes, you can probably see how this sentiment permeates my writing.

Now, I’m going to get back to crunching stats. Believe it or not, I’m currently looking at a model for measuring defensive efficiency.


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