FIFPro World XI Predictions (Defense)

As we come to the end of the calendar year, football finds itself headed towards a busy couple of weeks, on all levels. Midweek fixtures are ramping up across all leagues, struggling teams anticipate a vital January transfer window and the African Cup of Nations kicks off early January, headlined with fantastic talents. All aforementioned events and schedules will be tracked closely by football fans but amongst these busy eight weeks, the FIFPro Team of the Year may be at the forefront of conversation until the end of December.

A lot of fans have been looking forward to the team of the year, especially after a relatively unpredictable year of football that saw unexpected heroes and breakout seasons on the international and club level. Now removed from the dominant Real Madrid-Barcelona era, that would feature a combined 11 from both sides rather than a diverse mix of all leagues in the team of the year, there’s rumblings everywhere about who should be on the team for the past year, and while I may not be right, we’ll surely try in these predictions, starting with the defense.

Honorable Mention: Edouard Mendy, GK (Chelsea)

Though very tough, this honorable mention may be the easiest of the three levels on the pitch, as it only came down to the goalkeeper spot where I had the most conflict. Without revealing too much about who I chose, though it is quite obvious now, Edouard Mendy may not seem as much of a challenge to the selected keeper on the surface, but presents a compelling case.

The Senegalese shot-stopper came out of the 2020-21 season with a UEFA Champions League title, later on claiming the UEFA SuperCup to start the 2021-22 campaign which for only two trophies, holds immense weight. He was the backbone of the Chelsea defense at times, especially during their Champions League run where he only allowed three goals (0.25 goals per 90 mins.) all campaign. Mendy also had 30 saves (90.9% save rate) and led the competition’s goalkeepers in clean sheets with nine, a phenomenal number for a player who suited up for all but one game. If doing it on the biggest stage wasn’t enough, he held that production in the Premier League, despite a lackluster first half of the season that saw the firing of Frank Lampard and the hiring of German mastermind Thomas Tuchel. He finished 2nd in clean sheets (16), only beaten by Alisson Becker from Liverpool (19) which is more impressive when factored in that he played five less matches than the Brazilian keeper. Mendy’s shot stopping numbers were a bit underwhelming beyond that however, missing out on the top ten in saves and save rate but had the best goals against record of all keepers who played 30 or more matches that season with 25 goals allowed, giving the Chelsea keeper a goals allowed per 90 minutes of 0.82, good for 2nd in the league while also emphasizing a sense of composure by the keeper if a goal was conceded. Aside from his defensive ability, the one area voters may pick apart, if there is a sudden surge in performance-based selections rather than accolades, is his passing which even then was stellar as far as goalkeeper passing goes.

Overall, a phenomenal season for Eduoard Mendy, very hard to pick apart even given Chelsea’s underwhelming start to the campaign. The numbers, accolades and titles all point towards a strong case for the keeper spot in this season’s team of the year and if it was up to me, he’d claim the starting position in the 11, but another keeper may have a more compelling case (at least to voters).

GK: Gianluigi Donnarumma (Paris Saint-Germain)

Kicking off the list is Italian national team and now PSG keeper, Gigi Donnarumma. The former AC Milan wonderkid had a fantastic year for both club and country, which is a driving reason why I think he may just edge out the position over Edouard Mendy even though there is some conflict there. In terms of club competition for Donnarumma last season, Milan were outstanding relative to their form in the last ten years but stayed at bay solely because of their academy keeper. The Italian giant allowed 38 goals in 37 matches, good for the 3rd rank among all Serie A goalkeepers who played 30 matches or more. He was only beaten by Samir Handanovic of Inter (33 goals allowed) and Wojciech Szczęsny of Juventus (30 goals allowed). Context and nuance must be applied to these numbers as one keeper had the league’s best defense on a team that won the Scudetto and the other played seven games less than Donnarumma. Things like these almost create a cushion for Donnarumma if any stat or team performance is used against him and will most definitely be looming in the minds of voters when selecting their keeper spot for the team of the year. Beyond face value clean sheets, his overall shot-stopping numbers seem very average in the Serie A for a player who is looking for a team of the year appearance, especially for a position that only has one of its kind on the field. This is where thinking like a voter kicks in, and most of the panel will definitely be enamored with his performance in the Euros this past summer. Italy of course ended up winning the entire thing and in large part to Donnarumma’s performance in the finals versus England, which went to penalties where he saved the last two shots to clinch the European title for the Italians. He was also named the player of the tournament, headlining a star-studded Azzurri side in the Euros. With all that said, this selection came down to precedent of previous selections and teams of the year where team trophies, especially the more recent ones, trump all else. The only saving grace for Mendy may be a hint of recency bias that is extremely in the Senegalese’s favor, as he is in the best form of his career and Donnarumma has been battling for time at PSG with budding star Keylor Navas.

LB: Joao Cancelo (Manchester City)

Moving on to the outfield players, Joao Cancelo, in my opinion, is the unanimous choice for this position. A bit of an odd choice for the spot, but I get the feeling that the panel may defy positions and will go for the outright best defenders of the year rather than position locking, which for Cancelo, isn’t an issue as he saw a lot of minutes on the left flank this past year. Continuing with the theme of numbers, his rankings were absolutely outrageous. Within the last 365 days, he has established himself as an outstanding piece in the attack for Manchester City, ranking at least in the 90th percentile in non-penalty expected goals (93rd), assists (91st), shot-creating actions (93rd), progressive passes (99th) and carries (98th) among all full-backs. His offensive breakout played a monumental role for City, as the team pushed through the season without a natural center forward, pushing the more progressive players upwards. Cancelo’s offensive surge didn’t take away from his defense either, averaging about 2.4 interceptions and 2.6 tackles per 90 minutes. The Citizens finished the season with their fourth Premier League title in the past seven seasons, a Carabao Cup and a tight second place finish in the Champions League versus Chelsea. The numbers, performances and trophies are all there and there is no real challenger at the full-back positions to keep him out, let alone at left-back aside from Milan’s Theo Hernandez whose season wasn’t nearly as successful. The only slight that can be brought to Cancelo’s excellent year may be a poor Euros from Portugal, but a dismal showing for the team as a whole may garner some sympathy from voters.

