With every club having played twenty-five games in the 2011-12 season, February's midway point sees six of them having conceded less than thirty goals: Manchester City with 19, Liverpool with 23, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur with 25, Sunderland with 26, and Everton with 27. And on those sides, seven centre backs have played twenty or more games so far: City's Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott, Liverpool's Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger, Sunderland's Wes Brown and John O'Shea, and Tottenham's Younes Kaboul. More than any, those seven are responsible for their clubs being amongst the league's stingiest, and so today we dig a little deeper into the statistics in an attempt to determine which of those centre backs has been this season's best so far.
|City's Kompany and Lescott: Click to enlarge.
It may not be especially suspenseful to get to the season's best defensive performer right at the start, but the reality is that it's impossible to look at the numbers and see anything other than Vincent Kompany well ahead of the pack. Even amongst the defenders on the league's stingiest sides, Kompany's overall numbers are a class apart, and most importantly nobody is close to him when it comes to goals conceded: When he's on the pitch, City give one up every 0.67 games. Daniel Agger's second best score of a goal every 0.85 games, as good as it is, simply doesn't measure up.
Meanwhile, Kompany has attempted ten tackles more than any centre back on the top six defences in the league, and amongst defenders who have started twenty league games on those sides his success rate is second only to teammate Joleon Lescott. He's also the defender who has lost possession the fewest times, as both he and Agger have been stripped of the ball four times but Kompany beats him on a per minute basis. Elsewhere, only Martin Skrtel has been dribbled past less often, and Kompany similarly has the second most interceptions.
|Kaboul, Brown, and O'Shea: Click to enlarge.
If Kompany has clearly separated himself from the pack as the best statistical defender in the Premier League, finishing at or near the top of nearly every category while taking a clear edge in goals against per game, it's also fairly easy to remove Tottenham's Younes Kaboul and Sunderland's Wes Brown at the other end. Of the centre backs on the top six defences who have played twenty games or more, they are the only ones who have been on the pitch for more than a goal against per game. They are also middle of the pack at best in every major statistical category. That leaves a group including City's Lescott, Liverpool's Skrtel and Agger, and Sunderland's John O'Shea as the centre backs who along with Kompany have the strongest cases for being this season's best performers so far.
Amongst those four, arguments can be made for a number of the players. Lescott has by far the highest tackle success rate, clocking a faintly ridiculous 91%. On the other hand, when it comes to interceptions he and Martin Skrtel are back from the pack with 34 and 29 respectively, and none of the defenders on the league's six stingiest sides has been anywhere near as sloppy in possession as Lescott, who as the last line of defence has been caught with the ball 13 times. That means he has been stripped of the the ball while in possession once every 144 minutes—or just over once every game and a half. The next worst defender in that category is O'Shea, who is stripped of possession by an opponent once every 261 minutes—or once in every three matches. For a centre back, Lescott standing out so clearly—and negatively—in this category is quite nearly an unforgivable blemish on a record that would otherwise be hard to match.
|Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger: Click to enlarge.
It's also a blemish that can't be explained by any suggestion Lescott might carry the ball out of defence more than most, perhaps excusing a tendency to be caught in possession by suggesting he's doing so in areas where it's more forgivable. This is because after Kompany, by far the two best centre backs when it comes to keeping possession are Skrtel and Agger, who as the season has progressed have both showed a willingness to get forward more often than most. With Agger conceding possession once every 433 minutes and Skrtel doing so once every 401, when it comes to defenders who can be trusted to make the smart choice when the ball is at their feet, Kompany and Liverpool's duo have quite clearly separated themselves this season.
Daniel Agger also has a clear edge when it comes to interceptions, with his 56 beating out even Kompany's 49. However, when it comes to tackle success rate, Agger finds himself clearly in the back of the pack with just a hair over 70%. As for John O'Shea, while he has the second highest tackle success rate amongst defenders who have played twenty or more games for the league's defensive leaders, he also has the second worst possession statistics, has the worst 50-50 challenge rate, and is the only centre back to win less than half his aerial duels.
All of which means that, by the numbers at least, Skrtel and Lescott are probably the defenders that most would feel are fighting it out for second place this year, with Lescott pulling ahead in the tackle but Skrtel maintaining a clear edge in ball safety—and with both chipping in a pair of goals at the other end of the pitch. Rounding out the top five, O'Shea simply has too many negatives despite his tackle rate and likely has to be considered fifth behind a much more rounded Agger in fourth, though depending on how negatively one views Lescott's tendency to concede possession there might even be an argument for moving the Dane up into a top three of Kompany, Skrtel, and Agger.