Following the Monaco versus Juventus match last Tuesday Ireland’s well-known pundit Eamon Dunphy waxed lyrical about the Italians defensive talents. Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci were mentioned in the same breath as other Italian greats such as Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini and Fabio Cannavaro. His argument was provocative and based on the premise that great defending is not appreciated as much as it should be in the modern game. If my memory serves me right, Pep Guardiola’s style was mentioned as the antithesis to the approach of the Italian grafters.
Does Mr.Dunphy have a point? If we use end of season player awards as a measure of ‘appreciation’, it might be possible to ask if defending is held in the same esteem. How often are defenders talents appreciated above their colleagues in alternative positions and has this changed over time?
Below is the data by position for First Division/Premier League awards based on the following recognized honours.
1. Premier League Player of the Season (PLPOS) - The recipient is chosen by a panel assembled by the league's sponsor, consisting of members of "football's governing bodies, the media and fans". (first season awarded: 1994-1995)
2. PFA Players' Player of the Year (PFA Players) – the winner is chosen by a vote amongst the members of the players' trade union, the Professional Footballers' Association. (first season awarded: 1973-1974)
3. PFA Fans' Player of the Year (PFA Fans) - The shortlist is compiled by the members of the Professional Footballers' Association (the PFA), and then the winner is voted for by the fans of the league. (first season awarded: 2001-2002)
4. FWA Footballer of the Year (FWA) - The winner is selected by a vote amongst the members of the Football Writers' Association (FWA), which comprises around 400 football journalists based throughout England. (first season awarded: 1947-1948)
5. PFA Young Player of the Year (PFA-YPY) The winner is chosen by a vote amongst the members of the players' trade union, the Professional Footballers' Association. (first season awarded: 1973-1974)
I could access data on 194 awards since 1947. 82% of the honours have gone to midfield and forward players. The table below shows the numbers by the award and position.
The FWA honours are the most interesting to consider as they go back to 1947. Maybe Mr.Dunphy has a point. Interestingly, the Football Writers Association decorated defenders more in the past. From 1947-1959 seven defenders won the awards. Five defenders were given the title from 1960-1969. Four from 1970-1979 and three from 1980-1989. Since Steve Nicol won the award in 1989 no defender has scooped the prize...Toby Alderweireld shouldn't get his hopes up any time soon.
Do the players themselves appreciate defensive talents more than other parties such as sponsors, fans or writers? Maybe not anymore. For the first two years of the award (to players by players), defenders won the prize – Norman Hunter and Colin Todd. This was followed by goalkeepers, Pat Jennings and two years after that Peter Shilton. Attackers have dominated since. Gary Pallister, Paul McGrath and John Terry are the only other defenders to win the award from their colleagues.
Your left asking why has there been a decline in defenders getting the awards, especially since the Premier League came along? While, of course, the game is about scoring goals, the trend is interesting to think about. Have attackers drastically improved or defenders become weaker? Do modern football writers just have a love for attacking? The mind can also race away with conspiracy theories - is it for commercial reasons that defenders seem to be less appreciated now? Are forwards easier to market the product with? Despite the frequency of 0-0's, the score lines where you would expect to see 'good defending', these are usually given the graveyard slot on highlights shows.
Next, it will be interesting to see whether a similar pattern exists for the Italian awards.