CB: Ruben Dias (Manchester City)

Getting the more obvious pick of the center-half pairing out of the way, Ruben Dias should be a clear favorite among the panel after an insanely strong year.

The numbers don’t exactly stack to Ruben’s favor as he garnered comparison to mediocre center-backs in a statistical sense but he was perhaps the best ball playing defender of the year. Dias ranks in the 98th percentile in pass attempts per 90 minutes with about 82 passes and a completion of 93.9%, good for the 99th percentile. Beyond his distribution from the back, he’s also in the 99th percentile for progressive carries per 90 minutes for center-backs, a stellar number given the constant void City had in the midfield with Kevin de Bruyne consistently sidelined and players like Bernardo Silva moving up the field to play more forward. Dias, like Cancelo, was just another player who displayed versatile brilliance, though it’s arguably more impressive coming from a large center-back who isn’t an athletic freak.Furthermore, a dominant title run and a Carabao Cup for Manchester City’s current captain will certainly attract people to his list of accolades for the year, as he also won Premier League Player of the Season in his first campaign in Manchester. As of now, Dias still remains one of the best defenders in the world and in the Prem, as his numbers over the past 365 days suggest he hasn’t gone down in play enough to really skew his averages. Manchester City have jumped out to a 4-point lead in the league heading into January and look forward to the knockout round of the Champions League after a dominant showing in a group that featured PSG. It’s a relatively short case but there isn’t much to unwrap with selections like this, especially when it’s a hard case to argue against, given the recent pattern of defenders who were voted in.

CB: Marquinhos (Paris Saint-Germain)

Another pivotal piece in PSG’s defense, Marquinhos completes the center-back couplet, but has a lot of room for argument against another top defender in Chelsea’s Antonio Rüdiger.

The Brazilian center-half saw an underwhelming year, losing out on Ligue 1, knocked out of the Champions League in the semi-finals and also losing in the finals of the Copa America to bitter rivals Argentina. However, his performance was far from the reason his team failed at times. Like Ruben Dias, his defense output through numbers may be a bit underwhelming, but it must be kept in mind that PSG and Manchester City are among the most ball-dominant clubs in the world so a low per 90 minutes clip in tackles, interceptions or blocks is more of a product of the team’s tough play rather than a constant underperformance by the defenders. This is not to say Marquinhos isn’t outstanding in terms of numbers, ranking in the 92nd percentile in both passes (71.1 per 90 mins.) and passes completed (92.3 per 90 mins.). He doesn’t exactly match Dias’ more pregressive style of attacking football, but he is arguably the most lethal center-back in front of goal right now, averaging 0.18 non-penalty goals per 90 minutes (99th percentile) which blasts his expected goal clip per 90 minutes of 0.09 goals out of the water. A string of team losses throughout the year certainly gives him a bit of a dent in his Team of the Year case but when remembering that PSG finished only a point behind French Champions LOSC Lille, lost to the Champions League to the runners-up and the dominant champions of South America in the summer, it really gives you an idea of the level of player he is to have these expectations. It won’t stop people from entertaining the idea of Rudiger being presented as a replacement, but the fact that Marquinhos can even be considered should cement his dominance throughout the year. He’s captaining PSG in their redemption season and after a somewhat rocky start due to a brand new system of attack, the Parisian club has looked quite dominant thanks to him.

RB: Achraf Hakimi (Paris Saint-Germain)

Rounding out the backline and concluding the first part of the Team of the Year predictions, Achraf has little to no competition here as far as voting and what the criteria seems to be. Though he is the third PSG player to show up of the first five players, he truly shined in the past season with Inter Milan where I Nerazzuri came out as the champions of Italy, and in dominant fashion. Hakimi himself was a star in the side, finishing with seven goals and eight assists at the wing-back position in Antonio Conte’s 3-5-2 system. He’s arguably the best distributor of the defenders listed thus far, boasting 0.19 assists per 90 in the past year, besting his expected assists clip of 0.18 per 90. Those familiar with his tyle know how gifted he is in dribbling, making him an excellent progressor with about 6.6 progressive carries per 90 and 3.71 touches per 90. His progression also comes with high volume as he’s in the 96th percentile in progresive passes received, showing how pivotal he is in the attack for whatever side he finds himself playing for. Defensively, he’s nothing to write home about, with lackluster defensive numbers across the board but for a progressive wing-back in a Conte system, he’s bound to be a bit liberal in his defensive work rate. This isn’t to say he was a defensively inactive player, averaging about 16 pressures per 90, good enough for the 85th percentile for all full-backs.

With all that said, there is a glaring argument to his case in Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold who arguably is a better version of what Hakimi is. The rebuttal is of course Liverpool’s tumultuous 2020-21 campaign and though the struggles came mostly from injuries to key players and panic signings that didn’t pan out, voters tend to be unforgiving of poor team showings, especially when a player features in the side so often.

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